MYTH IN ACTION
[wykład wygłoszony 1 sierpnia 2002 roku w Olimpii na międzynarodowej konferencji Ancient Myths in the Contemporary Theatre]
MYTH IN ACTION
Greek Heritage in the Polish Theatre
Polish culture is based on a peculiar paradox. Our tradition and historical consciousness are rich in rituals and martyrs, yet they function in a mythological vacuum, as there has been no elaborate system of myths to help us understand these ceremonies and sacrifices. Since we have traditionally claimed the Mediterranean civilisation as the source of our own culture, for many centuries we have also been relying on ancient Greek myths, albeit in the form passed on to us by the Romans. There was a time when many educated Poles were bilingual, and their Latin was better than Polish. Throughout our history, as we were losing our independence, ancient Greek myths, told again and again, lent us strength to survive and gave a meaning to our struggles. They ultimately became an integral part of our identity. In order to show how an ancient myth can be used as a device in constructing modern identity, I will look at the work of three Polish theatre artists.
Odysseus in the Theatre of Death
In 1944, in the town of Kraków, then occupied by the German military forces, Tadeusz Kantor (1915-1990), a Polish painter and visionary theatre director, was planning to stage at the main Kraków Railway Station, crowded with Nazi soldiers and police, The Return of Odysseus – a drama by another Polish visionary Stanisław Wyspiański (1869-1907). At that time the Nazis were in full retreat and Kantor envisaged Odysseus as a German Soldier coming home by train after the German surrender at Stalingrad (02.02.1943). A war criminal and a traitor, Odysseus was also coming from the world of ancient fiction to the real world. At the dirty and ugly station nobody would notice him, nobody would care who he is and what he did. There was no Ithaca anymore. The station was an embodiment of a reality of a lower order.
Of course, this idea has never materialised. Kantor had to stage his play in a private apartment. But still people who let him do it were risking their lives, as was the artist himself. There was a Nazi police station on the other side of the street and at any moment the Germans could break in. Moreover, the performance itself referred to the war events directly. When Odysseus directed his bow towards the suitors, the audience could hear the rattle of a machinegun coming from the real loudspeaker stolen from the street. On the entrance doors to the room where the performance took place Kantor wrote: “You never enter theatre with impunity”.
There was not a set design or props; the performance was staged in a room destroyed by the war. The spectators were not separated from the artists. There was no isolated space for illusion. Everything had to be real. But the reality of wartime was the reality of the lowest order. The objects used in the performance were the “poor objects” found on the street. “This everyday REALNESS – explained Kantor, who was the best commentator of his own works – which was firmly rooted in both place and time, immediately permitted the audience to perceive this mysterious current flowing from the depth of time when the soldier, whose presence could not have been questioned, called himself by the name of the man who had died centuries ago”. Only the huge canon was artificial: made of wood, it placed the war in the realm of fiction. Or more accurately: in the realm of death.
Odysseus, an Unknown Soldier in a dirty old mantel and a Wehrmacht helm, was returning from the realm of Death. Kantor discovered art as a vehicle to cross the gap between the other world and the real world, between death and life, between fiction and reality. The Return of Odysseus was the first manifestation of his Theatre of Death. The returning Odysseus became the prototype for all latter characters in Kantor’s theatre.
But Kantor was an eternal pilgrim himself, he internalized the great Homeric myth by repeating the journey of Odysseus with his art and with his life. In 1955 he founded Cricot 2 Theatre, named after the theatre of painters, which existed in Kraków in the years 1933-1939. The French-sounding term “cricot” was an anagram from Polish “to cyrk”, “this is a circus”. Kantor’s theatre never had any legal status or any building for staging performances. It was a genuine travelling troupe. The world of performance was Kantor’s real home and his journey was a spiritual one, towards self-discovery.
In 1975 Kantor staged his greatest performance, The Dead Class (Umarła Klasa). A few years earlier, during holidays on the Polish coast, he came upon a small village school and when he looked inside the empty classroom through the dirty window he discovered “the reality of memory”. In The Dead Class Kantor brought thirteen old people back from their death to the school. In the class they met thirteen manikins (or better: puppets) of children who resembled them when they were young. They had to sit few lessons before they could return to the realm of Death again. The performance had a structure of a spiritualistic séance. The actors were haunted by their characters; they were the living people inhabited by the dead ones. There was no room for psychological acting, or more accurately: there was no acting at all. Kantor required his actors not to embody a character but to precisely accomplish a real task, as for example “packing of the pack”. For Kantor, actors were crooks who unsuccessfully tried to cheat the audience. He himself, always present on the stage, directed the whole ceremony like a conductor or a priest rather than a director. All these ghosts were projections of his Memory. During the show, it was the Memory that had to be real, not the actors.
