Antonin Artaud and the Theatre of Cruelty

"I do not consider any work apart from life"

And what of life? Antonin Artaud has been described as a philosopher, playwright, visionary, poet, madman, opium addict, surrealist, genius… Having recently reread his collected works I myself am salient with thoughts of him, a man who saw the future of theatre, who fought off financial constraints and contempt by his colleagues and whose ideas still infiltrate the arts today.

Many critics and biographers of Artaud have based much of their work on his drug addiction, his madness, the miseries that forced his mind. They appreciate his work as genius, but focus on the affliction as a living thing within itself, with its own pulse. His mental sickness did not draw him to the depths of hell. It served to heighten his egoistic plenitude, his ability to look within. To quote Bettina Knapp, author of 'Antonin Artaud: Man of Vision':

"…he succeeds in contacting the most primitive elements within himself and within all men: the Beginning, Chaos, the Abyss - the source of all creation - Reality."

Every form of expression he used within his career - from written scenarios, to characters in film and poetry - were himself in transmigration. As an actor he chose the characters most like his own personality, in order to fulfil his search for an understanding of the mind. Stage life for Artaud was simply a continuation of 'real' life, with his performances turning to the realm of metaphysics.

Artaud began by writing poetry, but became depressed by his failure to find the right words. Poetry could not get to the core of his degradation, his sickness, his diseased mind. He began to float, buoyant, on a quest to make physical the emotional, driven by the knowledge that words do not convey essence, only bare meaning. He saw words as a pattern of hieroglyphs used more to create sound than freedom.

And so, after a brief period with the Surrealists and a final clash with André Breton, Artaud formed the Alfred Jarry Theatre. Jarry, a playwright as famous for his eccentricities as for his Rabelaisian playlet 'Ubu Roi', touched a chord with Artaud, especially in his writing about anything and everything that interested him and injecting into it an almost caustic wit. This was a stepping-stone, but not an easy time for Artaud. No money was made from the few performances he cast, he and the actors had no base and could afford to perform only one night at a time in the few theatres that opened their doors to them, and often the audience were ignorant or plainly revolted by what they saw.

The Alfred Jarry Theatre was aborted and Artaud moved briefly into silent film, known best as Brother Masieur in the 1928 version of 'Jeanne d'Arc' and as Marat in Napoleon. He was, however, uncomfortable with acting, as his greatest fear was that of losing himself whilst taking on the identity of the characters he played.

And then he witnessed something that would change his life and his art. In 1931 he saw a performance by the Balinese Theatre and wrote of their use of dance, mime, sound, lighting, puppets, and of the significant absence of words:

"Here we are suddenly in the thick of a metaphysical struggle and the rigid aspect of the body in a trance, tensed by the surging of the cosmic powers attacking it, is admirably expressed in that frenzied dance full of angular stiffness, where we suddenly feel the mind's headlong fall begins."

Artaud was transformed and so began his fevered writings and productions in the form of the Balinese. So impressed was he by the Oriental theatre, its plays and its players, its synesthesia of expression, the ability to hear the lights and see the sound, and the forming of a new language without words, that he founded the Theatre of Cruelty.

With his renouncement of structured language, syntax, scripts and parlance, Artaud took the French theatre of his day to new heights. His productions aimed not at intellect but at the heart of emotion. It was taken beyond mere acting. He injected something sinister, something cruel and darkly humorous.  Artaud turned the most tragic stories into a carnival in order to create a true meaning.

"Anything that acts is a cruelty. It is upon this idea of extreme action,
 pushed beyond all limits, that theatre must be rebuilt."

Cruelty is lucid. When Artaud speaks of cruelty he does not necessarily invoke blood and carnage. Instead he infers a kind of strict control and submission to necessity. To create, to breathe, to cry - these are forms of cruelty, and ideas to be played out and acted upon the stage.

"With any change in state - from dark to light, matter to spirit, inertia to movement - there will be cruelty."

And the cruelest entity is that which is created within and of itself - nature, chaos, the origin. Adam and Eve in the Garden of Eden - the myth, the truth and the beginnings of the endurance of torment. When God in his rage thrust man from Paradise, he cast a division between man and himself and man and the universe. Man is lost, he walks the earth in limbo, unable to fly, unable to breathe in water, able only to walk in circles, seeking union, seeking truth. This is the torture of man and this is the cruelty Antonin Artaud speaks of.

However, he points out that where the creation myth in itself was the malefactor capable of creating Oedipus Rex, Renaissance paintings, works by Blake, Shakespeare, Euripedes etc, fear traverses the times like fashion. It alters, fluctuates through decades. What provoked terror in the seventeenth century had little effect in the twentieth. And so new myths must be created, brought to life on the stage through the Theatre of Cruelty's three forms - puppetry, dismemberment and de-identification.

One of the greatest fears of mankind which will never fade is that of death. Artaud believed that fear leads to turmoil and turmoil leads to fissures in our way of thinking. Questions need to be asked and the answer comes in artform. He thought not of fear of loss or fear of pain but specifically the fear of death, the finality, the limitations which we can never understand. In volume four of his works Artaud wrote a piece titled 'Theatre and the Plague' and in doing so chose the most horrific manifestation to create fear and expression.

Theatre and The Plague

The opening pages of volume four are an explicit, blow by blow account of the body's surrender to the plague.

"Before any pronounced physical or psychological sickness appears, red spots appear all over the body, the sick person only suddenly noticing them when they turn black. He has no time to be alarmed by them before his head feels on fire, grows overwhelmingly heavy and he collapses. Then he is seized with terrible fatigue, a focal, magnetic, exhausting tiredness, his molecules are split in two and drawn towards their annihilation."

Had Antonin Artaud been writing today would he still have chosen the plague as the axis of fear? Or would he have focused on something new, foreign, such as e-bola with its traumatic death of the body's cells, or perhaps AIDs, a cultural disease able to turn your own body against you? I think not. There are reasons for his choice. He notes two observations. The first is that the plague leaves the brain and the lungs free from putrefaction, where other organs become fragile or hypertrophied. The second is that these two organs are within our control; we choose to breathe, we choose to think. We cannot reverse the flow of blood, speed up our digestion or take control over the gall bladder, but we can hold our breath or change trajectory of a thought process.

"Hence the plague seems to make its presence known in those places, to have a liking for all those physical localities where human will-power, consciousness and thought are at hand or in a position to occur."

Free-thinking whilst the body dies. Utmost fear and concentration as you wait for death to take you.

This is not a horror story, this is the plight of the artist to revolutionise the face of theatre, of the arts, of expression. His aims included rejection of a psychological theatre, a return to the mythical in rewriting the metaphysical, the invention of a new theatrical language, the explanation of reason through the dream state and in so doing eliciting terror in the audience and the inclusion of the audience in all performances, each being part of the microcosmic theatre which rotates in the cosmic whole. Later theatre companies such as The Theatre of the Absurd, and The Living Theatre took what they could from his manifesto, using more than human language to keep Artaud alive in communicating the answers to the questions none of us dared to ask.

Bibliography: -

Artaud, Antonin - Collected Works, vol. 1
Knapp, Bettina - Antonin Artaud: Man of Vision
Putnam, Samuel - Paris was our Mistress

(Originally published in Sein und Werden the second, December 2004)