A window on the life of Antoine Artaud

I have always been very keen on prying into difficult lives like Antoine Artaud, perhaps because my childhood was not the most serene. Then my curiosity and passion for reading led me to read, to study, to research.

Antoine Artaud French poet, playwright, essayist, novelist, theatre director and actor

This time I bring you a little insight into the life and work of Antoine Marie Joseph Artaud, commonly called Antoine Artaud, born on 4 September 1896. Artaud was a French poet, playwright, essayist, novelist, theatre director and actor, thus a well-rounded and multifaceted artist, also with a mysterious personality full of extremes and contrasts.

This author was the creator of a vast oeuvre exploring most literary genres, which he used as pathways to an absolute and ‘total’ art. His first books of poems (he would later, disappointedly, abandon poetic preciosity) L’ombelic des limbes (The Navel of Limbs) from 1925 and Le Pèse-Nerfs (The Weight of Nerves) already announced the explosive character of his later work. . .

For me, his entire creation is truly brilliant.

The Theatre of Cruelty

However, the artist is best known as the creator of the theatre of cruelty (see The Theatre and its Double, 1938; Manifesto of the Theatre of Cruelty, 1948), a notion that had a great influence on the history of world theatre.

To account for his ‘versatility’, he worked in 22 films in the 1920s and 1930s, including Napoléon, by Abel Gance, and The Passion of Joan of Arc, by Carl Theodor Dreyer.

Through the influence of his work and dramatic ideas, he has been considered ‘the father of modern theatre’.

Childhood, illness and personality

“Remember that the reason for being has not been discovered”

Antoine Artaud

Let us go back to his childhood, however… at the tender age of four, the quiet life of a well-to-do boy was disturbed by illness: the child was struck down by a rather severe form of meningitis, believed to be the cause of the neurological problems that would later arise (stuttering, neuralgia and episodes of severe depression). During his adolescent years, Artaud was subjected to several sanatorium admissions, although between June and July 1916 he nevertheless managed to enrol in the army: he was, however, rejected due to self-induced episodes of somnambulism. His increasingly frequent personality crises led him to numerous recollections. During these admissions, he spent most of his time reading. In May 1919, he began to become addicted to opiates, due to the sanatorium director’s prescription of laudanum. Experiences that marked his work.

But let us try to understand his personality with these quotations.

“There are things to be destroyed. There are deformations of thought, habits of mind, vices, finally, that contaminate man’s judgements from birth. We are born, we live, we die, in the atmosphere of lies.”

Antoine Artaud

Antoine Artaud: The Inferno and Life

“Whoever wrote, painted, sculpted, built, modelled, invented, did so only to escape from Hell.”

Antoine Artaud

And I wonder what Artaud’s hell was?

Perhaps delving deep within himself, to the point of losing himself? Perhaps the non-acceptance and criticism from people who should have supported and/or loved him?

Surely art was his salvation.

His curiosity was a way to ‘be’ on the journey of discovery of how to be and who to be. For Artaud, living is an eternal doubt.

To live is nothing but to burn in questions. I do not conceive the work at the margin of life.

I feel more and more attracted to these personalities who have experienced the full plunge into their own hell, but I believe that they in turn have also felt attracted to other artists who have experienced similar hells to their own.

I quote below a sentence Artaud expressed about Vincent Van Gogh:

“And what is a true madman? It is a man who chooses to go insane–in the sense in which the word is used socially–rather than betray a higher thought of human dignity. This is why society uses asylums to gag all those it wants to get rid of or to defend itself because it refuses to become complicit in the greatest filth.”

Antoine Artaud, from (Van Gogh, the Killed by Society)

Given my admiration for this artist I also dove into his fertile correspondence and found elements and thoughts that I fully agree with. I even feel like I thought them up.

In fact, these are often in my thoughts as well, even before I read them written by a great man like Artaud.

I invite you and recommend reading the letter written by this artist in 1925 addressed to the directors of the asylum, which he called the “Asylum of the Insane.”

Yuleisy Cruz Lezcano.

Below are links to his books:

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A window into the life of Antoine Artaud
In this article by Yuleisy Cruz Lezcano we discover the difficult life of Antoine Artaud. Through The Theatre of Cruelty to Van Gogh
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