In his next performance, Wielopole, Wielopole (1980), Kantor put on the stage his own dead family. He mentally returned home to the village where he was born in 1915. The performance took place in the family room, which did not resemble any space at Kantor’s home in a Polish-Jewish village Wielopole, but was the Room of Memory, an autonomous space created by the simultaneous universes of a physical world overlapping the world of memory. Wielopole, Wielopole was created not in Poland but in Florence, Italy. Florence, once an intellectual and artistic centre of Italy, had become his second hometown. Both cities, Florence and Kraków, were depositories of glorious traditions. Wielopole, Wielopole was Kantor’s first script which did not include any quotations from the existing dramas.
His next show, Let the Artists Die (1985) continued Kantor’s road towards self-discovery. The structure of the revue, as he called it, was based on his own life, from his birth till his death. It was a bitter testimony to his failure to become his real self. Kantor exposed life as a process of continuous dying. Continual transformations made forging an identity impossible. The revue was created in Nuremberg, a hometown of another ill-fated artist, a great Renaissance sculptor Weit Stoss (1447-1533), who was one of the main characters in Let the Artists Die. Kantor was similarly damned in his hometown Kraków where he usually was given bad reviews and had no place to work. Weit Stoss, accused of not paying his debts, had both his cheeks pierced by the Nuremberg magistrates. As a motto to his performance Kantor chose: “Artists are victims of a society”.
The last performance Kantor managed to produce for his Cricot 2 Theatre had a very meaningful title: I Shall Never Return (1988). For this show he created his own manikin. He came to the end of his road. Now he himself was haunted by the ghosts from his previous performances. The show began with his own voice coming from the loudspeaker: “An artist has to be at the bottom”… He himself was sitting at the table on the stage watching the procession of his own creations. In the middle of the performance his other Self came on the stage, the manikin of a young Kantor, dressed as a groom. He was accompanied by an empty coffin, his bride. At the end of the show the real Kantor was approached by the characters from The Return of Odysseus. The suitors brought him a coffin. And then Kantor read from the old script of the original production: “In my fatherland I have found a hell”. He died two years later, while working on his next performance, Today Is My Birthday. He spent his last days completely alone in Kraków. After working during the day on the new performance, he came home and wrote in his diary: “What emptiness surrounds me”, “Nobody comes. I think, they are afraid”, “I have so much to do”.
Kantor’s travelling theatre was the twentieth century version of an old Greek myth. Like Odysseus he went into the realm of Death and then returned to discover himself in his own art. With his death his theatre inevitably ceased to exist. But the Theatre of Death was also a testimony to the 20th century notorious for totalitarian regimes and genocide. Kantor discovered the enduring power of the reality of the lowest order. Like a totalitarian dictator he reduced his actors into Bio-objects. In exposing their humiliation, he revealed the greatness of human beings. The act of a genius transformed the Bio-object into the masterpiece. Like Homer in his epics, Kantor recounted brutal and heroic events and proved that art will triumph over war and politics. While revealing his own Myth he has given shape to our own Memory.
Prometheus in the Poor Theatre
Kraków is the Polish necropolis, where our greatest kings and poets had been buried. Founded in the eight century AD, it was the capital city of Poland from 1305 to 1595, and today it is still an important cultural centre. The Wawel, the castle where the Polish kings resided, has the same significance for the Poles as the Athenian Acropolis for the Europeans. Here, in the years 1903-1904 Stanisław Wyspiański wrote Acropolis, his most important and difficult to interpret drama. The narrative is simple. On the night of the Resurrection, before Easter Sunday, figures descend from Wawel tapestries to recreate the great myths from ancient Greece and the Bible: the Trojan War, Paris and Helen, Jacob’s wrestling with the Angel, Jacob and Esau.
At the time when Wyspiański was composing his play, Cracow was both: the Polish Acropolis, a monument to our heroic past and a cradle and a grave of the national identity, and a huge ruin. Like the Athenian Acropolis the Wawel castle was wrecked by foreign invaders. This meant that the play’s title Acropolis had a ring of ambiguity about it.
