The Total Work of Artaud

Chantale Potie

Antonin Artaud, (1896-1948), was a French playwright, poet, actor, and theatre director who created his own unique genre of theatre in the 1930’s, which he entitled Theatre of Crueuelty. Artaud co-founded and ran the short-lived Alfred Jarry Theatre in Paris, where he produced his play, The Cenci. The Cenci was a commercial failure, but it showcased Artaud’s extreme ideas about theatre and how he planned to change the language and structure of performance. The Cenci was one of the few plays that Artaud was able to produce; therefore much of the information discussed in this paper is not taken directly from what Artaud actually succeeded in doing, but from what his intentions were. He wrote extensively and thoroughly about theatre and how he intended on changing it.

The total work of art, or Gesamtkunstwerk, is a concept notably taken on and enacted by Richard Wagner in the mid-nineteenth century. Wagner basically wanted to create an all-encompassing theatre experience for the viewer, bringing them out of reality and into his fantasy world. Wagner controlled most aspects of his theatre; merging together dance, noise, and poetry. Artaud created his works in the same manner, having absolute control over every aspect: directing, playwriting, sound, acting, set design, and the role of the audience. I will discuss these roles within Artaud’s concept for the Theatre of Cruelty, as well as relate it to Wagner’s initial notion of the total work of art.

In The Dramatic Concepts of Antonin Artaud, Eric Sellin categorizes the dramatic theories of Artaud into two groupings: solar drama and lunar drama. Sellin characterizes solar drama as “action, the Male, revolt, and self-assertion” and lunar drama as “stasis, the Female, acquiescence, and self-abnegation.”1 While Artaud has found inspiration in both types of drama, his writings and his aesthetic, in general, tend to favor the solar drama. Solar drama encompasses a sense of defiance and cruelty against the gods or, likewise, civilized man and his societal norms. Artaud’s attempt to overthrow the gods through art would be described by Nietzsche as the romantic rebellion, where the poet becomes the liberator.

Artaud’s concepts on theatre were initially inspired by ancient Mexican culture and by oriental theatre.2 Ancient Mexican culture highlighted the lunar drama aspect of his work, and oriental theatre – specifically Balinese dance performance – brought out the solar drama side. Balinese theatre is a combination of dance, song, pantomime, and sound. It has moments of startling gestures and repetition in body movements, all of which accumulate in an effort to visually illustrate states of being and feeling. There was a sense of mysticism in the work of the Balinese troupes, and what Artaud admired was their “ability to reach a state of ecstasy, delirium, intoxication, trance and to propel their audiences into this same mood of spellbound alertness,”3 – the feeling one might experience if one were awake during a dream. Artaudian theatre is, by its very nature, a ritualistic theatre. In dialogue, Artaud frequently utilized incantation, and centered on trying to release the soul of the characters, actors, and viewers. It is intended to be full of passion in order to provoke an emotional reaction and to appeal to the five senses. The goal for Artaud was to be void of rationality in order to probe at the mental status quo of the spectators.

Artaud was not one to follow the accepted forms of creative practice; in fact, he was violently opposed to them. Artaud wrote in his book The Theatre and Its Double, “If there is still one hellish, truly accursed thing in our time, it is our artistic dallying with forms, instead of being like victims burnt at the stake, signaling through the flame.”4 Artaud does not completely dismiss preceding theatre, saying, “masterpieces of the past are good for the past: they are not good for us.”5 He believed that though art of the past may have spoken to and have been relevant to the public of the time, it did not adequately relate to the contemporary public. Like Wagner, Artaud was for a new construction of art, one that was to satisfy the needs of the community — the real public, as opposed to the nonrepresentational elite.6 There was a necessity for Artaud to work with the concept of the Gesamtkunstwerk, in the sense that it emphasizes every aspect of art coming together in order to reach its full potential. Wagner wrote in “The Art-Work of the Future”: “[Drama] can only be at hand in all its possible fullness, when in it each separate branch of art is at hand in its own utmost fullness.”7Artaud was not just attempting to rebel against a single form, like drama, but against all forms. In order to get a full sensory reaction from the viewer, it was necessary for Artaud to give himself up to the Gesamtkunstwerk. Every aspect of the theatre was dictated primarily by Artaud, and revitalized in some sort of way which worked toward the necessity of theatre to exist as a total work of art.

