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Jerzy Grotowski. L’eredità vivente

A gift of freedom from Grotowski and Kantor

Maria Pia Pagani


1Grotowski and Kantor, as Polish artists, succeeded in doing what no Russian colleague would even hope: to “use” the history of their homeland in XXth century, creating fundamental works for the worldwide theatre. While their Russian colleagues had to live into the boundaries of Soviet regime, they had a different possibility of expression and diffusion of their productions. This “conquer” of internalization was no simple nor immediate, and was the result of a complex strategy which considered in a nondirect, veiled manner, the tragic history of Polish-Jewish relations, the Holocaust and Auschwitz.

2A very interesting instrument to understand the deepest aspects of this strategy, is the monograph The Post-traumatic Theatre of Grotowski and Kantor. History and Holocaust in “Akropolis” and “Dead Class” by Magda Romanska (Emerson College, Boston). As a Polish born author living in the Unites States, her methodological approach combines a perfect knowledge of Polish cultural and literary tradition, and the reception of it abroad – also considering the problems of comprehension by foreign critics and spectators.

3Despite its international influence, Polish theatre remains a sort of “mystery” to many Westerners. This volume attempts to fill in various gaps in English-language scholarship, offering a historical and critical analysis of two of the most influential works of Polish theatre: Grotowski’s Akropolis and Kantor’s Dead Class. 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 – inside and outside their cultural and historical contexts.

4Auschwitz is part of the cultural competency and historical context essential for the comprehension of Grotowski’s and Kantor’s symbolic and visual language in Akropolis and Dead Class. It was an aspect of everyday life in Polish postwar culture: for Polish public, it was something of natural, in its tragic dimension. But the comprehension of this cultural framework is more complicate for the foreigners who have not researched this aspect of Holocaust experience.

5In her foreword, Kathleen Cioffi writes: «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».

6This volume, with its good illustrations and bibliography, invites and engages with many questions: how is theatrical meaning codified outside its cultural context? How is it codified within its cultural context? What affects the reception of a theatrical work? And, above all, how does theatre “make meaning”?

7Grotowski and Kantor wanted to respond to the trauma of the Holocaust, albeit through drastically different aesthetics (also in their “rivalry”, one was near to Stanislavsky while the other remained a disciple of Meyerhold). With and Akropolis and Dead Class, they gave a gift of freedom – from Wrocław and Cracow, to the world.

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