Towards a Poor Theatre

the best-known book on Grotowski’s experiments in theatre, published by Odin Teatrets Forlag in August 1968. Jerzy Grotowski is noted as the author on the book’s cover even though not all the texts were written by him and Eugenio Barba was the co-creator of the entire work (some of the materials had been used previously in his own book Alla ricerca del teatro perduto, Padua, Marsilio Editori, 1965).

The book opens with Peter Brook’s Preface, which begins with the famous words: ‘Grotowski is unique’. Brook’s introduction is followed by two texts which present a synthesis of Grotowski’s most important ideas on the theatre and theatre practice: ‘Towards a Poor Theatre’ and ‘The Theatre’s New Testament’, which was a transcript of his conversations with Barba, an abridged version of which had already appeared as the text ‘Aktor ogołocony’ (The actor stripped bare), published in Poland in 1965. The next block of texts in the book is on the performances, beginning with an interview with Grotowski by Naim Kattan titled ‘Theatre is an Encounter’ in which the artist comments on his attitude to the text in the theatre. After this there follow materials on the Theatre of 13 Rows’ performances: ‘Akropolis: Treatment of the Text’ by Ludwik Flaszen; ‘Dr Faustus: Textual Montage’ by Eugenio Barba; and ‘The Constant Prince’ again by Flaszen. In the Polish edition, this text is followed by a series of photographs depicting the Prince’s monologues – the English-language version features a series a photographs, including these, in the middle of the ‘Akropolis’ essay; however, in both versions, a fragment of Józef Kelera’s review is printed in between the Constant Prince photographs, with Kelera using the famous words that the actor is “in a state of grace”. The following section of Towards a Poor Theatre deals with acting. It opens with Grotowski’s text dedicated to Antonin Artaud, ‘He Wasn’t Entirely Himself’. The following piece, ‘Methodological Exploration’ is an abbreviated version of a text published in the Polish cultural weekly Tygodnik Kulturalny (1967), in which Grotowski indicates that the Niels Bohr Institute was the model on which his own theatre laboratory was based. These two texts provide a certain introduction to the long and detailed descriptions of actor training, the first of which was noted by Barba between 1959 and 1962, while the second was written in 1966 by the Belgian actor Franz Marijnen. The deliberate contrasting of these two texts, both titled ‘Actor’s Training’, was intended to indicate the differences between the training exercises of the earlier and later stages in Grotowski’s work. A summary to this section is provided by Denis Bablet’s interview with Grotowski, published as ‘The Actor’s Technique’. The fourth part of the book comprises Grotowski’s text ‘Skara Speech’, an interview with Grotowski by Richard Schechner and Theodor Hoffman titled ‘American Encounter’ and, finally, Grotowski’s ‘Statement of Principles’. These three texts provide something of a philosophical and ethical summary, and appear as an attempt to perceive theatre work as something endowed with an essential aim and stemming from a deep necessity. In light of these texts, everything that had previously been described in the book, now appears to be a step on the way towards something other than theatre as such and instead seems to be connected with work on one’s self rather than with experiments in acting techniques or with attempts to appropriate a particular method of acting.

Considered as a whole, Towards a Poor Theatre appears as a fully thought-out and precisely composed guidebook presenting the fundamental themes and questions that formed the core of Grotowski’s work up to that point. A critical problem of the book were numerous factual and linguistic errors that can be ascribed to the careless translation and editing of the work. Nevertheless, shortly after the English-language version appeared, there followed translations into other languages (an abridged Persian version, 1970; German, Spanish and Italian all in 1970; Japanese and French in 1971; Portuguese in 1975; Serbo-Croat in 1976), while there were also various other translations and abridged versions prepared by Grotowski for the needs of particular readers and published under the same title (for example, the Persian version from 1970 contained only the four texts by Grotowski himself).

Despite various indications that it would be otherwise, Towards a Poor Theatre never appeared in Polish during Grotowski’s lifetime, a fact that was interpreted as a symptom of his strange tendency to shroud himself in mystery or even as a symptom of mythomania. It would appear, however, that the principle reason for this was, in fact, Grotowski’s critical stance towards the book, which is particularly understandable following the fundamental transformation that took place in the early 1970s (known as ‘leaving the theatre’). This is confirmed by Grotowski regularly mentioning throughout the 1980s and 1990s the need for a new edition of Towards a Poor Theatre, with some initial steps towards this evident in the publication in 1989 in Poland of Teksty z lat 1965–69, which was a transformed version of Towards a Poor Theatre that opened up different perspectives on that period. A Polish edition of Towards a Poor Theatre did ultimately appear in 2007, published by the Grotowski Institute in Grzegorz Ziółkowski’s translation and featuring an extensive editor’s commentary by Leszek Kolankiewicz.