The influence of Antonin Artaud on the contemporary theatre has only become evident since the early Sixties, although writers and directors have been directly or indirectly influenced by his thinking and innovations for many years. Today his pre-eminence as a founder of modern theatrical style is rivalled only by Brecht, with whom he has much in common.
The man and his work, as Martin Esslin persuasively argues in this perceptive study, are inseparable and must be considered together. Genius or madman, everything about Artaud is fascinating - his extraordinary life, his passions, his wide-ranging interests, the brilliance and originality that he brought to his plays, his productions and his other writings. Artaud died in 1948 at the age of fifty-two, but accomplished a revolution in his short life that is still bearing fruit today.
This compact, carefully researched study is an invaluable guide, combining readability with a sympathetic and authoritative study of its subject.
Since Artaud was a "Master whose message is incarnated in his life" and one of those catalysts whose effects arise from "what they have suffered," Esslin concentrates more on biography than do most contributors to the Modern Masters series. From "soulful, young monk" to "toothless, ravaged martyr," he traces Artaud's multiple non-careers as film actor, poet, soon-expelled surrealist organization man, stage director-deviser, and theater theorist (The Theater and Its Double) - and Artaud's road to Rodez asylum, a road paved with laudanum, opium, tarot cards, frustrated infatuations (Anais Nin among them), and a gravelly mix of physical and mental afflictions. Vivid, quick portraiture, yet, paradoxically, the more one knows of Artaud's sad existence, the more difficult it is to accept him happily as a "modern master." Esslin works hard, characterizing the fevered, madhouse writings as an achievement, a super-surrealistic "technique of automatic writing which would give access to the darkest, deepest layers of the human mind," linking Artaud's straitjacket years (and his writings on Van Gogh) to R. D. Laing, and emphasizing Artaud's importance as "a cult figure, a revolutionary force, and a unique psychological case." But only Artaud's enunciation of a de-prosceniumed, physicalized Theater of Cruelty, where the audience will go as they go "to the surgeon or the dentist," seems arguably unique or truly influential, and Esslin's documentation of the influencees (Peter Brook, et al.) is surprisingly sketchy. So, the lingering image here is not of a revolutionary figure but of the madman who espoused a "total rejection of sex" and observed that "seven to eight hundred million human beings. . . should be exterminated." (Kirkus Reviews)