Obituary: Jerzy Grotowski

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JERZY GROTOWSKI is a name that few drama students speak confidently. Yet this Polish theatre director is a central figure in 20th-century theatre, ranking alongside Brecht and Stanislavski.

Grotowski rejected the cliched terminology of entertaining "shows" and repositioned theatre as an encounter between spectator and actor. He was the director who most tangibly realised Artaud's mad but inspired vision of a metaphysical theatre, viscerally disturbing and purging the audience on a subconscious level - a Theatre of Cruelty. For Grotowski this "total theatre" was only achievable through the actor's "gift" of themselves to the audience. Ideally, the audience, challenged by the performer's excess, would search inside themselves.

Peter Brook, whose own performances owe much to Grotowski, has referred to the work of Grotowski's Laboratory Theatre (1962-84), and its devoted research into actor training and performance, as "Holy" theatre. Its ideas live on in Poland's theatre companies Gardzienice and Studium Teatralne, and Denmark's Odin Teatret, amongst many others. In 1966, Brook invited Grotowski and his lead actor Ryszard Cieslak to the Royal Shakespeare Company to train actors (Glenda Jackson among them) for his anti-Vietnam War piece, US.

The "psychophysical" actor training developed by Grotowski and his company over many years depended on strenuous daily discipline and exercises, including gravity-defying acrobatics and the use of the whole body as a vocal resonator. There was speculation that this intensity led to the mysterious and early deaths of several of his actors. The Laboratory's practices were not totally ascetic, however. True Poles, its members also drank and smoked heavily - and many photographs of Grotowski show him cradling a cigarette.

Grotowski's intense artistic quest was forged in the furnace of Catholicism and Communism, coexistent in post-war Poland. Making art was a battle to be fought vigorously. Grotowski studied acting and directing first at the School of Dramatic Arts in Crakow from 1951 to 1955 and then at Gitis in Moscow, the acting school which has perpetuated Stanislavski's naturalistic system.

However stylistically different their performances might have been, and however experimental the Laboratory's work, Grotowski always referred to Stanislavski as his master. He was continuing the Russian's research into the method of physical actions, which Stanislavski developed in his later life.

Grotowski was always physically searching and mentally inquiring into the possibilities of theatre and the limits of the actor. His practice moved through many phases, but, startlingly, nearly two-thirds of his working life was spent creating work never seen in public. The traditional role of theatre maker was merely the first phase of his artistic career. His last public performance, Apocalypsis cum Figuris, based on writings from Simone Weil, T.S. Eliot, Dostoevsky and the Gospels, was completed in 1970, though there were later performances of it.

His legacy exists as much in his complex and deeply personal writing as in his performances, which survive only as poor-quality black-and-white films. He put his concept of a "poor" theatre into practice at the Theatre of the 13 Rows which he founded in 1959 and which subsequently became Theatre Laboratory. It consisted of a permanent group of nine actors who took part in in-depth explorations of dramatic possibilities as well as performances.

Towards a Poor Theatre, which described the Laboratory's theories and practices, was published in 1968. It still is a core text for drama undergraduates, with arresting images of semi-naked actors in tortuous positions.

It was the findings of the Laboratory's research which shook the theatre world in the 1960s, with performances like Stanislaw Wyspianski's Akropolis (1962), designed by the Auschwitz survivor Jozef Szajna and set in a concentration camp, and Juliusz Slowacki's version of Calderon de la Barca's The Constant Prince (1965).

Ryszard Cieslak's performance in it created shockwaves. In this "total act" - the apotheosis of Grotowski's work - Cieslak offered himself up to the spectator, suffering and vulnerable, human and exposed, rather than hidden by the mask of character. "A sort of psychic illumination emanates from the actor," wrote the critic Josef Kelera. "At any moment the actor will levitate. He is in a state of grace". As Cieslak crumpled to the floor in the closing moments of his martyrdom, he recalled his first adolescent love. What was essential for Grotowski was the intertwining of technical precision with the actor's inner private life - the emotional and imaginative "associations".

In 1970 he began to conduct "paratheatrical" experiments in the vast tracts of Polish countryside. He renounced the architecture of the theatre event with its segregation of spectators and actors, journeying instead "On the Road to Active Culture".

