might be forgiven for imagining that we embrace Antonin Artaud as a
kind of idol or guru. Nothing could be further from the truth.
However, we must recognize the avenues that opened up for our role
and function within society and culture as a result of this
unfortunate man's life, experience and insights.
Artaud, it seems, was a Roman Catholic with strong Gnostic leanings.
He also was a habitual drug user as a result of a childhood illness.
Much has also been romanticized about his madness. Artaud was
certainly plagued by mental instabilities. But to suggest his
irrational behaviour and delusional ravings were inspired prophecies
is to debase the very real contribution his life and art made to the
development and survival of theatre and theatrical processes both
already achieved and in potential. Artaud might have been a powerful
modern day Shaman had he been able to transcend the bind of his
my reading of Artaud and his own writings, I am sure that his
madness (if this is the appropriate term) was certainly partly a
result of his contradictory highly attuned spirituality and ingrained
beliefs in puritanical, if not Manachean / Saint Augustan, inspired
beliefs in the essential evil nature of all things flesh and the
higher order of all things spiritual. There is considerable writing
from Artaud that is contradictory on this subject. At one moment we
are to be erotic and sexually explicit and then we are supposed to
accept his assumption that all things sexual are filthy and
degenerate and base. In his last years he is both aesthetic Catholic
receiving Holy Communion and blaspheming demon out to destroy the
hold of religion over people's desire for eternity.
was dabbling with and held prisoner by religion because there was
little else to provide adequate explanation for the absurdities of
life and the quest for meaning below the lies and profanities of
officially sanctioned doctrine (from the left and right of the
socio/political spectrum). And in different moments he spat on such
platforms of deceit.
his colleagues attacked him for his Theatre Alfred Jarrie's staging
a play by the Catholic writer and political aspirant Paul Claudel,
Artaud denied his original reasons for doing the play and publicly
adopted the shallow reasoning of the dogmatic surrealists who shouted
the play down. Artaud's own insecurities about his contradictory
beliefs might be the source of an academic study some day. However,
for our purposes, it reveals a very human side to Antonin Artaud: a
side which suggests vulnerability and sincerity coupled with a need
for acceptance; an acceptance which Artaud was never to receive in
his life time!
also suggests we cannot take verbatim what Artaud wrote. Artaud
didn't prescribe methods of working. He was no Stanislavsky,
Mayerhold or Brecht. Artaud's life was his prescription for art and
change. Metaphor preceded reality. Reality preceded metaphor!
Absurdity held truth. Common sense was comprised of lies. Semantics
were for arguing over.
essentially, his theatre needed to explode the commonly held belief
systems and infect believers with alternative possibilities and
realities. His ravings, writings and public performances were
testimony to such explosions. The images and metaphorical seeds
plague us with their haunting resonances which, in all likelihood,
match our quiet contemplations when separated from the need for
are left to sift through his writings and life to form a conjecture
as to what it was all about. And for me, Artaud's life and art in
purest form was about release; release from the organs of the body,
release from strictures of the mind, from the inadequacy of words,
from cultural hegemony, from stifling routines, from society's self
destruction, and from boring orthodoxies of all kinds. The list goes
on. But if we start by identifying Artaud's central idea as being
that of "release", then other simple to comprehend concepts follow.
of WHAT from WHAT for WHAT?
his writing implies something more than what is observed. By simply
reproducing the observable world or by reducing observable action to
banal psychological concepts of "motivation" and
"intent" or simple cause and effect, Artaud seems to
suggest that we reproduce the lies and deceptions that only reinforce
the human binds that hold our reality captured. But to release the
more fundamental foundations belying the observed action we need to
shock and expiate that which isn't initially revealed. Such a notion
is closer to the Greek "fates" or Jungian
"archetypes" or even computer "templates" which
contain the source of meaning in a more comprehensive or embracing
way than can be identified through the microcosmic psychological explanations.
for Artaud is then about releasing the hidden patterns beneath the
observable world. In doing so it is more about dream logic than any
naturalistic ordering of events and actions. Our dreams may terrorize
us or provoke irrational fear that lingers into our everyday
activity. They reveal what we dare not think or speak. Collectively,
dreams become archetypes that hover and become manifest in spasmodic creations.
Artaud, the body's organs are like parts of the house where secrets
are bordered up as in Edgar Allan Poe's "Tell Tale Heart".
The body is like the large house with sealed up cavities hiding
bodies of one's victims. Our secret crimes are stored but don't
actually die. They seek to escape. Like the virus or bacteria, they
cause inflammations that can lead to disease and decay as they chip
away at their bordered up cells in order to escape. And like the
"living dead" we cannot destroy them. The more we try, the
more ferocious and persistent they become.
culture that seeks to deny its guilt and foundations in violence
likewise lays the seeds for virulent growths that seek excising in
outbursts of racism, chauvinism, sexual repression and genocide.
Cultures and individuals transfer the location of these hidden
entities under layers of institutionalized bordering up which might
run over generations. Ultimately they lose the memory of the exact
location of the problem, so embedded that it becomes part of the
fabric of the organism itself.
the individual the result is physical and mental disease. In
culture, the result is social upheaval, violence and repression.
