There are a number of things that are, even the most dedicated Francophobe would admit, best experienced au francais: New Wave cinema, cave-ripened cheeses, Jerry Lewis appreciation. To this list, one might add "anti-religious rhetoric". Seven years after the most famous American atheist was murdered, Madalyn Murray O’Hair still has people worried that she’s going to boot God off T.V., but "America’s most hated woman" was in many ways a rather bland figure, living quietly in Austin and scratching out "In God We Trust" from coinage. The Sisters of Perpetual Indulgence are all in good fun, and even Mark Hoffman, the "Mormon bomber", was at least partially motivated by covering up his many criminal enterprises while he attempted to destroy the Latter-Day Saints through the power of explosives and embarassing forgeries. Hoffman was murderous, but somehow he just doesn’t seem as meanspirited as someone like Michel Mourre’s, who infliltrated the 1950 Easter Mass at Notre Dame in Paris. Dressed as a monk, Mourre stood in front of the altar and read a pamphlet proclaiming that God was dead. If it had been available, he might have played a recording of his fellow Frenchman Antonin Artaud. Artaud was an actor, writer, and theorist associated with the Surrealists in the 1920s. He did some work in film to make ends meet — he plays a monk in Dreyer’s masterful The Passion of Joan of Arc — but his first love was theater. This lead to his split with the Surrealists in 1926 when he and Roger Vitrac had founded the Théâtre Alfred Jarry, for which they were bitterly denounced by Surrealist leader André Breton, who kicked Artaud out of the movement. Breton and Artaud had clashed over the importance of the subconscious and the dreamscape (for the Surrealists, representing the unconscious was the pinacle of art; Artaud’s fondness for classical theater was dismissed as bourgeois) and the role of art as a medium for propagating social change (Breton was a dedicated Communist, Artaud less so); the two attacked one another in a series of pamphlets.
The fissure between their views of art was laid even more clear after the Paris Colonial Exhibition of 1931. The Surrealists had, probably correctly, denounced it as propaganda:
In order to create this concept-fraud, pavilions have been built by the Vincennes Exhibition. This was done in order to give the citizens of the metropolis the sense of being owners, the state-of-mind necessary to be able to listen to the echo of distant gunfire with-out batting an eye. In order to tack a new profile, that of minarets and pagodas onto France’s lovely landscape, which before the war was already drawn attention to by a song about a bamboo hut…
Artaud, however, had attended the exhibition and seen a Balinese theater and dance performance there that changed his life. He was fascinated by the mannerisms of the performance (or at least his response to them) and began reworking his philosophy of the theater, minimizing the importance of dialogue in favor of a more ritualized, impressionistic performance. This philosophy became the "Theater of Cruelty". The idea was to make art that was "cruel in the way it bombarded and overwhelmed the audience’s senses", providing a liberating experience by overwhelming the audience and preventing them from reacting to it as theater. The effect seems to have been mixed; at a lecture to which he had been invited, his impression of a man dying of plague provoked jeers and drove the audience to leave, although it seems to have made a remarkable impression on Anaïs Nin.
Artaud’s 1925 "Manifesto in Clear Language", began, "If I believe neither in Evil nor in Good, if I feel such a strong inclination to destroy, if there is nothing in the order of principles to which I can reasonably accede, the underlying reason is in my flesh." When he perfomed the plague, did he know that his own flesh was beginning to fail him? Sontag’s essay on Artaud notes his rhetoric of his thoughts disintegrating, rotting; Nin quotes him discussing the pains in his head. Artaud was to spend almost a decade in a mental hospital undergoing electroshock and insulin therapy.
When he emerged, he wanted to perform his newest piece, "To have done with the judgment of God" on Radio France. The work can only be described as a theatrical version of art brut; stripped of its context, I’d almost certainly dismiss it as maddened raving:
I deny baptism and the mass. There is no human act, on the internal erotic level, more pernicious than the descent of the so-called jesus-christ onto the altars.
No one will believe me and I can see the public shrugging its shoulders but the so-called christ is none other than he who in the presence of the crab louse god consented to live without a body…
Throw in screaming, grunting, an intense scrutiny of bodily functions, and extensive nonsense vocabulary, and you have something that would have really earned the name "theater of cruelty". And yet Radio France recorded it and very nearly broadcast it. At the last moment, the head of Radio France quashed the broadcast, provoking widespread criticism. Directors Jean Cocteau and René Clair strongly supported Artaud, and the director of dramatic productions for Radio France resigned in disgust. It would be decades before "Judgment of God", with its disclaimer, "I am not raving. I am not mad. I tell you that they have reinvented microbes in order to impose a new idea of god," would be broadcast. Artaud died soon after, crushed by the reception it had received. Had he lived long enough, he’d have seen his ideas taken up by avante-garde theater and entirely ignored by most mainstream dramatists, themselves supplanted by the long, slow rise of film, a medium he resented. One can only hope that he really would have lived to write letters like this.