In 1962, in a small town of Opole, 170 km from Kraków and 80 km from a former concentration camp in Auschwitz, a twenty-nine-year-old director Jerzy Grotowski made a decision to stage Acropolis in his Laboratory Theatre. Grotowski and his literary adviser Ludwik Flaszen (born in 1934) could not ignore the fact that they read the play in the aftermath of the Holocaust. Their collaborator was Józef Szajna (born in 1922), a well-known painter and a survivor of the Auschwitz camp. He decisively inspired the shocking and petrifying vision of the Acropolis as the crematory of civilisations. The burial ground of tradition was confronted with the reality of extermination camps. The motto to the production was taken from the poem of Tadeusz Borowski (1922-1951), who also had been a prisoner in Auschwitz:
Its just scrap iron that will be left after us
And a hollow, derisive laughter of future generations (trans. B. Taborski).
Grotowski’s Acropolis became thus a poetic vision of an extermination camp. The drama was acted among the spectators who were placed on different levels all over the acting space. But there was no direct contact between the actors and the audience. They inhabited two separate and opposite worlds: the spectators belonged to the realm of Life, the characters of the play to the realm of Death. Flaszen explained: “The physical closeness on this occasion is congenial to that strangeness: the audience, though facing the actors, are not seen by them. The dead appear in the dreams of the living odd and incomprehensible. The fact that they act in different places of the room – individually, and sometimes simultaneously – is intended to create the suggestion of spatial vagueness and obtrusive ubiquity”.
In the middle of the acting space stood a huge chest, with iron junk heaped on top of it: rusted stove pipes of various lengths and widths, a wheelbarrow, a bathtub, hammers and nails. As the action progressed, the actors-prisoners were constructing out of those objects an absurd civilisation, a civilisation of a gas chamber, symbolised by the stove pipes which surrounded the whole room as the actors hung them by strings or nailed them to the floor. Their costumes were just pieces of sack cloth with holes in them, put over their naked bodies; on their feet they had heavy wooden clogs which made an unbearable noise, on their heads they had dark, non-descript berets. The actors performed the absurdly aimless work of convicts, prescribed by prison camp regulations. Thus, in Acropolis, ancient and biblical myths were performed by the prisoners of a concentration camp. Wyspiański’s drama ends with the Resurrection and the apotheosis of Christ; this performance ended with a procession of prisoners who triumphantly carried a headless mannequin whom they took for the Saviour and disappeared one after another into a crematorium oven. Instead of an identification Grotowski proposed a confrontation with a myth.
There was no individual hero. Actors were prisoners and they were made into identical beings, bereft of any distinguishing marks of sex, age, or social class. Six actors presented an ideal ancient chorus. Their masks were created solely by the facial muscles, frozen in a bizarre grimace. Acropolis was a decisive step towards a poor theatre. Flaszen explained: “The production was constructed on the principle of strict self-sufficiency. The main commandment is: do not introduce in the course of action anything which is not there from the outset. There are people and a certain number of objects gathered in the room. And that material must suffice to construct all circumstances and situations of the performance; the vision and the sound, the time and space. The poor theatre: to extract, using the smallest number of permanent objects – by magic transformations of objects into objects, by multi-functional acting – the maximum of effects. To create whole World, making use of whatever is within reach of the hand”.
After the collective confrontation with a myth in Acropolis, the natural consequence was to take one step further and make actors confront a myth individually on the most intimate level. Grotowski explained: “I demand from the actor a deed, in which is contained his relation to the world. In a single reaction the actor ought to open, as it were, successive layers of his personality, from the biological-instinctive, through thought and consciousness, up to the peak which is difficult to define, but in which everything unites in one; there is in it the act of totally revealing oneself, sacrifice, sincerity, which translates all the conventional barriers and which contains, both at once, eros and caritas, I call it the total act. This act should function as a self-revelation. This act can be accomplished only on the basis of one’s own life – it is an act which strips one bare, deprives, reveals, discovers. The actor ought not to act, but penetrate the areas of his own experience with his body and voice. At the moment the actor achieves this act, he becomes a phenomenon hinc et nunc; he does not tell a story, or create an illusion – he is there in the present. If the actor is able to accomplish an act of this kind, and moreover in confrontation with a myth which retains its validity for us – the reaction which he evokes in us contains a peculiar unity of what is individual and what is collective”.
In the total act the actor was to present here and now not only himself but also the myth. A classic example of the total act was the role of Ryszard Cieślak (1937-1990) in The Constant Prince (1965), based on Calderon’s drama in the free translation of a great Polish Romantic poet, Juliusz Słowacki (1809-1849). Grotowski transferred the action from a historical to a universal level. Cieślak had to face the myth of Christ. On a personal level he verified the myth referring it to his most intimate memories. Grotowski demanded that the actor remain independent and pure to the point of ecstasy. Cieślak achieved this state by recalling his first love encounter with a girl during the scenes of the prince’s martyrdom. In the performance his total act was contrasted with the behaviour of the King’s court, “the community of fanatical conformists”. To enhance the tragedy of a human self-sacrifice Grotowski radically separated the audience from the actors. The spectators were placed behind a high fence; like a public in the Ancient Rome observing bloody games they looked down on the actors. “In the middle of the room there was a dais which – according to the requirements of the action – could serve as a prisoner’s bed of misery, an executioner’s platform, a table for surgical operations and a sacrificial altar”. Theatre was transformed into a sanctuary, where an ancient myth was performed and actualised, and where an actor became a Holy Actor.
