Antonin Artaud is one of the most controversial and discussed figures in the history of twentieth century theatre. While he is widely recognised as a poet and an influential theatre theorist, he is also remembered as a playwright, actor, artist, designer and director. He was born in Marseille, France on September 4, 1886 and his childhood was marked by a series of illnesses and accidents. His health did not improve as he matured and for most of his life he was beset with ill health, pain and nervous depression. He was continually admitted and discharged from hospitals and sanatoria and developed addictions to hallucinatory and pain-reducing drugs like opium. His addiction and abuse of these substances began to have permanent effects and his mental health gradually deteriorated. However, he always managed to write and his fluctuating state of mind is represented throughout his many pieces of writing and painting. He was forcibly committed to various mental asylums for about a decade and although he was eventually released from the asylum of Rodez in France, he died less than two years later.
Artaud was a prolific writer and began writing poetry from an early age. In 1921 he began contributing to periodicals like the Surrealists' journal Litterature and became a leading member of the Surrealist group, occasionally editing issues of leading Surrealist magazines. He wrote scenarios for a number of films, had quite a few acting credits in films like Carl Dreyer's Passion of Joan of Arc (1927) and acted and directed a variety of plays that included Greek and Roman classics, plays by Strindberg and works by friends like Roger Vitrac who shared his initial enthusiasm for Surrealism. After leaving the surrealist group due to disagreements with Andre Breton, he wrote a number of articles that were published between the 1920s and 1930s. These are often regarded as his most significant pieces of work and they include Art and Death (1929) and his very influential publication The Theatre and its Double (1938). In these works, Artaud forwarded ideas for the creation of a Total Theatre that he hoped would transform existing expectations of theatrical experiences. Noting theatre's dependency on scripts, he believed that theatre had turned into a mouthpiece for the playwright and argued that theatre practitioners should stop being bound to texts and should try to discover and articulate their own language. Artaud's belief in a language that is unique to live performance has impacted deeply on the work of many twentieth century directors and theorists. For example, celebrated figures like Peter Brook, Jean-Louis Barrault, Jerzy Grotowski and Jacques Derrida have embraced and explored this idea in various ways and their work, in turn, has continued to inspire many other writers and practitioners.
Artaud rejected traditional views that suggested art reflected life and that theatre merely mirrored the everyday reality. Instead, he inverted this view and argued that culture often masked our real selves. For him, theatre offered a way of removing the inhibitions and restrictions introduced by social mores and cultural conditioning and uncovering what was authentic. He vehemently rejected suggestions that theatre should try and instruct spectators (see Brecht and possibly even Kosky for examples). Instead, he wanted theatre to provoke and confront spectators so that they could directly unleash what he saw as the primal, raw and real qualities in human behaviour. He argued that the aim of theatre should not be to solve social or psychological conflicts, but to express and uncover what he felt was ‘the truth.' Perhaps because of his own experiences, Artaud regarded fear, panic and suffering as basic elements of the human condition and he wanted to stimulate these responses through the creation of what he called the Theatre of Cruelty. While he wanted to develop a theatrical approach that would violently force audiences to experience their true selves and to recognise their deepest fears, he was never able to fully realise this ambition and many of his ideas were dismissed. He did begin to explore his theories in practice in an experimental season in 1934 he called the Theatre of Cruelty and some of his ideas seem to have been applied in his adaptation of Shelley's play The Cenci (Les Cenci 1935). Yet, as Artaud lost lucidity and became increasingly prone to hallucinations, even those working with him were less inclined to experiment with his ideas. Although he died in 1948 in relative obscurity, his work was again considered and discussed in the 1960s when he became a cult figure in France. Since then, his influence has been significant and his ideas are now often viewed as provocative and insightful perspectives on the world of theatre.