Antonin Artaud, Surrealism and the Void; by Stephen Barber

Armand Salacrou | Antonin Artaud, 1927


Artaud believed that every birth coincides with a killing.

Antoine Marie Joseph Artaud was born at eight in the morning of 4 September 1896, at 15 rue du Jardin des Plantes, near the Marseilles zoo. The rue du Jardin des Plantes has since been renamed the rue des Trois Frères Carasso. Artaud himself, on many occasions, was to change and distort the name under which he was baptised into the Roman Catholic Church. He adopted numerous pseudonyms, such as Eno Dailor for some of his early Surrealist texts.

Before his journey to Ireland in 1937, he styled himself ‘The Revealed One’ in his prophetic book The New Revelations of Being. During the same period, he declared: ‘My name must disappear’,[1] and he answered to no name at all for the first period of his asylum internment. At the asylum of Ville-Évrard, he adopted his mother’s maiden name and asserted that his name was Antonin Nalpas. After his release from the asylums and his return to Paris in 1946, Artaud took for himself the nickname ‘le Mômo’ (Marseilles slang for a fool or village idiot), and he distorted his surname to ‘outo’ and ‘Totaud’. Finally, he came to terms with having a name derived from his father’s name, Antoine Roi Artaud (Antonin is a diminutive, ‘little Anthony’), and from those of the parents of Jesus Christ. In his last writings, he was able to weld his name, which he felt he had finally won for himself, to imagery of an explosive identity:

Who am I?
Where do I come from?
I am Antonin Artaud
and I say this
as I know how to say this
you will see my present body
burst into fragments
and remake itself
under ten thousand notorious aspects
a new body
where you will
never forget me. [2]

Artaud’s family origins were dispersed across the Mediterranean, from France to Greece and Turkey. His childhood in the great European-African-Asian trading port of Marseilles exposed him to a fertile crisscrossing of languages, dialects and gestural signs which resonate in his multilingual texts. His father ran a shipping company until its financial collapse in 1909, and was often absent on trading journeys during Artaud’s childhood; he died in 1924 when Artaud was twenty-seven years old and on the point of adhering to the Surrealist group. His mother, a Levantine Greek, had a great number of children of whom only Artaud, one sister and one brother survived infancy; she died in 1952, having outlived her first child, Antonin. The family atmosphere was deeply restrictive, heated and religious. In family photographs, Antonin appears bewildered. Later in life, from his time at the asylum of Rodez until his death, he elaborated an alternative, oppositional family, entirely female, which he called his ‘daughters of the heart to be born’. This sexually charged grouping was composed both from imaginary elements and from women Artaud had known during the course of his life. The only members of his actual family to be included were his beloved and sympathetic grandmothers, Catherine and Neneka, who had been sisters. As Artaud’s daughters, they were genealogically inverted from their familial position, to be reborn as Artaud’s courageous, erotic warrior-children.

At the age of four years, Antonin had a severe attack of meningitis. The family and their doctor assumed it was due to the child having fallen on his head, and he was not expected to survive. The virus gave Antonin a nervous, irritable temperament throughout adolescence. He also suffered from neuralgia and stammering. His school years in Marseilles were consequently difficult and unsuccessful. At the age of seventeen, he underwent a crisis of depression, causing him to burn the poetry which he had been writing for around four years, and to abandon school before taking the leaving certificate, the baccalauréat. During his time at Rodez in the 1940s, when Artaud was systematically reinventing his past life, he often wrote of an episode from this period, in which he had been stabbed in the back by a pimp outside a church in Marseilles. At Rodez, he claimed that the attack was the manifestation of a malicious social and religious will, and that he still had a scar from the stab wound. If the narrated event relates to an actual event, it seems likely to have been the result of an altercation between a hoodlum in that violent city and an inexperienced youth looking for sexual or narcotic adventure. Shortly afterwards, Artaud’s parents arranged for the first in a long series of sanatorium stays for their disruptive son.

These private ‘rest cures’ were both prolonged and expensive. They lasted five years, with a break of two months, June and July 1916, when Artaud was conscripted into the army. He spent his brief army career with an infantry regiment stationed at Digne, an isolated town in northern Provence, and was discharged due to his self-induced habit of sleepwalking. The sanatorium stays were then resumed, taking the form of a kind of bourgeois internment of the ‘difficult’ son. They prefigure the longer and more gruelling internments of 1937-46. The writer Pierre Guyotat wrote of these first internments that Artaud’s family ‘had him locked up for simple ‘‘troubles’’ due to the force of his thought’.

Certainly, Artaud wasted no time during this luxurious incarceration. He was occupied with reading Rimbaud, Baudelaire and Poe. At the last sanatorium, at Neuchâtel in Switzerland, Artaud did a great amount of drawing and painting. Photographs from the period show a morose but attractive young man with flowing dark hair, adopting intricate and theatrical postures with evident self-involvement. In May 1919, the director of the sanatorium, Dr Dardel, prescribed opium for Artaud, precipitating a lifelong addiction to that and other drugs. At the end of 1919, Artaud formulated the project of travelling to Paris in order to attempt a career in literature, film and theatre. His parents, in desperation, assented; Dr Dardel arranged for Artaud to be transferred into the care of a colleague in Paris, Dr Édouard Toulouse, who was engaged in a study and categorization of artistic genius. In March 1920, at the age of twenty-three, Artaud made his first independent journey, to Paris.

The Paris in which Artaud spent his first creative years witnessed the flaring-up and subsequent self-willed disintegration of Dada, the disordered anti-art movement which had its origins in Zurich and Berlin during World War One. It had converged on Paris at the end of the war, led by Tristan Tzara. Dada made an initial alliance with the nascent Surrealist group of André Breton, which was involved with developing a chance poetry of the unconscious mind. Artaud was aware of the early Surrealist magazine Littérature. Over the three years from his arrival in Paris, the Surrealist and Dada groups would move into bitter and often violent confrontation, with Breton eventually assuming an authoritarian control over the raging momentum which Dada had generated. The Dada leader, Tristan Tzara, would become a Marxist in the mid-1930s, and would continue to berate the Surrealists for their political vacillations. While Breton channelled the turmoil of Dada and began formulating manifestoes for the Surrealist movement out of material fluctuating between automatism, idealism and obsession, Artaud pursued an erratic career as a theatre actor and art critic. Dr Toulouse had given Artaud the co-editorship of his part-artistic, part-scientific periodical Demain, and it was in that capacity that Artaud began to develop the critical power which would still be at work twenty-five years later, when he wrote his texts on Van Gogh, Coleridge and Lautréamont.

Toulouse was the head psychiatrist at the Villejuif asylum in south-east Paris, where he was pioneering humane treatments for his patients.  For his first six months in Paris, Artaud lodged with the Toulouse family. He then began to live an itinerant life, mostly within the eighth and ninth arrondisements (or districts) of Paris, moving rapidly between cheap hotel rooms, occasionally destitute and dependent upon friends for a place to sleep. This restlessness would continue throughout Artaud’s life in Paris, until his departure for Ireland in 1937. It was only during his final period in Paris, from 1946 to 1948, that Artaud found a stable home and working space, at his pavilion in the convalescence clinic at Ivry-sur-Seine.

It was one of Artaud’s original intentions to become a successful film actor. His maternal cousin, Louis Nalpas, was one of the leading producers of French commercial cinema during the 1920s and 1930s. But before Nalpas would give him film roles, Artaud needed to obtain some acting experience, and so he turned to the theatre. For four years, and in numerous roles and companies, he acted in the Paris theatres. He usually played minor parts, but attracted considerable attention through the exaggerated, gestural acting style which he developed during this period. A factor in the anti-naturalistic expressivity of this stage technique was Artaud’s witnessing of a performance by a troupe of Cambodian dancers at the Marseilles Colonial Exhibition in June 1922, during a visit to his parents. This experience prefigured the great impact which a performance by Balinese dancers exerted on his proposals for a Theatre of Cruelty, nine years later. Of the many productions in which Artaud acted, certainly the most exceptional was that of Sophocles’ Antigone in December 1922. This version, directed by Charles Dullin at the Atelier theatre in Montmartre, was adapted by Jean Cocteau and condensed to thirty minutes; the sets were by Pablo Picasso, the costumes by Coco Chanel, and the music by Arthur Honegger. It was a great success, despite a demonstration on the opening night by the Surrealists, who despised Cocteau for his contacts with Parisian high society. Artaud had the part of Tiresias, and Antigone was played by a strange and compellingly beautiful young Romanian actress, Génica Athanasiou.

