Antonin Artaud

Interview with Ros Murray

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Dr. Ros Murray has held research posts at the University of Manchester and Queen Mary University of London, where she taught in French and film, before starting at King’s College, London as a lecturer in 2016.

Ros’ research interests lie broadly in 20th and 21st century visual culture, critical theory, queer theory and feminism. She works on avant-garde, experimental and documentary film and video. Her book Antonin Artaud: The Scum of the Soul explored how Artaud’s work combined different media (theatre, film, drawings, notebooks and manifestos) in relation to the body.

Email ros.murray@kcl.ac.uk 

Part 1: Artaud’s Theatre: Immediate and Unrepeatable

Connections to the IB, GCSE, AS and A level specifications

  • Significant moments in the development of theory and practice
  • Theatrical style
  • Innovations

Antonin Artaud is one of the great visionaries of the theatre. Born in France in 1896 his life was turbulent to say the least. Very little of his theatre work was ever produced in his lifetime but ideas continue to be influential. He was an outcast and was institutionalised after suffering with psychiatric problems for most of his life. He died in 1948 leaving a huge array of texts and artefacts that have been a major influence on western thought.

PC: What part of his work have you been particularly interested in?

RM: It is the influence he has on critical theory: people like Deleuze, Foucault and Barthes. Much of this quite complex theory was all based on the ideas of Artaud, which are the opposite: very anti-intellectual and much more accessible. In terms of his actual work: he is the person who has most questioned what representation is in the twentieth century. That is a huge claim to make but it seemed the problem that language poses for anyone writing or performing is something that he really grasped in its essence. For example, how can we express something without words whilst using words because most of what he produced was text. There is a paradox (self-contradictory statement) there which is really interesting.

PC: Is there one of his texts that stands out for you that highlights that paradox?

RM: Two things really: his very early texts and his last texts. In the early texts he is grappling with the problem of how to express himself in words which aren’t adequate. It is all there in three early texts: The Nerve Scales, The Umblicous Of Limbo and the correspondence he had with Jacques Rivière who was the editor of the Nouvelle Revue Française. “I can’t express my thoughts” was the gist of his early texts. Then his last texts that he made which were, I don’t know if you can really call them texts, they are more objects. He produced 406 notebooks in the last years of his life but he also did all these drawings and spells. What I was really interested in there was that it was just a dot on the paper. It would be just a tiny dot but it would come after a kind of wild gesture. He would do all these magical spells, throw his arms about and then land on the page. He also made spells that have holes in them because he’d burn them with a cigarette. I was interested in looking at the ways in which he tried to record gestures I suppose. The whole difficulty was that he wanted to produce something that could only happen once, a performance based on a magical gesture, but it had to be recorded somewhere. The point in which it was recorded was when it became inert and dead. Back to that paradox: the mark on the page was the only way that gesture could be communicated.

PC: The idea that something could or should only be performed once is fascinating. Does that come up in The Theatre of Cruelty?

RM: Yes, in The Theatre and its Double, where he writes: “The theatre is the only place in the world where a gesture, once made, can never be made in the same way twice.” (The Theatre and its Double, p. 25, trans. Mary Caroline Richards, Grove Press, 1994) He emphasizes this idea that it’s immediate, it is not something that ever can be repeated.

Summary

  • Artaud is the person who has most questioned what representation is in the twentieth century.
  • “The theatre is the only place in the world where a gesture, once made, can never be made in the same way twice.” Artaud

Part 2: Artaud’s Encounter with the Surrealists: Artaud vs. Breton

Connections to the IB, GCSE, AS and A level specifications

  • Theatrical style
  • Artistic intentions
  • Social, cultural, political and historical context
  • Significant moments in the development of theory and practice
  • Influence
  • Key collaborations with other artists

PC: Artaud had a brief time with the Surrealists. Did he start a theatre with them?

