Antonin Artaud, b. Sept. 4, 1896, d. Mar. 4, 1948, was a visionary French actor, playwright, poet, and theorist. His idea of a theatre of cruelty, set down in his work Le theatre et son double (1938-45; The Theatre and Its Double, 1958), has significantly influenced modern notions of theatrical performance. As a child, Artaud suffered from meningitis, and throughout his life he was afflicted with mental disorders. During the 1920s he wrote poems in the manner of the surrealists, acted in plays under such directors as Charles Dullin and in films such as Abel Gance's Napoleon (1927), and began to write his own plays and essays. He left the surrealists to form his Theatre Alfred Jarry (1926) with Roger Vitrac and Robert Aron, staging plays by such writers as Strindberg and Claudel. In essays and manifestos, collected in Le Theatre et son double, Artaud advocated a metaphysical theatre, linking spectator and spectacle. He was influenced less by literature than by myth, ritual, Oriental art, the gestures of Balinese dance, and the world of dreams. Artaud felt that the theatre should give rise to numinous or religious feelings within the audience. At certain points he likened theatre to a plague that attacks the audience, breaks down its resistance, and cleanses it morally and spiritually. In the only play that he wrote and directed according to his precepts, Les Cenci (1935; Eng. trans., 1970), Artaud emphasized space, physicality, color, and sensual awareness over text and language. When his production was deemed a failure, Artaud left for Mexico in 1936 to study the ways of the Tarahumaras Indians. He wrote about the experience in Au Pays des Tarahumaras (1945). When he returned to France in 1937, he suffered a severe mental breakdown and was confined to the sanatorium at Rodez until 1946.

Artaud's theories influenced such theatre artists as Jean Louis Barrault, Roger Blin, Peter Brook, the Living Theatre, Robert Wilson and the entire movement known as experimental theatre.