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‘Holy theatre’

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  • Pages: 11
  • Word count: 2600
  • Category: Theatre

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Grotowski’s work on a ‘Holy theatre’ with his Theatre Laboratory took place from 1959-70 after which he stopped producing theatrical work to carry out paratheatrical work. The term ‘Holy Theatre’ is focussed on making theatre more like ritual. Actors had to be trained thoroughly, not just rely on inspiration for their performance. In the search for ritual within the theatre, Grotowski sought a collective experience for the audience which, as a result of the decline of religion, is rarely found in late twentieth century societies.

It is also important to establish that by using the term ‘Holy theatre’, Grotowski does not intend any religious connotation, he was in fact an atheist, ‘holy’ refers more to the ritual aspect of the theatre and the experience of the audience, which could be compared to experience brought on by a religious ceremony. The historical avant garde is the name given to the collective ideas and methods of theorists, writers and directors working in Europe from (for the purposes of this essay) 1895-1930 who saw opportunities for performance to act as a counter-culture and be like ritual.

I have looked in particular at the work of Jarry, Apollinaire and Artaud, especially the texts Ubu Rex1 and The Breasts of Tiresias2. In relation to Grotowski, I have focussed on accounts of his productions of Dr Faustus and Akropolis. There are certain themes that I will look at which I feel can be related between the two genres, these are; the influence of war on theatre, the role of the audience in theatre and performance as a ritual. Grotowski wanted to create a new relationship between the actor and spectator.

He knew that without the spectator, theatre would not exist and so wanted to create a complete experience for them. He wanted more than Brecht’s desired audience response and felt that if the audience only related to a performance intellectually as in a Brechtian performance or aesthetically which might be found in Stanislavskian productions, they were not fully experiencing the event. Grotowski fought to break down the barrier between actor and spectator, as through this a spectator could fully become part of the production. In several of his productions Grotowski gave the audience a specific role.

In Dr Faustus, they were guests at the table at Faustus’ ‘last supper’ and in Akropolis they were given the role of being the living, while the actors were the dead, moving among them3. There has been no other point in theatre history where such an importance was placed on the role of the audience, making their presence essential to convey the full meaning of the production. This use of an audience shows the influence of medieval drama and folk ritual on Grotowski as in these, the actors/performers were amongst the audience who were also encouraged to participate.

In each of his productions, Grotowski used staging which brought the action right to and around the audience, the proscenium arch was never used as this made a physical divide between the actor and spectator. It is these practices which help to bring about the state of ‘ritual’ within Grotowski’s theatre. In examining the ideas which came about from the historical avant garde I have focussed on the forms of theatre centred around two avant garde texts, Jarry’s Ubu Rex and Apollinaire’s The Breasts of Tiresias.

I have also studied Artaud’s theories of performance as I feel that one could not write about the historical avant garde without including some of Artaud’s work as it has influenced so many practitioners, including Grotowski. There is no doubt that, similar to Grotowski, members of the historical avant garde wanted to create a new theatre that went against the mainstream ideas of the time. I have found similarities between Grotowski and the Dadaist movement, of which Apollinaire was a member.

Dadaists saw themselves as ‘anti-art’; “For everything art stood for, Dada was to represent the opposite. Where art was concerned with aesthetics, Dada ignored them. If art is to have at least an implicit or latent message, Dada strives to have no meaning, interpretation of Dada is dependent entirely on the viewer. If art is to appeal to sensibilities, Dada offends. “4 To reconstruct this quote in relation to Grotowski; if theatre is concerned with aesthetics, Grotowski used none.

If Wyspianski’s Akropolis was the highest point of any civilisation, Grotowski made it the most disgusting point. If theatre entertains, Grotowski shocked and appalled his audiences. One could also use the phrase ‘counter-culture’ in relation to the avant garde and Grotowski. This was used to describe especially the theatre of Jarry’s time. When Ubu Rex was first performed in 1896, audiences were in uproar at the playwright’s use of language and treatment of characters which went violently against the norms of society in France at the time.