RM: Yes, the Théâtre Alfred Jarry with Roger Vitrac and Robert Aron in 1926. The theatre was one of the things that caused him to fall out with the Surrealists. He got involved with the Surrealists in 1924. André Breton was the mastermind behind Surrealism; he was quite an authoritative figure; he was always kicking people out of the movement. Breton started getting much more interested in Communism and Marxism. Artaud was not into politics at all, writing things like: ‘I shit on Marxism.’ He wrote that he was against any kind of ideology, which meant that he was against ideas basically. He didn’t think Surrealism should be politicised in terms of aligning itself with political movements or ideas. At the same time, Breton was becoming very anti-theatre because he saw theatre as being bourgeois and anti-revolutionary. Artaud was trying to get funding from various people for his theatre projects and Breton didn’t like that because he thought that it was too bourgeois. Breton was also really interested in Freud but Artaud was absolutely anti-psychoanalysis, anti-anything remotely Freudian. It is interesting that in public they fell out and wrote texts against each other but actually they remained friends. Breton was quite key in getting Artaud moved to Rodez. He helped him to get out of the psychiatric hospital and raised money for him at the end of his life. Actually, I think what was really happening was that Breton was afraid Artaud went too far. The surrealists were more about ideas and about this kind of disruption to a certain extent but if someone was actually mad and dangerous they couldn’t handle it.

PC: Did they see Artaud as dangerous?

RM: Yes. There is an interview with Breton where he talks, in retrospect, about Artaud where he talks about language “glistening”, but he says with Artaud it was glistening like a weapon. Breton contrasts Artaud’s vision to Aragon’s, who was a Surrealist poet, who wrote about a “wave of dreams”, whereas Artaud was talking about something much more violent.

PC: Would you say his ideas were violent? I know the word cruelty is key but doesn’t necessarily have a simple meaning for Artaud. What would you say he meant by cruelty?

RM: It is difficult to grasp. The first thing that you could say is that it is not about gratuitous violence as you might think about it normally. He used the expression “the metaphysics of cruelty”. It is really about disrupting. It is also to do with a very physical engagement. Not necessarily a physical violence. You can think about it in terms of cruelty to language: to concepts, to ideas, to representation. By cruelty he means life: life itself. Life in his theatre writings is absolutely not everyday life as we live it. Life is a threshold between reality and the dark forces behind it. The real essence of life is the energy that exists at this threshold.

PC: Would he explore that threshold through the body and through bodily experience?

RM: Yes. The other way to think about the threshold actually is to think about his interest in magic. Again this kind of magic that is a physical force behind things, that makes things happen. He talks about acting but not in the terms of acting a role. In French there are two words: there is ‘jouer’ which is act, what you would normally use to say ‘act a role’; then there is another one, which is ‘agir’ – it means a kind of physical act, an act in its very basic sense. He always uses the word ‘agir’ rather than ‘jouer’. He talks about cruelty as something that acts (agir) not in the sense that it performs a role (jouer) but that it actually physically acts. It acts in the same way that magic would act upon something, it would change something, it would transform something.

PC: The term ‘act’ or ‘action’ seems to be one that comes up for lots of practitioners as an important one to define and differentiate.

Summary

  • Artaud founded the Théâtre Alfred Jarry with Roger Vitrac and Robert Aron in 1926. André Breton came to dislike the theatre.
  • Artaud was not into politics at all.
  • Artaud was absolutely anti-psychoanalysis, anti-anything remotely Freudian.
  • Breton thought Artaud was dangerous and that his language glistened like a weapon.
  • Theatre of Cruelty was not about gratuitous violence as you might think about it normally.
  • Cruelty is really about disrupting.
  • Cruelty meant a physical engagement. A cruelty to language: to concepts, to ideas, to representation.
  • Artaud talks about cruelty as something that acts (agir) not in the sense that it performs a role (jouer) but that it actually physically acts.

Part 3: Artaud’s Vision: Balinese Dancers and the Mexican Tarahumaras

Connections to the IB, GCSE, AS and A level specifications

  • Theatrical style
  • Social, cultural, political and historical context
  • Significant moments in the development of theory and practice
  • Influence
  • Key collaborations with other artists
  • Use of theatrical conventions

PC: Artaud had some very influential experiences: visiting the Tarahumaras tribe in Mexico and seeing the touring Balinese dancers. When did those experiences happen and what inspired him from those experiences?

