Antonin Artaud - World Literature

World Literature

Antonin Artaud


BORN: 1896, Marseilles, France

DIED: 1948, Paris, France


GENRE: Drama theory, plays


Fountain of Blood (1925)

The Theater of Cruelty (1933)

The Cenci (1935)

The Theater and Its Double (1938)

The Death of Satan (1953)



Antonin Artaud. Antonin Artaud as Jean Massieu, photograph. © Henry Guttmann / Hulton Archive / Getty Images.



Perhaps the twentieth century’ s most original and controversial dramatist, Antonin Artaud created works that are complex, difficult, at times obscure, and often beyond categorization. Considered among the most influential figures in the evolution of modern drama theory, Artaud associated himself with surrealist writers, artists, and experimental theater groups in Paris during the 1920s. When political differences resulted in his break from the surrealists, he founded the Theatre Alfred Jarry with Roger Vitrac and Robert Aron. Together they hoped to create a forum for works that would radically change French theater. Artaud, especially, expressed disdain for Western theater of the day, criticizing the ordered plot and scripted language his contemporaries typically used to convey ideas, instead championing a return to the primitive and ritualistic in drama.


Works in Biographical and Historical Context

Effects of Illness. Artaud was born in Marseilles, the son of a prosperous shipfitter and his wife. Throughout his childhood and adolescence Artaud suffered ill health, chiefly headaches that were believed the result ofan acute case of meningitis in 1901. Meningitis, which is a swelling of the protective membranes surrounding the brain and spinal cord, was first described in detail at the beginning of the nineteenth century. Until the first successful treatments were developed by Simon Flexner in 1913— twelve years after Artaud s battle with the disorder began—the mortality rate for those contracting meningitis was as high as 90 percent.

As a young man, Artaud attended the Marist school in Marseilles, where he founded a student journal in which he published his own poetry. In 1915, suffering from depression, headaches, and other ailments, he sought treatment at a local sanatorium.

At the same time, Europe had erupted in war. Beginning with the assassination of Austro-Hungarian archduke Franz Ferdinand in 1914, the countries of Europe aligned with Germany on one side and the Allied powers—France, Russia, and the United Kingdom—on the other in an attempt to establish control over the region. France provided over 8 million troops to the cause, two-thirds of which were either killed or wounded during combat. In 1916, Artaud was drafted into the army but given a medical discharge a few months later due to his mental instability. He spent two years in a Swiss hospital, where his artistic tendencies were encouraged as part of his therapy.

After Artaud s condition had improved, he moved to Paris under the care of Dr. Edouard Toulouse, a psychoanalyst and editor of the literary magazine Demain. While being treated by Toulouse in a hospital, Artaud was encouraged to express himself in poetry, which the doctor later published in Demain. Despite the efforts of psychotherapy, Artaud’s life and his work reflected his mental afflictions and were further complicated by his dependence on narcotics.

In 1823, while helping edit Demain, Artaud submitted several poems to Jacques Riviere, the editor of the Nouvelle revue francaise. Although Riviere rejected these works as incomprehensible, he did publish Artaud’s correspondence, which comprised a defense of his works and a statement of his poetic theory, as well as a disclosure of the mental problems that afflicted him.

Involvement with the Theater. In Paris, Artaud became fascinated by the theater, and he joined a series of experimental theater groups, including that of Charles Dullin at the Theatre de l’Atelier. His associates in Paris included many of the artists and writers of the surrealist group, and for a time Artaud was identified with that movement. However, Artaud, with Roger Vitrac and Robert Aron, was repudiated by the surrealists when he refused to embrace Marxism, which called for workers to unite against the ruling class to end their own exploitation. Together, the three founded the Theatre Alfred Jarry in 1926, stating that their intention was ‘‘to contribute by strictly theatrical means to the ruin of the theater as it exists today in France.’’ Throughout the late 1920s and early 1930s, Artaud worked in theater and film, all the while growing increasingly dependent on narcotics, which he found relieved the symptoms of his mental disorders.

In 1931 he attended a performance by a Balinese theater troupe and was fascinated by the predominance of movement over speech in their art, something he later sought to emulate in his own theatrical works. His essays describing his philosophy of theater, particularly his idea of the ‘‘theater of cruelty,’’ were written throughout this time and published in the groundbreaking book The Theatre and Its Double in 1938. In 1936 he traveled to Mexico to study the Tarahumaras, a tribe of Native Americans living in the Sierra Madre whose religious rituals include the use of peyote, a hallucinogenic drug derived from cactus. Artaud’s experiences among the Tarahumaras had a profound influence on his perception of the value of mystical religious experience, and he later incorporated this understanding into his work in the theater. He subsequently became interested in Irish mythology as well, and traveled to Ireland in 1937 in possession of a walking stick he believed to have once belonged to St. Patrick. Although details of the event are unclear, Artaud was deported after causing a disturbance in a Dublin monastery. Upon his arrival in France he was judged mentally ill and institutionalized in Rouen. Artaud spent nine of his last eleven years confined in mental asylums and died of cancer in 1948.



