Antonin Artaud and the Theater of the Real

Antonin Artaud and the Theater of the Real

Artaud:
“To break through language in order to touch life is to create or recreate the theater; the essential thing is not to believe that this act must remain sacred, i.e. set apart – the essential thing is to believe that not just anyone can create it, and that there must be a preparation.
This leads to the rejection of the usual limitations of man and man’s powers, and infinitely extends the frontiers of what is called reality.
We must believe in a sense of life renewed by the theater, a sense of life in which man fearlessly makes himself the master of what does not yet exist, and brings it into being.  And everything that has not been born can still be brought to life if we are not satisfied to remain mere recording organisms.
Furthermore, when we speak the word “life,” it must be understood that we are not referring to life as we know it from the surface of fact, but to that fragile, fluctuating center which forms never reach.
And if there is still one hellish, truly accursed thing in our time, it is our artistic dallying with forms, instead of being like victims burnt at the stake, signalling through the flames.”
For Artaud, the theater is created.  Theater is a physical happening created by people for people.  For a purpose.  The purpose of touching life.  Of extending reality (our conception or experience of the world) in a way that reaches beyond the conventional, opening up new experience, new experience that perhaps can give us a sense of the way we really are, the way the universe really is.
This is entering philosophical rough ground.  Artaud doesn’t want to commit to a particular metaphysical system.  He doesn’t want to give an account of the structure of the universe.  Instead, he wants to stake a particular epistemological position, a claim about what we can know and how we can come to know it.
Here it is interesting to compare Artaud to Kant.  Both hold that there is a way things are, and that that way is distinct from the way we understand the world to be.  The universe as it is  – is distinct from our reality, a reality constituted by facts given in our mode of symbolization, our languages of understanding.
Kant’s claim was that our knowledge is limited by our mode of symbolization.  That the way things really are is forever beyond our grasp.  Kant’s positive work was to show how we could learn about ourselves and our concepts by looking at the structure of our thought. His idea was that if we examined the kinds of thoughts we had, we could discover certain invariant principles which were required to make those thoughts possible.  Kant’s ideas are essential to understanding how
language works… they give a clue as to how to look beneath the surface for the structures which make meaning possible.  But he is fundamentally skeptical about our ability to know things as they are in themselves.
Artaud is more optimistic about what we can know.  He believes that through theater we can gain a sense of the way the world really is, that we can come into contact with fundamental aspects of the universe and our place in it.  Theater, authentic theater, gives us this greater sense.
The magic of theater is evoking the nature of the universe by means of intentional physical acts.
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“Theater… is a matter of scenic materialization and… lives only by its materialization.  Theater resides in a certain way of furnishing and animating the stage, by a conflagration of feelings and human sensations at a given point, creating situations that are expressed in concrete gestures.”
“We cannot go on prostituting the idea of theater whose only value is its excruciating, magical relation to reality and danger.” (here I interpret Artaud using “reality” to the universe as it is, not as we perceive it).
“All this magnetism, all this poetry, all these direct means of spellbinding would be nothing if they were not used to put the spirit physically on the track of something else, if the true theater could not give us a sense of a creation of which we possess only one face, but which is completed on other levels.”
“The theater must … be considered as the Double, not of this direct, everyday reality of which it is gradually being reduced to a mere inert replica – as empty as it is sugarcoated – but of another archetypal and dangerous reality, a reality of which the Principles, like dolphins, once they have shown their heads, hurry to dive back into the obscurity of the deep.”
“It seems, in brief, that the highest possible idea of the theater is one that reconciles us philosophically with Becoming, suggesting to us through all sorts of objective situations the furtive idea of the passage and transmutation of ideas into things, much more than the stumbling of feelings into words.”
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The choice between Kant and Artaud is a matter of faith, a choice about how one interprets the events of one’s life.   Artaud’s view is the essence of mysticism.  He chooses to interpret certain experiences as giving him a sense of a deeper reality… “the fragile fluctuating center which forms never reach.”
I don’t know how, in the language of philosophy,  to construct an argument that shows conclusively that intentional physical acts can bring one into greater contact with the nature of the universe as it really is.  Philosophy fails at this point, since it has no language within which to talk about how the universe really is, and all its methods of argumentation operate within language.  But simply because philosophy cannot account for it, does not mean it must be rejected.
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Something important to realize: on this view of theater, theater is not false, not make-believe, not fiction.  Theater is more real than reality, more real than the constructions through which we experience the world.
Theater is the creation of experiences which bring us into a closer connection with the universe.
In this way, one could think of teaching, genuine teaching, as theater.  Creating experiences for students which bring them into closer connection to the possibilities of their life (perhaps by opening up to them new ways of constructing reality).  To me, the notion of “objective teaching” is not teaching at all.  It’s dock-loading, shelf-stocking. Objective teaching is simply the loading of facts into an existing structure.  Authentic teaching enables an experience of what is
possible and in so doing, evokes a desire to realize some of those possibilities.  The teachers I have loved the most have been those who gave me those experiences, who awoke in me desires to explore and create.
Creating those experiences requires, demands, the involvement of one’s own subjective point of view.
