Review : ‘Artaud and After’ by Ronald Hayman, (O. U. P., £2.25)
On the flyleaf of his book, Mr. Hayman quotes, with apparent approval, a statement made in 1973 by Susan Sontag:
The course of all recent serious theatre in Europe and the Americas
can be said to divide into two periods—before Artaud and after
Much as I admire some of Miss Sontag’s essays on modernism, I think this kind of sweeping generalization, itself a symptom of the trenchant dogmatism encouraged by Artaud, does not help us towards clarity of thought. Certainly, there has been, and there still is, an Artaud cult, but how are we to assess its validity and its effect? Can we be sure that, in the theatre, Artaud has been more important than Brecht, or Beckett and Ionesco? He left no performable plays, and achieved little or no success as a stage-actor or as an animateur. At most, he inspired certain individuals, who have gone on repeating his name, but more perhaps as an incantation expressive of the seriousness with which they take the idea of `theatre’ than as a precise indication of what theatre should be. Is there, indeed, a comprehensible body of theatrical theory to be found in Artaud’s writings? And what is the value of the bulk of his verbal production, which has nothing at all to do with the theatre? To raise these questions is not necessarily to show a blasphemous desire to debunk Artaud; it is simply to suggest that we might try to see him calmly in perspective, now that he has been dead for thirty years.
Mr. Hayman’s book, although it appears to have been carefully researched from the biographical point of view, does not provide any such reasoned assessment. It is written almost entirely from within the Artaud cult, as if the cult were self-explanatory and self-justifying. Consequently, it leaves the agnostic or non-believer looking on wryly from outside.
The structure of the work is understandable enough. After an introductory chapter describing Artaud’s brief re-emergence on the literary scene after the Liberation, Mr Hayman gives a rapid survey of the earlier alienated figures with whom Artaud felt he had affinities—Nerval, Baudelaire, Rimbaud, Van Gogh, etc. Then he retraces Artaud’s life in chronological sequence, from the early days as an ailing infant in Marseilles and Smyrna, to the Bohemian years in Paris, which were marked first by Artaud’s involvement with Surrealism and the cinema, then by his attempts to establish a theatre of his own. Later, after the failure of all his theatrical enterprises, came the journey to Mexico in order to discover the mystic truth supposedly in the possession of the Tarahumara Indians and, a little later still, the disastrous excursion to Ireland which ended in overt madness, forcible repatriation to France and incarceration in various mental institutions. A final chapter links up Artaud with his successors—Barrault, Peter Brook, Grotowski and Julian Beck—each of whom has paid homage to him and has, at times, developed features of the theatre emphasized by Artaud, such as the preference for concrete stage imagery over language and the assimilation of the theatrical performance to a religious ritual. Mr Hayman also quotes from Pierre Boulez and R. D. Laing to show that, outside the theatre, famous people have been excited by Artaud’s frenetic presence.
This general pattern is quite acceptable; what I find puzzling is the grain of the prose, which is not controlled by a critical coherence, so that the reader never knows quite where he is. For instance, in the opening pages, after describing the physical and mental sufferings which prompted Artaud’s drug-taking and led to his premature senility, Mr Hayman comments (3): ‘Artaud was nothing less than heroic in his efforts to make confusion into a virtue. Having only himself to consult, he read his own body as if it were a map of the universe. As he put it in “Position de la chair” (December 1925): “I must examine this sense of flesh which ought to give me a metaphysics of Being and a definitive knowledge of Life . . . There is an intelligence, quick as lightning, in the flesh, and the agitation of the flesh shares in the activity of the mind” .’ What exactly does this mean? Mr Hayman passes quickly on, as if the sense were obvious and, in the next paragraph, tells us—again without comment—that Artaud, after ten years of treatment, had come to believe not only that all doctors were incompetent but that they were persecutors and makers of black magic. And he continues with a description of Artaud’s fears: ‘Just by touching their own testicles and their vaginas, men and women could make contact with other consciousnesses. Artaud believed that damage was being inflicted on him by malicious activities. There was one particularly dangerous technique by which the act of masturbation could be protracted for an hour. He was convinced that there had been gatherings of Mexicans, Tibetan lamas, and rabbis to weaken him by masturbating collectively. He wanted to retaliate by leading a party of fifty friends, armed with machineguns, to Tibet. They would also have to attack several Bohemian monasteries which evil-doers were using as their head-quarters. From the summer of 1946 he was living just outside Paris, in a clinic at Ivry. . . ‘ It is impossible to tell whether we are meant to take Artaud’s ravings seriously, or whether we have to interpret them as having some important, and self-evident, significance. I cannot accept them as embodying literal truths, and I am unable to interpret them as pathological symptoms. I expect Mr Hayman, since he has quoted them, to put them into an intelligible context for me, the reader. But he does not proceed in this way; on page after page, he either simply transliterates Artaud’s apparently nonsensical sayings, or produces other gnomic utterances, presumably of his own invention, that cry out for critical elucidation. I choose another example at random (29): ‘Artaud was later to make his life particularly opaque, as though to counterbalance the transparency of his art; Isidore Ducasse, who died at the age of twenty-seven, made his life particularly transparent, dissolving his identity into his work.’ Again I ask: what does this mean? The question is legitimate; after all, this book is published by the Oxford University Press and, unless I am mistaken, all universities operate on the basis of rational discourse, even in their approach to irrationalism. Artaud is a phenomenon that would repay study. It would be interesting to know what really can be deduced from his writings, what the nature of his madness was exactly, how far le mythe d’Artaud is genuine and how far it is a substitute religion like le mythe de Rimbaud, and so on. It is bound to be an article of academic faith that what is valid in Artaud’s irrationalism will eventually be explained and justified rationally. But this book does not begin to accomplish the task.