Antonin Artaud was a French actor, playwright, and poet who was (and is) most well known for his book The Theater and its Double – written in the 1930s – and the concept of the “Theater of Cruelty.” The play was widely read and amply discussed in Europe and the United States by people interested in new forms of Avant Garde theater. (Jacques Derrida, Gilles Deleuze, and many other European thinkers have written many brilliant essays on his work.) What I – like many others – find so striking about his work is its intense awareness of the physical body. Theater, for Artaud, emerges more out of the body than out of the mind. The mind’s acute awareness of the body is necessary if what he called the “theater of cruelty” is to be affective. Strangely enough, this turn to the element of cruelty (bodily pain, which he calls “metaphysical”) has its roots in comedy.
One of the main inspirations for Artaud’s theater project (and for his awareness of physicality) was the Marx Brothers. He discusses this influence in a few different places in The Theater and its Double:
In one of the Marx Brother’s films, a man who thinks he is about to embrace a woman puts his arms around a cow, which moos. And through a conjunction of circumstances which would take too long to relate, this moo, at this moment, takes on an intellectual dignity equal to that of any woman’s cry.
A situation of this kind, which is possible in the cinema, is no less possible in the theater as it is today. One would not have to do much – for example, replace the cow with an animated puppet monster endowed with speech, or with a man dressed as an animal – to rediscover the secret of an objective poetry based on humor which the theater renounced and abandoned to the Music Hall, and which Cinema later adopted. (236, Antonin Artaud: Selected Writings)
In a section devoted solely to the Marx Brothers, Artaud claims that Animal Crackers (1930) – one of the first films by the Marx Brothers – “liberated” a “special magic which the customary relationships between images do not usually reveal, and if there is a distinct poetic level of the mind that can be called Surrealism, Animal Crackers belongs to it”(240).
To explain this magic, Artaud muses that the “poetic quality of a film like Animal Crackers might correspond to the definition of humor, if this word had not long since lost its meaning of total liberation, of the destruction of the reality of the mind”(240). By “total liberation” and the “destruction of the mind,” Artaud is suggesting that humor – of the Marx Brothers’ variety – is the liberation of the body which Artaud sees as enslaved by the mind. He is also suggesting – with the use of the words “destruction of the mind” – that humor is violent. This kind of violence – paralleling the film – is utterly “unique.”
In order to understand the powerful, total, definitive, absolute originality…of a film like Animal Crackers, and at times a film like Monkey Business, one would have to add to the notion of humor the notion of something disturbing and tragic, a fatality (neither fortunate or unfortunate, but difficult to express) which slips behind it, like the revelation of a dreadful illness on a profile of absolute beauty. (240)
Even though Artaud sees a kind of violent humor in the Marx Brother’s films, he doesn’t see the destruction of the mind as total. Their films allow for a “kind of intellectual freedom” and for a kind of movement that is “poetic.”
In Animal Crackers when a woman suddenly falls over backward on a sofa with her legs in the air and for a split second shows us everything we might want to see, when a man suddenly grabs a woman in a drawing room, does a few dance steps with her, and slaps her on the behind in time with the music, a kind of intellectual freedom is exercised in which the unconscious of each character, repressed by customs and conventions, avenges itself and our unconscious at the same time. But in Monkey Business when a man wanted by the police grabs a beautiful woman and dancers with her, poetically, with a kind of serious pursuit of charm and grace of attitude, here the claim made on our sensibility seems double, and demonstrates all that is poetic and perhaps even revolutionary in the jokes of the Marx Brothers. (241)
Although this comic playfulness seems light, Artaud illustrates the violent side of this film when he argues that the “music of deliverance” we find in the films “sufficiently indicates the dangerous side of all these funny jokes, and shows that when the poetic spirit is exercised, it always moves toward a kind of seething anarchy, a total breakdown of reality by poetry”(241). The “music” or “poetry” of their humor is meant to breakdown the mind and reality and release suppressed energies. And this, for Artaud, is what makes it a template for the “Theater of Cruelty.” It is double: seemingly light and innocent but ultimately dangerous. But he revels in this. To be sure, he finds the anarchic element of their films to be vitalizing and enervating. Their films – through what he calls “vibrations” – physically awaken Artaud’s mind.
The triumph of all this is in the kind of exaltation, both visual and auditory, that all these events acquire in the half light, in the degree of vibration they achieve and in the kind of powerful disturbance that their total effect ultimately produces on the mind. (242)
This “total effect,” which is destructive and liberating, belongs to what Artaud would call humor. In many ways the doubling that Artaud discusses has a nihilistic aspect since the liberation it suggests – while “poetic” and “musical” – must destroy not just the mind but also the world if the energy he speaks of is to “escape.” What makes the Marx Brothers very interesting is that the world that they destroy is still in tact. Correcting Artaud, I’d say that the world is not annihilated but – as Heidegger might say – nihilated. It is not the same world from before. It is different but it is not as tragic as Artaud would have us believe. Shaking up the world is another way of waking everyone up. And that is what the Marx Brothers did. But this has the effect of – and on this point Artaud is correct – enlivening it. The point – as Artaud well knew – is to pay close attention to what kinds of life are being circulated and how. The humor of the Marx Brothers – with its fast movements and unexpected transitions – gives us a sense of how powerful wit can be in a world that has become too customary and familiar.
Wit helps to take the world out of its thoughts and to throw it back into its body. And this thrown-ness back into the world elicits a kind of surprise or what I would call a bodily discovery. Through the films of the Marx Brothers, Artaud – and the world he lived in – was able to make some bodily discoveries. The question, however, is whether this discovery was of our “cinematic body” of our actual bodies. Where, after all, does our world begin or end. Perhaps the two have become contiguous. Either way, if you are surprised by their humor, you’ll literally (bodily) feel it. And on that point, Artaud is spot on.