Theatre and Its Double

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  • Topic: Theatre of Cruelty, Peter Brook, Antonin Artaud
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Le Théâtre et son Double (The Theatre and Its Double)-Antonin Artaud

The Theatre and Its Double was first published in French in 1938. It is a collection of essays, manifestos, and letters all written by the French artist and theatritician Antonin Artaud (1896-1948). Artaud spent much of his life in and out of asylums and addicted to laudanum and other opiates prescribed to help his so-called ‘madness’. During his ‘free’ times, he wrote, acted, and traveled. Artaud was profoundly moved by a Balinese dance he saw in 1931. He traveled to Mexico in 1936, lived with a group of Tarahumaran Indians, and experimented with peyote. He was institutionalized in 1937, following an incident in Ireland. His friends were able to get him released in 1946, although he remained in psychiatric facilities until his death in 1948. He was suffering from cancer, but likely died of a drug overdose.

The Theatre and Its Double was not translated into English until 1958, when it was embraced by the theatre community. Artaud’s work is credited as influencing Peter Brook, Jerzy Grotowski, the Living Theatre, and many others; it is now considered one of the most important books on theatre written in the 20th century.

Language notes: The French term mise en scéne has not been translated; it loosely correlates to the idea of placement of things on stage. When the word ‘mind’ or ‘spirit’ is used, the original French was esprit, which can stand for both. ‘Occident’ is another term for ‘Western world’.

Translation note: The text used for this presentation was translated by Mary Caroline Richards, with the exception of “In Memoriam Antonin Artaud” which was translated by Richard Howard.

The Theatre and Its Double

Preface: The Theatre and Culture
In this essay, Artaud first explains how the physical needs of the body, his example is hunger, trump the need for ‘culture’. He has a different definition of ‘culture’ than many, and he accuses Europe of not having a culture. “What has lost us culture is our Occidental idea of art and the profits we seek to derive from it” (10). He then praises Mexico for its incorporation of totem; a visual art that also represents the gods. Artaud reiterates what will be a common theme in this work, that to bring about true or pure theatre, one must be rid of language. “For the theatre as for culture, it remains a question of naming and directing shadows: and the theatre, not confined to a fixed language or form, not only destroys false shadows but prepares the way for a new generation of shadows, around which assembles the true spectacle of life” (12).

The Theatre and the Plague
This essay begins with a vivid description of a plague that swept France in the 18th century and describes how the viceroy of a city turned away a ship that was carrying the virus because of a dream. Here, Artaud allows the influence of Surrealism to slightly touch on his work. Artaud goes on to relate, in graphic detail, the signs and symptoms of the plague and how the plague affects the human body. He questions how the plague was transmitted; why did those who avoided the plague catch it, while those who stole from the dead and defiled the bodies of plague victims remained healthy?

Ultimately, Artaud comes to his point – both theatre and plague have the power to shake up a person, a city, or an entire society. “The plague takes images that are dormant, a latent disorder, and suddenly extends them into the most extreme gestures; the theatre also takes gestures and pushes them as far as they will go: like the plague it reforges the chain between what is and what is not, between the virtuality of the possible and what already exists in materialized nature” (27).

Metaphysics and the Mise en Scéne
Artaud begins this essay by describing a painting by Lucas van den Leyden (“The Daughters of Lot”. He describes the painting in detail, noting where Leyden placed various images on the canvas and how they work...
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