THEATRE:Polish Theatre


Anna R. Burzyńska
The Classics and the Troublemakers

Heiner Müller claimed that a text for the theatre is only good enough when the theatre that exists is not able to implement it on stage. This definition perfectly fits to the majority of the most important Polish dramatic texts (and undoubtedly to all the most prominent ones), which were created, both in the nineteenth century and at the beginning of the twenty-first century. In the history of Polish theatre one can hardly find well tailored, realistic plays designed for the entertainment theatre.

The art of dramatic composition has mostly been the domain of poets, experimenters and theatrical visionaries. Their plays (symbolic, ambiguous, open and contravening the Aristotelian commandments), on a numerous occasions forerunning the post-dramatic contemporary theatre, would usually at the very moment of publication gain the label of ”non-stage dramas” destined for reading and “staging” only in the reader’s theatrical imagination. For many years, these dramatic texts had to wait for courageous and talented producers, who would be able to find the appropriate form for their presentation and who, on these occasions, would quite frequently invent a new kind of theatre or new ways of staging and acting.

The specific character of the national dramatic literature, the influence of the ideas of the Great Theatrical Reform, the aesthetic views and multi-faceted artistic activity of Stanisław Wyspiański, one of the most important Polish theatre artists – all these factors affected the specific character of the 20th century theatre in Poland. This theatre was based mostly on the system of national repertoire theatres, with the permanent, professional team of actors. Even though it consisted of a large group of directors-painters and numerous remarkable stage designers, it was a theatre of words. Outstanding phenomena, emerging next to the repertoire theatre, such as theatre of Jerzy Grotowski or Tadeusz Kantor, were something absolutely unique, and from this uniqueness they derived their strength.

The Polish art of acting,  even though exceptionally important, it is also to a very large degree subordinated to producers. The nature of repertoire hosted on national stages – not only in terms of our national classics, but also in terms of the regularly staged Shakespeare plays – practically speaking exclude naturalistic way of acting comparable to acting in films; graduates of the Lee Strasberg’s school would find it difficult to adapt themselves on Polish stages. On the other hand, the Brechtian distance or principles of biomechanics never caught on in the Polish theatre schools and on stage. In Poland for several years, students have been taught according to the slightly modified Stanislavski method, based on the examples extracted from Anton Chekhov’s plays. Realism – yes, but artistically transformed, subtler, enriched with a dose of self-irony and intellectual detachment.

For some time, however, this tendency has been changing. Decades of pedagogical work, in which such masters-directors as Jerzy Jarocki or Krystian Lupa managed to raise a few generations of actors working according to their method and sharing their opinions about the theatre, are not the only reason. And this because, above all, the contemporary theatrical literature, both foreign (particularly of the “new brutalism” school: Sarah Kane, Mark Ravenhill, Marius von Mayenburg) and national (Paweł Sala, Paweł Demirski, Krzysztof Bizio, Jan Klata, Paweł Jurek, Marek Pruchniewski), requires a completely different type of acting, as well as directing. A significant factor is also the opening of the borders after 1989: more and more frequently young Polish directors work in France, Germany or Austria, while foreign directors (including such original and “separate” ones like for example Robert Wilson) produce spectacles in Polish theatres.

In the recent years the importance of a playwright (in the meaning of the term adapted from German theatre, i.e. assistant to the director who collaborates with him both on adapting the text and during the rehearsals) and of the choreographer has increased, mostly under the influence of fascination with contemporary German theatre, represented by directors like Frank Castorf and Rene Pollesch, among others.  And the actor’s duties have also changed, who, by improvising, have a more authorial contribution to the performance. Nonetheless, there are still the directors who set the paths of Polish theatre development. Throughout the choice of permanent cooperators and throughout the specific repertoire preferences, they organize – within the framework of a national repertoire theatre – small theatre labs, where they conduct research on new acting methods and new dramaturgy.

