Chapter Three: Artaud The Alchemist
“A secret similarity exists between the fundamental principles of theatre and those of Alchemy.” (Artaud 1974, 34)
Artaud’s remarks opened his essay on ‘Alchemists Theatre’ and offer the first direct reference to Alchemy within his theatrical model. However, this essay provides only an initial invitation of comparison between Alchemy and theatre. To truly grasp the magnitude of this essay within the confines of Artaud’s theories, one must explore the Artaudian methodology itself and considers Artaud’s place within this theatrical model. Within this chapter I shall be framing Artaud himself as an Alchemist. I shall compare Artaud’s theatrical method utilising Ann Demaitre’s essay ‘The Theatre of Cruelty and Alchemy: Artaud and Le Grand Oeuvre’ (1972) to the material process of Alchemy and demonstrate that there exists an undeniable parallel between the two arts. I shall explore a range of alchemical working models, primarily focusing upon the four and five stage processes. Once I have established a dialogue between Artaudian theatre and Alchemy it becomes possible to explore Artaud’s numerous theories such as ‘Plague’ and ‘Cruelty’ as the theatrical counterparts to the alchemical process. This chapter shall enable an understanding of the Alchemy of Artaud, and prepare the reader for an exploration of the alchemical theatricality of 'The Digital Double'.
Artaud wrote; “or when one considers theatre’s nature, its foundations, like Alchemy it is anchored to a certain number of bases, the same for all arts, aiming in the imaginary, mental field...” (Artaud, 1970, 34). The Alchemist assembles a range of base materials as the practical accompaniment of his transmutation while the theatre maker, or Artaudian ‘Producer’, organises a series of stage elements; sounds, props, and lights to transform the theatre into a performance space. The key between these two mediums however lies within “aiming in the imaginary, mental field.” For within this Artaud proclaimed that both forms, while resting upon a physical interaction ultimately brought about a metaphysical revelation.
Alchemy rests in a physical field but through its practice the Alchemist undertakes a journey of learning. The Alchemist is attempting to uncover the secrets of nature, and by doing so transcend their own consciousness. This is one of the central teachings of the Corpus Hermeticum, Pimander. “Therefore unless you make yourself equal to God, you cannot understand God: for like is not intelligible save unto like.” (Ficino Translation, 1839, 33-34). This tenant decrees that one can begin to apprehend God, by practicing the acts of God, through the manipulation and creation of matter. Within Artaud’s Theatre of Cruelty this is through the creation of a theatrically intense experience, resulting in the revelation of the metaphysical and the reconciliation of duality. This two fold process of material and spiritual transformation taking place would culminate in the Alchemist returning their own transformed consciousness back into their body. Alchemy (both within theatre and the laboratory) presents itself as a vehicle for the transformation of the self.
The subject of this transformation must be considered; initial thoughts may lead to the conclusion that the object of alchemical transmutation may be the audience, however this is not necessarily the case within the Artaudian methodology. Artaud wrote that; “Practicing cruelty involves a higher determination to which the executioner tormentor is also subject and which he must be resolved to endure when the time comes” (Artaud, 1932, 72-73). Extrapolating that the intended subject of Artaudian theatre is the recipient of this ‘Cruelty’, then ‘The Producer’ becomes the primary candidate for this transformation.
The Alchemical Method
In this brief exploration of the alchemical process I shall explore both esoteric and exoteric operations taking place. Accompanying my exploration of the alchemical process are references taken from Hamilton’s The Alchemical Process of Transformation (1985). Hamilton provides an introduction to the subject of Alchemy, the process, and a Jungian psychoanalytical discussion surrounding each of the stages of the ‘Great Work’. Hamilton’s reference to Jungian psychology provides a pathway to the application of the Jungian ‘Individuation’ process taking place within
Alchemy.25 In addition I have referenced Demaitre’s (1972) paper on Artaud and Alchemy which provides a systematic juxtaposition of a five point alchemical method alongside the methodology of Artaud. Demaitre utilises the terminology ‘conscious’ and ‘unconscious’ thoughts in order to explain the stages of the alchemical process alongside Artaud’s theatre. This particular epistemology is not directly associated with Artaud as Artaud only fleetingly refers to a conscious or unconscious mind within his oeuvre. Demaitre’s defining the psyche as ‘conscious’ and ‘unconscious’ however does provide a useful navigation system in the presentation of Artaud’s theatrical model, while also establishing synergy and coherency between Artaud and the alchemical method.
