The Post-traumatic Theatre of Grotowski and Kantor: History and Holocaust in 'Akropolis' and 'Dead Class'

The Post-traumatic Theatre of Grotowski and Kantor: History and Holocaust in 'Akropolis' and 'Dead Class'


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Despite its international influence, Polish theatre remains a mystery to many Westerners. This volume attempts to fill in current gaps in English-language scholarship by offering a historical and critical analysis of two of the most influential works of Polish theatre: Jerzy Grotowski’s ‘Akropolis’ and Tadeusz Kantor’s ‘Dead Class’. By examining each director’s representation of Auschwitz, this study provides a new understanding of how translating national trauma through the prism of performance can alter and deflect the meaning and reception of theatrical works, both inside and outside of their cultural and historical contexts.

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780857285164
Publisher: Anthem Press
Publication date: 12/15/2012
Series: Anthem Studies in Theatre and Performance
Pages: 420
Product dimensions: 6.00(w) x 9.00(h) x 1.50(d)

About the Author

Educated at Stanford, Yale and Cornell, Magda Romanska is an award-winning writer, theatre scholar and dramaturg. She is a professor of theatre and dramaturgy at Emerson College in Boston, and a research associate at Harvard University’s Davis Center.

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The Post-traumatic Theatre of Grotowski and Kantor

History and Holocaust in Akropolis and The Dead Class

By Magda Romanska

Wimbledon Publishing Company

Copyright © 2012 Magda Romanska
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-0-85728-526-3



Born in 1933, Jerzy Grotowski graduated with a degree in acting from the State Schoolof Theatre in Cracow. He went on to pursue directing at the Lunacharsky Institute of Theatre Arts (GITIS) in Moscow, where he studied the acting and directing techniques of Stanislavsky, Vakhtangov, Meyerhold, and Tairov. After returning to Poland, Grotowski began working as a teaching assistant at the Theatre School in Cracow. He continued to study directing, and the year 1957 marked his directing debut with a production of Eugene Ionesco's The Chairs. In 1958, Grotowski directed a workshop production of Prosper Mérimée's The Devil Made a Woman, and a production of A Jinxed Family by Jerzy Kszyszton, a troubled and relatively unknown Polish playwright. Conceptualizing this early production, Grotowski not only changed the title to the Gods of Rain, but weaved in a number of other poetic and film texts, including lines from Polish poets and Shakespeare's Hamlet, as well as texts from contemporaneous media, such as newspaper articles. During those early theatrical experiments, Grotowski was interested in developing a unique directorial relationship to the script. An interview conducted on account of the opening of the Gods of Rain is one of the first records of Grotowski's emerging views on directing: "As far as the director's relationship to the dramatic text goes," Grotowski says, "I believe the text should only serve as a theme for the director, on the basis on which he should construct a brand new work of art, his spectacle." In the program notes to the production, Grotowski wrote: "To choose a play doesn't necessarily mean that one needs to agree with its author." The production was a breakthrough for Grotowski, insofar as he began to strongly believe that text should not bind a director. While in 1959 he wrote that "Theatre begins with a vision, one person's individual truth, the playwright's subjective vision," in his subsequent productions he slowly replaced the vision of the playwright with the vision of the director. Grotowski eventually came to believe that the traditional dramatic text should be the last and least considered element of a theatrical production, which needs its own language – its own autonomous text. Following this path, all of his productions were free adaptations and were appropriately labeled with the phrase "according to," beginning with the 1959 production of Uncle Vanya According to Anton Chekhov at the Old Theatre in Cracow.

