“And could that be why,” Barrault interrupted, “Artaud is angry with me?”
He sounded stricken. I turned to him again and saw the pain in his eyes. He was, after all, just a kid. “Barrault, what has happened?”
Barrault sighed. “We’ve spent so much time together and shared so many ideas that I finally suggested he and I collaborate on a production.”
“I think that’s a Marvelous idea.”
“I thought so too, but not Artaud. Perhaps he thought me arrogant—like I was doing him a favor—but I swear that wasn’t it. I’ve learned a lot from him. Antonin Artaud is my teacher. But I’m afraid I’ve insulted him.”
Barrault glanced at the papers and I held them out to him, but he was already leaning back to pull a sheet from his own breast pocket. Immediately I recognized the careless, splayed lettering on the paper. When Barrault passed the letter to me I just held it for a few seconds, really debating whether or not to get involved, but the look of pain on Barrault’s face convinced me to try and help him. I unfolded the letter and read:
My dear Barrault,
You know how I honor both your work and all that you are. Therefore, you will understand the spirit in which I tell you this.
There can be no possibility that you will take offense at what I am to say, but I do not wish you to hold even the smallest grudge.
I do not believe that any collaboration between us is possible, for if I know what unites us, I see more clearly what divides us, for it has to do with method which, each starting from its point of view diametrically opposed to the other, leads inevitably to opposed results, all appearances to the contrary. I saw your work in The Cenci, when I asked you to rehearse the actors; you broke them, in a sense, or you invested so much of yourself that in the end it got out of control anyway. Finally, several times, and even in my own presence, you criticized my methods as too personal or subjective, based upon the fact that being a writer first and foremost I could not command the performance, and that while realizing my ambitions I was unable to overcome through work and insight the obstacles you said I had stumbled upon. But, and this is most important to me, I do not believe in insurmountable categories, especially regarding the theatre. This is the core of everything that I have written for the last four years, even longer.
I WILL NOT HAVE, in my spectacle on my stage, so much as the flicker of an eye that is not directed by me. If in The Cenci I displayed no such command, it was because The Cenci fell so far short from the theatre that I want to do, and because upon further reflection I realize that I was overwhelmed by the enormity of my project.
But lastly, I do not believe in collaboration, especially since my experience in Surrealism, because I no longer believe in human purity. Despite how much I admire you, I believe you to be fallible and I do not wish to further expose myself to such a risk. I am not the man who can stand to work closely with anyone on anything, especially after The Cenci.
There was more, but I did not bother to read farther. Artaud had signed it “with warm and affectionate greetings,” but this softened these cold, cutting words as much as a cushion could soften the knife’s blade that stabbed through it. One word in particular leaped out at me: purity. He spoke of purity and of fallibility, as if man could attain one and be blamed for the other. Yes, I recognized this—it sounded so much like the words of André Breton when he expelled Artaud from his movement. It sounded like the abstract pomposity that had excised so many great men from Surrealism proper—and now here was Artaud sounding like Breton, in fact today acting more like Breton than Breton and leaving confused devotees in his wake, dejected friends who searched their souls for the offense, for the cause of Artaud’s unreasonable rejection. Purity indeed!
I saw Artaud then as he really was. For the first time since meeting him that first night in Desnos’s dank warehouse I saw Antonin Artaud clearly. The potential danger I first recognized in that young man had ripened in him. The word he had used to describe me—detached—now described himself. In his vanity he was pushing everyone away. He considered himself unique, an oracle, possessed of prophetic revelations that only made him hold the rest of us in contempt. As I had warned him, he would be a god but he had little mercy.
“Give me a moment,” I husked, “to get used to this thought before I say it out loud to you.” My voice was not recognizable even to me, and Barrault looked at me in alarm. The letter trembled in my hand as I surrendered it. I let go of the paper and then passed my fingers across my eyes. Finally I found my voice. “Antonin Artaud is deluded,” I told Barrault, feeling pity for him when his face showed sorrow. “Someone has to say it at last. Everyone needs to face it. But that’s not all—we don’t speak truth to his power. He holds all of us in thrall, you and me and even his enemies, by the force of his personality, and because of the awe we have for him none of us fights back. I don’t mean attack him of course—the way he’s been treated by the press and the public does not help at all. But someone, sometime, has to put a foot down. We need to be honest with him. He needs collaboration now more than ever.”
“You’re telling me to push back against this, aren’t you?” The hope that entered Barrault’s young face kindled a bit of hope in me. I had spoken without conviction, and now I saw the way forward. It is the action which commands the thought. Artaud had said this.
“I hope I’m wrong about him,” I told him, “but yes, yes, push back, Barrault. Even if you two don’t collaborate on a project, do not let him withdraw. We all need to stop this tip-toeing around him.”
He nodded, but he still did not take Artaud’s manuscript. “Perhaps neither of us should deliver it,” he suggested. “Make him come to you, or to me.”
