Antonin Artaud was born on September the 4th, 1896, in Marseille, France. He was son to Eupharasie Nalpas and Antoine-Roi Artaud. Both his parents were natives of Smyrna, an ancient Greek city modernly known as Izmir. When he was four years old, Artaud had a severe case of meningitis, which gave him a nervous irritable temperament during his adolescence. He also suffered from neuralgia, stammering and sever bouts of clinical depression, this was treated with the use of opium resulting in a life-long addiction.
It was arranged by his parents for Artaud to stay in a sanatorium for long periods of time. This lasted 5 years, with a break of two months, June and July 1916, when Artaud was conscripted into the French Army. He was allegedly discharged due to his self-induced habit of sleep-walking. During Artaud’s “rest cures” at the sanatorium, he read Arthur Rimbaud, Charles Baudelaire, and Edgar Allan Poe. In May 1919, the director of the sanatorium prescribed laudanum for Artaud, precipitating a life-long addiction to that and other opiates.
In March 1920, Artaud moved to Paris to pursue a career as a writer, and instead discovered he had a talent for avant-garde theatre. Whilst training and performing with the most acclaimed directors of the day, most notably Charles Dullin and Georges Pitoeff, he continued to write both poetry and essays. At the age of 27, he mailed some of his poems to the journal La Nouvelle Revue Francaise; they were rejected, but the editor, Jacques Riviere, wrote back seeking to understand him, and a relationship in letters had developed.
This epistolary work, Correspondance avec Jacques Riviere, is Artaud’s first major publication. In 1925, Artaud effectively assumed control directing the surrealist movement, writing many articles for The Surrealist Revolution and running the Bureau of Surrealist Research, a loose affiliation of surrealists interested in exploring automatic writing, recording dreams and engaging in anything which rejected rationality. After about eighteen months, he grew increasingly frustrated by what he perceived as the surrealists’ unwillingness to do any more than disrupt bourgeois art events and create scandal.
Artaud cultivated a great interest in cinema as well and in 1926-28, Artaud ran the Alfred Jarry Theatre, along with Roger Vitrac. He produced and directed original works by Vitrac, as well as pieces by Claudel and Strindberg. The theatre advertised that they would produce Artaud’s play Jet de sang in their 1926-1927 season, but it was never mounted and was not premiered until 40 years later. The Theatre was extremely short-lived, but was attended by an enormous range of European artists.
In 1931 Artaud saw Balinese dance performed at the Paris Colonial Exposition. Although he did not fully understand the intentions and ideas behind traditional Balinese performance, it influenced many of his ideas for Theatre. Also during this year, the ‘First Manifesto for a Theatre of Cruelty’ was published in La Nouvelle Revue Francaise which would later appear as a chapter in ‘The Theatre and Its Double’. In 1935, Artaud’s production of his adaptation of Shelley’s The Cenci premiered, but The Cenci was a commercial failure.
After the production failed, Artaud received a grant to travel to Mexico, where he met his first (Mexican) Parisian friend, the Painter Federico Cantu in 1936 when he gave lectures on the decadence of Western civilization. He also studied and lived with the Tarahumaran people and experimented with peyote, recording his experiences, which were later released in a volume called Voyage to the Land of the Tarahumara. The content of this work closely resembles the poems of his later days, concerned primarily with the supernatural.
Artaud also recorded his horrific withdrawal from heroin upon entering the land of the Tarahumaras; having deserted his last supply of the drug at a mountainside. Artaud would return to opiates later in life. In 1937, Artaud returned to France where he obtained a walking stick of knotted wood that he believed belonged not only to St. Patrick, but also Lucifer and Jesus Christ. Artaud traveled to Ireland in an effort to return the staff, though he spoke very little English and was unable to make himself understood. The majority of his trip was spent in a hotel room that he was unable to pay for.
On his return trip, Artaud believed he was being attacked by two crew members and retaliated; he was arrested and put in a straitjacket. 1938 saw the publication of The Theatre and Its Double, his best-known work. This book contained the two manifestos of the Theatre of Cruelty. The return from Ireland brought about the beginning of the final phase of Artaud’s life, which was spent in different asylums. When France was occupied by the Nazis, friends of Artaud had him transferred to the psychiatric hospital in Rodez, well inside Vichy territory, where he was put under the charge of Dr. Gaston Ferdiere. Ferdiere began administering electroshock treatments to eliminate Artaud’s symptoms, which included various delusions and odd physical tics. The doctor believed that Artaud’s habits of crafting magic spells, creating astrology charts, and drawing disturbing images, were symptoms of mental illness. The electro-shock treatments have created much controversy, although it was during these treatments — in conjunction with Ferdiere’s art therapy — that Artaud began writing and drawing again, after a long dormant period.
In 1946, Ferdiere released Artaud to his friends, who placed him in the psychiatric clinic at Ivry-sur-Seine. Current psychiatric literature describes Artaud as having schizophrenia, with a clear psychotic break late in life and schizotypal symptoms throughout life. Artaud was encouraged to write by his friends, and interest in his work was rekindled. He visited an exhibition of works by Vincent van Gogh which resulted in a study Van Gogh le suicide de la societe [Van Gogh, The Man Suicided by Society], published by K editeur, Paris, 1947 which won a critics’ prize. 2] He recorded Pour en Finir avec le Jugement de dieu [To Have Done With the Judgment of god] between November 22 and November 29, 1947. This work was shelved by Wladimir Porche, the director of the French Radio, the day before its scheduled airing on February 2, 1948. The performance was prohibited partially as a result of its scatological, anti-American, and anti-religious references and pronouncements, but also because of its general randomness, with a cacophony of xylophonic sounds mixed with various percussive elements.
