Leszek Kolankiewicz

The Akropolis Rhizome

Angielska wersja artykułu/English version of:

Kłącze „Akropolis”, „Dialog” 2015, nr 1, s. 114-125

the rhizome connects any point to any other point […] it brings into play very different regimes of signs, and even nonsign states […] has no beginning or end; it is always in the middle, between things, interbeing, intermezzo […] the rhizome is alliance […] the fabric of the rhizome is the conjunction, “and… and… and…”


Gilles Deleuze and Felix Guattari, Rhizome



Mask 18

It was said once already.



…you are of those who repeat the words or others, while I relive their experience


Mask 18

I am the observer, while you…



I live it!


Mask 18

And therein lies the difference.



And a major one at that.


Stanisław Wyspiański, Liberation



            After premiering Grotowski and Szajna’s[1] Akropolis, first unveiled to the world at the Laboratory Theater in October of 1952 and later subject to numerous changes, was captured using telerecording techniques in late October and early November of 1968 in London’s Twickenham Studios—the same venue where in 1965 Polański shot his Catherine Deneuve vehicle Repulsion and where the Beatles would shoot their farewell documentary, Let It Be, the following year. The recorded performance (according to Zbigniew Osiński’s calculations) was already the fifth iteration of Akropolis, first brought to the stage in Wrocław in May of 1967. A couple of months before the recording, in August of 1968, Eugenio Barba published Towards a Poor Theater, a collection of Grotowski’s essays translated into English, with an introduction by Peter Brook. August also marked the beginning of the Laboratory Theater’s guest performances across the Atlantic—after delivering their opening act at International Festival of the Arts held in celebration of the 1968 Summer Olympics in Mexico, the group was supposed to go on a six-date tour across the United States; however, due to the sanctions imposed on Poland as the result of its involvement in the suppression of the 1968 events in Prague, the entire group’s entry visas were cancelled. Instead of their planned live appearances, the group decided to stage a performance of Akropolis that would be recorded on camera—outside US territory but under the auspices of the US-based Committee to Welcome the Polish Laboratory Theater, headed by two renowned figures of neo-avant-garde theater: Ellen Stewart and Ninon Tallon Karlweis.

The recording had been made in a London studio with an audience present: what an auspicious decision that was, given that without an audience the entire thing could have failed w(like Olmi has failed ten years later, his Apocalypsis cum figuris a deflated flop). The audience, however, sat in a studio rather than a theater—the Wrocław auditorium or in the venue for the guest performances in Edinburgh: the former offices of the festival bureau—therefore the recording isn’t just a televised theatrical performance: to put it more precisely, it is rather a televised spectacle which—due to the presence of the audience—creates a situation in which the theatrical spectacle is transposed into the medium of television. The director of the Akropolis recording, James MacTaggart, has been producing televised plays and theater-related programs for the BBC since the 1960s, so he knew his job very well (interestingly, in 1968, the year of the Akropolis recording, he took a sabbatical at BBC and founded Kestrel Productions, the first independent British company to produce televised theater). The Akropolis recording was produced by Lewis Freedman, the renowned producer behind the widely acclaimed series The Play of the Week broadcasted by the non-commercial New York City station Channel 13—the same channel that eventually broadcasted the MacTaggart recording on January 12, 1969. The 57-minute-long recording was preceded with a 25-minute-long introduction by Brook. The Laboratory Theater began their triumphant guest performance tour in New York City ten months later, in mid-October.

The reception of Laboratory Theater performances thus began with a television broadcast of the recording of Akropolis captured at a London studio with British viewers in attendance. Only later would the original—in its fifth incarnation, so was it really the original?—be presented in New York City live, sans mediation, with two other Laboratory Theater performances.