RM: It is interesting, it could be said that it is impossible to put his proposals into practice, but his ideas were based on something he actually saw: the Balinese dancers and the Tarahumaras. That was what he was trying to write about. In a sense it did exist, but it was very much in the vision of what he was seeing.

PC: When did he see the Balinese dancers because that experience has been criticised for not being particularly representative of Balinese culture.

RM: Yes, the context in which he saw it is obviously significant. He saw the Balinese dance performances as part of the colonial exhibition he saw in Paris in the 1930s. There is an argument that much of French and European literature in the 19th and early 20th century romanticised what they call the ‘Orient’. They explored the white European self through the vision of the ‘other’ (see Edward Saïd, Orientalism). That is relevant to Artaud: all texts that he approached, he approached them through his own perspective.

PC: He was quite open and honest about that though. He wasn’t necessarily attempting to define or represent their culture through his output. It is more that he was using his experiences to inform his ideas about representation itself.

RM: Yes nobody really knows what actually happened with the Tarahumaras because it is not properly documented but he did go to Mexico, we know that much. The writing is about the Tarahumaras: he talks about going off with this tribe and doing the peyote ritual and all these other crazy things that happened. Several people have written that he didn’t actually go at all but it was all in his imagination because he was going a bit mad at this point. I think there are some anthropologists that have found evidence of Artaud having had contact with the tribe. He spent time performing these rituals with the Tarahumaras and they came to inform his theatre.

PC: Is there something specific in the peyote ritual experience that informed his ideas?

RM: The peyote is a hallucinogenic drug like acid but it is a natural herb. The ritual is based on a dance. He talks about the Tarahumaras’ relationship with the landscape and the countryside and how the rocks were speaking.

PC: You can see these kind of dances in videos online. It is a good way of seeing what Artaud saw without fully experiencing it! It is repetitive, it is rhythmic. Rhythms of the body and the voice.

RM: Have you heard Artaud’s recordings on ubuweb.com? http://www.ubu.com/sound/artaud.html

Summary

  • Artaud did experience the kind of theatre that he wrote about when he saw the Balinese dancers and participated in the peyote ritual with the Tarahumaras.
  • All texts that Artaud approached, he approached them through his own perspective.
  • The peyote ritual is based on a dance.

Part 4: The ‘Madness’ of Antonin Artaud

Connections to the IB, GCSE, AS and A level specifications

  • Theatrical style
  • Social, cultural, political and historical context
  • Significant moments in the development of theory and practice
  • Influence

PC: How did Artaud’s mental health shape his work?

RM: I suppose one of the first things that people know about Artaud is that he was ‘mad’ in inverted commas. It is quite difficult to separate Artaud’s life from his work in the same way that you are often expected to do with other writers. That is completely impossible with Artaud because he only really wrote about his own experience and his own life. He wrote a lot about madness.

PC: What experiences did his mental health lead him to have?

RM: It is quite sad when you’re working on Artaud because there is a sense in which a lot of the madness is glorified. People see him as this tortured poet. But when you actually look at the texts it is quite horrific: all the stuff that he went through. Lots of his work was lost.

PC: Do you mean the things he went through in life or specifically in the treatment of mental health?

RM: It is both really. I think he had something like 52 electro-shock treatments. There were a few years when he was completely lost. I don’t know if you know how it all happened? He went to Ireland in 1937, he was having delusions and he got deported back to France where he was put in various different psychiatric institutions.

PC: Yes, didn’t he get shackled on the boat home? Do records exist of that moment in his letters?

RM: There are all kinds of letters and medical reports that exist from when he arrived in France, doctors writing about his state. He was sending people spells in France from Ireland, these quite disturbing spells, all with holes burnt in them. He got arrested and deported and had to be restrained on the boat back to France. I think there are some records in the foreign embassy. Then there are just the medical reports of when he arrived in France. His mother, for several months was looking for him and then she found him in a psychiatric hospital. He was then moved around various different institutions around Paris before he got sent to Rodez, outside occupied France. Several of his Parisian friends, some of the surrealists, got together and arranged for him to be moved to another place – outside occupied France. They thought everybody would end up in concentration camps. There is no work from that period. There is a gap from when the spells are sent from Ireland to the first work that he does in Rodez, which, interestingly, are translations of Lewis Carroll. Which is funny because he didn’t speak any English so he did translations that are actually rewritings of the French translation of Lewis Carroll. They are of just one chapter from Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland. That is where glossolalia (made-up language) first appear.

