the theatre and the plague: everybody knows this is nowhere

Antonin Artaud based his Theater of Cruelty on the basis of reality being the double of theater. Two virtual realities representing individual duality that exist on parallel planes which never intersect. In this sense actors on the stage are not acting at all. The paradox of Artaud’s work, is the seeming challenge, near impossibility of reconciling the limitations of expression with the need to express.  In his life, Artaud’s influence was barely acknowledged. His ideas on the theatre were profoundly radical, even by today’s conventions, and Artaud lacked the financial backing to develop them on a production basis; they remained in an embryonic theoretical stasis, tossed out randomly in fragmented and distorted form through publications and lectures…

Artaud by Man Ray. 1926. ---Jannarone:Derrida has argued that Artaud's projects, by their nature, by his nature, cannot succeed: They betray him the moment they begin to be articulated; they cannot stand upright the minute they leave his body. Much French criticism takes Artaud's madness and uses it as a touchstone for discussion of his legacy. read more: image:

…but are feeling true emotion, and are showing authentic spontaneous impulses. He created “a theater which, abandoning psychology, stages natural conflicts, natural and subtle forces, and presents itself first of all as an exceptional power of redirection. A theatre that induces trance” . Like the Romantics, he sought to find the primitive, unspoiled, pure emotions within people. Theatre that does not allow actors to act upon impulse is simply depicting “falsehood and illusion…art for art’s sake, with art on one side and life on the other” . For Artaud, the theatre is life, and not merely a mirror of it. Since he, like the Romantics, wanted life to be spontaneous, authentic, primitive, and wild, he lived these emotions out on the stage. Primarily, Artaud portrayed emotions of pain, agony and madness, and did this through random screaming and incomprehensible mutters. He felt that these emotions are present in everyone, but are suppressed because of a fear of exposing them for the rest of the world to see. In his writing, Artaud expressed his belief that people are suppressing emotion and, therefore, not partaking in the full experience of life:

"Another connection drawn attention to here is that celebrated under the emblematic skin of the BwO, or “body without organs,” between Gilles Deleuze and Artaud. Pictorially what this calls to mind, in light of Deleuze’s writing on him, is Francis Bacon’s figuration of meat before human flesh and the head before the face. But the demand made of spectators that they “suture” body (and language) parts back together and that they are placed under this injunction by a “screaming desire for physical transmission” theatricalises the moment, staging the action inside the bodies of the spectators, where, presumably, they make sense of the encounter with nonsense, a sense which does not lose, for being active and within an evental horizon, of the scream, its visceral, genealogical element, and does not forget or forego its ground in nonsense." Read More:

“I want to give them the experience itself,
The plague itself,
So they will be terrified And awaken.
I want to awaken them.
Because they do not realize they are dead.
Their death is total, like deafness and blindness.
This is agony I portrayed.
Mine yes,
And everyone who is alive ( Read More:

Despite difficulties,many of them created by himself, Artaud founded his own company, the Alfred Jarry Theatre, named after the author of Ubu Roi. It lasted from 1927 to 1929 and staged a total of eight performances. Notoriety came to the Alfred Jarry Theatre when the surrealists tried to break up a performance of Strindberg’s The Dream, charging that Artaud had sold out by accepting subsidies from the Swedish ambassador. Andre Breton and hos friends managed to obtain about thirty orchestra seats for the premiere, mingling with the Tout-Paris and prominent members of the Swedish colony. In an effort to placate his former friends Artaud announced before the curtain went up , “The action takes place in Sweden, that is to say, nowhere.” At this, a tall Swede rose from his seat and invited his compatrioys to walk out- about ten of them did. The performance was so chaotic that Artaud asked for police protection on the following evenings.Nonetheless, the debt of Artaud to both Strindberg and Nietzsche is clearly recognized and informed Artaud’s own vision:

Jamieson:In practice, Artaud’s film theory focuses upon the volatility of all matter in an attempt to ‘crack’ the surface of the physical, material world and release the spiritual forces beneath. Thus, Artaud’s cinema becomes dangerous, able to physically jolt the viewer out of their complacency, to pierce beneath their skin: The human skin of things, the derm of reality – this is the cinema’s first toy. It exalts matter and makes it appear to us in its profound spirituality, in its relationship with the mind from which it emerges. (9) Antonin Artaud in The Passion of Joan of Arc Thus, Artaud’s cinema is a transgressive force, located on the boundaries between materialism and spirituality, between the consciousness and the subconscious, between æsthetic process and artefact, and between fiction and reality. Tragically, Artaud’s film theory was never fully realised and remains historically lost. Despite pursuing a number of avenues to raise funds, Artaud’s polemic remained purely theoretical. Although Germaine Dulac directed The Seashell and the Clergyman in 1927, the only one of Artaud’s fifteen scenarios to be produced, Artaud was denied artistic input during the process. Read More:

Michel Foucault: ..Madness is no longer the space of indecision through which it was possible to glimpse the original truth of the work of art, but the decision beyond which this truth ceases irrevocably, and hangs forever over history. It is of little importance on exactly which day in the autumn of 1888 Nietzsche went mad for good, and after which his texts no longer afford philosophy but psychiatry: all of them, including the postcard to Strindberg, belong to Nietzsche, and all are related to The Birth of Tragedy. But we must not think of this continuity in terms of a system, of a thematics, or even of an existence: Nietzsche’s mad-ness-that is, the dissolution of his thought-is that by which his thought opens out onto the modem world. What made it impossible makes it immediate for us; what took it from Nietzsche offers it to us….Read More:

The Alfred Jarry Theatre expired from lack of funds, but Artaud continued to evangelize for what he now called the Theatre of Cruelty. In 1933 there took place one of the most bizarre and original lectures ever given at the Sorbonne; it was Artaud discussing “The Theatre and the Plague.” He was seated at a desk with a blackboard framing his lean face. The corners of his mouth were stained black from laudanum, and when he spoke his long fingered hands flapped like a bird’s wings, and hair fell over his massive brow. Like the Plague, Artaud began, the theatre must contain the thrust of an epidemic.

The Plague creates a second state in which social order is abolished and the members of the community respond to deep unconscious urges; the miser throws gold out of windows, and the solemn and restrained bourgeois is seized by an erotic fever. The theatre, too, must be a crisis resolved by death or cure, it must push men to see themselves as they are. It must make the masks fall, uncover lies, baseness and hypocrisy, and reveal to the community its dark powers and its hidden strengths.

from Stephen Barber, The Screaming Body: to validate an existence or the body, Artaud must reduce language and reduce corporeal matter to an extreme essence. Everything extraneous to the body is r

ed – all nature and all culture – so that the body is by itself, sharpened, bone and nerve, without family, “god” or internal organs. It can also move before itself in space, in order to create and generate itself. It is unprecedented and has no progenitor. … aggressive process of reduction....Read More:

Foucault: …This does not mean that madness is the only language common to the work of art and the modern world (dangers of the pathos of maledic-tion, inverse and symmetrical danger of psychoanalyses); but it means that, through madness, a work that seems to drown in the world, to reveal there its non-sense, and to transfigure itself with the features of pathology alone, actu-ally engages within itself the world’s time, masters it, and leads it; by the madness which interrupts it, a work of art opens a void, a moment of silence, a question without answer, provokes a breach without reconciliation where the world is forced to question itself. What is necessarily a profanation in the work of art returns to that point, and, in the time of that work swamped in madness, the world is made aware of its guilt…. Read More:

As Artaud went on, he lost control of what he was saying and in front of his audience of Sorbonne students and intellectuals, became a victim of the Plague. The American novelist Anais Nin, who had become friendly with Artaud described the scene in her diary:

“Is he trying to remind us that it was during the Plague that so many marvellous works of art and theatre came to be, because, whipped by the fear of death, man seeks immortality, or to escape, or to surpass himself? But then, imperceptibly almost, he let go of the thread we were following and began to act out dying by plague. No one quite knew when it began ..His face was contorted with anguish, one could see the perspiration dampening his hair. His eyes dilated, his muscles became cramped, his fingers struggled to retain their flexibility. He made one feel the parched and burning throat, the pains, the fever, the fire in the guts. He was in agony. He was screaming. He was delirious. He was enacting his own death, his own crucifixion. At first people gasped. And then they began to laugh. Everyone was laughing! They hissed. Then one by one, they began to leave, noisily talking, protesting. But Artaud went on, until the last gasp. And stayed on the floor. Then when the hall emptied of all but his small group of friends, he walked straight up to me and kissed my hand. He asked me to go to a cafe with him. Artaud and I walked out in a fine mist. We walked through the dark streets. He was hurt, wounded, baffled by the jeering. He spat out his anger. ‘They always want to hear about; they want to hear an objective conference on “The Theatre and the Plague”, and I want to give them the experience itself, the plague itself, so they will be terrified and awaken. I want to awaken them. They do not realize they are dead. Their death is total, like deafness, blindness. This is the agony I portrayed.’” Read More:

Friendship with Artaud, Anais Nin discovered, was at times unsettling. Sitting in the Coupole with her, he would insist that he was reallt the mad Roman emperor Heliogabalus. “Between us, there could be a murder,” he would say, and “what a divine joy it would be to crucify a being like you, who are so evanescent, so elusive.” Or, he would discuss his illness and say : “I have known only painful emotions. I have chosen the domain of pain and shadows as others choose the radiance and weight of matter.” By the early 1930′s many including Nin thought of him as genuinely mad and not merely a brilliant hyper-eccentric. His depression and heavy dependence on opium didn’t help. Also Artaud’s  schizophrenia sometimes, often frequently,  forced him into complete  incoherence.

