The Alphabet of Artaud

Antonin Artaud (born Marseilles 1896, died Paris, March 1948) was a French actor and director.  He lived in France for most of his life.  He was not very successful during his lifetime, but his ideas eventually emerged to exert a major influence on western theatre from the 1960s onwards, especially after Peter Brook and Charles Marowitz staged The Theatre of Cruelty Season (1964) at the Royal Shakespeare Company. Other notable exponents of his ideas included Steven Berkoff, Jean Genet, Jerzy Grotowski, Julie Taymor and Richard Eyre.

Throughout his life he suffered significantly with mental health problems, sometimes resulting in him being committed to asylums, where he underwent the harsh treatment of techniques that were erroneously thought to be beneficial.

Artaud had a relentless determination to make new images of the human body.  In Artaud’s perception, the human body was a wild, flexible, but flawed instrument. For a while he was a member of the Surrealist Movement until they expelled him. Unlike those at the heart of the movement, Artaud was not principally motivated by politics.  He sought to reject and escape from society, not serve it. His writings were deep philosophical treatises in which he would frequently resort to metaphors such as plague, double, and cruelty to explain himself.

The most productive phase of his life was after being released from the war-time asylums of France where he had experienced fifty-one electric shock comas. He died in a psychiatric clinic in Ivry-sur-Seine, a commune in the suburbs of Paris, alone in his room, sitting at the foot of his his bed with his shoe in his hand.

Who am I?

Where do I come from?

I am Antonin Artaud

and I say this

as I know how to say this


you will see my present body

burst into fragments

and remake itself

under ten thousand notorious aspects

a new body

where you will never forget me.

The Alphabet of Artaud physical routine

This is a memory aid that I invented a few years ago to help students learn about thirty key ideas associated with Artaud. It can also be used in part, or in full, as a warm-up for drama classes.

The performer should approximate to the shape of (mostly) capital letters as if they are being viewed from the front against a blank background. They chant out loud each letter and the associated word linked to an idea or influence of Artaud’s teachings. For example “A is for. . . actor and audience in the same space.”

Even conducted at a pedestrian pace the alphabet will loosen the limbs and activate the voice. It can be repeated as quickly as you like for maximum aerobic effect.

Where not otherwise attributed, the quotations are taken from The Theatre and its Double or other works by Artaud.

Action: Jump into a stance with feet wide apart and both arms joined above the head. Bring the arms down describing a limited space at either side of the body.

A is for. . .

Actor and Audience in the same space.

Artaud broke traditional actor-audience boundaries.  “We intend to do away with stage and auditorium, replacing them by a kind of single undivided locale without any partitions of any kind.  Direct contact will be established between the audience and the show, from the very fact that the audience is seated in the centre of the action, it is encircled and furrowed by it. However, a central site will be retained which, without acting as a stage properly speaking, enables the body of the action to be concentrated and brought to a climax whenever necessary.”

Place the left hand on the left hip and bow the left leg outwards to form a capital B; then break from this into exaggerated oriental-style dancing.

B is for. . .

Balinese Theatre.

Artaud devotes an entire chapter of The Theatre and its Double to Balinese theatre after seeing a touring performance by them. He failed to grasp the intended meaning of their actions, but was intensely moved by their appearance and physicality.

“In the Balinese Theatre, one senses a state prior to language, able to select its own language.”

Curve both arms to the left and make the hands point with menace; speak with malice as you pronounce the definition word . . .

C is for. . .


Cruelty: “It means to go to the very end of all that the director can exert on the sensibility of the actor and the spectator.”

“One may perfectly well envisage pure cruelty without any carnal laceration.  Indeed, philosophically speaking what is cruelty?  From a mental viewpoint cruelty means strictness, diligence, unrelenting decisiveness, irreversible and absolute determination.”

Stand upright and bow the left arm outwards. Do this twice, while repeating “D is for. . .; D is for. . .”

D is for. . .


The notion of a double or doppelganger is one of the fundamental metaphors of Artaud’s philosophy. Theatre and life are twins, but the artificial one created in the theatre is actually the authentic truth as compared to the fakery and charade of real life.

“The double of the theatre is the reality which today’s mankind leaves unused.  It is life lived with authenticity, without lies, without pretence, without hypocrisy.”

Reach horizontally over your head to the left with your right arm, point your left forearm to the left from your waist and raise your left leg to the left; then as you say “exaggeration” spread the posture as wide as you can.

