Antonin Artaud and the Theatre He Created

“There is in every madman a misunderstood genius whose idea, shining in his head, frightened people, and for whom delirium was the only solution to the strangulation that life had prepared for him.” Antonin Artaud is not known for his many famous and interesting quotes. He was known for his experiments with Theatre and the creations of a sub- Surrealist theatre known as Theatre of Cruelty.

The above quote, though, embodies who Artaud was; A genius, a madman, and in a league of his own. Artaud’s life was not one that most would call normal and this helped shape his ideas and works as well as his contribution to dramatic theory. Though his beginnings and ideas are not those of the “norm”-que “what is normal” comment- Artaud is one man who has shaped the theatre and its art irreparably and will be idealized for a long time to come.

Antonin Artaud was born September 4, 1896, under the full name Antonin-Marie-Joseph Artaud. Originally born in Marseille, France, he was introduced to mysticism at a young age through his Levantine Greek heritage. His knowledge and interest in mysticism shows up prevalently in the majority of his work

His heritage is not the only part of Antonin Artaud’s life that shaped his work, nor was it the start of his dramatic writing.

“I myself spent nine years in an insane asylum and I never had the obsession of suicide, but I know that each conversation with a psychiatrist, every morning at the time of his visit, made me want to hang myself, realizing that I would not be able to cut his throat.” He battled mental illness his whole life. Artaud spent many years in insane asylums. One of his therapists, Edouard Toulouse, is partly responsible for finding the artist that lurked in Antonin Artaud. It was in therapy sessions with Toulouse that Artaud was encouraged to express himself through poetry. Toulouse saw the great genius that was Artaud and published his works in a journal entitled Demain. From here Artaud found his way into the Surrealist camp of Paris in 1920 where he amongst others theorized about dramatic writing. This was just the start of the fantastical imaginings of Artaud, but his legacy extends far beyond that of a poet.

All true language is incomprehensible, like the chatter of a beggar’s teeth.” Though Artaud was first a poet he is mostly known as a playwright, actor, and theorist. After, he severed his surrealist ties, he began Theatre Alfred Jarry with Roger Victrac and Robert Aron. With the start of this theatre the men “radically change French theater.”

What came of this project impacted more than just French theatre, it revolutionized modern theatre. This mostly stemmed from Artaud’s distaste for Western theatre and its demand for structure and order alongside other conventions of language that Artaud found very contrite. This new form of theatre became known as Theatre of Cruelty. Theatre of cruelty works towards presenting the audience with shocks of horrors that often include murder and rape. These horrors do not have to be brutal or painful, though. Artaud believed that cruelty can be any action that affects the audience. Theatre is merely action, and every action is a force, but a cruel force is one that rouses the spectator.  Artaud stated that this shock will “liberate the human subconscious and reveal man to himself” to be confronted by that which makes him human; his base elements.

Artaud aimed to cause confusion, discomfort, and unease in audiences, so that they may be pulled out of the story to think about what is happening. Through conscious thought self-generated thoughts Artaud could raise the audience from passive onlookers to active participants. Often in his plays grunt, screams, and other such noises took prominence over dialogue. This style calls for actors to look deep into themselves and find strong emotional connections that must be shown on the stage. With such a bold and aggressive style to his works, his plays became very experimental in nature.

These experiments more often than not failed. Not only did his plays get meager appreciation, his theatre, Theatre Alfred Jarry, soon closed. Theatre Alfred Jarry, did leave its mark on the Surrealist of the future and one play in particular Les Cenci which also influenced prominent Surrealist and Dadaist playwrights such as: Ionesco, Beckett, and others. Though at the time Artaud was cast aside as being too experimental, his work has had a great influence on the theatre of today.

“No one has ever written, painted, sculpted, modeled, built, or invented except literally to get out of hell.” Like previously mentioned Artaud was very versatile as well as talented. The outlandish and stylistic plays and poems are not Artaud’s only work as he also wrote a few books on the theory of theatrical practices. The most famous may be The Theatre and Its Double, which was a conglomeration of his theories and ideas about theatre.

Artaud was also a performer, staring in Napoleon (1927) and La Passion de Jeanne d’Arc (1928).  The later film is still a resounding masterpiece steeped in German expressionism. Directed by Carl Theodore Dryer and staring Renee Marie Falconetti it tells the harrowing tale of Joan of Arc after she is captured by the British. Artaud plays one of the many fathers in the church where Joan is held for trial. The images of his stoic and priestly character are some of the most iconic pictures of Artaud.

In the final years of his life, Artaud once again returned to mental facilities and poetry. His poetry in those years received far better reception then his theatre. He died March 4, 1948. Even with his array of poetry, Artaud was known as a controversial and yet instrumental playwright and theorist for the theatre. He brought eccentric farces and Theatre of Cruelty that not only perplex the audience, but attempted to bring about humankind’s unconscious understandings of self. His legacy and work lives on today, through not only his own oeuvre, but those he influenced and their work. It is boundary pushers like him that keep theatre alive.

Maranda Davis

Maranda is a Las Vegan writer and recent graduate of Texas Christian University. She has a degree in Theatre with a minor in TV, Film, and Digital Media Studies. Her passions are writing, theatre, and Youtube. While one day she hopes to write for TV and film, she currently is working on writing plays of many genres and styles.

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