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 allegedly stabbed in the back by a pimp for apparently no reason, similar to the experience of 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 allegedly discharged due to his self-induced habit of sleepwalking. During Artaud's "rest cures" at the sanatorium, he read Rimbaud, Baudelaire, and Poe. In May 1919, the director of the sanatorium prescribed laudanum for Artaud, precipitating a lifelong addiction to that and other opiates.
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 Napoleon in the role of Jean-Paul Marat, and in Carl Theodor Dreyer's The Passion of Joan of Arc as the monk Massieu. Artaud's portrayal of Marat used exaggerated movements to convey the fire of Marat's personality.
In 1926-28, Artaud ran the Alfred Jarry Theater, along with Roger Vitrac. He produced and directed original works by Vitrac, as well as pieces by Claudel and Strindberg. The theatre advertised that they would produce Artaud's play Jet de sang in their 1926-1927 season, but it was never mounted and was not premiered until 40 years later. 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. In 1935, Artaud's production of his adaptation of Shelley's The Cenci premiered. 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 people and experimented with 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 Christ. 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 that he was unable to pay for. On his return trip, Artaud believed he was being attacked by two crew members and retaliated; he was arrested and put in a straitjacket.
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. Current psychiatric literature describes Artaud as having schizophrenia, with a clear psychotic break late in life and schizotypal symptoms throughout life.
Artaud was encouraged to write by his friends, and interest in his work was rekindled. He visited an exhibition of works by Vincent van Gogh which resulted in a study Van Gogh le suicidé de la société (Van Gogh, The Man Suicided by Society), published by K éditeur, Paris, 1947 which won a critics´ prize 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 50 artists, writers, musicians, and journalists present for a private listening on February 5, 1948 were 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 felt almost unanimously in favor of Artaud'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, allegedly 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.
In his book The Theatre and Its Double, which was made up of a first and second manifesto, Artaud expressed his admiration for Eastern forms of theatre, particularly the Balinese. He admired Eastern theatre because of the codified, highly ritualized and precise physicality of Balinese dance performance, and advocated what he called a "Theatre of Cruelty". By cruelty, he meant not exclusively sadism or causing pain, but just as often a violent, physical determination to shatter the false reality. He believed that text had been a tyrant over meaning, and advocated, instead, for a theatre made up of a unique language, halfway between thought and gesture. Artaud described the spiritual in physical terms, and believed that all theatre is physical expression in space.
Evidently, Artaud’s various uses of the term cruelty must be examined to fully understand his ideas. Lee Jamieson has identified four ways in which Artaud used the term cruelty. Firstly, it is employed metaphorically to describe the essence of human existence. Artaud believed that theatre should reflect his nihilistic view of the universe, creating an uncanny connection between his own thinking and Nietzsche’s:
[Nietzsche’s] definition of cruelty informs Artaud’s own, declaring that all art embodies and intensifies the underlying brutalities of life to recreate the thrill of experience … Although Artaud did not formally cite Nietzsche, [their writing] contains a familiar persuasive authority, a similar exuberant phraseology, and motifs in extremis …
- – Lee Jamieson, Antonin Artaud: From Theory to Practice, Greenwich Exchange, 2007, p.21-22
Artaud’s second use of the term (according to Jamieson), is as a form of discipline. Although Artaud wanted to “reject form and incite chaos” (Jamieson, p.22), he also promoted strict discipline and rigor in his performance techniques. A third use of the term was ‘cruelty as theatrical presentation’. The Theatre of Cruelty aimed to hurl the spectator into the centre of the action, forcing them to engage with the performance on an instinctive level. For Artaud, this was a cruel, yet necessary act upon the spectator designed to shock them out of their complacency:
Artaud sought to remove aesthetic distance, bringing the audience into direct contact with the dangers of life. By turning theatre into a place where the spectator is exposed rather than protected, Artaud was committing an act of cruelty upon them.
- – Lee Jamieson, Antonin Artaud: From Theory to Practice, Greenwich Exchange, 2007, p.23
Artaud put the audience in the middle of the 'spectacle' (his term for the play), so they would be 'engulfed and physically affected by it'. He often referred to this layout as like a 'vortex' - a constantly shifting shape - 'to be trapped and powerless'.
Finally, Artaud used the term to describe his philosophical views, which will be outlined in the following section.
