Antonin Artaud and Absurdist Theatre Content from the guide to life, the universe and everything

Antonin Artaud and Absurdist Theatre

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Antoine Marie Joseph Artaud was a Frenchman, born in September 1896 in Marseilles, and was a major influence in the theatrical concepts of Expressionism and Absurdism; he died in Paris in March 1948. It is important, however, to point out that the term Theatre of the Absurd was coined by a critic, Martin Eslin, after Artaud died and the style had been furthered, in 1961. Little is known of his life due to the fact he constantly changed his name, but despite his various pseudonyms he is known best as Antonin Artaud. Despite having many siblings, only Artaud, his brother and his sister survived infancy. Throughout his adolescence he had a nervous and irritable disposition which is said to have been caused by a severe attack of meningitis at the age of four - this was not thought to be the reason behind his neuralgia, stammering and severe depression, though. Owing to these problems, his parents had him committed to an asylum for five years where he developed a lifelong addiction to opium (among other drugs), prescribed to him by the head doctor. He spent June and July 1916 in the army under conscription until his self-induced sleepwalking led to his dismissal. His time in the Great War opened his eyes to chaos and instability which paved the way for his theatrical theory. After being released in 1920, Artaud moved to Paris.


In Paris he studied acting and eventually debuted in a surrealist play at Théâtre de l'Oeuvre but soon broke his ties with the Surrealist movement after its leader, André Breton, allied the movement with Communism in 1926. Believing the strength of the movement was apolitical, Artaud decided to join forces with another Surrealist who had left the group for a short time and soon he appeared in film - Abel Gance's Napoléon (1927) and Carl Dreyer's La Passion de Jeanne d'Arc (1928). Soon after this he began writing of his theatrical concepts, which he published in two books, as well as trying his hand at plays of his own which were largely failures, seen as too experimental for the time.

Theatre of Cruelty

In his writings, Artaud laid out a means for the theatre to become more than something acted on a stage and watched from seats. The Manifesto for the Theatre of Cruelty (1932) and The Theatre and Its Double (1938) set out his theory1 that the stage should voice the inner turbulence of the human spirit. Physicality is more important than spoken words in Artaud's eyes. This comes from the idea that theatre should be taken from the human spirit, and in dreams words are not important, it is the images that are most powerful. Gestures, sounds, images, unusual scenery, overwhelming lighting and more should create a language of its own that can subvert logic, reason and human language. Theatre should be a mirror of life, but enhanced and taken to an extreme; there should be no limits in achieving an emotional response. The phrase Theatre of Cruelty was coined by him as a drastic action taken to its most extreme effect on stage. The experience of theatre should, according to Artaud, include the audience as part of the experience and places an equal emphasis on all five human senses: sight, sound, smell, taste and touch.

Sound and Vision

The lighting of a theatrical experience should not create a realistic atmosphere on the stage but should be overwhelming in terms of shade and colour. Equally, sound should provide an extreme sensory experience and should actually enter the inner-psyche of the audience and provoke a completely emotive response from them. The best way to achieve this would be to use shocking images and sounds.


An actor does not necessarily represent a human or even a living thing, unlike the natural theatre of Stanislavski an actor can play a spirit or represent an abstract ideal. Thus, the actor's body should be highly-trained in order to achieve a variety of positions with ease. Strong lungs are required to achieve both loud and quiet sounds in a variety of strenuous positions. Masks and puppets may also need to be mastered, as well as a complete confidence in everything that is undertaken - expressionism has no limits.


Artaud preferred working with detailed scripts rather than mere dialogue texts. The text should encompass all action taking part on the stage and around the audience; this has been a great influence on Arthur Miller and Samuel Beckett who famously use large amounts of stage directions.


As mentioned before, the language of the Theatre of Cruelty is not always a recognisable human language and often seeks to replace it. The language does not even have to be verbal, rather than distorted and inhuman sounds it could be created by gesture. If dialogue is used, it should not be the only means of communication; ritualistic movements, gestures and repetitive sound patterns can replace traditional speech.


Artaudian theatre is, by its very nature, a ritualistic theatre. It is intended to be full of passion and emotion in order to provoke an emotional reaction from the audience. It is intended to be void of rationality in order to probe at the mental status quo of the audience. The idea of the theatre is to appeal to the five senses and rarely anything else.

Later Life

Artaud journeyed to many places, including Mexico where he wrote about his travels. On a return trip from Ireland in 1937, Artaud was arrested and put in a straitjacket before being interned into a wartime asylum in France. He suffered from mental anguish as well as starvation in the asylum as well as 51 electroshock comas before his eventual release in 1946. In March 1948, he died alone in his pavilion, clutching his shoe from a suspected lethal dose of chloral2; whether he knew it was lethal or not is unknown. Though his own plays were unsuccessful and his writing mostly unintelligible, his influence on later playwrights who veered away from the conventions of language and the rationality of theatre is enormous.

1Though most of it is arrogant rambling and incomprehensibly technical.2A strong type of sedative.

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