At that time in the USA, Grotowski's loose treatment of text was considered revolutionary. It was, in fact,one of the main reasons why the New York theatre boheme embraced Grotowski's theatrical formula, considering it a beacon of progress in the battle between dated affectation – with the "literature of theater" – and the postmodern emphasis on "gesture and 'nonverbal communication'" as the primary mode of theatrical exchange. In Poland, however, Grotowski's strategy was quite common and, for number of reasons, it evoked varied critical responses. In 1962, in a review written on the occasion of the opening of Kordian, an anonymous critic praised the "linguistic and physical showmanship" of Grotowski's group, noting that "We can see here really hard work with the language, beautifully recited verses with phenomenal memorization, but still ... there is something off." (At that time, Grotowski began using text only for its melodic quality, disregarding the meanings of the words and sentences – text was nothing more than raw material for the training of the actor's vocal apparatus.) Following Grotowski's successes abroad, in 1967, Roger Planchon, a well-respected French theatre director, accused Grotowski of not being able to discern the specificity of dramatic language:

Grotowski's reputation rests on his one statement that text belongs to literature, not to theatre. We could, however, flip that argument. Grotowski argues that the essence of theatrical work lies outside of text. It's true that everything that has been written can be considered literature: Mallarme's poem, a silly marketing slogan, a newspaper article and an essay on Plato. We could, therefore, argue with Grotowski that he doesn't see the specific nature of a dramatic text. Since Sophocles, the playwrights have attempted to find a language that differs from that of poetry and epic (and from dance and pantomime). In other words, dramatic language/text always was, and continues to be, different from "literature."

Many Polish critics and theatre artists echoed Planchon's sentiments. In 1969, Adam Hanuszkiewicz, director of the National Theatre of Poland, for example, wryly noted that "Grotowski's attitude to the dramatic text is basically like a Mime's approach to the scenario of the story. For the Mime-actor of the Commedia dell'arte, centuries before Grotowski, the text had the value of a scenario." Like Planchon, Hanuszkiewicz was not impressed by Grotowski's method of free adaptation, considering it a dilettante's approach.

Hanuszkiewicz's dismissive gesture was partially prompted by the fact that the strategy of free adaptation wasn't particularly innovative in Poland at that time. In fact, to varying degrees, it was a very conventional way to direct. The majority of Polish national dramas written in the nineteenth and the early twentieth centuries were written without any intention of ever being staged – because the government would not allow them to be staged. Most were political in nature, and there was simply no possibility that any theatre in partitioned Poland would be permitted to produce them, whether under Prussian, Russian, or even the most lenient of the three, Austro-Hungarian, censorship. Tymon Terlecki suggests that Romantic drama was "intimately linked with the theater of its era. These works were not Buchdrama or Lesedrama. They became such, in time, out of a spirit of contradiction and opposition, out of necessity, out of desperation that they would never be produced on stage." Jan Klossowicz confirms that, due to necessity, Romantic drama "came into being entirely outside the theatre and reached the theatre stage only in the 20th century." Daniel Gerould rightly notices that the unique situation of Polish Romantic drama evolved from its peculiar political situation; all three, Mickiewicz, Slowacki, and Krasinski, wrote their plays in exile, never expecting them to be performed. They wrote plays "for a theatre that existed only in the imagination of its authors and designed to transcend the bounds of reality and the prosaic stage that imitated it."

Often these dramas more closely resemble poetry than dramatic works (for that reason they are sometimes refered to as "dramatic poems"). Thus, irrespective of political issues, there are also practical considerations; the Wagnerian grandeur and syncretic structure of the Polish Romantic dramas make them challenging for the stage. Mickiewicz himself wrote that "We should not expect to see a Slavic drama realized on the stage in the near future, for no theatre would suffice to present [it]." Since these plays were not staged in their time, no one really knows the true staging intentions of their authors. As a result, following the regaining of independence in 1918, the interwar Polish directors who attempted to stage any of the canonical works from the Romantic period didn't feel the need to stay true to the text. To quote Jan Kott: "It was very characteristic of the theatre in the interwar period to use the text of even the great classics merely as raw material." Thus, as Kathleen Cioffi points out, due to the historical circumstances, the Polish tradition of free adaptation evolved "into a more avant-garde form than [was] typically seen in Anglophone theatre." Simultaneously, there was an increasing emphasis on the role of "the director as auteur of a theatrical production." The interwar Polish theatre artists believed that "the director/theatre artists should have absolute control of their productions extended to the text itself, and therefore they often wrote their own adaptations both of prose and even of plays that had already been written." Such an approach, which became known as free-directing, was especially promoted by Leon Schiller, a Polish theatre and film director, theoretician and critic, founder of the directing department at the National Theatre Arts Institute, and the artistic director of Warsaw's Great Theatre. Himself influenced by Gordon Craig, Schiller is often considered the father of modern Polish theatre, and his approach to directing has influenced future generations immensely. As Kathleen Cioffi notes:

