A Man Possessed: Madness and genuis in the life of the great French theatre mystic are inspiration for contemporary artists
Antonin Artaud is a mad theatrical genius who lived in Paris over 70 years ago He was a poet, playwright, actor, director, whose radical theories on staging and language have influenced the avant-garde. Artaud’s assault on his audiences in the twenties and thirties, using shock techniques he invented for the theatre, film and poetry, would still startle audiences today.
A heavy user of the subsconscious, Artaud seemed to have unlimited access into the deeper, less rational powers. He brought to light dangerous archetypes, most of which he played out in life. In search of a remedy for the mental anguish he suffered throughout his life, Artaud experimented with drugs, psychotherapy, Surrealism, Eastern mysticism, Hatha Yoga, medieval religion, ancient sciences and primitive ritual. He abandoned the rational world based on Cartesian materialism, Newtonian logic, and scientific observation in favour of poetics and metaphor. It is precisely this non-rational, anti-Cartesian stance that gave him the visionary powers necessary to have influenced three-generations of the avant-garde.
Since the fifties, it seems that any artist who comes periously close to the cutting-edge owes a debt to Artaud. People like composer John Cage, choreographer, Merce Cunningham, theatre directors Jerzy Growtowski and Peter Brook, The Living Theatre have all acknowledged a debt to Artaud, as do performance artists, dance/theatre auteurs, Butoh performers, poets, and writers working today.
Why has Antonin Artaud assumed such a saint-like position amongst the avant-garde? He left no coherent methodology, nor shining examples of his theatrical achievements. He did leave a vision of theatre, Theatre of Cruelty, inscribed in metaphorical prose. Ultimately, it is his passion, intelligence and terrible sensitivity that are heard. Artaud is the embodiment of the romantic myth of the misunderstood, suffering artist. Like Poe, Baudelaire, Nerval, Rimbaud, Van Gogh, Artaud was martyred by his passion, marginalized by society. Yet he remains, always, a great source of inspiration.
Since his death in 1948, scholars and artists have debated the importance of his voluminous writings in an attempt to determine the extent of his influence. There are those who believe he was insane, a madman whose theories are of little value and whose plays are impossible to stage. His vision of 50,000 scorpions crawling from a woman’s vagina, a celestial storm where planets collide, lovers separated by hurricanes, wild horses racing through the air like distant meteors, have forced practitioners into a position of compromise which they find unworthy of his ideas. Even directors like Peter Brook and Jerzy Growtowski who acknowledge a debt to Artaud, feel betrayed by the impracticality of his visions.
There are those who believe he was a prophet, a visionary, one of the great poets of this century. Artaud has emerged as the hero of the wave of metacritics who have come to prominence over the last twenty years in France. The writings of Julia Kristeva, Michel Foucault and Jacques Derrida, have raised him to an elevated position in the postmodernist pantheon. Susan Sontag has championed this view. She says “the course of all recent serious theatre in Europe and the Americas can be said to divide into two periods —before Artaud and after Artaud.”
Artaud arrived in Paris at an exciting time. Neitzche had pronounced that God was dead. The machine was king. France, between the wars, was reeling, propelled into the modern era. With a gesture of industrial muscle, trains sliced through nature deconstructing the landscape into a fragmented reality. Radical shifts in perspective unhinged expression from an ordered universe, leaving a montage of broken images. With its ability to manipulate time and space, the cinema was modernity incarnate. Cocteau, Buñuel and Dali made films in a surrealistic frenzy. Eyes were pried open and slit with razor blades, ants crawled from an open wound in a hand, poets fell through mirrors into the subconscious, or an equally altered state. Novelists no longer used descriptions of landscape to indicate that human behavior was bound by the laws of nature. The shifting and subjective viewpoint of stream-of-consciousness technique overlapped into other disciplines. Visual artists depicted a cubist vision of a fragmented, non-linear universe.
