Antoine Marie Joseph Artaud, better known as Antonin Artaud was born on 4 September, 1896, in Marseille, France and died on 4 March, 1948 in Paris, France. Antoine Artaud was a French playwright, poet, actor and director. Antonin Artaud is a diminutive form of Antoine (little Anthony), and was among a long list of names which Antoine Artaud used throughout his life.
Antoine Artaud’s parents, Euphrasie Nalpas and Antoine-Roi Artaud, were of Greek origin (Smyrna), and he was much affected by this background. Although his mother had 9 children, only Antoine Artaud and 2 siblings survived infancy.
At the age of 4, Antoine Artaud had a severe attack of meningitis. The virus gave Antoine Artaud a nervous, irritable temperament throughout adolescence. Antoine Artaud also suffered from neuralgia, stammering and severe bouts of depression. As a teenager, he was allegedly stabbed in the back by a pimp for apparently no reason, similar to the experience of playwright Samuel Beckett.
Antoine Artaud’s parents arranged a long series of sanatorium stays for their disruptive son, which were both prolonged and expensive. They lasted 5 years, with a break of 2 months, June and July 1916, when Antoine Artaud was conscripted into the army. Antoine Artaud was allegedly discharged due to his self-induced habit of sleepwalking. During Antoine Artaud’s “rest cures” at the sanatorium, he read Rimbaud, Baudelaire, and Poe. In May 1919, the director of the sanatorium prescribed laudanum for Antoine Artaud, precipitating a lifelong addiction to that and other opiates.
In March 1920, Antoine Artaud moved to Paris. At the age of 27, Antoine Artaud sent some of his poems to the journal La Nouvelle Revue Française; they were rejected, but the editor wrote back seeking to understand him, and a relationship in letters was born. This epistolary work, “Correspondence avec Jacques Rivière,” is Antoine Artaud’s 1st major publication. In November 1926, Antoine Artaud was expelled from the surrealist movement, in which he had participated briefly, for refusing to renounce theater as a bourgeois commercial art form, and for refusing to join the French Communist Party along with the other Surrealists.
Antoine Artaud cultivated a great interest in cinema as well, writing the scenario for the 1st Surrealist film, The Seashell and the Clergyman, directed by Germaine Dulac. Antoine Artaud also acted in Abel Gance’s Napoleon in the role of Jean-Paul Marat, and in Carl Theodor Dreyer’s The Passion of Joan of Arc as the monk Massieu. Antoine Artaud’s portrayal of Marat used exaggerated movements to convey the fire of Jean-Paul Marat’s personality.
In 1926-28, Antoine Artaud ran the Alfred Jarry Theater, along with Roger Vitrac. Antoine Artaud produced and directed original works by Roger 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 Theater was extremely short-lived, but was attended by an enormous range of European artists, including Andre Gide, Arthur Adamov, and Paul Valery.
The 1930s saw the publication of The Theatre and Its Double, his most well-known work. This book contained the 2 manifestos of the Theater of Cruelty, essential texts in understanding his artistic project. In 1935, Antoine Artaud’s production of his adaptation of Shelley’s The Cenci premiered. The Cenci was a commercial failure, although it employed innovative sound effects and had a set designed by Balthus.
After the production failed, Antoine Artaud received a grant to travel to Mexico where he gave lectures on the decadence of Western civilisation. Antoine Artaud also studied 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. Antoine 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, he literally had to be hoisted onto his horse, and soon resembled, in his words, “a giant, inflamed gum”. Having beaten his addiction, however, Antoine Artaud would return to opiates later in life.
In 1937, Antoine Artaud returned to France where he obtained a walking stick of knotted wood that he believed belonged to St. Patrick, but also Lucifer and Jesus Christ. Antoine 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, Antoine Artaud believed he was being attacked by 2 crew members and retaliated; he was arrested and put in a straitjacket.
The return from Ireland brought about the beginning of the final phase of Antoine Artaud’s life, which was spent in different asylums. When France was occupied by the Nazis, friends of Antoine Artaud had him transferred to the Psychiatric hospital in Rodez, well inside Vichy territory, where he was put under the charge of Dr. Gaston Ferdière. Dr Gaston Ferdière began administering electroshock treatments to eliminate Antoine Artaud’s symptoms, which included various delusions and odd physical tics. The doctor believed that Antoine 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 Dr Gaston Ferdière’s art therapy — that Antoine Artaud began writing and drawing again, after a long dormant period. In 1946, Dr Gaston Ferdière released Antoine Artaud to his friends, who placed him in the psychiatric clinic at Ivry-sur-Seine. Current psychiatric literature describes Antoine Artaud as having schizophrenia, with a clear psychotic break late in life and schizotypal symptoms throughout life.
Antoine Artaud was encouraged to write by his friends, and interest in his work was rekindled. Antoine Artaud visited an exhibition of works by Vincent van Gogh which resulted in a study Van Gogh le suicidé de la société (Van Gogh, The Man Suicided by Society), published by K éditeur, Paris, 1947 which won a critics´ prize. Antoine Artaud recorded Pour en Finir avec le Jugement de dieu (To Have Done With the Judgment of god) between 22 November and 29 November, 1947. This work was shelved by Wladimir Porché, the director of the French Radio, the day before its scheduled airing on 2 February, 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 Theater of Cruelty and reducing powerful emotions and expressions into audible sounds, Antoine 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 5 February, 1948 were Jean Cocteau, Paul Eluard, Raymond Queneau, Jean-Louis Barrault, René Clair, Jean Paulhan, Maurice Nadeau, Georges Auric, Claude Mauriac and René Char. Although the panel felt almost unanimously in favour of Antoine Artaud’s work, Porché refused to allow the broadcast. Fernand Pouey left his job and the show was not heard again until 23 February, 1948 at a private performance at the Théâtre Washington.