It was with Génica Athanasiou, in 1922, that Artaud had his first sexual relationship. Previously, he had formed attachments to the sickly, tubercular girls he had met during his sanatorium years. Génica, by contrast, was robustly attractive and sexually experienced; her family had originated in Albania, and her complexion was dark. During this period, Artaud was himself alarmingly beautiful, with dark eyes, prominent cheekbones, and lips stained purple by the laudanum he had begun to take. A great passion developed between the two colleagues in Dullin’s theatre company; Artaud was twenty-five and Génica twenty-three. Artaud’s letters to Génica Athanasiou demonstrate an enveloping, wild adoration. He projects their relationship onto global, even infinite levels, while his response to the sexual charge of their liaison is more guarded. (Later in life, at Rodez, he would write of being ‘de-virginalized by Génica’.)[3] Génica’s own passion was apparently more reserved; she was ambitious, having travelled from Bucharest with the intention of pursuing a successful acting career in Paris, and it may have been that the attraction she felt for Artaud was ultimately aimed towards his film-producer cousin. For the first two or three years of their relationship, they were contented. When Artaud had to return temporarily to his parents in July 1923, through lack of money, Génica went to stay nearby and they met secretly. But their acting careers were not progressing well. Génica’s strong Romanian accent and her mediocre command of French limited the number of roles she could take; similarly, Artaud’s distinctive acting style alienated him even from some of the more adventurous and amenable theatre directors, such as Dullin. But the crucial flaw in their relationship was Artaud’s growing drug addiction. Génica was looking for a successful, metropolitan career and a hectic, cafe-based social life with regular sex; she became exasperated with Artaud’s increasing dependence on opium and his futile, unsupervised attempts at detoxification. Their letters agonize relentlessly over the problem. Artaud wrote: ‘I have need of angels. Enough hell has swallowed me for too many years. But finally understand this – I have burned up one hundred thousand human lives already, from the strength of my pain.’[4]

Though the relationship lasted for six years, until 1928, it became more difficult with each failed drug-withdrawal and subsequent reproach from Génica. They each had outside affairs: Génica with another actor from Dullin’s company, and Artaud with Janine Kahn, who later married the writer Raymond Queneau. Towards the end of their relationship, Artaud wrote to Génica: ‘When you have managed to penetrate a certain kind of hatred, it’s then that you truly feel love.’[5] In 1924, Génica began a minor career in silent cinema.


Germaine Dulac | The Seashell and the Clergyman, 1928


She appears in the Surrealist film The Seashell and the Clergyman, taken from a scenario by Artaud, and also in films by G.W. Pabst and Jean Grémillon. Finally, in 1928, Génica left Artaud for Grémillon. Artaud wrote that he felt ‘multiply alone’, and continued to write to Génica until 1940, when he was interned at the asylum of Ville-Évrard. He pleaded for heroin and declared: ‘Génica, we must leave this world, but for that, the Reign of the Other World must arrive, and I need many armed soldiers…’.[6] Génica Athanasiou was in many ways the most important woman in Artaud’s life. Even after his release from Rodez, in May 1946, he tried unsuccessfully to locate her at an address in the rue de Clignancourt where she had been living in poverty, her acting career having utterly collapsed.

During the latter part of Artaud’s period of theatre acting, towards 1923-4, his writing developed from art criticism and conventionally structured poetry into a mobile substance of extraordinary self-exposition and incision. It was a time of great flux in his life. The initial ecstasy of his relationship with Génica Athanasiou was being submerged in his anxiety over his drug intake, and over the voids and fractures which he perceived in his emergent poetry. He was beginning to be able to publish his work; his first book, Backgammon of Heaven, a collection of early poems, was published in May 1923 by the art dealer Daniel-Henri Kahnweiler, in an edition of 112 copies. Later in life, Artaud rejected this first book and refused to include it in his planned Collected Works, claiming that the poems it contained, rhymed and in stanza form, were hopelessly redundant and anachronistic. They had been produced to ingratiate themselves within a particular cultural climate, and that was a source of horror to the Artaud of the 1940s with his uncompromising attitude towards his work and individuality. But, in 1923, the publication of his work was a source of great jubilation to him. Artaud also published his own writings in the slight magazine Bilboquet, of which he edited and financed the only two issues in February and December 1923. The magazine solely comprised texts by Artaud, and forms a bridge between the art and literary criticism of the kind he had undertaken for Dr Toulouse (and which he would do again for his psychiatrist Dr Ferdière at Rodez), and the raw-nerved poetry which he would work through to its full impact over the years of his collaboration with the Surrealists. It was a magazine with a minute circulation, and Artaud gave as his editorial address that of the cheap hotel near the place de Clichy where he was staying at the time. His contacts in the artistic and literary life of Paris began to grow as his output increased. He met several painters associated with the Surrealist group during this period – André Masson, Joan Miró and Jean Dubuffet.

The most exciting development in Artaud’s life at this time was the beginning of his career in films. In the experimental first film of Claude Autant-Lara, Faits Divers, he played the role of a lover who is strangled to death in slow motion. Autant-Lara remembered Artaud as highly enthusiastic, but prone to outlandish gestural convulsions in his performance.

After that, Louis Nalpas was sufficiently convinced by his nephew’s acting experience and by the exceptional facial beauty he had demonstrated on screen in Faits Divers, and he began to use his influence to secure parts in the commercial cinema for Artaud. The first of these was in an energetic film, Surcouf, directed by Luitz Morat on location in Brittany from July to September 1924. Artaud played a traitor who falls over the edge of a cliff in this spectacular adventure film, in a genre that was riotously successful in the pre-sound era. The audiences’ response to Artaud’s vigorous performance was good, and he briefly believed that he could become a film star. And to some extent this would happen, with his appearances in two of the greatest films of the 1920s, Abel Gance’s Napoleon and Carl Theodor Dreyer’s The Passion of Joan of Arc. But the cinema would also become a source of anguish and bitter failure for Artaud during his erratic engagement with it over the next ten years.


Abel Gance | Napoléon, 1925


The event that initiated Artaud’s literary career was his 1923-4 correspondence with Jacques Rivière, the young editor of La Nouvelle Revue Française. The prestige of the magazine attracted Artaud as a young poet, but his work was manifestly inappropriate for its conservative pages under Rivière’s editorship. Its next editor, Jean Paulhan, was to be a great supporter of Artaud and to publish a great deal of his work. Rivière, however, approached Artaud’s jagged poetry as a literary problem to be examined, discussed and solved.

The correspondence concerns Artaud’s view of the fragment – the ‘failed’ text – as being more vital and exploratory than the ‘whole’ or ‘successful’ poem. In writing fragments, Artaud articulated his independence from and refusal of the coherent, unified aesthetic object. His fragments failed to incorporate themselves within a specific poetic culture; this intentional failure ensured that they would be banished into the territory of the self which was Artaud’s only subject matter. While they exist within a tradition of fragmentation which includes much Romantic poetry, and the works of Baudelaire, Rimbaud and Nietzsche, among others, Artaud’s fragments are exceptional in their willed upheaval and contraction of the language of poetry and the imagery of the self. Artaud’s letters to Rivière form a correspondence about communication whose axis is silence, erosion and abandonment. The one poem which Artaud inserted in the published version of the correspondence is entitled Cry. In his letters, Artaud anatomizes the creative process of fragmentation. He deals with his incapacity to write a poem, and with the crystalline paralysis and pain of his mental apparatus as it tries to seize and formulate poetic imagery, failing abjectly to do so. What Artaud does not grasp, in writing a lucid self-criticism which meshes with his poetry, is the substance of fragmentation. Confronting a poetic language that has been shattered by the exertion of writing at all, Artaud structures deep and disciplined insights into the emergence of the creative act.