The play directly attacks the ideals of the bourgeoisie using satire, however the way Jarry’s production really offended the audience was by going against every expectation that they had brought to the theatre. 5 The audience of the time would have been expecting naturalistic drama in a realistic setting. What they were presented with was a vibrant, abstract set which had little to do with the action of the play and a placard, placed on the stage at the beginning of a scene, stating the setting.

Jarry believed that “a descriptive placard has far more “suggestive” power than any stage scenery. No scenery, no array of walkers-on could really evoke ‘the Polish Army marching across the Ukraine'”. 6 I feel that this idea of theatre’s communicative functions can be seen as contributing to Grotowski’s theories of Holy theatre as although he did not use vast abstract, artistic sets, he did not see it as important to have an elaborate set to convey a production and would use only props or pieces of set essential to the action of the production.

I see this as similar to the use of placards to describe a setting as it is more straightforward and direct, letting the actor’s work speak for itself. The use of theatre as a ‘counter-culture’ is an important way in which Grotowski’s ideas for theatre seems to have developed out of the historical avant garde. The most important way in which the theatre of the avant garde can be related to Grotowski’s work on Holy theatre is through their desire for theatre to be a ritual.

Both practitioners during the avant garde, including Artaud, and Grotowski wanted theatre to become a cathartic experience for the audience. They wanted performances to come from ‘within’ the actors rather than the external influences a director like Stanislavski might use. They wanted the audience to be guided through the theatre event in a trance-like state by the actor, in a relationship similar to that of a member of a church congregation being spiritually guided by a priest.

These directors wanted theatre to become an act of communion for the audience, not in the Eucharistic meaning, but in the way that they are experiencing a significant event together and being spiritually developed as one, with the actors’ help. It is this search to encourage spiritual development through theatre which shows the continuation of ideas from the historical avant garde, into Grotowski’s work. This intent is evident in Grotowski’s work through his choice of subject matter and the way he treats his audience, making them a part of the ‘ritual act’.

Grotowski wanted his productions to be seen by spectators who have a strong spiritual wish to analyse themselves, “who undergo an endless process of self-development, whose unrest is not general but directed towards a search for the truth about himself and his mission in life”7 I feel that this quote shows how Grotowski saw the importance of audience members in the act of ritual within theatre, and that the whole act was perhaps more for the benefit of the spectator than the actor or director.

The historical avant garde was developing work immediately before, during and after World War One. I feel that this had a huge affect on their views of theatre and its function and purpose. Apollinaire was directly affected by the war as he was injured. Grotowski was hugely affected by the Second World War as he fled a Polish village after it had been invaded by the Nazis. Young men working in Europe during the First World War, like Apollinaire and Artaud, were aware of their own mortality as thousands upon thousands of their compatriots were killed in the trenches.

To develop a counter-culture within theatre showed the world that these young men did not agree with the practices of those who had gone before and those who were responsible for starting the war that killed so many of their friends. In my reading of the topic, I have not found an example of avant garde drama written during or immediately after the war which conveys this feeling as clearly as Grotowski’s Akropolis does for World War Two. However, I do think that it is important that Apollinaire and the Surrealists ‘rediscovered’ Jarry’s Ubu Rex around 19168.

Apollinaire saw Jarry as the forerunner of all the artists who “rejected traditional forms as the false images of a universe demonstrably lacking both system and purpose” and expressed “the full implications of an irrational and destructive existence in a form that was equally as irrational and destructive”. 9 I feel that this quote refers not only to the mainstream forms of art and theatre, but also the actions of government at the time.

Grotowski voiced his disgust with the action of Germany during World War Two with his production of Wyspianski’s Akropolis, which was set in Auschwitz extermination camp, rather than the original setting of Krakow Cathedral. Akropolis is a piece of theatre that shows how despicable one human race can be to another. The play can be seen as a call to the spectator’s unconscious, to wonder what they would do if in that situation and surely install in them a resolve to ensure that such a horrific act does not occur again.

These two examples of theatre show how through performance, theatre can warn societies of the dangers that can occur through misuse of power. Grotowski acknowledges that theatre is generally seen as inferior entertainment compared to film and television which offers technological feats which entertain and amaze the spectator. Theatre could try to compare to these technological advances and fail or develop a new theatre that rejects all forms of technology, lighting and sound and so on.

