SFR: Artaud was considered a shocking artist in his time. What was the big deal?
TA: His work was very threatening. He called it ‘the theater of cruelty,’ which was kind of a metaphor, but it was really about taking everything beyond where it is, whether it’s your body, God, theater. He hated sitting-room dramas—he wanted theater to actually rivet you and people to run screaming into the streets or screaming in the theater. He wanted something volatile to happen and for it to go penetrate a person’s subconscious, you know?
What was the premise of Artaud’s trip to Dublin?
He had been to Ireland and found this—stick, basically, and walked around Paris with it. He was very delusional off-and-on, and he convinced himself it was the staff of St. George or Jesus. I’m not sure how serious he was at that time. But he decided that this staff needed to go back to the Irish people, so he took it back. But he was detoxing heavily from heroin at the time and got into a big fight with the cops. They put him in a ship [back to France]. After this trip, he was never out of mental institutions again for the rest of his life, but it was also his most productive period as an artist.
So you used that trip as the basis for this play?
Artaud had something like 50 electric shock treatments in Rodez [a mental institution in France]—that’s when he started to draw. That’s when he really started to make drawings, wrote some of his most epic poems. So it was really a building process for me. I’d always admired his writing, but then to find out kind of where it came from, what was going on with his life at that time, I kept going back to that 17 days in the dark, chained down in a straitjacket.
Ghost Ship Rodez is a combination of art installation, theater and live music. Can you give an example of what the audience can expect?
Well, Artaud would do these spells. He’d get really pissed off at somebody, so he’d make a spell and he would write all of this—kind of like the Republicans are doing right now—write all of this really vile stuff about this person, burn it with cigarettes, pee on it and then mail it to them, hoping they would die. And then he would start feeling guilty about it, so he would write a spell that would take all that back and send them a protection spell against the other spell. One of the sections [in the play] is called ‘Spell,’ and it’s kind of a dialogue that’s sung manically and frantically between Jo Harvey [Allen] and me. The whole piece is a spell that way.
Sounds kind of unpleasant.
It redeems itself in a way. It’s a hard piece, you know. You couldn’t really make anything syrupy out of Artaud. I couldn’t. I’m sure somebody could.
How did Artaud view his own mental illness?
He never belabored the idea that he was being incarcerated [in institutions]. He was a huge addict but, at the same time, it was never about being an addict. It was about trying to not be one, which is a very different state of mind than what we normally think of drug addicts. I think at the end, what it does is it takes this person who’s had all of these obstacles that they had to confront—internally, externally, their whole life—and somehow always maintained a true heart through the whole pile of it.