In his initial letters to Rivière, Artaud declares his intention of transforming his ‘shreds’ into literary poems. He will write through feelings of loss, absence and desperation, in order to do this. Rivière gives Artaud blank encouragement in the project. He asserts that with due effort and concentration, Artaud will soon be able to produce poems that are ‘perfectly coherent and harmonious’, in the way that poems published in La Nouvelle Revue Française had to be. Artaud attempts this and fails. He brings back that fragment of failure as the material to be submitted to Rivière, and asks for it to be sanctioned, given ‘authenticity’ and literary existence.

Rivière has no direct answer to this, but he proposes that their correspondence on Artaud’s poetry should be published instead of the poems themselves – the framework rather than the substance. He wants to present the correspondence as a unique document of poetic struggle: unique, and therefore universal. For this reason, he proposes to suppress his and Artaud’s names. Artaud furiously refuses this. He wants his own intentions to be apparent: ‘Why lie, why attempt to put on a literary level a thing which is the scream of life itself, why give an appearance of fiction to what is the ineradicable substance of the soul, which is the groan of life?’.[7] For Artaud, the incoherent, inherently wild and vocal material of poetry must be exposed in all of its independent and explicit pain, so that its fragmented sounds can be given breath and life. In that way, it will express itself. Artaud’s feeling of separation is the only thing which is whole, and not fragmented: ‘I can say, truthfully, that I am not in the world, and that is not just an attitude of the mind.’[8]

Over twenty years later, in the August 1946 introduction to his Collected Works, Artaud recreated his relationship with Jacques Rivière (who died shortly after their correspondence closed), and with the ‘sacrosanct’ magazine which he edited.

The absences and erosions which had formerly saturated Artaud’s language had long since disappeared, and he now wrote fluently of his language as being dangerous and volatile. It is the inverse of the ‘failed’ language which had been at stake in the Rivière correspondence: ‘If I drive in a violent word like a nail, I want it to suppurate in the sentence like a hundred-holed ecchymosis.’[9] He now attributes Rivière’s premature death to a virulent contact with Artaud’s language:

…there is the corpse of a dead man. This man was called Jacques Rivière towards the beginning of a strange life: my own.
So, Jacques Rivière refused my poems, but he did not refuse the letters by which I destroyed them. It has always seemed very strange to me that he died shortly after publishing these letters.

What happened was that I went to see him one day and told him what there was at the heart of these letters, at the heart of the bonemarrow of Antonin Artaud.

And I asked him if he had understood.
I felt his heart rise up and split apart in the face of the problem and he told me he had not understood.

And I will not be surprised that the black pocket which opened up in him that day diverted him away from life much more than his illness…[10]

The issue of La Nouvelle Revue Française containing Artaud’s correspondence with Rivière appeared on 1 September 1924. Artaud’s letters attracted great interest through their resolutely physical imagery of devastated cerebral processes of creation. For Breton, now directing the Surrealist movement as the leading avant-garde and anti-bourgeois group in Paris the correspondence was vivid imagery from an insurgent unconscious mind, and he proposed a meeting with Artaud. On 7 September, Artaud’s father died in Marseilles at the age of sixty. At a lecture given during his stay in Mexico, twelve years later, Artaud spoke of that moment:

I lived to the age of twenty-seven with an obscure hatred of the Father, of my own father in particular, until the day when I saw him die. Then, that inhuman rigour, which I had often accused him of oppressing me with, fell away. Another being left that body. And for the first time in our lives, my father held out his arms to me. And I, always so restless in my body, I understand that all through life he had been made restless by his body, and that there is a lie to being alive, against which we are born to protest.[11]


Abel Gance | Napoléon, 1928


The meeting with Breton and Artaud’s subsequent induction into the Surrealist movement followed soon after the funeral of his father. At first, Artaud had been resistant to Breton’s invitation to join, and wrote to Dr Toulouse’s wife: ‘I am much too surrealist for that. And I always have been, and I know what surrealism is. It is the system of the world and of thought which I have always made for myself.’[12] But, by early October 1924, he was a recognized participant of the Surrealist movement. It was a time of great activity for Artaud. During the same period, Abel Gance offered him the role of Marat in the film he was preparing to direct, Napoleon. In the course of October,

Artaud was introduced to all of the members of the Surrealist group; he formed strong friendships with a number of the members, notably with André Masson and Robert Desnos. But the only enduring, life-long relationship was that between Artaud and Breton himself, despite the often brutal and patronizing insensitivity which Breton displayed towards Artaud. The two men were the same age. While Artaud had been working largely in self-absorption, using his own body and thought processes as the generating material for the explorations of his written work, Breton had been developing a gregarious, quarrelsome self-assurance in the literary life of Paris for over five years. He had already passed through the formative experience of automatic writing, The Magnetic Fields, with Philippe Soupault in 1919, and the subsequent violent divergence of his Surrealist group from the Dada participants associated with Tristan Tzara. At the two other points of great crisis and productivity in Artaud’s life – 1937 with his journey to Ireland, and 1946 with his return to Paris – it was towards Breton alone that Artaud would direct appeals for his incendiary projects to be approved or verified.

October 1924 was also the month in which Breton’s first Manifesto of Surrealism was published, and in December, the first issue of the Surrealists’ magazine, La Révolution Surréaliste, appeared. For over two years, until December 1926, Artaud involved himself with varying degrees of intimacy in the activities of the Surrealist group. He allied himself to their project of superseding bourgeois society via a revolutionary liberation of unconscious life, using dreams, trances and magical rituals to produce a fertile utopia of instinctual creativity. While Artaud was deeply interested in gestural rituals and mediumistic states of prophecy, he would never contribute individually or collectively to the Surrealists’ strategy of automatic writing, where the text or images came as directly as possible from humorous collisions and paradoxical juxtapositions emerging from the unconscious mind. This was a writing and painting without supervision, shot through with an undirectable spontaneity. As such, it was anathema to Artaud, who equated loss of intention in writing or art with a catastrophic vulnerability.

In the years of his theatre projects, this desire to control a flexible subject matter, even one in terminal disarray, extended to gesture with Artaud’s advocacy of the director’s predominance over text and actor. In the context of Surrealism, Artaud believed that whatever debris or fragments he had managed to grate and grind from his unconscious should be his to manoeuvre to and beyond their limits.

Artaud rapidly changed the course of the Surrealist movement. His vehement and emotional presence disrupted the placid reliance of the Surrealists on their dreams to furnish the imagery for their poetry and painting. Artaud introduced new approaches and concerns into the movement.

With his ferocious invective against social and religious leaders, and his writings about drug addiction and physical suffering, he threatened the group’s complacent tendency to move towards imagery of ideal communities and adoring, subservient women. In 1952, Breton would remember the ‘impulsion’ Artaud exerted on the movement to develop a language ‘stripped of all that could have lent it an ornamental character’ – a language that was intended to be ‘scathing and glowing, but glowing in the way that a weapon glows’.[13] In much of Artaud’s work, language is indeed presented as an arsenal of weapons and in terms of the violent upheavals it could precipitate, as an ‘instrument to be forged’ or a ‘machine of instant utility’.

A mark of Artaud’s initial influence on the group was his nomination as Director of the Surrealist Research Centre on 23 January 1925, only three months after he had joined the group. Until then, the Centre had been open for the public to come in and record their dreams; Artaud immediately closed it to the public. He wanted the Surrealists to participate in disciplined research towards a ‘devaluation of all values’, but they were an extraordinarily disorganized and often indolent group, capable of concerted action only under Breton’s direct orders. The activities of the Research Centre fell apart over the following three months, and it closed altogether in April 1925. This contributed to the loss of Artaud’s original euphoria about the movement. But his publications in the second and third issues of La Révolution Surréaliste partly compensated for this. His article defending the use of opium appeared in the second issue, published on 16 February 1925.

Artaud argues that drug addicts have an inalienable right to destroy themselves, and this right summarily negates all social control and legislation. The same issue included Artaud’s text rejecting suicide, since ‘I have already been dead for a long time, I am already suicided’.[14] He does, however, approve of the kind of suicide which is planned and determined to the last detail. (One Surrealist whose suicide might conceivably have met with Artaud’s approval was the sex-preoccupied photographer and painter Pierre Molinier; having meticulously prepared his suicide for decades, Molinier shot himself in 1976 after becoming impotent. As a pre-arranged signal to his friends of what he was about to do, Molinier sent his cat to the local bar.) Artaud would return to the question of suicide in 1947 with his book Van Gogh the Suicide of Society.

