This is a post I wrote for a past website. I share it again now because Antonin Artaud compared Theatre to the Plague. As we are living through a pandemic, it seems appropriate to re-visit his ideas. Originally posted to brockshustheatre.com April 5, 2017.
Theater is a means of accessing life as theater’s Double is a means of accessing great and terrible secret truths of the spiritual realm. Modern theater, however, has lost its teeth- its ability to channel its Double- due to modern theater’s subservience to text. A new language is needed if theater is to regain its ritualistic power to transform society by bringing it face-to-face with the metaphysical realm and the abstract powers that reside therein. These are just a few of the major claims Antonin Artaud makes in his collection of essays published in 1938, The Theater and its Double.
Artaud’s life was spent in revolt against the banality, mediocrity, complacency, and apathy of modern bourgeois society. He was a poet, a film actor, and a theater director. Artaud also used and abused various chemical and narcotic substances and was committed to an insane asylum for a time. He undertook pilgrimages to Mexico and Ireland in search of metaphysical truth and was interested, if not involved, in various ancient philosophies and religions and the secret powers they held. He was described by a contemporary as “the metaphysician of the theater.”
Artaud opens his book with a preface titled “The Theater and Culture” in which he equates culture with civilization. He claims, “The world is hungry and not concerned with culture.” How can hungry people create or even be concerned with theater? Artaud says that the power of hunger can be utilized for other purposes than to sate it with food. Here, we see for the first time Artaud’s perception of a realm separate and parallel to reality. He approaches this realm not from a philosophical view, but in a state ready for action. He would do away with forms (intellectual concepts) and language to communicate directly with life, “that fragile, fluctuating center which forms never reach.” Artaud sees theater as a spiritual access to life, transcending forms.
He outlines the power of theater by comparing it to pestilence in “The Theater and the Plague.” Through descriptive and visceral language, he describes the effect of plague on the human body and claims the plague purges society, forcing the survivors to become noble heroes.
THE THEATER, LIKE THE PLAGUE, IS IN THE IMAGE OF THIS CARNAGE AND THIS ESSENTIAL SEPARATION. IT RELEASES CONFLICTS, DISENGAGES POWERS, LIBERATES POSSIBILITIES, AND IF THESE POSSIBILITIES AND THESE POWERS ARE DARK, IT IS THE FAULT NOT OF THE PLAGUE NOR OF THE THEATER, BUT OF LIFE.
Artaud describes essential theater as a dark avenger, an angel of pestilence that purges society of lies and hypocrisy. It galvanizes the populace to confront truth and act upon what it learns. In this way, theater serves as a call to action, a call to see life as it is, a call to do away with spiritual corruption. Artaud finishes the essay with his own call to action:
AND THE QUESTION WE MUST NOW ASK IS WHETHER, IN THIS SLIPPERY WORLD WHICH IS COMMITTING SUICIDE WITHOUT NOTICING IT, THERE CAN BE FOUND A NUCLEUS OF MEN CAPABLE OF IMPOSING THIS SUPERIOR NOTION OF THE THEATER, MEN WHO WILL RESTORE TO ALL OF US THE NATURAL AND MAGIC EQUIVALENT OF THE DOGMAS IN WHICH WE NO LONGER BELIEVE.
In “Metaphysics and the Mise en Scene,” Artaud defines the mise en scene as the parts of theater that belong solely to theater. It is comprised of gesture, intonation, light, shadow, plastic and concrete elements- basically all elements of theater except Dialogue, which can be written down and communicated without being played on stage. “I say that the stage is a concrete physical place which asks to be filled, and to be given its own concrete language to speak.” Artaud proposes this new language of theater will speak to the senses as language speaks to the mind. He also outlines the power of theater to act on society, or at least to raise social debate. “I believe, however, that our present social state is iniquitous and should by destroyed. If this is a fact for the theater to be preoccupied with, it is even more a matter for machine guns.” Artaud would abandon modern theater’s focus on psychology “in order to recover the religious and mystic.” In this way, theater will regain its power to access the ineffable.
Artaud’s essay “The Alchemical Theater” furthers his claim of spiritual power in theater.
WHERE ALCHEMY, THROUGH ITS SYMBOLS, IS THE SPIRITUAL DOUBLE OF AN OPERATION WHICH FUNCTIONS ONLY ON THE LEVEL OF REAL MATTER, THE THEATER MUST ALSO BE CONSIDERED AS THE DOUBLE, NOT OF THIS DIRECT, EVERYDAY REALITY OF WHICH IT IS GRADUALLY BEING REDUCED TO A MERE INERT REPLICA – AS EMPTY AS IT IS SUGAR-COATED – BUT OF ANOTHER ARCHETYPAL AND DANGEROUS REALITY, A REALITY OF WHICH THE PRINCIPLES, LIKE DOLPHINS, ONCE THEY HAVE SHOWN THEIR HEADS, HURRY TO DIVE BACK INTO THE OBSCURITY OF THE DEEP.
An alchemist seeks to refine physical and/or spiritual material, through conflict, ciphers, and secret operations, into a pure substance. In the physical realm, this substance is gold. In the spiritual realm, it is a place of no conflict- enlightenment. Artaud sees parallels to theater in that both alchemy and theater work through signs, symbols, and conflict to approach truth. Again, he seeks an active way to apply spiritual theories to creating theater.
The rest of his book expounds upon and clarifies the ideas laid out in these first few essays. Of special interest, he outlines a method of eliciting emotion in an actor through breath in “An Affective Athleticism.” He says, “The actor is an athlete of the heart.” Also included are his thoughts on Oriental versus Occidental theater, two manifestoes on The Theater of Cruelty and several correspondences in which he clarifies his thoughts on cruelty and language.
This is a book I have now read twice, and I will wrestle with its ideas and implications throughout my career in theatre. Antonin Artaud was a visionary. He argued for a theater of ancient and profound power, a theater of ritual and magic. He sought to reclaim for theater the power of spectacle relegated to circus and cinema. His vision for a theater tied closely to Myth will certainly inform my own journey.