While remaining true to his Theatre of Cruelty and reducing powerful emotions and expressions into audible sounds, Artaud had utilized various, somewhat alarming cries, screams, grunts, onomatopoeia, and glossolalia. As a result, Fernand Pouey, the director of dramatic and literary broadcasts for French radio, assembled a panel to consider the broadcast of Pour en Finir avec le Jugement de Dieu.
Among the approximately 50 artists, writers, musicians, and journalists present for a private listening on February 5, 1948 were Jean Cocteau, Paul Eluard, Raymond Queneau, Jean-Louis Barrault, Rene Clair, Jean Paulhan, Maurice Nadeau, Georges Auric, Claude Mauriac, and Rene Char. Although the panel felt almost unanimously in favor of Artaud’s work, Porche refused to allow the broadcast. Pouey left his job and the show was not heard again until February 23, 1948 at a private performance at the Theatre Washington. In January 1948, Artaud was diagnosed with intestinal cancer.
He died shortly afterwards on March 4, 1948, alone in the psychiatric clinic, seated at the foot of his bed, allegedly holding his left shoe. It was suspected that he died from a lethal dose of the drug chloral hydrate, although it is unknown whether he was aware of its lethality. Thirty years later, French radio finally broadcast the performance of Pour en Finir avec le Jugement de dieu. Artaud died on the 4th of March 1948, aged 51. Theatre of Cruelty Artaud believed that theatre should affect the audience as much as possible; therefore he used a mixture of strange and disturbing forms of lighting, sound, and other performance elements.
In his book The Theatre and Its Double, which contained the first and second manifesto for a “Theatre of Cruelty,” Artaud expressed his admiration for Eastern forms of theatre, particularly the Balinese. He admired Eastern theatre because of the codified, highly ritualized and precise physicality of Balinese dance performance, and advocated what he called a “Theatre of Cruelty”. At one point, he stated that by cruelty, he meant not exclusively sadism or causing pain, but just as often a violent, physical determination to shatter the false reality.
He believed that text had been a tyrant over meaning, and advocated, instead, for a theatre made up of a unique language, halfway between thought and gesture. Artaud described the spiritual in physical terms, and believed that all theatre is physical expression in space. The Theatre of Cruelty has been created in order to restore to the theatre a passionate and convulsive conception of life, and it is in this sense of violent rigour and extreme condensation of scenic elements that the cruelty on which it is based must be understood.
This cruelty, which will be bloody when necessary but not systematically so, can thus be identified with a kind of severe moral purity which is not afraid to pay life the price it must be paid. – Antonin Artaud, The Theatre of Cruelty, in The Theory of the Modern Stage (ed. Eric Bentley), Penguin, 1968, p. 66 Evidently, Artaud’s various uses of the term cruelty must be examined to fully understand his ideas. Lee Jamieson has identified four ways in which Artaud used the term cruelty. First, it is employed metaphorically to describe the essence of human existence.
Artaud believed that theatre should reflect his nihilistic view of the universe, creating an uncanny connection between his own thinking and Nietzsche’s: [Nietzsche’s] definition of cruelty informs Artaud’s own, declaring that all art embodies and intensifies the underlying brutalities of life to recreate the thrill of experience … Although Artaud did not formally cite Nietzsche, [their writing] contains a familiar persuasive authority, a similar exuberant phraseology, and motifs in extremis … Lee Jamieson, Antonin Artaud: From Theory to Practice, Greenwich Exchange, 2007, p. 21-22 Artaud’s second use of the term (according to Jamieson), is as a form of discipline. Although Artaud wanted to “reject form and incite chaos” (Jamieson, p. 22), he also promoted strict discipline and rigor in his performance techniques. A third use of the term was ‘cruelty as theatrical presentation’. The Theatre of Cruelty aimed to hurl the spectator into the centre of the action, forcing them to engage with the performance on an instinctive level.
For Artaud, this was a cruel, yet necessary act upon the spectator designed to shock them out of their complacency: Artaud sought to remove aesthetic distance, bringing the audience into direct contact with the dangers of life. By turning theatre into a place where the spectator is exposed rather than protected, Artaud was committing an act of cruelty upon them. – Lee Jamieson, Antonin Artaud: From Theory to Practice, Greenwich Exchange, 2007, p. 23 Artaud wanted to (but never did) put the audience in the middle of the ‘spectacle’ (his term for the play), so they would be ‘engulfed and physically affected by it’.
He referred to this layout as being like a ‘vortex’ – a constantly shifting shape – ‘to be trapped and powerless’. Finally, Artaud used the term to describe his philosophical views. Imagination, to Artaud, was reality; he considered dreams, thoughts and delusions as no less real than the “outside” world. To him, reality appeared to be a consensus, the same consensus the audience accepts when they enter a theatre to see a play and, for a time, pretend that what they are seeing is real. Artaud saw suffering as essential to existence.