Artaud, Antonin (1896–1948)

views updated

ARTAUD, ANTONIN (1896–1948)


French writer, actor, director, dramatist, and dramatic theorist.

Along with German dramatist and director Bertolt Brecht, Antonin Artaud was the theorist whose ideas had the most decisive influence on the development of European and American theater in the twentieth century. Born in Marseille, Artaud moved in 1920 to Paris, where he worked as a theater and film actor and published his first texts. From 1924 to 1926 he was a member of the avant-garde surrealist group of artists and writers led by André Breton. Artaud shared the surrealists' fascination with dreams and the unconscious as sources of creativity, as well as their transgressive and defiant spirit of rebellion against middle-class values. However, he disagreed strongly with their decision to align themselves with the Communist Party. Artaud felt that only a spiritual or metaphysical revolution—not a political revolution—was needed in modern Europe. Because of this fundamental disagreement, he was expelled from the surrealist movement in 1926. He then cofounded the Alfred Jarry Theater (named after Alfred Jarry, the provocative author of the 1896 play King Ubu, which caused a riot when it opened in Paris). The Alfred Jarry Theater was able to mount only a few productions between 1927 and 1930, when it closed. Later, in 1935, Artaud staged The Cenci, a drama of incest and murder. This production failed to incarnate his ideas on theater in a clear way and ended after seventeen days. Following journeys to Mexico and Ireland in 1936 and 1937, Artaud spent almost nine years confined in French insane asylums. In 1946 he returned to Paris, where he gave a last performance at the Vieux Colombier Theater in 1947. During his final years, he produced many volumes of new writings and many drawings.

Artaud is best known for his influential project for a new theater, which he called "The Theater of Cruelty." His 1938 book The Theater and Its Double is a visionary manifesto offering powerful metaphors for the theater as a form of plague or alchemy, along with more concrete proposals for renewing theater by returning to its primitive origins. Like the plague or alchemy, theater should bring about a total transformation, Artaud argued. It needed to move beyond its debased status as entertainment. Rather than presenting actors playing characters who discuss their thoughts and feelings on stage, at a remove from the audience, the Theater of Cruelty would abolish the separation between the audience's space and the performance space. Theater would become a collective ritual, like a primitive religious ritual. In this revitalized theater, language would no longer be used as an abstract medium for the exchange of ideas; it would have the same function as lighting, sound, props, and the other basic elements of staging. In the end, through violent sounds, images, and gestures presenting famous myths in a new form, the Theater of Cruelty would propel the audience into an altered state of consciousness, leading them to a spiritual cleansing and enlightenment. Artaud defined "cruelty" not (exclusively) as sadism or violence but as a cosmic rigor or implacable necessity imposing itself on the bodies of the actors.

Artaud's project for a Theater of Cruelty is generally considered impossible to realize. The Theater and Its Double presents no practical blueprint. However, many of the individual suggestions made in the book had an immense impact on the ideas and practices of various major directors, theater groups, and playwrights during the second half of the twentieth century. In particular, a revival of interest in Artaud's thought took place in the 1960s and 1970s. The director Peter Brook of the Royal Shakespeare Company cofounded a troupe called the Theater of Cruelty in the 1960s, and Brook's 1964 production of the German playwright Peter Weiss's play Marat/Sade is a celebrated example of Artaudian theater. Similarly, in America, Julian Beck and Judith Malina's Living Theater, Joseph Chaikin's Open Theater, and Richard Schechner's Performance Group incorporated important insights of Artaud into their work. Moreover, critics have discussed Artaudian features in plays written by Fernando Arrabal and Jean Vauthier in France, by Sam Shepard in the United States, and by Peter Shaffer in Britain, among others. Artaud's ideas continue to influence work in the theater in the twenty-first century. For example, DNA Theatre in Toronto undertook a series of performances entitled "Artaud and His Doubles" in the 1990s, including a production of Artaud's own 1923 play The Spurt of Blood. The American performance artists Rachel Rosenthal and Diamanda Galas also acknowledge the relevance of his thought for their work.

See alsoBrecht, Bertolt; Brook, Peter; Theater.


Primary Sources

Artaud, Antonin. The Theater and Its Double. Translated by Mary Caroline Richards. New York, 1958.

——. Antonin Artaud: Selected Writings. Edited by Susan Sontag and translated by Helen Weaver. New York, 1976.

Secondary Sources

Barber, Stephen. Antonin Artaud: Blows and Bombs. London, 1993.

Bermel, Albert. Artaud's Theater of Cruelty. New York, 1977.

Plunka, Gene A., ed. Antonin Artaud and the Modern Theater. London, 1994.

Scheer, Edward, ed. Antonin Artaud: A Critical Reader. London, 2004.

John C. Stout