Blesok no. 22, August-September, 2001
Theatre Reviews

Grotowski: Igniting the Flame

Richard Gaffield-Knight

In 1959, in the provincial town of Opole, Poland, population 50,000, sixty miles from Auschwitz, Jerzy Grotowski (to be referred to, henceforth, simply as Grotowski) was named director of Teatr 13 Rz” dów, the Theater of Thirteen Rows. Traveling a conventional route in terms of training and experience, he drew from it the fullest benefit and advantage to be named to this position. Here, at the age of 26, Grotowski was to begin to push to its limits, both the socialist principle of total state subsidy, and the utopian vision of theater formulated by Stanislavsky and others of a “spiritual naturalism.”

In Poland in 1959, when Grotowski founded, with Flaszen, his small experimental theater company in Opole, there were additional forces at play affecting the balance of disciplines in the theater: the avant-garde influences from the West and the Poles' reaction to them; the emphasis on the textural and technical aspects of scenic production; and, the prominence of either an un-disciplined or an over-intellectual approach to acting. The result of all this was to reduce the actor to the status of puppet, or as the critic Jan Klossowicz expresses in his 1971 article: “an executor of the will of the all-powerful director.” Within this context Grotowski was proposing an artistic program in opposition to the mainstream. It could be said of his earliest work that its strongest characteristic was precisely that of contradiction and defiance of existing practice--a polemical attitude which, twenty years later, Grotowski claimed to have been a conscious principle throughout his work. “I would like to remind you that the work of our institution has invariably followed a path complementary to--and in a way at variance with--current trends in culture. Such is our calling.”
Flaszen describes the process of via negativa, or the eliminatory process to which Grotowski subjected his art, with an emphasis on the relationship between theater and text:
To create theatre we must go beyond literature; theatre starts where the word ceases. The fact that a theatrical language cannot be a language of words, but its own language, constructed from its own substance--is a radical step for theater, but Artaud had already realized this in his dreams… The same line of thought that sees a possibility for theatre today through a state of isolation, tells us not only to go beyond the discursive word, but also to reject everything not strictly essential for the theatrical phenomenon… The proper subject-matter of theatre, its own particular score belonging to no other form of art is--in Grotowski's words--the score of human impulses and reactions. The psychic process, revealed through the bodily and vocal reactions of a living, human organism. That is the essence of theatre.
Grotowski seemed fascinated by the ritual aspects of the play when he said, “It is a question of a gathering which is subordinated to ritual: nothing is represented or shown, but we participate in a ceremonial which releases the collective unconscious.” Collaborating again with the architect Gurawski, he abolished the conventional stage, stating categorically that it would never be returned to by him and his company. Action took place behind spectators, in front of them, confronting them and their fellows across the way, in the same way they measured their reactions to the others in the normal course of their day. Flaszen said, “Directing a performance, unlike in the traditional theater, concerns two companies. The director constructs his performance not only of actors, but also of spectators. Theatrical ceremonial is created at the intersection of these two ensembles.” This was Grotowski's first attempt at a total spatial integration of actors and spectators, and the partial elimination of the intellectual division between them. The spectators, along with the actors, were participants of the ritual because the attitude of the actors invited their mutual participation.

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