There are varying accounts of the stages within the alchemical process, and many of the operations listed involve substages. However throughout all these stages there lies the constant heat of the Alchemists flame; this alchemical flame becomes the theatrical double of Artaud’s 26 ‘Cruelty’. Demaitre’s explanation lists five steps and omits the Citrinitas phase with the addition of Solutio and Conjunctio. These two steps represent an important part within the alchemical process, especially within the confines of this comparison of the Artaudian theatrical model. The exclusion of Citrinitas as a separate phase is made up by its partial inclusion within the Albedo. The exact operational order of the Grand Oeuvre isn’t necessarily the focus; instead it should be perceived as a guide to the similarities shared between Alchemy and Artaud’s methodology.
The first stage within this comparison between alchemical and Artaudian methodologies is the Solutio. The Solutio entails the separation of the base and noble elements within the Alchemist’s laboratory. “The purpose of this operation was to recognise the parts that formed the whole in order to establish a proper hierarchy between base and noble elements”. (Demaitre, 1972, 242) Within the Artaudian framework Demaitre claims that this is represented by the separation of discursive language from the material language of the stage. This material language consists of tangible scenographic elements, such as scenery, light, movement and architecture.
The second step ‘Conjunctio’ marks the “recordation of the elements according to their hierarchy.” (Demaitre, 1972, 243). Within the alchemical process this can be seen as the Alchemist selecting the elements they will first use within their work, and appropriately preparing them for the heat of the flame. Inside of the Artaudian framework of performance this process is marked by the arrangement of the scenography by ‘The Producer’. Artaud wrote of the composition of his theatrical image stating;
“Every show will contain physical, objective elements perceptible to all. Shouts, groans, apparitions, surprise, dramatic motions of all kinds, the magic beauty of the costumes modelled on certain ritualistic patterns, brilliant lighting...” (Artaud, 1970, 66).
Artaud’s intention mirrored the Conjunctio process within the arrangement and organisation of these theatrical elements into one alchemical performance. Conjunctio and Solutio mark the theatrical preparation of Artaud’s alchemical theatre.
The following stage of the alchemical operation is marked by the gentle heating of the initial material which culminates in the blackening or Negrido. The initial material within this operation is the culmination of these base and noble elements arranged from the Solutio and Conjunctio processes. A key notion within this process of putrefaction is the alchemical ideology that all nature must die before being renewed. “An apple, for example, has to putrefy before its seed can take root and produce more apples” (Hamilton, 1985) Hamilton also notes the key notion that this putrefaction takes place both upon a material and spiritual level. “Just as material death is necessary for the material rebirth of things, so spiritual death is necessary for the spiritual rebirth of man.” (Hamilton 1985) Within the practice of Alchemy the operation takes place on both esoteric and exoteric levels; similarly, Artaudian theatre operates upon a physical level, but “aiming in the imaginary, mental field...” (Artaud, 1970, 34).
Once this stage of the process has been completed, the original form of the object has ‘died’; all sense of previous self is lost within its transmutation, this Demaitre notes is a “necessary preamble for resurrection.” (Demaitre, 1972, 247) . During this part of the alchemical process the Artaudian notion of ‘Cruelty’ is engaged. Demaitre notes this; “As a means of destroying deep rooted ideas, certitudes, and convictions. Preamble to the awakening of the unconscious and sub-conscious contents of the psyche” (Demaitre, 1972, 242) Within the alchemical confines of Artaud’s theatre, the audience are subjected to a psychological annihilation, in which prior conceptions and cultural values of ‘Carrion Man’ 27 are disintegrated. This is entirely necessary for a ‘resurrection’ to take place, that is to say, a meeting of the metaphysical other, reconciliation of the conscious mind and the ‘return’ to the body.