It’s been more than a quarter of a century since the last major breakthrough in political life. This is long enough to try and make a first synthesis of this period. The situation after 1989 has been generally supportive of the process of cutting off the theatre from the political involvement. The early 90s were a time of ambitious formal explorations, or, on the contrary, of reversal from artistic theatre towards entertainment and commercialization. Forced to compete with other forms of entertainment in the new, free market reality, the theatre could either give and accept its rules, or refuse participation – which finally led many artists to become rigid and take the role of “values’ protectors”. It was the time of trial for the directors, the moment when previous hierarchies fell apart and the new ones began to form. Among the numerous directors of the oldest, pre-war and war generations only a few managed to keep (Jerzy Jarocki[1], Andrzej Wajda[2]) or strengthen (Krystian Lupa, the already deceased Jerzy Grzegorzewski[3]) their positions. At the beginning of the 90s the directors who were born in the 50s and debuted after the period of martial law, i.e. in the mid-80s (Tadeusz Bradecki, Rudolf Zioło, Krzysztof Babicki), gained recognition of critics and spectators; however a few years later, they were pushed to the background of a theatrical life and today they are referred to as ”the lost generation”, not able to carry on with the discourse with their predecessors. In the Polish theatre of the mid-nineties there was an air of expectancy that the new generation, capable of breaking previous hierarchies, would soon come to the fore.

1997 is considered to be the breaking point in the newest history of the Polish theatre. This is when Jerzy Grzegorzewski (1939-2005) was appointed director of the National Theatre in Warsaw. It was also in 1997, when Grzegorz Jarzyna debuted with Bzik Tropikalny by Witkacy [The Tropical Frenzy] at the Rozmaitości Theatre, which at the time was a second-rate theatre in the capital but soon turned into the most innovative theatre institution in the country. Soon afterwards Jarzyna was appointed artistic director of the Rozmaitości Theatre. Krzysztof Warlikowski, known until this time only to the insiders, who was working mainly in provincial stages, staged his first performance in Warsaw, Electra by Sophocles, at the prestigious Dramatyczny Theatre. The whole generation of directors born in the 60s has gained importance; through the analogy to the old generation of the ”Young and Talented”[4] they have been referred to as the ”Younger and More Talented”. Just like their precursors they have been interested in theatre as an art, not as a political tribune.

“Younger and More Talented” is a term invented by Piotr Gruszczyński, Polish writer, journalist and critic, referring to a group of Krystian Lupa’s apprentices: Krzysztof Warlikowski, Grzegorz Jarzyna, Anna Augustynowicz, Piotr Cieplak, and Zbigniew Brzoza. They appeared at a perfect moment, when Polish theatre began to lose its social status. Until 1989, Polish theatre had been identified with various important political and social functions and its role had been compared to the one of the Polish Catholic Church – uniting its members in the face of vital national issues, but in the new reality of fledgling capitalism recklessly sent to a junk room for old-fashioned entertainment. The Warlikowski generation directors did not share the naïve optimism of politicians who were promising to turn Poland into “a second Japan” within a few years. Unfortunately the politicians also refused to notice various new threats waiting for people who would have to face a completely new reality and were suddenly allowed to benefit from unfamiliar freedom.

Leaving behind social and national problems, young directors focused on the individual, and they highlighted the cathartic role of theatre. They would most certainly agree with Antonin Artaud’s famous words: ”We are not free. And the sky can still fall on our heads. And the theatre has been created to teach us that first of all”. The “Young and Talented” also surprised with their aesthetics, were initially labeled as post-modern. “Making” theatre ostentatiously dedicated for teenage spectators (i.e. the generation born at the turn of the 1970s and 80s, which, unlike the generation of their parents and grandparents, was not united by any historical events, common fight or common views, they tried to speak their language. Hence, in the early productions of Warlikowski and Jarzyna, the dispute with great myths is replaced by a careful observation of reality, an approach that they obviously learnt from Krystian Lupa. At the same time it is easier to find in their works various references to cult classics or music clips than to great literature or classical art, which in Polish theatre , so far isolated from mass culture, became an aesthetic revolution.