E is for. . .


Artaud suggested a new way of looking at stage design: “Thirty-foot-high effigies of King Lear’s beard in the storm, musical instruments as tall as men, objects of unknown form and purpose.”

Point your right forearm over your head to the left, angle your left forearm to the left from your waist.

F is for. . .

‘Disgusting’ French Theatre.   

“There is no need to stoop as low as disgusting modern French theatre.”

This was his attitude to the nature of the text-bound theatre of his time.

Make the ‘C’ shape but angle your left arm more towards the horizontal and flatten the left hand to make the serif of a capital G. (To make this more distinct from the ‘C’, and more energetic, this posture can be done kneeling on one or both knees.)

G is for. . .


Artaud was a Gnostic. The Gnostic doctrine attributes the material world to the work of a demiurge who is imperfect, possibly evil, and depraved. For Artaud, freedom meant escaping the tyranny of the sensible world.

Jump into as stance with feet pointing outwards and widely spread. Bend the knees and mirror the legs with the arms. Move sideways across the space like a cartoon crab.

H is for. . .


 “The actor is a moving hieroglyph.”

(This is the simplest, but most profound, definition of an actor.)

Stand straight and jump three times whilst using one hand to ‘dot’ the (lower case) i and chanting “I is for. . .” three times.

I is for. . .


   “And words will be construed in an incantatory, truly magical sense, side by side with this logical sense – not only for their meaning, but for their forms, their sensual radiation.”

Jump into a stance with your left arm resting on your head, pointing to your right, and your right leg extended slightly to the right with your right foot curved outwards and resting on your ankle. (I could never satisfactorily find a good mime for the first of the surnames listed here but the second was illustrated by miming plucking one’s own jumper as if it was grotty, and then skiing down a slope)

J is for. . .

Alfred Jarry and Jerzy Grotowski.

Jarry (1873 – 1907) was a French writer who is best known for his play Ubu Roi (1896). He was a significant influence on Artaud.  Grotowski (1933 – 1999) was a Polish theatre director. According to Peter Brook: Jerzy “Grotowski’s theatre is as close as anyone has got to Artaud’s ideal”. 

Jump your weight onto the right leg and extend your left arm and leg to the left. Complete the definition by using your left arm to pat your head to emphasise knowledge.

K is for. . .

Physical Knowledge

Artaud wants us to explore and express our understanding of the world though our physicality.

“I suggest we ought to return through theatre to the idea of a physical knowledge of images, a means of inducing trances.”

Turn to your left and point one arm upwards while lifting one leg to the horizontal. Look up at the lighting source.

L is for. . .


“We must discover oscillating lighting effects, new ways of diffusing lighting in waves, sheet lighting like a flight of fire-arrows.”

“The lighting equipment currently in use in the theatre is no longer adequate.  the particular action of light on the mind comes into play.  We must discover oscillating lighting effects, new ways of diffusing lighting in waves, sheet lighting like a flight of fire-arrows.  The colour scale of the equipment currently in use must be revised from start to finish. Fineness, density and opacity factors must be reintroduced into lighting, so as to produce special tonal properties, sensations of heat, cold, anger, fear and so on.”

Use upwardly hunched arms with downward pointing hands to make an ‘M’ shape. As you voice the word “metaphysics” use a haunting tone and drift forwards over the space like a cartoon ghost.

M is for. . .


Metaphysics is the branch of philosophy that studies the fundamental nature of reality, including abstract concepts. Production and Metaphysics is the title of the first chapter of The Theatre and its Double.

“Can the invisible be made visible through the performer’s presence?”  asks Peter Brook, who was inspired by Artaud.

Stand with your right leg stretched and curved to the right to make a lower-case n. Stamp on the ground as you proclaim the definition like a strict teacher.

N is for. . .

No more masterpieces.

This is one of the chapter titles from The Theatre and its Double.  Artaud rejects “classics” or plays written in the past because he feels they do not connect with a contemporary audience, therefore we should re-work the ancient stories or create theatre of our own. 

“If the masses do not frequent literary masterpieces, this is because the masterpieces are literary, that is to say set in forms no longer answering the needs of the times.”

Bow both arms outwards. Say “Berkoff” as if you are melodramatically swearing with your whole body then mime taking a cup of water from a (Peter) brook to wash your mouth out.

O is for. . .

