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The Post-traumatic Theatre of Grotowski and Kantor


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420 Pages


A historical and critical analysis of the post-traumatic theatre of Grotowski and Kantor, examining the ways they represent Auschwitz in their respective pivotal works ‘Akropolis’ and ‘Dead Class’.

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.

Foreword by Kathleen Cioffi; Preface; Acknowledgments; List of Illustrations; Introduction; PART I: OUR AUSCHWITZ: GROTOWSKI’S “AKROPOLIS”; Chapter 1: Jerzy 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; ILLUSTRATIONS; PART II: OUR MEMORY: KANTOR’S “DEAD CLASS”; Chapter 22: Tadeusz Kantor: A Very Short Introduction; Chapter 23: “Dead Class”: The Making of the Legend; Chapter 24: “Dead Class” in Poland; Chapter 25: The Polish History Lesson; Chapter 26: “Dead Class” Abroad; Chapter 27: On Not Knowing Polish, Again; Chapter 28: The Visual and the Puerile; Chapter 29: The National and the Transnational; Chapter 30: Witkiewicz’s Tumor; Chapter 31: An Age of Genius: Bruno Schulz and the Return to Childhood; Chapter 32: Conversing with Gombrowicz: The Dead, the Funny, the Sacred and the Profane; Chapter 33: Panirony: “A pain with a smile and a shrug”; Chapter 34: Raising the Dead; Chapter 35: “Dead Class” as Kaddish…; Chapter 36: “Dead Class” as “Dybbuk,” or the Absence; Chapter 37: The Dead and the Marionettes; Chapter 38: Men and Objects; Chapter 39: “Dead Class” as “Forefathers’ Eve”; Chapter 40: “Dead Class”: The Afterlife; Postscript; Appendix: Table 1. Chronology of Events; Table 2. Comparison between Wyspiański’s “Akropolis” and “Genesis”; Table 3. Comparison between Grotowski and Kantor; Notes; Bibliography; Index 