PC: Is that published in English?

RM: I think it is just in French. It is in the chapter of Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland when there is the conversation between Humpty Dumpty and Alice: she is questioning him about the meaning of language and he makes words up. It is at that point when he starts going into the glossolalia. The end of Artaud’s version is the end of the chapter which is where Humpty Dumpty falls off the wall and shatters into a thousand pieces. In Lewis Carroll he gets put back together again but in Artaud’s he is destroyed.

PC: The visit to Ireland was a significant moment in his life. Would you say arriving in Rodez was a significant moment? Were there others?

RM: Yes arriving in Rodez was when he first began writing again including those versions of Lewis Carroll. He started doing these big, he called them Dessins écrits, which is written drawings: drawings with text on it. But going back to his early life: his younger sister died when he was a child and that comes back up again in his last text. He keeps evoking the ghost of this younger sister who died in strange circumstances, he says she was strangled by the nurse but he was quite delusional at this point so you don’t know… The electro-shock treatment was very significant because he writes about having died under electro-shock; he writes about himself in the past tense: “Antonin Artaud is dead – he died on this date under electro-shock treatment.” He then invents new names for himself. Obviously leaving Rodez is a really significant moment for him. He spent half of his life in psychiatric institutions and then he lived in what you might call a halfway house, in Ivry. It was still an institution but he was able to come and go as he pleased.

PC: Was that when he was writing his last texts?

RM: Yes. Then he started doing lots of portraits of his friends. The idea was that he was going to sell these portraits to make a living but he made these pictures so horrible that hardly anybody bought them. People, these society ladies, describe seeing their portrait as if they had seen themselves dead.

Summary

  • It is impossible to separate Artaud’s life from his work. 
  • Artaud wrote a lot about madness.
  • Artaud had something like 52 electro-shock treatments.
  • Artaud went to Ireland in 1937, he was having delusions and he got deported back to France where he was put in various different psychiatric institutions.
  • Artaud’s first piece of writing after arriving in Rodez is a version of a chapter of Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland when there is the conversation between Humpty Dumpty and Alice.
  • Artaud’s younger sister died when he was a child and that comes back up again in his last text.

Part 5: Artaud and the Plague: Body, Breath and Brain

Connections to the IB, GCSE, AS and A level specifications

  • Theatrical style
  • Methods of creating, developing, rehearsing and performing
  • Artistic intentions
  • Theatrical purpose
  • Influence
  • The relationship between actor and audience in theory and practice

PC: If Artaud’s work is so connected to his life and experience how can someone create something Artaudian?

RM: It should definitely be rooted in the body. They can think about how they can use their body, their own experience of their body, to express something. Not necessarily in words. The way that he writes about breath is possibly a good starting point for putting Artaud into practice. In The Theatre and the Plague he is interested in the plague because the two organs that the plague has its effect on are organs that you can consciously manipulate: the brain and the lungs. He says that you can control your thoughts and you can also control your breathing. Playing with those two, particularly the breath, you don’t want to hyper-ventilate, but thinking about using things that you would think of as being bodily functions that are somehow automatic and disrupting them in some way. And doing that with language as well.

PC: Disrupting language?

RM: Using glossolalia, improvising around shouting and making noises. Starting with a sentence and undo it.

PC: Understanding how language emerges and develops in young children may be interesting to look at. Students could reverse that process when working on a text. Finding how the simplest human sounds impact on the body.

RM: Yes and what they can do to a text. The violence that they can do to the text. Rather than the violence they can do to the body. The violence that they can do to the text using their body in some way. It is difficult to say how someone can do something ‘Artaudian’ because as Grotowski writes: the paradox of Artaud is it is impossible to carry out his proposals.

PC: To a certain extent I think all practitioners are difficult to replicate because they are so rooted in a specific context: Grotowski’s work came out of a response to the Polish experience of Nazism, specifically concentration camps. Brecht was responding to the rise of Nazism and life in Germany under Nazism. But these practitioners had work produced and there are detailed records of their productions: photographs and films.