Schiller represents the main Polish link between the Great Reformers from the prewar period to the postwar tendency to adapt. He had personally known Gordon Craig, had worked with Craig on his journal, The Mask, and had organized an exhibition of Craig's stage designs in Warsaw. In fact, he wholeheartedly adopted Craig's notion of the director as "theatre artist" who is the "author" of the theatrical production rather than the mere interpreter of the playwright's work. As Korcelli mentions, Schiller was especially fond of adapting others' texts for the stage.

Describing the training of young directors advocated by Schiller, Kazimierz Braum points out that the student director was trained "to control all the elements of the performance, to be the sole and unique 'author of the production' who creates all aspects of the piece. This control began with the text, he or she had to learn how to make adaptations, directorial versions of the classics, cuts, etc." In the 1920s and 1930s, Schiller himself directed a number of grand, visionary and often cubist productions in the style of Eisenstein and Reinhardt. Schiller's training, combined with the tradition of free adaptation, permeated Polish theatre, establishing the standard way of approaching the dramatic text. As Konstanty Puzyna notes: "After World War II, and especially after 1955, the Schillerian tradition – at least as a model – became compelling even in provincial theatres."

Following World War II, under the Soviet regime, the great Romantic dramas were, again, considered a political liability due to their strong liberatory themes. Under the circumstances, the role of the director was then not just to make theatrical sense of what were essentially untheatrical texts, but also to say things between the lines that were censored in public discourse. Raymond Temkine poignantly describes the situation:

[T]he plays performed most often [in today's Poland] are those of the great Romantics of the nineteenth century, Mickiewicz, Slowacki, the poets of emigration, who came to Paris to escape the Tsarist oppression. Written rather freely and without the slightest consideration for theatrical conventions, these playlets, today, have turned into remarkable dramatic vehicles, capable of seducing both directors as well as the most outspoken members of the avant-garde.

It is only natural that, during communism, the tradition initiated by Schiller combined with the need to navigate one's way through the minefield of strict political censorship only further strengthened the position of director. In fact, the position of director became much stronger than that of playwright. "Our directors have killed our playwrights," one dramaturg noted many years later.

Due to the historical circumstances, the necessary laissez-faire approach to theatrical texts has been quintessential to Polish directors for many years, and Grotowski's voice, though loudest of them all, wasn't all that revolutionary in the context of the entire Polish theatre scene of his era. On the contrary, his experiments very much conformed to the prevailing theatrical conventions. From the American perspective, however, Grotowski's approach appeared innovative and revelatory. Dominated by realist, kitchen-sink dramas, American theatre of the postwar period lacked a strong avant-garde tradition, so anything that moved beyond the traditional, realist convention of verisimilitude to the dramatic text appeared to be a theatrical breakthrough. Ironically, in Poland today, many young artists consider Grotowski's approach to the text to be too conservative. For example, Igor Krentz, a member of the performative group Azzoro, made this telling, offhand remark in 2009: "Grotowski treated text as a point of departure. That's very different from the performative arts that don't use literature at all."

