Artaud in acts

by on 週三, 22 六月 2011 評論

This article is part of the special issue of Renlai#84 dedicated to theatre in Taiwan. Also watch an interview of director Zheng Zhizong.

Act I: The challenge Artaud

On the 6th of April 1933, Antonin Artaud (1896 -1948) gave a lecture at the University of La Sorbonne. This lecture, entitled “Le Theatre et la Peste”, would become an important chapter of his main essay on theater theory (Le Theatre et son Double) and was a total experience for the audience, the majority of whom left before the end, laughing and booing Artaud. He had started his speech in an academic way, explaining first to his audience that many masterpieces of art and marvelous plays emerged during the Great Plague in Europe; men whipped by the fear of death would search for immortality and surpass themselves with desperate creativity and quest for the sublime. The writer Anaïs Nin who attended the lecture described it in her diary:

“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. To illustrate his conference, he was acting out an agony. "La Peste" in French is so much more terrible than "The Plague" in English. But no word could describe what Artaud acted on the platform of the Sorbonne... 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 crucifiction.” (Anaïs Nin, The Diary, 1931-1934, New York, 1966)

Later on, Artaud explained to Nin that he wanted to awaken his audience, he wanted to make them understand that they were already dead, that the agony he was acting was not only his but that of every living person. In 1933, in front of an audience of scholars, students, curious intellectuals, Artaud came up against their misunderstanding of his meaning, his art and his very own self. In fact, although he was not ignored and unknown at this time, his fame and influence seem to have really developed after his death and he became unavoidable in the theatrical experiences of the sixties in France and in Europe in general. When the English theater director Peter Brook created his experimental theater company in 1964 outside the Royal Shakespeare Company, he devoted it to the Theater of Cruelty, insisting himself on recalling that “they were all the children of Artaud”.

So, where are the children of Artaud now? And what are they up to? To introduce Artaud, to read his work, to listen to his voice seem more relevant than ever in the context of the time being when art is fully marketed and omnipresent on TV, on the Internet and in the streets. Something similar is also at stake in the importance of theater per se. Some think that cinema can replace theater or that theater is too elitist and too intellectual. But real theater, “pure theater” as Artaud would say, is nothing but life; on stage, a gesture can never be repeated the same because it is live and because of that special link with the spectator who experiences the action simultaneously. Theater, like dance is part of the most primitive and intuitive living arts and this is precisely what Artaud advocated in the radicalism and extremism that characterized his life and his work.

Antonin Artaud bequeathed a prolific written work composed of poems, essays, letters and a play but also drawings, paintings and recordings.  Artaud might not seem easy to read or to approach and he can even be strongly disturbing. But this is also precisely why we should want to know about him, why we should reach towards his work, because he challenges our certainties and our subjective markers, he puts us in contact with the “danger zone”.

Act II: Life and death, beauty and pain

02-Antonin-Artaud-1926-First of all, the story of his life was at the same time tragic and dazzling with pain. Born in 1896 in Marseille, he died from cancer in 1948 in Paris at the age of 51 years old. He spent almost 9 years of his life in several asylums from which he was released in 1946. In the last asylum, he received 58 sessions of electroshock treatment which made him lose all his teeth; at his exit from the hospital, he looked like an old man. If one compares two photos of him from his prime youth and from his last years, the contrast is even more striking between the beauty of the young actor who could embody the lover in romantic movies and the wizened man with the wrinkled forehead, the twisted hands and the toothless mouth… It is notorious that Artaud had several mental problems even since his childhood; he also abused drugs either in order to “cure” himself (ease his pain) or to experiment with shamanic journeys. Artaud always had an ambiguous relation to his own “state” as he would both claim to be conscious of the potential given to him by his “mental illness” while he was also always protesting against the treatments he received at the asylums.

So, the young Artaud who came to Paris in 1920 wanted to be a poet at first. He also knew how to draw and about critiquing art. He was outstandingly handsome and also wished to become an actor. He published his first collection of poems in 1923. At the same time, he joined different theater companies and acted in several movies, one of which was Carl Theodor Dreyer's The Passion of Joan of Arc. He also wrote the scenario for the first Surrealist film, The Seashell and the Clergyman, directed by Germaine Dulac.