Artaud's famous contemporaries include:

Bertolt Brecht (1898-1956): This German playwright, stage director, and poet is credited with, among many things, epic theater.

Luigi Pirandello (1867-1936): Pirandello was an Italian novelist, playwright, and poet whose tragic farces are at the forefront of modern theater.

Joseph Stalin (1878-1953): General secretary of the Communist Party of the Soviet Union, Stalin who was the de facto dictator responsible for what is today known as Stalinism.

Victoria Woodhull (1838-1937): When she ran for president of the United States in 1872, Woodhull, a suffragist, advocated many things taken for granted today: the eight-hour work day, graduated income tax, social welfare programs, and profit sharing.


Works in Literary Context

Considered among the most influential figures in the evolution of modern drama theory, Artaud made great impact with his development of the ‘‘theater of cruelty,’’ which has influenced playwrights from Samuel Beckett to Edward Albee. He challenges Western thought and Western modes of representation by questioning of the origins of language and the roles of art and metaphysics in contemporary societies. In addition, his exploration of oriental theater and mysticism and the changes he brought to the French stage place him as a leader in modern French theater.

Wake Up and Shake Up. Most scholars believe that Artaud’s most noted contribution to drama theory is his idea of ‘‘theater of cruelty,’’ an intense theatrical experience that combines elaborate props, magic tricks, special lighting, primitive gestures and articulations, with appalling plots of rape, torture, and murder to shock the audience into confronting the base elements of life. Based on Percy Bysshe Shelley’s poem by the same name, The Cenci (Les Cenci, 1935), Artaud’s play about a man who rapes his own daughter, and is then murdered by men the girl hires to eliminate him, typifies Artaud’s theater of cruelty. Another example is The Fountain of Blood (Le jet de sang, 1925), a farce about the creation of the world and its destruction by humans, especially women. Like many of Artaud’s other plays, scenarios, and prose, The Cenci and The Fountain of Blood were designed to challenge conventional, civilized values and bring out the natural, barbaric instincts Artaud felt lurked beneath the refined, human facade.

While aspiring to eliminate the four-walled performance space and place the spectator in the center of the action, Artaud envisioned and advocated in his writings a “langue theatral pur’’ (pure theatrical language) that was free of verbal discourse. This new approach, he noted, would alter the influence of the playwright, who would take a secondary role in the representation of his plays. As described in the preface of Alfred Jarry’s Ubu Roi, Artaud’s ultimate mission was ‘‘reveiller et secouer’’ (to wake up and shake up) spectators and make them an active participant. He sought to produce a cathartic experience, a trance; the experience was to act as a revelation, uncovering the mysteries of the psyche. Additionally, Artaud sought to break from Western theater and radically alter French theater with the theories he recorded in The Theater and Its Double. Working from his experience with Balinese ritual theater and dance, he theorized about the functions of the human body and the ways in which theater could transform the body and allow it to transcend its ordinary form. He believed that the multiple facets of the body and its masks could take on many meanings and represent the ‘‘doubles’’ of theater.

Lasting Influence. Artaud remains an important point of reference in the world of twentieth-century theater. A research center focusing on Artaud was established at the University of Paris III in 1997, led by Olivier Penot-Lacassagne and a new generation of young researchers. The mission of this research center is to develop a comprehensive archival database dedicated to Artaud studies. The center started a new journal in 2000 called Bulletin Antonin Artaud meant to further illuminate Artaud's role in theater.

Artuad's influence, however, has extended beyond French and Western theater. He has had a marked impact on the work of experimentalists, performance artists, and writers and directors, including Joseph Chaikin, Karen Finley, Richard Foreman, Spalding Gray, Liz LeCompte, Charles Marowitz, and Sam Shepard. Artaud's work has inspired others outside of the literal theater, as modern-day artists from a variety of fields have named him specifically or alluded to Artaud as a significant inspiration: rockers Jim Morrison, Motley Crue, Christian Death, and Bauhaus; novelist and poet Charles Bukowski; and philosophers Gilles Deleuze and Felix Guattari.



Most critics believe that Artaud's most notable contribution to dramatic theory is his theater of cruelty, an intense theatrical experience meant to shock the audience into confronting the base elements of life. Here are a few works by other writers who employ similar stunning techniques:

Waiting for Godot (1953), by Samuel Beckett. Beckett's play, greatly influenced by Artaud, is a stark and daunting exploration of human cruelty, human tolerance, and human perception.

The Elementary Particles (2001), by Michael Houellebecq. The controversial novel recently has been described as ''transcending faddish success.''

Marat/Sade (1963), by Peter Weiss. In the tradition of Artaud, this drama is a bloody, provocative examination of human suffering.


