GROTOWSKI’S ARS MAGNA
(b. 11 August 1933 in Rzeszów, Poland – d. 14 January 1999 in Pontedera, Italy) was a theatre director, researcher investigating the art of acting and, broadly speaking, performance, a lecturer in theatre anthropology, reformer of the performing arts and cultural visionary. Between 1957 and 1969 he directed seventeen performances, including eleven at the Laboratory Theatre, based initially in Opole and later in Wrocław, which he founded and ran. Four of these performances – Akropolis (1962), Dr Faustus (1963), The Constant Prince (1965) and Apocalypsis cum Figuris (1969) – earned Grotowski a global reputation and they entered the canon of the greatest achievements of twentieth-century theatre. He presented his method of acting and broader programme in the 1968 book Towards a Poor Theatre (Polish edition, 2007). In a series of inspired manifestoes (Jak żyć by można [1971; trans.: How One Could Live, 1975]; Takim, jakim się jest, cały [1970; trans.: ‘Such as One Is – Whole’, 1973]; Święto [1970; trans.: ‘Holiday – The Day That Is Holy’, 1973]) influenced by the ideals of counterculture, he outlined his vision of active culture as a field in which its participants find satisfaction without pursuing the goal of creating works but instead work towards co-creating encounters characterised by collective effervescence1. Paratheatrical training and work-streams, carried out by Grotowski’s collaborators, such as Special Project (from 1974) or Mountain Project (1977), were to be the fulfilment of these ideals. In his work with specially-formed international groups of performers – in Poland, the United States and, finally, in Italy – Grotowski engaged in the composition of structures of performance-based actions, which had a quasi-ritual nature and effect. He analysed and commented on this work using terminology from theatre anthropology during lecture series at Sapienza University of Rome (1982) and at the Collège de France in Paris (1997–1998), as well as in presentations of his programmes: Wędrowanie za Teatrem Źródeł I Teatr Źródeł (1978–1980; trans.: ‘Wandering Towards a Theatre of Sources’ , ‘Theatre of Sources’ ), Tu es le fils de quelqu’un (1985),‘Performer’(1987). This was the main means by which audiences could become acquainted with his later work, while his final ever piece, the opus known as Action, created together with his official successor, the American Thomas Richards, was only presented to a highly selected audience (from 1995).
Indeed, only a small number of people ever had the opportunity to witness Grotowski’s artistic achievements, since from the outset he defined his performances as a particular form of chamber theatre – one in which audience members should sense the physical proximity of the actor who, in turn, in an act of intimate transgression, should aim towards fulfilling something akin to a confession realised not only, and not primarily, in words, but in the actor’s entire organism. This singularly defined relation between the actor and audience member, resembling the archetype of sacrifice and ritualistic human behaviour – something that Grotowski considered to be the essential core of the theatre – was something with which Grotowski, together with the architect and set designer Jerzy Gurawski, experimented by creating various spatial arrangements. These arrangements were to enable the achievement of a pragmatics based on a cathartic model interpreted in a manner resembling the cultural criticism of Antonin Artaud (whom Grotowski considered to be a prophet of his own investigations and experiments). The performances of Dziady (Forefathers’ Eve), Kordian, Akropolis and Hamlet Study created in the Opole period – which were also described on the posters as ‘based on’, ‘adapted from’, ‘featuring the words of’ Mickiewicz, Słowacki and Wyspiański – were a counterpoint to the monumental theatre while complementing the chamber experiments of Miron Białoszewski. In their tragic perception of the world and ironic deconstruction of images of the collective fate, meanwhile, the performances possessed a force resembling that of the Polish School of cinematography. A worthwhile critical approach to these works, yet to be attempted, might consider them as an embodiment of Polish Romanticism as well as art after Auschwitz. The deviations from Christian orthodoxy in the final three performances, Dr Faustus, The Constant Prince and, in particular, Apocalypsis cum Figuris, are also yet to be subject to insightful investigation. However, Grotowski’s manifestoes and commentaries do not make this task easier, since they generally leave open the question of the creator’s attitude towards religion and, indeed, towards all ideological issues. The fact that the book Towards a Poor Theatre, published in sixteen languages and known throughout the world as source of knowledge on Grotowski’s artistic programme, was never published in Polish translation during his lifetime sounds like an absurdity. The book acquired legendary status in Poland, while texts in it such as ‘The Theatre’s New Testament’ or ‘Actor’s Training’, widely read and cited abroad, were never translated into Polish before his death. We might say that Grotowski consciously shaped the multiplicity in the reception of his work.
