Addressing a gap in western scholarship, Magda Romanska's The Post-traumatic Theatre of Grotowski and Kantor explores literary and historical traditions from which emerged Jerzy Grotowski's Akropolis and Tadeusz Kantor's Dead Class. Romanska expertly and accessibly places these central works into the cultural and historical context she convincingly argues is essential to their understanding. In so doing, this work explores questions of theatrical reception and meaning in differing contexts, while offering readers the background to more fully analyze these pivotal works.
Referencing Adorno, Romanska comments on the complexity of meaning in theatre, noting it is “multilayered, intertwined between form and content, text and context, history and culture," (1). She thus sets the stage for her project: to provide the necessary context, history, and analysis of content to enable a full and incisive reading of the works in question. The introduction to the text vividly presents the type of analysis and commentary to which Romanska looks to provide a corrective. Citing reviews of both Akropolis and Dead Class from non-Polish speaking countries (primarily the United States), Romanska underscores the degree to which critics were quick to dismiss the language (which they did not understand) as unimportant, focusing instead on the visual and gestural elements of the productions in support of claims to their “universality." In these reviews, which often claimed “the words don't mean anything," cultural, historical, and linguistic specificity are largely absent.
Arguing that such readings fundamentally misunderstand these complex and multilayered works, Romanska offers a broad introduction to Grotowski and Kantor, as well as the historical and literary tradition of which they are a part. Of particular interest is her concise explanation of their respective theatrical philosophies (Grotowski's teatr ubogi and Kantor's teatr biedny), as well as the complicated traditions of Jewish mysticism and Romantic messianism that reverberate through the works.
While Romanska's text might well be useful to anyone interested in better understanding these works, her introduction additionally frames the project as of particular interest within her field of theatre criticism. She observes, “the absence of in-depth scholarship on Akropolis and Dead Class reveals one of the most pressing issues surrounding the field of theatre criticism: the need to straddle the very fine line between transnational and contextual approaches. Too narrow a contextual focus risks the ghettoization of a work within the constrained framework of its own ethnic literary and cultural canon; too broad a focus precludes an in-depth understanding of the work's complex web of visual and literary ethnic language," (9). The text that follows looks to straddle this line, offering the keys to understanding Grotowski and Kantor within their Polish context, without denying their universality.
Having framed her project and the broad history of her subjects, the first half of Romanska's text turns to Grotowski's Akropolis. The section begins with an introduction of Grotowski's work and his (largely positive) reception abroad. With reviews of his work, Romanska illustrates the degree to which the foreign reception of his Akropolis praised gestural elements of the production, as well as its value as a fashionable and “exotic" product from behind the iron curtain. Against these readings, Romanska offers an analysis of the works central to a full understand of the multilayered drama. She first outlines the traces and influence of turn-of–the-century writer (and artist) Stainsław Wyspiański, to whose Akropolis Grotowski's later work owes a great deal. Within this discussion, Romanska provides an incisive explanation of the meaning of Wawel Hill in Polish history and culture, and comments on the implications of Grotowski's decision to transplant the action of his production from Wyspiański's Wawel Hill to Auschwitz. Within this theatrical Auschwitz, Grotowski sought not reenactment, but rather ritualistic embodiment of the camp experience.
Taduesz Borowski, who was imprisoned in Auschwitz and later wrote of life in the camp, is identified as immensely influential, both in Polish discourse of the Holocaust and in Grotowski's work. His is an influence Romanska notes “was common knowledge" in Poland, yet ignored abroad. Of Borowski, Romanska writes that he bore a “particularly Polish je ne sais quoi detachment in the face of utter despair and the overwhelming, brutal force of history," (120). Like Witold Gombrowicz and Bruno Schulz before him, Borowski was “fully steeped in the tradition of the Polish grotesque". Grotowski works within this tradition, and owes much of his general sense of the grotesque, as well as specific elements of his vision of Auschwitz, to Borowski's work.