Artaud suggests theatre is the means for expiating and releasing
these toxins from the organs of the body; be it from an individual or
society. It is a kind of exorcism requiring purification of the one
performing the ceremony while exhibiting violent shocks on the party
subject to the exercise. Individual and society devils are so
imbedded that it is necessary for drastic action to release them;
exposing them to make them manageable.
such a purpose for theatre is not easily or readily accepted in
contemporary society. And this provides a main source of criticism of
Artaud's ideal theatre. Whether the concept is necessarily flawed or
whether it simply hasn't been tried is another question.
is Artaud's theatre primarily for the participants in its creation
much like the monastic way is for the monks or nuns in organized
religions? While there is a Shamanistic tendency in those who have
adopted Artaud-like theatre positions (eg. Grotowsky) the essential
element is still the actor/audience relationship. This doesn't
suggest a cloistered function for the artist. Rather it is one of engagement.
through the actors' M.E.S.H.
being side-tracked by the issue of Artaud's madness (or questionable
sanity) I will now focus on the means for implementing Artaud's
"release". I deliberately speak of "release" as
opposed to his well publicized "theatre of cruelty". My
reading of Artaud is subjective and others will disagree with the
model gleaned from his disparate focus.
propose four states which the actor needs to achieve in order to
fulfill the potential of Artaud's theatre. These are:
Heightened Emotional state.
ease of usage, I suggest the anagram MESH.
and improvisations can be developed and practiced for achieving the
Actors' MESH. While the third and
fourth states are common enough foundations within acting training,
the first two are certainly not generally emphasized. Performers in
the Japanese Bhuto theatre might well be attuned to aspects of these
areas, needless to say, they are not part of mainstream training in
the Western theatre traditions.
a word of caution, I also suggest it may not be necessary to achieve
the MESH state for all of a
performance. However, to achieve the kind of theatre implied in
Artaud's writings, the MESH is
necessary for a major proportion of the performance.
now suggest that the MESH be
achieved in three areas:
with space, self and objects.
Mesmeric State is where the actor is
neither emotional nor intellectual but is in a constant state of
movement and rhythm with intensity ebbing and flowing in response to
external or internal prompts. It is not a zombie-like state, unless
such a manifestation is required. In fact, the Mesmeric
State may well be extremely vigorous and even violent. Where there
is emotional intensity, such emotion is derived from external
stimulus as at a rock concert or a political rally. Frenzy may well
be an example. The Mesmeric
State might resemble a collective autism where individual volition
is subjugated to some unseen force. And it is more.
is not something that can simply be rustled up with a bit of
chanting and banging of drums. The Mesmeric
State is the state in which magic and a true alchemy is evoked. It
is through this that a "theatre of the invisible made
visible" (Peter Brook's term) is possible. The Mesmeric
State coupled with the Erotic State
provides the distinguishing features that define and separate this
theatre of release from some academic exercise performed in the name
of theatre but with the sterility of a fluorescent room.
Erotic State is one of inner
stillness and awareness of personal shape, spirit and existence in
front of another. It is active within its apparent stillness. It is
one of acceptance of physical and emotional exposure. It accepts
personal self-consciousness in oneself and within the audience and
the resulting tension this may evoke. It is the opposite of denial of
this essentially erotic act. It is accepts that art cannot exist
without sexuality. In such acceptance, it flies in the face of the
more customary institutionalized denial of this connection. To
achieve this state, the actor must develop a highly developed
personal acceptance of self and a high tolerance and embracing of
stillness, silence and personal communication with the self. It
requires that actors become personally aware of their own charisma
and accept, without flinching, that their art may call upon such
usage when intellect and technique prove inadequate.
Sculptural State is concerned with
the actors' ability to objectify personal presence in a given space
in order to achieve an image of value. The way the actor connects
with other actors and objects and the dimensions of the space should
not be the sole prerogative of the director or choreographer. As most
acting training is now for the screen where all such decisions are
made, the actors' thinking in sculptural terms is diminishing. But to
achieve a Sculptural State, the actor
needs to be acutely aware of the relationship between sound and
space; between the character "point of view" and distance;
between that which is dislodged in order to make way for his/her
presence; the different effects created by extension of the body or
the adoption of different costume or properties; the point of entry
and point of departure from the focus of the scene or the space
itself. The list can be extended.
Heightened Emotional state is the
most familiar of the MESH. All acting
training will demand of actors a degree of heightened emotional
response; getting in tune with one's own emotions etc. Working in an
Artaud inspired theatre though means heightening the intensity of
performance over periods that will require great stamina. This
contrasts with the mainly static nature of so much stage acting that
mimics the screen form.
invoking of the MESH is a
reinvigorating process to place creativity back into the body and to
provide an alternative schema through which theatrical exploration
may take place. The MESH is a deliberate construction based on the
principles and ideas articulated by Antonin Artaud. It attempts to
incorporate the real processes involved in dynamic performance and
give recognition to the essentially artistic as opposed to the
academic construction of theatre with its partitioned hegemony of
is attempting to give a physical form to the theories, principles and
ideas articulated by Antonin Artaud. Obviously, such work will not be
without controversy and criticism. But we are not concerned with
success or failure. Rather we wish to explore something that is worth
exploring. We wish to invite audiences and all those concerned with
the creative process to join us and be part of this exploration. We
wish to focus a means through which culture may challenge and
rejuvenate itself. This project isn't an end in and off itself,
rather it should be seen as a part of acqainting personal experience
with art and what it means to be a social being in association with
other social beings. Let us expose the act of creation with all its
messiness and potential for disaster to scrutiny and experience. For
here lies the defining feature of theatre's relevance and value for
Woodward (January 2004)
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