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Artaud Possessed

Antonin Artaud: Selected Writings

edited, and with an introduction, by Susan Sontag, translated by Helen Weaver
Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 661 pp., $20.00

You are in Paris, a city still gray from occupation and unsure of peace. The tiny theater overflows with people, all looking important or intense. Someone behind you is identifying them: André Gide in a wool cap, Albert Camus, André Breton recently returned from New York, Henri Michaux, Jean Paulhan, and a crowd of prominent actors and directors. They have all come to hear a one-man lecture-performance by Artaud.

Artaud comes on stage alone. Dressed like a clochard, he looks emaciated and a little startled. When he starts reading from the pile of papers, his voice sounds emasculated, yet undeniably powerful. There is some heckling, then a tight silence. Artaud declaims, whispers, roars, and comes to an awkward pause. He seems to have lost his place or his nerve, shuffles his papers, takes his head in his hands as if he were giving up. Yet he starts again. Now he is not reading but haranguing the audience. “Saliva.” “Syphilis.” “Piss.” “Electroshock.” He stops to catch his breath, then reads again.

It is not a mind that has created things

but a body, which got along by wallowing in debauchery with its prick crammed up its nose

Klaver striva

Cavour Tavina

Scaver Kavina

Okar Triva

The denunciation of language, of sex, of himself goes on and on. Artaud appears a man possessed, lunatic beyond recall. Yet he remains an actor, a painful ham, clowning, mocking himself, spouting his outrage and conscious of his excess, forcing it. With the audience at bay in front of him, he is watching the combustion of his own mind. He wants to drop not words but bombs. There is no end to it, no stopping him, until Gide climbs on stage and throws his arms around the exhausted performer.

From this dream you cannot awake. For it is history, Artaud’s performance, Tête-à-tête, at the Vieux-Colombier theater in January, 1947.1 He died fourteen months later.

In the Sixties Artaud became an even more powerful presence than he had been in 1947, and far beyond the cafés and theaters of Paris. His cultural eclecticism had been astute and prophetic. He had concocted a magic amalgam of theatrical style, occult and esoteric knowledge (from Zen to acupuncture), antiliterary pronouncements, drug cultism, and revolutionary rhetoric without politics. Naturally, the theater felt his impact first.

In his collection of essays and manifestoes, The Theater and Its Double (1938; English translation, 1958). Artaud proclaimed that the theater, mobilized into total spectacle by the director’s commanding imagination and subservient to no literary text, should become as powerful an agent of cultural and emotional change as a plague, or cruelty, or hunger. During the Fifties and Sixties, these (far from new) ideas traveled fast. They played a key role in the articulation of the anti-aesthetic mode ultimately named the “happening.” For it was John Cage’s reading of Artaud (in French, suggested to him by Pierre Boulez before the translation appeared) that provided the impetus for the original multi-media show at Black Mountain College in 1952. Cage persuaded Charles Olson, Robert Rauschenberg, and Merce Cunningham to participate in that remarkable performance.

A few years later, “underground” newspapers began pirating Artaud’s writings. City Lights published an unfortunate anthology of his works. During its exciting formative period the Living Theater company treated Artaud’s books as semi-gospel, as did the directors behind La Mama, Cino, and Dionysus 69. Peter Brook launched the Theater of Cruelty in London in 1964, and his production of Peter Weiss’s Marat/Sade derived from his absorption of certain of Artaud’s ideas. Jerzy Grotowski, founder of the Polish Laboratory Theater, wrote a fine article (Les Temps Modernes, April 1967) denying that Artaud had formulated any method but calling him a “prophet.” By the early Seventies, however, people working in directing and production were turning away from total theater and began to forget Artaud.

Even though they make strange bed-fellows, Artaud’s admirers in the literary world have been more faithful, particularly in France. The established Gallimard publishing house has been bringing out his complete works since 1956—thirteen volumes to date and probably two to go. Marxist and Maoist critics, directing influential reviews like Tel Quel and Change, claimed Artaud as their intellectual property. The unconstituted group known as the structuralists chose two totem figures (after Mallarmé) to flaunt in front of the philistines: Georges Bataille, pornographer-economist, and Artaud, the whirling dervish of literature as self-performance. Foucault, Deleuze, Guattari, and particularly Derrida have accorded Artaud a significant place in their works of cultural psychoanalysis. They have good grounds. For the primary meaning of Artaud’s work reaches beyond theater fashions and literary theory to pose tense questions about the relation of civilized living to madness and acting.

It is appropriate, therefore, that a major collection of Artaud’s writings should appear now with a long essay by Susan Sontag. In these straightforward translations by Helen Weaver, Artaud’s voice is clearly audible, even in the texts that tremble on the threshold between poetry and prose. He needs no amplification.2 The chronological format of the volume, which intersperses all forms of Artaud’s writing including letters, works effectively to support Sontag’s thesis—namely that he produced not a literary oeuvre but a moi, a self. Considering the choices that had to be made, I find the selection excellent and will complain only about three serious omissions: the stunning “Preamble” Artaud wrote in 1946 for his complete works; the bitterly polemical open letters he published in La Révolution Surréaliste in 1925 (one appears here) and two more he wrote in 1946; and some of the essays from The Theater and Its Double. Sontag’s introduction (which originally appeared in The New Yorker three years ago) is the most ambitious piece of thinking on Artaud in English. It constructs several dimensions of significance around him, and I shall come back to it. In all, an important book.


