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The Theater of Grotowski

Akropolis, a production by Jerzy Grotowski for the Polish Laboratory Theatre, takes the concentration camp at Auschwitz for its setting, and, for its plot, the building by the prisoners of the gas chamber in which they will be consumed. This work is of a transcendent pity and terror and is the only work of art I know that is in some measure aesthetically commensurate with the Nazi history it springs from. Akropolis stands alone, a strange, classical moment of genius, lyrical, painful, of a sublime seriousness, rooted in our forgotten life, in the tatters of the Hellenistic and Biblical culture that trembled there before the darkness of extermination.

Grotowski’s group performed in a beautiful rectangular space in Greenwich Village, the plain and serene auditorium of a Methodist Church. This was a dramatically useful setting for the Lab Theatre, giving as it did something Protestant—perhaps one could say wholesome—to the extraordinary Counter-Reformation brilliance of the performances. In the sudden blow of darkness that announced the end of each play, one could for a moment see the outside world filtered through the heavy reds and blues of the high, narrow church windows. And when abruptly the house lights came on, everything was erased forever: emptiness, no actors, only the silent audience moving out. For a number of reasons you cannot applaud the Laboratory Theatre. The mood is much too somber, and furthermore applause seems to be the reward for a different sort of theatrical craft. It signifies the resolution of the story and returns the actors to themselves, separating them from their creation and commending them as artists and workers, craftsmen and performers.

Grotowski’s works are too deep in suffering and death to be resolved. The actors, also, try for something beyond representation. They are not characters on the stage and therefore you are not quite sure what the self might be to which they are returning at the end of the performance. In the long run it is the bitterness and ruthlessness of the world of this theater that stays the hand. It is in many ways an obscure liturgy of scenes and sound, but I would not call it a ritual because of the difficulty of definition and because the word means a shared, often repeated ceremony, in which foreknowledge and the habitual are a great part of the hold the action and feeling have upon the imagination.

This is quite untrue of the work of Grotowski. You are lost in atonality from beginning to end, unable to predict the next note, to find the phrases, discover the structure. The assent one gives is of another kind: it is a surrender to the peculiar genius before you, to the fascination of the alien, to the triumph of conception, beauty of design even when mysterious, and to a powerful, original, and disturbing mode of performance. It is a poetic theater and the insights are those of poetry rather than drama. Still it is theater and I never once thought of it as dance, as so many people did.

Description and definition of the Grotowski Theatre are genuinely difficult and in the long run no doubt rest upon the unyielding hard ground of the works themselves. The ninety or so minutes of each performance were each one brilliant and intense and of such complexity one had not the time, at least for the purpose of a later description, to take in details. The acting asks for the very limits of endurance from the actors and verges on the inhumane; at the same time an inward concentration gives this endurance and strain an impressive other-worldliness and purity. The contrasts, a sort of Jesuitical union of ends and means, the intensities, the mood are strikingly new and also alien. The works are abstract and yet psychological—in the way a Bernini tomb sculpture is psychological. This psychology is generalized, historical, and meditative; it comes more from Jung than from Freud. The observation of life actors have always transmitted by their smiles, their accents, their gestures plays no part here. This is not the psychology of the mundane, of humble experience and habit, but of the soul, the race. It is death and transfiguration, historical memory, transformation (Christ-Apollo).

Voices are stretched to strange tones; in The Constant Prince the speed of the speech is so great, the pitch of the voices so unfamiliar that we are assured even Polish-speaking audiences cannot understand more than a few words. You feel you are listening to music and indeed every element of sound, the stomp of boots, the clap, clap of wooden soles, the sound of a hammer on iron, the high C of laughter—is utterly arresting and indescribable. Yet we do not feel the technique is one of formal gesture and symbolic movement that long acquaintance would decipher. There is no code, as in some Oriental theater. The faces, blonde or brown, are masks, free of the usual emotions and particularly of the marks of “emoting”—and yet they are beautiful faces, untheatrical and still not quite real either. In the Grotowski Theatre there are no pathos, no tears, no real laughter, no friendliness, no love, no personal history, no disappointment, no victory. There are, instead, constant activity and pain, suffering, death, torment, fear, mockery, persecution, submission, ecstasy—and a sense of history.

The Polish Lab Theatre is not really described by its negations. True it is, as Grotowski calls it, a “Poor Theater” and he has sought by the elimination of the normal intrusions of prop, costume, lighting, and set decoration to get at the heart of the theater. (For him it lies entirely in the actor, in his body and voice, and in his self-abandonment to truth—the “holy actor.”) Still, the minimal props, the spot-lights, the bits of costuming, the capes, the shoes, the glow of candles are always of a special inspiration and interest.

