Antonin Artaud Part II

Yesterday we left Artaud urging the true Surrealist to amputate the mind! In fact Artaud takes this directive further and claims that the ‘surrealist’ has judged the mind and in doing so he has discarded with the “my” and “only mine” aspect,  thereby making him – emotionless and dreading the moment in which he will find himself with a critical mind. So free of the critical mind, albeit it be for a little while, Artaud talks of his big three.  The ‘metaphysical, the ‘plague’ and ‘cruelty.

Based on these core three concepts Artaud created his theory of “THE THEATRE AND ITS DOUBLE”. He writes to his friend Jean Paulhan on the 25th of January 1936, telling him briefly of his theory and his desire to transform it into a book with the same title. The essence or underlying principle is that

“…For if the theatre doubles life, life doubles true theatre, but it has nothing to do with Oscar Wilde’s ideas on Art. This title will comply with all the doubles of the theatre which I thought I’d found for so many years : metaphysics, plague, cruelty…”

The ‘metaphysical’ in Artaud’s theatre called or rather demanded a bond, a linkage between audience and actor, spectator and spectacle, the observer and the play. It was a need or rather a desire to make the audience jump-up and take notice. To feel, to emote and to question.

Once the audience becomes engaged, the next step for Artaud was the  ‘plague’. Where the observer becomes participant.  By experiencing an all engulfing energy that covers the innocent onlooker and transforms him/her through their own individual experience. 

Finally Artaud ends with his concept of ‘cruelty’. For him it is a mode which shocks the awareness into a universe where nothing is understood and everything is uncanny. Artaud takes away all that is familiar and wishes to place you in a void, where one is confronted by the strange and unfamiliar – what is our coping mechanism, and do you sink or swim?

It is these three basic principles,  the metaphysical, the plague and most importantly cruelty, as explained and defined by Artaud, that went on to cumulate and give birth to the “THEATRE OF CRUELTY”. Artaud himself repeated that his definition and usage for ‘cruelty’ was a synonym for life, the vigour that one feels in existing, the chaos of that emotion, where good flows over society and evil permeates within it. Artaud saw Theatre as a performance of ritual, his aim was to redefine the steps as well as the purpose of that ritual. From entertainment and bliss, to jarring and discordant. He wanted Theatre to be an immersive experience for the audience, as well as an unsettling one.

How did he achieve this? Through very physical means. He did away with wings, and other physical structures that provided a veil or barrier between the stage, its performers and her audience. In essence he rejected the Proscenium theatre. Musical instruments were replaced by everyday objects creating, what at best, can be termed as noise. There were no set dialogues or plot, no stage direction and/or presentational styles that were adhered to. Everything was that moment, that interaction, that ephemeral communication that Artaud wanted the performer and observer to have, which then created an action, reaction or creation. And, that, for Artaud was where the true experience of the Theatre occurred.

Artaud believed that the stage was a concrete physical space with a language as physical as its being. How to unravel that space and use it to its maximum effect within the theoretical sign posts Artaud had delineated in his writing, did not translate well into action, according to me. They faltered as his new structures were not strong enough to break societal structures embedded in the members of his audience. Today as we look back we see his influence on Dada, performance art, and postmodern art to name a few. 

In the end, his impact on our modern imagination, and in particular the Theatre of Cruelty, is a significant one. From Dada to Postmodernism, they all can attribute their roots to Artaud’s desire for the spectacle and the spectator to be one, to be jarred and to participate.

Artaud may have left his physical body on March 4th 1948, but his formless influence on ‘Theatre’ is a haunting one. For some he is a puzzle, a mystery, and for others he was a multifaceted being. For me Artaud presents a lost genius, a dramatist, a poet and painter, Artaud was a wanderer and a seeker. Not of any religion, sect or mystic, but of heaven and hell and all the versions in-between.

artaud antoninartaud


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