BOOK REVIEW / What a performance: Antonin Artaud: Blows and Bombs - Stephen Barber: Faber, pounds 14.99

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The Independent Culture
ANTONIN ARTAUD was a poete maudit, driving his writing to the very limits of language, his theatre beyond the limits of theatre, his mind across the border of madness and his body to the extremes of tolerance, mainly through drugs (though he found willing collaborators in this last enterprise during his internment in psychiatric hospitals between 1937 and 1946, when he was forced to submit to electroshock therapy). The influence of his poetry, his theoretical writings and his 'Theatre of Cruelty' came mainly after his death and derived not from a coherent set of ideas so much as from an intuition of his 'project': it was evident where Artaud had tried to go, and those who followed - Peter Brook, Jean-Louis Barrault, Roger Planchon, organisers of 'happenings' or performance art - did so with a caution that came from understanding the risks.

The project was built on opposition: his first important theoretical writings are in letters to Jacques Riviere, who rejected some poems for the Nouvelle revue francaise, but published their correspondence; Artaud later claimed that his hostility had contributed to Riviere's death. He fell out with the Surrealists (easy to do), and embarked on a series of abortive schemes, notably the Theatre Alfred Jarry, which was to give a total of eight performances from 1927 to 1929, and his play Les Cenci. Anguish was his subject-matter and its greatest enemy: 'I began writing books in order to declare that I couldn't write anything at all.' His theatre was an assault on its audience and on the actors whom he expected, literally, to shed blood on the stage.

Meanwhile, he had a career as a film actor, a remarkable screen presence who can be seen, notably, as Marat in Abel Gance's Napoleon and in Dreyer's Passion de Jeanne d'Arc. Most of his other parts, as Stephen Barber records, were a source of further anguish: he found them humiliating and despised those who had offered them to him. He had ambitions to transform cinema itself, though, as Barber puts it in characteristic style, his 'film work was disciplined within its mainly textual confines' - in other words, he wrote about films that never got made. In 1936 and 1937, he went on journeys to Mexico and Ireland, in search of primitive peoples, and was committed to an asylum after a violent incident following his expulsion from Dublin.

It is impossible to read an account of Artaud's sufferings during his internment without sympathy, and some of the passages in which Barber describes his last years are harrowing. But it takes a cool head to assess a life in which reality and hallucination were so routinely mixed, and Barber never applies it. His subject's many quarrels and paranoid fantasies are reported with a literalness that makes them almost funny: the Bank of France's insistence that it knew nothing of the fortune in gold bars that Artaud claimed to have deposited, his alleged brawl with Hitler in a Bierkeller in 1932, his 'friendly' relationship with Laval, and so on.

Even for those prepared to make allowances for his mental condition, Artaud must have been difficult to deal with. His angers are frequently misdirected, as well as tedious, and much of his later writing, which tests the bounds of comprehensibility, is pitched on a single note, tending towards the screams with which he punctuated his final radio broadcast. There is little in Barber's book to explain the appeal of his personality and the support that he continued to receive from his friends, or to justify the value that they and others have placed on Artaud's work.