Regardless of how innovative Grotowski was, or was not, in his treatment of the texts he chose to use, his directorial palette – though international in scope – was strongly rooted in the Polish national canon, and tightly bound by its native historical, social and political context. In 1959, Grotowski wrote: "I consider those who claim that we should embrace foreign texts because Polish drama is poor and inadequate to be nothing more than demagogues." Although later on he ventured outside of the Polish canon, rendering the works of, among others, Cocteau, Calderón, and Kalidasa, the foundation of Grotowski's oeuvre rests firmly on the Polish dramatic tradition. It is a fact that is hard to escape, but which has been customarily ignored by American avant-garde circles, which readily dismiss the rich textual and contextual framework of Grotowski's direction. As Temkine puts it, "Jerzy Grotowski is Polish and strongly rooted to his origins. So are those who surround him. The tendency to forget that causes misunderstandings." By 1972, when Temkine's book was published in English, the American reception of Grotowski had already generated layers of misreadings around his work.

In 1959, Grotowski moved to Opole to become the artistic director of the Thirteen Row Theatre. At the same time, Ludwik Flaszen assumed the title of literary director. The Thirteen Row Theatre had been founded a year earlier, in 1958, by Stanislaw Lopuszanski and Eugeniusz Lawski. Both men came from the Jan Kochanowski Theatre, at that time Opole's one and only state owned and operated theatre. The leadership transition from Lawski to Grotowski was difficult, with Lawski's proponents resisting the theatre's new management and artistic direction. The small provincial city of Opole was hardly an artistic mecca in 1959; Grotowski's reasons for moving there were a source of both speculation and ridicule. One of Grotowski's earliest critics, Jan Pawel Gawlik, wrote sarcastically of one of Grotowski's early productions:

Grotowski's method is a method of blackmail with "hipness," supported by loud and overwhelming self-promotion. [...] If Grotowski were to only try his experiments in a private theatrical space, without his annoying self-promotion and advertising, the risks would be minimal; it would be hisprivate artistic risk. But since he promotes himself as the official artistic director of the "professional experimental theatre" in Opole, a city that is both culturally important and neglected – it ceases to be a private matter.


Excerpted from The Post-traumatic Theatre of Grotowski and Kantor by Magda Romanska. Copyright © 2012 Magda Romanska. Excerpted by permission of Wimbledon Publishing Company.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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Table of Contents

Foreword by Kathleen Cioffi; Preface; Acknowledgments; List of Illustrations; Introduction; PART 1. OUR AUSCHWITZ: GROTOWSKI’S ‘AKROPOLIS’; Chapter 1. Grotowski:  A Very Short Introduction; Chapter 2. Native Son: Grotowski in Poland; Chapter 3. Grotowski: The Polish Context; Chapter 4. Grotowski, the Messiah: Coming to America; Chapter 5. The Making of an Aura; Chapter 6. “On Not Knowing Polish”; Chapter 7. “In Poland: That is to Say Nowhere”; Chapter 8.  ‘Akropolis’ /Necropolis; Chapter 9. The Vision and the Symbol; Chapter 10. “This Drama as Drama Cannot Be Staged”; Chapter 11. Two National Sacrums; Chapter 12. “Hollow Sneering Laughter”: Mourning the Columbuses; Chapter 13. Against Heroics; Chapter 14. Representing the Unrepresentable; Chapter 15. Trip to the Museum; Chapter 16. Bearing the Unbearable; Chapter 17. The Living and the Dead; Chapter 18. Jacob’s Burden; Chapter 19. The Final Descent; Chapter 20. Textual Transpositions; Chapter 21. ‘Akropolis’ After Grotowski; PART 2. OUR MEMORY: KANTOR’S ‘DEAD CLASS’; Chapter 1. Tadeusz Kantor: A Very Short Introduction; Chapter 2. ‘Dead Class’: The Making of the Legend; Chapter 3. ‘Dead Class’ in Poland; Chapter 4. The Polish History Lesson; Chapter 5. ‘Dead Class’ Abroad; Chapter 6. On Not Knowing Polish, Again; Chapter 7. The Visual and the Puerile; Chapter 8. The National and the Trans-National; Chapter 9. Witkiewicz’s ‘Tumor’; Chapter 10. An Age of Genius: Bruno Schulz and the Return to Childhood; Chapter 11. Conversing with Gombrowicz:  The Dead, the Funny, the Sacred and the Profane; Chapter 12. Panirony: “A pain with a smile and a shrug”; Chapter 13. Raising the Dead; Chapter 14. ‘Dead Class’ as Kaddish…; Chapter 15. ‘Dead Class’ as ‘Dybbuk’, or the Absence; Chapter 16. The Dead and the Marionettes; Chapter 17. Men and Objects; Chapter 18. ‘Dead Class’ as ‘The Forefathers’ Eve’; Chapter 19. ‘Dead Class’: The Afterlife; Postscript; Appendix; Bibliography; Index

