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

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. 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 …

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