Theater 30.2 (2000) 173-179
[Access article in PDF]
Barba and Grotowski:
A Friendship Retraced
Land of Ashes and Diamonds: My Apprenticeship in Poland by Eugenio Barba. Translated from the Italian by Judy Barba with twenty-six letters from Jerzy Grotowski to Eugenio Barba translated from the Polish by Eugenio and Judy Barba 1999: Black Mountain Press
Most Western readers would have to stretch their imaginations to create some idea of what Poland must have been like in January 1961, when a young artistic Italian, Eugenio Barba, arrived there from Norway with the ambition to study theater directing. Poor, shabby, drab, and repressive, still traumatized in the aftermath of the workers' clash with the authorities in 1956 and profoundly unhappy about its betrayed hopes for progress and democracy, Poland was an unlikely destination for a young man with fantasies of an artistic career. This twenty-four-year-old Italian came to Poland because of his fascination with Andrzej Wajda's film Ashes and Diamonds, which he saw in Norway as a seventeen-year-old after abandoning military college in Naples, seeking adventure, another climate and culture, and a Hamsunian life beyond limits. As a welder and student in Oslo, he built a sufficient support system among students, intellectuals, and workers. His artistic ambitions did not lead to much when he attempted painting and music, but the idea of becoming a theater director, abetted by his fascination with Wajda's film, led him to Poland.
With an Italian grant he turned up in Warsaw in the middle of winter and started his studies. Then in June someone made him get off the train in Opole, a small town in Silesia, cleansed of Germans at the end of World War II and colonized by Polish refugees from the eastern parts of the land, which was seized by the Soviets. In Opole he met Jerzy Grotowski, his dramaturg Ludwik Flaszen, and stage designer Jerzy Gurawski. He saw their premiere of Adam Mickiewicz's romantic classic Dziady [Forefather's eve] and was not much impressed. The small space, the intrusive proximity of actors, and their intense style almost irritated him. Only a year later, fed up with Poland and its misery, tired of the limited excitements of Warsaw literary and artistic circles, of chasing despair with vodka, Barba was ready to leave for another adventure. Then he met Grotowski again and the director invited him to join his Teatr 13 Rze¸dów (Theater of 13 Rows) in Opole as his assistant.
In his memoir, Land of Ashes and Diamonds, Barba describes his Polish adventure and his three years with Grotowski. He does not speculate on what would have happened to him without this fateful second encounter with Grotowski and their ensuing association. He does not ask himself what kind of theater director, if any, he would have become merely by passing all the exams at the Warsaw Theater [End Page 173] Academy. As for Grotowski, without Barba, would he have remained an odd phenomenon of Polish theater, tucked away in the provinces, marginalized and isolated from the mainstream theater life of Warsaw, Kraków, and Wroclaw, or perhaps been silenced by the political authorities at some point because of his "formalist" experiments and kicked out from his tiny performance space? And without Barba's efforts, would the rare foreigners who made it to Opole before Barba's international PR campaign on Grotowski's behalf ever have made the master of Theater of 13 Rows world famous? Or would his only trace be found in obscure journals recording him as an oddity on the predictable Eastern European theater map of the time? Without Barba, would Grotowski ever have been able to perform his work outside Poland? I doubt it.
In 1962, the local authorities tolerated Grotowski because his theater had a miniscule capacity and played only sporadically, for sparse audiences. It was ignored by most critics and by more established theater artists. Unconventional spirits such as Tadeusz Kantor would not go near it. Grotowski himself was a provincial who spoke only Russian as a foreign language and...