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TDR: The Drama Review 45.3 (2001) 51-77

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1931 Antonin Artaud Sees Balinese Theatre at the Paris Colonial Exposition 1

Nicola Savarese




Preliminary Remarks

Perhaps because his interest had been aroused by an enthusiastic newspaper account or perhaps because of the controversy surrounding the fire in the Dutch Pavilion, where the performance was held, Antonin Artaud went to the Paris Colonial Exposition in early August 1931 to see the Balinese dances being presented. The review he wrote of them immediately afterward, published in October that year in the Nouvelle Revue Française (Artaud 1931), reappeared seven years later in the form of a longer and more complex essay in The Theater and Its Double ([1938] 1970).

The various additions and annotations to the 1931 article, the notes and fragments scattered throughout other writings, the copies and reworkings--changes that essentially repeated the outline of the original essay--are evidence of the degree to which Artaud returned continuously to the subject of Bali. This frequent fine-tuning of the article was probably Artaud's way of trying to improve his description of the impression the performance originally had made on him. In any case, even in the review, the first draft of the text, it is very clear that Artaud wanted to use Balinese theatre as both example and confirmation of something of which he had become convinced during that period: that the theatre must have its own language, a language that is not the same as the language of words but which is based on the actor's physicality. In the review, he writes:

In fact the strange thing about all these gestures, these angular, sudden, jerky postures, these syncopated inflexions formed at the back of the throat, these musical phrases cut short, the sharded flights, rustling branches, hollow drum sounds, robot creaking, animated puppets dancing, is the feeling of a new bodily language no longer based on words but on signs which emerges through the maze of gestures, postures, airborne cries, through their gyrations and turns, leaving not even the smallest area of stage space unused. ([1938] 1970:37) [End Page 51]

Artaud's assertion is so explicit that it can be taken as a veritable declaration of principles, especially when one considers the fact that his text "On the Balinese Theater" was, of all the articles collected in The Theater and Its Double, the first to be written. The last to be written, on the other hand, was the emblematically titled "Oriental and Western Theater," written in December 1936, shortly before Artaud's departure for Mexico. All the other texts in The Theater and Its Double fall in between, from "Metaphysics and the Mise-en-Scène" (December 1931) and "The Alchemical Theater" (September 1932) to "The Theater of Cruelty (First Manifesto)" (October 1932) and "Theater and the Plague" (April 1933).

The chronological order of the writing of the various texts makes it evident that the thinking that underlies one of the most important theatrical manifestos of the 20th century began to take form in a review of a performance seen in a pavilion at an exotic, colonial exhibition. This statement may seem bizarre, even a little irreverent, when made with respect to a work such as The Theater and Its Double, a book that still today is considered to be the expression of one of the most fascinating theatrical visions of all time. And yet, without even taking into consideration the chronological order of the writing of the texts in Theater and Its Double, it is not difficult to understand that Artaud's contribution to the development of a theatrical language which is not based on words, and is thus different from the theatrical language of Occidental theatre as it was then understood, is synthetically contained in that first review of Balinese theatre.

Were the Balinese performers really so arresting? Which performances from Bali did Artaud actually see at the Paris exhibition? And were those performances, presented to satisfy the tastes of a facile exoticism, worthy examples of Balinese...


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