RM: Yes, he didn’t actually do very much, which makes Artaud so difficult. His theatre didn’t really exist. There was Les Cenci but it was a failure. All his theatre projects ended up as a failure. Not only with theatre, he had a film career as an actor then he wanted to make films and that was a disaster. He never actually produced a book: all of his texts are manifestos and notes on things. He never actually produced anything that was complete. Which makes it difficult but, at the same time, a lot of the ideas are accessible.

PC: Did he want it to fail? Was the act of failing in a strange way evidence for his theories. Did he think that representation is impossible therefore it will fail? Like a kind of professional self-harming?

RM: Yes. There are two things going on with Artaud, particularly when you read all his letters to his editors: on the one hand he was absolutely desperate to make money and to live, so publishing texts was a necessity to make a living but at the same time he was absolutely resistant to completion. Yes I think you’re right. Essentially he needed all his work to fail in some way to be able to prove that representation itself was doomed to failure. So there is another paradox: he needed it to fail in order for it to succeed; to show that language and representation is inherently flawed.

PC: You mentioned Artaud’s plague metaphor. Could you explain that metaphor and how it influenced his vision for theatre?

RM: He wrote about how the theatre should be like a plague. The thing he highlighted in the plague was the contagion. It should be this contagious, uncontrollable force that invades the body of the actor rendering all their intellectual capabilities useless: turning them into this pure, affective energy. It is a central metaphor for Artaud. There is a question to the extent to which it is metaphor or to which he really means it. I mean, it is a metaphor but he takes it so far that it seems like he is actually talking about a plague.

PC: Does he propose that the performance should infect the audience then?

RM: It is the sense that there is no escape from it. If you are in the room, you’ll have the plague, you’re going to be infected by this energy, this destructive force. It doesn’t care who you are, you can be anybody and you can still be infected by it. The plague knows no social hierarchy or nationality or language barriers.

PC: How much research did he do about the plague or did he take the simple concept of plague and then run with it?

RM: I’m not sure about his research into the plague. He read The Book of the Dead and he did a lot of research into Ancient Egyptian culture and also into magic, Jewish mysticism and the Kabbalah and so on, beyond that I don’t think he did a huge amount of research about anything. He does talk about specific instances: there had been an outbreak of the plague in Marseille but I think it was a pretext for his ideas.

Summary

  • To create ‘Artaudian’ work think about how you can use your body, your own experience of your body, to express something.
  • Artaud makes a connection between the plague and the theatre. Both should effect the brain and lungs.
  • Theatre should be this contagious, uncontrollable force that invades the body of the actor rendering all their intellectual capabilities useless: turning them into this pure, affective energy.
  • Artaudian work is about the violence that you can do to a text using their body in some way.
  • Artaud needed all his work to fail in some way to be able to prove that representation itself was doomed to failure.

Part 6: Artaud’s Anguine Audience

Connections to the IB, GCSE, AS and A level specifications

  • Theatrical style
  • Methods of creating, developing, rehearsing and performing
  • Artistic intentions
  • Significant moments in the development of theory and practice
  • The relationship between actor and audience in theory and practice

PC: Another important distinguishing point is his perception of audiences. I know that his work never really had a chance to establish an audience but how did he envisage the audience?

RM: I think one of my favourite quotes, it is not an exact quote but slightly paraphrasing it, he says that, ‘audience members should be treated like snakes and they should feel every vibration.’ The theatre should communicate with the audience through vibration like with snakes. So the audience is a passive vehicle. But at the same time the audience are not passive because they become an active part of the process.

PC: Are the audience’s bodies physically engaged with the bodily experience of the performer?

RM: Yes, what you think of the boundaries between the body of the audience member and what they see on stage should be somehow disrupted. But it only seems to go in one direction, so it is only from the performer to the audience. The audience is incorporated into the spectacle but almost against their will. You have to abandon all intellectual capacity and just be, be subjected to this onslaught.

PC: I know he talks about the audience being encircled in The Theatre of Cruelty manifesto. Has that disruption and onslaught been realised in other peoples work since Artaud? Perhaps The Living Theatre and their ‘happenings’. Their Paradise Now seemed to disrupt those boundaries.