When Artaud arrived in Paris in 1920, aged twenty-three, his family and his doctors had sent him there as part of the treatment for lingering nervous disorders. He had a history of early meningitis, neuralgia, facial spasms, and stuttering. In Marseilles his mother cared for him attentively. During the war the army discharged him after nine months, and he spent several years in rest homes in France and Switzerland. Literature and painting had interested him from an early age. In Paris, he remained under loose medical surveillance.

Ambitious and talented, Artaud threw himself into multiple activities. He wrote intensely poetic texts about inner states of consciousness. Charles Dullin trained him as an actor; later roles came from the Pitoëffs and the films. In 1922 he fell in love with the Rumanian actress Génica Athanasiou. After two seasons of excitement and happiness, they discovered their incompatibility and gradually separated. Génica was the only great love of his life. Through the painter André Masson, Artaud joined the Surrealists and in 1925 took charge of their “Research Bureau” concerned with everybody’s unconscious, the neuroses of culture, and what we would call today the quality of life.

Practically single-handed he wrote and edited the third number of the review La Révolution Surréaliste. For six months his personal insurrection outstripped that of the rest of the group. But by the end of 1926 the Surrealists sacked him after a violent exchange of letters, because, among other things, he refused to follow them into the Communist party. Meanwhile he had published two thin volumes of poetry. Dissatisfied with his film roles, he founded the Alfred Jarry Theater, whose experimental productions usually provoked some form of scandal. Between 1923 and 1928 Artaud was able to develop his talents and keep all his projects moving. He was already on opium and laudanum.

But by 1929 his theater faltered and he was left with a pile of aborted plans. His thinking about the theater was directed into new channels by a trip to Berlin to act in Pabst’s film of The Threepenny Opera, by a performance of Balinese dancers, and by a new interest in Mexican culture. In 1935 he staged and acted in a memorable but (even by his standards) unsatisfactory performance of his own play, The Cenci. The following year he spent nine months in Mexico in pursuit of the rites of a truly primitive culture. The principal product of this second period was neither The Cenci nor the Mexican texts but the lectures and manifestoes collected in The Theater and Its Double.

In 1937, unable to break his long-standing drug habit and behaving in a highly unstable manner, Artaud left for Ireland. He claimed he was returning St. Patrick’s cane, an object he carried around with him in the streets and cafés of Paris. A few months later he came back to France—in a straitjacket. The first five years of his confinement were spent in the most degrading and debilitating of mental hospitals. Then his mother and some friends intervened during the war to have him transferred to a private institution in Rodez in south-central France. Dr. Ferdière, a widely cultured and sympathetic young psychiatrist, gave Artaud electroshock treatments, allowed him considerable freedom, and encouraged him to write and paint again. As Artaud gradually improved, his Paris friends clamored for his release and finally obtained it. He survived nearly two years of postwar Paris.

Partly inspired by the controversy and cultism that swirled around him, Artaud was writing actively again during the last months. Van Gogh, the Man Driven to Suicide by Society, is a frenzied autobiographical document. At the Vieux-Colombier reading in 1947 he unlimbered the savage poetic texts he was producing at the time. His last major work was a program commissioned by the government radio. In a matter of weeks he wrote, rehearsed, and recorded An End to God’s Judgment, an anti-American, scatological, blasphemous scenario of incoherent power. At the last moment the director of the French radio refused permission for its broadcast. Artaud died a month later in March 1948—of cancer according to one diagnosis, according to another from the intestinal effects of laudanum and other drugs.

This steeplechase career calls for several observations. Artaud was a poète maudit, a pariah, only in a limited sense. His nervous condition caused him genuine physical suffering during much of his life and led him to drugs. But socially and artistically he was not only well treated but given special protection. Despite his metaphysical refusal to acknowledge natural birth as his origin, he remained attached to and attentive to his mother. Elegant patronesses supported his theatrical projects. Established publishers accepted and even sought out his most idiosyncratic works. Through an uncle, he had a special entry into theater and film circles in Paris. Friends raised money to send him to Mexico, and the Mexican government itself sponsored his trip to the Tarahumara region. The years of confinement from 1937 to 1943 must have been frightful. Then he was transferred to Rodez by special dispensation and finally freed. Artaud’s myth of himself, mediated through van Gogh, as “driven to suicide by society” will not pass muster. He was a favorite son from the start.

  1. 1

    For this mosaic version I have borrowed phrases from published accounts by Jean Follain, Maurice Saillet, Alain Jouffroy, André Gide, and Artaud himself.

  2. 2

    Weaver stumbles seriously and unaccountably in spots. She subdues Je veux sentir bander mon âme into pseudo-Whitmanesque patter: “I want to feel my soul stretch.” The wonderfully expressive word, la hargne, comes out as “anvil.”

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