by Bettina L. Knapp

"The Philosopher's Stone" is a personal story as were all of Artaud's fictional writings; indicating his enormous struggle and preoccupation with his health. It is a strikingly original work; dealing with unconscious desires and obsessions; laden with symbolism of the most basic kind, strangely enough akin to Wagner's Nibelungen Ring.

Symbolically speaking, the philosopher's stone as well as the magic ring, gold and precious stones, have always been symbols of a treasure for which man is searching. The gold of the Nibelungs, for example, is a more 'civilized' form of this idea - the treasure-which-one-attains-with-difficulty is, in psychological terms, identity.

"The Philosopher's Stone" would then be, to a certain extant, Artaud's symbolic journey or quest for the treasure - his identity. The discovery of the treasure is not only a difficult, hazardous and terribly painful task; but frequently impossible. By means of imagery, gestures and attitudes (ideas so basic to Artaud's theatrical concepts), the protagonists of this drama are unconsciously cutting away layers of outer coverings, trying to penetrate into those dark yet fertile regions which surround the Self. In this work, Artaud's quest begins in a scientific manner, in a laboratory of sorts, as it had with the alchemists of old.

The violence of Dr. Pale's experiments, the hacking off of Harlequin's limbs, indicate his extreme desire to destroy the healthy, the handsome, the love element in the world -- all of which Harlequin symbolizes. Dr. Pale, who can derive sexual pleasure only from sadomasochistic actions, cannot satisfy Isabelle. There seems to be no common denominator between husband and wife. Strangely enough, the child looks like Dr. Pale. Why? The fruit of the erotic orgy is not normal since Isabelle is giving birth to sadism: too much sexuality (with Harlequin) implies an imbalance, as does too much intellectuality (Dr. Pale). Harlequin, in the last analysis, is Dr. Pale's double, his counterpart, and each aspect loving Isabelle in its own way. In this angular drama the woman gains spirituality as does Harlequin (springing through space) through the sexuality. But the spirituality both Harlequin and Isabelle will know after bouncing up into space implies a total negation of the physical world.

One must take note of the importance of the dismemberment theme in this work: each time Dr. Pale cuts off Harlequin's limbs. Mythologically speaking, it is through the cleansing, burning, or dismemberment process, that transformation and rebirth can occur. It is just this transformation that Dr. Pale is seeking through his various experiments. He unconsciously wants to become a whole human being instead of just an extreme fragment. When in the Egyptian religion the evil Set caused Osiris to be dismembered, Osiris was reborn through the good work of Isis. Dr. Pale (Evil) is cutting away at Harlequin (the normal and handsome male), trying to kill that aspect of himself (the double) and by so doing, will, hopefully bring about a rebirth within his personality. In Dr. Pale's case, no matter how hard he hacked away, Harlequin could never be fully destroyed. The split within Dr. Pale is so great that no relationship can possibly exist between his polarities (his physical aspect and cerebral or spiritual side). Only through Harlequin and Isabelle, that is, the aspect of himself that they represent, can Dr. Pale be reborn. But his rebirth is merely the rebirth of another single aspect of himself, since Harlequin and Isabelle represent only the sexual. No middle way has been found, no identity, no philosopher's stone - but rather more opposites which further divide the split within the personality.

"The Philosopher's Stone" indicated in many respects Artaud's feelings of dismemberment: his desire for wholeness, the constant torment caused by the unreconciled polarities within his own personality - the sexual and spiritual, the healthy and the sick, the ugly and the beautiful. Artaud's trinity (Dr. Pale, Isabelle, Harlequin) were projections of facets of his own being, aspects which unfortunately never came into balance with each other.

But when Artaud brought "The Philosopher's Stone" to the gifted but traditional director, Louis Jouvet, he felt such a work unsuited for his purposes, and answered Artaud negatively on all his other suggestions for dramatizations. Dullin and Pitoeff also steered clear of Artaud's monstrous and frightening half-humans which stamped his works. Yet, pathetically enough, Artaud's Breughel-like creatures were at least thirty years ahead of their time; their descendents went to live-on via such theatre artists as Jean Louis Barrault, Roger Blin, Peter Brook, the Living Theatre, Robert Wilson, and the entire movement known as experimental theatre.