During the 1970s, though, the reception of his work became evidently problematic primarily due to the limited access to new projects, their unclear nature – the vast majority of these works were deliberately non-verbal – and the inspired, enigmatic metaphorical style of Grotowski’s manifestoes. It was during this time that the image of him as a prophet and guru became established. But since it was not clear to critics either as to what the foundation for the innovativeness of the paratheatrical projects was – with passive observation not permitted and only active participation encouraged – or as to what the ideological correlative of the collective effervescence experienced during the course of the projects was supposed to be, Grotowski was accused of having manipulative or even totalitarian tendencies. On the one hand he was criticised for his opaque mysticism, on the other for his heretical sectarianism. The vision of an inter-human holiday conceived at the beginning of this period emerged as a particular embodiment of countercultural ideals grounded in a radical critique of social institutions and the language and circulation of art. This vision should be analysed as an original variation on the idea of spontaneous and ideological communitas2 – but one that is also always filled with an essential existential value. The question of the situation of this vision in relation to both the ritualistic character of Polish Catholicism – which would experience an important strengthening at the end of the decade – and also in relation to spontaneous ritual culture, both of which were increasing in this period of social protests, deserves closer investigation. They are also worth considering systematically in the context of the idea of the human church (kościół ludzki) conceived by Witold Gombrowicz, the eternal becoming of humankind and the increase of its force until it achieves a particular version of superhuman status.
The experiments Grotowski initiated in the late 1970s and continued until his death, with the objective of these experiments being the creation of a script of the experience of the flow of energy, were of such highly specialised nature that they became associated with esotericism. In the context of the truly seismic shifts that Polish society was experiencing at the time, these experiments appeared as something completely abstract. Thus, the Theatre of Sources project (1978–1982) being carried out at the time, which was Grotowski’s final piece of creative work in Poland, was met with little interest or understanding. And yet it was in this project that Grotowski began the transformation of the most essential elements of the art of acting into a form of performance yoga practiced within what were known as ritual arts; and it was in this project, too, that he turned his creative practice into a form of applied anthropology. From this time onwards, he explored with international groups the possibilities within the intercultural objectification of the pragmatics of the script of activities. The theoretical background to these experiments was uncovered and presented in a series of as yet unpublished lectures titled Techniche originarie dell’attore (The original techniques of the actor) or La ‘lignée organique’ au théâtre at dans le ritual (The ‘organic line’ in theatre and ritual). Since they remain unpublished, however, they have yet to be appropriated into theatre studies, performance studies or anthropology.
The works emerging from Grotowski’s period abroad – which began in 1982 and lasted as long as the Wrocław period – are essentially unknown in Poland. However, even in the United States and Italy, where they were created, they did not encounter a broader reception. It would seem that Grotowski’s almost total withdrawal from public life was accompanied by the awarding of various honours: honorary doctorates from Wrocław University (1991), The New School for Social Research in New York (1994), Bologna University (1997), a professorship at the Collège de France, a fellowship at the MacArthur Foundation (1991–1996) and the Polish Cultural Foundation (Fundacja Kultury; 1996). The paradoxical nature of the entire reception of his thought and work is nicely indicated by the title of one Italian symposium dedicated to him: Grotowski, la presenza assente – ‘absent presence’. While his place within the history of Polish culture is cemented – after all, one researcher, Zbigniew Osiński, has already managed to write six books about him – Grotowski remains to some extent absent, since he has yet to be fully investigated and analysed, particularly as a philosopher of culture and theatre anthropologist.
As one American critic said, Grotowski’s impact (like Artaud’s) is powerful, overwhelming perhaps, and yet difficult to grasp. Even the Grotowski Year – held in 2009, a decade after his death – with all of its reflections and summaries, could not produce a final assessment and classification of his work.
