Connections to the GCSE, AS and A level specifications
- Theatrical style
- Social, cultural, political and historical context
- Significant moments in the development of theory and practice
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.
- 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.