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Jerzy Grotowski. L’eredità vivente

Grotowski and Kantor. Theatre and theory1

Magda Romanska

Texte intégral

  • 1 M. Romanska, The post-traumatic theatre of Grotowski and Kantor. History and holocaust in “Akropol (...)
  • 2 Robert L. Nelson’s Germans, Poland, and Colonial Expansion to the East: 1850 through the Present ( (...)
  • 3 See, for example, D. Skorczewski, Modern Polish Literature Through a Postcolonial Lens, «The Sarma (...)

1Since 1989, there has been a significant shift in the field of Slavic studies, from the purely historiographic research favored for many years, to critical theory, including a broader, interdisciplinary view of Central and Eastern European history, now being reexamined through the prism of trauma studies and postcolonial theory, with particular emphasis on the cultural hybridity of Polish national identity2. The shift, which began in historical research, has affected the field of literary studies as well3. As Halina Filipowicz notes,

  • 4 H. Filipowicz, Mickiewicz: ‘East’ and ‘West’, «Slavic and East European Journal», 45, n. 4 (Winter (...)

profound disciplinary change has occurred in the field of literary studies (including one of its subfields, Slavic studies) in [the USA,] and has forced us to redefine and adjust the tools of our inquiry. What has changed in the last decades is, for example, the breadth and intensity of an interest in the internationalization of literary studies. It is not merely that the language of literary studies has changed – as documented by the popularity of such terms as “border crossing,” “crosscultural,” “diaspora,” “hybridity,” “imagined communities,” and “nomadism” – but also that many of its procedures have been or are being adjusted. One of the consequences of this seismic shift is the realization that all national traditions are plural rather than singular, that they are heterogeneous, even polyvocal, and hence to understand them requires the use of methods from across a wide range of fields4.

  • 5 See for example, K. Jasiewicz, Niepogrzebani ludzie, umarłe miasteczka, in Świat Niepoẓegnany, Ẓyd (...)
  • 6 For example, the 2008 documentary The Soviet Story, based on ten years of archival research and re (...)

2This shift in Slavic studies has led to a much deeper, more complex, and subtle understanding of Polish-Jewish history and relations5. As more archival documents are unveiled, we learn more and more about how these relationships are influenced by the Stalinist6 and Nazi regimes; how they are influenced by centuries of partitions, World War II and, finally, Cold War Middle East politics. Between 1772 and 1989, Poland was an independent nation for exactly 21 years (from 1918 to 1939); as Polish-Jewish relationships evolved throughout the centuries, they developed under partitions and eventually in the shadow of two of Europe’s most murderous totalitarian powers – Russia and Germany. As Edward Lucas points out, Polish-Russian relations, for example, are marked by such a long history that pathological trauma is inevitable. Lucas writes:

From the partitions of Poland in the late 18th century to the crushing of the 1863 uprising against Tsarist autocracy, to the Red Army’s march on the infant Second Republic (foiled by the Miracle of the Vistula in 1920), to the Molotov-Ribbentrop Pact of 1939 which divided Poland between the Nazi and Soviet empires, to the Katyń massacre in 1940 and the Soviet-backed imposition of martial law in 1981 – the list is so long and so tragic that pathological historical trauma seems the normal and inevitable response7.

3The most common and effective strategy of a totalitarian regime is to inflame the internal ethnic tensions, scapegoating groups against each other and drawing attention from the regime’s own agenda. As Fatouros famously wrote on account of Sartre’s essay on colonialism:

  • 8 A.A. Fatouros, Sartre on colonialism, «World Politics», 17, n. 4 (July 1965), p. 703.

The colonial system is led by its own internal necessity to corrupt and demoralize the colonized, to impoverish them, to destroy their social structures and disrupt their social relationships8.

4Although the postcolonial approach does not answer all of the questions, it provides a multilayered and nuanced understanding of the historical circumstances that have surrounded centuries of Polish-Jewish relations. To quote a recent essay:

  • 9 K. Kolata - B. Pieta - I. Stup, Never again? Contemporary anti-semitism and representations of Jew (...)

As the demons of Absolutism, Nationalism, Fascism and Communism raged in Europe, Poland was particularly stricken. Jews and Poles were pitted against each other, causing great suffering. This history has left us today with a set of unresolved problems, but for the first time, these issues can be addressed in a democratic, liberal context9.

  • 10 Th.W. Adorno, Trying to understand Endgame, in Id., Notes to Literature: Volume 1, ed. R. Tiedeman (...)

