Antonin Artaud & The Theatre of Cruelty

Antonin Artaud & The Theatre of Cruelty

(The Father of Modern Theatre – Poet, Pamphleteer, Madman) - 1896 - 1948

On returning home last night from a fine Greek meal, replete on a couple of bottles of Red Stag and a kleftiko, my good lady wife and I plonked ourselves in front of the TV to watch the Kenneth Williams of the Noughties, Russell Brand, joust with the asinine J. Ross. I had been pondering this article and how to introduce it to all you punky wavers out there, without my usual dead-ending in Pseuds’ Corner.

We were just about to put the budgie to bed, when Ross began to introduce the next guests: The Stooges! The budgie’s bedtime was suspended. The interview ended and the band played. Iggy Pop: stripped to his leather trousers, all ropey veins and tired skin, doing his Morrison schtick, the rich baritone and drawl of the master echoing out over the audience.

Anyway, at some point in I Wanna Be Your Dog, Iggy mounted the stairs of the BBC studio and leant over the barrier into the audience. This night Iggy was far from the drug-crazed, feral beast of ‘69. He refrained from those simian, eyeball-popping antics and contented himself with half-heartedly staring at a suit-and-tie man while the suit-and-tie man smiled back. Once, Iggy would have held suit-and-tie man in a neck-lock and smeared him with his blood, just before a band of marauding Hells Angels he’d called queers, had come charging to the rescue, pistol-whipping the Igster into unconsciousness.

Then, in my cups, I had it! Antonin Artaud and the Theatre of Cruelty. My humble article had its introduction. Would Iggy and Jim, Lou and Bowie have had a stage act, had not the crazed Frenchman 30-years previously, opened out the Doors of Perception, unhinged on pain, drugs and Surrealism? Well, probably, in some shape or form, but Artaud articulated the inarticulate and gave them intellectual authority.

‘Wovon man nicht sprechen kann, daruber muss man schweigen’, Wittgenstein wrote in his famous Tractatus. Whereof one cannot speak, thereof one must stay silent. Artaud might have said, ‘I will try to speak, whereof one cannot speak, and the world must follow as best it can’.

Antonin Artaud – a life. Nowadays, madness is the new black. A chic pose adopted by the would-be artists and losers; nothing to say, man, but look, here’s a bust of my head sculpted in my frozen blood. Artaud was no phoney, no poseur – a genuine genius? ‘I can’t answer that’, to quote Bros. Madness? Genius? Words impossible to define. And here we are stepping onto Artaud’s territory. Words, to Artaud, were slippery beasts – words didn’t mean what he wanted them to mean, didn’t carry the full weight of meaning he would have liked, or, more worrying, ended up meaning something quite else.

Words were like boxes with labels – the label ought to define quite clearly what the content is, but when you open the box, something else pops out. ‘Well’, you might think, ‘just get on with it. When I use a word, it means just what I choose it to mean, neither more nor less’, as Humpty Dumpty put it. When you are Artaud, things are not quite so simple.

Anyway. The dissertation I am writing in a parallel universe which will earn me the Nobel Prize for Medicine in 2027 has, as its title – Madness Everywhere – The Ubiquity of Insanity.

The theory posits that we all nurture in our mind some seed of madness. The manifestation of our mental derangement will and does vary widely; at one end, a charmingly obsessive attachment to needlepoint (the sweet old lady, sipping a weak latte in the corner of Costa Coffee, reading Cross-Stitch), at the other, the industrial manufacture of lampshades fabricated from the tattooed skin of Jews and Gypsies. At either end of the spectrum, madness lies.

The madness and romance of the ‘tortured genius’: Artaud came into the world in pain and left it as he entered. I cannot tell if the pain was a symptom or cause of the madness, a symptom or cause of genius. They’re only words, and words are all I, or any of us, have; blunt instruments to fashion thought. Let the philosophers haggle over the ‘no thought without words’ proposition.

But I digress. Antonin Artaud – A Life: Born in Marseilles on September 4th 1896. A Virgo, naturally. In 1901 he succumbed to a debilitating illness, possibly meningitis. From that point on, the life of the poete maudit begins.