One aspect of Artaud’s theatre that changed quite dramatically from the classics was text and speech. Instead of technical stage elements seeking to reinforce the text, like lighting and music servicing, they would essentially replace the text. Artaud’s scripts had little dialogue and focused more on human noises such as screams, grunts, moans, sighs, yelps, and gasps. Accompanying, and thus reinforcing these noises, the actor would perform an array of overpronounced gestures and movements. This new method of acting and directing would enable the unconscious minds of the performers and Artaud to communicate with the unconscious minds of the viewers.8Artaud was attempting to communicate with the emotional state of the viewer, as opposed to the intellectual state. Rationality and linear narrative were not of priority in these performances. In a manner analogous to Maurice Merleau-Ponty’s claim that true, primordial consciousness is to be found within the body.9 Artaud called for a theatre- drama of embodiment; that is, where it is through the body, and, more specifically, “through the skin that metaphysics must be made to re-enter our minds.”10 He wanted the spectators to live and feel what was happening in front of them, rather than solely thinking about it.

Artaud created his theatre under the concept of metaphysics. He defined metaphysics as a kind of creative investigation that goes farther than the usual physical and tangible limits; going into the ethereal, into what theatre is capable of becoming, as opposed to what it is: “’True poetry’ is metaphysical and ‘true theatre’ depends on this poetry by exploiting all the theatre’s means, not merely the words.”11 Therefore, the language of theatre occurs in the staging of space and movement, with gestures, signs, attitudes, sets, objects, actions, and patterns in sounds, all of which eventually lead to incantation. Theatre becomes a religious experience, a healing experience, inspired by solar drama.

Sound was an aspect of theatre that Artaud radically altered; he created a sort of audible language that was visceral and disturbing. Artaud wanted his words to be expressed in unusual ways in order to get a full range of oral expressiveness. Artaud was sometimes quite frustrated with his actors because they were not able to scream at full throat or truly experiment with untried sounds. For Artaud, vocal sound effects share the stage with “mechanical sounds, music, and silences; [they] can then fuse with the language of lights and color and the language of mime and gesture”12. It is difficult, and likely futile to isolate all of the elements from each other. They only have the potential to be successful when fused together. Artaud described his ideal theatre:

[…] [Every] spectacle will contain a physical and objective element appreciable to all. Cries, laments, apparitions, surprises, dramatic virtuosities of all sorts, the magical beauty of costumes based on certain ritual models, splendorous lighting, the incantatory beauty of voices, …concrete apparitions of new and surprising objects, masks, mannequins several meters tall, and brusque changes in lighting.13

The palpability of the stage presentation does not call for the eradication of speech, but rather for its submission to the overall production, and for new ways of delivering speech in theatre. Artaud saw music as sounds that take on the role of characters, where harmonies are cut in half and are mixed in with the careful intrusion of words. He called sounds an integral part of the décor. Artaud wanted noise in his productions that the potential of contemporary musical instruments lacked; he wanted the quality and vibrations of noise to be able to surprise the audience and create a more visceral bodily reaction.

Artaud was against Stanislavski’s technique of ‘method acting’, which prompted the actors to perform more naturally and realistically. Artaud created physical characters that did not always represent a human or even a living thing; sometimes they represented a spirit or an abstract ideal. Artaud demanded a lot from his actors; requiring that they work their way through a variety of strenuous positions with ease. They needed strong lungs in order to execute both loud and quiet sounds whilst in an array of demanding stances. Artaud also included masks and puppets as characters within the play, which helped to increase the tension and shift the overall balance of the performance. A strong emphasis on breathing was put on the actors, comparing them to athletes: “What the athlete depends upon in running is what the actor depends upon in shouting a passionate curse, but the actor’s course is altogether interior.”14 Artaud related the act of breathing to external expression, stating that one is dependant and proportional to the other. He created a very detailed and specific sort of musical tempo, calling it “passional time”, that was based around gender and feeling, distinct to each individual actor.15

Artaud proposed an open-stage setup inspired by oriental theatre. The setup was not intended to be a room with three walls and the stage up front; sometimes it would not even be a typical theatre space at all. Artaud was interested in using unusual settings, such as a barn, a factory hall, or a hangar. As Artaud became increasingly enthusiastic and immersed in producing theatre, he quickly realized that technology was essential to the growth of his ideas. Lighting, especially, was an area that he wanted to upgrade drastically. Artaud was looking for “luminous vibrations […], as well as new means of projecting lighting in waves, or in sheets, or like a volley of flaming arrows.”16 The play would be setup in various arenas of the theatre area, such as the corners of the room and on the catwalks. The audience would have “mobile chairs which will permit [them] to follow the performance which will take place all around [them],”17 giving the visual experience a much more physical and tangible quality. There was no longer the façade that what the audience was watching a distanced form of a theatre: a linear, fictional tale outside of the audience. Artaudian theatre was quite a lavish concept, needing full access to technology and equipment. Artaud thought big, and felt his ideas would not be successful if they were not executed in exactly the right manner. This is a significant reason as to why several of his pieces never went into production.