5For theatre scholars, the changes in Polish-Jewish relations and the postcolonial approach to Polish studies allows us to see Grotowski and Kantor’s work not only for what it says but also, to quote Gayatri Spivak again, for what it “cannot say” – or, rather, for what it couldn’t say. We can analyze what’s there, visible, but also what’s not there, what’s missing, unspoken, and invisible. We can try to find meaning in its “negative ontology10”.

  • 11 A. Whitehead, Trauma Fiction, Edinburgh University Press, Edinburgh 2004, p. 4.

6Trauma (from the Greek for “wound”) is defined as a violent rupture in the social and psychological order that fundamentally alters an individual’s concept of the self and the world. The origins of contemporary trauma studies date back to 1980, when post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) «was first included in the diagnostic canon of the medical and psychiatric professions11». Within the field of trauma studies, experts – including psychologists, psychiatrists, and those who specialize in contemporary critical theory – disagree about the precise definition of PTSD; however,

  • 12 C. Caruth, Trauma: Explorations in Memory, Johns Hopkins University Press, Baltimore 1995, p. 4.

most descriptions generally agree that there is a response, sometimes delayed, to an overwhelming event or events, which takes the form of repeated, intrusive hallucinations, dreams, thoughts or behaviors stemming from the event, along with numbing that may have begun during or after the experience, and possibly also increased arousal from (and avoidance of) stimuli recalling the event12.

  • 13 In extreme circumstances, the function of memory is tied to survival. The body remembers violence (...)

7The response to trauma is often delayed and fragmented13. Roberta Culbertson adds that

  • 14 R. Culbertson, Embodied memory, transcendence, and telling cit., p. 169.

most disturbingly, bits of memory, flashing like clipped pieces of film held to the light, appear unbidden and in surprising ways, as if possessed of a life independent of will or consciousness14.

  • 15 D. Laub, Bearing witness, or the vicissitudes or listening, in Id., Testimony: Crisis of Witnessin (...)

8When one becomes either numbed to or entrapped by one’s traumatic memories, a way out of the closed circuit of one’s psyche is to be able to tell one’s story: «a therapeutic process – a process of constructing a narrative, of reconstructing a history and essentially, of re-externalizing the event – has to be set in motion15». But the movement from silence to words is difficult because, as Cathy Caruth argues,

  • 16 C. Caruth, Trauma: Explorations in Memory cit., p. vii.

to cure oneself – whether by drugs or the telling of one’s story or both – seems to many survivors to imply the giving up of an important reality, or the dilution of a special truth into the reassuring terms of therapy16.

  • 17 Ivi, p. 5.

9Cathy Caruth calls PTSD a pathological symptom: not a symptom of the unconscious, but “a symptom of history”. She writes, «the traumatized, we might say, carry an impossible history within them, or they become themselves the symptom of a history that they cannot entirely possess17».

  • 18 B. Giesen, The trauma of perpetrators: the Holocaust as the traumatic reference of German national (...)
  • 19 A.G. Neal, National Trauma and Collective Memory: Major Events in the American Century, M.E. Sharp (...)

10Bernhard Giesen argues that «a collective trauma transcends the contingent relationships between individual persons and forges them into a collective identity18». Arthur Neal suggests that national traumas have been created by «individual and collective reactions to a volcano-like event that shook the foundations of the social world19». In defining national or cultural trauma, Jeffrey Alexander suggests that

  • 20 J. Alexander, Toward a theory of cultural trauma, in Cultural Trauma and Collective Identity cit., (...)

even when the nature of the pain has been crystallized and the identity of the victim established, there remains the highly significant question of the relation of the victim to the wider audience20.

  • 21 Ivi, p. 1.

11The relationship between the victims and the audience, particularly an audience that has been implicated in the victim’s traumatic history, is always already marked by a now-shared collective memory. The shared historical memory that has been forged between the two groups «leaves indelible marks upon their group consciousness, marking their memories forever and changing their future identity in fundamental and irrevocable ways21». Or, as Martin Harries puts it:

  • 22 M. Harries, Forgetting Lot’s Wife: On Destructive Spectatorship, Fordham University Press, New Yor (...)

Can an artwork transmit trauma? […] The problem of the transmission of trauma from person to person, and from generation to generation, is one of the most contested points surrounding trauma, and this controversy is germane22.

  • 23 J. Simon, Vaulting pole, «New York», 1 December 1969, p. 58.