Works in Critical Context

Labeled at once as a genius, a madman, and a ‘‘poete maudit’’ (a cursed poet), Artaud continued to be a marginalized figure until the last years of his life. By the time of his death in 1948, Artaud was largely ignored by critics, who rarely moved beyond considering whether or not he was mad. When Artaud’s works started to gain recognition in the 1960s, however, he quickly became a cult figure, a legend in the world of theater and art.

Theater of Cruelty. Although Artaud’s theater of cruelty was not widely embraced, his ideas have been the subject of many essays on modern theater, and many writers continue to study Artaud's concepts. Author George E. Wellwarth, for example, in Drama Survey, explained the theater of cruelty as ‘‘the impersonal, mindless—and therefore implacable—cruelty to which all men are subject. The universe with its violent natural forces was cruel in Artaud's eyes, and this cruelty, he felt, was the one single most important fact of which man must be aware. ... Artaud’s theater must be ecstatic. It must crush and hypnotize the onlooker’s sense.’’ Another description of the theater of cruelty was offered by Wallace Fowlie in an essay published in Sewanee Review. Fowlie wrote: ‘‘A dramatic presentation should be an act of initiation during which the spectator will be awed and even terrified. ... During that experience of terror or frenzy ... the spectator will be in a position to understand a new set of truths, superhuman in quality.'' About The Fountain of Blood, Albert Bermel captured the horrified yet intrigued response to the theater of cruelty: ‘‘All in all, The Fountain of Blood is a tragic, repulsive, impassioned farce, a marvelous wellspring for speculation, and a unique contribution to the history of the drama.''

Mental Illness. Many critics view Artaud’s work and ideas through the lens of his mental illness. In Antonin Artaud: Man of Vision, author Bettina L. Knapp wrote of the theorist’s condition: ‘‘Artaud was unable to adapt to life; he could not relate to others; he was not even certain of his own identity.’’ Knapp commented that ‘‘Artaud was in essence constructing an entire metaphysical system around his sickness, or, if you will, entering the realm of the mystic via his own disease. The focal point of his universe was himself and everything radiated from him outward.’’ Referring to Artaud’s ‘‘The Umbilicus of Limbo’’ (L’ombilic des limbes (1925), Knapp indicated Artaud ‘‘intended to ‘derange man,’ to take people on a journey ‘where they would never have consented to go.’’’ She further explained, ‘‘Since Artaud’s ideas concerning the dramatic arts were born from his sickness, he looked upon the theater as a curative agent; a means whereby the individual could come to the theater to be dissected, split and cut open first, and then healed.’’ Knapp also offered an explanation of Artaud’s popularity long after his death: ‘‘In his time, he was a man alienated from his society, divided within himself, a victim of inner and outer forces beyond his control.... The tidal force of his imagination and the urgency of his therapeutic quest were disregarded and cast aside as the ravings of a madman.... Modern man can respond to Artaud now because they share so many psychological similarities and affinities.’’ Similar words were issued in a Horizon essay by Sanche de Gramont, who wrote of Artaud: ‘‘If he was mad, he welcomed his madness.... To him the rational world was deficient; he welcomed the hallucinations that abolished reason and gave meaning to his alienation. He purposely placed himself outside the limits in which sanity and madness can be opposed, and gave himself up to a private world of magic and irrational visions.’’


Responses to Literature

1. What are your primary feelings as you read The Cenci? Do you feel angry? Happy? Horrified? Like laughing? Insulted? Hurt? Frustrated? Stimulated? Bored? What in the work do you think elicits an emotional response? Consider elements of theme as well as issues of morality. Compare the impact on audiences of The Cenci with that of the art and entertainment of our current society.

2. Many drama teachers consider Artaud’s work particularly difficult to teach. If you were a teacher, would you include Artaud in your lesson plan? Why or why not?




Bermel, Albert. Artaud’s Theater of Cruelty. New York: Taplinger, 1977.

Goodall, Jane. Artaud and the Gnostic Drama. Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1994.

Knapp, Bettina L. Antonin Artaud: Man of Vision. Athens, Ohio: Ohio University Press, 1980.

Plunka, Gene A. Antonin Artaud and the Modern Theater. Madison, N.J.: Fairleigh Dickinson University Press, 1994.

Reed, Jeremy. Chasing Black Rainbows: A Novel About Antonin Artaud. London: Peter Owen, 1994.

Reference Guide to World Literature, First Edition. Farmington Hills, Mich.: St. James Press, 1995.


de Gramont, Sanche. Horizon (Spring 1970): 49-55. Wellwarth, George E. Drama Survey (February 1963): 276-87.

Web sites

Bohemian Ink. Antonin Artaud. Retrieved January 31, 2008, from

Hubert, Arnaud. Antonin Artaud. Retrieved January 31, 2008, from