- Artaud and His Doubles by Kimberly Jannarone
Antonin Artaud has been an icon for politically progressive experimental theatre artists in the United States and Britain since the 1960s, a messianic figure who epitomizes the creative urge toward greater freedom. Yet as Kimberly Jannarone argues in her wonderful book Artaud and His Doubles, “our interpretations of the work have been curtailed by reading it as if it had sprung from the period itself [the 1960s], ignoring its actual—and disconcerting—historical context: the interwar era in Western Europe” (2). Artaud has rarely been read historically, Jannarone argues, and she seeks to place him firmly within the political environment from which his work derives its provenance. By doing so, she uncovers an Artaud who has nothing in common with the icon of freedom and experimentation that emerged in the 1960s; instead, Jannarone discloses a deeply authoritarian man whose Theatre of Cruelty represents sadistic fantasies of power and control and bears an uncanny structural similarity to the dynamics of mass politics emerging at the time he was writing the essays included in his most famous work, The Theatre and Its Double.
The book is structured in three parts. The first section, “The Fight against Civilization; or, The Re-birth of Tragedy,” consists of two chapters that detail Artaud’s hatred of civilization, his Dionysian desire for the destruction of all form and individuation. In this section, Jannarone looks closely at “The Theatre and the Plague,” the first essay of The Theatre and Its Double, making the case that the images of horror and death that predominate “should bring the historically minded back to the trenches of World War I. . . . [W]e see that his metaphor is not in fact much of a metaphor, but more of a recycling of a horrific—and nearly contemporaneous—reality” (40). Jannarone argues that, because we are in the habit of reading Artaud metaphorically, and strictly within the bounds of theatre, we fail to realize that the “Theatre of Cruelty aspires to reach far beyond the limits of theatrical and cultural forms.” With Artaud, “the ‘iniquitous’ human society that needs to ‘be destroyed’ is never marked as disinterested metaphor,” and to emphasize this Jannarone quotes from the closing of the “Theatre of Cruelty” where Artaud asks if “a little real blood will be needed, right away, in order to manifest this cruelty” (71).
Section 2, “Audience, Mass, Crowd,” looks at the rise of the masses through the lens of crowd theory and relates it to the transformation of theatre audiences in the nineteenth century. Jannarone notes that by the time Artaud began his career, the audience had undergone a massive transformation, metamorphosing from an unruly and noisy mob into a silent and restrained audience sitting attentively in the darkened auditorium. While Wagner, Antoine, and the Symbolist theatres, as well as the commercial theatre, sought to take advantage of these obedient audiences immersed in the drama before them, the avant-garde that came after them (for example, the Futurists and Dadaists) preferred to agitate the audience out of their complacency. Jannarone contends that Artaud borrowed from both traditions, advocating “not anarchy, but a theatre that finds its ‘true’ form in what Artaud calls ‘organized anarchy’” (85). She shows that Artaud never looked at the audience as a group of autonomous individuals with rational minds capable of altering society, as Brecht did, but as “organisms” to be manipulated (87–88). Audiences may feel revolutionary, yet they are actually submitting to the orchestrator of the theatrical event; in fact, she maintains that “Artaud developed an approach to theatre that is inherently fascistic in its relationship to and effect on the audience” (99). Artaud’s theatre is mythical, eschewing historical, material, and individual specificity; it batters its audience sensorially and encourages heightened intensity, yet everything is under the strictest control of the orchestrator of the event—the director. In fact Artaud’s desire for total control was so great that in his last production, an adaptation of Shelley’s The Cenci, he was writer, lead actor, designer, and director.
This brings us...