12Trauma studies are a relatively new trend in critical studies; however, the vocabulary has been used intuitively for quite some time. In the case of Akropolis and Dead Class, a few cri-tics noted the odd, psychologically complex quality of these productions. Writing about Akropolis, the American critic John Simon, for example, commented that «politically, it is the image of a people brutalized successively by Catholicism, Nazism and Communism incessantly and hideously licking their wounds23». Writing about Dead Class, the Polish critic Anna Boska noted that

Dead Class resembles a spiritualist séance, bringing back ghosts. In fact, it is bringing up the dead world of the past, which only appears dead. It is still alive in our subconsciousness. We carry it within us; it comes back to haunt us24.

  • 25 J. Skotnicki, Ukradzione poranki [Stolen mornings], «Scena», 9 (November 1983), p. 21.
  • 26 J. Szczawiński, Tadeusz Kantor – epitafium dla epoki [Tadeusz Kantor – epitaph for the epoch], «Sł (...)
  • 27 R. Szydłowski, Bez Teatru Rzeczypospolitej [Without the Theatre of the People’s Republic], «Ẓycie (...)

13For Jan Skotnicki, Dead Class brings back all the memories of war that he cannot escape: «It’s a gallery of incredible faces, as if cut out from the old fashioned daguerreotype…No, it’s a veil of our memory…our dreams, and our nightmares, memories stubbornly coming back with more force, with the passage of time25…». Józef Szczawiński, as if trying to shake his own ghosts, asked with regard to Dead Class whether it is possible to live in memory: «Can you enter the river twice in the same place26?». Szydłowski too asked a similar question: «This show refers to other wars that plagued humanity. Should we remember them now27?». Eugenio Barba made a similar and very personal observation about Grotowski’s group, suggesting that it could never escape the irrevocable loss of World War II:

  • 28 E. Barba, Land of Ashes and Diamonds: My Apprenticeship in Poland, Black Mountain Press, Aberystwy (...)

“Mourning” is the term I associate with Grotowski’s actors. I recall my mother who lost her husband at the age of thirtythree. She could laugh, enjoy herself, talk or flirt with other men. But in the darkest corner of her heart lurked the awareness of an irreplaceable loss or of an irrevocable liberation, the memory of being struck by lightning and surviving while the house in which you grew up is reduced to ashes28.

14Akropolis and Dead Class each struggle with the issue of representation, giving voice to feelings and emotions that Poles were forced to suppress. Within the political context in which they were created, these spectacles are also perhaps the pur-est theatrical expressions of PTSD, addressing the unspeakable subject of the Polish-Jewish experience in a veiled, non-direct way.

  • 29 H.-T. Lehmann, Postdramatic Theatre, Routledge, New York 2006, p. 59.
  • 30 G. Niziołek, Zawsze nie w porę. Teatr polski a Zagłada [It’s never the right time: Polish theatre (...)
  • 31 J. Alexander, Toward a theory of cultural trauma, in Cultural Trauma and Collective Identity cit., (...)

15The evolution of trauma studies, and the changes in Slavic studies that encompassed the renewed interest in Jewish roots of Polish literature and culture, as well as the postcolonial approach to Eastern European history, all allow us to reevaluate Akropolis and Dead Class in a new, previously un-discernable context that also enriches the fields of theatre and performance studies. Both Akropolis and Dead Class have become catalysts for the collective experience, ways to process the trauma of the Holocaust and to attempt to come to terms with the fact that it was perpetrated on Polish soil. Both were also created in political circumstances that forbade open and free expression, short-circuiting the natural process of mourning and healing. Grotowski and Kantor developed aesthetically drastically different works, each of which nonetheless seeks to respond to the trauma of the Holocaust. This 53 correspondence has had broad consequences not only for our understanding of their work, but also for our understanding of the ways that translating trauma through the prism of performance can significantly alter and deflect the meaning and reception of theatrical works outside and within their cultural and historical context. Or, as Hans-Thies Lehmann puts it in Postdramatic Theatre: «The postdramatic theatre of a Tadeusz Kantor with its mysterious, animistically animated objects and apparatus, [his] historical ghosts and apparitions […] exists in this tradition of theatrical appearances of “fate” and ghosts, who, as Monique Borie has shown, are crucial for understanding the most recent theatre29». Kantor’s and Grotowski’s formal innovations have altered our sense of both what theatre means and how we are to approach drama within – and outside of – its context. Niziołek notes that «Trauma always resurfaces at the wrong time. There is never a good time for it because it always ruins something, brings destruction in our reality30». Entering into a dialogue with the Polish Romantics in the context of the Holocaust, Akropolis and Dead Class ruptured the structure of Polish literary and dramatic tradition, marking Polish memory forever, and changing the theatre world «in fundamental and irrevocable ways31».