(A rather tenuous choice of a letter within two surnames enables us to remember two key advocates of Artaud)

Steven Berkoff and Peter Brook.

“By changing the rhythm of what we see naturalistically we make people re-look at people.”  Steven Berkoff

“By using language illogically, by introducing the ridiculous in speech, and fantastic behaviour, an author opens up for himself another vocabulary.” Peter Brook

Stand upright, place the left hand on the left hip as if it is sore, then reel with shock as you discover a rash and realise you have caught the. . .

P is for. . .


For Artaud, a plague was something ruthless and terrible, but also beneficial, because after a plague only the strongest remain.  He thought the theatre should be infectious, irresistible and pernicious but ultimately valuable.

“The poison of theatre, when injected into the body of society destroys it, but it does so as a plague, a redeeming epidemic.”

Bow both legs outwards, mime drawing a sword and striking an opponent who is on the floor in front of your left foot.

Q is for. . .

The Conquest of Mexico.

This is the title of a play suggested by Artaud. It’s important because of the kind of content he would want the play to have. “The Conquest of Mexico raises the question of colonisation, and questions the real supremacy some races may have over others”

Place the left hand on the left hip and stretch the left leg outwards to form a capital R; then jump to the left three times while holding the stance. Say “R is for. . .” on each jump.

R is for. . .

Repetition and Ritual.

Ritual should be used to enhance the visual and audible power of the performance. Exaggeration and distortion and Repetition should be used for similar effect.

“Shouts, groans, apparitions, surprise, dramatic moments of all kinds, the magic beauty of the costumes modelled on certain ritualistic patterns, brilliant lighting, vocal, incantational beauty, attractive harmonies, rare musical notes, object colours, physical rhythm, new surprising objects, masks, puppets many feet high, abrupt lighting changes . . .”

Turn to your left and stand on your toes while bowing the knees forwards, leaning your upper torso backwards and curving your outstretched arms upwards and forwards.

S is for. . .


Artaud admired the non-naturalistic, rebellious and unsettling effects of surreal art.

Surrealism: “No decor.  Hieroglyphic characters, ritual costume, thirty-foot-high effigies of King Lear’s beard in the storm, musical instruments as tall as men, objects of unknown form and purpose.”

Stand upright and slap both hands on the head with the elbows pointing outwards. Do this on the initial T of each word of. . .

T is for. . .

Total Theatre.

“Practically speaking we want to bring back the idea of  total theatre.”  Total Theatre is when all the components (e.g. acting, lighting, costume, props, sound, scenery etc. all combine together to give an overwhelming effect on the audience.”

“The Show. Every show will contain physical, objective elements perceptible to all. Shouts, groans, apparitions, surprise, dramatic moments of all kinds, the magic beauty of the costumes modelled on certain ritualistic patterns, brilliant lighting, vocal, incantational beauty, attractive harmonies, rare musical notes, object colours, physical rhythm, new surprising objects, masks, puppets many feet high, abrupt lighting changes, the physical action of lighting stimulating heat and cold, and so on.”

Curve the arms upwards and outwards. Shrug your shoulders when you say the definition.

U is for. . .


This is one of the main criticisms of Artaud : that his ideas are too extreme.

“Artaud never achieved his own theatre; maybe the power of his vision is that it is the carrot in front of our nose, never to be reached.”  Peter Brook

Point each arm diagonally upwards and outwards. Spin on the spot very quickly as you say the definition.

V is for. . .


A vortex is a whirlpool or whirlwind.  Artaud wants to create the sensation of an emotional vortex in the theatre.

“Therefore, I propose a theatre where violent physical images pulverise, mesmerise the audience’s sensibilities, caught in a drama as if in a vortex of higher forces.”

Extend each upwardly bent arm sideways. Use both arms to ‘throw away’ the definition.

W is for. . .


“We do not intend to do away with dialogue, but to give words something of the significance they have in dreams.”

“Dialogue does not belong to the stage, but to books.  I maintain that the stage is a tangible, physical place that needs to be filled and it ought to be allowed to speak its own concrete language.”

(The final three letters are again rather tenuous in their attribution – but accuracy really isn’t the point of this exercise!)

Jump into an X shape. Vibrate the whole body violently as you exhale the definition.

X is for. . .

Physical Exorcism.

“It breaks away from language’s intellectual subjugation by conveying the sense of a new, deeper intellectualism hidden under these gestures and signs and raised to the dignity of special exorcisms”

Use upwardly and outwardly stretched arms. Chant the definition like a hymn.