As with the other arts, theatre also became intensely subjective. Under the influence of Moscow Art Theatre’s Constantin Stanislavsky, the old style of tortured rhetoric and bad decor gave way to a new “slice of life” drama, of understated naturalness in which actors stylistically resembled real people, but brought an emotional intensity to the stage by living through the subjective experience of the character.
This movement “inwards” created a paradigm in theatre where the perspective shifted from the Aristotelean notion that art should (re)present external reality to being an expression of the subconscious world. Playwrights fractured linear narrative to transform external reality according to the irrational world of the subconscious. On the cutting-edge a style emerged that celebrated the imagination and the seer-poet on a path towards transcendent world. Symbolists like Yeats, Strindberg, Maeterlinke, Claudel and Mallarmé expressed an inner condition or soul-state, presented through nightmares, hallucinations, fantasies and other modes of intense subjective experience. Directors like Vesvolod Myerhold insisted that theatre was superior to common reality and demanded that plays be performed in such a way that the audience would not forget for a single moment that it was in the theatre. Designers like Adolphe Appia and Gordon Craig envisioned a complex union of the arts: “total theatre,” where they used light and color to express the soul of the drama. All these theatrical visions imprinted themselves on Artaud, and although at times they have blended in a similar modernist vision, his theories have had the most effect on shaping theatrical style.
Born in 1896 in Marseilles, Artaud had an early encounter with meningitis, which caused him to suffer for the rest of his life from headaches and depression. Much of his youth was spent in sanitoriums where he wrote and painted. In 1920, at the age of 24, Artaud was discovered by Dr. Toulouse, a progressive psychiatrist who moved him to Paris and introduced him to the world of theatre. From the first moment he set eyes on Artaud, Toulouse recognized him as “an exceptional creature, of the race that produced Baudelaires, Nervals, and Nietzches.”
In 1922, Artaud began his training at the Théatre of the Atlelier under the directorship of Charles Dullin who used a progressive interrdisiplinary. It was here that he was introduced to Stanislavskian methods which used the subconscious as material— something he was naturally predisposed towards through psychoanalysis. Writing in his journal, Artaud noted that in the Theatre of the Atelier “the most important of these methods is improvisation, which forces the actor to think his actions through his soul, instead of acting them…For a long time now the Russians have been using a certain method of improvisation that forces the actor to work with his deepest sensibility, to exteriorize this real and personal sensibility through words, attitudes and mental reactions that are improvised or invented on the spot…” It appears that the first instance of Stanislavsky’s methods materializing in France was at Dullin’s theatre.
According to Dullin, “Artaud adored our improvisational work to which he brought the true imagination of a poet. His application and willingness were exemplary, except with the mechanical exercises in diction. He energetically refused to do these.” It was not long before Artaud’s preference for improvisation, at the exclusion of all else, especially the element of repetition in performance, created a falling out with Dullin. He complained that, under Dullin, an actor was no more than a photograph whose function was to repeat what had already been done. This was especially frustrating since he believed that the theatre was the only place “where a gesture, once made, can never be made the same way twice.”
In his last role at the Atelier as Emperor Charlemagne, Artaud made an entrance on all fours, crawling towards the throne as a businessman wearing a Chinese mask. Dullin felt that his interpretation was “a little too stylized.” Artaud dismissed Dullin’s protest, with contempt, saying: “If it realism you want, oh well!” After only eighteen months at the Atelier Believing that Dullin was a man behind the times, someone not interested in making contemporary theatre do more than represent life. Artaud set about making a contemporary theatre of his own.