I shook my head. “I wouldn’t go so far. That would seem disloyal. Never try to maneuver Artaud; I’ve learned that the hard way. Say what you mean and mean what you say—but you strike me as someone who already does that.” I stood up and shook Barrault’s hand. How selfish I had been to be jealous of him when I sensed the deep kindness in this man. Artaud needed his friendship. “I will try to talk to him first.” Artaud see-sawed between people and with Barrault down, perhaps he would listen to me again. I would apologize; as Louis suggested, we would have it out. I left Barrault sitting on the bench.
I first set out for, then avoided, the Boulevard Montparnasse. Artaud had left Montparnasse this afternoon, perhaps to visit Paulhan. At a loss, I wandered around the hospital and then turned onto rue Blomet and walked past the abandoned truck yard. Now it had no buildings, and the lilac bushes were gone, replaced by cement slabs that were pushed upward at odd angles. Grass poked up in patches in the gravel. I walked to the end of rue Blomet and turned right onto the rue de Javel where I found a weather-battered movie house advertising Abel Gance’s Lucrezia Borgia. I went in.
The film was simply dreadful. It had none of the scope or deftness of Gance’s grand epic, Napoléon. I found it unbelievable that this slight, tawdry drama boasted the same director.
Under the flimsy pretext that Caesar Borgia was a beast, scantily-clad extras cavorted around the Borgia pool and women’s blouses were ripped to their waists so that beast could apply his tongue to a succession of nipples. I did not recognize Justine in it and I wondered if her scenes had been cut. That was a mercy. Lucrezia was a beautiful, boring poisoner and tyrant. I spent much of the show wishing she would drown in her own pool.
There was little of Artaud in it and when he appeared, he was staring over my head with wide eyes beneath his monk’s hood, nostrils flaring, his jaw set as he declaimed in his deep baritone voice God’s commandment to overthrow the Borgias. This was a gentler portrayal of Savonarola, as a reformer, a voice of conscience beloved by the people who chafed under a corrupt ruling family, a Savonarola pleading for love and justice and a return to the sacred. It was like watching the beautiful Father Massieu race Joan to the stake, driven by similar voices and refusing to stay silent, heedless of the danger that gathered like pestilence around him. Nin had once accused Artaud of being a Savonarola and here he was, again her victim, while like a cinematic Nin, Lucrezia Borgia turned away from Artaud and left him to his fate.
When they burned Artaud’s Savonarola at the stake, Artaud’s shaking, afflicted gasps from his tightened face tore through me like hot metal. There was a sense of inevitability in his death as there had been in Joan that made me recall that little essay on horror he never published. The slow burning to death of Savonarola was accompanied by the wails and the lamenting of the citizens who loved him. Since this was Artaud’s final scene, and because I could take it no longer, I walked out.
The sun was down, and in the cool night air I was momentarily disoriented after emerging from that hot little cinema house. I walked carelessly, eyes down, and almost bumped into a man on the sidewalk. “Excuse me,” I grunted, but when I tried to sidestep him he moved to stand in front of me again.
“And here he is,” sneered the figure as I looked up in surprise. “Leering at my body’s ghost on film and then sneaking out before the end, like a furtive businessman emerging from having masturbated in a prostitute’s cell along the rue Saint-Denis.”
“Oh, hardly!” I shot back as Artaud smiled at me. I didn’t like the accusation in his face. Did he have to make everything so ugly? Did he actually think I would revel in this failure by Gance? As it was, Artaud’s performance was the best thing in it. To cover my feelings I tossed out, “An unsavory film like that, undeserving of you, is very good for public chastity, especially mine. A film like that makes me want to become a monk myself. Savonarola is a perfect role for you after all—because like you he became the victim of his own fervor. ”
Artaud glared at me, and I shriveled inside then. He pointed to the essay I had automatically withdrawn from my jacket. “I assume that’s for me,” he sneered. With a shrug I handed the pages to him. That went well. Inwardly I groaned. I would go back to Barrault and have him reach out to this ragamuffin instead.
“Look, I’m sorry,” I told Artaud. “Watching you tortured set me off. Don’t you know I value anything you’ve done—any work, any film?”
Without a reply Artaud wandered off toward the elevated metro stop, examining the papers between puffs at his cigarette as he walked, and ignoring me completely. Half-heartedly I followed him, but when he climbed the steps to the platform I remained below. I leaned against a support and stared out at the street, seeing the distant Eiffel Tower throw out its nightly sweeping beam in a circle from its summit like a lighthouse.
Suddenly a shower of shredded paper fell across my shoulders and into my hair. I caught a glimpse of the handwriting on them and looked up in shock. The ripped pages of Artaud’s “No More Masterpieces” floated down from above. Carried by the wind, they blew into the street. I started forward to chase after the scraps and heard Artaud’s mocking voice from above: “He values anything I’ve done!” I looked up to see his brilliant smile above the railing. “A literary mind wants a body of literature!” Artaud shouted. Laughter followed his words like an echo—laughter at me from him, and at me from the onlookers at the metro stop above who would normally be making fun of him. I ran up the stairs to him then, but I reached the platform just before he stepped into the gaping mouth of the train car and stood triumphantly inside. The doors slid together between us. In my hands I was holding a few useless scraps of “No More Masterpieces” as the train car carried Artaud away. It glinted over the tracks and disappeared.