Y is for. . .

Mystical Meaning.

“We must learn to be mystical again by forgetting ourselves, forgetting the theatre, wait for and hold on to images which will be born in us bare, natural and extreme, and taken to their limit.”

Turn to your right and kneel down. Incline your torso into a backwards diagonal and stretch your arms horizontally forwards. As you say the final word let your head sink sleepily onto your arms.

Z is for. . .


“Theatre is the land of fire, the lagoons of heaven, the battle of dreamszzzzzzz.”

This memory aid can prove invaluable when writing about Artaud without referring to notes, as every word is a secret repository of aspects of his work. For example, NO CHEATING can remind you of nine facts relating to Artaud, while EXAM CONDITIONS contains twelve.

Artaud: A personal conclusion.

So why is Artaud worth studying?  Like Peter Brook and Jerzy Grotowski, I came to Artaud late. For many years I had been trying to work out why I loved drama but was disappointed and frankly, bored, by much of the theatre I saw. I came to the conclusion that theatre is a visual medium and for too long directors had been trying to make good theatre by concentrating on the way actors said lines and the things they did to make sense of them. Theatre had become the slave of literature. As with Brook, when I finally discovered Artaud, I was both electrified and felt “saved”. He confirmed everything I had worked out and taken it much, much further. He tells us that theatre is a sensual medium.  To be experienced. If we want to think about it that’s fine, but the real reason we go to the theatre is the same as the reason people go to rock concerts – for the experience.

Artaud makes theatre so much better for the audience.  We don’t have to always go to the extremes he asks for, but by simply remembering the things he teaches us, we make theatre that is much more stimulating and much less boring, and much more inclined to make people come back again. The language of the stage is physical, and about space, colour, light and sound – of which words are a part.  We should spend as much energy on the other parts as we do on words.

Artaud is even more important than simply preventing boredom. Theatre evolved from religious rituals and his form of theatre takes us back in that direction. The amount of time that we spend in trance activities (looking at our phones, watching television, playing on computers, reading, listening to music, sleeping and dreaming etc.) means that we must a have a deep-rooted need of this kind of metaphysical interaction.  Artaud gives us that opportunity through the most valuable medium – one where there is true human interaction in the same space at the same time. We can experience things in live performance that cannot be expressed any other way.

Artaud can be combined with other more traditional approaches such as The System of Stanislavski (often called Method acting).  For even if we are going for an understated, naturalistic performance, Artaud reminds us that the audience will read the context of the body, the scenery, the light, the space, in fact the total theatre image.

“The Method actor’s test for truthfulness is the intensity and authenticity of his personal feeling.  The Artaudian actor knows that unless that feeling has been shaped into a communicative image, it is a passionate letter without postage.”

Charles Marowitz.

Influenced by Artaud

Click on the images for more information.

An original mystery set in the English county of Lancashire in 1896.The infamous duo of Holmes and Watson are consulted at their Baker Street residence by a factory owner and farmer whose livestock are falling victim to a mysterious fatal illness.  

 On the same day Holmes is visited by a desperate mill worker from the same locality. Her husband was stricken by a strange ailment and now he has disappeared. Holmes realises that the two problems are linked and sets off to solve them. What he finds is the most terrifying threat to himself, and to his reputation, that he has ever had to face.

“Probably the most well-balanced and realised depiction of Hindley we’re likely to see in our lifetimes.”

“Making Myra manages to approach the subject matter without portraying Hindley as either a tragic hero or helpless victim whilst at the same time making her more than a mere pantomime villain.”

“Very thought provoking and poignant with some electric and sinister moments that made me shudder.”

“I found the performance to be a poignant tribute to all of the victims of the moors murderers. The story was gritty and had the audience spiralling through a vast array of emotions.”

Making the Grade is the story of two refugee women who need to find a source of income to remain residents in the country of their choice. Jasmine is a seventeen-year-old student dependent on her older sister India who has just qualified as a Performing Arts teacher. On the morning of a vital job interview, India is unwell following a night out, so Jasmine impersonates her and gets the job at the college where she is about to enroll as a student. Unfortunately, a mistake traps them into pretending to be each other for the next two years. Complications soon arise and somehow they must find a way through the problems or face discovery, punishment and deportation. The notion of truth as revealed by the performance of fiction is right at the heart of this enthralling drama.

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