Meanwhile, Artaud was excluded from the Surrealist group in 1926 after publishing his first manifesto on theater which gave the premises of his theater theories.  He affirmed then that theater must be a dangerous act from which neither actors nor spectators should come back intact. Together with two other French writers, he created the Theatre Alfred-Jarry which marked the first important step in Artaud’s career and development on stage.  He continued writing several essays on theater and in 1932, he published his first manifesto on Theater of Cruelty which targeted “the magic sources of a sacred theater, the theater of a poetic, musical and plastic use of space…”

In 1938, his collection of texts on theater was published: The Theatre and Its Double (Le Théâtre et son Double).

Artaud travelled, he discovered Mexico in 1936 where he spent one month in the Sierra with the Tarahamura Indians and was initiated to their shamanic rites.  In 1937, as he returned from a stormy trip to Ireland where he got jailed for vagrancy, he was committed without consultation in a psychiatric institution near Rouen. He then spent 9 years in 4 different asylums.  He was finally released in 1946 and warmly welcomed by his friends in Paris who organized sales by auction for his profit. Artaud wrote and published numerous texts, he participated in projects such as radio shows and gave his last lectures in the theater of le Vieux Colombier in Paris where, once again, he puzzled his audience by telling in his unique style the story of his life in the asylums and his struggle with evil forces…  A writer present that day would later comment that “when he appeared on the stage […], when he started to declaim with his hoarse voice, interrupted by tragic sobs and stutters, his poems barely audible – we felt dragged in the danger zone…” (Justin Saget (aka Maurice Saillet), Combat, 24 January 1947).

Act III: Cruelty

artaud_vieuxThus, Artaud’s name is often associated to violence, scandal and all sorts of clashes with his peers, as for example his violent polemics with the surrealists, or his provocative statements such as “All writing is pigshit” and “I write for the illiterate”. Artaud seems to question the completeness and the finishing of artwork, he explores all forms of writings and prefers the ones similar to the burst of the speech, a speech then similar to a cry, which converges to create the dissonance necessary to the act of cruelty. In 1947, he recorded for the French radio a show entitled “To Have Done with the Judgement of God” (Pour en finir avec le jugement de dieu) which was censored before its first broadcast: even without understanding French, one can already feel the organic explosion of Artaud’s voice. This is more than a scansion, this is also an eruption of cries, screams and all sort of noises that the body can produce, one is not even sure anymore if it is Artaud uttering this voice or this voice filling up Artaud.

So the theater of cruelty could be first of all about surpassing the anatomic limits of the body, create on stage a “hiatus”, a new human body which would not be anymore only the vessel of language but a language itself. Indeed, Artaud reproaches to the traditional theater of his time its imprisonment in a fossilized language which becomes then only an empty form of a meaningless representation. When Artaud sees some Balinese theater in 1931, he receives a real aesthetic shock, for him, the Balinese theater represents the purest expression of a physical language: “In this theater all creation comes from the stage, finds its expression and its origins alike in a secret psychic impulse which is Speech before words” (The Theatre and Its Double). Then, Artaud formulates his project of an art, a poetry and a theory of theater that would shatter the false reality by expressing on stage the mystery and the sacredness of existence. “The theater of cruelty is not a representation. It is life itself, in the extent to which life is unrepresentable. Life is the nonrepresentable origin of representation. ‘I have therefore said “cruelty” as I might have said “life”’ (The Theater and Its Double).

Artaud finds the essence of life and the expression of the living in the transgression, the experimentation and somehow also the destruction of life itself. Artaud conjugates at the same time beauty and ugliness, madness and genius. In fact, he is dually a disturbed and a disturbing writer; in the first place because of his own madness which was never clearly diagnosed by his psychiatrists, in the second place because despite the destabilizing form of his thinking, we can still relate to his work and his views; would it be possible that no artist, poet, performer or director could find a resonance or a call in his provocative ideas? Without exaggeration, one could say that Artaud has set a milestone in the theories of theater and its performance; whether we like it or not, whether we know it or not, we are all Artaud’s children.

Article also available in Chinese


“To Have Done with the Judgement of God” (Pour en finir avec le jugement de dieu) is available at the Pacifica Radio Archives

 

 

 

Cerise Phiv (張俐紫)

Former Managing Editor of eRenlai.com

前e人籟執行主編

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