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The Theater and Its Double by Antonin Artaud
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The Theater and Its Double (1938)

by Antonin Artaud

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English (6)  French (1)  Finnish (1)  Dutch (1)  All languages (9)
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  rouzejp | Sep 2, 2015 |
Is theatre a branch of literature or an art in its own right?

The most important work of theatre theory of the 20th century, theatre historians divide the history of their subject into ‘before’ and ‘after’ Artaud’s seminal text. Before Artaud, theatre (especially, but not only in France) was a branch of literature; the text was all important, and that text was psychological: characters talked about their inner states, and conflicts arose as a clash between different aims and intentions of the characters. The playwright was king, actors and directors were subsidiary supporting ‘workers’, whose job was to bring the text to life.

Artaud held that theatre should be an art form in its own right, and he sought to inject theatre with some of the pagan, atavistic, magical, sacrificial, ritual, ceremonial, cathartic power that it had once had in Ancient Greece, and which he saw as still existing in the theatre of the East, especially Balinese theatre, which exercised an incalculable influence on Artaud’s ideas.

For Artaud, the text is irrelevant; the theatre must create a new language of theatrical signs, in which the mise en scene predominates over the text, a language (what later theorists would call semiotics) consisting of music, design, space, props, lighting and sound effects, movement and gesture. This total theatre, this new theatrical grammar, liberated from the stifling power of the psychological word, will work directly on the audience’s entire nervous system, cleansing and purifying.

It’s Artaud’s ideas which gave rise to what used to be called ‘director’s theatre’, a theatre in which the ideas or interpretation of the director takes precedence over the text, or indeed in which there is no text, but the work is devised in workshop as a collaborative process between director, designer, writer and actor. Chief examples of this are the productions of Grotowski, Brecht, Joan Littlewood, Peter Brook, and in our own time, the theatre of Robert Lepage and possibly, Le Cirque du Soleil (although this has become merely watered down entertainment now.)

Central to Artaud’s vision of a real theatre (as opposed to a staged text) is the notion of cruelty, and it’s this idea that makes The Theatre and its Double such a powerfully important literary text – apart from Artaud’s fabulous, incandescent prose – outside the immediate field of theatre studies. It’s also an idea that was –and continues still to be – much misunderstood. The term appears in his Manifesto for a Theatre of Cruelty from 1938 and is later developed in a series of letters to J.P. ( I do not know who this is – a critical and academic apparatus to the Grove Press edition of the English translation is woefully non- existent.)

For Artaud, cruelty is a metaphysical condition, a necessary concomitant to consciousness. There is no cruelty without consciousness and without the application of consciousness. It is consciousness which gives to every act of life its blood-red colour, its cruel nuance…. For Artaud, cruelty arises from the consciousness of ones acts, and from a range of mental attitudes with which one does those acts, especially the determination to carry acts through. He lists these mental attitudes thus: rigor, implacable intention and decision, irreversible and absolute determination. The dual notion of determination (determination in its every day sense of ‘intention’, determination in its technical philosophical sense as ‘necessity’) is crucial here. If, as philosophers maintain, free will is an illusion and everything is determined, then this is an act of cruelty on the part of some creator/nature; to be conscious of this is to suffer cruelty: The most current philosophical determinism is, from the point of view of our existence, an image of cruelty. For Artaud, our life is bounded by, infused by cruelty as a result of our consciousness of our lack of free will.

Life itself is cruelty, then. (This was unfortunately so for Artaud himself, who spent years locked away in mental institutions, often against his will, and who probably took his own life, although we are not sure about this). A theatre such as that envisioned by Artaud would break down the life-culture dichotomy, and would allow culture – which Artaud sees as actually smothering the true nature of life - to really represent life: A protest against the idea of culture as distinct from life – as if there were culture on side and life on the other, as if true culture were not a refined means of understanding and exercising life.

