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.”
Here, between gestures of hard labor, the prisoners seem to fall into a day-dream of history. Somehow the history of the race is projected, the memory of Isaac and Jacob, of Paris and Helen, of Western culture alternate with the clanging of the hammer on the pipes of the gas chamber. There is a lack of mere pathos—and this is the genius of the work—and a sense of the death of the world instead. The work is lyrical throughout, with poetic lines not directly related to the Nazis or even to the twentieth century. The romantic words go whining through the fitting together of the pipes. As the furnace is completed, the text reads:
God, the living word descended on the graves.
I honored him with a song.
On the shattered stone of the castle
God has inscribed his laws.
The prisoners go into a big box in the center of the square. They pull the top over their heads. A voice says, “They are gone and the coils of smoke hover in the air.” The audience leaves.
The last phrases are as close as the text comes to a representation of the extermination camps. And nothing has been acted out in the usual sense. When one reads, after the performance, that a piece of plastic is Rachel’s wedding veil it is almost impossible to recall either the scene or the little bit of plastic. What you do recall is a lyrical tragic feeling, and the death of civilization as the players close the box. The text is a reverent one. Paris and Helen (two miserable male prisoners singing in unearthly voices), Laban and Jacob—the moments rush by. It is all pain, in the voices, in the arched feet, the stretched leg muscles. As you are going out you are urged to hurry on because the players are, all six of them, actually in the small airless box and cannot leave until the theater is empty. They suffer it—for what? For as for themselves, as a witness?
The Constant Prince is based on a play by Calderón. Grotowski’s production is very “Spanish” and suggests some great sympathy between the Spanish, before Franco, and Polish natures. The audience sits high up, looking down upon the scene, as you might look down upon an operating arena. The program notes mention Rembrandt’s painting “The Anatomy Lesson of Dr. Tulp.” And they are similar in more than the “medical” arrangement; both the play, as Grotowski does it, and the Rembrandt picture are filled with religious iconography and intensity. In his book on Rembrandt, Sir Kenneth Clark says about the “Anatomy”: “…he has given his central figure the pathos and solemnity of a pieta. Involuntarily we look for the stigmata on hands and feet…. Dr. Deyman rose above the corpse like the celebrant of some religious rite, and his assistant has the solicitude of an acolyte. Behind him the spectators sit and stand as if in the apse of a church and even the indecipherable emblem over Dr. Deyman’s head is reminiscent of a crucifix.” And this is precisely the feeling of The Constant Prince. The groupings, the furl of the capes, the blacks and reds and whites brought to mind also certain Spanish paintings of Zurburan and Goya, and always the exquisitely suffering frame of the company’s great actor, Ryszard Cieslak, recalls the baroque Descensions and Pietas of Europe. Grotowski’s work is full of painting memories, just as it is rich with the history and poetry of our tradition.
Apocalypsis cum Figuris is a powerful, episodic work, dealing with the transformations—or co-existence—of types: Simpleton-Christ, those “resemblances…toward the eternal figurations of myth.” The work is harsh and disturbing, using candles and long white monk’s capes, shifting from a sort of Inquisition feeling to a hard contemporary mood, like some of those figures in George Grosz’s pre-war paintings. The text is taken from the Bible, from Dostoevsky, Eliot, and Simone Weil. The last line is “Go and come no more.” Who is being turned away?
Problems of the Grotowski Theater:
Text: I would not consider this “nonverbal theater.” First, the theater is soaked in literature and history, in a deep knowledge of the classical texts of the Bible, Faust, of poetry. A spectator without a good deal of literary knowledge would, it seems to me, lose tremendously. And the theater, the work, the entire enterprise could not exist without these constant references that deepen the conceptions, actually give them their impressive sense of history and their significance. Grotowski uses well-known texts, the common high culture of Europe, as the ground upon which he builds. A vulgar text would be a disaster and no text would, I believe, reduce the work to meaningless exertion, almost to pathology. In Akropolis, the very sound of the names of Jacob and Rachel and Helen gives coherence to the structure.
Grotowski has said, “Every producer must seek encounters which suit his own nature. For me this means the great Romantic poets of Poland. It also means Marlowe and Calderón. I should make quite clear that I am very fond of texts which belong to a great tradition. For me, these are like the voices of my ancestors and those voices which come to us from the sources of our European culture.”
The use Grotowski makes of the text is another thing: this is not the Comédie Française. Plot and characterization are diminished, almost erased from the old texts, and what is left is the word, wrenched, re-arranged, but still supporting the conception. In spite of the brutality and cruelty, the concentration on suffering, this is a lyric theater.
Actors: There is no doubt about the greatness of the actors, but I do not think they are the center of Grotowski’s Theatre. Grotowski himself is the center. It is the magnitude of his theatrical conceptions, the development of his theory of acting, the principles of training, the discovery and framing of his unique view of the past and the present that give his theater its overwhelming interest. I cannot conceive that the actors, for all their glory and dedication, could have within them the immense conceptual gifts of their director. Even as it is, the work is always threatened with disintegration because of the abstract nature of the embodiment of the ideas and the sense often of an arbitrary, almost mad, rigor, and of an inwardness beyond understanding.