The production of The Constant Prince and Cieślak’s great creation marked the beginning of a long process of research and workshops to accomplish the total act not just by one actor but also by the entire company of the Laboratory Theatre. On 19 July 1968 a single open rehearsal took place in Wrocław, followed on 11 February 1969 by the official premiere of Apocalypsis cum Figuris. The title alluded to the last work of Adrian Leverkühn, a hero of Doctor Faustus (1943-1947) by Thomas Mann (1875-1955), who “as a man of thirty five, under the influence of the first wave of euphoric inspiration, composes his main work, or his first great work, Apocalypsis cum Figuris, to fifteen woodcuts by Albrecht Dürer (1471-1528), or directly based on the text of the Revelation, in an uncannily short time.” In 1968 Jerzy Grotowski was also thirty-five year old and Apocalypsis came to be considered his most outstanding work, and the fullest work of his actors all of whom achieved creations of exceptional intensity.
Grotowski stated: “In Apocalypsis we departed from literature. It was not a montage/compilation of texts. It was something we arrived at during rehearsals, trough flashes of revelation, trough improvisations. We had material for twenty hours in the end. Out of that we had to construct something which would have its own energy, like a stream. It was only then that we turned to the text, to speech. From the various texts a language without an author was created, a language of the human kind. In what we are doing now there are no quotations. The word appears when it is indispensable for us”. Apocalypsis was his last performance. In the early seventies Grotowski proclaimed the end of the “Theatre of Productions” (1957-1968). Now spectators were required to actively participate in workshops and para-theatrical events, and in the works of the international Theatre of Sources (1976-1982).
In 1982, following the imposition of the Martial law, Grotowski left Poland. After few years of lecturing at American universities, he started in 1985 in Italy his Ritual Arts project. With a small group of young collaborators he founded the Workcenter of Jerzy Grotowski in Pontadera, Tuscany. Their work focused on ancient vibratory songs. These songs derived from ritual tradition were used as a device for the inner transformation. To activate “inner action” in the performers, Grotowski developed special performing structures, which were called simply Actions. Although the main goal of Action was to transform the doers, Grotowski invited to Pontadera guests to witness the process. In 1998 he and his collaborators visited Wrocław and presented Action to small chosen audience. We could witness how ancient ritual songs revealed their great mythical power again. In these songs ancient myths regained their universal dimension.
For Grotowski, myth was a vehicle for collective and personal transformation. True to this idea, several times in his life he himself underwent a radical transformation. He changed from a corpulent party member in dark glasses, through a slim hippie with long hair, into a white-bearded recluse. He constructed and reconstructed his own Self as an artist. His final creative achievement was to become a myth himself.
The third artist is Włodzimierz Staniewski (born in 1950), a founder and a leader of the Centre for Theatre Practice in Gardzienice, a small village in south-eastern Poland. In 1976, Staniewski, after parting his ways with Grotowski, moved to the rural and backward areas in order to find a new environment, a new audience and new resources for the theatre. This most Dionysian of Polish artists used the spirit of music as a creative force for his performances and for two original theatrical practices – The Expeditions and The Gatherings. For Staniewski, like for Grotowski, myths are still vibrating in “the Musicality of the Earth”. But their artistic roads were very different. Grotowski was more like a scientist who put the actors in the laboratory in order to stimulate and study their transformations. Staniewski has left the theatre and took the actors on a journey to bring his art directly to the people, like ancient Thespis – if there is any truth in Horace’s words that Thespis took his plays about on wagons.