What People are Saying About This

From the Publisher

“A brilliant cross-disciplinary comparative analysis that joins a new path in theatre studies, revitalizing the artistic heritage of two great twentieth-century masters: Tadeusz Kantor and Jerzy Grotowski.” —Professor Antonio Attisani, Department of Humanities, University of Turin

“Among the landmarks of postwar avant-garde theatre, two Polish works stand out: Grotowski’s ‘Akropolis’ and Kantor’s ‘Dead Class.’ Magda Romanska scrupulously corrects misconceptions about these crucial works, bringing to light linguistic elements ignored by Anglophone critics and an intense engagement with the Holocaust very often overlooked by their Polish counterparts. This is vital and magnificently researched theatre scholarship, at once alert to history and to formal experiment. Romanska makes two pieces readers may think they know newly and urgently legible.” —Martin Harries, author of “Forgetting Lot’s Wife: On Destructive Spectatorship,” University of California, Irvine

“As someone who teaches and researches in the areas of Polish film and theatre – and European theatre/theatre practice/translation more broadly – I was riveted by the book. I couldn’t put it down. There is no such extensive comparative study of the work of the two practitioners that offers a sustained and convincing argument for this. The book is ‘leading edge.’ Romanska has the linguistic and critical skills to develop the arguments in question and the political contexts are in general traced at an extremely sophisticated level. This is what lends the writing its dynamism.” —Dr Teresa Murjas, Director of Postgraduate Research, Department of Film, Theatre and Television, University of Reading

“This is a lucidly and even beautifully written book that convincingly argues for a historically and culturally contextualized understanding of Grotowski’s and Kantor’s performances. It should be required reading in any introduction to performance and theater studies course. I am convinced that this will not only be the book on each of the two directors but also and especially the only one that manages to develop a framework allowing a discussion of both men and their performances together. In other words, this will be the book on the subject the author set out to explore. It’s very rare that one can say that about any book!” —Dr Anne Rothe, Department of Classical and Modern Languages, Literatures, and Cultures, Wayne State University

“In this authoritative study of two masterworks of twentieth-century theatre, Magda Romanska does more than offer astute close readings. Prying open the suffocating embrace of universalism in which Grotowski and Kantor have long been held, she restores their literary, historical, national, and aesthetic contexts. Thanks to her, two of the world’s the most influential, important and celebrated theatre artists will no longer also be among the least understood.” —Professor Alisa Solomon, Director, Arts and Culture MA Program, Graduate School of Journalism, Columbia University

“Every page speaks volumes to the breadth of Romanska’s readings and the number of sources she has used to bring both works into their multiple contexts. From the perspective of its potential use as course material, the in-depth exploration of some of the links that have been missing in Western criticism and scholarship is particularly valuable.” —Professor Tamara Trojanowska, Department of Slavic Languages and Literature, University of Toronto

‘This volume unpacks the multiple layers of meaning in two of the most acclaimed theatre productions of the twentieth century, Grotowski’s ‘Akropolis’ and Kantor’s ‘Dead Class’. Romanska reclaims both the Polishness and the Jewishness of Grotowski’s and Kantor’s chefs-d’oeuvres… and untangles the strands of meaning in their work in a most impressive way, thus helping us to fully understand their achievement.’ —from the Foreword by Kathleen Cioffi

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