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 with brightly colored, wildly abstract designs. But the people out in the hinterlands had no frame of reference for these abstractions and were so put off that they were antagonistic. So the trains were repainted with somewhat more representational decorations in order to avoid alienating those people.
I think that many audiences outside our main theater centers are like those people. As theater is a social, communal phenomenon about perception, we have an obligation to them. I left the Open Theater and the U.S. in 1970 for Europe and, later, Canada. For several years, working mainly with students, I continued to use our Open Theater exercises and the Polish Laboratory Theater exercises learned from Grotowski and Ryszard Cieslak in 1967.
Grotowski’s amazing body work—it would be more accurate to call it psychophysical, as it involves a mental process of imagery as well—has been well documented. But not enough attention has been paid to his work on the voice. His use of different resonators was not unfamiliar to us in 1967 (“Imagine your mouth is in the top of your head . . . the back of the neck . . . your belly . . . ”). But he used other images that were not only new but particularly stimulating, asking actors to use their voices as if in action (for example, to sing or speak in order to caress a partner with the voice, to poke a hole in the wall with the voice, to overturn a chair, to blow out a candle, to wrap a gift, to sweep the floor). The voice could also be used as if it were an object (as a hammer, a feather, a hand, a pair of scissors, sandpaper, etc.). [End Page 5]
Gradually I used these exercises less and less, and my theater work moved back a step toward realism. Now I want audiences to be challenged but not antagonized or baffled; sometimes the main challenge should come from the playwright. There still is a viable theater in which the recognizable is selected, shaped, and, yes, lifted into art. Or, sometimes, the everyday is there to set off or demonstrate the irrational.
Grotowski was the most inspiring, revolutionary theater person I’ve met. We mused over the shamanistic actor and “resigning from not doing it,” the partner-in-security, and the need to push beyond our resistances. Yet his authoritarianism disturbed us, and his view of improvisation was too rigid for us. The cultural gap was large, his purity of purpose perhaps too extreme for us. We had to find our own paths, although I still regularly question all my assumptions about theater, thanks to my encounter with him.
In more than seventy years of theatergoing, the pinnacles I can count are frighteningly few. Three of them, certainly, were Jerzy Grotowski’s productions of The Constant Prince, Akropolis, and Apocalypsis cum figuris, which I saw when his Polish Laboratory Theater was in New York in December 1969. Grotowski had said, “We consider the personal and scenic technique of the actor as the core of theater art,” and those three productions proved it. The quintessence of each actor’s being was plumbed and transfigured before us, a collaboration of actors and director fundamentally different even from other superlative performances that I have seen. Those productions clarified why Grotowski’s “method” has not really prospered elsewhere; it was not a technique to be studied and then applied to a group of actors brought together for a play or for a season: it was the fruit of a long and total commitment, by director and company, to a visionary life.
Also, it was European. The great twentieth-century master Stanislavsky, another European, developed approaches to acting that are couched in universals. But Grotowski, Polish, was working with Poles in a country that had, within the lifespan of all the company, undergone terrors past description. His work seemed to grow out of that fact. For me, his productions were agons of that agony, explicitly or not, informed by experience too awesome to render otherwise.
Unlike some advanced theaters, when the Polish Lab felt it had accomplished its work, it disbanded rather than plod repetitively. Because of that theater’s specificity, attempts to follow Grotowski have not, to my knowledge, succeeded. A Stanislavsky legacy thrives. There cannot be a true Grotowski legacy. [End Page 6]
I can see from a quick scan of my critical scribbles that, like many at the time (the sixties), I took Grotowski at his word: for me, he was one of “a handful of practical dreamers—Graham, the Becks, Stanislavsky, Brecht—who have succeeded in this century against the pressures of a culture insensitive to the real process of work.” By 1981, with The Constant Prince, Apocalypsis cum figuris, and Akropolis only a fleeting memory, I summoned the heresy of a different memory, something I referred to as his “Catholic moan and sadomasochistic urge.”
That heresy had stuck in my throat all along, I suspect, but could be released when it became clear that Grotowski’s deliberate moves into something “beyond theater,” as I think he put it, had quite plainly left theater out of the equation. The word paratheatrical kept coming up to describe what he’d been doing in one laboratory or another, but with titles such as The Mountain of Flame, The Way, or Vigil, the trail of incense hovered over what looked to be more like therapy than art. Somebody reported that far from singing the song, “the song was singing me,” an unforced, touching sentiment, surely, but not one that connects all the dots so insistently laid out by Grotowski in his signature work.
What happened to those dots? I suspect he was simply—or not so simply—running away from the high cost of celebrity and hero worship. That, at the least, is what he found in the West. In Poland, he was able for a twelve-year moment to seize the right, from both state and church, to turn their various oppressions into a theatrical intensity that had never been seen before in such harsh darkness and blinding light. With utmost precision, he made the long stretch of rehearsal time his perfect friend—in a barely hidden sense, even his lover. The actors, more physically inspired than any I’ve seen before or since, were never literally sexual, but their cruel, breathless assaults on space were so awash with energy and thrust as to suggest orgy anyway. Maybe Grotowski had uncovered the secret of the Black Mass and was quite understandably running from the unholy terror he kept releasing in theatrical endeavor.