Part of the reason for this is the fact that Grotowski is quintessentially anti-systemic. Of course, though, by virtue of a paradox, his entire practice was marked by a programmatically methodical mode of working – the Wrocław Laboratory Theatre was indeed named the Institute for Studies of the Method of Acting (later Actor’s Institute) – while its motto was always discipline. At the same time, though, Grotowski was a great believer in spontaneity and naturalness, while never demanding – in contrast to other neo-avant-garde artists of the 1950s and 1960s – aleatoricism, nor did he create happenings or création collective. Even paratheatrical training, which took the form of open and largely undefined works of active culture3 without a fixed script, often taking the form of work-streams, were suspected of limiting participants’ total freedom and imposing a certain course. Grotowski consistently conceived of the creative act as coincidentia oppositorum, a coincidence which bonded rigour and spontaneity. Throughout his creative practice, from the initial work with actors in the poor theatre through to the work on ritual arts, he demanded that actors carry out a script, or score, of actions that had been worked out to the most minute detail so as to be an eternally fresh stream of impulses. While referring consistently to Stanislavsky, who has entered the history of theatre as the creator of a method, or even a system, Grotowski vehemently denied ever having set out to create a method. What impressed him about Stanislavsky was, rather, the proposed systematic, rigorous and meticulous approach demanded of the actor in respect of him- or herself, which at the same time was combined with the flexibility of an empiricist, something that would not allow him to fall into dogmatism and instead forced him to verify and reorganise the techniques developed.
If Grotowski’s approach is to be considered indeed anti-systemic, then it is to be so for the reason that he valued more highly than any system, with its regularity and schematism, the actual experiencing of life in all its unpredictable spontaneity and unfathomable wealth – as élan vital. Of all the possible ways of reaching the total essence, he consistently chose the path which, like the mystics, he termed via negativa, i.e. the way of contradiction. Grotowski’s mistrust of systems stemmed from his lack of belief in doctrines, ideologies or dogma, and even went as far as considering language and reason suspect, as tools of the most profound determinants. His path to knowledge was always one that went against the current, it was a path of liberation from all determinants – it was the path of ‘de-determination’4. For Grotowski, knowledge was possible only thanks to a rebellion so extreme that it touched the foundations of existence.
And it is in this rebellion that the true reason for Grotowski’s refusal to aim at systematising his views is to be found, for he considered systematisation and systems generally to be the Procrustean bed of human experience and a barrier to its fulfilment. Just like the Hassidic Jews, eulogists of ecstatic mysticism rebelling against Talmudic Judaism which they considered to be exhausting itself in its exuberant speculations and extreme formalism, Grotowski believed in a return to an origin – a direct and monumental here-and-now. In this sense, he practiced a beginners’ art, the art of an eternal debut, akin to the simple revelations of Zen and the enthusiastic dance-songs of the Hassidic Jews, Indian Bauls or Haitian voodooists.
In a parable about his vocation, Grotowski recalled how after completing his final secondary school exams he applied for three different university courses: Oriental studies (specialising in Indian studies), medicine (specialising in psychiatry) and to the drama academy (specialising in directing) – and that it was only the chance factor that the entry exams to the drama academy took place soonest that meant he took the first step in towards a career in the theatre. Once there, he treated the theatrical craft – the art of acting and, ultimately, performance – as a vehicle for experimentation. In studying Indian texts he hoped, of course, to gain access both to the wisdom of orthodox Brahmin philosophical schools, Yoga and Vedanta (in his youth, Grotowski gave presentations on them, attributing a special position to the doctrine of Advaita Vedanta –non-duality – conceived by Śankara) as well as to the wisdom of Buddhist schools5. Psychiatry is the empiricism of internal experiences which should – according to the humanistic psychology of Abraham H. Maslow and the anti-psychiatry of Ronald David Laing – take the form of ‘peak experiences’ or transcendental experiences similar to ecstatic shamanic ‘journeys’ or ‘flights’ before entering, in Carl Jung’s terminology, the process of individuation – the psychological analogy of initiation into mystery. This parable illustrates the primacy that Grotowski granted to experience over the frames of experience, including the domain and convention in which it occurred. This was an important premise of his anthropology.
There are, though, two important figures that frame Grotowski’s work: the figure of the laboratory and the figure of the hermitage. Indeed, superimposed onto each other, they form an original, or rather unique, institutional frame in twentieth-century cultural practice.