The premise of "Active Culture" was to tap innate human creativity and move away from "Passive Culture" - viewing other people's films, reading other people's books or watching other people's acting. A focus on processes for self- development rather than for show remained a central creed for the rest of his working life; through the Objective Drama phase with its research into rituals from around the world, to Art as a Vehicle (as opposed to Art as Presentation), which he was researching when he died.

The 1970s paratheatrical workshops, which included such programmes as Beehives, the Tree of People, Holiday and Night Vigil, took place often in wild forests and abandoned castles or farms. There were no spectators; all "acted", with the Laboratory actors as guides. Many participants described the difficulty of re-entering daily life after such emotional and physical exploration.

For Grotowski, journeys were a voluntary process of discovery, with perhaps one exception. Martial law was declared in Poland in December 1981 and in 1982 Grotowski left, ending up in the US. The Laboratory Theatre was officially disbanded two years later. He rarely returned to his troubled home country, even during its post- 1989 renaissance.

In America, Grotowski found funding and security to develop the Theatre of Sources, which he had begun in 1977 to search for the roots of ritual, song and dance in several countries. Objective Drama merged with Art as a Vehicle, based since 1986 at the Workcentre of Jerzy Grotowski in Pontedera in Italy. Until the end Grotowski was restless in his enquiry. In one of his last published statements he wrote: "I don't want to discover something new but something forgotten."

Paul Allain

King Francois I created the College de France in 1530, writes James Kirkup. It is a public foundation for the highest levels of education, with a staff of 50 professors, each elected by his fellow academics.

Pierre Boulez occupied the chair of music until his retirement in 1995. His place was taken for the first time in the institution's history, by a man of the theatre, Jerzy Grotowski, who acceded to a chair of anthropologie theatrale created specifically for him.

Grotowski had obtained French nationality in 1990. He gave his inaugural lecture at Peter Brook's theatre Les Bouffes du Nord on 24 March 1997, taking as his subject "The Organic Line of Descent of Theatre from Ritual". He walked through the audience to reach the stage, a tall, thin figure with the long white hair and beard of an ancient sage. He stated: "I am neither a scholar nor a scientist. Am I an artist? Just possibly. But I'd say that my natural condition is that of an artisan."

This modest artisan of the theatre was a man who had done more than anyone since Stanislavski to revolutionise the world of serious theatre. As Peter Brook writes in his preface to Vers un theatre pauvre:

To my knowledge, no one else in this world, since Stanislavski, has studied the nature of the actor's work, its phenomenon, its significance, the nature and the science of its mental, physical and emotional processes as profoundly and as completely as has Grotowski.

Grotowski mounted a number of remarkable reworkings of great classics like Goethe's Faust (1960) and Byron's "unactable" Cain, in the same year. Among his greatest productions this period were works by fellow Poles: the romantic poet Mickiewicz's Forefathers (1962), Juliusz Slowacki's poetic drama Kordian (1962), and Wyspianski's 1905 Study on Hamlet (1964).

In 1981, he abandoned performances to concentrate on experiment and teaching, and researches into language, particularly Sanskrit. With his faithful band of followers, he retired to Tuscany, to Pontedera, where they lived in rather primitive conditions. The master's health was declining: he had heart problems and had developed leukaemia. But he occasionally gave classes abroad, notably in Paris at the Odeon and then at the Theatre du Rond-Point. He worked on almost to the end, choosing as his successor the American Thomas Richards, who produced an impressive work, Travailler avec Grotowski sur les actions physiques (1990).

His master had many imitators and false disciples, but no one could equal his dedication to pure theatre.In 1967, he had said:

I am interested in the actor because he is a fellow human being . . . which means my encounter with a person other than myself, the feeling, the contact, the sense of mutual comprehension created by the fact that we are both opening ourselves to another human being, that we are trying to understand him and thus overcome our solitude.

That profound understanding of oneself through a profound understanding of others is what illumined Jerzy Grotowski's teachings, and his actors, who transmitted his genius by illuminating their audiences.

Jerzy Grotowski, theatre director: born Rzeszow, Poland 11 August 1933; died Pontedera, Italy 14 January 1999.