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Published 15 December 2012
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The Posttraumatic Theatre of Grotowski and Kantor
Advance Reviews
“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 TurinHumanities, University of
“Among the landmarks of postwar avantgarde theatre, two Polish works stand out: Grotowski’s Akropolis and Kantor’sDead 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.” “Forgetting Lot’s Wife: On Destructive Spectatorship,”Martin Harries, author of 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.” Postgraduate Research, Department of Film,Dr Teresa Murjas, Director of 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!” Classical and Modern Languages,Dr Anne Rothe, Department of 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.” SlavicProfessor Tamara Trojanowska, Department of Languages and Literature, University of Toronto
The Posttraumatic Theatre of Grotowski and Kantor
History and Holocaust inAkropolisandThe Dead Class
Anthem Press An imprint of Wimbledon Publishing Company www.anthempress.com
This edition first published in UK and USA 2012 by ANTHEM PRESS 7576 Blackfriars Road, London SE1 8HA, UK or PO Box 9779, London SW19 7ZG, UK and 244 Madison Ave. #116, New York, NY 10016, USA
Copyright © Magda Romanska 2012
The author asserts the moral right to be identified as the author of this work.
All rights reserved. Without limiting the rights under copyright reserved above, no part of this publication may be reproduced, stored or introduced into a retrieval system, or transmitted, in any form or by any means (electronic, mechanical, photocopying, recording or otherwise), without the prior written permission of both the copyright owner and the above publisher of this book.
British Library CataloguinginPublication Data A catalogue record for this book is available from the British Library.
Library of Congress CataloginginPublication Data Romanska, Magda. The posttraumatic theatre of Grotowski and Kantor : history and Holocaust in Akropolis and The dead class / Magda Romanska. pages cm Includes bibliographical references and index. ISBN 9780857285164 (hardback : alk. paper) 1. Grotowski, Jerzy, 19331999–Criticism and interpretation. 2. Kantor, Tadeusz, 19151990–Criticism and interpretation. 3. Holocaust, Jewish (1939–1945), in art. 4. Theater–Poland–History–20th century. 5. Experimental theater. I. Title. PN2859.P66R66 2012 792’.0233’092–dc23 2012041201
ISBN13: 978 0 85728 516 4 (Hbk) ISBN10: 0 85728 516 5 (Hbk)
This title is also available as an eBook.
Foreword by Kathleen CiofPrefaceAcknowledgmentsList of Illustrations
Part I Our Auschwitz: Grotowski’sAkropolisChapter 1 Jerzy 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 8Akropolis/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 21AkropolisAfter Grotowski Illustrations
vii xi xiii xv
49 57 62 73 82 86 90 93 95 104 107 111 119 122 126 129 136 141 147 150 152 157
Part II Our Memory: Kantor’sDead Class Chapter 22 Tadeusz Kantor: A Very Short Introduction Chapter 23Dead Classthe Legend: The Making of Chapter 24Dead Classin Poland Chapter 25 The Polish History Lesson Chapter 26Dead ClassAbroad Chapter 27 On Not Knowing Polish, Again Chapter 28 The Visual and the Puerile Chapter 29 The National and the Transnational Chapter 30 Witkiewicz’s TumorChapter 31 An Age of Genius: Bruno Schulz and the Return to Childhood Chapter 32 Conversing with Gombrowicz: The Dead, the Funny, the Sacred and the Profane Chapter 33 Panirony: “A pain with a smile and a shrug” Chapter 34 Raising the Dead Chapter 35Dead Classas Kaddish… Chapter 36Dead ClassasDybbuk, or the Absence Chapter 37 The Dead and the Marionettes Chapter 38 Men and Objects Chapter 39Dead ClassasForefathers’ Eve Chapter 40Dead Class: The Afterlife
Appendix Table 1. Chronology of Events  Table 2. Comparison between Wyspiański’sAkropolisandGenesis  Table 3. Comparison between Grotowski and Kantor
185 193 196 199 201 204 209 212 215
238 244 252 256 260 262 267 274 280
286 289 291
Kathleen Ciof
This book unpacks the multiple layers of meaning in two of the most acclaimed theatre productions of the twentieth century: Jerzy Grotowski’sAkropolisand Tadeusz Kantor’s Umarła klasa[The Dead Class]. We not only get an unusually informed close reading of Grotowski’s and Kantor’s masterworks, but also one that situates these productions and their creators firmly in their literary, historical and political contexts. Too often, nonPolish theatre historians and critics, as Romanska points out, ignore the Polish aspects of Grotowski’s and Kantor’s theatres and construct their own deracinated meanings, while declaring that their inability to understand Polish does not matter. Meanwhile, Polish theatre historians and critics have often ignored the Jewish aspects of these productions, in part because it was once politically dangerous not to do so. The Posttraumatic Theatre of Grotowski and Kantorreclaims both the Polishness and the Jewishness of Grotowski’s and Kantor’schefsd’œuvre. In the case of Grotowski, his own compatriots rejected his work early on, in part because his adaptations of the muchloved classics of Polish Romantic and neo Romantic dramatic literature often conflicted with what the texts were meant to say. As early as 1958, Grotowski approvingly quoted Vsevelod Meyerhold in program notes for an early production: “To choose a play doesn’t necessarily mean that one needs 1 to agree with its author.” This attitude when applied to Polish classics amounted to blasphemy – for Polish intellectuals a much worse blasphemy than the explicitly anti Catholic mockery of Grotowski’s productions. Still, one of the primary sources of Grotowski’s artistry was what Romanska calls “the Polish national canon”: that is, the Polish Romantics and the neoRomantic Stanisław Wyspiański. Only someone who was deeply steeped in knowledge of these Polish classics (not to mention in knowledge of Catholic dogma) could blaspheme against them as thoroughly as Grotowski did. However, this led to a situation where for many years Grotowski’s work was only esteemed by those who did not fully understand it. With Kantor, things were just the opposite. Polish critics generally valued his aesthetic in a way that they did not value Grotowski’s. In fact, Kantor was praised for being not selfconsciously avantgarde, not pompous, and not incapable of laughing at himself – in other words, for not being Grotowski. Foreigners also lauded Kantor, but they were introduced to him much later in his career than they were to Grotowski: Kantor’s troupe, Cricot 2, started appearing abroad only in the 1970s,