The editorial control of the third issue of La Révolution Surréaliste was given over entirely to Artaud. He was determined to use this opportunity in the same way that he had wanted the Surrealist Research Centre to be used. The magazine would become the orifice for assaults upon all of the social, religious and medicinal bodies which the Surrealists held in contempt. Artaud conceived of a series of open letters that would accomplish this. They would convey a powerful and intimate refusal to their addressees. Artaud’s idea for a written expectoration of direct insults cut across the predilection of many of the Surrealists for a vague and inoffensive esotericism. Breton in no way participated in the composition of the letters. He would later claim that Artaud had led the Surrealist movement in a dangerous direction with this material, which was far more unsettling and precarious than the anguish experienced by Breton and Soupault from too close an involvement with automatic writing. Artaud’s issue of La Révolution Surréaliste was published on 15 April 1925. It was to be the only issue edited by Artaud; Breton himself edited the fourth issue in July, which contained nothing at all by Artaud.

Artaud gave the title 1925: End of the Christian Era to his issue of La Révolution Surréaliste. He wrote a substantial part of the magazine’s content himself, and all of it was instigated by him. There were five open letters – Address to the Pope, Address to the Dalai Lama and Address to the Schools of Buddha, all written by Artaud alone; Letter to the Rectors of European Universities, by Artaud in collaboration with Michel Leiris; and Letter to the Head Doctors of Asylums, by Robert Desnos at Artaud’s suggestion. The Pope, the rectors and the doctors all endure the force of Artaud’s demolishing wrath. He threatens the Pope: ‘we are thinking of another war, war on you, Pope, dog’.[15] The letter to the doctors contains an adamant refusal of the social constitution of madness, which was to remain constant from this point onwards in Artaud’s work: ‘All individual acts are anti-social. Madmen are the supreme victims of social dictatorship.’[16]

But, in addressing the Dalai Lama and the Buddhists, Artaud displays a yearning for the destruction of the Western world and the creation of a new, liberated flesh. When Artaud came to rework these letter-manifestoes for his Collected Works in 1946, his gauche admiration was abruptly overturned. The Eastern religious leaders are then dismissed as ‘filthy Europeans, after all’,[17] and subjected to an invective of a parallel intensity to that directed at the Pope. By 1946, Artaud’s fury was all-consuming.


Abel Gance | Napoléon, 1928


Artaud’s association with the Surrealists gave him a notoriety which made the publication of his poetry easier to accomplish. Artaud wrote an abundant quantity of poetry during the early part of his Surrealist period. The sheer volume of this poetry seems to defy the voids and paralyses which were its subject matter. Artaud had developed his poetry’s content since the time of his letters to Rivière. He believed that what he had to say was inexpressible, and that very inexpressibility – so immediate and so painful – should be the fertile substance of his poetry’s investigations. Writing at the borderline between control and spontaneity (the nearest Artaud would come to the Surrealists’ automatism), he directed his poetic language as fragmentary incursions into a territory of physical suffering and dispossession. For Artaud, the creative gesture was always doubled by its own loss and obliteration. In 1946, to introduce his work to an English-language readership, Artaud wrote a letter to Peter Watson, the art editor of the British magazine Horizon. In this letter – never in fact published in Horizon, as intended – he put the poetry of his Surrealist period into perspective:

I made my debut in literature by writing books to say that I could write nothing at all; when I had something to say or write, my thought was the thing most refused to me. I never had ideas, and two very short books, each of 70 pages, are concerned with this profound, deep-rooted, endemic absence of all ideas.

These are The Umbilicus of Limbo and The Nerve-Scales.[18]

By 1946, Artaud had dispensed with the question of having ideas in his poetry. He was preoccupied with gestural violence and the body, and would write: ‘Ideas are the voids of the body.'[19]

The Umbilicus of Limbo appeared in July 1925, three months after Artaud’s issue of La Révolution Surréaliste. Its original title had been Opium Hanging, or The Shittiness of the Social Mind, but this was changed for its publication by Éditions de la N.R.F. (the publishing wing of the magazine in which the Rivière letters had appeared), in a relatively large edition of 800 copies. The book had a portrait of Artaud by André Masson, and one of the texts was a poetic interpretation of a Masson painting. The principal material of the book is the poetry of fractures and abandonments which the Rivière letters had announced. Artaud’s poetry ricochets between expositions of nervous pain and of linguistic incapacity:

a sensation of acidic burning in the limbs, muscles twisted and as though cut to ribbons, the feeling of being glass and as though breakable, a fear, a retraction from movement, and noise. An unconscious disarray in walking, gestures, movements. A will perpetually tautened for the most simple gestures, renunciation of the simple gesture, an exhaustion which is staggering and central, a kind of exhaustion which breathes…[20]

The Umbilicus of Limbo is an amalgam of diverse materials, initiating a practice that extends throughout Artaud’s work, including the theatre manifestoes. The book also incorporates numerous fragments from letters, and the scenario The Spurt of Blood, where an illogical sequence of violent actions prefigures the concern with destiny and global catastrophe in Artaud’s later theatre. He writes: ‘The sky has gone mad.’[21]

The development of a poetry which could burst out into other creative structures was continued in Artaud’s next collection of short texts, The Nerve-Scales, published only a week after The Umbilicus of Limbo. Artaud revised several of his letters to Génica Athanasiou into documents of exasperation and independence. The absences which Artaud felt to be proliferating within his poetry were intimated by the visual appearance of the book itself, with expanses of blank pages reinforcing the dense splinters of poetry. The writing also includes the manifesto All Writing is Pigshit, which carries an invective assault parallel to that of the open letters published in La Révolution Surréaliste. Artaud denounces all literature, and announces a movement towards a furious silence that could still be utterly expressive. He was to explore and research that silence, with texts, screams and images, all through the rest of his work.

The Nerve-Scales was initially published in an edition of only seventy-five copies; again, Artaud’s work was illustrated by André Masson. The book was reissued in March 1927 in a larger edition, together with Artaud’s most sustained poetic text from the Surrealist period, Fragments of a Journal from Hell. This text, with its Rimbaudian title and use of direct address, is among the most powerful of Artaud’s writings. It persistently and brutally projects Artaud’s paralysis and pain by concentrating on the anatomical: ‘I am a man by my hands and my feet, my guts, my meat heart, my stomach whose knots fasten me to the putrefaction of life.’[22] Horrific images of birth and death are intricately layered in Artaud’s fragments, generating a final exclamatory break from the immediacy of physical collapse and anguish: ‘I work in the unique duration.’[23] With Fragments of a Journal from Hell, Artaud had reached a point of exhaustion in his poetry, and he abandoned it. (A further volume was published by Robert Denoël in 1929, Art and Death, which collected several of Artaud’s Surrealism-era poetic texts from 1924 to 1926, alongside diverse material. These texts bring death and sexuality into intimate proximity, and alternate between poetic evocation and analytical self-exposure.) Artaud’s poetry was submerged by the explosion of his work in the fields of film and performance. The crisis of his expulsion from the Surrealist movement reinforced his feeling that his poetry was obsolescent. It was twenty years before his poetry surged back as a means of expression for Artaud.


La Révolution Surréaliste 2, 1925


Artaud’s break with the Surrealists accumulated over the year that followed the publication of his issue of La Révolution Surréaliste and his two collections of poetry. The divergences between Artaud and the other participants of the group, particularly Breton, came about from a number of factors. The Surrealists despised Artaud for his dependence upon commercial film-acting to make his living. During the period June 1925 to July 1926, Artaud appeared in three films – Graziella, directed by Marcel Vandal in Italy; The Wandering Jew, another film by Luitz Morat; and Abel Gance’s Napoleon, which had been delayed by financial problems. Artaud played Marat, one of the leaders of the French Revolution, in Gance’s legendary and stylistically innovative silent film. Artaud’s acting in this particular film possesses an extraordinary command of facial distortion. When Marat is murdered in his bath, this power is dispelled, and Artaud’s face becomes a startlingly composed deathmask.

