Antonin Artaud is known in the English-speaking world almost exclusively as an influence on the theater. He was the inventor of the term “Theater of Cruelty,” which has become a catchword in recent years, especially since the presentation of the Artaud-inspired spectacle, Marat-Sade, written by Peter Weiss and staged by Peter Brook. It is fashionable to refer with respect to his collection of essays on the theater, Le théâtre et son double, which fills most of Volume IV of the complete works, now in process of publication by Gallimard. No doubt his name will always have a place in the history of the drama, after those of Gordon Craig, Stanislavsky, and Jacques Copeau, and will remain associated with a certain theatrical tendency that I shall try to define in a moment. But in France his position extends beyond the theater, and indeed beyond any literary genre. Although he seems to have written incessantly in a sort of violent poetic prose which he scattered in all directions, his actual compositions have always been less well known than his personality. His prestige in literary circles depends in the first place on the fact that he was an abnormal individual, totally committed to the expression or exploration of his abnormality and quite oblivious of any of the requirements of ordinary living.
He was, in fact, mentally deranged, with periods of certifiable madness. He lived with one foot—and sometimes both feet—in the world of insanity and drug-taking, from which he would emerge at intervals to make blistering attacks on all forms of orthodoxy—bourgeois, Catholic, theatrical, or medical. He was, then, an extreme case of the poète maudit: suffering from a chronic disease like Baudelaire, afflicted with a chronic vice like Verlaine or Alfred Jarry, intolerant of any restrictions like Rimbaud, and passing backward and forward over the threshold of madness like Gérard de Nerval or Raymond Roussel. He was one of those almost totally alienated people who live life as if it were a perpetual suicide. Such people can have a hypnotic aura and, in Artaud’s case, the spell seems to have been strong enough to modify the attitudes of a number of people who came into contact with him. I have heard it said, by someone who knew him, that he sucked weaker personalities into his vortex. On the practical level, apart from one or two trancelike performances as an actor, he was an almost complete failure. His various theatrical ventures never got off the ground or were short-lived. Louis Jouvet, Charles Dullin, and others turned a more or less deaf ear to his frequent badgerings, but he found one defender of note in Jean-Louis Barrault, who appears to have remained faithful to his memory. Since his death in 1948 at the age of fifty-two, Artaud has gradually acquired some of the mystic prestige of Rimbaud or Jarry, and it is hardly too much to…
This article is available to online subscribers only.
Please choose from one of the options below to access this article:
Purchase a print premium subscription (20 issues per year) and also receive online access to all all content on nybooks.com.
Purchase an Online Edition subscription and receive full access to all articles published by the Review since 1963.
Purchase a trial Online Edition subscription and receive unlimited access for one week to all the content on nybooks.com.