- Jerzy Grotowski, 1933–1999
Grotowski’s theater was more than a Polish answer to the absurd theater of socialist realism after Stalin’s death, and more than a Catholic reaction to the successful nativity plays of the atheist Brecht. Grotowski’s Akropolis was constructed within the socialist camp, whose enclosures included the forest of Katyn. Its foundations go back to the ancient Indian Kathakali, and it had room for the biomechanics of the murdered Meyerhold as well as for Artaud’s insane songs. It lives in the darkness of Kraków’s cathedral, where the shadows of Veit Stoss’s figures sleepwalk in the night; it reaches up toward the dark clouds of Auschwitz, toward the smoke rising in spirals.
I remember one of my first theater experiences, in the summer of 1968, shortly after the suppression of the Prague Spring. I was ten years old, on a trip with my parents through eastern Poland—a journey into the past, to the villages of my great-grandparents on the Musurian lakes. One day we stayed at a pastor’s house in Olsztyn, which was filled with images of the Madonna—there were even Madonnas made out of salt crystal and out of soap. He took us with him to an evening performance of Marlowe’s Doctor Faustus in a church chapel. The walls were made out of brick and a simple wooden cross hung at the front of the church. A low platform stood in place of the altar, and the audience sat on small wooden benches in front and on the sides. Above all, I remember the severe simplicity of this room and the closing scene of Faust’s descent into hell, with the song of mortal terror that turned into a furioso of shrill screams requiring no translation. I also remember the pastor talking about the play on the way home, saying how this theater would show us the way back to God. My parents remained nervously silent, and I don’t know to this day whether I saw a performance of the Laboratory Theater or the work of one of Grotowski’s students.
Since that evening, I have been haunted by the dream of Grotowski’s poor theater, a theater of the scientific age different from anything Brecht had ever imagined. It is an attempt to achieve that authentic play again, through a suspension of technique that would forgo the transformation of the text into the actor’s private property and make it, instead, a medium for collective experience. Grotowski’s via negativa leads to the realization that after Hitler and Stalin, the theater’s technical arsenal has lost its innocence; competing with film and television on the technological highway could only [End Page 4] lead theater into the abyss. I am grateful to Grotowski for the (renewed) discovery of the slowness of child’s play, long before I saw Robert Wilson’s theater. It was the experience of the “lonely human being in the lonely circle” that Kleist longs for in his essay about marionette theater. The via negativa is a long farewell from the ballast of the moderns, a way back to the mysteries of the theater of the country market and the passion plays in the “dialectic of mockery and worship”—a theater of blasphemy. Grotowski’s theater was the result of a concrete and persistent experiment: beyond the forces of representation and repertory, it was the rebirth of the theater’s mysteries—in the spirit of humility, in the face of its transcendental origins.
Even today, when I stand in front of a painting by El Greco or walk through a brick church, I hear the death scream of the dark martyr Faust: “O lente, lente, currite noctis equi!”—“O slowly, slowly, run ye horses of the night.” Jerzy Grotowski liberated this cry from the ruins of tradition in our century, and out of the scream an unbearable light shines.
During the civil war following the Russian Revolution, Mayakovsky and his circle sent agitprop trains out into the countryside to win the people over to the Reds. They decorated the outsides of these trains...