In addition to his film-acting, Artaud was planning to create a theatre company. It was to be directed by himself, Roger Vitrac (a poet who had already been expelled from the Surrealist movement in 1924) and Robert Aron. This was to be the Alfred Jarry Theatre, named after the outrageous French philosopher and playwright who had written Ubu Roi.

Artaud formulated a manifesto which, while not acknowledging any connection whatsoever with the Surrealists, nevertheless aimed the Surrealist concerns with dreams and magic at the performance space. A programme of forthcoming performances was drawn up. But the Surrealists were opposed to Artaud’s plans, and generated friction between Artaud, Vitrac and Aron; this led to the collapse of the project, just before Artaud’s exclusion from the Surrealist group. At that time, November 1926, Artaud wrote a further manifesto, Manifesto for an Abortive Theatre, emphasizing the need for a theatre where every gesture would ‘carry behind it all the fatality of life and the mysterious meetings of dreams’.[24] But at this point, Artaud was ‘forever dissuaded’ that such a theatre could ever be brought into existence. The acrimony with which Breton in particular attacked the project stemmed largely from the view that theatre was intrinsically bourgeois and profit-orientated. This was the time of the Surrealists’ alliance with the French Communist Party.

The core of the quarrel between Artaud and Breton was about revolution. Breton intended to commit the Surrealist movement to political action. He believed that Surrealism had done all it could in the field of literary provocation, and that it should now turn to social action, while retaining autonomy within the structure of the Communist Party. Over the coming years, Breton was to realise that the two movements – artistic and political – could not be reconciled or integrated, and by 1935 he had broken with Communism and was reviling Stalin. But, in 1926, he had viewed Artaud’s theatre project as counter-revolutionary, to the extent that Artaud had to be expelled from the Surrealist group. For Artaud himself, revolution could not be political; it had to be physical. This is one of the few positions he held consistently throughout his life. He dealt with it again in 1947 when Breton invited Artaud to participate in the International Surrealist Exhibition at a commercial art gallery in Paris.

Artaud refused, pointing out the contradiction of Breton’s position, and complaining: ‘It is very probable that after this you will turn your back on me as happened between us in 1925, that you will spit on my carcass and my ideas, vomit on me from head to foot…’.[25] Revolution, for Artaud in 1925-6, was vital to his conception of the physical experiments to which his new work would lead. By transforming the body – through gesture, film, theatre and writings – the world itself would concurrently be seismically reformulated: ‘the revolutionary forces of any movement are those capable of unbalancing the fundamental state of things, of changing the angle of reality’.[26] All political structures and organizations were anathema to Artaud; similarly, he was repelled by the systematization which psychoanalysis could inflict upon his volatile temperament. He derided the Surrealists for setting up the idea of revolution as an untouchable fetish, and denounced Marxism as ‘the last rotten fruit of the Western mentality’.[27] (He did, however, have a certain admiration for the Royal Communism of the Incas.) This dispute over the meaning and application of revolution grew during the final year of Artaud’s adherence to the Surrealist group; finally, it precipitated his expulsion.

The final reason for Breton’s animosity towards Artaud was Breton’s own anxiety about the direction his movement should take. Many of Artaud’s contemporaries saw Breton’s move towards Communism as a last-ditch attempt to keep Surrealism alive after the loss of its original euphoria and innovations, and viewed the proposed amalgamation of Surrealism and Communism as a hopelessly inept manoeuvre. By contrast, Artaud had injected a new and vital set of concerns into the group, with great commitment and passion, while Breton’s leadership was undergoing a period of severe lassitude in the early part of 1925. It is conceivable, then, that Artaud’s expulsion was a self-defensive move of desperation on Breton’s part, to secure his leadership. But, by the end of 1926, Artaud was himself growing increasingly desperate. In addition to his tensions with the Surrealists, the extinguishment of his poetry, and the stalling of his theatre project, he was torn between Génica Athanasiou and Janine Kahn. He wrote to Janine Kahn on 13 November 1926: ‘I am in a state of possession, of negation – of constant destruction… If I were only capable of being faithful to myself, if I could only formulate, translate by the raw workings of my temperament what I feel, what I think of myself, I would be nothing but a long scream.’[28] He was contemplating suicide, or a total escape from his life in Paris: ‘I want to have the strength to need nothing at all, to exist in a state of absolute disappearance.’[29]


Man Ray | Genica Athanasiou, 1926


The official exclusion of Artaud from the Surrealist group came with a meeting at the Prophet cafe. Artaud was to give the exact time as nine o’clock on the evening of 10 December 1926; Breton remembered the event as taking place around the end of November. (Breton’s collaborator on The Magnetic Fields, Philippe Soupault, was excluded at the same time as Artaud; over the years, Breton would summarily expel almost all of the group’s original members, with a few notable exceptions such as Benjamin Péret.) Artaud refused to justify his projects against Breton’s accusations. His acute independence, and his belief that the Alfred Jarry Theatre in no way compromised the integrity of his work, prevented this. He would later write: ‘What separates me from the Surrealists is that they love life as much as I despise it.’[30] The quarrel between Artaud and the Surrealists ground on for several years. In response to an attack published by Breton, Péret, Louis Aragon and Paul Éluard, Artaud wrote two short pamphlets levelled against the Surrealists. (The edition of the second of these, Full Stop, was pulped by the printer since Artaud failed to pay for it.) In Full Stop, Artaud assesses the trajectory of his involvement with the Surrealists:

Surrealism came to me at a time when life had succeeded perfectly in exhausting me, making me despair, and when there could no longer be a solution for me but madness or death. Surrealism was that potential hope, unseizable and probably as deceitful as any other, but which pushed me, in spite of myself, to attempt a last chance, to cling onto any kind of phantoms for the slight degree to which they might succeed in fooling my mind. Surrealism could not give me back a lost substance…[31]

Now, he would work in ‘a solitude without compromise’.[32]

During the period from 1927 to 1930, Artaud applied the work he had been formulating in his time with the Surrealist group to film and theatre. The Alfred Jarry Theatre was reactivated early in 1927, despite Artaud’s assertion two months earlier that he was ‘forever dissuaded’ that it could work out. This period of three years was one of great experimentation, but also of abject failure, for Artaud’s projects. He was working in isolation on material that demanded effective collaborations. His film work, in particular, is one of the crucial areas of Artaud’s creativity, but it has often been dismissed as an inconsequential footnote to the Surrealist cinema of Luis Buñuel (made in collaboration with Salvador Dalí), and to the enthusiasm of the Surrealist group at this time for the more delirious aspects of Hollywood cinema. Artaud envisaged a Surrealist cinema without the Surrealists. His film work exists in fragments, having been produced in difficult conditions and without the vehicle of a film under Artaud’s own direct control. As such, it can only be reconstructed through the interaction between Artaud’s dispersed film scenarios and his flawed theoretical work upon the nature of cinema and spectatorship.

Artaud is known as the writer of one of the three great examples of Surrealist cinema, The Seashell and the Clergyman (the other two being Buñuel’s Un Chien Andalou and L’Age d’Or). But the film has the reputation of having been ‘butchered’ by its director, Germaine Dulac, who was insensitive to Artaud’s intentions. Dulac was a prolific film-maker, associated with the Impressionist group which included Abel Gance. She had no connection with the Surrealist movement. It is certain that Dulac and her producers conspired to keep Artaud away from the shooting and the editing of the film – he had wanted to co-direct and act in it. They chose a time when they knew that Artaud would be contractually bound to his acting role in Dreyer’s The Passion of Joan of Arc. His original scenario of April 1927 came under a certain amount of revision before the shooting period of August to September 1927. The levels of alteration are evident from a consultation of the various stages of the shooting script. And the technical heaviness of the film, with its complex superimpositions and distortions, sits badly with the poetic clarity of Artaud’s scenario, where information about the means to transfer the written image to the cinematic image is virtually non-existent. But it was his exclusion from the film-making process which particularly incensed Artaud, and led to the disruption of the film’s première at the Ursulines cinema in Paris on 9 February 1928.