At the outset of his career, in a small alternative theatre in the provincial city of Opole, the particular seclusion experienced there was perhaps a result of circumstance and some kind of organisational and vital necessity, while working in an experimental theatre centre in the provincial Italian town at the end of his career was a deliberate choice. With his theatre company having acquired a worldwide reputation after moving from Opole to metropolitan Wrocław, Grotowski moved his work with the group out to the village of Brzezinka near Oleśnica, where they took over an agricultural building and a mill at the edge of a lake and forest. And when searching for spaces for workshops which were to last for several years at the University of California, Irvine, he selected a red barn located on the edge of inhabited land and the wilderness, only supplementing this building with a wooden yurt erected next to it. Grotowski always located the space of creative work beyond the space of worldly life in sites that were distant, isolated, remote and secluded. Perhaps in this way he was creating conditions similar to those in which, at least according to a story told, he first experienced verticality: it was supposed to have happened during the Second World War which he spent together with his mother and brother as guests on the farm of the Ożoga family in the village of Nienadówka near Rzeszów.
His later attempts to isolate himself from the world in his artistic work were genuine, with Grotowski, on the one hand, refusing to permit his collaborators, who were of course professional actors, to appear in any other artistic projects whatsoever, and in particular film or television – especially the latter which, in his view, corrupted artists by creating conditions enabling the pursuit of fame and easy recognition. On the other hand, he always limited and controlled outsiders’ access to his work, particularly the media and journalists. (A negative side-effect of this restrictive approach to mass culture, and its channels, codes and media, is the poverty and low-quality of audiovisual documentation of Grotowski’s work). Grotowski created the set of rules for creative work – which was as strict as the regulations of any monastery – in the context of an uncompromising critique of the practices dominant in both society and the art world today. In ‘The Theatre’s New Testament’ (1964), Grotowski contrasted an actor resembling a prostitute with the ideal holy actor and a theatre full of effects with the ideal of a poor theatre. And although he presented his postulates in accordance with the accepted ethical framework of members of the theatre world, he also presented them as a programme of spiritual exercises – the actor stripping himself bare in this postulated act, which is the essence of the poor theatre’s poverty, should be interpreted as a form of imitating Christ’s kenosis6, an imitation similar to that of the known mystic Meister Eckhart or St. John of the Cross. In the 1970 manifesto ‘Holiday’ (Święto), against a background of praise for a form of spontaneous existential communitas, he prophesised, in almost millenarian tones, the historical exhaustion of the potential of the theatre – conceived, quite simply, as nothing but an element of the structure of societas. In the text ‘From the Theatre Company to Art as Vehicle’ (1989–1990), with art conceived, on the one hand, as a vehicle for working on one’s self, i.e. for working on the body, heart and mind, as he put it, of people of action – which was then contrasted with art conceived, on the other hand, as presentation, public spectacle. One form was diametrically opposed to the other on a scale of performing arts, with no reconciliation possible in practice. This rigour allows us to perceive Grotowski’s later centres of work as hermitages, particularly since he was always concerned with creating conditions permitting concentrated and focused internal work away from the bustle of the world – work to which one could dedicate one’s self entirely.
However, this hermitage never took on a religious character; rather, it was always at the same time a laboratory, a place for carrying out research and experiments modelled on scientific approaches. In his artistic work, Grotowski aimed at discovering objective laws: initially he focused on the method of acting, which the name of the Wrocław centre made evident: between 1965 and 1970 it was called Instytut Badań Metody Aktorskiej – Teatr Laboratorium, or The Institute for Studies of the Method of Acting – Laboratory Theatre. Later, working at the University of California, Irvine, between 1983 and 1986 he created the Objective Drama Project, which was a synonym for the technical, workshop-based search for the structure of action, with the name affecting the people carrying it out in such a way that they would have felt a definite and unchanging, albeit symbolic, sense of ritual7. In applying the idea of a laboratory, Grotowski thus made a direct reference to the concepts of the theatre reformers active in the first half of the twentieth century, and in particular Stanislavsky and his associates in Russia and the Soviet Union, Jacques Copeau in France and, of course, Juliusz Osterwa in Poland: as we know, the Laboratory Theatre in 1966 adopted Reduta’s crest as its own, replaced the looped R with an L8. (It is worth noting that all of those theatrical laboratories were compared at the time to monasteries). Grotowski’s indirect adaptation of the laboratory idea came by way of the tradition of alchemy as the art of transmutation – the art of carrying out changes which ennoble material with the ultimate aim of objectivising spiritual transformations which the practitioners themselves experienced during experiments. Indeed, Grotowski himself encouraged the association with alchemy by, for example, applying the term ‘opus’ to the Ritual Arts works. This parallel led to Grotowski being associated with other twentieth- century spiritual experiments, including, primarily, the teaching of George Ivanovich Gurdjieff and the psychology of Carl Gustav Jung, who considered alchemy an important link between modern psychology and ancient Gnosticism.
