Artaud’s Theatre: Immediate and Unrepeatable

Interview with Ros Murray

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.


Connections to the 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.


  • 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