Signaling Through the Flames: Artaud's Inquisition
“I cannot conceive any work of art as having a separate existence from life itself.”
The French writer and artist Antonin Artaud (1896-1948) was one of the most socially unconditioned thinkers of the 20th century.
He was a fierce enemy of psychiatry (everything today we would call "mental health culture") and said that writers should be like victims of the Inquistion—burned at the stake, signaling their message through the flames.
For Artaud, this was the necessary and correct culmination of any free, artistic life—so much heat and suffering that one no longer even images an audience. One keeps going simply as a way to endure the annihilation.
I don't think everyone should try to actualize Artaud's philosophy to the maximum, but anyone who fails to understand its kernel of truth has yet to really begin.
Writing is not placing words on a page. It's a socially pyrotechnic askesis that mostly takes place off the page.
Susan Sontag said that the impact of Antonin Artaud on the theatre was so great that "the course of all recent theatre in Western Europe and the Americas can be said to divide into two periods—before Artaud and after Artaud."
The main title containing Artaud’s theoretical ideas, The Theatre and Its Double was published in 1938.
Here are a few other notes on why Artaud is interesting, how he was influential, and what we might take from his work.
Today, many of us are bored with silly postmodern "performance art" and all of the corny museum exhibitions that "blur the line between stage and audience." It's totally exhausted and empty now, the terrain of overgrown children with no real vision or discipline. But in the 1930s, nobody had ever heard of anything like this yet. Until Artaud.
Artaud was a serious thinker. Infamously, he did become clinically deranged, but you cannot dismiss him as a madman. His ideas and writings strike me as sophisticated, sincere, and vital. He believed that institutions were making humans sick and that the job of theatre was to revivify life itself. Again this stuff sounds trite today, but he really meant this at a time when it was not common or normal to say things like this.
Artaud's Theatre of Cruelty involved intense incantations, groaning, screaming, aggressively pulsating lights, scary and oversized puppets, etc.
The theoretical essays he published in Nouvelle Revue Française between 1931 and 1936 were lated published as a book, which is today the seminal source typically cited, called The Theatre and Its Double.
The Theatre and Its Double is great reading. I have no particular interest in the theatre but the book is rich with metaphysical and sociological vision. I'll leave you with one idea from the text, in hopes that you may read it for yourself later.