“...the bright metal emerging from the conjunction of noble and base elements had to pass through a state of corruption, it had to turn into a black malodorous mass, before turning back to a ‘glorious existence” (Demaitre, 1972, 244)
Negrido becomes an alchemical double of Artaud’s ‘Plague’. Upon a physical comparison the state of putrefaction inflicted upon the plague ridden body follows a similar blackening and reduction into vile necrotic ooze; so to the conjunction of base and noble elements are reduced to a blackened mass. Both within Alchemy and Artaud’s ‘Plague’ this destruction is a necessary state for the revelation of a reborn spirit and body. Within Alchemy this is the emergence of ‘The Lunar Form’. Within ‘The Plague’ this is the awakening of the repressed unconscious animal form of humanity. As Artaud stated within Theatre and Plague; “It as this point at which theatre establishes itself” (Artaud. 1970, 15) noting that during the most cataclysmic of events, the true human spirit shows its face. This idea can be conceived as salvation through mortification, the new form being reborn from the ashes of the old. Demaitre puts forth the notion that; “perfection was not be to attained without suffering” (Demaitre, 1972, 244) cementing the idea of a necessary ‘Cruelty’ taking place before the attainment of a higher form.
This following stage of the alchemical process is known as the Whitening or Albedo. This stage of The Great Work brings about a introspective awareness towards the very nature of being; this is the revelation of the Artaudian metaphysical principle. The practical accompaniment to this psychic operation is the Sublimatio of the matter, the vapours rise from the alembic vessel extracting the ‘essence’ of the substance. Hamilton notes that; “This is a metaphor for the soul rising from the confines of the rich psyche, with the extraction of the essence representing the soul at last becoming conscious of itself.” (Hamilton, 1985). Within the Artaudian performance model this is marked by the awakening of the unconscious, now that it has been liberated from the trivial demands of a ‘Carrion Man’ culture. This in turn marks the recognition of the metaphysical, the poetic profundity with which Artaud idolised within the Balinese performance.
“If cruelty, in the Artaudian sense, is the theatrical counterpart of the alchemical mortificatio, the liberation of the unconscious that follows purification in Artaud’s metaphysical theatre is the dramatic counterpart of the fourth stage of the opus known as albedo...” (Demaitre, 1972, 245)
Within a theatrical context this alchemical operation would act upon the spectators unconscious minds as it is “...awakened by the merciless effects of a ‘theatre sans limites’ begins to surge towards the conscious.” (Demaitre, 1972, 245). Through the use of a ‘theatre without limits’ Demaitre supposes Artaud’s theatrical model mirrors the awakening of unconscious repressed thoughts. Demaitre notes that the revelation is brought about deliberately by the ‘artifex’ (skilled craftsman, smith, artificer etc). Within the context of the Artaudian drama, the artifex is the alchemical double of ‘The Producer’. The alchemical world which the Artifex would create is referred to as “A new reality has been produced that until then had lain dormant in the womb of matter.” (Demaitre, 1972, 246). The role of Artaudian ‘Producer’ can be seen as that of artifex, or indeed Alchemist within the drama.
The Albedo is the result of an alchemical awakening, which in turn prepares the next stage of the operation. “The liberation once accomplished the way is open for the junction of the conscious and the unconscious on the level of perfection where reality appears in its ultimate unity” (Demaitre 1972) As the vapours of the substance rise so begins the next stage of the alchemical process, the Yellowing or Citrinitas. This stage begins with the death of the lunar light of Albedo, the substance darkening. From this darkness emerges a new light, a solar light which “...we cannot see it as our inner sight is veiled and it appears as darkness” (Hamilton 1985).This light therefore represents an entirely metaphysical quality outside of conventional sensory perception. Referring back to the discussion surrounding Artaud’s metaphysics, Jamieson (2007) regarded this as exposure to the previously ‘un-sensed’. Jamieson utilises Kantian philosophy (Jamieson, 2007, 28) to describe that which lies outside of our directly experienced reality. Jamieson postulates that exposure to this may result in a metaphysical experience. Within this alchemical process a light beyond sensory experience has been achieved and appears as an almost direct parallel to the light of the Citrinitas. “It is a complete dying of the dualistic state of mind that perceives subject and object as separate.” (Hamilton, 1985) Hamilton uses the schizophrenic mindset as analogue towards this state of being, stating that the individual struggles to objectively separate themselves from the experience. Indeed this resembles the objectives of the Balinese Theatre essay and a- priori The Theatre of Cruelty, in the intuitive lived experience of the drama rather than than the objective observation. 28 It is curious that Demaitre choses to omit the stage of Citrinitas, however it seems Demaitre’s Albedo encapsulates the essence of Hamilton’s Citrinitas, and appears within a similar theatrical application.
