The Devils of Loudun. Adapted by Matt Mitler from the Book by Aldous Huxley. Theatre Group Dzieci, La Mama E.t.c., New York. 11 January 2003.
Jerzy Grotowski's theatrical offspring are numerous: they include nearly all of the surprisingly abundant alternative theatre companies in Poland, in addition to groups and individual artists in England, Italy, Taiwan, the United States, and probably elsewhere in the world. Theatre Group Dzieci (the word means "children" in Polish) is part of this far-flung family. The director of the group, Matt Mitler, studied with Grotowski in Poland in the 1970s, as well as later in New York with Grotowski's lead actor—Richard Cieslak. Grotowski's legacy is evident in the group's production of The Devils of Loudun, which had its world premiere at La MaMa in January 2003. The style of the production, the methodology of the adaptation, and the thematic preoccupations of the piece all reflect Grotowski's influence, especially his wish that the theatre be a place where something sacred happens.
The production is based on Aldous Huxley's historical treatise (originally published in 1952), which recounts a fascinating case that took place in seventeenth-century France, during the reign of Louis XIII and his prime minister, Cardinal Rich-elieu. The events occurred during the same time period as those in the fictional Three Musketeers, but the tale Huxley relates is a far darker and more complex one. A group of Ursuline nuns in the city of Loudun led by their Prioress, Sister Jeanne des Anges, began en masse to exhibit symptoms of what we would nowadays call schizophrenia. The church officially declared them to be possessed, and they were exhibited in public exorcisms. The nuns accused a local pastor, Father Urbain Grandier, whom they had never met but who was known to have seduced several women in the parish, of causing their possession. Grandier was tried, tortured, and burnt at the stake, even though at the time many believed him to be innocent. Dzieci, like other artists including Ken Russell and Krzystof [End Page 708] [Begin Page 710] Penderecki, was attracted to this account because of its inherent dualities—truth versus falsehood, sanity versus madness, sin versus redemption.
Dzieci treats the narrative in a very Grotowskian manner. Just as Grotowski's last production—Apocalypis cum Figuris (1969)—used a textual montage of various sources, The Devils of Loudun uses a variety of texts, including some from Milton, Goethe, Donne, Martin Luther, Swami Viveka-nanda, Baudelaire, and the Bible. Mitler (the director, designer, adapter, and actor of the role of Grandier) and music director Bob Strock create a churchlike atmosphere, complete with dim lighting supplemented by votive candles placed on the floor and much choral singing of liturgical music. Yet, just as in Grotowski's theatre pieces, the sacredness is blasphemed against: we see the priest Grandier seduce young women and Cardinal Richelieu transformed into the devil himself. The production strives, through these juxtapositions, to create what Grotowski called (in Towards a Poor Theatre) the "dialectic of mockery and apotheosis."
This dialectic is particularly evident in the production's treatment of Grandier as a Jesus figure in a spiritual battle with Satan/Cardinal Richelieu (played by Johnny Melville). Though Grandier's sins are touched upon, the production becomes a kind of ritualized passion play depicting his martyrdom by the forces of evil. This is something of a departure from Huxley's book, which takes care to describe in exhaustive detail the mostly petty motivations of Grandier's enemies and makes clear that, while involved, Richelieu was by no means the chief instigator of the plot against the priest. Grandier, a garden-variety lecher only somewhat ennobled by the ordeal he had to go through, makes a poor candidate for the archetypal sacrificial hero treatment that Cieslak gave to the Simpleton in Apocalypsis cum Figuris or Fernando in The Constant Prince. The character who fascinates Huxley more than Grandier is Sister Jeanne, a woman who whips her entire convent into an orgy of demonic role-playing, and then later in life plays another role—that of a living saint complete with stigmata and healing powers. Although the Prioress (played by Yvonne Brecht) is certainly not a minor character in this production, the focus on Grandier's martyrdom leaves little time for an exploration of her intriguingly warped psyche.
Whether because of the decision to make Grandier rather than Jeanne the
focus of the story, or simply because the actors in Dzieci have yet to
achieve the status of Grotowski's "holy actors" capable of superhuman
feats of self-exposure, the production does not succeed in creating the
level of revelatory sacred theatre to which it aspires. Nevertheless,
the very fact that Dzieci has started on a journey toward realizing
these aspirations is impressive. For Mitler and Dzieci, as for
Grotowski, the process is more important than the product, and no
production is ever finished—thus The Devils of Loudun
will probably have further incarnations. That the company regularly
trains as an ensemble is evident in the skillful use of their bodies and
voices. They also regularly conduct Grotowskian paratheatrical workshops
that explore the ability to use theatre as a vehicle or a path toward
self-realization. Gro-towski's work always had a kind of psychotherapeutic
strand, and, in addition to creating performances with Dzieci, Mitler
(who originally studied psychology) also brings the group to mental
hospitals and other institutions to do a kind of theatre therapy with
the patients. According to Mitler, this work keeps the group grounded
and focused on approaching art as a work of service. Although the troupe
may not yet have created Grotowski's total act in the theatre, their
use of Grotowski's training methods and pursuit of his philosophical
aims definitely bears further watching.