Grotowski said about Artaud: “Artaud’s misfortune is that his sickness, his paranoia, differed from the sickness of the times. Civilization is sick with schizophrenia, which is a rupture between intelligence and feeling, body and soul.” This schizophrenia is at the heart of Grotowski’s dramatic intention and reminds us of Nietzsche’s warning that he who looks at monsters should beware lest he become a monster himself. Perhaps nothing can stand for the “rupture between intelligence and feeling, body and soul.” There is no peace attained in these works, no resolution. They end invariably on an abrupt black-out and they tell us the torture continues unto death.
Technique: A grueling conditioning of the body and the voice make possible the effects achieved in the works. Somewhat mystical moods and pronouncements support the extraordinary demands Grotowski makes upon the actors.
The voice: “Special attention should be paid to the carrying power of the voice so that the spectator not only hears the voice of the actor perfectly, but is penetrated by it as if it were stereophonic…. The actor must exploit his voice in order to produce sounds and intonations that the spectator is incapable of reproducing or of imitating.” There are, also, curious ideas about “eliminating the pause” and the belief it should be used parsimoniously, “only where it adds expressivity.” The elimination of the usual pauses, the reaching for “stereophonic” expansion of sound explain the disorienting speed of the dialogue and the peculiar range of the vocal patterns. Grotowski says that it is the integrity of the sentence and the poetic line he is anxious to preserve, its rhythmical and logical integrity. This he does by “the single respiratory and melodic wave.”
How can one make a judgment on the strangeness of the sound? The results have a beauty of an unexpected kind and yet if speed destroys intelligibility, as it does apparently in The Constant Prince, then dialogue is reduced to sensation, to an emotional rather than a cognitive function.
Training exercises: The physical exertions asked of the actors are extreme and yet these players are not acrobats, forever “practicing.” They are working, as in Yoga and other methods of attaining “truth” through the discipline of the body, to an “encounter.” “Self-penetration, trance, excess, the formal discipline itself—all this can be realized provided one has given oneself fully, humbly, and without defense. This act culminates in a climax. It brings relief. None of the exercises in the various fields of the actor’s training must be exercises in skill. They should develop a system of allusions which lead to the elusive and indescribable process of self-donation.” These ideals defy analysis. The high achievement of the group bears witness to the strength of the dedication, to the discipline of the body. The language is that of the Catholic saints, struggling to find words for the effort that goes beyond, for the mystical joys at the end of the fasting and praying. It is one of the oddest developments in contemporary culture—that, at least.
Grotowski’s fame and example have spread throughout the theater world. An original talent of this order confirms the art itself. Things can never be the same after the appearance of a genuine innovator and yet imitation does not seem likely. Grotowski’s theater comes from a world and a private sensibility apart from ours. It is Catholic, authoritarian, pessimistic. Our theater is Jewish, humanistic, and optimistic. Accounts of Americans and Grotowski in the last issue of The Drama Review bear on this. Americans, at a Grotowski seminar, were worried about “authoritarianism,” about the lack of social content in his work, about the excessive austerity of his idea of the actor’s life and purpose. (Grotowski was dismayed to find two American actors holding hands and fondling each other while waiting for their cues. He also complained that American actors were continually lying on the floor, relaxing!)
About the idea of social engagement Grotowski said, “I could indulge my ego by juggling with grand words such as ‘humanism,’ ‘solidarity with the oppressed,’ ‘the rights of my own personality,’ but this would serve nothing but my own sentimental and intellectual comfort.”
To return to Grotowski as “Polish.” Perhaps his protest, in a country from which so many artists and scholars have fled in order to breathe, is a formal and abstract one. His theater by its classical themes, its opaque detail, its circuitous methods of revelation keeps alive certain elements of the eternal and opposes them to the fleeting and contemporary. This is a possible art for the oppressed and particularly for the “censored.” Everything in the works asks for deliverance, and without that, for discipline and concentration and purity, that which makes life and art orderly and victorious over destructiveness. People—like the Polish intelligentsia—who have been controlled, made helpless, and bound by the chains of an imposed political system, and who are at the same time the products of an elite, thorough European education, can see the revolutionary aspect of this artistic development. Or counter-revolutionary. There is not an element of the folk in Grotowski—at least as it appears to a foreign eye. His works are a translation of classical European themes, under extreme conditions. There is about them the feeling of a prison, both in the actual created works and in the theories surrounding them. Society breaks; the actor has only his body and the awful purity of his art. The works are a chorus without a plot. The only plot is suffering, blackness, desperation.
Grotowski is a bleak genius. The carnival anarchism of our own experimental theater is an expression of a totally different world view and history. We are a people disturbed, but still hopeful. The penitents of Wroclaw live in an eternal Holy Week, going through their exercises and remorseful re-enactments.
February 12, 1970