In 1922, Artaud wrote, “There are those who go to the theatre as if they were going to a brothel for furtive pleasure…momentary excitement. It can be said that there are now two theaters in existence – the false and the facile theaters of the bourgeois and businessmen, which is found on the boulevards and in the Comédie Francaise; and another theatre which finds accommodation where it can, theatre conceived as the accomplishment of the purest human desires.” A sentiment that echoes loudly in the work of the avant-garde today. Artaud loathed the view of theatre as entertainment. He wanted it to be an event where “the audience would no longer come merely to see, but to participate, as if they were going to the dentist, with the thought that he will not die from the ordeal, but that it is something serious and from which they will not emerge intact.” He wanted theatre to be indistinguishable from life. “The stage will no longer represent, will no longer act as a repetition of the present, will no longer present a present which could exist elsewhere to it.” In an attempt to close this gap between art and life, his art-cry became: “Theatre must be thrown back into life. We must free ourselves from logic and reality. We must learn to be mystical again.” This philosophical stance formed the thesis for his vision of the “Theatre of Cruelty.”
After he left Dullin, Artaud worked as an assistant to both Georges Pitoeff and Louis Jouvet, who along with Charles Dullin and Gaston Baty, were members of the distinguished group of four directors — Le Cartel. Artaud’s collaboration with Jouvet ended in disappointment when the director did not respond favorably to Artaud’s suggestion that a dream scene should be staged with “twenty giant puppets swaying to the sound of a march mixed with Oriental harmonies while fireworks exploded all around them.” It wasn’t long before Artaud was essentially blacklisted from the legitimate theatre. Although he apparently begged for parts no one wanted much to do with him. He did, however, find work in the cinema.
Artaud appeared in over twenty films, including Autant-Lara’s Fait Divers, Fritz Lang’s Liliom, as Marat in Abel Gance’s Napoleon, and as the monk Mathieu in Carl Dreyer’s La Passion de Jeanne d’Arc. His screen play Le Coquille et le clergyman, directed by Germaine Dulac, should have been recognized as the first major surrealist film. Artaud also developed a reputation in the literary world as a talented poet and thinker. His poems, essays and critiques of theatre appeared in numerous literary publications, including the prestigious La Nouvelle Revue Francais.
Finally in 1925, he solved the problem of being shut out of work in the theatre by co-founding his own Théâtre Alfred Jarry with Roger Vitrac and Robert Aron. Programming was exceptional and introduced French audiences to the most avant-garde productions of the day, including Auguste Strindberg’s The Dream Play, Claudel’s Partage de Midi, Pirandello’s Six Characters in Search of an Author, Vitrac’s Le Mysteres de l’amour and a screening of Pudovkin’s censored film The Mother. Even though he was surrounded by some of the great minds of twentieth century theater, Artaud was becoming more cynical, professing that outside his Théâtre Alfred Jarry, there was “no other absolutely pure theater in Paris.”
In July 1931, Artaud saw a troupe of Balinese actors that so impressed him that the Balinese theatre became a metaphor for everything theatre could be. The Oriental drama provided an alternative philosophical view and a unique theatrical experience based on gesture. For him, it was a ritualistic theatre that bridged the gap between art and life. Through the art of the Balineses, he understood that a play could become a weapon to whip up irrational forces, where the spectator was afforded the priviledge of becoming a participant. He saw theatre as life affiirming, cathartic and therapeutic, where spectators could purge their desire to be violent by watching it live.
What struck him about the Balinese was: “The spectacle offers us a marvellous complex of pure stage images..a whole new language seems to have been invented,” he wrote. “These actors with their geometric robes seem to be living, moving hieroglyphs…” which are in turn brocaded with a certain number of gestures — mysterious signs which correspond to some unknown, fabulous and obscure reality…” Artaud felt that the Balinese had realized the essence of pure theatre because they gave absolute power to the director, who in turn created a theatrical language developed in space through the mise en scene. The Balinese theatre revealed to him “a physical and non-verbal idea of the theatre…independent of written text…a theatre that victoriously demonstrates the absolute preponderance of the director whose creative power eliminates words. ” Struck by the fact that he couldn’t speak the language, yet certain he understood the intent through their sub-text of gesture, Artaud visualized a new stage language independent of text. “The stage is a concrete physical place which asks to be filled, and to be given its own concrete physical language to speak…based on signs, gestures and symbols…” But, before he could elevate theatre to an autonomous art of the same rank as music, painting and dance, he had to liberate Western theatre from being a branch of literature, and the director from the autocratic rule of the playwright.
