- The Post-Traumatic Theatre of Grotowski and Kantor: History and Holocaust in Akropolis and Dead Class by Magda Romanska
While Jerzy Grotowski and Tadeusz Kantor both won critical acclaim in the United States and Western Europe for their innovative ideas and staging practices, Magda Romanska works to correct overly simple readings of the two works, Akropolis and Dead Class (premiering in New York City in 1969 and 1979, respectively), that secured their reputations in the West. Hindered by gaps in cultural competency and unable to understand the Polish dialogue, early advocates concentrated on matters of form and their own affective response to the productions, instead of on meanings grounded in the specifics of Polish history. From the beginning, English-language criticism and scholarship failed to recognize the “issues of Polish-Jewish relations and the Holocaust” that Grotowski and Kantor incorporated into Akropolis and Dead Class “in a nondirect, veiled manner” (29). Romanska sets out to expose these issues by explicating layers of the meanings that the shows take for granted, seeking a balance between what she calls “transnational and contextual approaches” (9). The book design reflects the “sophisticated detective work” required of scholars and critics once we acknowledge that “[m]eaning in theatre is multilayered, intertwined between form and content, text and context, history and culture” (1).
Romanska’s substantial introduction, divided into seven sections, makes the case for her approach: “Theatre and Meaning” invokes Adorno, Derrida, Bordwell, and Foucault to promote a return to methodologies that situate theatre and performance in historical and cultural context; “Theatre and Context” reviews English-language scholarship and asks why, despite the international reputation that Polish theatre has earned for innovation, Akropolis and Dead Class have not received sufficiently indepth treatment; “Theatre and Difference” contrasts the critical receptions of their work in the West and compares their aesthetics, linking Grotowski to the nineteenth-century messianic, nationalist, romantic poet-dramatists Słowacki, Mickiewicz, and Wyspiaňski, and Kantor to the twentieth-century, interwar avant-garde writers Witkiewicz (aka Witkacy) and Gombrowicz, who “mocked the ‘sacred’ ideals epitomized by the grand, national poets” (13). Both, however, owe much to the Polish Romantics, and the next section, “Theatre and Literature,” draws special attention to Mickiewicz’s Forefathers’ Eve as a founding text in Polish theatre that exemplifies his radical concept of total theatre and incorporates Jewish mysticism and Kabbalah alongside pagan, Greek, and Christian elements. Against this backdrop, the “Theatre and Politics” section returns to the problem of interpretation and cultural competency and, quoting Spivak, warns the powerful against overwriting the cultures of the less powerful. Continuing this theme, “Theatre and History” focuses on Poland’s identity as a nation at the crossroads of Europe that repeatedly suffered partition and occupation by more powerful neighbors. Finally, “Theatre and Theory” brings in writers on cultural and collective trauma, Cathy Caruth and others, to introduce Romanska’s rationale [End Page 315] for characterizing Akropolis and Dead Class not simply as postdramatic (following Lehmann), but as “post-traumatic” (43–45).
To begin the detective work in earnest, each play earns a separate treatment in its own section, with short chapters comprising each part. Dividing the parts are twenty-six pages of images—the Jew Wanderer, Auschwitz, prisoners and the dead, production photographs, and design sketches—that support reading the plays in light of Polish and Polish Jewish history and experiences of the Holocaust. An appendix includes three tables: a chronology, Wyspiaňski’s Akropolis in relation to Genesis, and a chart contrasting Grotowski’s and Kantor’s aesthetics.
Part 1, “Our Auschwitz: Grotowski’s Akropolis” (chapters 1–21), locates the play within both Grotowski’s artistic trajectory and cold war politics. In addition to detailing the director’s methods, Romanska draws attention to his relationship to the communist regime in the context of Poland’s forced inclusion in the Soviet Bloc. Chapters contrast the often adulatory reception of his work within elite artistic circles in the United States with the sometimes hostile response it received in Poland. Importantly, after discussing...