over 20 years after they first started performing in Cracow, whereas Grotowski’s Laboratory Theatre had already had their heyday both in Poland and in the West by the end of the 1960s. Moreover, where Grotowski has had a huge influence abroad, Kantor remains to this day much less known outside of Poland. The difference in the Polish reception of the two directors’ work can in part be chalked up to politics. In order to do the work that he wanted to do, Grotowski practiced what Seth Baumrin has called “ketmanship,” meaning the art of paying lip service to 2 the powerful while being secretly opposed to them. For example, Grotowski joined the Communist Party, and he even insisted that his actors become members, so that if the powersthatbe wanted to liquidate the theatre, they would be dissolving a party cell. Although this tactic, and other skillful manipulations of the political apparatus, did indeed gain the Laboratory Theatre a measure of artistic freedom, Grotowski was perceived by many fellow Poles as someone who collaborated with the regime. Kantor, on the other hand, not only refused to collaborate, but he also managed to establish Cricot 2 completely independent of the system for state subsidies for theatre and art – not an easy task in communist Poland. Moreover, Kantor was respected as a member of the heroic generation who actually took part in underground activities during World War II, while Grotowski was still a child during the war. Politics also influenced the Polish acknowledgment, or lack thereof, of Jewish content in the works of both Grotowski and Kantor. As Romanska amply illustrates, Polish critics and audiences found Kantor’s evocation of the now lost, mixed Jewish and Catholic world of his childhood village inThe Dead Classdeeply moving, but did not mention the Jewish imagery that causes it to be affecting. In Grotowski’s case, in his stagings of two Wyspiański plays,Akropolis(first version, 1962) andStudium o Hamlecie [A Study of Hamlet] (1964), both were given Jewish slants: Grotowski’sAkropolis was set in Auschwitz, and his Hamlet was a Jew. AlthoughStudium o Hamlecienever officially premiered, both Polish theatre historians and Laboratory Theatre actors have suggested that it would never have passed censorship because of its depiction of the royal court as communist authorities persecuting the Jewish Hamlet. And, although AkropolisGrotowski’s productions, Grotowskihad a better reception than most of was still considered to have blasphemed against both the Polish and Jewish “national 3 sacrums” by portraying Auschwitz prisoners as nonheroes. The differing foreign and Polish responses to Grotowski and Kantor can also be attributed to the fact that, whereas Grotowski was always more interested in transmitting his working methods than he was in creating productions, Kantor’s interests lay in expressing his own artistic vision. Theatre historian AndrzejŻurowski writes that Kantor’s theatre “is a ‘separate theatre,’ a ‘lonely theatre,’ around which 4 one can see no meaningful movement, school, or following.” Grotowski, on the other hand, generated a stream of followers, both in Poland and abroad. These followers, whom I have elsewhere characterized as inhabiting an artistic territory that I call 5 “Grotland,” are influenced by various stages of Grotowski’s work, from the theatrical period that Romanska deals with here (the socalled Theatre of Productions phase) through the Paratheatre, Theatre of Sources, Objective Drama, and Art as Vehicle phases. They range from people who worked directly with Grotowski during one or
another of these phases (e.g. Helena Guardia and Nicolás Núñez, of the Taller de Investigación Teatral UNAM in Mexico) to people who worked with collaborators of Grotowski’s (e.g. Jarosław Fret of Teatr ZAR, and the Grotowski Institute in Poland). They emphasize various strands of Grotowski’s work in their own productions, whether it be the physical exercises that Grotowski developed with the Laboratory Theatre actors, or the ancient songs that he explored with Thomas Richards and Mario Biagini at the Workcenter of Jerzy Grotowski in Italy. As director Richard Schechner writes, 6 “Grotowski’s influence and importance is deep, wide, abiding, and growing.” Through the work of Schechner, Richards, Biagini, Fret, and other Grotlanders all over the world, this Grotowski influence shows no sign of abating. However, althoughŻurowski’s point about Kantor’s “separateness” is well taken, and he certainly cannot be said to have established any kind of movement or school, his influence – both on theatre practitioners and performance artists within and outside Poland – has not been negligible. For example, in a 2011 blog entry about the Warsaw production of Tadeusz Słobodzianek’s playNasza klasa[Our Class], director Blanka Zizka writes that she noticed “that the set [was] purposefully reminiscent of Tadeusz 7 Kantor’s famous production ofDead Class.” Moreover, in October 2011 at New York’s Martin E. Segal Theatre Center, in a meeting with Krzysztof Garbaczewski and Marcin Cecko, two representatives of the newest generation of Polish theatre artists, the young men claimed Kantor as an inspiration, particularly for their productionsOdysseyand The Sexual Life of Savages. And in an upcoming issue ofPolish Theatre Perspectives, artists as diverse as the American Robert Wilson, the Italian Romeo Castellucci and the 8 Belgian Jan Fabre, among others, write pieces about what Kantor has meant to them. Although Michal Kobialka – in a session on Grotowski and Kantor that I attended at New York University – lamented that Kantor was unlikely to be celebrated during the anniversary of his death in 2010 with anything like the number of lectures, conferences, panel discussions and theatre festivals held in celebration of Grotowski during the Year of Grotowski in 2009, Kantor is perhaps no longer as lonely as he once seemed to be. Since fascination with both Grotowski and Kantor continues to grow, this book is all the more welcome. Romanska shows thatAkropolisandDead Classare more than just impressive displays of Grotowski’s “dialectics of apotheosis and derision” and Kantor’s iconoclastic imagery. They are works rooted in and inspired by other works of Polish literature: the intertextuality between the source texts and Grotowski’s and Kantor’s uses of them in part shapes the meanings ofAkropolisandDead Class. Romanska’s descriptions of the works of Wyspiański and Tadeusz Borowski that inspiredAkropolis, and the works of Witold Gombrowicz and Bruno Schulz that inspiredDead Class,are therefore crucially important for us to be aware of. Similarly, Romanska demonstrates how various other historical, political, and personal factors played into the devising of these performances, as well their reception. Grotowski and Kantor are two of the most significant theatre artists of the twentieth century; this book untangles the strands of meaning in their work in a most impressive way, and thus helps us to fully understand their achievement.