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Antonin Artaud

(1896—1948) French actor, director, and poet

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French actor, director, and drama theoretician, who originated the theory of the Theatre of Cruelty.

Artaud was born in Marseilles and began his career as an actor. He became interested in surrealism and symbolist drama, contribuing to Revolution Surréaliste and Nouvelle Revue Français, and with fellow-surrealist Roger Vitrac (1899–1952) founded the Théâtre Alfred Jarry (1927), named after an important figure in the avant-garde theatre. He also wrote the script for the surrealist film La Coquille et le clergyman (1926) and appeared in a number of other films, most notably as Marat in Abel Gance's Napoléon (1927) and in Carl Dreyer's La Passion de Jeanne d'Arc (1928).

Influenced by Balinese dancing and oriental drama, Artaud began to develop his theory of the Theatre of Cruelty. His idea was to strip drama of its ‘civilizing’ dialogue and contrived theatrical concepts and to return it to its symbolic and ritualistic roots. Thus restored, drama could then act as a liberating force, releasing man from his veneer of civilizing conventions and returning him to his primitive self, thereby bringing him nearer the truth of his own nature. Les Cenci (1935), derived from Shelley and Stendhal, was his only play based on his theoretical writings. Although it was unsuccessful, his collected essays, published as Le Théâtre et son double (1938; translated as The Theatre and Its Double, 1958) had a powerful influence on such dramatists and directors as Jean-Louis Barrault, Roger Blin (1907–84), and Peter Brook.

A lifelong sufferer from physical and mental illness, Artaud spent most of the remainder of his life from 1937 in mental institutions.

Subjects: Performing artsTheatre

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