RM: Yes, there is a lot within performance art. I don’t know to what extent they are really ‘Artaudian’ but there are a lot of people who speak about Artaud as an influence. Stephen Barber has written quite a bit about Artaud’s influence on The Living Theatre and Japanese Butoh, as well as, people like Marina Abramovic: people that use their bodies as a vehicle.

PC: What were the aesthetics of his theatre? Was it connected to the Tarahumaras and Balinese dance experience?

RM: When I think about the aesthetics of it, the thing that springs to mind is lighting and sound. It ties in with the all engulfing, sensory experience.

PC: It has to “satisfy the senses”. How does he write about lighting and sound?

RM: He writes about using all the latest technology. Basically it should be spectacular. With sound I know he wanted to use this instrument the Ondes Martenot which is similar to a theremin. It makes a weird wobbly sound. He was really interested with engaging with technology which is another way that he was quite innovative. He was quite anti-sound in cinema but he was into using all the new technical possibilities in the theatre to enhance this sensory experience.

PC: Are there any examples of this sensory experience in action?

RM: Les Cenci but that had negative reviews that said it was too overwhelming and there was nothing subtle about it. It was too much of an assault on the senses.

PC: I think that is a common difficulty that teachers have with the work that students produce under the umbrella of being Artaudian – it can often lack subtlety.

RM: I don’t think it would ever be possible to actually really put Artaud’s ideas into practice. There is a sense that this plague metaphor is not really just a metaphor so it is something that is so violent and destructive. Yes we have the Tarahumaras and Balinese dance, and yes most would say his cruelty is not about violence, but Artaud’s theatre is in theory something that is violent and destructive. He was always writing about these apocalyptic scenarios. It is not possible to take it to the extreme that Artaud seemed to suggest.

Summary

  • The theatre should communicate with the audience through vibration like with snakes.
  • The audience is incorporated into the spectacle but almost against their will.
  • Lighting and sound tie in with the all engulfing, sensory experience.
  • Artaud writes about using all the latest technology: it should be spectacular.
  • It is not possible to take theatre to the extreme that Artaud seemed to suggest.

Part 7: Artaud’s Kaka: Action, Text and Sound Become One

Connections to the IB, GCSE, AS and A level specifications

  • Methods of creating, developing, rehearsing and performing
  • Innovations
  • Significant moments in the development of theory and practice
  • Influence

PC: What form did words and language take in his early pieces and how did he make it written and spoken language temporary?

RM: Those were written texts in French. He is quite well known for his glossolalia, which are these made up words but he didn’t actually start using glossolalia until after his theatre writings. He always used French until the early 40s or very late 30s when he was in psychiatric hospital and he started inventing his own language. One word that really interested Artaud is ‘kaka’ which is a childish word for ‘poo’ in French. The syllable ‘ka’ comes up quite a lot in his glossolalia. It is also related to the Ancient Eqyptian figure of the Kha which is sometimes ‘ka’ but that is the Ancient Egyptian hieroglyph for the Kha which is ‘the double’. So when he keeps using this word ‘kaka’ or ‘ka’ he is referring to this bodily process of shitting, which he loves talking about and comes up again and again in his later texts, but he is also referring to this Ancient Egyptian idea of ‘the double’ which informed his theatre writings – The Theatre and the Double – “if theatre doubles life, life doubles true theatre.” Everything has this double for him. The ‘ka’ sound is a really interesting instance of his use of language which is both meaningful and symbolic. Alan Weiss writes about this, he takes it to quite a ridiculous extent, but he says that when you say the word ‘ka’, the letter K, the Ker sound you’re putting pressure on your diaphragm which also facilitates your digestive system.

PC: It illustrates how everything is looped and connected.

RM: Yes

PC: Is Artaud’s writing untranslatable because he used French in quite a free and inventive way?

RM: I really want to avoid saying, because I think a lot of people in languages, whoever they are working on say, “Oh well, of course it is impossible to translate.” If you say that, you’re saying that it is completely inaccessible to anybody that doesn’t speak that language to a certain level. I think that Artaud’s ideas are translatable but at the same time he does use a lot of homonyms.

