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
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.
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
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.
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.
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
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
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.