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…

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