PC: What were the recurring homonyms?

RM: He has these returning themes of knives, holes, banging nails which crop up as images drawn in his notebooks but also as words, that when read out loud sound the same and rhyme: trou, coup, clou.

PC: His action, text and sound become one.

RM: Yes. This is all the kind of stuff that comes up in his notebooks. He would quite often hammer at the same time as he was speaking. There are some photographs of him where he is stabbing himself on the back with a pen. These are really interesting because a lot of his work was about gesturing then stabbing the page with a pen but he was also stabbing his own body; the text became like a continuation of his body.

PC: Did he draw blood and mark the page with that?

RM: No he didn’t actually draw blood. You know he’d been doing these spells and he would talk about fixing a point in his body and then he would stab himself with his pen – not actually draw blood but he would poke himself with a pen and then stab the page. He also writes about eczema and suffering from eczema and some of the texts that he made, particularly the spells, he would scrape away at the page so that the page would look like a kind of eczematic skin; the writing surface would become like an extension of his skin.

Summary

  • One word that really interested Artaud is ‘kaka’ which is a childish word for ‘poo’ in French.
  • The ‘ka’ sound is a really interesting instance of his use of language which is both meaningful and symbolic.
  • Everything has this double for him.
  • The Theatre and the Double – “if theatre doubles life, life doubles true theatre.”
  • Artaud’s ideas are translatable but at the same time he does use a lot of homonyms.
  • Artaud has these returning themes of knives, holes, banging nails
  • The text became like a continuation of the body.
  • Artaud would poke himself with a pen and then stab the page.
  • Artaud would scrape away at the page so that the page would look like a kind of eczematic skin

Part 8: Artaud’s Ideas Today: Cinema and Dance

Connections to the IB, GCSE, AS and A level specifications

  • Theatrical style
  • Artistic intentions
  • Innovations
  • Influence
  • The relationship between actor and audience in theory and practice

PC: Is there any other source of material that people could look as work inspired by Artaud?

RM: I think where his ideas about theatre are being used a lot more is in cinema now. These films that seek to appeal to the body in various different ways.

PC: What examples are there of his theatre ideas being used in cinema?

RM: Gaspar Noé and Claire Denis. There is a book written by Martine Beugnet called Cinema and Sensation. She also writes about Artaud. A lot of the films that have been labelled ‘New French Extremism’; I think that is a term that has been invented by an English journalist. There are these films in France that are very much about bodily change: transformation and the limits of the body being threatened. In film theory, there is renewed interest in describing the personal experience (phenomenology) of watching a film where your individual subjectivity is being challenged or disrupted in some sought of way.

PC: I like the films of Michael Haneke. I don’t know if there is a connection, his films seems to use verfremdung, but that is a kind of disruption. I suppose Brecht was disrupting how content was perceived whereas Artaud and to a certain extent Haneke emphasize the disruption of experience. In that moment of watching your senses are disrupted, life is disrupted, it is unavoidable. The images of violence and bodies particularly seem to recur in Haneke’s films.

RM: Also the way that Haneke explores time: the temporality of spectatorship. The physical effect that the audience experiences is actually to do with waiting and waiting and you are really made to experience that feeling of time.

PC: An example of that is in Caché (Hidden) where the father kills himself in the kitchen, it happens so suddenly compared to more mainstream, ‘Hollywood’ editing. It just happens and you are left with the image of the dead body. You are left with it for a long time.

RM: And Funny Games. You don’t actually see any of the violence but it is made worse because you are just waiting. Also Seventh Continent where the whole family decide to commit suicide and at the end they are all dying and it takes ages and ages and ages and there is a pop video on TV.

PC: Time is absolutely key. I think that is something else for students to focus on in their practical explorations influenced by Artaud: time.

RM: And also the focus on gesture in this kind of cinema as well. The way that theatre is really influencing cinema now is through this question of gesture. The way in which people are looking at gesture as a philosophical concept in the cinema, which is something that comes from the theatre.

PC: Do you mean gesture as an act of moving the body: the hands?