Grotowski, like the Gnostics, also held a deeply pessimistic view of history, which, he felt, traced the decline of the spiritual element. Imprisoned in material, this light and luminous element, housed in the human, maintains a memory of its lofty origins and yearns to recover freedom. However, social structures cannot grant it this freedom, since in their mass they only serve to increase bondage. It is for this reason, then, that people can only struggle for liberation individually. And it is only a select few who strive for it – those born to be rebels and who have within themselves enough determination to oppose an all-pervasive material automatism and social existence.
The rebels might employ specific techniques in working towards this aim, techniques mastered as part of various expert skills, particularly the crafts which engage the individual naturally and completely9. People developed such techniques in various periods and cultures, not only within (but indeed sometimes outside) various religious traditions, but also as part of different artistic disciplines. Grotowski was of the opinion that these are indeed what is valuable in a culture and this value is intercultural or even, so to speak, anthropological. He called this the objectivity of art, although he used the term art – art as a vehicle of liberation – to mean artistry: an expertise in carrying out tasks with a definite effect. He believed that such techniques were created, or at least could be created, whose soteriological effect10 would be applied to each and every human being regardless of his or her cultural or historical conditions. Aside from the aforementioned rigour, it was this which brought his experiments closer to the methods of academic research and took them away from the confessional context. This almost scientific objectivity and a truly anthropological universalism were certainly not at odds, in his view, with the subjectively artistic approach to the techniques he had tried and created himself.
These ought to be techniques for carrying out, primarily, operations on oneself. Their aim is, after all, to effect a connection between the corporeality of the practitioner, which represents the mass of material, and that light and luminous element, which Grotowski termed essence – a connection which was to result in the human taking on an archetypal character: the body of essence.
According to Grotowski, this is only possible as deed. For this reason he believed that in the practice of ritual arts experts there should be a harmonious relationship between the determination of the warrior, who throws caution to the wind and faces up to a deadly threat, the freneticism of the dancer, who is totally immersed in fluid movement, and the vigilance of the chaplain, who is to watch for a different dimension of existence and bond this world with the other. Grotowski considered practices which possessed all of these characteristics to be appropriate to the ritual arts or even considered them to be the only type of practices deserving of the name of non-degenerate art, i.e. art that retains the desired technical efficacy.
The efficacy was to be based on transformation, just as in alchemy. It is not a matter, though, of transformations which take place in the natural course of things, occurring unprompted during the life of an individual, for the reason that these changes’ soteriological capacity is uncertain. Rather, Grotowski had in mind the transformation of an expert practitioner which is brought about artificially, in the laboratory, using techniques resembling those employed in the initiation into mysteries. The practitioner achieves an organic, natural fluidity of movement which carries the essence and then enters the flow experience11, rhythm and intensiveness. Intensiveness stems from the energy which flows freely along the vertical axis of a body, submitting it to sublimation. The ultimate aim of the dramatic scenario of the opus of ritual arts is apocatastasis: renewal, revival, return and liberation. This is something which is done and therefore systems – doctrines, ideologies, dogma – meant nothing to Grotowski. The only thing of value was action in itself.
And this is the very definition of art – ars magna, great art. And thanks to it, humankind does not forget its true calling and not everything is condemned to death.
- 1. Émile Durkheim introduced the concept collective effervescence to signify states of collective ecstasy expressed primarily in rhythmic movements, songs and dances, during which the participants. finding themselves in a state of exhilaration, experience a feeling of being taken to another world. In The Elementary Forms of Religious Life, Durkheim noted that each religious holiday, even those with their origins in secular traditions, in gathering people together, and thanks to the movement and evoking this feeling of collective euphoria, resembles a religious rite – indeed, the very idea of religion was born of collective effervescence.
