High Culture: What Does Polish Theatre Have To Do With Mountains?

A scene from the play 'Wanda', directed by Maria Sadowska, Polski Theatre in Bielsko-Biała, photo: Joanna Gałuszka

A scene from the play ‘Wanda’, directed by Maria Sadowska, Polski Theatre in Bielsko-Biała, photo: Joanna Gałuszka

Marcelina Obarska

While this may not be an obvious connection, it’s not unknown in Polish theatre. Mountain themes were and remain present, both on stage and in the life stories of Poland’s artists, actors, theatre directors and… climbers! 

Ashes by the mountainside

Not everyone knows, for instance, that the cremated remains of innovative Polish theatre director Jerzy Grotowski – in accordance with his wishes – were scattered at the foot of the holy Indian mountain of Arunaćala (The Mountain of Flame) in the southern Indian state of Tamil Nadu, which represents the Hindu god Shiva. ‘Why there?’ you might ask.

The famous director was spiritually connected with India: he was fascinated by Far Eastern mysticism, philosophy and yoga and he made several life-altering journeys to South Asia. His guru, alongside Carl Gustav Jung and the Armenian philosopher George Gurdjieff, was the Hindu mystic Ramana Maharshi. This is just a biographical curiosity, but it’s easy to find many more direct connections between the theatre and the mountains.

Sleeping at the foot of the mountain

In the summer of 1977, a group of members of the Laboratory Theatre founded by Grotowski decided to take an unusual journey. The Mountain Project, a para-theatrical event meant to go beyond theatrical spectacle and to bring about spiritual change in its participants, started out in Wrocław and its goal was the ‘conquest’ of the late Gothic hilltop fortress outside the city of Legnica.

Although the fortress is located on a not particularly high volcanic outcropping (only 389 metres above sea level), it was not the altitude that lent the event its special character. What mattered was rather getting there, the metaphysical experience of arrival. The group climb was also meant to erase the boundary between night and day, to transcend the conventional understanding of daily life. It is rather hard to define what went on during The Mountain Project as it was largely composed of improvisation and had no fixed structure.

In the ‘programme’ of the project’s experimental activities, there were overnight stays in the woods (the trip was preceded by a cycle of ‘Night Watches’). This entire enigmatic enterprise was inspired by the aforementioned Arunaćala, the holy site of Hindu pilgrimages.

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