Antonin Artaud (1896- 1948) was an avant-garde dramatist, theoretician of theatre, and ex-surrealist, who was known for his contribution to experimental theatre with his theory of, “Theatre of Cruelty.” His career consisted of many different forms of art, such as acting, writing, and drawing. Artaud spent most of his life in and out of asylums due to mental illnesses. While institutionalized, he continued his artistic endeavors and created paintings inspired by Van Gogh. Artaud’s work included The Theatre and It’s Double, The Cenci, The Conquest of Mexico, The Spurt of Blood, and Umbilical Limbo.

Early Years

Antonin Artaud was born as Antoine-Marie-Joseph Artaud on September 4, 1896 in Marseille, France. He was one of nine children to Euphrasie Nalpas and Antoine-Roi Artaud. Out of the nine children, him and two other siblings; Marie-Ange and Germaine De Fernand, were the only ones to survive into adulthood. The death of his other siblings affected his life, as he suffered from severe clinical and melancholic depression. The death of his younger sister haunted him well into adulthood and was mentioned in some writings that he completed during his time spent in sanitariums and asylums [1] . According to those writings, his sister was strangled to death by a nurse, but whether this is fact or a delusion is unclear.

At age five, Artaud suffered from meningitis, neuralgia, severe migraine headaches and stammering problems in addition to his depression that remained with him for the rest of his life [2] These conditions caused him to have a neurotic, nervous, and irritable personality. After completing college at age eighteen in College du Sacre Coer, he was admitted to a sanitarium for his depression. While there, he was prescribed opium to ease his head pain. This marked the start of his drug addiction problem, which led to several drug detoxifications later in his life [3] . These medical and physical conditions also caused him to be discharged from the French army after being drafted in 1916.

After his discharge, Artaud spent two years in another mental institution, where he was recommended by a psychologist to use poetry and writing to express his thoughts and feelings. Although therapy encouraged him to use a creative coping mechanism for his mental conditions, Artaud grew to be anti-psychoanalytic. He rejected the ideas of Sigmund Freud, the founder of psychoanalysis, and any form of talk therapy.

Acting and Theater Experience

In 1920, Artaud went to Paris to pursue a career as a writer and actor. His uncle, Louis Nalpas, used work and
artaud2.jpgpersonal connections in the film industry to help him get acting jobs. His first small role was in Jean Cocteau’s
adaptation of Antigone, where he played Tiresias [4] . In between 1924 and 1935, Artaud was cast in twenty-three films including, “Passion of Joan De Arc”,“The Seashell and the Clergy”, and “Napoleon” [5] . Through his uncle, Artaud met and took an apprenticeship under Charles Dullin, who founded the Théâtre de l’Atelier and was a theater manager and director[6] . Dullin helped direct the production of Antigone.

Later, Artaud founded the Alfred Jarry Theatre with Robert Aron and Roger Vitrac [7] .This theatre included surrealist plays and programs, like August Strindberg’s A Dream Play. This became Artaud’s first contribution to experimental/avant-garde theatre, which went against traditional western and bourgeois methods.

Experimental/Avant-Garde Theatre

Traditional western and bourgeois theatre in the nineteenth century consisted of narratives that relied heavily on structured plots, aesthetic realism, fixed text, and the psychology of characters. These forms of theatre were meant to capture the nature of mankind as it was through a sense of aristocratic values, like reason and virtue [8] . By doing so, a conscious experience would be created between the spectators and the characters. Famous and well-known actors were cast as lead characters to draw in a middle-class audience, which turned theatre into a business to earn maximum profit.

Around the twentieth century, Alfred Jarry was considered the godfather of experimental theatre, also known as avant-garde theatre. This style of theatre was created to reject the methods of the bourgeois. The theatre revolution of avant-garde was attributed to Jarry’s absurdist satire of Macbeth that was called Ubu Roi. In avant-garde theatre, directors, actors, and writers were encouraged to try new ways of approaching theatre productions that were beyond the scope of traditional theatre [9] . This form of theatre included surrealism, absurdism, and magical realism.

Surrealism and Writing

Alongside his acting, Artaud also focused on writing and was introduced to a surrealist group by Andre Breton, who was also a follower of absurdism, in 1924. Artaud published his first book of poems called, “Tric-Trac du Ciel” (Backgammon in Heaven) and was an editor for the surrealist journal, La révolution surréaliste. He was attracted to surrealism due to the idea of separating oneself from rational thinking and exploring unconscious freedom through dreamlike imagery and symbolism [10] . Artaud eventually joined the surrealist group of poets with Breton, but parted ways after the group developed a political affiliation with communism [11] . He felt that Marxism went against the principles of poetry and was a narrow-minded perspective of reality.

In 1926, Artaud published another book called Umbilical Limbo, which was a collection of poems, dialogues, and prose. One of his poems from the book was, “Dark Poet”[12] :

Dark Poet, a maid's breast
Haunts you,
Embittered poet, life seethes
And life burns,
And the sky reabsorbs itself in rain,
Your pen scratches at the heart of life.

Forest, forest, alive with your eyes,
On multiple pinions;
With storm-bound hair,
The poets mount horses, dogs.

Eyes fume, tongues stir,
The heavens surge into our senses
Like blue mother's milk;
Women, harsh vinegar hearts,
I hang suspended from your mouths.