Initially the Expeditions were undertaken every month, mainly in the eastern regions of Poland where many ethnic minorities including the Byelorussians, Gypsies and Lemks still live. During such Expeditions Staniewski organised the Gatherings. In the evening the actors performed a play for the villagers and later in the night the villagers were asked to sing their local traditional songs. The Gatherings provided the material for Gardzienice?s early performances: Sorcery (1981) and The Life of Archpriest Avvakum (1983). Sorcery was based on the Part Two of the drama Forefathers Eve (1821) by a Polish great Romantic poet Adam Mickiewicz (1798-1855). Using folk rituals and the structure of a Greek tragedy Mickiewicz sought to create a Slavic national myth, which in his opinion the Poles did not possess. Staniewski did not propose any new interpretation, but repeated Mickiewicz’s creative procedure, fusing the elements of a high and low culture. Sorcery arose from the fragments of the drama and from the songs and gestures of village people. Russian and Byelorussian songs and Hasidic Jews whirling dance served to recall the original context of an ancient Slavic ceremony resembling the ancient Anthesteria, a festival of Dionysos which was associated with the new wine and a commemoration of the dead.
The source and inspiration for The Life of Archpriest Avvakum was The Life written by 17th century Russian Orthodox fanatic Avvakum Pietrovich (1620-1682), burnt at the stake. Staniewski’s actors lent life and energy to the hieratical figures “frozen” in the old Russian Holy Icons. It was of a huge significance that the performance invoking suffering, heroism and constancy was created during the Marshal Law in Poland. While working on their next project Carmina Burana (1990), which centred on the myth of Tristan and Isolde, the company went abroad to study Celtic themes and medieval music.
In 1996 Staniewski composed his last performance, “a theatrical essay” based on the only Latin novel, which survived in its entirety, Metamorphoses or Golden Ass by Apuleius, a second century writer and orator. Staniewski attempted to revitalise not only an ancient myth but also ancient Greek music. Tomasz Rodowicz, the main actor in Gardzienice, explains: “The work on Metamorphoses proceeded on two independent levels for many months. The first level conducted by Włodzimierz Staniewski was connected with Apuleius and Plato, looking for references to our Expeditions, studies of ancient iconography and the creation of new actors’ technique. The second level conducted by a professional musician Maciej Rychły was an attempt to enter the world of ancient Greek music. He wanted us to read ancient music through the rhythms of the Balkans or Peloponnesian Peninsula. Singing Greek hymns like Balkan ones (3+3+2+2) we felt in our bodies that these rhythms have a power of flywheels”.
With equal intensity Rychły studied both the scraps of ancient manuscripts with music and the paintings preserved on vases. He tried to enliven each dancing gesture frozen on the vases and to apply to this movement the best suiting musical fragment. So, for hours he had been dancing and singing in order to bring about his own body experience. Later he passed on his discoveries directly into the actors’ bodies and voices. At the crucial stages the process was verified by Staniewski who incorporated chosen materials into the final performance. During the work on Metamorphoses Gardzienice closely collaborated with classical scholars in Poland. Regardless of the academic value of their reconstruction they probably succeeded in bringing back to life the spirit of ancient Greek music and dance. We couldn’t ask for more.
In his musically structured performances Staniewski has always attempted to embody the idea of the Expedition culminating in the Gathering and to bring about the meeting of “high culture” with the “low culture”. One year ago an American scholar Richard Schechner accused Gardzienice of neo-colonialism and escapism. I would argue, however, that the opposite is true. Staniewski’s work has always been a testimony to the complex structure of Polish society, something which the communist rulers tried to deny by perpetuating in their official propaganda a vision of a homogeneous and a unified nation. In his early performances he gave a voice to the ethnic minorities who were not only ignored and silenced but for a short time after the Second World War also persecuted and exterminated by the Polish government. Even in the very “archaeological” and elaborated Metamorphoses the actors behave like simple villagers who still remember how to sing their traditional songs. Only this time these songs belong to the heritage of the ancient Greece.
Conclusion: In search for a definition
The focus of my presentation was the performative power of myth. Kantor, Grotowski and Staniewski proved with their art and lives that myths have certain basic structures and potentialities which allow for different retellings, interpretations and applications. Kantor internalised myth to construct his own identity, Grotowski used myth to redefine and restructure the identity of his community, and for Staniewski myth became a vehicle to enliven ancient artistic procedures and empower people living in the rural province. No generally accepted definition of myth exists. The best approximation was given by Walter Burkert (born in 1931), one of the main scholars of ancient Greek Religion, a Professor of Classics at the university of Zurich. In his 1979 book, Structure and History in Greek Mythology and Ritual, Burkert wrote: “myth is a traditional tale with secondary, partial reference to something of collective importance”.
The word “traditional” implies a story which cannot be connected to any first storyteller known by a name. In the context of oral culture at least, there was not a fixed narration which was passed on but different plots associated with different performers. Polish artists can be counted among them. They contributed to preserving ancient myths by re-enacting their basic patterns and merging them with their own stories which, in a mysterious turn, acquired a collective importance.