The Theatre and its Double (1938) contains manifestos on “The Theatre of Cruelty.” Artaud wrote:
“In my view no one has the right to call himself author, that is to say creator, except the person who controls the direct handling of the stage.”
With one gesture, he reduced the stage to an empty space, void of theatrical convention. He made two points:
“We abolish the stage and the auditorium and replace them by a single site, without partition or barrier of any kind… A direct communication will be re-established between spectator and the spectacle, between the actor and the spectator…The spectacle will be extended, by elimination of the stage, to the entire hall of the theatre and will scale up the walls, will physically envelop the spectator and immerse him in a constant bath of light, images, movements, and noises. The public will be seated in the middle of the room, on mobile chairs which will allow them to follow the spectacle which will take place all around them.”
These two ideas — to release theatre from the tyranny of the playwright and the stage from the conceptual context of the proscenium arch — radically altered theatrical form. The abolition of the proscenium arch forever changed the relationship between spectator and audience. It gave permission for theatre to occur anywhere. By giving the director power over the playwright, he raised the status of director to that of an auteur . By reducing the importance of words, he revolutionized the actor’s craft by giving them the body necessary to create a gestural language.
His concept that “words should have the importance they have in dreams,” changed the role of speech to one of sound and incantation. He thought of words as a solid object to be manipulated in space, like any other element in the mise en scene. The idea that the visual components can have as much resonance as the verbal, has helped inspire the current interest in a multi-media or multidisciplinary theatrical style. A host of theatrical by-products — Happenings, performance art, body art, environmental theatre, physical theatre, street theatre, guerilla theatre, earthworks, movement therapy, psychodrama, Japanese butoh, dance theatre — are all to some extent indebted to the work of Artaud.
If Artaud’s influence is acknowledged today it wasn’t when he was alive. In fact, his theatrical ideas were so much more radical than those of his contemporaries that he rarely had an opportunity to work them out on stage. They largely remained in theoretical form, dispersed through publications and lectures. Sitting in the front row of his lecture on “The Theatre and the Plague” at the Sorbonne, Anais Nin describes Artaud’s impact in her famous diaries:
“Is he trying to remind us that it was during the Plague that so many marvellous works of art and theatre came to be, because, whipped by the fear of death, man seeks immortality, or to escape, or to surpass himself? But then, imperceptibly almost, he let go of the thread we were following and began to act out dying by plague. No one quite knew when it began ..His face was contorted with anguish, one could see the perspiration dampening his hair. His eyes dilated, his muscles became cramped, his fingers struggled to retain their flexibility. He made one feel the parched and burning throat, the pains, the fever, the fire in the guts. He was in agony. He was screaming. He was delirious. He was enacting his own death, his own crucifixion. At first people gasped. And then they began to laugh. Everyone was laughing! They hissed. Then one by one, they began to leave, noisily talking, protesting. But Artaud went on, until the last gasp. And stayed on the floor. Then when the hall emptied of all but his small group of friends, he walked straight up to me and kissed my hand. He asked me to go to a cafe with him. Artaud and I walked out in a fine mist. We walked through the dark streets. He was hurt, wounded, baffled by the jeering. He spat out his anger. ‘They always want to hear about; they want to hear an objective conference on “The Theatre and the Plague”, and I want to give them the experience itself, the plague itself, so they will be terrified and awaken. I want to awaken them. They do not realize they are dead. Their death is total, like deafness, blindness. This is the agony I portrayed.'”
