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200 × 130 × 16 mm
248 pages
34 illustrations
01 Feb 2016
Critical Lives

Antonin Artaud David A. Shafer

Poet. Actor. Matinee idol. Playwright. Theatre theoretician. Artist. Orientalist. Surrealist. Asylum inmate. Drug addict. Electroshock patient. Antonin Artaud. This biography, exploring the life of one of the twentieth century’s most enigmatic personalities and idiosyncratic thinkers, reveals the artist’s navigation through the first half of the century in the company of many of France’s most influential cultural figures. However, Artaud’s own existential journey was a lonely and largely isolated one, an existential ellipsis.

Despite being born into the material comfort of a bourgeois family from Marseille, Artaud uncompromisingly rejected such values and norms. Forsaking the renown he had garnered as a stage and film actor, theatre director and published author of The Theatre and its Double and many other writings, Artaud relentlessly challenged contemporary assumptions about the superiority of the West, the function of speech, the purpose of culture and an individual’s agency over his/her body. In his mind, if not his deeds, he incarnated France’s revolutionary tradition. Though conflicted by his inability to align his thoughts with his words, disoriented by his incessant demand for narcotics and debilitated by increasing paranoia, Artaud channelled his intense alienation into an assault on social and cultural conventions through theatre, poetry, essays and art.

Preserving the profundity of Artaud’s words without trivializing his complexity, and situating them within his frenetic life, this book is a compelling and fresh interpretation of Artaud and his continuing cultural reverberations.

‘Throughout the book, Shafer takes Artaud on his own terms, avoiding judgments and hasty conclusions about the ideas, beliefs, and experiences of his protagonist. The result is an empathetic, yet still critical, biography of an icon of the world of performance. Readers not familiar with Artaud’s far-reaching influence across the domains of art, music, literature, theatre, and film up to the present will find much in these pages to justify his consideration as one of the most important cultural players of the last century.’ — New Books Network

‘Why do Americans speak so eruditely about French writers? This is a mystery, and David Shafer, with his outstanding study of Antonin Artaud, continues the tradition.’ — Laurent Binet, author of HHhH (2012) and La septième fonction du langage (2015)

‘‘A lot can be fitted into Reaktion’s compact “Critical Lives” format, and Shafer, who is a historian, writes a rich and dynamic narrative, sometimes off-beam on literary matters, good on social and psychiatric context.’ — Times Literary Supplement

‘This is a broad-ranging, refreshingly readable study. Shafer cogently explores the life – while usefully relating it to the major works – of Antonin Artaud, poet, actor, playwright, surrealist, drug addict, eventual asylum inmate, and one of twentieth-century France’s most “mythological,” “palimpsestic” cultural figures . . . it contains much more than meets the eye and is truly revelatory.’ — The French Review

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David A. Shafer is Chair of the History Department, and Professor of Modern and Contemporary European History, at California State University, Long Beach.


1. Youth

2. Paris

3. Beyond

4. Performance

5. Cruelty

6. Voyage

7. 262 602

8. Restoration

Epilogue: Posterity


Select Bibliographies


Photo Acknowledgments