Luis Buñuel | L’Age d’Or, 1930


Despite his exclusion from the Surrealist group over a year earlier, Artaud had considerable support from the Surrealists over the ‘betrayal’ of his scenario. All contemporary press accounts indicate that it was Artaud’s friend Robert Desnos who initiated the volley of invective directed at Germaine Dulac, and that the showing ended in violence. Two accounts exist of Artaud’s own participation in the brawl. In one, Artaud ran wild and shattered the mirrors in the cinema’s foyer, crying out: ‘Goulou! Goulou!’. In the other (less likely) account, he was sitting quietly with his mother and uttered only one word during the glossolaliac uproar: ‘Enough.’

After this event, The Seashell and the Clergyman was abruptly taken off the Ursulines programme, and it has resurfaced only irregularly since then. The film was rejected by the British Board of Film Censors with the justification: ‘The film is so cryptic as to be meaningless. If there is a meaning, it is doubtless objectionable.’ The following year, 1929, the film was overshadowed by Buñuel’s collaboration with Salvador Dalí, Un Chien Andalou. Artaud claimed that this film, along with Jean Cocteau’s The Blood of a Poet, had taken displacement techniques and hallucinatory imagery from the film he had written (by 1932, he had partially reversed his attitude towards The Seashell and the Clergyman, claiming it to be a precursor of Buñuel and Cocteau’s films). In fact, Germaine Dulac’s interpretation follows Artaud’s elliptical narrative of a priest’s sexual obsessions with surprising fidelity; her visual pyrotechnics are all that obscure the essential substance of Artaud’s scenario. But what was filmically unseizable by Dulac was Artaud’s innovative project for the Surrealist cinema, which could not be carried through without a radical obliteration of cinematic history, and a reworking of the rapport between the film image and the spectator.

In opposition to the dream-descriptions which make up the unfilmed scenarios of the other Surrealists, such as Robert Desnos and Benjamin Péret, Artaud proposed not a translation of the dream and its content, but an exhaustive interrogation of the systems of dreaming, to discover their mechanisms and their structures-in-collapse. In this way, he wanted to reconstitute the violence and independence of dreaming, as a process directly projected into cinematic imagery; his aim was to ‘realize this idea of visual cinema where psychology itself is devoured by the acts’.[33] His theoretical objection to Germaine Dulac’s film was that it reduced his scenario to a flat depiction of the dream from which it had issued. Artaud had drawn his primary material for the scenario not from one of his own dreams but from the transcription of a dream written down by his friend Yvonne Allendy. This distance was necessary for Artaud to launch the analysis of the dreaming process, which is tangible at the intersection between his scenarios themselves and his writings about them. In juxtaposition, these two elements envisage a reinvention of cinema based around its visceral, transforming propulsion against the spectator’s physical reflexes and reactions. It is through its superficial scrupulousness and theoretical vacuity that Dulac’s film veers away from Artaud’s filmic concepts.


Germaine Dulac | The Seashell and the Clergyman, 1928


The Seashell and the Clergyman was only part of Artaud’s film work, which runs at a tangent to the emerging Surrealist cinema of Buñuel. He wrote or prepared fifteen scenarios altogether, including an adaptation of Robert Louis Stevenson’s The Master of Ballantrae and a commercial project entitled Flights. He also wrote an autobiographical scenario about his relationship with Génica Athanasiou, Eighteen Seconds, which ends with the male character’s suicide. He tried to interest the German Expressionist cinema and its offshoots in Hollywood in a scenario for a horror film about a mass murderer, The 32. The Seashell and the Clergyman was the third of these scenarios. The most extraordinary of Artaud’s scenarios is the final one, The Butcher’s Revolt, which he intended to direct himself and for which he drew up an intricate (though mathematically inaccurate) budget. The scenario was written early in 1930, during the era of upheaval between silent and sound cinema. It concerns a ‘madman’ who is obsessed by meat and the treachery of women. He is involved in a series of violent altercations and headlong, senseless chases.

Previously, Artaud had expressed adamant opposition to the introduction of sound. In a lecture given on 29 June 1929 at the Surrealists’ favourite cinema, the Studio 28 in Montmartre,[34] he said:

There is no possible identification between sound and image. The image presents itself only by one face, it’s the translation, the transposition of the real; sound, on the contrary, is unique and true, it bursts out into the room, and acts by consequence with much more intensity than the image, which becomes only a kind of illusion of sound.[35]

Sound, then, would have to be excised from the image, in order for the image to develop its autonomous evocatory force. In his scenario The Butcher’s Revolt, Artaud attempted to come to terms with what he saw as the destructive interrelation of sound and image. Certain isolated, obsessive phrases (such as ‘I’ve had enough of cutting up meat without eating it’) were allowed into the scenario, typographically emphasized and enclosed in boxes. They served to give density to the visual imagery, which would thereby rebound from the image/sound collision with greater power. In a note accompanying the publication of this scenario in La Nouvelle Revue Française of June 1930, Artaud summarized the content of his imagery: ‘eroticism, cruelty, the taste for blood, research into violence, obsession with the horrible, dissolution of moral values, social hypocrisy, lies, false witness, sadism, perversity’. All of this would be visible with ‘the maximum readability’.[36]

This approach to film sound parallels that used by Artaud eighteen years later with his recording for radio, To have done with the judgement of god, where the sound effects – screams and beatings of percussion instruments – appear in tension with Artaud’s poetry of expulsion and refusal. The violent physical gesture cuts across the escalating rush of poetic imagery. In The Butcher’s Revolt, the primacy of the image broke with the ‘filmed theatre’ which predominated in the cinema of the time (and which Artaud, who acted in such films, detested), while stressing the spatial quality of the reinforced sounds which would be employed: ‘The voices are in space, like objects.’ These spoken interjections would be made within interruptions of the image, against a black, void frame. Since, for Artaud, representation works on a temporal level – sound and image repeat themselves to convey themselves – his determination to introduce a spatial rather than temporal element into film sound signals a denial of the pull towards diminution which he believed any completed, represented aesthetic object makes. In Artaud’s project for the Surrealist cinema, the film has its axis in the human body, which must be immediately present, shattered and dense. In parallel terms, the Italian Futurist movement’s film manifesto of November 1916 (which Artaud must have been aware of) had demanded ‘polyexpressiveness’ and proposed ‘filmed unreal reconstructions of the human body’. Later, in the arena of interaction between the film and its performance space, the early Lettrist cinema developed ideas similar to those of Artaud. At the first screening of Maurice Lemaître’s Has the film already started? in 1951, buckets of water and insults were thrown at the audience by the film-maker. With a scenario that amalgamated volatile, confrontational elements into a spatially flexible and eruptive structure, Artaud proposed a cinema which would be acutely resistant to representation.


Carl Theodor Dreyer | La Passion de Jeanne d’Arc, 1927


Artaud failed to find the money to finance The Butcher’s Revolt. His theoretical work on the cinema tailed off, while he continued to act in films. Dreyer’s The Passion of Joan of Arc, like Gance’s Napoleon, provided Artaud with a rare opportunity to demonstrate his individual acting style – the expressive gestural control of his performance oscillates between paroxysmal seizure and emotional grandeur. He plays the monk Massieu, who accompanies Joan of Arc to the stake and who then screams as she is consumed by the flames. For many months, Artaud had his hair tonsured for the role. Dreyer was the only one of his directors for whom Artaud had any significant regard. He desperately wanted to play the part of Frederick Usher in Jean Epstein’s film of Poe’s The Fall of the House of Usher, but was turned down by Epstein with derision. Artaud also earned his living in this period with films of variable quality, including Léon Poirier’s Verdun, Memories of History (1927), Marcel L’Herbier’s Money (1928), and Raymond Bernard’s Tarakanova (1929), in which Artaud appears as an amorous gypsy. He made the first two of his journeys to Berlin to act in Franco-German co-productions, and had a role in G.W. Pabst’s film of Bertolt Brecht’s The Threepenny Opera (1930). It was a film which Artaud despised for its ‘vulgarity and complete disorientation’.[37] In fact, almost all of these films constituted painful, humiliating work for Artaud, especially Raymond Bernard’s patriotic blockbuster The Wooden Crosses (1931), in which Artaud plays an enthusiastic soldier who rashly tries to leap out of his trench towards the Germans, crying: ‘I shit on you, swine!’. At the end of the film, his character is shot dead. This ‘abominable work’ led to the exhaustion of Artaud’s engagement with cinema of any kind, and he would conclude: ‘I am ever more convinced that the cinema is and will remain the art of the past. You cannot work in it without feeling ashamed.’[38]

An innovative theory of cinema emerges from the fragments which Artaud wrote at the time of The Seashell and the Clergyman and  The Butcher’s Revolt. This theoretical film writing, like all of Artaud’s work, exists in a staTte of flux, with points of abandonment followed by periods of resurgence. His proposals for a Surrealist cinema are contradictory and often incoherent, and are best seized at the intersection between film and some other creative apparatus, notably in his letters about the cinema. The letter was always a privileged site of articulation for Artaud, in which polemical exhortation could be allied to direct address. He writes with the greatest intensity of visualization about his lost, unrealized projects. The narratives of Artaud’s scenarios are constructed from a deeply individual and heterogeneous material, designed to probe wide and complex matters such as the origins and systems of dreaming. The amplitude and potential of Artaud’s conception of cinema must be sought in the spare traces left by his letters, his theoretical writings, his scenarios, and the sections of Dulac’s The Seashell and the Clergyman which remain attached to Artaud’s imagery.

