“There is in every madman/ a misunderstood genius/ whose idea/ shining in his head/ frightened people/ and for whom/ delirium was the only solution/ to the strangulation/ that life had prepared for him.” ― Antonin Artaud
In 1953, Paris society was introduced to a new type of theater with the opening of the play Les Cenci. The play was about a father who raped his daughter, only to be killed by the men the daughter hired to eliminate him. It ran only 17 performances before being closed. No one wanted to see things like that. But to Antonin Artaud, the play’s writer it was the only type of play that should be seen by public. He once said, “All writing is garbage. People who come out of nowhere to try and put into words any part of what goes on in their minds are pigs. ” As a writer it would seem contradictory to what he, himself was doing. But to Artaud it made perfect sense. He plays faced the harsh truth of the world. He wrote about what he viewed as reality. Society just didn’t understand. Artaud, himself, was the misunderstood genius that he wrote about.
To start to understand Artaud’s ideas and see the genius, one must first take a look at his life. All his life Artaud was in and out of sanatoriums. As a child he contracted meningitis which, reportedly, was the reason why he was so temperamental. He also suffered from head pains, contractions of face and tongue nerves, and clinical depression. To treat these he was given opium and laudanum which led to a lifetime addiction of drugs. In 1916, he was drafted into the French Infantry; only to be discharged because of medical problems. In his late 20’s financial problems forced him to act in several plays. From then on, he worked in theater: as an actor, a playwright, or a director. During these years his philosophies and ideas completely revolutionized the theater. Artaud “has had an impact so profound that the course of all recent serious theater in Western Europe and the Americas can be said to divide into two periods—before Artaud and after Artaud.” (poetryfoundation.org) He died in March 1948 of colorectal cancer during of his stays in a psychiatric ward.
“I call for actors burning at the stakes, laughing at the flames.” (Artaud) Artaud identified himself as a surrealist until differing political views resulted in a break. After that he started a theater along with Alfred Jarry, Roger Vitrac and Robert Aron. Together, they hoped to create a forum where radically different ideas could perform. They wanted to change French Theater. Artaud often expressed hatred towards the Western Theater, of the time. His plays were always intense experiences which often included elaborate props, magic tricks, special lighting, primitive gestures and articulations. Themes of rape, torture, and murder to “shock the audience into confronting the base elements of life” were common. (poetryfoundation.org) Artaud wrote books too; filled with his philosophies about theater and life. One of his most famous ideas is called Theater of Cruelty. According to his book Theater and its Double, “Theater of Cruelty means a theater difficult and cruel for myself first of all. And, on the level of performance, it is not the cruelty we can exercise upon each other by hacking at each other’s bodies, carving up our personal anatomies, or, like Assyrian emperors, sending parcels of human ears, noses, or neatly detached nostrils through the mail, but the much more terrible and necessary cruelty which things can exercise against us. We are not free. And the sky can still fall on our heads. And the theater has been created to teach us that first of all.”
When you think about his life, you tend to take Artaud’s philosophies with a grain of salt. After all, madmen are simply that; mad. But was Artaud mad? Or was he wise? That among other things is the biggest controversy surrounding Artaud’s works and existence. “Artaud was unable to adapt to life; he could not relate to others; he was not even certain of his own identity… 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.” (poetryfoundation.org) He seemed to live in a world of imagination. But if he was mad, how did he come up with such revolutionary ideas? Artaud’s works are still being argued and discussed to this day. His popularity has lasted long after his death.
Artaud’s ideas, though highly controversial has lasted through time. His controversies are still discussed, his works are still performed, his books are still read. In the theater they still use some of his techniques and ideas. Through his life he was often ill, both physically and mentally. Yet, somewhere in that madness there is clearly genius. When Artaud wrote, “In every madman/ a misunderstood genius/ whose idea/ shining in his head/ frighten people.” He was talking about himself. The misunderstood genius.
- “Antonin Artaud.” : The Poetry Foundation. N.p., n.d. Web. 08 Nov. 2013.
- “Antonin Artaud Quotes.” Antonin Artaud Quotes (Author of The Theater and Its Double). Goodreads, n.d. Web. 08 Nov. 2013.
- “Artists Antonin Artuad.” ThinkQuest. Oracle Foundation, n.d. Web. 08 Nov. 2013.