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  • Poland Takes Center Stage
  • Theresa Smalec (bio)
BOOK REVIEWED: Dariusz Kosiński, Performing Poland: Rethinking Histories and Theatres. Cardiff, UK: Performance Research Books, 2019.

In his ambitious, meticulously detailed study, Dariusz Kosiński argues persuasively that Polish identity “shapes itself to the most significant extent through drama and performances.” A professor of performance studies at Jagiellonian University, Krakow, and former research director of the Grotowski Institute in Wrocław, he uses historical research, both dramatic and political, to explain why theatre enabled the survival of “Polishness” throughout the three partitions of Poland (in 1772, 1793, and 1795), and the more than one hundred years when Poland ceased to exist as a sovereign state.

A chief strength of Performing Poland is its inclusions, which recall Richard Schechner’s “broad spectrum” approach to performance. The book consists of five parts: 1) Theatre of Festivities; 2) Theatre of Fundamental Questions; 3) National Theatre; 4) Political Theatre; and 5) Theatre of the Cultural Metropolis. Throughout the book, Kosiński studies not only traditional forms of theatre enacted on stage, but also the Polish year and its seasonal festivities, songs and orality, strikes and protests, national holidays, and key political events that various players (monarchs, generals, communists, labor leaders, and theatre directors) used to construct or revise specific versions of “Polishness.” The book’s chronology spans from ancient rural rituals to renowned performances of the nineteenth, twentieth, and twenty-first centuries.

Equally important are Kosiński’s exclusions. In an effort to describe and theorize a distinctly “Polish” performative mode, he opts “not to include those works that defined themselves as differing from dominant Polish culture (or a Polish culture that was aspiring to hegemony).” As such, Performing Poland prioritizes male writers, directors, and actors. Women and LGBTQ artists receive little attention precisely because these groups typically staged works contesting Poland’s patriarchal, heterosexual, and Roman Catholic norms. Curious, however, is [End Page 115] Kosiński’s rationale for excluding Polish Jews: “While many of them worked the realms of both Polish and Jewish culture (director Andrzej Marek—Marek Arnstein) or strongly influenced the Polish theatre of their time (Michal Weichert), I would consider including their work in the history of performing Poland as an unfair act of appropriation.” Given the depictions of Jews that recur in many Polish performances, or the many elements of Jewish theatre incorporated by the renowned Tadeusz Kantor, it is hard (at first) to understand why Kosiński draws this line in the sand.

Separating hegemony from the margins, “Polishness” from its Others, proves difficult from the start. In “Theatre of Festivities,” Kosiński pairs seasons of the Polish year with related socio-religious ceremonies. Raised by Polish parents, I vividly remember the rituals of Wigilia (Christmas Eve vigil), Wielkanoc (Christ’s resurrection), and Zaduszki (All Souls’ Day). By contrast, the tradition of Kolȩda (caroling performers visiting local homes between Christmas and Carnival) is stranger and more regionally diverse. In pre-Christian Poland, it initially featured live animals, later replaced by masks and puppets. Masked creatures gained permission to enter a home, showed off by jumping on the furniture, collapsed from exhaustion, then joyously returned to life. Kolȩda also performed racial Others. The figure of the Jew often featured “a huge hooked nose, a blatantly anti-Semitic stereotype.” Yet Kosiński argues that Kolȩda’s Jew was “also part of the community,” a “folk fool” who made fun of everyone, “particularly the proud and wealthy.” Meanwhile, the “female” Gypsy (portrayed by a man with a blackened face) targeted married Polish men, insisting the doll she clutched was their baby. These disturbing enactments of racial Otherness at once suggest unstable social and sexual boundaries. Jews could belong in a Polish village despite their visible differences, and Roma could be Poles’ taboo lovers.

In early chapters, Kosiński explores how Polish theatre differs from Euro-American theatre. In doing so, he upholds a lineage of famous male writers and directors: “We should proclaim loud and clear that Polish theatre is above all the theatre of Mickiewicz, Słowacki, Wysipiański, Osterwa, Limanowski, Grotowski, and Kantor.” Drawing on the scholarship of Małgorzata Dzienwulska and Leszek Kolankiewicz, Kosiński...


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pp. 115-118
Launched on MUSE
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