In fact, as Mitchell Tribbett so eloquently puts it “Artaud’s insistence on the radical changes to the nature of theater was perhaps partially born out of the chaos around him…Artaud lived through two world wars, fourteen total years of incarceration in various mental asylums, poverty, homelessness, starvation, and 51 electro-shock treatments. Read More: To which can be added the anxiety of irregular income and the insecurity of moving to a new lodging every three or four months.

Foucault: Henceforth, and through the mediation of madness, it is the world that becomes culpable (for the first time in the Western world) in relation to the work of art; it is now arraigned by the work of art, obliged to order itself by its language, compelled by it to a task of recognition, of reparation, to the task of restoring reason from that unreason and to that unreason. The madness in which the work of art is engulfed is the space of our enterprise, it is the endless path to fulfillment, it is our mixed vo-cation of apostle and exegete. This is why it makes little difference when the first voice of madness insinuated itself into Nietzsche’s pride, into Van Gogh’s humility. There is no madness except as the final instant of the work of art- the work endlessly drives madness to its limits; in here there  is a work of art, there is no madness; and yet madness is contemporary with the work of art, since it inaugurates the time of its truth. Read More:


"His concept that "words should have the importance they have in dreams," changed the role of speech to one of sound and incantation. He thought of words as a solid object to be manipulated in space, like any other element in the mise en scene. The idea that the visual components can have as much resonance as the verbal, has helped inspire the current interest in a multi-media or multidisciplinary theatrical style. A host of theatrical by-products — Happenings, performance art, body art, environmental theatre, physical theatre, street theatre, guerilla theatre, earthworks, movement therapy, psychodrama, Japanese butoh, dance theatre — are all to some extent indebted to the work of Artaud. ---Read More: image:

One could almost surmise that Artaud’s theories reflected elements of Buddhist teachings. His “body without organs” and theorizing on the inadequacy of expression relative to the need to express  points to a Buddhist thinking of “no-self”  there nothing to transcend. ” if there is no distinction between the self and the world, then there is no world. Nothing to be engaged with in the outside and nothing to seek out in the within. nothing to meditate on and it won’t matter how you do it. ( Hune Margulies) Read More:


Although his life was short and fraught with illness, Artaud’s influence continues on. His theories served as inspiration for “the works of Jean Genet, Fernando Arrabal, Peter Weiss, Peter Brook and Julian Beck and Judith Melina” Artaud is also sited as having influenced Patti Smith, Balthus, Harry Partch, Nancy Spero, The Blue Man Group, and Abbie Hoffman. In the mid-nineties there seems to have been resurgence in public interest in Artaud with the 1993 release of the film En compagnie d’Antonin Artaud and the 1994 release of another film about Artaud’s life La véritable histoire d’Artaud le momo. Around the same time, in 1992, the unexpurgated volume Incest of Anais Nin’s diary A Journal of Love was published. In the journal, Nin describes her affairs with, among others, Artaud and Henry Miller in graphic terms. In 1996, Artaud’s drawings were shown at the Museum of Modern Art in an exhibit curated by Margit Rowell.Read More:

A revelation induced “madness” can lead to conflict between the artist’s new consciousness and its previous state. Yet, this changed consciousness may be the basis for innovative creativity, and the triggered revelation may well be the foundation of a deeper and richer art. Hence, revelation is an energizing dialectic for creativity. Still, the relationship between madness and creativity, as we have stated, is not linear but rather curvilinear. Some madness may induce the widening of consciousness and fuel revelations, which would feed creativity, but an excessive madness could be an alternative to creativity, leading to autism, solipsism, and self-destruction; this actually happened to both van Gogh and Artaud. Van Gogh went mad only when he could not paint any more, but Artaud chose to renounce creativity for madness, which he believed  would expand his realm of consciousness and inner awareness. However, he paid a price. He swallowed his tongue, so to speak . He forfeited reason and logic, and when he tried to communicate again in the catastrophic theater hall encounter with his friends, all he could emit were blood-curdling shrieks, which were incomprehensible, embarrassing, and harassing to his audience. As for van Gogh, Artaud described his last painting, Wheat Field and Crows, in the most heartbreaking of metaphors. Since van Gogh knew already that he would commit suicide shortly, the crows were carrying away the evil that could not touch him anymore. Indeed, the crows were running away since down there, on the bloodstained earth, is death, and the low skies are equally ominous. The blood that flows from van Gogh’s gunshot wound lent the bloody tonus to the earth, and the dim light was already leaving the field dirty with a mixture of putrid wine and blood.Read More:

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