The Inspiration Behind the Theory

In 1931, Artaud became interested and inspired by Asian theatre when he went to the Paris Colonial Exposition and saw a Balinese dance performance. The Asian theatre treated productions like sacred ceremonies in which specific rituals were done for performances. According to Connie Lauerman, Artaud was fascinated with the ritualistic aspect of theatre and how, “the director was a sort of magician and words were not an essential feature.” Artaud’s trip to Mexico and experience with the Tarahumara tribe also added to this obsession. With the Tarahumaras, Artaud participated in a peyote ritual. This ritual involved consuming a natural herb, known as the peyote, which had intense hallucinogenic effects. Once the herb was consumed, the tribe would dance. These two experiences helped Artaud create his concept, known as “theatre of cruelty.”

Theatre of Cruelty

Theatre of cruelty was a theory of what theatre productions should be like for directors, writers, actors, and the audience. “Cruelty” referred to the visceral experience of life and emotions through violent attacks on the audience’s senses and subconscious[13] . This was done to release suppressed fears and anxieties that the audience was forced to face in real life. In his book, The Theatre and its Double, Artaud also described this as, “acting on the sensibility” [14] . Rather than relying on fixed texts, ordered plots, and psychology, Artaud proposed that theatre should be centered around the body, action, and movement to create imagery that overwhelmed the audience. Words and dialogue held the same importance as they did in dreams (94). The words may make sense to the audience or they may be broken and fragmented to the point of sounding ridiculous. The body and its actions formed a new language between gesture and thought that Artaud referred to as, “dynamic expression” (89).

The purpose of this theory was to create a, “metaphysical, ritualistic theatre which... like the plague, would exert a great catharsis in the spectators and allow them to rediscover cosmic, mythic forces” [15] . In other words, this form of theatre was meant to be a release from negative emotions for the audience by exposing them to uncomfortable scenes and spectacles. These spectacles provided a shock value and were created by using objects, colors, sounds, lighting effects, and music. The kind of objects used ranged from musical instruments to giant puppets and masks. The sounds consisted of groans, screams, and verbal chants like magic spells. There was no specific set and the stage was opened more to put the audience in the middle of the action of a production (96).


In 1925, Artaud wrote a short surrealist play called, Jet De Sung (The Spurt of Blood). The play was named after a scene in which a bawd, “bites God in the wrist [and] an immense spurt of blood lacerates the stage.” [16] . The play consisted of little to no plot with scene descriptions that described the use of special effects, body modifications, and props. An example of the special effects and body modification is the one description of the nurse and scorpions:

"A multitude of scorpions crawl out from beneath the Wet-Nurse's dress and swarm between her legs. Her vagina swells up splits and becomes transparent and glistening like a sun."


In 1935, Artaud staged his own play, called The Cenci, that emphasized the principles of his Theatre of Cruelty. As an adaptation of Percy Byssh Shelley’s drama, the play displayed a great deal of violence and gore. Artaud played the lead role of Count Cenci, a nobleman in the sixteenth century. The character raped his daughter and had nails hammered into his throat and eyes by his servants, which killed him[17] . After seventeen performances, the production was closed and considered a failure.

Final Years

In his final years, Artaud travelled to Mexico and Ireland to work on further projects. In Mexico, he wrote, “La Conquete du Mexique” (The Conquest of Mexico), which focused on the violent conflict between Spanish conquerors and natives. In Ireland, he staged a disturbance that resulted in him being brought back to France in a strait jacket and instituted at Rodez. He spent nine years in this institution and received several electro-shock treatments. During his time there, he started to write again and draw. He created art pieces he referred to as, “Dessins écrits” or written drawings. He would draw giant images with words written on them. In 1948, Artaud died due to colorectal cancer.


  1. ^

    Murray, Ros. Essential Drama: Antonin Artaud. n.d. 20 April 2017
  2. ^

    Bermel, Albert. Artaud's Theatre of Cruelty. Bloomsbury Publishing, 2014.
  3. ^ Greene, Naomi. "ARTAUD, Antonin." Encyclopedia of World Literature (1999). 29 March 2017.
  4. ^

    Wetherington, Laura. Artaud: From the Theater to the Asylum. 27 August 2016. 29 March 2017.
  5. ^

    Lauerman, Connie. Artaud: The 'Madman' Who Changed Theater. 15 Feburary 1996. 29 March 2017.
  6. ^ Bansat-Bouden, Lyne. "Artaud and Balinese Theatre, or the Infulence of the Eastern on the Western
  7. ^

    Theatre of Cruelty. 15 August 2008. 29 March 2017
  8. ^

    Pavis, Patrice. Dictionary of the Theatre: Terms, Concepts, and Analysis. University of Toronto Press, 1998.
  9. ^

    Snook, Raven. Experimental Theatre. 13 November 2014. 29 March 2017.
  10. ^

    Wetherington, Laura. Artaud and the Surrealists. 2 July 2016. 29 March 2017.
  11. ^ Clark, Tracy. "Artaud, Antonin." Encyckioedia od Poatmodernism (2001).
  12. ^

    Artaud, Antonin. The Umbilical Limbo trans. Corti. 1926.
  13. ^

    Koutsouranks, Angelos. "The Dialectics of Cruelty: Rethinking Artaudian Cinema." Cinema Journal 55.3 (2016)
  14. ^ Artaud, Antonin.The Theatre and Its Double. New York: Grove Press Inc, 1958
  15. ^

    Greene, Naomi. "ARTAUD, Antonin." Encyclopedia of World Literature (1999). 29 March 2017.
  16. ^ Artaud, Antonin. The Spurt of Blood trans. Cohn. New York: Simon and Schuster, 1970
  17. ^ Kimberly, Nick. Cruelty, thy name is Cenci. 8 July 1997. 29 March 1997