Antonin Artaud

From New World Encyclopedia

Antoine Marie Joseph Artaud, better known as Antonin Artaud (September 4, 1896 - March 4, 1948) was a French playwright, poet, actor, and director. Antonin is a diminutive form of Antoine (little Anthony), and was among a long list of names which Artaud went by throughout his life. He is best known for his theory of theater expressed in his book, The Theater and its Double, in which he advocates what he calls a "Theater of Cruelty," by which he means that theater needs not to be bound by text or tradition, but to constantly re-invent and re-invigorate dramatic performance. Artaud's goal was to free the spirit (l'esprit) from what he saw as the domination of culture.

Biographical information

Artaud's parents were partly Levantine-Greek, and he was much affected by this background. Although his mother had many children, only Antoine and two siblings survived infancy.

At the age of four, Artaud had a severe attack of meningitis. The virus gave Artaud a nervous, irritable temperament throughout adolescence. He also suffered from neuralgia, stammering, and severe bouts of depression. As a teenager, he was stabbed in the back by a pimp for apparently no reason, similar to the experience of his fellow surrealist playwright Samuel Beckett.

Artaud's parents arranged a long series of sanatorium stays for their disruptive son, which were both prolonged and expensive. They lasted five years, with a break of two months, June and July 1916, when Artaud was conscripted into the army. He was discharged due to his self-induced habit of sleepwalking. During Artaud's "rest cures" at the sanatorium, he read Arthur Rimbaud, Charles Baudelaire, and Poe. In May 1919, the director of the sanatorium, Dr. Dardel, prescribed opium for Artaud, precipitating a lifelong addiction to that and other drugs.


In March 1920, Artaud moved to Paris. At the age of 27, Artaud sent some of his poems to the journal La Nouvelle Revue Française; they were rejected, but the editor wrote back seeking to understand him, and a relationship in letters was born. This epistolary work, Correspondence avec Jacques Rivière, is Artaud's first major publication. In November 1926, Artaud was expelled from the surrealist movement, in which he had participated briefly, for refusing to renounce theater as a bourgeois commercial art form, and for refusing to join the French Communist Party along with the other Surrealists.

Artaud cultivated a great interest in cinema as well, writing the scenario for the first surrealist film, The Seashell and the Clergyman, directed by Germaine Dulac. He also acted in Abel Gance's movie Napoleon, in the role of Jean-Paul Marat, and in Carl Theodor Dreyer's The Passion of Joan of Arc as the monk, Jean Massieu. Artaud's portrayal of Marat used exaggerated movements to convey the fire of Marat's personality.

In 1926-1928, Artaud ran the Alfred Jarry Theater, along with Roger Vitrac. He produced and directed original works by Vitrac, as well as pieces by Paul Claudel and August Strindberg. The Theater was extremely short-lived, but was attended by an enormous range of European artists, including Andre Gide, Arthur Adamov, and Paul Valery.

The 1930s saw the publication of The Theatre and Its Double, his most well-known work. This book contained the two manifestos of the Theater of Cruelty, essential texts in understanding his artistic project. 1935 saw the premiere of Artaud's production of his adaptation of Percy Bysshe Shelley's The Cenci. The Cenci was a commercial failure, although it employed innovative sound effects and had a set designed by Balthus.

After the production failed, Artaud received a grant to travel to Mexico, where he gave lectures on the decadence of Western civilization. He also studied the Tarahumaran Indians, experimenting with the drug peyote, recording his experiences which were later released in a volume called, Voyage to the Land of the Tarahumara. The content of this work closely resembles the poems of his later days, concerned primarily with the supernatural. Artaud also recorded his horrific withdrawal from heroin upon entering the land of the Tarahumaras; having deserted his last supply of the drug at a mountainside, he literally had to be hoisted onto his horse, and soon resembled, in his words, "a giant, inflamed gum." Having beaten his addiction, however, Artaud would return to opiates later in life.

In 1937, Artaud returned to France, where he obtained a walking stick of knotted wood that he believed belonged to St. Patrick, but also Lucifer and Jesus of Nazareth. Artaud traveled to Ireland in an effort to return the staff, though he spoke very little English and was unable to make himself understood. The majority of his trip was spent in a hotel room for which he was unable to pay. On his return trip, Artaud believed he was being attacked by two crew members and retaliated; he was arrested and put in a straitjacket.

Final years

The return from Ireland brought about the beginning of the final phase of Artaud's life, which was spent in different asylums. When France was occupied by the Nazis, friends of Artaud had him transferred to the psychiatric hospital in Rodez, well inside Vichy territory, where he was put under the charge of Dr. Gaston Ferdière. Ferdière began administering electroshock treatments to eliminate Artaud's symptoms, which included various delusions and odd physical tics. The doctor believed that Artaud's habits of crafting magic spells, creating astrology charts, and drawing disturbing images, were symptoms of mental illness. The electro-shock treatments have created much controversy, although it was during these treatments—in conjunction with Ferdière's art therapy—that Artaud began writing and drawing again, after a long dormant period. In 1946, Ferdière released Artaud to his friends, who placed him in the psychiatric clinic at Ivry-sur-Seine.

