total act [akt całkowity]
one of the key terms in the context of Jerzy Grotowski’s theatre work and also one of his most important discoveries concerning the possibility of experiencing in the course of the actor’s work a dimension of life that exceeds mortal life. The total act is not a recreation of another’s action, but rather a process of cognition and experience realised dramatically. According to Grotowski, the person carrying out the act
should not […] play, but penetrate spheres of his own experience as if analysing them with his body and voice. He should search for the impulses flowing from the depths of his body and with full clarity direct them towards a certain point which is crucial to the performance, fulfil the confession in the space where it is essential. At the moment when the actor achieves this act, he becomes a hic et nunc phenomenon; it is neither narrative nor illusion – it is the present. He reveals himself, the Latin word fiat, he presents that which is happening and that which will happen; he discovers himself […].
(Jerzy Grotowski: Teatr a rytuał, [in:] Teksty zebrane, Wrocław – Warszawa 2013, p. 367–368)
In this context, the total act means a return to the most important personal experiences which must be literally experienced again but in a purified form, one limited to the structures of actions closely bound to pure impulses. The dramatic nature of this experience, which is its essence, is based on the fact that the experience is not only of an internal nature, such as memory, but is also carried out by the entire organism. Such action is possible only if the body is ‘transparent’, thus so fully integrated with internal processes that
[t]he result is freedom from the time-lapse between inner impulse and outer reaction in such a way that the impulse is already an outer reaction. Impulse and action are concurrent; the body vanishes, burns, and the spectator sees only a series of visible impulses.
(Jerzy Grotowski: Towards a Poor Theatre, [in:] The Grotowski Sourcebook, London/New York 1997, p. 31)
When this condition is fulfilled, action acquires the greatest actuality; that which the actor experiences is at the same time rendered present, directly given, it is revealed in the moment. The road to this directness runs through ‘poverty’ [ogołocenie], i.e. elimination of all organic and technical barriers, freeing oneself of all preconceptions and prejudices which could destroy the organic unity the person in action (via negativa). The way to achieving this is through revelation, exposing that which usually remains hidden from others’ gaze.
According to Grotowski, in order for the act to be realised, revelation should be bound to something which in a given individual’s life is most troubling, most intimate and most deeply hidden both from others and from the self. Understood in this way, revelation or exposure becomes analogous with confession and leads to purification. At the same time it is an act of ‘self-sacrifice’, not one understood as self-abandonment or offering oneself up to the audience, but rather giving ‘ourselves nakedly to something which is impossible to define but which contains Eros and Caritas.’ (Jerzy Grotowski: Towards a Poor Theatre, p. 34) and is something which is ‘incomparably higher than us, which exceeds us, which is beyond and above us’ (Jerzy Grotowski: Książę Niezłomny Ryszarda Cieślaka, [in:] Teksty zebrane, s. 856). The total act is, therefore, an act of transgression in which the ‘actual’ doer is no longer an actor:
In the moments of fullness, what is animal in us isn’t only animal, it is the whole nature. Not human nature, but the whole nature in man [człowiek]. Then simultaneously the social heritage, man as homo sapiens, is actualized. But it is not a duality. It is the unity of man. And then, not the ‘I’ does, ‘it’ does; not the ‘I’ accomplishes the act, but ‘my man [człowiek]’ accomplishes the act. I myself and the genus humanum together. The entire human context, social and any other, inscribed in me, into my memory, into my thoughts, into my experiences, into my upbringing, into my formation, into my potential.
(Jerzy Grotowski: Reply to Stanislavsky, TDR, Summer 2008, pp. 31–39, p. 36; translated by Kris Salata)
The act acquires here quite simply eschatological proportions as an experience of being somebody who does not limit him- or herself within the boundaries of the individual, moral ‘I’. In describing this force or this type of person, Grotowski used terms like ‘secure partner’, referred to Theophilus of Antioch’s statement, ‘Show me your man, and I will show you my God’, or even borrowed the term Son of Man from Christianity but denuded it of doctrinaire connotations. Seen in this way, the total act appears as an experience close to hierophany, while the process leading to it can be considered analogous to a rite or liturgical act. However, the total act’s practical and areligious character, its basis in individual experience and the consequent lack of a permanent, appropriable structure means that it differs significantly from them.
The first attempts to approach this process with the aim of culminating in the total act took place during Grotowski’s work with Zbigniew Cynkutis on the role of Faust in Dr Faustus. While the intimate and individual work of the actor and director, which drew upon experiences and impulses connected to the erotic sphere, might not have overcome all the difficulties, it nevertheless pointed to further possibilities. Grotowski developed these during individual work with Ryszard Cieślak on the title role of The Constant Prince. The outcome of this work was not just that a one-off occurrence of bringing the act into existence took place (this had most probably already been achieved during preparatory work with Cynkutis), but also that the precise fixing of the act and its reproduction within a performance was achieved. This was also attained, at least to a certain degree, during group work on Apocalypsis cum Figuris, and this to a large extent determined the powerful effect of this piece. The experiments carried out for many years to come were not fully successful in achieving their aim of expanding the experience of the act. During the last years of his life, Grotowski concentrated on craftsman-like precision and increasing the objectivity of the act, which led to the creation of action.