Artaud perceives filmic representation as an abyss. From the time of the Rivière correspondence, he had evoked a two-way trap in which his activities fell apart. He was faced on the one side by the disintegration of his language through inarticulation – the slippage which the image suffered as it was brought into the textual form. On the other side, he was trapped by the loss of the ‘completed’ text into representation – its original and unique bond with Artaud was stolen at the moment when the text became available to an audience. His hostility towards representation endured, achieving its most forceful expression in To have done with the judgement of god, by which time the concept of representation was inextricably and maliciously social for Artaud. He believed that the cinema relies on deceptions of light, sound and movement, and on malign institutions; as such, it intrinsically denies his idea of the filmic work in direct and hostile contact with the body. But Artaud recognized that the element of mediation is an intractable factor in the cinema, and had to be both ambushed and worked with. His film work attempted to confront and tear the image from representation, to move it into proximity with the spectator’s alert sensorium.


Fano Messan (1).jpg
Louis Buñuel, Salvador Dali | Un Chien Andalou, 1929


The force of Artaud’s film language emerges from its density. Elements are suppressed or subtracted in order to be articulated. Narrative is broken, while the image is pounded down to compact visual sensation. Artaud wrote: ‘search for a film with purely visual sensations in which the force would come from a collision exacted on the eyes’.[39] (There is a striking parallel here with the eye-slitting – enacted on the screen and in the moment of viewing it – at the beginning of Buñuel’s Un Chien Andalou, which was in preparation at the time of The Seashell and the Clergyman’s première.) For Artaud, then, the concentrated impact which his film might possess results from the isolation of jarring elements within the textual system, producing a dynamic and spatial inscription of images. With a project such as The Butcher’s Revolt, the imagery’s visceral charge would be accentuated by the breakdown of filmic space, into which isolated voices could be juxtaposed.

Artaud’s conception of cinema veers away from film fiction, with integrated sound and image, towards a kind of documentary interaction of chance and control. All of his scenarios project an atmosphere of darkness, blood and shock on the border between these two points. An endless doubling is present here; divisions are shattered between reality and fiction, between danger and entertainment. Artaud’s film writings inhabit borderlines and peripheries, charting the trajectory of what he called ‘the simple impact of objects, forms, repulsions, attractions’.[40] His crossing and annulment of textual borders implies a negative push: the image stays in the domain of the image, or else risks annihilation. In their collapsing of borders, Artaud’s film texts move towards a fall into catastrophe, towards what cannot be realized. In Artaud’s film, the image aimed for and the spectator aimed at would be in a state of magnetic, negative interaction. The film image would be at its most stripped-away and expressive, at its most resistant to the process of representation. The film spectator would be the exposed subject of what Artaud called ‘the convulsions and jumps of a reality which seems to destroy itself with an irony in which you can hear the extremities of the mind screaming’.[41]

For Artaud, the cinema was literally a stimulant or narcotic, acting directly and materially on the brain. He called his project ‘raw cinema’.[42] While probing unconscious processes and dreaming, it would demand a more immediately physical contact between the cinematic image and the spectator. Like Artaud’s Theatre of Cruelty of the early 1930s, this language of film could only work once. It could engender only one, unique film. And it would avoid the spoken word as something constructed only in order to repeat itself, using instead an imagery compacted together from chance, control and the body.

Artaud’s project for the Surrealist cinema is irreparably lost. It cannot stand on the strength of its celluloid imagery alone, unlike Buñuel’s cinema, which has acquired a powerful enigma due to the relative critical silence of its maker. Artaud’s cinema oscillates between imagery and commentary, like his drawings of the 1940s. The meshing of sound and image which Artaud feared in 1929 also terminated the first rush of Buñuel’s cinema. Since then, only hybrid amalgams of documentary and narrative cinema (such as Georges Franju’s 1949 film The Blood of the Beasts), and filmed rituals of bloodshed such as the 1960s films of the Vienna Action Group, have in any way approached the collision of blood, discipline and chance which Artaud envisaged for the cinema. He wanted a film which could face and seize fragmentation. His spectator would be placed at the edge of the capacity to evaluate, while being subjected to a swarm of impulsive and expulsive forces which would necessitate a transformation of the viewing position, and instigate resistance to the process of representation. Artaud’s own position within the history of Surrealist cinema is one that parallels that interrogative resistance.


Eli Lotar | Illustration of Théâtre Alfred Jarry with Antonin Artaud, 1930


The Alfred Jarry Theatre existed at the same time as Artaud’s film projects, from 1927 to 1930. While Artaud’s film work was under control within its mainly textual, fragmentary confines, the Alfred Jarry Theatre generated a disorganized sequence of provocative public performances. It applied a confrontational Surrealism to the performance space with a wild and humorous impact. In this way, it contrasts with Breton’s Surrealism of the period, which was becoming increasingly sedentary. Rather than receiving a renewed creative input from its unsteady alliance with the French Communist Party, the Surrealist movement was embedding itself firmly in insular literary concerns. Apart from Breton’s occasional forays into heckling at theatres, the initial strategy of experimental performance – which had characterized the time of the Dada-Surrealism collaborations – was now long-forgotten. The Alfred Jarry Theatre took over that crucial aspect of the Surrealists’ work, though Artaud would deny any rapport with Breton’s Surrealism. He wanted this non-theatrical theatre, directed by writers and poets, to pre-date and negate the Surrealist movement; the evocation of the name of Jarry (whose work had been at its most outrageous in 1896, the year of Artaud’s birth, with the première of Ubu Roi) assisted in this. The Alfred Jarry Theatre had no system or argument behind it whatsoever, unlike Artaud’s subsequent Theatre of Cruelty. In this respect alone, it was close to Dada.

On a basic level, the theatre would serve as a public space where the writers Artaud, Vitrac and Aron could demonstrate their work. The texts written by Artaud around the Alfred Jarry Theatre emphasize his unscrupulous and ambivalent attitude towards the theatre. Even during his deepest involvements with theatre, Artaud would say that he hated it as he loved it. The Alfred Jarry Theatre was not ‘an end but a means’.[43] It was driven by an utter disrespect for the unity and sanctity of the play or theatrical text which was to be presented: ‘The Alfred Jarry Theatre has been created to help itself to the theatre, and not to serve the theatre.’[44] Artaud dismissed the idea that theatrical spectacle should work as an illusion. The performances would be actions, revealing the ‘pure brutality’ of their concerns – physical compulsion and ‘vibration’, dreams and hallucinations. Artaud wrote of ‘Hallucination chosen as the principal dramatic medium’.[45] This concern with the unscreened action extended to the staging of the performances. No sets would cushion the hysterical sensory overload of the planned performances. Artaud expected to exert an extreme and visceral captivation upon his audiences. The subject matter would be a ‘synthesis of all desires and all tortures’,[46] and its performance would sustain this with the exclamatory surge of sound that is also evoked by Artaud’s film writings. Even during the performance intervals, loudspeakers would be used to intensify the atmosphere, ‘to the point of obsession’.[47]