MacTaggart’s recording is framed by two wide shots, portraying the stage from two temporal perspectives: before the play and after the play, before the actors appeared on stage and after they already left, both with the audience in view. In the first shot, we see the audience already in their seats, relaxed, fidgeting, talking loudly; at one point, a crane fitted with a microphone enters the frame from the top edge end remains there, in between the wiring of the set design—the recording does not do anything to hide its nature. In the last show, the wide shot appears when the play’s characters have already, one after another, squeezed themselves into a wooden chest sitting center stage, with the last person to enter pulling the cover closed over their heads; moments later, we hear a voice (belonging to the actor Zbigniew Cynkutis) from inside the chest matter-of-factly declare: “They’re gone—leaving only trailing rings of smoke” (a line from the introductory stage directions, written in verse form, of Wyspiański’s Akropolis “They’re gone, leaving only the church steeple shrouded in a thick plume…”); then the house lights slowly dim to black and the audience just sits there, frozen, no one ready to start the wave of applause; finally, a male voice from off screen announces: “Ladies and gentlemen! The performance is over,” and only then does the audience rise up from their seats and make their way to the exits.

In the recording, the light, not too glaring, spills evenly across the frame, illuminating the space of play—populated by the seated audience and the actor characters working their way between them. Both the characters and the people in the audience are present—physically present—throughout the recording. At times, however, their presence seems almost obtrusive—particularly when they don’t fit with what’s happening and when they themselves seem to be uneasy. But how can we decide who’s the intruder in this situation? Will this be akin to the plot of Alejandro Amenábar’s The Others, in which a lonely mother (Nicole Kidman), cloistered in a secluded country house with two photosensitive children, is struck with the belief that the house they live in is haunted, only to finally realize that the truth is much more sinister than that? In Grotowski and Szajna’s Akropolis—like in the theater in general—the audience looks at the characters and sees them, whereas the characters seem to be unaware of the presence of the viewers even though they hang their eyes upon them from time to time. But the distantiality, achieved (precisely as laid out by Brecht) through the illumination of the audience, is here taken to an extreme—paradoxically by bringing the characters closer to the audience themselves: though within arm’s reach, within individual, private distance, they nevertheless seem and remain alien, as if hailing from another world.

The closer the character seem physically, the more disembodied they get. That impression is the product of more than just the face that their faces reveal no reaction as their faces are unmoving, congealed into grimaces—like death masks (in the course of producing Akropolis, Grotowski was very interested in masks and facial muscle exercises uses in Oriental theater); more than just the fact that their costumes, made from swatches of fabric sewn together, like in some inverse commedia dell’arte, indicate their status as characters in the drama or spectres/wraiths (like in The Wedding or Forefathers’ Eve); but also the product of the fact that in the archaic portion the actors, by hiding their arms within their baggy tunics, resemble ancient sculptures with their arms broken off (simultaneously resembling the mutilated torsos of frontline soldiers); and the fact that the actors’ movements are nearly pantomimic, seemingly biomechanical, or—ironically—futuristic (it’s ironic because the laborers, the prisoners of the Konzentrazionslager, building some absurd camp structure out of stove pipes, have no future to speak of). Both directors—Szajna, sewing nude-colored patches into the coarse tunics to suggest flesh hidden beneath, and Grotowski, choreographing the parade drill-like, dehumanized movements of the characters on stage—have completely turned the bodies of their actors into signs. Also highly important—crucial, really—was the fact that Szajna was a graphic artist and set designer by trade, active in the period in the People’s Theater in Nowa Huta whose personal formula for theater would come to be called “a visually narrative theater” (a term coined by Zbigniew Taranienko), his personal motto emanating from the passage: “I transform life into images—art is the realization of what inside us calls for liberation.”[2]