Matthew Wilson Smith writes about the Gesamtkunstwerk in The Total Work of Art: From Bayreuth to Cyberspace, “On one hand: the Gesamtkunstwerk is impossible. It is a lantern image, a ghost in glass. Utopia, thus nowhere. […]It is a longing for unity amidst fragmentation, for collectivity amidst alienation.”18 Wagner saw the total work of art as an art form about collectivity, unity, and totality. Moreover, like Artaud, Wagner’s theatre was not just about the actual performance, but also about the role of the audience. Wagner felt suffocated by the Industrial Revolution and technology, and felt as though it was making the public increasingly isolated and separated. Wagner built his own theatre, the Festspielhaus, in a secluded town in Bayreuth, Germany, with the intention of escaping the metropolis, as well as the world of conformity and commerce. He wanted to bring his audience together, away from a toxic environment, creating a sort of alternative community within nature. His goal was not just to entertain, but also to make his audience set out on a pilgrimage, and extend the experience of what theatre could be, or has the potential to be. Wagner’s total work of art was going against the notions of commerce, industry, mass production, and mechanics, whilst Artaud’s theatre was a rebellion against rationality, intellect, inhibition, and composure. Both are essentially reacting against the same thing: the bourgeoisie, the middle-class, the conformist. Artaud altered the typical environment of theatre, as well as the expected procedures of a performance. He completely immersed the audience as a whole making them feel as though they were one with the fellow audience members, with the actors, and with Artaud himself. The viewers were engaged in an interaction that included spiritual energy and bodily experience, as opposed to simple verbal communication. The goal was to form a collective of ideas, and also of participants.

• Artaud, Antonin. Collected Works. Volume Four. Translated by Victor Corti. London: Calder & Boyars, 1964.
• -, -. The Theatre and Its Double. Translated by Marry Caroline Richards. New York: Grove Press, 1958.
• Bermel, Albert. Artaud’s Theatre of Cruelty. New York: Taplinger Publishing Company, 1977.
• Merleau-Ponty, Maurice. Phenomenology of Perception. Translated by Colin Smith. Abingdon, Oxon & New York, NY: Routledge, 2010.
• Rowell, Margit, ed. Antonin Artaud: Works on Paper. New York: The Museum of Modern Art, 1997.
• Sellin, Eric. The Dramatic Concepts of Antonin Artaud. Chicago: The University of Chicago Press, 1968.
• Smith, Matthew Wilson. The Total Work of Art: From Bayreuth to Cyberspace. New York: Routledge, 2007
• Wagner, Richard. “The Art-Work of the Future: IV-Outlines of the artist of the Future.” In Prose Works, translated by William Aston Ellis. New York: Broude Brothers, 1966: 182-194.

1 Eric Sellin, The Dramatic Concepts of Antonin Artaud (Chicago: The University of Chicago Press, 1968), 11.
2 Ibid., 16.
3Albert Bermel, Artaud’s Theatre of Cruelty (New York: Taplinger Publishing Company, 1977), 24.
4Antonin Artaud, The Theatre and Its Double, translated by Mary Caroline Richards (New York: Grove Press, 1958), 13.
5 Ibid., 74.
6 Richard Wagner, “The Art-Work of the Future: IV-Outlines of the artist of the Future,” in Prose Works, trans. William Aston Ellis (New York: Broude Brothers, 1966), 192-3.
7 Ibid., [emphasis in text] 184.
8 Bermel, Artaud’s Theatre of Cruelty, 15.
9 Maurice Merlau-Ponty, Phenomenology of Perception, trans. Colin Smith (Abingdon, Oxon & New York, NY: Routledge, 2010), 157-170.
10 Artaud, The Theatre and Its Double, 20.
11 Bermel, Artaud’s Theatre of Cruelty, 20.
12 Ibid., 109.
13 Sellin, The Dramatic Concepts…, 84.
14 Artaud, The Theatre and Its Double, 133.
15 Ibid., 135.
16 Sellin, The Dramatic Concepts…, 87.
17 Artaud, The Theatre and Its Double, 96.
18 Matthew Wilson Smith, The Total Work of Art: From Bayreuth to Cyberspace (New York: Routledge, 2007), 8.