One other odd memory survives: his chameleon presence. When first seen here, he was masked by dark glasses, and in his rumpled, overweight disguise, he looked like the last person to inspire those gorgeous acting athletes. Some years later, he returned pencil-thin, as always whiter than any other Occidentals, not exactly an athlete, of course, but possibly more comfortable in his frame. One admirer declared in later years that he looked like a Dürer. What I see in his most recent photograph is the image of old-man Ibsen, obdurate, private, everlastingly alone. In the mid-eighties, he had made Peer Gynt the springboard for an exercise. He wanted us to know, however, that “it was nothing major, nothing important, and should be ignored.” A true artist to the end, refusing what he knows he cannot do—or be. [End Page 7]
After the Living Theater went into exile in Europe in the mid-1960s, its path began to cross with Grotowski’s Polish Laboratory Theater. At the time, both groups were considered, each in its distinct way, to be at the cutting edge of “experimental” theater. The differences could not have been more apparent. The Grotowski people were not particularly interested in the audience; for the Living Theater the audience was everything. People inside and outside the two groups believed that these differences simply reflected their respective environments. Communist Poland, which had made a version of revolutionary ideology the state religion, inspired a theater that turned away from the social lie in order to discover an inner truth. On the other hand, the United States, which had sought to suppress all talk of revolution as communist propaganda, gave rise to a theater insistent on delivering its revolutionary message directly. Both companies, however, sensed a strong bond linking them. The techniques both groups developed were strikingly convergent in terms of emotional intensity and raw physicality. More importantly, both were groups eager to go as far as they dared, and they dared plenty. Over time real friendships developed, in particular one between Jerzy Grotowski and Judith Malina:
Grotowski told the actors to listen to the silence and to hear in it the voice of the unnameable
Judith Malina told the actors to listen to the silence and to hear in it the voices of the suffering
they got to know each other and Jerzy’s militant hardness and Judith’s hard militancy met in an open field
where, as each reached deeper into the other, both changed and now we all can [End Page 8]
I only learned about Jerzy Grotowski’s death when I was asked to contribute a few words about him to Theater. Now, Japan, where I mainly live these days, doesn’t exactly buzz with the latest theater (or other cultural) news, but it isn’t a desert either. I bring this up to point out how far Grotowski’s fame has fallen since the time in the late sixties and early seventies when his only serious rival for the attention of theater intellectuals everywhere was, unfortunately, Artaud, who Grotowski quite correctly said had been a baneful influence because he left no method, nothing that could be of use to serious theater practitioners. What Artaud left, as I remember, whether or not Grotowski said it, was a mystique, an aura of revolutionary fervor, a wishfulness and hunger that gave rise to as many falsenesses as truths.
Grotowski, originally an actor, as Artaud had been, was so passionately interested in the truths of acting, and therefore, of course, of theater, that he called his first group in WroclŽaw a “laboratory theater,” whose purpose was to do “research.” The outcome of this type of what I would call “bodily scholarship” remains in my memory largely as a set of alternatives: the “poor” and the “rich” theater, the “holy” actor and the “prostitute.”
I was one of his first champions in America. I remember sitting at the Brooklyn Academy of Music as Grotowski lectured—in French—to an audience in great part composed of curious, yet for the most part also envious and suspicious, theater people: acting teachers, directors, intellectual hangers-on. Later I lost sight of him, and lost interest in his ideas when he became cultish and prematurely New Agish.
But when I learned he was dead, some of my original enthusiasm flashed back. I recalled two of his sayings, or formulas, that had implanted themselves in my memory and served me generously all my intellectual life since that time that had seemed like a prophetic dawn. The first was his insistence that authentic acting—indeed, all art—rested on two linked qualities: sincerity and precision. Sincerity (feeling) without precision (technique) results in sentimentality; precision without sincerity issues in the coldly mechanical.
My other memory of what he taught us is this: “In life the first question is how to be armed; in art it is how to be disarmed.” Nobody has ever drawn the distinction more beautifully . . . and more usefully. In an age of increasing politicization, we need to be continually reminded of how the imagination is our chief, if not our only, weapon against inauthenticity and insincerity. I have no doubt that this reminder is Grotowski’s most valuable legacy to us.
Holger Teschke writes, translates, and directs theater in Berlin and South Hadley, Massachusetts. In addition to directing his own plays and radio plays, he has also directed plays by Müller, Büchner, Lenz, Beckett, and Christoph Hein. As chief dramaturg at the Berliner Ensemble, Teschke has worked with Heiner Müller, Peter Palitzsch, and Robert Wilson.