The group limits the number of spectators, never more than a hundred, and then again only forty. The audience is sometimes seated on a ramp up above the action, or around the wall, or in a square around the performing area: the arrangement is a part of the design of the work itself, a contrast with the usual practice of placing the spectators wherever the structure of the theater building has left space and rows for them. Perhaps it was the difficulty of understanding the works that led so many commentators to discuss the conditions under which they were presented. The limitation of the audience and its careful dispersal seem absolutely necessary and there is strong doubt that these works could be effectively seen in the usual auditorium, for they are intimate and concentrated to an extreme degree. Grotowski’s regular theater is in the provincial capital of Wroclaw and perhaps there his restrictions can more easily fulfill the demand for these singular works. It is a “poor” theater but able to create special conditions—and like a monastic order it combines poverty with obedience, neither of which is very congenial to our nature.

How do they get by with it in Poland? The Grotowski Theatre does not merely survive, it is supported by the state. It is not only an assault on Socialist Realism, but on traditional realism as well. The intensity of intellectual life in Poland after the war and its long history of passionate avantgardism explain in some measure the ability of an original talent like Grotowski to flower. His message is a mixed one also, expressing the romantic spirit of “Polish martyrdom” with certain contemporary austerities and despairing modes. In all of his works, the Polish experience is there for an audience who wished or needed to find it. This country has suffered humiliation at the hands of its tormentors and conquerors and has cruelly inflicted sufferings on its own people, its Jews and peasants. Perhaps “the constant prince,” tortured, debased, with “no other weapons but his own human identity,” passively doomed to suffering, but in endurance supreme—perhaps this is Poland itself.

Akropolis is based on a symbolist play written around the turn of the century by the great Polish poet-dramatist, Stanislaw Wyspianski. Czeslaw Milosz, in The History of Polish Literature,1 gives an account of Wyspianski’s work and theories that shows them to bear a striking relation to Grotowski’s ideas. Through this we can see the Polish strain that endures in spite of the modernity. Grotowski’s aesthetic radicalism goes back beyond the Absurd and the Surrealist to earlier theatrical experiments.

Some ideas taken from Milosz’s account of Wyspianski: First, a quotation from Brzozowski: “The thought of Wyspianski never expressed itself through words; he did not think in words, he thought with tensions of his will and with emotions expressed in color, movement, and sound. He thought in theatrical terms.” Wyspianski’s revolution was deeply rooted in the Polish past and in sadness over the provincialism of the country around 1900. He turned to Greek tragedy and to Wagner’s theater for inspiration, and thought, with Mickiewicz, that “Slavic drama was called to continue the only valid theatrical line, begun in Greek tragedies and carried on in medieval mystery plays. The Slavic drama was to combine all the elements of national poetry—lyricism, discussion of current problems, historical images—into a blended unity….” Wyspianski’s plays were “librettos” for a stage director. Another quotation from Brzozowski: “Wyspianski does not know what the life of the new Poland will be, but he knows the death of the old Poland is death indeed…. The world that emerges in his work negates itself, undermines its own foundations. A structure of thought is erected, but only in order to be destroyed.”

In Wyspianski’s play, Akropolis, the statues in the Royal Cathedral in Cracow come to life and enact scenes from history, from the Bible and Homer. Grotowski has had the daring notion of acting out this play and its “vision of Mediterranean culture” inside the concentration camp at Auschwitz, which is the contemporary “necropolis of the tribes,” as the old Cracow castle was the necropolis of ancient Poland. This work is a little more open, at least in the outlines of its action, than the other works shown here, but it would be misleading to think of it as “realistic.” The inmates are dressed in torn burlap, skull caps, and wear heavy work shoes with wooden soles. They have a few rusty bits of pipe, the sections of an old tin flue. These are the materials of the gas oven. The other props are a tub, a kind of rag doll, a wheelbarrow. About these props, Ludwig Flazen, the literary adviser to Grotowski, has written,2 “Each object has multiple uses. The bathtub is a very pedestrian bathtub; on the other hand it is a symbolical bathtub; it represents all the bathtubs in which human bodies were processed for the making of soap and leather. Turned upside down, the same bathtub becomes an altar in front of which an inmate chants a prayer…One of the stove-pipes, transformed by Jacob’s imagination, becomes his grotesque bride.”

  1. 1

    Macmillan, 544 pp., $14.95.

  2. 2

    Towards a Poor Theatre, a collection of interviews and articles by Grotowski and others (Simon & Schuster, 262 pp., $6.50; $2.45 in paper).

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