His later work presents his rejection of the idea of the spirit as separate from the body. His poems imagistically revel in flesh and excretion, but sex was always a horror for him. Civilization was so pernicious that Europe was pulling once proud tribal nations like Mexico down with it into decadence and death. The inevitable end result would be self-destruction and mental slavery. These were 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, a stance which led to his expulsion by the Surrealists who had begun to embrace it.
Artaud's theories in Theatre and Its Double influenced rock musician Jim Morrison. Mötley Crüe named the Theatre of Pain album after reading his proposal for a Theater of Cruelty, much like Christian Death had with their album Only Theatre of Pain. The band Bauhaus included a song about the playwright, called "Antonin Artaud", on their album Burning from the Inside Charles Bukowski also claimed him as a major influence on his work. Influential Argentine folk-rock songwriter Luis Alberto Spinetta named his album Artaud and wrote most of the songs on that album based on his writings. Composer John Zorn has three records, "Astronome," "Moonchild," and "Six Litanies for Heliogabalus," dedicated to Artaud.
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 Theatre was also heavily influenced by him, as was much English-language experimental theater and performance art; Karen Finley, Spalding Gray, Liz LeCompte, Richard Foreman, Charles Marowitz, Sam Shepard, Joseph Chaikin, and more all named Artaud as one of their influences.
Artaud also had a profound influence on the philosophers Gilles Deleuze and Félix Guattari, who borrowed Artaud's phrase "the body without organs" to describe their conception of the virtual dimension of the body and, ultimately, the basic substratum of reality.
Artaud, Antonin. Oeuvres complètes d’Antonin Artaud, Paris: Gallimard, 1961 & 1976.
Artaud, Antonin. Collected Works of Antonin Artaud, Trans. Victor Corti. London: Calder and Boyars, 1971.
Artaud, Antonin. Selected Writings, Trans. Helen Weaver. Ed. and Intro. Susan Sontag. New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 1976.
Artaud, Antonin. Pour en finir avec le jugement de dieu, Original recording. Edited with an introduction by Marc Dachy. Compact Disc. Sub Rosa/aural documents, 1995.
Artaud, Antonin. The Theatre and Its Double, Trans. Mary Caroline Richards. New York: Grove Weidenfeld, 1958.
Artaud, Antonin. 50 Drawings to Murder Magic, Trans. Donald Nicholson-Smith. London: Seagull Books, 2008. ISBN 978-1905422661
Barber, Stephen Antonin Artaud: Blows and Bombs (Faber and Faber: London, 1993) ISBN 0-571-17252-0
Esslin, Martin. Antonin Artaud. London: John Calder, 1976.
Rainer Friedrich, "The Deconstructed Self in Artaud and Brecht: Negation of Subject and Antitotalitarianism," Forum for Modern Language Studies, 26:3 (July 1990): 282-297.
Innes, Christopher Avant-Garde Theater 1892-1992 (London: Routledge, 1993).
Jamieson, Lee Antonin Artaud: From Theory to Practice (Greenwich Exchange: London, 2007) ISBN 978-1-871551-98-3
Kimberly Jannarone, "The Theater Before Its Double: Artaud Directs in the Alfred Jarry Theater," Theatre Survey 46.2, Nov. 2005: 247-273.
Koch, Stephen. "On Artaud." Tri-Quarterly, no. 6 (Spring 1966): 29-37.
Plunka, Gene A. (Ed). Antonin Artaud and the Modern Theater. Cranbury: Associated University Presses. 1994.
Roger Shattuck, "Artaud Possessed," The Innocent Eye (New York: Farrar Straus Giroux, 1984): 169-186.
Ward, Nigel "Fifty-one Shocks of Artaud", New Theatre Quarterly Vol.XV Part2 (NTQ58 May 1999): 123-128
Blanchot, Maurice. "Artaud." La Nouvelle Revue Française 4 (November 1956, no. 47): 873-881.
Héliogabale ou l'Anarchiste couronné, 1969
Brau, Jean-Louis. Antonin Artaud. Paris: La Table Ronde, 1971.
Virmaux, Alain. Antonin Artaud et le théâtre. Paris: Seghers, 1970.
Virmaux, Alain and Odette. Artaud: un bilan critique. Paris: Belfond, 1979.
Virmaux, Alain and Odette. Antonin Artaud: qui êtes-vous? Lyon: La Manufacture, 1986.