Thus, the space of Grotowski and Szajna’s Akropolis juxtaposed two types of physical presence: the ordinary, quotidian, casual, unconstrained, and unexpressive physicality of the audience and the captive, drill-like, rhythmic, and choreographed—performative like a command—physicality of the actors. But it was the former that was ultimately a suggestive illusion, a mere sign of corporeality. Flaszen wrote that they belong to two separate worlds: the world of the living and the world of the dead—as if the audience had dreamed the characters, or as if the characters themselves, persistently recurring and collectively imposing, were conjured up in the audience’s imaginations like a nightmare. Thus, the spectators are crammed within the space of the performance like raisins in a cake: they’re stuck there, physically in the way of the performing actors—mute, and thus all the more corporeal. The actors, working in between the audience, their presence amplified by presence, by rhythmic, accentuated movement and intense immobility, by melodious voices, precisely measured replicas, and hollers—transformed into theatrical signs, they in turn transformed their bodies into signifiers and eventually disappeared, like the Shakespearian “insubstantial pageant.” “They’re gone—leaving only trailing rings of smoke”: they went into the gas chambers and then, their flesh incinerated, left only smoke in their wake. Grotowski and Szajna’s Akropolis (the latter himself a KL Auschwitz inmate, prisoner number 18729) explored precisely this tension between the corporeal and the symbolic—and ultimately immateriality.

That is why Laboratory Theater’s Akropolis should be analyzed and interpreted using Patrice Pavis’ “double check” method: on the one hand, using semiological tools to define the structure of the performance, like in theater sciences of old; on the other, meanwhile, using tools hailing from phenomenology, ones that incorporated the spectator in the corporeal dimension of the work, like in performatics.

For some strange reason, MacTaggart’s recording suggests a confrontation between the two worlds, the two aforementioned types of presence. Maybe because it has been captured using the implements associated with monochrome, analog television? To the viewers, the black-and-white proto-television image was essentially indexical in nature: somewhat by definition, the image reflected reality—reality as is truly is. On the other hand, the phantom—or even mediumic—character of the flickering television screen often carries connotations of spirits or some alternate worlds in general, a notion that was explored in depth by films such as Poltergeist or Contact.

But that’s not all of it. On the foundation that is the Akropolis recording there constructs itself—or, to put it differently, erects itself as an annex to the recording—Elizabeth LeCompte’s Poor Theatre: A Series of Simulacra (the title clearly alluding to Grotowski’s concept of the “poor theater” and the ideas of Jean Baudrillard), as performed by the Wooster Group from New York City in February of 2004 and in Poland six months later, during Warsaw’s Theater Meetings Festival (where it met with mostly negative reviews).[3] The script for the opening part of the play is basically a research report on Grotowski and Szajna’s Akropolis. The artists behind the NYC play acted as if they were historical reenactors and dug up audiovisual materials, including Elster’s A Letter from Opole, whose final scenes featured exercises performed during prep work for Akropolis, as well as the MacTaggart-helmed TV broadcast, naturally. Displaying that footage on plasma screens, actors of The Wooster Group work to copy—or actually simulate—the actors of the Laboratory Theater. Additionally, this part of the performance includes a playback of a recording made surreptitiously at the Centre for the Study of Jerzy Grotowski’s Work and Other Cultural and Theatrical Research, featuring Stefa Gardecka, a former secretary at the Laboratory Theater, explaining to the visitors from the Group that the only thing left in the Theater venue from its heyday in the 1960s is the wooden flooring. As the recording is played back, actresses from The Wooster Group begin reenacting the Wrocław conversation between LeCompte and Gardecka. Then, the situation gets even more complicated, with the playback of another conversation, this time held in New York City between The Wooster Group artists and a Polish consultant as they watch the MacTaggart recording together and the consultant tries to translate the Polish lines and explain what both Grotowski and Szajna’s and Wyspiański’s Akropolis are about;[4] as the tape is played back, another Wooster Group member begins to reenact the lines of the consultant, while the actress portraying LeCompte stays in character. When the rest of The Wooster Group actors begin impersonating Laboratory Theater actors performing their rendition of Akropolis—and doing so with with great sophistication—their re-enactment entails only that which fit in the frame: if only heads and shoulders were in the frame, they reenact only the movements of heads and shoulders—while sitting on chairs, because lack of available footage of the original actors using their legs dictates that the reenactors not use them.

If I am not mistaken, that is the very definition of what we cll re-enactment: where “enactment” is simple repetition of a scene, “re-enactment” involves its reconstruction, repetition, restoration, revitalization, maybe even revision. But what we are dealing with here is not simple re- of an enactment, but rather the capture of what was a re-enactment or, more precisely, the capture of a studio-based simulation of a theatrical events and its attendant enactments.

