(Swans - January 16, 2012) My first awareness of Antonin Artaud dates from 1958. By some means, I no longer remember how, I came across The Theater and its Double. I found its tone of voice mesmerizing. I was being hectored by a sensibility that had seen something very special and very different in the theater, and the insistence of that vision, rather than its clarity, was riveting.
Around 1963, in the pages of Encore Magazine and in private conversations with Peter Brook, I tried to chart the labyrinthine course of Artaud's thought and how it might be practically applied. I knew that Artaud himself had not applied it. His Cenci, for instance, had been a crude failure staged in an unremarkable surrealist convention, and his earlier experiments, the programs of the Theater Alfred Jarry, although fervently proselytized, had not produced any tangible body of work from which aesthetic principles could be formulated. In his own opinion, his cancelled radio play Pour Finir Avec Le Jugement De Dieu was the work most representative of the Theater of Cruelty, but as this was a verse-play for four voices interspersed with cries and bits of percussion, it wasn't the kind of thing from which one could extrapolate theatrical notions. Odd pieces like Spurt of Blood and The Philosopher's Stone were murky bits of surrealist effluvia. Ultimately, all one had was the prose and the poetry; an exhortation to people who, like himself, wished to change the shape and feel of the contemporary theater.
In 1966, Peter Brook and I put some of Artaud's ideas to the test. The Theater of Cruelty season at LAMDA in London was not a reconstruction of Artaud's theater; a theater, which as I say, never really existed, but only a few random experiments informed by Artaud's aesthetic. Subsequently, in my adaptations of Hamlet, Macbeth, Othello and The Shrew I sensed many of Artaud's ideas concerning classics and psychology burrowing away in my mind, and although no play can be said to be derivative of Artaud, I certainly acknowledge that the force of his polemic shaped my own convictions.
More fascinating than the ideas was the man himself and the tragic life he had led. At the start of the war, he was incarcerated in various mental asylums in France and then in 1942 his life reached a poignant climax when he was moved to Rodez and put under the jurisdiction of Dr. Gaston Ferdiére. Here was a man of genius under the strict control of a man of science who, as it happened, was also a would-be poet and essayist. For me two very distinct (and opposed) world views came into dynamic collision in this encounter and this prompted the writing of Artaud at Rodez. In the mid 1960s, preparing a radio program for the BBC, I had the opportunity to talk to many of Artaud's friends in Paris and secured an interview with Dr. Ferdiére at which he spoke candidly of his association with Artaud. That association, ten years after Artaud's death, became the subject of a small-scale scandal in Paris and the issues of that controversy have been incorporated into the play. In addition to the script, which was first performed at the Trastavere Theater in Rome and subsequently at the Open Space in London, I have included some of the background material on which the play has been based.
A play is not a piece of journalism and consequently doesn't contain the balance that exists in the best kind of news story. But despite certain innate prejudices, I have tried to be fair to all the characters that figured in Artaud's life -- but as the work is not naturalistic and subject to occasional flights of fancy, it is "poetic" rather than "literal" truth that is being sought. But even this is suspect. One can only talk about things the way one sees them, and in Artaud at Rodez, I have seen them "this way." I realize, and the reader will quickly understand after perusing the material in the back of the book, there are many other ways of interpreting these incidents and many are the conclusions that could be drawn. There is nothing "authoritative" about this interpretation of events. On the other hand, it is derived from authoritative sources.
To say any more is to become mealy-mouthed.
Copies of Artaud At Rodez can be obtained from Marion Boyars Publishers, 24 Lacey Road, London SW15 1NL England.
[ed. Also, please read "Peter Brook At Eighty," by Charles Marowitz, June 2006.]
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