Feelings of misunderstanding that developed from disagreements with theatre practitioners, audience and critics seemed only to alienate Artaud further. Depression forced him to become more dependent on opium. By 1933, Nin thought Artaud was genuinely mad. He confided to her, “It is torture for me. I make superhuman efforts to awake.” His sardonic manner frightened her. Writing in her journal, she described him as “the surrealist the surrealists disavowed, the lean, ghostly figure who haunts the cafés, but who is never seen at the counter, drinking or sitting with people, laughing. He is the drugged, contracted being who walks alone, in conflict with a world he imagines mocking and threatening. His eyes are blue with languor, black with pain. He is all nerves. His intensity is brooding and rather terrifying.”
If Nin’s impressions of Artaud were painful, that wasn’t so for all his friends. The surrealist playwright Arthur Adamov, for example, describes him as having “an extraordinary sense of humor; one of the people with whom you laughed most. Let me give you an example of Artaud’s humor. He had a small knife, and in the clinic where we put him after Rodez, he used to amuse himself by carving on the table. But then, in the cafes, Artaud used to do the same thing. And one day, a friend of ours, Marcel Buziaux, who published a great deal of Artaud’s last writings, said to him, ‘Now listen, Antonin Artaud, it’s very boring of you really, because if you do this kind of thing in the cafes, they will send you back again; they’ll say you are not right in the head.’ Artaud, who was very much like Buster Keaton, very deadpan, turned to him, ‘But look my dear Marcel Buziaux, I only do it at the Flore and the Deux Magots.’ In other words, only in the cafes where he was known. Artaud was like that. You thought you were going to have trouble with him…”
Artaud’s lifelong friend, Roger Blin, described him as “the most fascinating man I have ever met. Someone so generous and capable of such kindness and understanding to others.”
The actor Jean-Louis Barrault and Artaud had an special friendship. Artaud was so excited by Barrault’s “dramatic action” of Autoru d’une mere, based on Faulkner’s As I Lay Dying, in which he mimed a marvellous centaur, that Artaud bestowed upon Barrault the accolades had hoped to receive himself. In a review, Artaud describes Barrault as demonstrating an irresistible expressiveness of gesture that filled the stage with life and emotion. After the performance, Barrault recalls that the two of them “went down the boulevard on two imaginary horses, galloping as far as the Place Blanche. There he suddenly left me, drunk with enthusiasm.” To Jean-Louis Barrault, “he was essentially an aristocrat. Artaud was a prince.”
If he was a prince, he was one without financial means. By the time he was twenty-seven, he had lived in over fifty hotels and rooming houses and was sleeping whereever someone would put him up. Illness, depression and drug addiction all required his attention. With such instability, it is not surprising that the few productions he managed to direct were not successful. Unlike Brecht, Stansilavsky and other successful theatre artists who had their own thetares sponsored by the state, Artaud had to make the most with very little.
The one he is best known for is The Cenci, his adaptation of Shelley’s incestuous tale. Had he had more rehearsal time and trained actors to work with perhaps he would have been in a better position to articulate the Theatre of Cruelty. As it was, the production was fraught with difficulty. Artaud’s assistant director Roger Blin (who later went on to direct original productions of Beckett and Genet) recalled in an interview with British director Charles Marowitz that Artaud “demanded the actors perform in an extremely stylized manner. He wanted some to resemble animals. This was a difficult request to make of actors who had not been trained physically, who had come from the Conservatoire or the commercial theatre where all that was asked of them was good diction. Artaud also asked them to make certain throaty noises, which they found very difficult.”
The rehearsals were further complicated by Iya Abdy, the woman playing the lead role Beatrice, who did not feel obliged to do what Artaud asked because her father had financed the production. Critic André Franck, who attended a rehearsal of Cenci, wrote:
“Artaud wanted to see her hanging by her magnificent head of hair from the torturer’s wheel. It could not have failed to be effective. A convenient footstool under her feet, camouflaged, would prevent her from hanging in reality. Rightly or wrongly Mme Abdy suspects Artaud of wanting to overturn the little stool on the night of the première to make her reaction more truthful, more striking… Stool or no stool she does not want to be hanged…There will be no wheel and no hanging. Artaud’s anger is terrible.”
