I am yet to find the time to bet down to this long planned article, but found enough to write a little teaser about his theatre and its existential leanings.
A poet, writer, actor, director and essayist who was active in the 30s and 40s, he is one of the greatest theatre figures of our century, and whose relevance to theatre today is second only to Meyerhold. His work was an important bridge between the bold, unsustained, and indeed unsustainable, avant-garde experimentation of Alfred Jarry, and the radical revolution of the theatre of the absurd, an inadequate term that I will discuss later.
The cornerstones of his philosophy (if I dare reduce Artaud to points) were his philosophy of action and the conception of a poetic stage, and his deep-rooted existentialism is apparent in both, as in all his ideas.
The advocacy of action is based on a simple belief that there is no other course but that of action, and no recourse to express and communicate. This apparently simple lack of assumption shakes the very foundations of what he called the Western theatre, meaning Stanislavki’s system in particular and the staid sober realistic psychological theatre in general. Brilliantly, Artaud denounces the whole psychological theatre as one interested in little else but “whether or not we have had a fuck”. [I quote from a blurred memory.]
Clearly, Artaud is denouncing the simplistic presumption of “types” of characters and the self-indulgence in “studying the character” that you see in Stanislavski. In doing that, he is also denying the core or essence of human nature, and that is precisely where his existentialism begins. If man is but a sum of his actions, then one is clearly denying his essential goodness, his noble savagery (wonder where Rousseau came up with that oxymoron?!) or his inherent superiority. And his right to go to heaven, or live beyond, or karma, and ultimately the coherence of this very world.
As for Artaud’s idea of the poetic stage he conceived the stage as a plastic medium, a medium where acting style, sound, light, music, blocking, sets, make-up etc will add to the desired effect. This might seem like an obvious thing to say, but till Meyerhold came along with his proscenium stage, people like Stanislavski were talking of box stages that showed a piece of life! The theatrical work was judged on its verisimilitude to life, by an essentially extrinsic yardstick. The operatic technique, dominant for centuries, and used by dramatists such as Shaw, was revolutionized by Stanislavski. The shift he advocated was to the opposite end of the theatrical spectrum. Towards absolute realism.
Meyerhold came along reinstating the operatic method, incorporating the proscenium stage and drawing attention to the stage as a picture frame construct. His biomechanical system however did reduce the actor to a pixel in his picture frame. A mere director’s pawn. A classical constructivist approach.
Artaud balances the actor centric approach of Stanislavski and the scenic craftsmanship of Meyerhold and his theatre is one that balances the visual-plastic elements as well as the actor’s role.
Another characteristic of Artaud’s poetic stage was its construction of visual antitheses. What Artaud meant by a visual antithesis (though I do not think he used the word) was that the objects, props, sets, even bodily postures on stage should assume an unnatural dimension. A certain novelty that will make the scene or gesture entirely unexpected.
This idea of inversion, visual in this case, is certainly in keeping with his anarchic tendencies as detailed in The Theatre and Its Double, particularly in its first essay Theatre and the Plague. In Theatre and the Plague, he likens the theatre to the plague in its ability to create visceral sensation, and also in its ability to destroy social order.
This often unqualified advocacy of anarchy is derived from his existentialist beliefs. The starting point of a lack of human essence leads to a meaningless society. This is clear enough in the case of his social anarchy. But it is his visual anarchy that interests me. The point of using objects and props in unusual ways was intended to produce a startling effect that questioned our conception not only of the object but also of the one it represented. For instance, in Alfred Jarry’s Ubu Roi, the King Ubu carried a toilet cleaner as a scepter. Alfred Jarry was an important, but unfortunately esoteric, forerunner of Artaud. Artaud himself acknowledged his debt to Jarry by naming his second theatre as Theatre Alfred Jarry. (The first, of course, was the famous Theatre of Cruelty.)
His radically new conception of the theatre, and his contributions to the craft of theatre, like his conception of a poetic stage, make Artaud a significant figure to theatre enthusiasts. His existentialism informs an underlies his pround formalitic innovations, above all in his conception of a theatrical experience that reflected and condensed life to its most concentrated, most intense, most vital.