Magazine article The Spectator

Enigmatic Genius

Magazine article The Spectator

Enigmatic Genius

Article excerpt

Of the theatrical anniversaries that fall this year, the centenaries of Brecht and Lorca have predictably overshadowed the 50th anniversary of the death of Antonin Artaud. The Marseilles-born sometime Surrealist (and anti-Surrealist) is unquestionably one of the great theorists and luminaries of 20th-century theatre, yet while his influence (on the experimental work of Grotowski, Kantor and Brook, on Jean-Louis Barrault, on our own Theatre de Complicite, on theatre design practically everywhere) has spread far and wide, he remains, in this country, more or less invisible.

This is perhaps not especially surprising, given that Artaud is one of the most enigmatic of all geniuses. It is very difficult to say what Artaud was. Certainly for a while an actor, in 20-odd mainly silent films including Abel Gance's Napoleon, notable for his intensely Romantic facial beauty and haunting screen presence. But he soon decided that cinema had lost whatever poetic potential it had originally possessed, that `the cinematic world is a dead world illusory and cut up'.

His great, lasting devotion was to theatre - but what theatre? Excoriating the putrid state of existing theatre, in thrall to psychology, ideology and a literary, disembodied idea of language, Artaud wrote manifestoes for an incandescent theatre of physical, spatial poetry (he eventually called it Theatre of Cruelty) which he was never able to bring to birth, and which was perhaps essentially impossible. The few productions he presided over either achieved the most modest succes d'estime or failed catastrophically.

A poet? Yes, according to the Absurdist playwright Arthur Adamov, one of the three great French poets of the century with Apollinaire and Eluard. But a very strange poet, who was constantly writing about his incapacity to write poems, who stated that written poetry, once read, should be destroyed.

A madman, then? Artaud's behaviour was always eccentric. In 1937 in Paris he was given a cane or shillelagh claimed to be the staff of St Patrick. This acquisition inspired a visit to Ireland in search of `the last true descendant of the Druids' which ended disastrously when Artaud was arrested for vagrancy and in the course of deportation to France attacked two seamen with the shillelagh.

Artaud subsequently spent nine years in mental asylums, being subjected to a curious regime of electro-shocks and encouragement to translate Alice In Wonderland by his psychiatrist (also would-be Surrealist poet) Gaston Ferdiere. But even Ferdiere later admitted that, in the case of such an exceptional being as Artaud, no clinical diagnosis was appropriate. In the 1960s Artaud was to become one of the posthumous heroes of the anti-psychiatry movement led by R.D. Laing and David Cooper, and an inspiration to the philosophers Michel Foucault and the deconstructionist Jacques Derrida.

It was in the 1960s also that Peter Brook discovered the writings of a man he had never heard of, but whose fiercely radical texts appeared as a revelation. Brook and Charles Marowitz organised an experimental RSC Theatre of Cruelty season held at Lamda (and funded by the Gulbenkian Foundation - O les beaux jours!) which opened up new directions for avant-garde theatre, away from the literary, discursive drama of issues which has dominated the English stage from Shaw to Hare. …

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