Cenci ran from May 6 to 23, 1935, at the very bourgeois theatre Folies Wagram — instead of in a barn as Artaud had predicted for “Theatre of Cruelty” — and had to be taken off after seventeen performances because most of the reviews were hostile. In Blin’s words, “The Parisian world was not very impressed. Some critics found it fairly interesting. But it was just one more item on the balance sheet of the avant-garde. Perhaps it reached certain young people in the auditorium and for them, it has remained a tremendous memory. But in Parisian life, during the fifteen to seventeen days of its production, it passed like the wind. It absolutely failed to leave any mark.”
This Parisian indifference pushed Artaud to the verge of the abyss. Feeling alienated and depressed he had come to the end of the road. With a 1000 franc advance from his publisher Gallimard, he left the “civilized” world on January 9, 1936 aboard a cargo ship sailing for Mexico where he remained for eight months. In Mexico City, artists and intellectuals were so impressed by his lectures and writing that they petitioned the President for funds to send him on a mission to the territory of the Tarahumara Indians to revive the vestiges of the ancient Solar culture. Suffering from heroin withdrawal, he survived a 750-mile train journey and a long horse-back ride across the Sierra Madres to arrive in a remote land of mythic origin where he took part in a true theatre of cruelty spectacle.
High on a mountain top, Artaud was initiated into the sacred peyote rite. Experiencing vivid hallucinations, like a shaman he journeyed to a strange metaphysical world, where a kind of Dionysian theatre erupted. Priest-sorcerers appeared in brilliant purple robes, their heads covered by mirrored hats that gleamed like patches of sky. Magic numbers and geometrical designs were inscribed in the sky and earth. Vibrant waves of sound and light shook him. Bodies twirled through space. The earth convulsed in rhythm. Ancient secrets were revealed. Cosmic forces merged with Aztec symbolism. Material chaos was reduced to its harmonic origins. No longer cut off from nature, Artaud could feel its spectacular totality, unimaginably beautiful and unfathomably mysterious. In its depths, he reached a cool place of calm where the torturous battles in his mind were silenced. Artaud’s fused being was again to be exploded upon re-entering the civilized world.
In France, his insanity grew to mythic proportions. Destitute, Artaud’s solitary and broken figure haunted the streets of Paris. Artaud waged a war with his demons. In fits of anger, he spat on imaginary people and insulted passing women. Outside the literary cafes he threatened passersby with his magic cane that he had tipped so it struck sparks against the pavement as he walked.
In August 1937, “at the order of Jesus Christ,” Artaud left for Ireland to search for traces of the ancient tree worshippers, the Druids, whom he thought might have fashioned his cane. In Dublin, he caused an outrageous scene outside a Jesuit monastery when the priests would not let him in. The police were called, a fight ensued. A policeman nearly broke Artaud’s back when he struck him with an iron bar. Deported, Artaud arrived back in Paris in a strait jacket. He was handed over to the police who put him in a state mental asylum. At the height of Nazi occupation food rations were such that starvation was inevitable. Five years later, at the insistence of his friend the poet Robert Desnos, he was moved to a private psychiatric hospital, Rodez, where he remained for the next three years.
In his private room Artaud withdrew into a madness that staged gigantic battles between God and the Devil, Good and Evil, Spirit and Matter. Dirty and unable to eat, Artaud was totally inactive, sunk in hidden thoughts. Believing that his condition was getting worse, his doctor used over fifty treatments of electro-convulsive therapy to jolt him back to reality.
The effects were brutal. Thrown into limbo, Artaud describes himself in “pursuit of his being for weeks, like a dead man at the side of a living man who is no longer himself.” In total despair, he begged his Roger Blin to secure his release “because I don’t want my soul, my memory, my consciousness and my personality, to be murdered by a new series of electric shocks.”