This is the poor theatre; it creates a form of entertainment in society which is completely different to any other form and therefore not in competition with them10. I feel that Grotowski’s aim for theatre was to create an art form that will appeal to people within a society who want to develop themselves spiritually and find a new experience where they are physically close to the performers, not set apart from them as in film, television and mainstream theatre.

Being a spectator at a performance of Akropolis would be an entirely different experience to that of watching film images of the liberation of Auschwitz. It may not suit everybody but some spectators would feel more of a connection with the suffering of those in Auschwitz having seen this production, having the actors move among them, seeing their plight at first hand; than simply seeing black and white images on a screen, physically distanced from them. It is this opportunity for audiences to face issues close at hand that I feel is one purpose of ‘Holy theatre’ in society.

It is obvious from Grotowski’s essay ‘He Wasn’t Entirely Himself’11 that he had enormous respect for Artaud and had studied his work in detail. From this essay alone one can see how Grotowski might have seen his work in developing the Holy theatre as a continuation of the work of the avant garde, including Artaud. Artaud’s main theory was the ‘Theatre of Cruelty’. I find that the clearest way to define Artaud’s theatre of cruelty is to paraphrase an excerpt from Barber’s work; Artaud was completely uncompromising, he wanted to abolish the traditional boundaries between actor and spectator.

He wanted theatre to return to “an experience of the senses” and the audience to be “unsettled and shocked to its very core by experiences of power and beauty”12. I feel that there are clear ways in which Artaud’s intentions for a new theatre can be related to Grotowski’s proposals for a Holy Theatre but that is not to say that Grotowski fully accepted all of Artaud’s work. Grotowski found many flaws within Artaud’s work mainly related to his lack of concrete technique to enable performers to carry out his intentions.

In terms of the function and purpose of performance, Grotowski looks for an alternative to the theatre of cruelty which he feels has been abused by practitioners since Artaud developed it. Artaud puts forward the idea of violence and cruelty being used in performance to purify the act of theatre itself. Grotowski doubts that this is either possible or necessary, as a spectator’s mind would tell them that theatre itself could not hurt or protect them.

Grotowski suggests instead, a “total act”, where cruelty is used within a living organism, with real impulses, a spectator could then respond ‘totally’ with their whole body and mind13. Artaud’s treatment of the spectator differed to that of Grotowski. Although Artaud wanted to break down the traditional barrier between actor and spectator, Grotowski felt that in doing so he simply crated a new barrier. Artaud wanted the audience to sit on swivel chairs in the middle of a room with the action happening in the four corners.

Grotowski took this further by having the actors move among the audience, not defining different acting or spectating space to create a different performance experience which draws the spectators into the performance as an essential component. Artaud wanted to develop a theatre that would shock audiences and societies as a result of the cruelty within the performance, he wanted his theatre to be a new experience for audiences. However, what audiences received was the product of a tortured mind and it was this that dictated the form and purpose of Artaud’s theatre.

Artaud’s mind was cruel and chaotic and the only way he could make sense of it and survive was to convey what he was going through, through his work. Grotowski describes these as ‘outbursts’ which were “holy, for they enabled others to reach self-knowledge”14. The way Artaud reached his theories, through his illness, made his theatre ‘holy’ in the eyes of Grotowski because others that followed, attempting to create a theatre of cruelty were using chaos as a theatrical tool to add to their work rather than it being an essential part of their expression.

It is this purpose of theatre, for it to be a pure expression, stripped of anything unnecessary or superlative that Artaud began to strive for during the historical avant garde and Grotowski continued and developed definite practices to achieve. In conclusion, there are several ways in which one can relate Grotowski’s holy theatre to the ideas that came out of the historical avant garde. The most important of these was the rediscovered idea of theatre being like ritual.

Another important relation between the two is the way in which performance can be used within society as a ‘counter-culture’ and way of informing audiences about world events and how ridiculous they are when one sees them within a performance. I feel that these two genres act as inspiration to spectators, spiritually through ritual and socially through the topics they satirised. They give spectators a new means to act against society without resorting to violence.

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