Antonin Artaud

Antonin Artaud: Pour en Finir avec le Jugement de Dieu

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Antonin Artaud -- actor, poet, theater director, and founder of the "Theater of Cruelty" and would-be filmmaker, genius, madman -- was fired from most of the jobs he held as an assistant director in legitimate theater because the technology didn't exist to support his wild concepts -- 90-foot-tall puppets? You're fired. Fast forward 70 years in European theater and one can hardly avoid the 90-foot tall puppets, even in a performance of Die Walküre. Incarcerated in a lunatic asylum for the better part of a decade and in poor health, Artaud barely had two years left to him to make some kind of definitive statement concerning his failed concept of the Theater of Cruelty. After the Second World War ended, French radio opened up in a big way to some of the most challenging artists, suppressed in the Nazi-controlled Vichy regime. Artaud was slated, and between November 22 and 29, 1947, recorded his valedictory work, the radiophonic play Pour en finir avec le jugement de dieu (To Have Done or To Make an End of the Judgment of God) for the ORTF. Artaud proclaimed it "at last, a first rendering of the theater of cruelty," but never heard his work broadcast over the air as the program was banned and not broadcast until the late '70s; the perpetually impoverished Artaud died, sitting at the foot of his bed with a shoe in his hand, on March 4, 1948.

Artaud's cast included some of the finest talent associated with the French theater of that time; Maria Casarès, known for her performance as Death in Jean Cocteau's Orphée (1950), was among the participants, along with Paule Thévenin and Artaud's close friend, Roger Blin. The format of the radiophonic play was the perfect medium through which to realize Artaud's radical theatrical concepts; you needn't build sets, you had access to sound effects, and projection of the text was the critical element. The deliberate excess of panicked emotion that Artaud required as a function of theoretical necessity isn't nearly as alienating on a recording as it would have been in a theater. The only live performance by Artaud's Theater of Cruelty was his adaptation of Shelley's The Cenci, produced in 1935; it was poorly attended, and the scant critical notices only vaguely mention the production's innovative use of sound effects. This aspect of the Theater of Cruelty is fully preserved in Pour en finir avec le jugement de dieu; as the actors make use of percussion to punctuate Artaud's screaming and to divide the sections of the text; the improvised musical component to this work nearly raises it to the level of a frenzied, harrowing music drama.

This recording circulated as a bootleg cassette in the underground of the 1980s, a poor, grainy, highly distorted source from a recording that was already to some extent deliberately distorted. This Sub Rosa CD constitutes the first fully legitimate circulation of the ORTF recording, and the sound has been cleaned up quite a bit over the cassette. One major letdown is that Sub Rosa also omitted the noisy battery of percussion that opens the work and functions as a kind of a prelude; the disc goes straight to the first words of Artaud's text. Although the minimal package contains short yet useful notes, the text itself isn't included; if one needs it in English, there's a decent translation in Antonin Artaud: Selected Writings edited by Susan Sontag (University of California Press, Berkeley, 1988). Nevertheless, Pour en finir avec le jugement de dieu represents a turning point in modern theater and foreshadows the advent of Industrial Culture, emergent at the time the broadcast was finally given. Out of this seemingly random soup of arcane pronouncements, hysteria, clown voices, chattering xylophones, and the hushed, agonized delivery of the actresses emerges a true post-apocalyptic vision of a ruined Europe and a grandiloquent articulation of the crisis of faith.

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