Jerzy Grotowski
Jerzy Grotowski's First Lecture at the Collège de France

Editor: (Owen Daly) Allen Kuharski is a Professor of English and Director of Theater Studies at Swarthmore College. He is interested in both Grotowski and Witold Gombrowicz, the Polish author and playwright. This is his report of a prestigious lecture that Grotowski delivered in 1997, less than two years before his death.  It represents something of a summation of his work and thoughts. This article is published in both journals: 'Periphery', No. 1/2, Vol 3 and 'Slavic and East European Performance', Summer 1997, Vol. 17, No. 3

Jerzy Grotowski's First Lecture at the Collège de France
by Allen J. Kuharski

      ..It was announced that Polish stage director and theorist Jerzy Grotowski (b. 1933) would be given a chair at the prestigious Collège de France in Paris. In addition to the honorific nature of the position, each faculty member of the Collège is expected to give a series of public lectures over several years. Past faculty have included Roland Barthes and Michel Foucault, whose lectures helped to define an era in French intellectual life. Grotowski's inaugural lecture on March 24, 1997, was at once laden with historical symbolism and a sign of change in the institution's traditions.

     Grotowski is the first Pole named to the Collège de France since the poet and playwright Adam Mickiewicz (1798-1855) gained both artistic fame and political notoriety for his lectures there in the 1840s. Mickiewicz was named to the Collège's first chair in Slavic literature, and his lectures proved a popular sensation with the Parisian public. The poet's unorthodox mixture of religious mysticism and progressive politics in the lectures made both the Roman Catholic Church and the French government uncomfortable, and he was eventually removed from the position. Grotowski has regularly invoked Mickiewicz as a defining influence throughout his theatrical career, a connection whose significance has been rarely grasped outside of Poland. Whether by coincidence or design, Grotowski's nomination thus carries a symbolic charge for Poles that is not to be underestimated. The subject of the artistic relationship of Grotowski to Mickiewicz is fascinating and little discussed--and perhaps one whose time has come.

     Perhaps more significant is the fact that Grotowski is the first theatrical director/theorist of any nationality to be named to the Collège de France. In a further departure from tradition, Grotowski will deliver his lectures in various Paris theatres--the first given in Peter Brook's Théâtre Bouffes du Nord, and the second in the Odéon. The audacity of this move--presumably Grotowski's own suggestion--was contrasted by the modesty and informality of the director's personal presence at the inaugural lecture. In spite of the packed auditorium and considerable media coverage of the event, Grotowski arrived in a rumpled black suit, carrying a backpack from which he removed his few handwritten notes and the cigarettes that seemingly preoccupied him throughout the lecture.

     Grotowski's first lecture provided a critical overview of his theoretical and practical work with actors. It was punctuated with alternating clips of his own landmark productions of Stanislaw Wyspianski's "Akropolis" and Calderon de la Barca's "The Constant Prince" (in Juliusz Slowacki's Polish version) with Maya Deren's 1951 documentary film on voudun "Divine Horsemen: The Living Gods of Haiti." Grotowski thus emphasized the continuity between his early work with the Polish Laboratory Theatre and his current investigations, acknowledging the importance of such early collaborators as dramaturg Ludwik Flaszen, designer Jozef Szajna, and actor Ryszard Cieslak. He also acknowledged the growing importance of his young American collaborator, Thomas Richards, the author of the recently published book "At Work With Grotowski on Physical Actions," and the director's partner and heir apparent in the running of his Workcenter in Pontedera, Italy.

     The first lecture emphasized the inseparability of practice and theory in Grotowski's work, with the director calling himself an "artisan." His theme was his search for a "metaquotidian" performance practice, defined from the point of view of the performer/practitioner/artisan rather than that of the audience. Grotowski argued for an adjustment in the French critical vocabulary for theatre towards this end, proposing a version of the English phrase "performing arts" in place of the French "les arts spectaculaires." He contrasted the search for "expressivity" with "work on the self" in acting, identifying his current work primarily with the latter. Throughout the lecture, Grotowski emphasized the continuity of his work with that of the late Stanislavsky, seeking to finish the work that his Russian predecessor did not have time to do.

     While invoking Stanislavsky, Grotowski also presented his "metaquotidian" mission as moving beyond realism. At the same time, he drew a sharp distinction between his work and that of both traditional genres such as Peking Opera and modern theatricalists such as Meyerhold and Brecht. To clarify these distinctions, Grotowski defined his work as "organic" rather than "natural." In the director's terms, the "natural" refers to the world of received social convention, involving realities that precede the performance composition. In a similar way, the "inorganic" is embodied in highly conventionalized (even though anti-naturalistic) traditions such as the Peking Opera. Naturalism seeks to mirror a pre-existing social reality, while inorganic theatrical traditions emphasize the reproduction of conventionalized and artificial codes of theatrical gesture. Grotowski's work, in contrast, seeks organic expression, obtained through rigorous work on the self in the service of an ultimately spontaneous energy flow in the performer's body manifested in a physical gesture without clear social or theatrical precedent.

     This principle was illustrated in the lecture by both the spontaneous possessions of participants in the voudun rituals in Deren's film and by the end results of Grotowski's own early work with Ryszard Cieslak. Grotowski argued that Stanislavsky in practice successfully combined both "organic" discovery on the part of the performer and the clarity and expressiveness needed to engage a spectator--and that in differing contexts the "organic" can invade the artificial in performance, and that ultimately the organic must similarly approach the artificial in the service of repeatable performance. In a final twist, Grotowski also noted that within the unrehearsed physical actions of the participants in voudun rituals emerged certain consistent patterns of movement related to the specific spirits called forth--suggesting a deeper "form" of movement released through such a "spontaneous" organic approach.

      The lecture ended with a brief discussion of Grotowski's groundbreaking work in the area of performance anthropology. Addressing his ongoing interest in yoga and the different manifestations of energy in the human body, he posed a final question on the relationship between physical energy and a higher--presumably spiritualized--energy. At this point, a continuity with the spirit (if not the letter) of Mickiewicz's mystical poetics could be subtly discerned. Like Mickiewicz before him, Grotowski was enthousiastically received by the Paris public attending. It remains to be seen whether he is able to use the position consistently to command the engagement of French intellectuals and artists with his work, which by virtue of its complex and rigorous concern with performance ultimately stands without precedent in the history of the Collège de France.


Periphery is published by Saint Mary's College in Orchard Lake, Michigan, in cooperation with the International center for Advanced Polish Studies in Warsaw. All rights reserved including the right of reproduction in whole, or in part in any form.

Slavic and East European Performance (ISSN 1047-0018) is a publication of the Institute for Contemporary East European Drama and Theatre under the auspices of the Martin E. Segal Theatre Center. SEEP is published three times a year. To order, Click Here

Additional Information on Grotowski

E-Mail:Owen Daly
| Home |

Pages by