With such an extraordinary set of intentions, the Alfred Jarry Theatre was to suffer a painful career. It was a theatre without money – Artaud was virtually destitute throughout this period. It was also a theatre without rehearsals – though this generated a degree of eruptive spontaneity in the predetermined actions, which was attractive to Artaud. His collaboration with Vitrac and Aron became increasingly stormy as the project managed to sustain itself over a period of years. The first performances, on 1 and 2 June 1927, demonstrated the friction of disparate individuals who had formed a tenuous theatrical alliance. Although Artaud would write of the need to produce a ‘manifesto-play, written in collaboration’[48] between the three participants, no such homogeneous arrangement was possible. Three separate works were performed, Artaud’s contribution being a textless sketch entitled Burnt Belly, or The Mad Mother. The second programme came seven months later, on 14 January 1928, and combined theatre and film. A film by the Russian director Vsevolod Pudovkin, The Mother, was screened in protest against its censorship in France; then, the final act of a play by Paul Claudel – whom the Surrealists despised – was performed against the author’s wishes, as a gesture of derision. Breton’s Surrealists had come to the event to disrupt it, but changed their minds when Artaud declared from the stage that Claudel was ‘an infamous traitor’. A temporary reconciliation ensued between Breton and Artaud, for the period which included the riotous première of The Seashell and the Clergyman. The animosity between Claudel and Artaud was to persist, with Claudel dismissing Artaud’s work in 1947 as ‘the imaginings of a madman’. The Surrealists broke with Artaud again at the third set of Alfred Jarry Theatre performances, of the Swedish writer August Strindberg’s Dream Play, on 2 and 9 June 1928. The performances, which Artaud both directed and acted in, had been funded in part by Swedish nobles. Breton objected to this, although in the past he had accepted patronage from the Swedish aristocracy at the Surrealists’ exhibitions. The Surrealists disrupted the performances. At first, Artaud sided with the Surrealists to dispel the provocation, claiming he had staged the play only to protest against the Swedish government’s oppressive treatment of Strindberg, and against society in general. But, at the second performance, Aron called the police, and several of the Surrealists were arrested, including Breton. A complete play by Vitrac, Victor, or The Children Take Over, was staged as the fourth project of the Alfred Jarry Theatre. The play, directed by Artaud and staged on 24 and 29 December 1928 and 5 January 1929 (Artaud could only afford to hire theatres at times when nobody else wanted them), was the last work of the Alfred Jarry Theatre. Although Artaud was offered patronage by the Viscount of Noailles, who funded films by Man Ray, Buñuel and Cocteau, the Alfred Jarry Theatre ended in recriminations between its participants.


Eli Lotar | Illustration of Théâtre Alfred Jarry with Antonin Artaud, 1930


Both Artaud’s film writing and his Alfred Jarry Theatre have a movement towards breakdown and silence, which culminates in 1930. Through 1929, Artaud and Vitrac continued to work in circumstances of great friction at resuscitating the Alfred Jarry Theatre. To advertise their no-longer existent theatre, they executed a sequence of photo-montages at the beginning of 1930, with images of their bodies being decapitated, multiplied, and in violent conflict. The accompanying, ineffectual brochure, The Alfred Jarry Theatre and the Public’s Hostility, had to be written by Vitrac since Artaud’s condition was deteriorating into one of acute nervous depression. No longer able to afford the hotel room he had been occupying in the rue de la Bruyère, Artaud had gone to live with his mother, who had moved from Marseilles to Paris after the death of her husband, to be nearer to Artaud and his sister, Marie-Ange. Struggling with his constant addiction to opium, and with the failure of his work, Artaud began to contemplate different civilizations and apocalyptic imagery. He had met the young publisher Robert Denoël, who commissioned from Artaud a free adaptation of an English gothic novel, Matthew Gregory Lewis’s The Monk (1794). Artaud, who could read no English, made use of a literal translation of the work into French. He expanded passages and overhauled entire chapters in order to accentuate the work’s opposition to social and moral constraints and to heighten its delirious aura of sexually-charged religious aberration, left other parts of the novel intact, and cut long digressive or poetic sections altogether.

The resulting work is a supremely hallucinatory and visceral recreation of Lewis’s novel which clearly manifests Artaud’s own distinctive obsessions; its publication was well-received, especially by Jean Cocteau. Artaud was, to some degree, ashamed of having to work as a kind of translator, but he also attempted to develop The Monk for the cinema. He had several dark and atmospheric photographs taken to illustrate his preferred scenes from the novel, in order to interest film producers. As with all such efforts on Artaud’s part, this project collapsed. But it is notable that, in June 1930, he sent a set of the photographs to the founder of the Italian Futurist movement, F.T. Marinetti, who was now an official poet of Mussolini’s Fascist regime and an influential figure in the Italian cinema. In his creative and financial desperation, Artaud was envisaging a move to Italy to undertake his projects.

The two years leading up to the summer of 1931 were intensely difficult for Artaud. He was now nearly thirty-five years old, and his attempts to produce films and theatre had utterly disintegrated. Since he had also abandoned poetry in 1926, his creative silence was now almost total. He was in a state of extreme poverty, moving backward and forward between his mother’s apartment, film-location hotels, and cheap hotel rooms around the place de Clichy. A brief affair with an actress from the Alfred Jarry Theatre, Josette Lusson, ended bitterly. His drug addiction, his nervous pain, and his sense of isolation from artistic groups such as the Surrealist movement, all compounded this breakdown into silence. The terrible lassitude of this period might well have proved terminal, but it was finally broken for Artaud on 1 August 1931, when he witnessed the event that precipitated his project for the Theatre of Cruelty: the performance of Balinese dance theatre at the Colonial Exhibition in Paris.


[1] Letter to Jean Paulhan, OC VII, 1982, p.178.
[2] The Theatre of Cruelty (1947), OC XIII, 1974, p.118.
[3] OC XV, 1981, p.164.
[4] Lettres à Génica Athanasiou, Gallimard, Paris, 1969, p.116.
[5] Ibid, p.276.
[6] Ibid, p.310.
[7] OC I*, 1976, p.40.
[8] Ibid, p.41.
[9] Ibid, pp.9-10
[10] Ibid, p.9.
[11] OC VIII, 1980, p.146.
[12] OC I*, p.112.
[13] Breton, Entretiens 1913-1952, Gallimard, Paris, 1952, p.109.
[14] OC I**, 1976, p.20.
[15] Ibid, p.41.
[16] Ibid, p.221.
[17] OC I*, p.18.
[18] OC XII, 1974, p.230.
[19] Shit to the Mind, Tel Quel, no.3, Paris, 1960, p.7.
[20] OC I*, p.58.
[21] Ibid, p.71.
[22] Ibid, p.117.
[23] Ibid, p.120.
[24] OC II, 1973, p.30.
[25] L’Éphémère, no.8, Paris, 1968, p.13.
[26] In Broad Night or the Surrealist Bluff, OC I**, p.60.
[27] Full Stop, ibid, p.72.
[28] OC VII, p.326.
[29] Ibid, p.332.
[30] In Broad Night or the Surrealist Bluff, OC I**, p.60.
[31] OC I**, p.67.
[32] Ibid, p.74.
[33] Cinema and Reality, OC III, 1978, p.19.
[34] Both the Studio 28 cinema and the Ursulines cinema still operate as repertory cinemas in Paris.
[35] OC III, p.377.
[36] Ibid, p.54.
[37] Letter to Jean Paulhan, ibid, p.261.
[38] Letter to Louis Jouvet, ibid, p.283.
[39] Cinema and Reality, OC III
[40] Ibid, p.20.
[41] Ibid, p.20.
[42] Witchcraft and Cinema, ibid, p.66.
[43] The Alfred Jarry Theatre: 1928 Season, OC II, p.34.
[44] Ibid, p.39.
[45] The Alfred Jarry Theatre, ibid, p.48.
[46] The Alfred Jarry Theatre: 1928 Season, ibid, p.38.
[47] The Alfred Jarry Theatre in 1930, ibid, p.62.
[48] The Alfred Jarry Theatre: 1928 Season, ibid, p.38.


Stephen Barber | Artaud: Blows And Bombs
2013 Elektron EBooks


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