In May, Louis, Anita, Justine and I attended the premiere of The Cenci with Desnos and Youki. It was a gala performance with many society members in attendance, including the Prince of Greece. The nobility stumbled about in the cramped foyer alongside the intellectuals who jabbered with their berets pressed close together. The venue, the former Theatre de l’Etoile where Breton had given his speech, was now the Theatre des Folies-Wagram, but the music hall had lost none of its ugliness. The foyer was so narrow that it was almost a hallway, but Artaud had mounted there an exhibition about the Balinese theatre and the crowd, boisterous and expectant and peppered with celebrity, seemed appreciative. “If people start throwing tomatoes, you could always drag Artaud off the stage, up three balconies and along that damned ledge,” Desnos snarled in my ear.
“Ah, but what fun would that be, without the cops?” I retorted. “Without our—ahem—sturdy stud in pursuit, waving at the girls and splitting his pants trying to hang on that ledge?”
“You were both bailed out by me!” declared Justine.
“And me!” chimed in Louis.
Desnos laughed. “But this time Soupault is not here to bribe a cop to pretend he was knocked out.”
I gawked at Desnos. “What—?”
Desnos shook his head at me. “You are thick! You don’t really think Soupault hit a cop on the head, do you?”
“But I thought it was a diabetic faint.”
“It was a feint, you idiot.”
Anita put in, “I wish I had seen that! I’ve heard all about your great escape.”
“I saved us!” Desnos bragged. Youki and I pushed at him while he giggled.
“Louis could always strip down and run across the stage if the crowd gets restless,” Youki put in. “Too bad you missed that, Geoff. Louis blushes from head to toe!” And Louis, rolling his eyes to the ceiling, slumped into his seat while Desnos laid an affectionate arm across the smaller man’s shoulders.
“Yes, he does,” smirked Anita to Justine.
The lights dimmed. Artaud appeared on the stage.
It had been months since I had seen him in person. For weeks we had not exchanged words or a handshake; our eyes had not even met. I had gotten used to my fantasies of him, my sweet shell of illusion that enclosed my loneliness. It was a shock to suddenly see him again in the flesh, to hear his voice—rumored to have cracked painfully during last night’s dress rehearsal—touching the walls with such power.
His presence now was as riveting as when I first saw him at the Théâtre de l’Atelier. He remained so motionless in the fury of the play, the whirling hysteria of the actors and the cacophony of the stereophonic sound. Artaud, the enemy of talkies, was using recorded sound! He had mounted speakers around the theatre so as to surround us. No other theatre had done this. This would be the first time an Ondes Martenot had been used in a theatrical performance. And whatever the rumors about last night’s rehearsal, his voice was strong and agile, and it grasped the throats of the audience like a hand.
Roger Blin, who in his first stage role was allowed by Artaud to do his own makeup, had divided his face into quarters, each with a different color. I heard gasps in the crowd, saw hands fly to mouths as Cenci was slowly murdered in a hideous, silent pantomime by his two assassins. I feared I would throw up. Recorded bells clanged like the clashing of swords, reverberating inside and outside of us as they must have overrun the heart of Edgar Poe when he wrote his last and blackest poem. Beatrice, Cenci’s daughter and rape victim, was executed to the sound of grinding machinery in a factory. Tied to a wheel by her hair (but upright and walking), Beatrice revolved like the threshed grain in this unthinking, unfeeling mechanism, a machine peopled by ministers and popes and police all as corrupt as her father and herself. Yes, Beatrice was a tainted, befouled Joan—Artaud had indeed chosen this play due to her. The audience sat mesmerized before it all. When the curtain came down, there was perhaps five seconds of silence before the applause cleared the air like rain after a forest fire. I was so limp I could barely applaud. Justine and I stared at each other, and then we shared stunned looks with those four. Youki stood up and announced she wanted to see it again! A bit melodramatic, yes, but raw and weird and cutting—and utterly original. I thought it a success. Artaud had won.
Later, the cast celebrated their hard-earned triumph at the Coupole. We went there but I did not go in. I stood instead watching from the window. Everyone looked relieved and proud. Artaud looked tired but jubilant, and I was happy for him. As with the Theatre Alfred Jarry he was decades ahead of his time.
However, all that changed when the reviews came out.
“Antonin Artaud, who loathes traditional theatre, has replaced dialogue with ear-splitting recorded effects and coherent blocking with a kind of animalistic running around. Well and good for a trip to the zoo—but why, if one he not want to stage plays, does the director/actor/playwright call this self-indulgent mess a “play?” Why should it strive to be “artistic,” when the stated purpose of such cacophony is not art? Can anyone fathom the inconsistencies of Artaud’s mind? Indeed, can Artaud himself?”
“The dialogue, most of which one thankfully never hears, is punctured through with ghastly noises. Monsieur Artaud is under the impression that this is how one revolutionizes the theatre. Let us spare his feelings.”
It was true the subsequent performances did not live up to the opening night, but I blamed this in part on the critics who refused to understand it. Only the writer Jean Pierre Jouve had anything good to say about The Cenci. I attended subsequent performances—so did Youki and Desnos, so did Louis and Justine and other friends. Youki was enthusiastic that Artaud’s performance varied each night. But like a balloon the play had been stretched too far, had sprung a leak, and was slowly deflating—yet audience after audience jumped out of the seats to watch in riveted panic as Cenci-Artaud pretended to pierce his own eye in a performance that for me surpassed the alarming eye-slitting in Un Chien Andalou. After such a brilliant first night the cast meandered about the stage, looking confused. Even Youki, who came with me to see it again and again, had to admit Artaud’s performances were alternately hammy and wooden, and after months of grueling rehearsals he looked absolutely exhausted. It became more evident the play’s power owed more to Artaud’s ideas than its fulfillment of them. Lacking the almost desperate force given it on its first night, The Cenci became lifeless, anemic. The audience, which on opening night had included princesses, counts, and the French Minister of Foreign Affairs, dwindled to at most twenty or so. The press sneered at it all.