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Art, Performance

Antonin Artaud and the art of performance


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Antonin Artaud (1896-1948) was a French poet, actor, writer, playwright, screenwriter, anarchist and, above all, a libertarian figure in the arts who used elements of surrealism.

In his 1935 book, Theatre and its Double, he wrote on the importance of shouting and breathing, and of the body as the primordial locus of theatrical action. He rejected the supremacy of words.

According to Artaud himself, the artist’s associations would bring down the barriers that kept actor and audience at bay from each other, and all people inside a theatre hall would take part in the creative process.

After his first manifesto, Artaud devised exercises for the voice to hit, dig, puncture, shake. The word was to acquire a material quality; it should itself turn into gesture and deed.

In the 1930s, he went so far as to say that the stage was where life recreated itself. But after a stint in a psychiatric hospital, he maintained that the theatre is where the body itself is recreated as a whole entity.

In letters to friends, he noted that, once the body is freed from is automatic reactions, it opens up to Universal dancing. He wrote: «Theatre must find its true language, its spatial language, its language of gesture, of posture, of expression and mime, its language of shouts, onomatopoeia and noise, where all objective elements will lead to either visual or sound signals, but will have as much intellectual importance and significance as words.»

To this day, his expressionist manifestos are a primary reference to performance art. In Brazil, he inspired artists of the calibre of Denise Stoklos  and her Essential Theatre. Zé Celso, from the Workshop Theatre, is another one who drank from Artaud’s source. Last year, he staged Artaud’s “To Have Done with the God’s Judgement”. It is a radio play about the Final Judgement, and was banned in France in 1948. Amid a cacophony of sounds, the end of the world was announced.

In 1969, Gilles Deleuze published “How to Make a Body Without Organs?”, structured around the notion of the body in performance theatre which Artaud had staged in his radio play full of grunts and cries. For Deleuze, the play’s message reaches listeners in their most inner being, and makes them break with their lethargy, and express ideas and desires.

Jacques Derrida – a great admirer of Artaud’s work, authoring several paper on it – said in an interview to Regards magazine: «Theatre was his greatest interest. But it was also a rebellion against the theatre that was. His so-called “theatre of cruelty” implied a break, even an actual destruction of all that old theatre of acting, of words, of a theatre that subjected the body to the author’s text. Contrary to what has often been attributed him, Artaud did not want the actor to improvise. He was in favour of minutely prescribing all gestures on the stage. But that prescription did not mean that the actor was to obey a previously spoken text. There is great coherence between the theatre of cruelty and painting. One of his paintings is in fact called ‘Theatre of Cruelty’. Both arts meant the same experience to him.»