In January 1948, Antoine Artaud was diagnosed with intestinal cancer. Antoine Artaud died shortly afterwards on 4 March, 1948. Antoine Artaud died alone in his pavilion, seated at the foot of his bed, allegedly holding his shoe. It was suspected that he died from a lethal dose of the drug chloral, although whether or not he was aware of its lethality is unknown. 30 years later, French radio finally broadcast the performance of Pour en Finir avec le Jugement de Dieu.
Antoine Artaud believed that the Theatre should affect the audience as much as possible, therefore he used a mixture of strange and disturbing forms of lighting, sound and performance. In one production that he did about the plague he used sounds so realistic that some members of the audience were sick in the middle of the performance.
In his book The Theatre and Its Double, which was made up of a 1st and 2nd manifesto, Antoine Artaud expressed his admiration for Eastern forms of theatre, particularly the Balinese. Antoine Artaud admired Eastern theatre because of the codified, highly ritualised and precise physicality of Balinese dance performance, and advocated what he called a “Theatre of Cruelty”. By cruelty, he meant not exclusively sadism or causing pain, but just as often a violent, physical determination to shatter the false reality. Antoine Artaud 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. Antoine 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.
Evidently, Antoine Artaud’s various uses of the term cruelty must be examined to fully understand his ideas. Lee Jamieson has identified 4 ways in which Antoine Artaud used the term cruelty. Firstly, it is employed metaphorically to describe the essence of human existence. Antoine 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 Antoine Artaud’s own, declaring that all art embodies and intensifies the underlying brutalities of life to recreate the thrill of experience … Although Antoine Artaud did not formally cite Nietzsche, [their writing] contains a familiar persuasive authority, a similar exuberant phraseology, and motifs in extremis …
Antoine Artaud’s 2nd use of the term (according to Jamieson), is as a form of discipline. Although Antoine Artaud wanted to “reject form and incite chaos”, he also promoted strict discipline and rigor in his performance techniques. A 3rd 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 Antoine Artaud, this was a cruel, yet necessary act upon the spectator designed to shock them out of their complacency:
Antoine 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, Antoine Artaud was committing an act of cruelty upon them.
Antoine Artaud put the audience in the middle of the ‘spectacle’ (his term for the play), so they would be ‘engulfed and physically affected by it’. Antoine Artaud often referred to this layout as like a ‘vortex’ – a constantly shifting shape – ‘to be trapped and powerless’.
Finally, Antoine Artaud used the term to describe his philosophical views, which will be outlined in the following section.
Imagination, to Antoine Artaud, is reality; dreams, thoughts and delusions are no less real than the “outside” world. Reality appears 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.
Antoine Artaud’s later work presents his rejection of the idea of the spirit as separate from the body. Antoine Artaud’s poems imagistically revel in flesh and excretion, but sex was always a horror for him. Civilisation was so pernicious that Europe was pulling once proud tribal nations like Mexico down with it into decadence and death. The inevitable end result would be self-destruction and mental slavery. These were 2 evils Antoine Artaud opposed in his own life at great pain and imprisonment, as they could only be opposed personally and not on behalf of a collective or movement. Antoine Artaud thus rejected politics and Marxism wholeheartedly, a stance which led to his expulsion by the Surrealists who had begun to embrace it.
Antoine Artaud saw suffering as essential to existence, and thus rejected all utopias as inevitable dystopia.
Antoine Artaud was heavily influenced by seeing a Colonial Exposition of Balinese Theatre in Marseille. Antoine Artaud read eclectically, inspired by authors and artists such as Seneca, Shakespeare, Poe, Lautréamont, Alfred Jarry, André Masson, etc.
Antoine Artaud’s theories in Theatre and Its Double influenced rock musician Jim Morrison. Mötley Crüe named the Theatre of Pain album after reading his proposal for a Theater of Cruelty, much like Christian Death had with their album Only Theatre of Pain. The band Bauhaus included a song about the playwright, called “Antonin Artaud”, on their album Burning from the Inside. Charles Bukowski also claimed him as a major influence on his work. Influential Argentinean folk-rock songwriter Luis Alberto Spinetta named his album Artaud and wrote most of the songs on that album based on his writings. Composer John Zorn has 3 records, “Astronome,” “Moonchild,” and “6 Litanies for Heliogabalus,” dedicated to Antoine Artaud.
Theatrical practitioner Peter Brook took inspiration from Antoine Artaud’s “Theatre of cruelty” in a series of workshops that lead up to his well-known production of Marat/Sade. The Living Theatre was also heavily influenced by him, as was much English-language experimental theater and performance art; Karen Finley, Spalding Gray, Liz LeCompte, Richard Foreman, Charles Marowitz, Sam Shepard, Joseph Chaikin, and more all named Artaud as one of their influences.
Antoine Artaud also had a profound influence on the philosophers Gilles Deleuze and Félix Guattari, who borrowed Antoine Artaud’s phrase “the body without organs” to describe their conception of the virtual dimension of the body and, ultimately, the basic substratum of reality.
The survival horror video game Silent Hill: Origins contains a segment in which the protagonist must solve puzzles within the “Artaud Theatre”, which is in the town of Silent Hill.
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