Around the age of 7, the first signs of stammering began. The symbolism here is too pointed – the nascent artist adrift in a sea of words, the urgent need to master his medium, yet unable to. The stammering continued, sometimes better, often worse, for the rest of his relatively short life.

In 1905 a sister was born and died aged 8-months. Then one year later, Antonin almost drowned. His life was already invested with tragedy and hardship, but he survived. The first flourishings of his literary career began at the age of 14, when he started up a magazine at school in which he published some of his poetry.

He left school at the age of 18, and shortly thereafter embarked on a drug habit, initially tranquilizers and opium, which carried on till his death. He claimed they were to relieve his headaches – possibly a leftover from the meningitis attacks of his childhood. Echoes again of that other tortured genius, Cobain?

His stammering worsened during this period; he branched out into self-portraiture. In 1916 he began National Service in the Infantry but lasted only 9-months before being invalided out. From 1916 to the end of the war, he attended various clinics and sanitoria, both in France and Switzerland. During Artaud's rest cures at the sanatorium, he read Rimbaud, Baudelaire, and Edgar Allan Poe.

Two years later he was to meet a major figure in his life – Dr. Edouard Toulouse - who accepted Artaud as a patient in his sanatorium. Dr. Toulouse was also a keen literary man, and Artaud worked on a review the Doctor was publishing. Artaud also received his first role as an actor.

Shortly thereafter, in 1921, he joined an actors’ training school attached to the company of Charles Dullin and met the actress Genica Athanasiou with whom Artaud became emotionally involved, although it was unlikely they became lovers.

Artaud was, by this time, a man apart from civilised company, a stranger, l’ etranger. And, as we know, people are strange, when you’re a stranger. Emotional bonds, hard to form at the best of times, become tortured, uneasy, fractured.

During his period with Dullin, Artaud took up set and costume design and went to see a troupe of Cambodian dancers. Their style of movement and response to music sowed the first seeds of thought on how theatre had to change. Engagement with an audience was not new in France. Far less stuffy than English theatre, France had its own naturalist theatre, a theatre macabre – The Grand Guignol. Here, amoral and disturbing plays were performed, plays which would sometimes feature nudity and gory murder. However, this was a breed apart. Artaud wanted to address the bourgeois theatre, the theatre where Moliere and Corneille reigned.

More of his poems were published in the Mercure de France and other periodicals, and he edited an anthology of Dr. Toulouse’s writings. His theatrical career was pursued more fervently, inspired in part by what he saw with the Cambodian dancers, and he moved to the company of the Comedie des Champs Elysees.

At this point in 1923 he began his correspondence with Jacques Riviere, the famous critic, novelist and editor. It is in this correspondence that Artaud began his attempts to elucidate his struggle with words and meanings. The frustrations of the artist are plain to read as Riviere, at best, could only half-comprehend the turmoil of Artaud’s thoughts.

1924 proved a significant time in Artaud’s life: his father died in September, and the following month he joined the Surrealist movement. Although never fully at ease with the Surrealists, the movement gave Artaud some kind of artistic home for a three-year period, before he was expelled in 1926, not before he’d edited, practically alone, the third issue of La Revolution Surrealiste, in 1925.

To be expelled from the Surrealists! Again Morrison looms large – when play ends, it becomes a game. How apt, when applied to the Surrealists. The joking, playful iconoclasm of its birth, an iconoclasm that questioned the concept of art and artists, had, by 1926, become largely a branch office of the Communist Party. Play had become formalised with rules, manifestos, adherence to the party line. The time for the maverick genii had gone; the children had been shunted out of the playpen and the grown-ups had taken over the asylum.

Throughout the 1920s, Artaud worked in theatre, lectured and wrote, his mind becoming ever more unstable. He also began his explorations in cinema. Abel Gance’s Napoleon featured Artaud as Marat. He also later played the role of a monk in HYPERLINK "" \o "Carl Theodor Dreyer" Carl Theodor Dreyer's HYPERLINK "" \o "The Passion of Joan of Arc" The Passion of Joan of Arc.

In 1931 he found further inspiration, this time in a Balinese dance troupe, and published an article on them.