The theatre will never find itself again – i.e. constitute a means of true illusion – except by furnishing the spectator with the truthful precipitates of dreams, in which his taste for crime, his erotic obsessions, his savagery, his chimeras, his utopian sense of life and matter, even his cannibalism, pour out, on a level not counterfeit and illusory, but interior.
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2 vote tomcatMurr | Jun 9, 2014 |
This is one of those books that seems cursed by having been too influential. Some of the arguments, presumably ground-breaking at the time, have been so thoroughly absorbed in later theoretical and artistic developments that they seem obvious. The end result is a book that feels repetitive and rather banal. The message may be trivial, but Artaud's writing is lively. He covers Balinese theater, Kabbalah, Aztec culture, and the Black Death; not in the manner of an eclectic scholar, but rather like someone who has become fiercely obsessed with a few random subjects. As a Marx Brothers fan, I appreciated this bit near the ending: "The poetic quality of a film like Animal Crackers might correspond to the definition of humor, if this word had not long since lost its meaning of total liberation, of the destruction of all reality in the mind." ( )
1 vote breadhat | Jul 23, 2013 |
The Theater and Its Double by Artaud contains various short manifestos and essays which describe and argue for more malleability and creativity in the expressions of playwrights and actors. For the majority of the book, Artaud argues for some of the principles in Eastern theater to be applied in Europe and the Americas, and while he lauds some aspects of Western theater, he sees the emotional and gesticulative intuition present in Eastern theater as something to be commended as well. Artaud and his absurdist playwright contemporaries revolutionized what was acceptable in the context of the European play, and I sincerely believe that such a work should be read by any up-and-coming playwrights today in order to broaden their horizons in terms of format, content, and the expressions written in for the actors and actresses performing in their plays. As an educator, I would use excerpts of this for handouts instructing students for possibilities in constructing plays when brainstorming and perhaps also afterwards when they are in the editing process. ( )
1 vote dhut0042 | Apr 25, 2013 |
First published in 1938, "The Theatre and Its Double" is a collection of essays detailing Antonin Artaud's radical theories on drama, which he saw as being stifled by conservatism and lack of experimentation. It contains the famous manifestos of the 'Theatre of Cruelty', analyses the underlying impulses of performance, provides some suggestions on a physical training method for actors and actresses, and features a long appreciation of the expressive values of Eastern dance drama. Also included is 'Seraphim's Theatre', in which Artaud attempts an actor's application of the Taoist principles of fullness and emptiness. This groundbreaking text is widely read throughout the world for the beauty of its style and as a source of inspiration for new drama, and will appeal to those in search of the essence of theatre.
3 vote RKC-Drama | Mar 24, 2011 |
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This edition contains both Le théâtre et son double and Le théâtre de Séraphin.
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Amazon.com Amazon.com Review (ISBN 0802150306, Paperback)

Since its first publication in 1938, The Theater and Its Double by the French artist and philosopher Antonin Artaud has continued to provoke, inspire, enrage, enliven, challenge, and goad any number of theatrical debates in its call for a "Theater of Cruelty." A trio of theatrical manifestos, the book is an aggressive attack on many of the most treasured beliefs of both theater and Western culture. According to Artaud, the theater's "double" is similar to its Jungian "shadow," the unacknowledged, unconscious element that completes it but is in many ways its opposite. As "culture" inexorably draws the artistic impulse into safe channels, the repressed irrational urges of theater, based on dreams, religion, and emotion, are increasingly necessary to "purge" the sickness of society. Artaud identifies language itself as one of the major cultural culprits, and his attacks on it occasionally makes his text rough going. But his challenge to restore relevance to the heart of the theatrical experience remains fundamental to the vitality of theater, and his insistence on the sensory experience of drama as opposed to the literary (and such innovative ideas as the use of unconventional "found spaces") continues to be the clarion call of the theatrical avant-garde. --John Longenbaugh

(retrieved from Amazon Thu, 12 Mar 2015 18:07:17 -0400)

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