Before his memory was erased and his passion silenced, Blin came to his rescue and organized a benefit to raise funds for his release. The Gallery Pierre held an exhibition of Artaud’s paintings, and Picasso, Braque, Duchamp, Giacometti, Léger and Dubuffet also donated canvasses to be auctioned; Sartre, Gide, Eluard and Mauriac contributed autographed material to be sold. On June 7, 1946 there was a charity performance at the Sarah Bernhardt Theatre in which Blin took part. Together the two events raised over 2 million francs. Later on Dullin, Jouvet, Barrault, Jean Vilar, and Roger Blin took part in a gala matineé. For the remainder of Artaud’s life – not quite two years – he had continuous financial security.
n 1946, Artaud moved to Ivry, a private clinic twenty minutes from the heart of Paris. He occupied a house which the poet Gérard de Nerval once lived. He was a man of fifty who looked eighty, exhausted by eight years of mental institutions, starvation, shock therapy, self-denial, disappointment, madness, cancer and opium addiction. At the end, he was living under the constant terror of black magic. Instead of shaking hands, he would hold out two fingers, to put less of himself at risk. As an emotional release he was given a huge block of wood which he would carve with a knife leaving traces of his struggle. At other times, he would strike the block hammering out poetic syllables, sounds and rhythms, inventing a new language of neologisms, experiencing every word, physically, as if they were ripped from his soul. A process so resonant the words still leap off the page, into your mouth, only to be heard again, pronounced with jouissance, delighting in the pleasure of the text. After nine years of silence he had much to say. He wrote “everyday, everywhere, standing up, sitting down, on the metro, in restaurants and cafes”; a litany of words in the form of reviews, poems, essays and radio plays.
Still desiring an audience, Artaud gave his last performance, a lecture at the Théatre du Vieux Columbier, January 13, 1947. Shortly before the performance there was a mad rush to buy tickets. 700 people, many of them celebrated, packed into the tiny theatre. All waited with enormous curiosity, many with genuine interest and sympathy, but many more with naked curiosity.
Artaud walked on stage looking like both Edgar Allen Poe and Beaudelaire. His emaciated, ravaged face looked out into the audience. André Gide, Jean-Louis Barrault, André Breton, Jean Paulhan, Arthur Adamov, Albert Camus, Charles Dullin and Roger Blin looked back. Slowly, solemnly he spoke with a voice that defied a middle range, an extraordinary voice consisting only of extremes, of very deep bass notes and high ones, because of his missing teeth, dessimated by shock therapy.
A beautiful, barely audible poem could be heard in his hoarse voice broken by sobs and tragic stammers. He spoke of Mexico, Ireland, electro-shock treatments and about black magic, “openly signalling abominable human distress, a sort of irreprievable damnation, with no possible escape, except into frantic lyricism, nothing of which could reach the audience except scatological flashes, curses and blasphemies.” Then, little by little, he became seized with panic. He heard his own voice, and it frightened him. The packed theatre, the silence, made him feel ill at ease. Suddenly, he made a clumsy gesture. His notes, all at once, scattered over the floor. He lost his train of thought. He tried to pick them. He tried to improvise. Then, seized with panic he turned from the platform, and fled from the building in terror.
In another ending to the evening, Artaud went on talking and shouting abuse until his voice gave out. The pathetic silence that ensued was not broken until André Gide climbed on stage to embrace him. It was a devastating affair, an absolutely shattering evening.
A few months before his death he wanted to resume contact with his public and so he announced a lecture at the Théatre du Vieux Columbier called “The Return of Artaud the Momo.”