In 1932 the first manifesto of Le Theatre de Cruaute is published in the Nouvell Revue Francaise, later added to and turned into Le Theatre et Son Double. The famous quote:

“Without an element of cruelty at the root of every spectacle, the theater is not possible. In our present state of degeneration, it is through the skin that metaphysics must be made to re-enter our minds.”

Through the skin – the need for some visceral re-awakening, something to set the blood tingling, to frighten us a little, to set us on the edge of our seats. Following on from his appearance on the Ross show, a few days later Iggy fetched up at Glastonbury. Again, watching from the comfort of my living room, I witnessed another manifestation of the Theatre of Cruelty: yes, No Fun! The storming of the stage by the audience, at Iggy’s behest! Security floundering, Health & Safety guidelines shredded (there may be no more than two people displaying bare torsos at any one time within a 30-square metre area, unless accompanied by a lunatic).

Yes, it’s been done a million times before, and with blood; yes, there was no real danger there; but it was refreshing and evoked in this sad, cynical, old Hector, some vague remembrance of times Punk.

It set me to thinking (and excuse me if there are such Lords and Creatures out there still plying their noble trade in the wonderful world of modern music, which I mostly despise) what the world needs now is a brand new shaman. We need a new healer who can weave magical spells like Jerry Lee Lewis or Little Richard, or, again, Morrison, the much-mocked, much-derided Morrison; someone who can incant and dance strange little dances, scream, sweat and lead us tired plebs to another world. A new Artaud!

From Jim Morrison to James Morrison – the irony is unbearable. The Arctic Chiefs and the Kaiser Monkeys – pop has eaten itself, vomited, and re-heated the residue. (OK – you’ll find me propping up the bar of the local branch of the New Order Party, discoursing on the good old days of Thatcher, miner baiting and ‘wouldn’t it be a good idea if the army took over’).

Right, where were we? Artaud – his life. A sad life, a short life, but a life packed with creation.

In 1936 Artaud took off for Mexico where he lectured, as well as investigating the drug rituals of the Tarahumara Indians, like some early Carlos Castaneda. After 10-months there he returned to France where he resumed a relationship begun the previous year with Cecile Schramme. Amazingly, they became engaged - but the engagement was broken off in May 1937.

In August of ’37, Artaud set sail for Ireland, and made his way to the Aran Islands off the west coast, trying to find some tranquillity in a chaotic and turbulent life. He also believed he was in possession of St. Patrick’s walking stick and wished to return it. Well, who hasn’t thought such a thing at least once in their life? From the Aran Islands, he spent a week in Galway, then moved to Dublin. During this period he experienced a religious awakening. He converted to Catholicism in Ireland at the age of 41 (Virgo, converts to Catholicism in middle-age, insane genius . . . two out of three, and all that, dear reader)!

Sadly, the hoped-for solace of his faith did not materialise sufficiently to prevent a bout of mania which led to his deportation from Ireland at the end of September, 1937. He arrived dishevelled, and, following his attack on two crewmembers he believed were giving him the evil eye, in a straightjacket at Le Havre, whence he was taken into psychiatric care. For the following 8-years he was shunted from asylum to psychiatric unit to sanatorium.

As the Second World War entered its initial bloody stages, Artaud was released in March, 1946. He stayed under the supervision of Dr Delmas, in a clinic where he died two-years later of intestinal cancer, in March 1948, at the age of 51. Pain, grief, creativity, death.

What concrete has come out of Artaud’s Theatre of Cruelty?

The finest theatre performance I have had the pleasure of witnessing would not have been staged had not Artaud existed, though I was ignorant of this at the time. Oscar Wilde – Salome – Gate Theatre, Dublin, late 80s. Director Stephen Berkoff, better known as a TV and film hard-man.

We went with friends for a comfortable evening’s entertainment, but almost walked out after 5-minutes. The first scene comprised a heavily stylised and mannered parade of actors round the stage, each with their face painted white like latter-day Pierrots, uttering their lines in a monotonous, thumping rhythm. We all looked at each other and I made the universal sign of Onan. The bar began to call. To make matters worse, we had front-row seats – the shame, the indignity! But we persisted. And thank God we did.

