Antonin Artaud (An Inspiration)

The Alfred Jarry Theatre

The Boston Experimental Theatre Company would like to share the following writing by the great Antonin Artaud. Mr. Artaud’s writings and teaching have been highly inspirational and influential on the work of our company.

Antonin ArtaudThe theatre shares the disrepute into which all forms of art are successively falling. Amid the confusion, the absence, the distortion of all human values, in this agonizing uncertainty we live in regarding the necessity or value of this art or that form of mental activity, the idea of theatre is probably the most gravely afflicted. It would be useless to search in the mass of spectacles presented every day for something that corresponded to any idea one might have of an absolutely pure theatre.

If the theatre is an amusement, too many serious problems demand our attention for us to be able to divert the least particle of it to anything so ephemeral. If the theatre is not an amusement, if it is an authentic reality, then how are we to restore its rank as reality, how are we to make each spectacle a kind of event? This is the problem we must solve.

Our inability to believe, to accept illusion, is immense. Dramatic ideas no longer have for us the brilliance, the bite, that quality of something unique, unprecedented, whole that continue to characterize certain ideas in literature or painting. The moment we introduce this idea of pure theatre and try to give it concrete form, one of the first questions we must face is the question whether we will be able to find an audience capable of giving us the necessary minimum of confidence and trust, capable, in short, of joining forces with us. For, unlike writers or painters, we cannot do without an audience; indeed, the audience becomes an integral part of our undertaking.
Theatre is the one thing in the world most impossible to save. An art based entirely on a power of illusion which it is incapable of obtaining has no choice but to disappear.

…words either do or do not have their power of illusion. They have their own value. But sets, costumes, gestures, and false cries will never take the place of the reality we are waiting for. This is the crux of the matter: the creation of a reality, the unprecedented eruption of a world. The theatre must give us this ephemeral but real world, this world tangential to objective reality. Either the theatre will become this world, or we will do without the theatre.

Is there anything more contemptible and at the same time more ominously terrible than the spectacle of the police going into action? Society is familiar with these performances, which are based on the serenity with which it controls the lives and liberty of the people. When the police are preparing to make a raid, their movements resemble the choreography of a ballet. Policemen come and go. The dismal sound of police whistles tears the air. A kind of painful solemnity emanates from all movements. Little by little the circle closes in. These movements which on first glance seemed insignificant gradually become meaningful – as does that point of space which has served up to now as their pivot. It is an ordinary-looking house whose doors suddenly open, and from inside the house there emerges a group of women walking single file, like beasts to the slaughter. The plot thickens: the police net was intended not for a gang of criminals but only for a group of women. Our emotion and our amazement are at their peak. Never has a more effective stage setting been followed by such a denouement. For surely we are just as guilty as these women and just as cruel as these policemen. It is really a complete spectacle. Well, this spectacle is ideal theatre. This anguish, this feeling of guilt, this victory, this satiety give the tone and feeling of the mental state in which the spectator must leave our theatre. He will be shaken and antagonized by the internal dynamic of the spectacle, and this dynamic will be in direct relation to the anxieties and preoccupations of his whole life.

The illusion will no longer depend on the probability or improbability of the action but on its communicative power and its reality.

Is it clear now what we are driving at? What we are driving at is this: that with each performance we put on we are playing a serious game, that the whole point of our effort resides in this quality of seriousness. It is not to the minds or the senses of the spectators that we address ourselves but to their whole existence. Their existence and ours. We stake our own lives on the spectacle that unfolds on the stage. If we did not have the very clear and very profound sense that an intimate part of our lives was involved in that spectacle, we would see no point in pursuing the experiment. The spectator who comes to our theatre knows that he is to undergo a real operation in which not only his mind but senses and his flesh are at stake. Henceforth he will go to the theatre the way he goes to the surgeon or the dentist. In the same state of mind – knowing, of course, that he will not die, but that it is a serious thing, and that he will not come out of it unscathed. If we were not convinced that we would reach him as deeply as possible, we would consider ourselves inadequate to our most absolute duty. He must be totally convinced that we are capable of making him scream.

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By Antonin Artaud