The alchemical process culminates in reddening or ‘Rubedo’. The stage marks the return of the enlightened spirit of the substance (and Alchemist) into the body of the original matter being transmuted. Hamilton states this is a the return of;
“ ...”illuminated” consciousness into the mind and body...”. In order for this to be achieved a flame of greater intensity must be applied bringing about the “coagulation of spirit and matter”. Once this process has completed and the enlightened soul of the Alchemist is reunited with their body, this marks a “...state of spiritual completeness.” (Hamilton, 1984).
The spiritual journey of the Alchemist is mirrored by the exoteric generation of the Philosophers Stone a symbolic representation of the psychic perfection attained by this Alchemy.
“...as an enlightened, transcendental individual and in a state of oneness with the Cosmic whole. This then is the philosopher's stone that the Alchemist has been seeking for. It is the grand culmination of the Great Work.” (Hamilton, 1984).
Hamilton explains this final stage of Alchemy within the psychotherapeutic setting represents the client overcoming their complexes and being able to implement their new found understanding within life. Thus the individual ‘healed’ by this alchemical therapy has transmuted their psyche, overcome their troubles, and been reborn within their body. This can be seen within the theatrical counterpart of Artaudian performance; the audience and creator have reached a level of theatrical intensity, engaged with a metaphysical power, recognised ‘The Double’ and brought this gnosis back into their being. “Inside of it’s theatrical counterpart, we see this stage as marked by the unconscious mind merging with the conscious. Unity is achieved on the highest level of reality.”. (Demaitre, 1972, 246) This is the climax of the Artaudian methodology, Demaitre notes that this is the point at which Artaud’s theatre “accomplishes its sacral function” (247). This is within the debasement of the cultural values through theatrical intensity, the meeting of the metaphysical ‘other’ and the culmination of this new found knowledge being reunited within the waking mind.
Through utilising this alchemical model as comparison the notion of Artaudian ‘Cruelty’ is made clearer. “Death is cruelty, resurrection is cruelty, transfiguration is cruelty, for true death has no place in all the meanings of an enclosed circular world...” (Artaud, 1932, 74) All these aspect lie within the alchemical methodology indicating that Artaud’s ‘Cruelty’ is fundamentally alchemical.