The second half of the text takes much the same form as the first, introducing Kantor's career and reception before turning to the works and themes essential for an understanding of his Dead Class. Though not as popular abroad as Grotowski, Kantor's work was similarly met with criticism that argued it could be appreciated without a knowledge of Polish language or culture. Romanska provides examples of these discussions of a “universal Kantor," where language is described as “pure sound" and Dead Class is erroneously interpreted as a satire of the educational process. Of such readings, Romanska argues, “For Kantor's generation, calling a prewar childhood a traumatic experience – vis-à-vis the experience of World War II and the Holocaust – is absurd," (210). In place of such a flawed analysis, Romanska argues that for Kantor, childhood is employed as a metaphor for death and as such, it allows him to address issues of death and absence without directly naming them. Romanska identifies the roots of this artistic approach and particularly Polish humor in the works of Witkacy, Schulz, Gombrowicz, and Judiasm.
The influence of Witkacy on Kantor is undeniable. Romanska notes that Kantor's theatre, Cricot 2, directly references the stage on which Witkacy's works were performed – Cricot. Cricot 2 for decades “played with Witkacy," transforming his theatrical works into “happenings." Romanska importantly highlights that in engaging with the works and aesthetics of Witkacy's theatre of the absurd, Kantor made not only an artistic statement, but also a political one in so far as he embraced a style in stark contrast to the demands of socialist realism.
In a series of short chapters characteristic of the work, Romanska explore the trances of Schulz present in Dead Class. She notes and explains Kantor's fascination with “reality of the lowest rank" (a concept borrowed from Schulz, which also echoes Nazi philosophies that reduced humans as physical objects). Underscoring similarities in Schulz's and Kantor's childhoods, Romanska critically identifies their shared fascination with liminal space – particularly that between the living and the dead. Discussing the oft overlooked influence of Judaic thought on Kantor, Romanska notes that this interest in the liminal echoes stories of the Dybbuk, which stress that the dead are always present among the living. She also notes the similarities between Kantor's theatre and the Jewish celebration of Purim, as both are characterized by amateurism and carnivalesque abandon.
Among these discussions a distinctly Polish black humor emerges time and time again. Romanska takes on the difficult task of explaining Kantor's humor, noting that within the Polish fascination and nonchalance with death, humor often is used to heighten horror. In the tradition of Witkacy and Gombrowicz, Kantor is engaged with a particularly “Polish School of Grotesque."
Towards the conclusion of her analysis of Dead Class, Romanska suggests that the work might well be understood within the tradition of Jewish Kaddish – which are about death, yet never directly reference death. Similarly, Kantor's Dead Class looks to be about the Holocaust, without speaking its name. It is a work that aims to capture absence, a goal Romanska suggests Kantor approached with his practice of combining actors and objects (his “bio-objects) and through his pointing actors in the direction of marionettes (a fascination which Romanska convincingly links to Schulz's interest in dummies and mannequins).
Alongside the extensive references of the text, The Post-traumatic Theatre of Grotowski and Kantor offers a set of photographic illustrations and a brief appendix. The illustrations offer readers a glimpse of the distinct and affecting aesthetics of each production. In a work so rich with contextual information, it is at times easy to lose sight of the analyzed works themselves, and the inclusion of these photographs brings readers back to the dramas, offering a hint of the visual language that so gripped foreign critics. The appendix includes a timeline that places the careers of Grotowski and Kantor alongside world historical events. There is also a concise and clear table comparing Kantor and Grotowski that illuminates the distance between these two figures and offers readers an easily referenced guide to their distinct aesthetics and philosophies.
For those with an extensive background in Polish literature and culture, Romanska's overview may at times seem overly cursory. Impressive in its breath of topics, the work – perhaps necessarily – offers only a glimpse at the rich material covered. Even so, in exploring the traces of Jewish tradition and the trauma of the Holocaust, Romanska examines an aspect of these works that often is overlooked in much Polish scholarship and will likely thus be of interest even to those more versed in the canonical works.
This text is a valuable resource for those looking to better understand the complex creativity of Grotowski and Kantor within their Polish historical, social, and literary context. Romanska convincingly argues that such background is a necessary key to appreciating the meaning of these works and provides a wide ranging and illuminating survey of the relevant figures and philosophies. It is not only a rich explanation of these dramatists, but also serves as an engaging overview of the Polish literary tradition.