16What follows are two sections, one on Akropolis and one on Dead Class. Each section provides background information on the many literary and dramatic works that both Grotowski and Kantor reference. Both show how each director adapted the Polish literary tradition to suit his own aesthetic goals, and how his aesthetics evolved vis-à-vis the historical circumstances in which he was forced to create. The analysis of Grotowski’s Akropolis focuses on the ways that Wyspiański’s drama and Borowski’s writing style allowed Grotowski to develop his own understanding of the audience-actor relationship, as well as his own acting methodology. The analysis of Dead Class focuses on a myriad of Polish theatrical and literary works, including those of Mickiewicz, Ansky, Schulz, Gombrowicz and Witkacy, that influenced Kantor’s understanding of the actor-object relationship as well as his concept of the bio-object. Each section also compares and contrasts the Polish and American receptions of each work, analyzing the complex political, historical and cultural aspects that influence a particular interpretation of the director’s style. What I hope to show is – to bring up Adorno again – how form in art becomes a function of history, or, perhaps, how history becomes a function of form.

Notes

1 M. Romanska, The post-traumatic theatre of Grotowski and Kantor. History and holocaust in “Akropolis” and “Dead Class”, foreword by K. Cioffi, Anthem Press, London 2012. Introduction, paragraph “Theatre and Theory”.

2 Robert L. Nelson’s Germans, Poland, and Colonial Expansion to the East: 1850 through the Present (Palgrave Macmillan, New York 2009) and Shelley Baranowski’s Nazi Empire: German Colonialism and Imperialism from Bismarck to Hitler (Cambridge University Press, Cambridge 2010) are just two examples of such an approach. See also: C. Cavanagh, Postcolonial Poland, «Common Knowledge», 10, n. 1 (Winter 2004), pp. 82-92; W. Kolarz, Communism and Colonialism, ed. G. Gretton, Palgrave MacMillan, London 1964; I. Surynt, Poste˛p, kultura i kolonializm. Polska a niemiecki projekt europejskiego Wschodu w dyskursach publicznych XIX wieku [Progress, Culture and Colonialism: Poland and German Project of European East in the 19th Century Political Discourse], Wydawnictwo ‘Atut’, Wrocław 2006; E.M. Thompson, Imperial Knowledge: Russian Literature and Colonialism, Greenwood Press, London. Westport 2000; J. Korek, Central and Eastern Europe from a postcolonial perspective, «Postcolonial Europe», "><http://www.postcolonial-europe.eu/index.php/en/essays/60-central-and-eastern-europe-from-a-postcolonial-perspective> (accessed 1 August 2011).

3 See, for example, D. Skorczewski, Modern Polish Literature Through a Postcolonial Lens, «The Sarmatian Review», 26, n. 3 (2006), pp. 1229-33, http://www.post-colonial-europe.eu/index.php/en/essays/91-modern-polish-literature-through-apostcolonial-lens- (accessed 1 August 2011).

4 H. Filipowicz, Mickiewicz: ‘East’ and ‘West’, «Slavic and East European Journal», 45, n. 4 (Winter 2001), p. 609.

5 See for example, K. Jasiewicz, Niepogrzebani ludzie, umarłe miasteczka, in Świat Niepoẓegnany, Ẓydzi na dawnych ziemiach wschodnich Rzeczypospolitej w xviii-xx wieku [A World We Bade No Farewell: Jews in Eastern Poland in the 18th-20th Centuries], Wydawnictwo Rytm, Warszawa-London 2004, pp. 39-41.

6 For example, the 2008 documentary The Soviet Story, based on ten years of archival research and recently discovered documents, brings to light the previously unknown – and unimaginable – scale of genocides instigated by Stalin before and during World War II, including the mass murder of Russian Jews. Although in pure numbers Stalin’s genocides (including Jewish genocides) outnumber Hitler’s (and are widely estimated to be in the neighborhood of 20 million – three times as many as Hitler, though some scholars estimate that the numbers can be as high as 61 million, with Stalin himself personally responsible for 43 million deaths, including those of 13 million Russian Jews), due to the historical circumstances (the Yalta conference, etc.), many American scholars of the Holocaust outside of history and Slavic departments still tend to overlook Stalin’s atrocities (<http://www.sovietstory.com>).

7 E. Lucas, Russia’s reset and Central Europe, «Diplomaatia», 92 (April 2011), <http://www.diplomaatia.ee/index.php?id=242&L=1&tx_ttnews[tt_news]=1254&tx_ttnews[backPid]=577&cHash=1d2a1a24dc> (accessed 4 May 2011).