The “Young and Talented” began anew to explore human corporeality and sexuality, which, until then, were taboo[5] subjects in Polish theatre. They dared talk outright about homosexuality, transsexuality and changes in partnership models. At the same time, they accused the middle-class of hypocrisy and decided to speak out about abuse and molestation, pedophilia, family violence, discrimination of women, phobic reactions to people of different sexual orientation, race or religion. They have been interested in individuals and their simplest relationships (in the family or on the partnership level), as opposed to the relations between an individual and a nation. The issues of history and national identity would be taken up again by the generation of directors conquering the theatrical stages. They were born in the 70s and therefore the tempestuous 80s are as mysterious to them as such as the 19th century national uprisings. Polish critic, Piotr Gruszczyński invented also for them the appropriate epithet of the “Young Discontented”, as their theatre is again politically involved: it can either be journalistic and based on current issues or, on the contrary, it may struggle with the phantoms of Polish history and national myths.

The reversion of Polish artistic community back to the socialist ideas seems to start in 2002, when a new force has appeared in the Polish social life – it was Political Critique (Krytyka Polityczna), a group seeking to continue the tradition of the Polish left. This association runs a multilingual website, publishes a magazine “Krytyka Polityczna” and various books, mostly on political philosophy issues (including translations of such authors as Giorgio Agamben, Judith Butler, Jacques Rancière or Slavoj Žižek) organizes discussions, workshops, seminars and lectures (at first within the frameworks of the so called Critical University and since 2012 within the frameworks of the Institute for Advance Study – the equivalent of the American one), not only in Warsaw, but even abroad (in Kiev, Berlin and London).

At the same time Polish theatre, from a few years mainly interested in exploring privacy, turns in the direction of other subjects: suppressed historical areas, social exclusion, distortions of capitalism. In 2003 Krzysztof Warlikowski directed two performances touching controversial Polish-Jewish relations: The Tempest by William Shakespeare and The Dybbuk by Ansky, Michał Zadara debuted with Hamletmachine by Heiner Müller and Jan Klata, in Wałbrzych, with the famous The Government Inspector by Nikolai Gogol. Wałbrzych is a city victim of political transformation, perceived as the center of unemployment, poverty and pathology, but also, thanks to Piotr Kruszczyński, who was appointed the director of the Dramatic Theatre in Wałbrzych, the host of one of the most interesting theaters in the country. The Coastal Theatre in Gdańsk with Maciej Nowak as the director became “the Polish Royal Court Theatre”, where they staged verbatim texts-reportages referring to the issues of homelessness, abortion underground and Polish soldiers being killed on foreign missions. The literary manager of The Coastal Theatre became Paweł Demirski, a young journalist who would soon grow up to be the most radical Polish playwright and together with Monika Strzępka would follow the tradition of Dario Fo and Bertold Brecht. It is not by chance that all these artists (plus many others) have been closely associated with the Political Critique. Also in 2003 the Zbigniew Raszewski Theatre Institute was established in Warsaw to support the Polish theatre. The main aim of the Institute was (and still is) to facilitate playwright and director debuts, support new directors taking over old stages (for example, in The Old Theatre in Kraków Mikołaj Grabowski supported by Grzegorz Niziołek – literary manager and Agata Siwiak – curator) or make possible projects such as Teren Warszawa project at the Rozmaitości Theatre (later on TR Warszawa). The Theatre Institute also focuses on building bridges between mainstream projects and independent (off) activities of such new theatres and groups as Łaźnia Nowa Theatre in Kraków or komuna//warszawa (former Komuna Otwock) in Warsaw.

A new wave of Polish political theatre mainly consists of directors and playwrights born in the seventies and early eighties (Jan Klata, Maja Kleczewska, Michał Zadara, Barbara Wysocka, Michał Borczuch, Agnieszka Olsten, Weronika Szczawińska, Wojtek Klemm, Wojtek Ziemilski and creative tandems such as Monika Strzępka and Paweł Demirski or Wiktor Rubin and Jolanta Janiczak). The characteristic features of their theatre (strongly inspired by German artists such as Frank Castorf, René Pollesch and Christoph Schlingensief) are, among others, moral courage, leftist views, the situation of people suffering from economic, cultural and religious exclusion and eclectic, derived from pop culture aesthetics and mainly unorthodox approach to a literary text (shorts, remakes, “translations” into a modern, rough and vulgar street language and new media language, as well as the use of working methods characteristic rather for a documentary theatre – more “journalistic” and “interventional” than artistic). This is for the first time in Polish theatres when so called “experts of everyday life” come into view (the term invented by a German collective Rimini Protokoll, specializing in inviting ordinary people on stage): children (in Iga Gańczarczyk performances), autistic and blind people (in Michał Borczuch performances), prisoners (in performances of the Eight Day Theatre in Poznań and in Wiktor Rubin performances), eyewitnesses of WWII (Transfer! by Jan Klata,  where the old enemies – Polish and German old people – meet on stage).