Within this chapter I have attempted to provide a clear correlation between the alchemical method and Artaud’s theatrical methodology. I believe this has been adequately established, however a question is raised. Was Artaud’s methodology a direct mirror of the alchemical method, or are these similarities coincidental? Artaud’s references to Alchemy are fleeting, the greatest of references are made within the shortest of his essays. However it is clear from Artaud’s sentiments that he held high esteem for the work of the Alchemist. Why then did Artaud fail to include any reference to the alchemical work itself being an essential part of his theatrical method? Perhaps a volume of Artaud’s work has been lost, or omitted? Demaitre suggests that Artaud may have in fact been “...responding to the the same subconscious psychological stimuli that prompted the Alchemist to recreate primal unity in the Philosopher’s Stone’.” (Demaitre, 1972, 248). Certainly Demaitre’s suggestion ignites the imagination of the reader of Artaud’s work and kindles the notion of a metaphysical drive surrounding both the Alchemist and Artaud. However I believe that a quintessentially Artaudian principle lies within this mystery. Jamieson (2007,13) notes that Artaud’s works were never meant as instruction manuals, direct conveyers of meaning with a set outcome. Perhaps On Alchemist’s Theatre should be seen as a guiding essay, which invites the reader to consider first the similarities of alchemical philosophy and theatre. Once the reader has seen there exists a similarity, they are presented with the chance to delve deeper into the theatrical parallels between the two subject matters. A true understanding of the Alchemy of Artaud is impossible without the reader first applying themselves to their own study of the subject of Alchemy, and noting, practicing and living the theories of Artaud. Once again I must return to the idea of exploring Artaud through the notion of tacit knowledge. One reading of The Theatre and It’s Double may serve to kindle the imagination of theatrical possibility; however in order to begin to understand, one must apply these theories and practice them. Through a closer study of the alchemical method I have not only determined Artaud’s appreciation of Alchemy, but determined that in fact his methodology is theatrical Alchemy. The reader of Artaud’s work stands as a neophyte and must apply themselves diligently (as the Alchemist) with further reading and practice in order to transmute there own understanding of Artaud’s theatre. Whoever’s supposition is correct within this understanding, I believe the Alchemy of Artaud’s theatre is an undeniable and highly influential aspect of his theories.
“In trying to attain his goal, the Alchemist used the still; Artaud chose the theatre for an instrument of salvation. The quests were identical. The difference between the god of the Alchemists and Artaud’s “equilibre supreme” was merely a matter of terminology. (Demaitre, 1972, 250)
In order to pave my way in justifying the deployment of contemporary technology as an idiom of Artaudian theatre I must account for it within this new found alchemical methodology. The ‘Producer’ represents the theatrical Alchemist or artifex of the stage. Artaud placed such a high value on the role of ‘The Producer’ within his theatre that surely it is they who should be in control of the theatrical laboratory. Returning to the initial two stages of the alchemical process then, ‘The Producer’ is faced with the Solutio, that is the dissolution of the (theatrical) materials that they will use. This dissolution enables ‘The Producer’ to break his theatre into separate stage elements as Artaud identified the ‘higher’ theatrical forms (light, gesture, space) from the ‘base’ forms such as discursive language. Once this has been achieved ‘The Producer’ engages with the alchemical process of Conjunctio; that is to say the arrangement of these isolated stage languages into a form that enables the beginning of the reactive alchemical process. This scenographic process within the Artaudian methodology is the arrangement and organisation of stage elements in order to engineer a performance of metaphysical profundity. At last, I can begin to devise an understanding of 'The Digital Double' as a composite of these stage elements which engenders this Artaudian alchemical insight.
25 Within the Jungian therapeutic framework the process of ‘Individuation’ is akin to an alchemical transformation in which the subject is placed as Alchemist.“As Jung noted, for the genuine Alchemist the production of gold was not an end in itself but merely a symbol of a far more portentous transformation” (Dematire, 1972, 250) 'Individuation’ becomes a double for the alchemical process, with the creation of the Philosophers Stone signifying the completion of the journey.
26 ‘Cruelty’ as perceived by Artaud is an unrelenting necessary force which is required in order to initiate change. Within the Alchemist’s laboratory the force which initiates change upon the material is the flame of the Alchemist. “For it seems to me creation, life itself, can only be defined by a kind of strictness, the fundamental cruelty guiding things towards their inexorable goal, whatever the cost.” (Artaud, 1932, 74) ‘Cruelty’ guides Artaud’s theatre towards its goal of reconciliation of duality, while the flame of the Alchemist guides the substance towards its final form, The Philosopher’s Stone .
27 The term ‘Carrion Man’ is used with the utmost repugnance to signify Artaud’s distaste towards contemporary theatre’s obsession with personal and trivial pursuits. “All the topics detailed above stink of mankind, of materialistic temporary mankind, I might even say carrion man.” (Artaud, 1970, 29)
28 As discussed when establishing Artaud’s theatre, the reason for abandoning discursive language was to invite a more direct and profound response within his audience. “He hoped such a break from literary forms would interrupt intellectual responses to the theatre, devoid of emotion and ‘life’, and enable visceral experiences” (Jamieson, 2007, 18)