RM: Yes in a very, very simple kind of way. Particularly these kind of films that I see as being ‘Artaudian’. They draw attention to bodily gestures that would be ignored in cinema normally. Unexpected movements that don’t really have anything to do with the narrative, moments where the body is brought into relief through its movement rather than its position in the narrative.

PC: When did Artaud develop his ideas about cinema?

RM: Well Artaud went in the opposite direction to most people: he started with the cinema and then went back into the theatre. In most of his work, he’ll start with a particular medium then he’ll get annoyed with it and abandon it. He started with cinema and then he got really frustrated with it. He decided that theatre was potentially much more revolutionary than cinema. He felt he could actually do more with theatre than you could with cinema. Eisenstein, for example, went from theatre to cinema.

PC: Are there any other contemporary examples of work that challenges the idea of representation and focuses on the body? Not necessarily explicitly connected with Artaud. But is there any work out there that has got your attention because it explores the disruption of representation and language?

RM: I find the films of Chantal Akerman really interesting. Her work uses gesture both in terms of the gestures of filming: the way that something is filmed; and the way the body appears on the screen. There is also an experimental filmmaker who made a whole series of films about the TarahumarasSo that is an obvious Artaud connection.

PC: Do you see much of Artaud’s influence in dance? Everything we have discussed about time, the body and ritual seems to be central to the work of Pina Bausch and Hofesh Schechter.

RM: Yes and people like Merce Cunningham. For very different reasons Yvonne Rainer: she is all about language. She is about a lot of things Artaud is not about. The Theatre and its Double was a huge influence on Black Mountain College where John Cage, Nancy Spero and Merce Cunningham were. Lucy Bradnock is working on the mistranslation of Artaud in the 1950s at Black Mountain College and how that created the 1960s vision of Artaud in America which was then exported elsewhere – she wrote an article called ‘White Noise at Black Mountain’

Summary

  • Artaud’s ideas about theatre are being used a lot more is in cinema now.
  • The physical effect that the audience experiences is actually to do with waiting and waiting and you are really made to experience that feeling of time.
  • Filmmakers are looking at gesture as a philosophical concept in cinema, which is something that comes from the theatre.
  • Artaud started in cinema but he decided that theatre was potentially much more revolutionary.
  • The Theatre and its Double was a huge influence on Black Mountain College where John Cage, Nancy Spero and Merce Cunningham were.

Part 9: Artaud and Adolescents

Connections to the IB, GCSE, AS and A level specifications

  • Theatrical style
  • Methods of creating, developing, rehearsing and performing
  • Artistic intentions

PC: What else interests you about Artaud?

RM: The thing that I really like about Artaud is that he is so anti-theatre.

PC: Do you mean traditionally mainstream theatre?

RM: Yes. I studied English at school and I hated going to the theatre, I just found it really boring and that is what Artaud writes about.

PC: That idea of reacting against ‘boring’ has become quite mainstream and it is the root of the ideas that are studied in schools. Influential theatre practitioners all find something boring in the theatre they have experienced and their ideas develop as a reaction. Artaud is a very popular practitioner in schools, which I imagine would make him turn in his grave! I think that popularity is intrinsically tied to the adolescent condition: frustration with the world as it is presented to you, feeling that you are existing in a world between life and death, a hyper-awareness of the body. Artaud just lived that kind of experience throughout his life.

RM: Yes, it is something inspirational that most people lose when they grow up.

PC: I know that this is an impossible question but can you summarise Artaud’s work?

RM: His overriding concern was with the body and with expressing the body. The whole thing about trying to get away from language is an attempt to directly express bodily experience; not the body as it is seen from the outside but the body as it is lived. The overriding thing is the body but it is also the whole question of expression and representation. How do you represent experience without diminishing it?

Summary

  • Artaud is anti-theatre.
  • Artaud’s overriding concern was with the body and with expressing the body.
  • How do you represent experience without diminishing it?

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Further reading:

Antonin Artaud – Blows and Bombs by Stephen Barber
 Antonin Artaud (Critical Lives) by David Shafer
 Antonin Artaud: A Critical Reader edited by Edward Scheer
The Theatre and Its Double by Antonin Artaud

Selected Writings of Artaud

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