Other important features of the new Polish theatre are: an increased interest in new media (Krzysztof Garbaczewski and Wojtek Ziemilski who use in their works cameras and modern computer software) and the increasing role of music and dance. The artists cooperate closely with video-artists, composers, DJs and choreographers in order to create together different forms of polyphonic theatre, in which the choice of a theatrical form itself is an ideological, and not only aesthetic, declaration. Such artists, as for example Marta Górnicka – singer, conductor and director (who works mostly with the excluded – primarily with women – and makes them feel the power of a shouting community in one, choral voice) or Paweł Passini  – who both benefit from the achievements of Jerzy Grotowski, Tadeusz Kantor or the Gardzienice Theatre Company – they create a new “theatre of the spirit of music” – political and ritual at the same time – which restores the theatrical sense of community as a promise of a  social utopia.

In 1998 Piotr Gruszczyński wrote: “The new obligation of the Polish theatre is to struggle with the self-satisfaction overwhelming Polish society and to disturb the peace offered by the capitalistic land of consumption”[6]. The directors such as Grzegorz Jarzyna undertook the task of pointing out to the unbearable lightness of being of the yuppies, who are lonely and bored in their lofts filled with designer furniture. Yet, it soon turned out that the majority of Polish society does not need to be protected against the unlimited consumption and too much self-satisfaction, but would rather discuss the problems that were supposed to become historic – war, terrorism, genocide, hunger, homelessness, unemployment, human trafficking, illegal abortions and religious fanaticism. Unfortunately for the society. Fortunately for the theatre.


[1] Jerzy Jarocki (1929-2012) – theatre director, educator and creator of the highly formalized, intellectual theatre from the spirit of Vsevolod Meyerhold. His most outstanding presentations focused around the issues of history and responsibility of artists towards society and were based on the texts of the four most important Polish playwrights of the twentieth century: Stanisław Ignacy Witkiewicz (Witkacy), Witold Gombrowicz and Tadeusz Różewicz and Sławomir Mrożek.

[2] Andrzej Wajda (born in 1926) – painter, film director (Ashes and Diamonds, The Wedding, The Maids of Wilko, Man of Marble, Man of Iron; in 2000 he received the Honorary Oscar for Lifetime Achievements) and theatre director. As a theatre director he became famous mostly for adapting Fyodor Dostoevsky novels, William Shakespeare plays and the Polish dramas from the beginning and the middle of the twentieth century.

[3] Jerzy Grzegorzewski (1939-2005) – painter, stage designer and director. In 1997-2003 director of the National Theatre in Warsaw – authorial, visionary theatre from the spirit of romantics, Stanisław Wyspiański, Stanisław Ignacy Witkiewicz and Tadeusz Kantor. The achievements of Grzegorzewski included mainly original interpretation of Polish national classics, in which the role of a divided and reduced text was as important as the role of such elements as music and stage movement.

[4] The term invented by Jerzy Koenig, theatre critic, by analogy to the English term of “Angry Young Men”. It referred to the generation of directors born during WWII (Jerzy Grzegorzewski, Helmut Kajzar, Izabella Cywińska and Maciej Prus among others) more or less at the time of political breakthrough of 1968. The “Young and Talented” debuted in provincial theatres, where they benefited from greater freedom of aesthetic and repertoire explorations.

[5] With such exceptions like the theatre of as Konrad Swinarski or Jerzy Grotowski

[6] Piotr Gruszczyński, Teatr na wolności, „Tygodnik Powszechny” weekly, „Kontrapunkt” appendix no 20/1998.



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