- 2. It is worth remembering that for Victor W. Turner, who introduced the concept of communitas into anthropology to signify not only the contradictions of the structural side of social existence but also – and perhaps above all – its pre-structural, existential foundations, the concept of communitas was to generate associations with das Zwischenmenschliche (the interpersonal) conceptualised by Martin Buber: with the eternal experience of the encounter as something holy.
- 3. In the collection of essays The Open Work, Umberto Eco applied the concept of openness both to fully-formed works whose structure, in permitting multiple interpretations, assumes the active participation of the recipient, as well as to ‘works in motion’, structurally incomplete and thus able to take on various forms. Paratheatrical training was of course one such ‘work in motion’. Eco’s comments on the theme of the links between Western contemporary art and Japanese Zen Buddhism, see as examples of anti-intellectual and anti-systemic practices of accepting life in its spontaneous flow, can also be applied to paratheatrical training.
- 4. The concept of ‘de-conditioning’ was introduced by Mircea Eliade in his monograph Yoga: Immortality and Freedom to signify the pragmatics typical of the Indian way of working on one’s self. The reverse route, ujāna sādhana – ‘against the current’ – should lead directly to experiencing the sources of life, a lost, primal unity.
- 5. This is the source, it would seem, from which the term ‘vehicle’ in the concept l’art comme véhicule – Art as Vehicle – was taken, with Peter Brook using this term to evaluate Grotowski’s final works: the way of a Buddhist arhat, a holy monks practicing asceticism, is known in Sanskrit as hinayāna, while the way of a bodhisattva, someone who chose the path of a lay teacher, is known as mahāyāna; the former means, literally, the ‘small vehicle’, the latter the ‘great vehicle’, meaning also both a minor and major career.
- 6. According to St Paul’s famous words, ‘heautón ekénosen’, literally ‘he emptied himself’ (Philippians, 2:7), ‘he became poor’ (2 Corinthians 8:9), thus providing an example for those who become ‘poor and yet enriching many, as having nothing and yet possessing everything’ (2 Corinthians 6:10), i.e. – as we know from the famous Gospel macarism – theirs is the Kingdom of Heaven (Luke 6:20, Thomas 54 [apocryphal], Matthew 5:3).
- 7. The essence of symbolic efficacy is defined by Claude Lévi-Strauss in Structural Anthropology, using the example of shamanistic therapy, as the harmony of the parallelism between operations and myths: performances (representations, ideas, spectacles) evoked by the shaman indicate the modification of his patient’s organic functions.
- 8. In Russia, this began with the Theatre Studio on Povarskaya Street, directed in 1905 by Vsevolod Meyerhold, which, as Stanislavsky noted, was neither a studio nor a school for beginners, but rather a laboratory workshop where the fulfilment of their shared dreams was prepared. École du Vieux-Colombier was created in 1915 with the aim of realising a programme set out two years previously, in which it was stated that a school and indeed a laboratory are essential elements of any renovated theatre. The Reduta Institute, created by Osterwa on the basis of the ‘Koło Adeptów’ (Circle of Novices) in 1922 and functioned until 1939, was described by Stefan Jaracz as an artistic laboratory for the young.
- 9. This does not conflict with Grotowski’s experiments of an alchemical nature – we only need to consider that, for example, in neidan, Chinese spiritual alchemy, no chemical substances whatsoever are used. Instead, operations are carried out only in the body and psyche of practitioners, the very sites where the elixir of life was prepared.
- 10. In European medieval and renaissance alchemy, the deed of the alchemist aimed to redeem the anima mundi – the soul of the world – imprisoned in material; just as Christ redeemed humanity, the alchemist was to secure redemption for nature, hence the soteriological value of alchemical operations.
- 11. According to Mihály Csíkszentmihályi, who introduced the concept of flow experience, this experience not only enables us to find joy in life, but also possess the ability to change life (and in this respect it resembles religious ecstasy); in any case, there is no qualitative difference between the flow experience in religious contexts and in various secular contexts.