The Spell of Artaud

The entire text of the spell dedicated to Roger Blin (recto and verso) reads;tumblr_lo6x592APT1qhwx0o[1] ‘All those who have gotten together to keep me from taking HEROIN all those who have touched Anne Manson because of that Sunday May 1939 I will have them pierced alive in a Paris square and I will have them perforated and their intestines burned. I am in a Mental Asylum but this dream of a Madness will be enacted and enacted by ME-Antonin Artaud.’

In 1937 the French writer, actor and dramatist Antonin Artaud landed in Cobh, Ireland with a letter of introduction from the French Embassy. Without that letter the Irish officials would have denied Artaud admittance. From Cobh he travelled to Galway where he holed up in a hotel room he couldn’t pay for. The purpose of this strange odyssey was to return a walking stick he had acquired which he believed was the staff of St Patrick, as well as being previously owed by both Jesus Christ and Lucifer. After a brief stint in Dublin’s Mountjoy Prison Artaud was deported as a ‘destitute and undesirable alien’. On the return ship voyage he attacked two crew members and had to be restrained and put in a straitjacket.

The previous decade Artaud had been one of the leading lights of the first phrase of Surrealism, writing addresses to the Pope, Chancellors of the European Universities, the Dalai Lama and the Buddhist Schools. In January 1925 Andre Breton announced that Artaud was assuming direction of the Bureau of Surrealist Enquiries, cryptically commenting that ‘The Central  Bureau, more alive than ever, is henceforth behind closed doors, but the world must know that it exists.’  However after the bitter criticisms Breton levelled against Artaud (along with many, many others) in the Second Manifesto Artaud left the movement, aligning himself somewhat with the renegade Surrealists who published in Georges Bataille’s Documents.

The return from Ireland brought about for Artaud a period of confinement in different asylums which ended only with his death in 1948 from an overdose of choral hydrate. 1938 saw the publication of his most famous work The Theatre and Its Double where he outlined his vision for the Theatre of Cruelty but he wrote little again until 1946, instead concentrating on writing up spells, casting horoscopes and drawing disturbing pictures.

But then Artaud would have doubtless have approved of Mick Jagger’s character Turner’s paraphrase of the central tenets of the Theatre of Cruelty in the 1970 movie Performance, ‘The only performance that makes it, that makes it all the way, is the one that achieves madness. Am I right?’ Judging by those lights Artaud made it all the way.

 

 

Performance

performance-005[1]
James Fox-Performance 1970

Imagine the Warner Bros.executives reaction upon first seeing Performance. Originally commissioned as a light-hearted romp through Swinging Sixties London, a Stones version of The Beatles A Hard Day’s Night, they instead find themselves watching a much darker movie with the palpably greasy aura of a drug orgy overlaid with a pervasive stench of sulphur. Some of the sex scenes between Mick Jagger and Anita Pallenberg (who was involved with Jagger’s Rolling Stones bandmate Keith Richards at the time) won awards at an adult film festival at Amsterdam.With its explicit depiction of its themes of violence, sadism, drug use and bisexuality it’s no wonder one of the exec’s wife vomited during the original screening. It also is one of the great movies of merging identities; a male, psychedelic counterpart to Bergman’s Persona  (see Dreams of Desire 7)

The look of the movie is mainly down to co-director Nicholas Roeg who would later go on to film Walkabout and Don’t Look Now. The screenplay and therefore  much of the thematic content was down to Donald Cammell, Aleister Crowley’s godson (in actuality, I’m not been figurative). The Great Beast’s credo of Do What Thou Wilt certainly figures in Performance, as does Artaud’s Theatre of Cruelty. In fact the actual set of Performance seems to have presented as an actual Theatre of Cruelty with Cammell intent in playing games of mind-fuckery upon the cast. Keith Richards stalked the set, sitting in his car for hours on end trying to find out what was going on inside between his girlfriend and Jagger. The process of  filming Performance and playing the lead character Chas Devlin, a vicious and sadistic ‘performer’ in a East End gang, clearly modelled upon the Kray twins organization, so traumatised James Fox that he gave up acting for over a decade to go knock on doors handing out pamphlets for a Christian organization.Both the female stars Anita Pallenberg and the androgynous Michele Breton would become heroin addicts, in Breton’s case fatally so. Cammell himself would disappear from sight, lurking on the fringes of Hollywood until his suicide in 1996 which he staged in front of his much younger wife with Performance in mind, even saying as he was waiting to die that he hadn’t seen Borges yet, referring to the Argentine fabulist Jorge Luis Borges whose work is a constant presence in the movie and whose image appears upon a speeding bullet.