New Books Network

“Artaud lived with his neck placed firmly in the noose.” -Bauhaus* David Shafer’s new biography, Antonin Artaud (Reaktion Books and the University of Chicago...

“Artaud lived with his neck placed firmly in the noose.”

David Shafer’s new biography, Antonin Artaud (Reaktion Books and the University of Chicago Press, 2016), situates the life of this enigmatic and fascinating figure in historical context. From his bourgeois family background, through a life that included a variety of physical and mental health challenges, drug use, and institutionalization, Shafer traces the ways that Artaud’s intellectual and artistic development was shaped by broader historical and political events and forces. An actor of stage and screen, a poet, and theatre director, Artaud emerges in these chapters as the embodiment of the French revolutionary tradition in the cultural realm. Shafer traces his subjects geographic movements from his Mediterranean origins to the streets of Paris, and on to other destinations, Mexico and Ireland among these. In addition to these sites, Artaud held in his imagination a number of other locales, including the physical and cultural landscapes of an East that informed his critique of Western society and its traditions.

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.

*After our interview, David shared the link to Aural Assault, a blog post on Artaud and music that he wrote for the Reaktion Books website. In it, he discusses the music he listened to while writing the biography, as well as the links between Artaud and musicians like Richard Hell and Patti Smith.

Roxanne Panchasi is an Associate Professor in the Department of History at Simon Fraser University. A historian of culture and politics in the twentieth century, her current research focuses on the representation of nuclear weapons and testing in France since 1945. She lives and reads in Vancouver, Canada. If you have a recent title to suggest for the podcast, please send her an email.