Roger Blin describes the January 13, 1947 solo performance:
“Artaud enters and finds himself in front of a full house among whom were Albert Camus, Andre Gide, and a great many people, many of them celebrated and all waiting with enormous curiosity. Many with genuine interest and sympathy but many more with naked curiosity. Slowly he assembles his material and begins to read. For a long time, at the start, his voice was uncertain. He had some very deep bass notes and very high ones and because of his lack of teeth, because of the damage wrought by electro-shock therapy, he no longer had any middle range. It was an extraordinary voice. He began reading rather solemnly. Then little by little we could see that he became seized with panic. He began to hear his own voice and it frightened him. The full hall, the total and somewhat strained silence of the public, made him feel very ill at ease. Suddenly, he made a clumsy gesture and all at once, his notes scattered all over the floor. He tried to pick them up; he tried to improvise. Then seized with panic and terror, he turned from the platform and fled from the building. Afterwards we found him round the back. But it was a devastating affair, an absolutely shattering evening.”
According to an article by Maurice Saillet in Combat:
“There were about 700 people in the audience including Gide, Barrault, Breton, Paulhan, Adamov, Camus and Roger Blin. Artaud made his entrance with this emaciated, ravaged face resembling both Edgar Allen Poe’s and Beaudelaire’s …his impassioned hands flew like two birds around his face, groping at it tirelessly…he began to declaim his beautiful, barely audible poems with his hoarse voice broken by sobs and tragic stammers. After three poems he spoke of Mexico, Ireland, electro-shock treatments and about black magic. The evening ended with Artaud fleeing from the stage in terror after losing his train of thought; according to others he went on talking and shouting abuse until his voice gave out. The pathetic silence that ensued was not broken until André Gide climbed on stage to embrace him.”
Gide’s own account of the performance was written after Artaud’s death:
“To me he had never seemed more admirable. Of his material existence, nothing remained except what was expressive. His big, ungainly figure, his face consumed by inner fire, his hands that knot themselves together whether held out towards unreachable help, or twisting in anguish. More often tightly shielding his face, alternately hiding and revealing it, openly signalling abominable human distress, a sort of unreprievable damnation, with no possible escape, except into frantic lyricism, nothing of which could reach the audience except scatological flashes, curses and blasphemies. Certainly the marvellous actor this artist could become was rediscovered, but it was his own personality he was offering to the audience with a sort of shameless barn storming that did not conceal a total authenticity…”
The evening must have wounded Artaud severely because of it he said “…blows are the only language in which I feel capable of speaking.”
Complaining increasingly of intestinal pain, his friends begged him to see a doctor. For his terminal state of cancer he was given all the chloral he wanted, since opium was no longer effective. At the Ivry clinic on March 4, 1948, the caretaker who was bringing him his breakfast “found him dead, seated at the foot of his bed, a shoe in his hand.” For three days his friends held a vigil to protect his body from the rats.
On the last day of his life, he wrote a contract in green ink, leaving the right to publish his books with a young woman, Paule Thevenin, who he welcomed into his room at Ivry. Little did she know her life would become so dominated by the poems that she heard read aloud as soon as he had finished writing them. Artaud taught her to transpose his visceral language that demanded an intimate knowledge of his breath, rhythm, and the sound of his voice to transpose the audible handwritten scrawl onto a typed page. Thevenin became Artaud’s medium, the intermediary between the work and his editors.
In the hands of a female, his feminine voice, his soul, his writings that spoke of emotion, chaos, nature, darkness, the irrational, the mystical, the symbolic would be heard. His quest of the emotional world was reclaimed, not as something hysterical, but noble. Something to be celebrated, that engaged life by throwing oneself into the chaos of the abyss, the uterus, the i rrational world of the subconscious, and into nature where harmony of the spirit is restored.
As if he wanted to safeguard his manuscripts, he borrowed from Thevenin an old chest to keep his scribblers, letters and papers safe. Opening the chest after his death she discovered a large dead rat. Choked by the papers, it had only eaten a few words from Cenci . For Paule, this rat was his last enemy, defeated.
“The Cruel Theatre of Antonin Artaud”. MacLean Hunter Scholarship, Literary Journalism program at the Banff Centre, Banff, AB. © Heather Elton 1990