Wednesday, July 09, 2008

Some Notes on Antonin Artaud

I am not really familiar with theatrical theory but I recently picked up and read Antonin Artaud's essay collection and theatre manifesto The Theatre and its Double since I keep coming across his name at so many places again and again. I found it baffling and somewhat obscure but still some random and disjointed thoughts provoked by the book... (Susan Sontag's essay on Artaud is typically brilliant and provocative and can be read as a very good introduction to his work. She calls him "one of the great, daring mapmakers of consciousness in extremis.")

The Theate and Its Double contains two key ideas, both interlinked. Artaud is extremely critical of the dominant mode of psychological realism in theatre and linked to this is the way theatre is kept subservient to written text. At one place he laments that French actors only know how to talk, they don't know how to scream! He thinks that by using a straight-forward mode of representation theatre serves to reinforce and validate the existing and normative reality of the spectator which is exactly opposite of what theatre should do, that is, shatter the fundamental basis of that normative reality. Theatre should be like a plague, he says, or hunger! This he thinks can only be done when the theatre aims at the subconscious and at the visceral level. He calls it "theatre of cruelty." He says that he was convinced of this idea when he saw a staging of Balinese theatre. The "oriental theatre", he explains, is able to tap into something mythic and deeper than its mondern, western counterpart because it relies on anti-realist aesthetic and its mode of representation is abstract, symbolic and driven by rituals and gesture rather than language.

Is it true that non-verbal arts have greater potential of providing tranformative and visceral experiences? I do think so. There is also another confusion that I wanted to mention now that the topic of Artaud has come up. I have seen his name mentioned in some articles defending ultra-violent horror films. While it is true that some horror films do provide visceral experience and can also provoke a complete shattering of existing reality in spectator's minds but most of them either just trade in commodified images of cruelty or else in straight-forward representation of the experience of pain, in which case their premise remains that of psychological realism. None of these two can really be called "cinema of cruelty."

A very good example of Artaudian aesthetic in cinema will be the astonishing epilogue of Fassbinder's Berlin Alexanderplatz. The slaughterhouse sequence of Fassbinder's In a Year of 13 Moons should also be seen through an Artaudian framework. In fact Fassbinder was a great fan of Artaud (along with Brecht). His film Despair is dedicated to him. Some of Pasolini's tirades on modernity and rationality also have their precedents in Artaud. I haven't seen his film Salo but that would be a good example of "cinema of cruelty" as well.

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