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Artaud’s ideas about how to create theater:
Theater requires the intention to create.
Theater requires positioning the audience at the center of the action.
Theater requires expression in a heterogeneous system of multiple languages.
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The intention to create is essential to authentic theater.
“We must believe in a sense of life renewed by theater, a sense of life in which man fearlessly makes himself the master of what does not yet exist, and brings it into being.”
“Not just anyone can create it, and … there must be a preparation.”
A central writing is Artaud’s “Theater of Cruelty (First Manifesto).”  Artaud: “Without an element of cruelty at the root of every spectacle, the theater is not possible.  In our present state of degeneration it is through the skin that metaphysics must be made to re-enter our minds.”   Cruelty has an ominous ring, and in our conventional use of the term would not seem related to the creativity and possibility-enhancing nature of theater.  When I first read this passage I did not understand what he could mean.  The key comes in a letter Artaud writes after publication of his manifesto.  He explains that he is using “cruelty” in a special sense: “Cruelty signifies rigor, implacable intention and decision, irreversible and absolute determination… effort is a cruelty, existence through effort is a cruelty.”
Creating theater requires effort.  Making that effort requires intention.  And importantly, that creative process embodies intention. When Artaud says: “I will do what I have dreamed, or I will do nothing,”  we can see that this has a double meaning.  Artaud dreams of creating a new kind of theater.  And that theater is one in which one realizes, makes real, the metaphysical content of dreams.  His (overriding, general) intention is to realize his (diverse, specific) intentions.
Coming back to teaching, one can only teach if one has intentions, because otherwise you have nothing to embody, and no will to carry out the effort of embodiment.
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Theater requires positioning the audience at the center of the action.
From the “Theater of Cruelty”: “THE STAGE – THE AUDITORIUM… we abolish the stage and the auditorium and replace them by a single site, without partition or barrier of any kind, which will become the theater of the action.  A direct communication will be re-established between the spectator and the spectacle, between the actor and the spectator, from the fact that the spectator, placed in the middle of the action, is engulfed and physically affected by it.”
Only when the spectator (the intended recipient of the experiences) is at the center of the event can the full evocative power of the materialization of the creator’s intention be realized.
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Theater requires expression in a system of multiple languages.
This is very exciting.  Artaud explicitly conceives of theater as expression in language.
“Put in this way, the question of the theater ought to arouse general attention, the implication being that theater, through its physical aspect, since it requires expression in space (the only real expression, in fact), allows the magical means of art and speech to be exercised organically and together, like renewed exorcisms.  The upshot of all this is that theater will not be given its specific powers of action until it is given its language.”
“The idea of a play made directly in terms of the stage, encountering obstacles of both production and performance, compels the discovery of an active language, active and anarchic, a language in
which the traditional  limits of feelings and words are transcended.”
The nature of the theatrical language is essentially heterogeneous.  The metaphysical ideas of Creation, Becoming, Chaos, etc. “cannot be limited or even formally depicted.”  One cannot bring
the ideas on stage, but one can suggest them through expression in multiple languages.
“In the Oriental theater of metaphysical tendencies, as opposed to the Occidental theater of psychological tendencies, the whole complex of gestures, signs, postures, and sonorities which constitute the language of stage performance, this language which develops all its physical and poetic effects on every level of consciousness and in all the senses, necessarily induces thought to adopt profound attitudes which could be called “metaphysics-in-action.”
The effect of theater is poetic.  Expressions (physical, tangible, limited in space and time) refer beyond themselves to infinite meanings.  Artaud believes that this poetic effect arises from the
interplay of languages. The poetic effect of theater comes from the spaces between these languages.
“Poetry is anarchic to the degree that it brings into play all of the relationships of object to object and of form to signification.”
“Each of these means (languages of expression) has its own intrinsic poetry, and a kind of ironic poetry as well, resulting from the way it combines with other means of expression.”
“From one means of expression to another, correspondences and levels of development are created – even light can have a precise intellectual meaning.”
“The important thing is to create stages and perspectives from one language to another.  The secret of theater in space is dissonance, dispersion of timbres, and the dialectical discontinuity of expression.
We intend to base the theater upon spectacle before everything else, and we shall introduce into the spectacle a new notion of space utilized on all possible levels and in all degrees of perspective in depth and height, and within this notion a specific idea of time will be added to that of movement.”
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Artaud sets experience over possession.  The effect is evocative, not productive.  One ends with a sense of an infinite meaning, not ownership of it.
Possession is overrated, and incapable of achieving its ends.  In a search for possession, we miss what we really desire.  “Why search for the meaning of life, when you can have the experience of life instead?”
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This conception of theater is expansive. Our lives can be theatrical.  Anything we do can be considered theater, to the degree that our activities are intentional physical acts with us at the center, acts whose performance holds the possibility of evoking a sense of the nature of ourselves and the universe, the possibility of touching life.
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Copyright © 2008. Alan Bush. All rights reserved.

 

 

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