In 2004, Shadow House PITS embarked on a most challenging project to unearth the very creative bones of Antonin Artaud in order to “invoke a new domain for theatre in contemporary society”. And so we evoked the M.E.S.H. as a means of structuring our exploration.
You might be forgiven for imagining that we embrace Antonin Artaud as a kind of idol or guru. Nothing could be further from the truth. However, we must recognize the avenues that opened up for our role and function within society and culture as a result of this unfortunate man’s life, experience and insights.
Antonin Artaud, it seems, was once a Roman Catholic with strong Gnostic leanings. He also was a habitual drug user as a result of a childhood illness. Much has also been romanticized about his madness. Artaud was certainly plagued by mental instabilities. But to suggest his irrational behaviour and delusional ravings were inspired prophecies is to debase the very real contribution his life and art made to the development and survival of theatre and theatrical processes both already achieved and in potential. Artaud might have been a powerful modern day Shaman had he been able to transcend the bind of his mental instability.
From my reading of Artaud and his own writings, I am sure that his madness (if this is the appropriate term) was certainly partly a result of his contradictory highly attuned spirituality and ingrained beliefs in puritanical, if not Manachean / Saint Augustan, inspired beliefs in the essential evil nature of all things flesh and the higher order of all things spiritual. There is considerable writing from Artaud that is contradictory on this subject. At one moment we are to be erotic and sexually explicit and then we are supposed to accept his assumption that all things sexual are filthy and degenerate and base. In his last years he is both aesthetic Catholic receiving Holy Communion and blaspheming demon out to destroy the hold of religion over people’s desire for eternity.
Artaud was dabbling with and held prisoner by religion because there was little else to provide adequate explanation for the absurdities of life and the quest for meaning below the lies and profanities of officially sanctioned doctrine (from the left and right of the socio/political spectrum). And in different moments he spat on such platforms of deceit.
When his colleagues attacked him for his Theatre Alfred Jarrie’s staging a play by the Catholic writer and political aspirant Paul Claudel, Artaud denied his original reasons for doing the play and publicly adopted the shallow reasoning of the dogmatic surrealists who shouted the play down. Artaud’s own insecurities about his contradictory beliefs might be the source of an academic study some day. However, for our purposes, it reveals a very human side to Antonin Artaud: a side which suggests vulnerability and sincerity coupled with a need for acceptance; an acceptance which Artaud was never to receive in his life time!
It also suggests we cannot take verbatim what Artaud wrote. Artaud didn’t prescribe methods of working. He was no Stanislavsky, Mayerhold or Brecht. Artaud’s life was his prescription for art and change. Metaphor preceded reality. Reality preceded metaphor! Absurdity held truth. Common sense was comprised of lies. Semantics were for arguing over.
But essentially, his theatre needed to explode the commonly held belief systems and infect believers with alternative possibilities and realities. His ravings, writings and public performances were testimony to such explosions. The images and metaphorical seeds plague us with their haunting resonances which, in all likelihood, match our quiet contemplations when separated from the need for rational discourse.
We are left to sift through his writings and life to form a conjecture as to what it was all about. And for me, Artaud’s life and art in purest form was about release; release from the organs of the body, release from strictures of the mind, from the inadequacy of words, from cultural hegemony, from stifling routines, from society’s self destruction, and from boring orthodoxies of all kinds. The list goes on. But if we start by identifying Artaud’s central idea as being that of “release”, then other simple to comprehend concepts follow.
Release of WHAT from WHAT for WHAT?
All his writing implies something more than what is observed. By simply reproducing the observable world or by reducing observable action to banal psychological concepts of “motivation” and “intent” or simple cause and effect, Artaud seems to suggest that we reproduce the lies and deceptions that only reinforce the human binds that hold our reality captured. But to release the more fundamental foundations belying the observed action we need to shock and expiate that which isn’t initially revealed. Such a notion is closer to the Greek “fates” or Jungian “archetypes” or even computer “templates” which contain the source of meaning in a more comprehensive or embracing way than can be identified through the microcosmic psychological explanations.
Theatre for Artaud is then about releasing the hidden patterns beneath the observable world. In doing so it is more about dream logic than any naturalistic ordering of events and actions. Our dreams may terrorize us or provoke irrational fear that lingers into our everyday activity. They reveal what we dare not think or speak. Collectively, dreams become archetypes that hover and become manifest in spasmodic creations.
For Artaud, the body’s organs are like parts of the house where secrets are bordered up as in Edgar Allan Poe’s “Tell Tale Heart”. The body is like the large house with sealed up cavities hiding bodies of one’s victims. Our secret crimes are stored but don’t actually die. They seek to escape. Like the virus or bacteria, they cause inflammations that can lead to disease and decay as they chip away at their bordered up cells in order to escape. And like the “living dead” we cannot destroy them. The more we try, the more ferocious and persistent they become.
A culture that seeks to deny its guilt and foundations in violence likewise lays the seeds for virulent growths that seek excising in outbursts of racism, chauvinism, sexual repression and genocide. Cultures and individuals transfer the location of these hidden entities under layers of institutionalized bordering up which might run over generations. Ultimately they lose the memory of the exact location of the problem, so embedded that it becomes part of the fabric of the organism itself.
In the individual the result is physical and mental disease. In culture, the result is social upheaval, violence and repression. Artaud suggests theatre is the means for expiating and releasing these toxins from the organs of the body; be it from an individual or society. It is a kind of exorcism requiring purification of the one performing the ceremony while exhibiting violent shocks on the party subject to the exercise. Individual and society devils are so imbedded that it is necessary for drastic action to release them; exposing them to make them manageable.