Artaud was encouraged to write by his friends, and interest in his work was rekindled. He recorded Pour en Finir avec le Jugement de dieu (To Have Done With the Judgment of God) between November 22 and November 29, 1947. This work was shelved by Wladimir Porché, the director of the French Radio, the day before its scheduled airing on February 2, 1948. The performance was prohibited partially as a result of its scatological, anti-American, and anti-religious references and pronouncements, but also because of its general randomness, with a cacophony of xylophonic sounds mixed with various percussive elements. While remaining true to his Theater of Cruelty and reducing powerful emotions and expressions into audible sounds, Artaud had utilized various, somewhat alarming, cries, screams, grunts, onomatopoeia, and glossolalia.

As a result, Fernand Pouey, the director of dramatic and literary broadcasts for French radio, assembled a panel to consider the broadcast of Pour en Finir avec le Jugement de Dieu. Among the approximately fifty artists, writers, musicians, and journalists present for a private listening on February 5, 1948, were Roger Vitrac, Jean Cocteau, Paul Eluard, Raymond Queneau, Jean-Louis Barrault, René Clair, Jean Paulhan, Maurice Nadeau, Georges Auric, Claude Mauriac, and René Char. Although the panel almost unanimously voted in favor of Artuad's work, Porché refused to allow the broadcast. Pouey left his job and the show was not heard again until February 23, 1948, at a private performance at the Théâtre Washington.

In January 1948, Artaud was diagnosed with intestinal cancer. He died shortly afterwards on March 4, 1948. Artaud died alone in his pavilion, seated at the foot of his bed, holding his shoe. It was suspected that he died from a lethal dose of the drug chloral, although whether or not he was aware of its lethality is unknown. Thirty years later, French radio finally broadcast the performance of Pour en Finir avec le Jugement de Dieu.

Artaud's Theatre of Cruelty

In his book The Theatre and Its Double, Artaud expressed his admiration for Eastern forms of theater, particularly the Balinese. He admired Eastern theater because of the codified, highly ritualized physicality of Balinese dance performance, and advocated what he called a "Theatre of Cruelty." By cruelty, he meant not sadism or causing pain, but rather a violent, physical determination to shatter the false reality which, he said, lies like a shroud over perceptions. He believed that text had been a tyrant over meaning, and advocated, instead, for a theater made up of a unique language, halfway between thought and gesture. He also believed that sexual activity was harmful to the creative process and should be avoided if one hoped to achieve purity in one's art.

Antonin Artaud described the spiritual in physical terms, and believed that all expression is physical expression in space. He advocated a system of "social therapy" through theater.

The Theatre of Cruelty has been created in order to restore to the theatre a passionate and convulsive conception of life, and it is in this sense of violent rigour and extreme condensation of scenic elements that the cruelty on which it is based must be understood. This cruelty, which will be bloody when necessary but not systematically so, can thus be identified with a kind of severe moral purity which is not afraid to pay life the price it must be paid (Antonin Artaud, The Theatre of Cruelty).

An outline of Artaud's Theatre of Cruelty

  1. Artaud had a pessimistic view of the world, but he believed that theater could affect change.
  2. Remove the audience from the everyday, and use symbolic objects to work with the emotions and soul of the audience.
  3. Attack the audience's senses through an array of technical methods and acting so that the audience would be brought out of their desensitization and have to confront themselves.
  4. Use the grotesque, the ugly, and pain in order to confront an audience.

Philosophical views

Imagination, to Artaud, was reality; dreams, thoughts, and delusions are no less real than the "outside" world. Reality appears to be a consensus, the same consensus the audience accepts when they enter a theater to see a play and, for a time, pretend that what they are seeing is real.

His later work presents his rejection of the idea of the spirit as separate from the body. His poems glorify flesh and excretion, but sex was always a horror for him. Incest, cannibalism, and deicide were instead normal urges, proved by the activities of tribal cultures untainted by civilized Western man. Civilization was so pernicious that Europe was pulling once proud tribal nations like Mexico down with it into decadence and death, poisoning the innocence of the flesh with the evil of a God separate from it. The inevitable end result would be self-destruction and mental slavery, the two evils Artaud opposed in his own life at great pain and imprisonment, as they could only be opposed personally and not on behalf of a collective or movement. He thus rejected politics and Marxism wholeheartedly, which led to his expulsion by the Surrealists, who had begun to embrace it.

Like Nietzsche and Buddha, Artaud saw suffering as essential to existence, and the price one must pay to become a complete human being. He thus rejected all utopias as inevitable dystopias.


Theatrical practitioner Peter Brook took inspiration from Artaud's "Theatre of Cruelty" in a series of workshops that lead up to his well-known production of Marat/Sade.

The Living Theater was also heavily influenced by him.

ISBN links support NWE through referral fees

  • Leach, Robert. Makers of Modern Theatre: An Introduction. London: Routledge, 2004. ISBN 0415312418
  • Plunka, Gene A., ed. Antonin Artaud and the Modern Theater. Farleigh Dickinson University Press, 1994. ISBN 0838635504
  • Scheer, Edwin, ed. Antonin Artaud: A Critical Reader. London: Routledge, 2004. ISBN 0415282543

External links

All links retrieved July 31, 2023.


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