Monday, September 04, 2006


Iconoclastic actor, playwright, poet and stage theorist Antonin Artaud was born on this day in 1896 in Marseilles, France.

After suffering from bouts of mental disease in his teens and early 20s, Artaud began acting on the stage in the 1920s (at the Theatre de l'Ouerve, the Atelier, and for Pitoƫff) and publishing his poems in literary magazines. Before long, he caught on with Andre Breton and the Surrealists, but by 1926 he was expelled over his disagreement with Breton's conversion to Communism.

While living with his mother and supplementing his income by performing in movies (in Abel Gance's Napoleon, 1927, as Marat; Dreyer's Passion of Joan of Arc, 1928), he opened the Theatre Alfred-Jarry, but it quickly failed. In 1931, he found inspiration from performances of Balinese plays at the Colonial Exposition, in which Artaud perceived that the text was merely incantatory, wrapped around a conglomeration of gestures, postures and sounds. Shortly thereafter, he wrote the first and second manifestos of the "Theater of Cruelty" (1932, 1938), an approach to writing, acting and stagecraft which incorporated the Balinese style, with an emphasis on shock-lighting, violent gestures and noise (the theatrical equivalent of Hieronymus Bosch's paintings, Artaud explained), designed by Artaud's account to liberate the subconscious mind through a kind of magical exorcism, and return the audience to its most primitive responses.

Although his theories were influential on such artists as Beckett, Genet and Ionesco, his stage experiments (such as Heliogabale, or the Crowned Anarchist, 1934; Les Cenci, 1935; Mexico, 1936) largely failed. Following a breakdown, he lived in an insane asylum from 1937 to 1946, undergoing starvation and electroshock treatments. Upon his release, he wrote a couple of combative, scatological rants -- an essay, "Van Gogh, the Suicide of Society," and a radio broadcast, To Have Done with the Judgment of God (1947) -- before succumbing to cancer on March 4, 1948 in Paris.

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