Slowly, inexorably, the performance grew. Like some machine picking up steam, the play took on a pace and a beat, pinning us to our seats, drawing us in. John the Baptist’s feud with Herod turned into a battle to the death that was happening in our own living room between two monsters. Salome’s flesh glistened, the fear and hatred in Herod’s face was terrifying to behold. Spittle flecked the boards, John’s dying was unbearable, dark and alone. Eyeballs popped and a final silence settled around us.

At the end, to our eternal shame, we did not stand and scream our admiration to the rafters, but sat and clapped politely, drained and overwhelmed in equal measure. Mr. Berkoff, if you read this, please accept our apologies these many years later. The work was the work of three people, Wilde, Berkoff and Artaud – three geniuses.

Finally, in this pitiful, lazy introduction, an introduction that, I am aware, does not do justice to the towering talent, genius, life, whatever you will, I would like you to link to the following.

You will hear the authentic voice of Artaud, declaiming Pour en finir avec le jugement de Dieu, shortly before his death. The voice crackles, shrieks and howls at you, whether you understand French or no. It is the voice of torment, both pitiable and terrifying at one turn.

His influence lives on. Without Artaud, there would have been no Beckett, Grotowski, even R. D. Laing and Boulez, in different fields. Theatre may well still be stuck in those far-off days of the ‘50s when the Lord Chamberlain dictated what could and could not be seen: a world awash with polite, domestic dramas, empty dramas, saying nothing.

Artaud is dead! Long live Artaud!

References: Ronald Hayman – Artaud and After ISBN: 0-19-281-208 4

Antonin Artaud – “Pour En Finir Avec le Judgement de Dieu” - CD

Madman/theorist/philosopher/playwright Antonin Artaud's final work was a radiophonic creation entitled "To Have Done With The Judgment Of God." It was written after several years' internment in psychiatric institutions which roughly corresponded to the duration of WWII. During his stay at the asylum, Artaud's behavior was characterized by delusions, auditory hallucinations, glossolalia and violent tantrums. He underwent a myriad of bizarre treatments for this behavior including coma-inducing insulin therapy and electroshock therapy. "Pour En Finir Avec le Judgement de Dieu" is a heretic's scatalogical tirade at the extreme of the linguistic lunatic fringe. It was perhaps Artaud's electronic revenge against his incarcerators - an invective broadcast from the end of the mind.

It was commissioned in 1947 by Ferdinand Pouey, the director of dramatic and literary broadcasts for French Radio. The work defies description, and although it was actually recorded in the studios of the French Radio at the end of 1947 and scheduled to be broadcast at 10:45 PM on February 2, 1948, the broadcast was cancelled at the last minute by the director of French Radio, Vladimir Porche. Citing Artaud's scatalogical, vicious and obscene anti-American and anti-Catholic pronouncements as something that the French radio audience could do without, he upheld this censorship in the face of widespread support from many culturally prominent figures including Jean Cocteau, Jean Louis Barrault, Rene Clair and Paul Eluard. Pouey actually quit his job in protest. Artaud died a little over a month later, profoundly disappointed over the rejection of the work. It was not broadcast over the airwaves until thirty years later.

In the actual text of "To Have Done With The Judgment Of God" America is denounced as a baby factory war-mongering machine. Bloody and apocalyptic death rituals are described. Shit is vividly exalted as evidence of life and mortality. Questions about consciousness and knowledge are pursued and answered with more unanswerable questions. It all dead-ends in a scene in which God itself turns up on an autopsy table as a dissected organ taken from the defective corpse of mankind. In the recording all this would have been interspersed with shrieks, screams, grunts, and an extensive vocabulary of nonsense words - a glossolalia of word-like sounds invented by Artaud to give utterance to the dissociation of meaning from language.

One would be hard pressed to find anything like Artaud's work being broadcast on radio or TV now, but to get an approximation of an idea of it, do this: turn on the radio to any station, turn on the TV with the sound up and the picture off and just listen to the glorious sound of the babbling media. As good as electroshock therapy.

Brian Williams – tMx 30 – 07/07