8 A.A. Fatouros, Sartre on colonialism, «World Politics», 17, n. 4 (July 1965), p. 703.

9 K. Kolata - B. Pieta - I. Stup, Never again? Contemporary anti-semitism and representations of Jews in modern Poland, «Humanity in Action», 2009, <http://www.humanityinaction.org/knowledgebase/63-never-again-contemporary-anti-semitism-and-representations-of-jews-in-modern-poland>

10 Th.W. Adorno, Trying to understand Endgame, in Id., Notes to Literature: Volume 1, ed. R. Tiedemann, trans. Sh. Weber Nicholson, Columbia University, New York 1958, p. 273.

11 A. Whitehead, Trauma Fiction, Edinburgh University Press, Edinburgh 2004, p. 4.

12 C. Caruth, Trauma: Explorations in Memory, Johns Hopkins University Press, Baltimore 1995, p. 4.

13 In extreme circumstances, the function of memory is tied to survival. The body remembers violence and learns to avoid it. Posttraumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD), with its panoply of symptoms that are essentially expressions of the inability to forget, such as flashbacks or nightmares, can be then thought of as the mind’s survival strategy: to remember means to avoid, and to avoid means to survive. To quote Roberta Culbertson: “Such slivered memories [of traumatic events] take on various lives of their own, perhaps altering behavior, working out as templates for response to current life circumstances. Violence is about survival, and the body is designed to take the lessons of violence seriously. To do so, it need not, perhaps best not, recall the violence itself, but rather must merely arrange to avoid it in the future, using whatever cues can be stored and maintained from before. This is not memory to be told, not memory to be analyzed, but memory to be used for purposes of survival” (R. Culbertson, Embodied memory, transcendence, and telling: trauma, re-establishing the Self, «New Literary History», 26, n. 1 [Winter 1995], p. 175).

14 R. Culbertson, Embodied memory, transcendence, and telling cit., p. 169.

15 D. Laub, Bearing witness, or the vicissitudes or listening, in Id., Testimony: Crisis of Witnessing in Literature, Psychoanalysis, and History, ed. Sh. Felman - D. Laub, Routledge, New York 1992, p. 69.

16 C. Caruth, Trauma: Explorations in Memory cit., p. vii.

17 Ivi, p. 5.

18 B. Giesen, The trauma of perpetrators: the Holocaust as the traumatic reference of German national identity, in Cultural Trauma and Collective Identity, ed. J. Alexander - R. Eyerman - B. Giesen - N.J. Smelser - P. Sztompka, University of California Press Berkeley 2004, p. 113.

19 A.G. Neal, National Trauma and Collective Memory: Major Events in the American Century, M.E. Sharpe, Armonk, NY 1998, p. ix.

20 J. Alexander, Toward a theory of cultural trauma, in Cultural Trauma and Collective Identity cit., p. 14.

21 Ivi, p. 1.

22 M. Harries, Forgetting Lot’s Wife: On Destructive Spectatorship, Fordham University Press, New York 2007, p. 18.

23 J. Simon, Vaulting pole, «New York», 1 December 1969, p. 58.

24 A. Boska, Umarła klasa [Dead class], «Kobieta i Ẓycie», 8 (20 February 1977), <http://www.e-teatr.pl/pl/artykuly/11898.html> (accessed 23 February 2011).

25 J. Skotnicki, Ukradzione poranki [Stolen mornings], «Scena», 9 (November 1983), p. 21.

26 J. Szczawiński, Tadeusz Kantor – epitafium dla epoki [Tadeusz Kantor – epitaph for the epoch], «Słowo Powszechne», 11 March 1976. Cricoteka Archives: 000546.

27 R. Szydłowski, Bez Teatru Rzeczypospolitej [Without the Theatre of the People’s Republic], «Ẓycie Literackie», 25 (19 June 1983).

28 E. Barba, Land of Ashes and Diamonds: My Apprenticeship in Poland, Black Mountain Press, Aberystwyth 1999, pp. 32-33.

29 H.-T. Lehmann, Postdramatic Theatre, Routledge, New York 2006, p. 59.

30 G. Niziołek, Zawsze nie w porę. Teatr polski a Zagłada [It’s never the right time: Polish theatre and the Holocaust], interview with J. Wichowska, «Dwutygodnik. Strona kultury», 20 (29 December 2009), <http://www.dwutygodnik.com.pl/%20artykul/759-zawsze-nie-w-pore-polski-teatr-i-zaglada.html> (accessed 20 February 2010).

31 J. Alexander, Toward a theory of cultural trauma, in Cultural Trauma and Collective Identity cit., p. 1.

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