Paul Maunder is a writer and
director in New Zealand who saw the Polish Laboratory Theatre
perform Apocalypsis in Sydney (in about 1969 or 1970?) and
presented a theatrical work which he directed in an international
theatre festival in Poland in 1975.
in Working Culture, Autumn 1999, Wellington, New Zealand.
Grotowski's dead. People die, but
this death leaves me with the initial emptiness of true grief; for
after practicing daily for twenty five years, exercises distilled
by he and his group; testing ideas (both theatrical and spiritual)
against his; when working with actors, knowing the pleasure of them
discovering an acting space which he defined- then it is like the
head of a family dying.
He was the touchstone for the theatre artist in me; in fact he was
the finest of theatre artists, radically ahead of his time, yet at
the same time, a true conservative.
In the same way that cubists preserved
the essence of painting (the ability to see anew), Grotowski preserved
the essence of theatre (the ability to make contact anew). For that
reason he will never be appreciated by the comfortable mainstream
- for whom charm and chat remain the name of the game.
After training in Poland and the USSR (he acknowledged Stanislavski
as his mentor), he set himself and his group a concise task: to research
the place and purpose of theatre in the current age; and to devise
a training system which could meet the demands of the task.
The result? Given that tv and cinema present naturalism with ease
and have technological capabilities which far surpass those of the
most sophisticated staging, the essence of theatre remains the meeting
between actor and spectator; for the actor to remove the mask of
modernity and reveal what remains of the vulnerable human being,
suggesting to the witness a similar vulnerability.
Aesthetically, the old myths and collective tales are unable to be
assumed (for we no longer live in community). Instead they need to
be confronted (harshly) with the modern paradigm.
Such a theatre is not easily accomplished- he was always scathing
of the sixties group groping and screaming syndrome.
Only the highly trained and disciplined actor can reveal herself
as "holy" human.
He and his group combed the acting systems of the world- East and
West- and began the task of extracting "essences" (positions,
movements, sounds, processes which seemed to occur more than once)
and were somehow relevant to the being- of man the spiritual animal.
While he was aware that we are increasingly living in a Tower of
Babel, he was a post modernist in the sense of operating cross culturally;
in another and more important sense, he refused to idly assume another
culture or its "fashions".
His method was the via negativa, a stripping away to find the essence. Thus
was born his "poor theatre", a theatre poor in technology,
but rich in spirit and practice.
It was the best modern theatre I have seen, as good as Noh, Kabuki,
Kathakali- it had that certainty, that simplicity, that density,
that craft of the great classic theatres; yet it had grown from current
After achieving that feat, he gave up performance, for he was very
aware of the contradiction of becoming a commodity, especially if
one becomes fashionable. One of his group spoke to me of how appalling
it was performing in Paris- a large proportion of the audience would
leave after twenty minutes. When asked why, they said, There's so
much to see, we can't spend any longer here.
Instead he turned to the spectator, to the "kind of person" who
is seeking "the meeting", is interested in "the holy".
He entered the para-theatrical period
of workshops, which often took place in natural settings, with facilitators
leading a group through a ritualistic process. The film, "My Dinner
with Andre", describes the results and some of the confusion that
this concept of "the
holiday (holy day)" resulted in.
Grotowski left Poland during the solidarity
crisis (and I've often wondered about the timing), moving to California
where he set up a centre as an outreach of UCLA (actually UC Irvine
- ed.). There began a period called Theatre of Sources, during which
he collaborated with performative experts from a variety of cultures
(martial arts and voudoun among others). He and his colleagues worked
with small groups of people who had committed themselves for
a period of time, to a quest which was becoming monastic. He was
both training them in theatre and acting skills (passing on his knowledge)
and exploring a theatre of ritual arising from a dialogue/confrontation
between the modern existentially individualistic experience and the
spiritual stories from the past.
It was a collective quest to enable a modern spiritual survival and
perhaps as well a quest to enable the survival of theatre - for the
full impact of Information Technology and the culture of commodification
was being felt.
From California he moved to Tuscany
where he set up his Work Centre and he entered the final period,
which he called Objective Drama. By now he was more certain of the
patterns he had extracted. They had become "objective",
to be more diligently practiced. The purely physical/vocal exercises
of "Towards a Poor Theatre" had
become spiritual exercises training the actors to in turn evolve
spiritual performances of their own design, which would never be
From performance, Grotowski had turned to the performer, tracing
the genealogy of "performer"- the soothsayer, the warrior
etc. Performance has become impossible, but the survival of the performer
(both technically and as interiority) is essential.
There are a huge number of questions suggested in all this.
How resonant is the idea of theatre as monastic practice awaiting
a time when the spiritual processes he is suggesting can come out
in the open... What about class, the poor, child labour, injustice,
Grotowski rejected political or social issue theatre.
Politics is politics, art is art. To confuse the two is to make both
spaces comfortable to be in; fudging the problematics of both politics
and art. While I have never been able to accept the total spiritualising
of art, there is a difficult truth in what he says on this matter,
and a warning against comfort:
"Our rights as men should begin with our acts rather than with declarations
or testimonials to ourselves. We are like trees. We don't have to worry in
which direction destiny, climate, the winds, and the tempest are veering, or
to know whether the earth will be fertile of sterile; the very fact of our
birth obliges us to respond to the challenge of life and to answer it in the
manner of nature itself, which never hurries or hesitates. If our seed falls
upon stone, so much the worse. Even this does not free us from our duty; and
if we refuse, on whatever pretext, to perform the acts required of us, we shall
be like a tree thrown into a fire and destroyed. And that will be right.
This fire is not of a social order; it flames inside me as soon as I betray,
in one way or another, my duty as a living man, the duty to perform acts. The
worst threat to man's survival lies in my own sterility; and this sterility
is nothing but an escape from creation."
And this quote, in its Nietzschean commitment, both inspires and
leads to further contradictions; for the artist must eat, and that
generally involves us in the messiness of society. By good fortune,
a Polish provincial city council funded Grotowski and his group while
they conducted their research- unthinkable in the West who later
picked him up when he was famous. Grotowski lived a frugal life,
but neither did he have to work in the local service station. The
soil was not too infertile.
Perhaps Berger comes closest to resolving this when he agrees that
he is a Marxist, for Marxism is an essential framework for understanding
how society works. But he goes on to say, that Marxism has no soul,
and for that reason is perhaps essentially unethical. Back to Grotowski,
one of the more remarkable sons of the old Eastern Europe.
And ultimately, in my own testing of his validity, I have to
return to young Maori and Pacific Island working class (if not lumpen)
kids on a performing arts course, responding with a felt need to
the spiritual space Grotowski has defined.
He was a teller of truth, but as a close colleague pointed out as
I shared with her the moment of hearing of his death, the tellers
of the truth are becoming old- Chomsky, Castro, Berger... And we
pondered on a coming age where perhaps there will be no philosophers.
It was a gloomy prospect.
Maunder (reprinted here with permission of the author)