Clearly such a purpose for theatre is not easily or readily accepted in contemporary society. And this provides a main source of criticism of Artaud’s ideal theatre. Whether the concept is necessarily flawed or whether it simply hasn’t been tried is another question.
Alternatively, is Artaud’s theatre primarily for the participants in its creation much like the monastic way is for the monks or nuns in organized religions? While there is a Shamanistic tendency in those who have adopted Artaud-like theatre positions (eg. Grotowsky) the essential element is still the actor/audience relationship. This doesn’t suggest a cloistered function for the artist. Rather it is one of engagement.
Release through the actors’ M.E.S.H.
Without being side-tracked by the issue of Artaud’s madness (or questionable sanity) I will now focus on the means for implementing Artaud’s “release”. I deliberately speak of “release” as opposed to his well publicized “theatre of cruelty”. My reading of Artaud is subjective and others will disagree with the model gleaned from his disparate focus.
I propose four states which the actor needs to achieve in order to fulfill the potential of Artaud’s theatre. These are:
- the Mesmeric state;
- the Erotic state;
- the Sculptural state;
- the Heightened Emotional state.
For ease of usage, I suggest the anagram MESH.
Exercises and improvisations can be developed and practiced for achieving the Actors’ MESH. While the third and fourth states are common enough foundations within acting training, the first two are certainly not generally emphasized. Performers in the Japanese Bhuto theatre might well be attuned to aspects of these areas, needless to say, they are not part of mainstream training in the Western theatre traditions.
As a word of caution, I also suggest it may not be necessary to achieve the MESH state for all of a performance. However, to achieve the kind of theatre implied in Artaud’s writings, the MESH is necessary for a major proportion of the performance.
I now suggest that the MESH be achieved in three areas:
- the body;
- the voice;
- interaction with space, self and objects.
Creating the MESH
The Mesmeric State is where the actor is neither emotional nor intellectual but is in a constant state of movement and rhythm with intensity ebbing and flowing in response to external or internal prompts. It is not a zombie-like state, unless such a manifestation is required. In fact, the Mesmeric State may well be extremely vigorous and even violent. Where there is emotional intensity, such emotion is derived from external stimulus as at a rock concert or a political rally. Frenzy may well be an example. The Mesmeric State might resemble a collective autism where individual volition is subjugated to some unseen force. And it is more.
It is not something that can simply be rustled up with a bit of chanting and banging of drums. The Mesmeric State is the state in which magic and a true alchemy is evoked. It is through this that a “theatre of the invisible made visible” (Peter Brook’s term) is possible. The Mesmeric State coupled with the Erotic State provides the distinguishing features that define and separate this theatre of release from some academic exercise performed in the name of theatre but with the sterility of a fluorescent room.
The Erotic State is one of inner stillness and awareness of personal shape, spirit and existence in front of another. It is active within its apparent stillness. It is one of acceptance of physical and emotional exposure. It accepts personal self-consciousness in oneself and within the audience and the resulting tension this may evoke. It is the opposite of denial of this essentially erotic act. It is accepts that art cannot exist without sexuality. In such acceptance, it flies in the face of the more customary institutionalized denial of this connection. To achieve this state, the actor must develop a highly developed personal acceptance of self and a high tolerance and embracing of stillness, silence and personal communication with the self. It requires that actors become personally aware of their own charisma and accept, without flinching, that their art may call upon such usage when intellect and technique prove inadequate.
The Sculptural State is concerned with the actors’ ability to objectify personal presence in a given space in order to achieve an image of value. The way the actor connects with other actors and objects and the dimensions of the space should not be the sole prerogative of the director or choreographer. As most acting training is now for the screen where all such decisions are made, the actors’ thinking in sculptural terms is diminishing. But to achieve a Sculptural State, the actor needs to be acutely aware of the relationship between sound and space; between the character “point of view” and distance; between that which is dislodged in order to make way for his/her presence; the different effects created by extension of the body or the adoption of different costume or properties; the point of entry and point of departure from the focus of the scene or the space itself. The list can be extended.
The Heightened Emotional state is the most familiar of the MESH. All acting training will demand of actors a degree of heightened emotional response; getting in tune with one’s own emotions etc. Working in an Artaud inspired theatre though means heightening the intensity of performance over periods that will require great stamina. This contrasts with the mainly static nature of so much stage acting that mimics the screen form.
Essentially, invoking of the MESH is a reinvigorating process to place creativity back into the body and to provide an alternative schema through which theatrical exploration may take place. The MESH is a deliberate construction based on the principles and ideas articulated by Antonin Artaud. It attempts to incorporate the real processes involved in dynamic performance and give recognition to the essentially artistic as opposed to the academic construction of theatre with its partitioned hegemony of intellectual conceit.
Shadow House PITS is attempting to give a physical form to the theories, principles and ideas articulated by Antonin Artaud. Obviously, such work will not be without controversy and criticism. But we are not concerned with success or failure. Rather we wish to explore something that is worth exploring. We wish to invite audiences and all those concerned with the creative process to join us and be part of this exploration. We wish to focus a means through which culture may challenge and rejuvenate itself. This project isn’t an end in and off itself, rather it should be seen as a part of acqainting personal experience with art and what it means to be a social being in association with other social beings. Let us expose the act of creation with all its messiness and potential for disaster to scrutiny and experience. For here lies the defining feature of theatre’s relevance and value for any culture.
Joe Woodward (January 2004)
POST SCRIPT: The resultant production “Acting Artaud” featured two works by Antonin Artaud: “To Have Done With The Judgement Of God” and “The Spurt Of Blood” along with a short piece by Shadow House PITS. Presentations took place at The Street Theatre (Canberra) in early 2004 and at The Seymore Centre (Sydney) in December 2004.