However, Joanna Walaszek alone managed to notice that the organic involvement of The Wooster Group members—corporeal, vocal, intellectual, or spiritual—results in them breathing life into the televised phantoms. The characters from Grotowski and Szajna’s spectacle are revived and, somehow, come back to life just like the characters from the Wawel arrases, such as The History of the Trojan War and The Story of Jacob, come back to life in Wyspiański’s Akropolis. As we probably remember, Wyspiański’s drama is set on the Wawel Castle, a royal seat and necropolis, and takes place during the Night of the Resurrection—and rising from the dead is its main theme.

Asked about what it was that she actually wanted to do, Elizabeth LeCompte reflexively said that she simply wanted to see Akropolis—one more time. Then she quickly  recovers and asserts that she actually doesn’t really know. But the re-enactment method that was applied here resulted in a slight shift—where Akropolis of the Laboratory Theater was a theater play, The Wooster Group’s Poor Theatre was a piece of performance art. Every one of its constituent elements bear the mark of performance art: the historical and theatrical re-enactment, the semiological analysis, and the performative reenactment within a specific simulacra.

In Performer, his final manifesto, Grotowski discusses reminiscence—remembrance through performative journey towards physicality: of our mother’s, grandfather’s, or any other ancestor that we haven’t had the chance to meet personally. The performer can tap into that corporeality using individual details as starting points: echoes of the timbres of their voices, memories of their wrinkles, photographs (Yes, yes: photographs—like in Kantor’s work; and like in Barthes’, too, who saw the essence of a photographs’ specific nature in the fact that in a photograph a body is dead and alive at the same time, just like in the theater). This re-enactment of corporeality that has ascended to myth status, this withdrawal into erstwhile corporeality was supposed to be, more or less, a discovery. Thought was gnostic, it resembled the discovery of pre-existing, immortal, and hidden imagery (enhikon, to use the language of The Gospel of Thomas, called “eikónes” in Greek).

When The Wooster Group worked to develop the Poor Theatre, however, Grotowski was already dead for five years and slowly turning into such an ancestor, and it seems that Grotowski would never have thought that a handful of NYC actors—performers, even—will one day take a handful of details, including some footage, a television recording, an imperfect translation, an anecdote about wooden flooring, and echoes of other voices, to re-enact the spectral corporeality of Laboratory Theater actors, to remember and resurrect, to performatively reactivate his (and Szajna’s) spectacle. And that holding this course, using repetition and reanimation, will even allow them to reach all the way to Wyspiański’s drama, or, essentially, his performative project. And it was a performative project because it was the intention of the dramatist to make this final instalment in his trilogy (preceded by The Wedding and Liberation) a metasocial vision of a resurrection of an entire nation[5]—Poland regaining its independence—that went hand in hand with a blueprint (developed in collaboration with Władysław Ekielski) for the redevelopment of Wawel Hill into a center of political and spiritual life, the Polish Acropolis.[6]

In Wyspiański’s Akropolis, the Wawel Cathedral—over time reduced to a dying temple, an heirloom, and a document—was treated by the poet as a concealed dramatic structure (the layout of the Amiens Cathedral was read by Wyspiański in a similar manner), meaning that he saw its potential impact—and that is precisely why he focused in his drama on “the operational, the processual, and the dynamic”;[7] nowadays, we’d probably say “the performative in nature.” That is why the characters of the drama are often considered celebrants of some sort of liturgy or a ceremony, thus making the audience witnesses thereof, or event adorers (akin to angels in the cathedral). The key theme of Wyspiański’s Akropolis is “effort,” as it was usually called back then. Liberation also explored the theme—the theater designed in the drama was supposed to be “art that is simultaneously effort.”[8]

And it was precisely in Liberation—especially in the conversation between Konrad and Mask 18—that the question of re-enactment was explored in depth: re-enactment can be more than just simple repetition of what was observed but never experienced; naturally, it may entail novel readings, retellings, or even a reoccurrence—what Wyspiański would call struggling through, later including the concept in his program.[9] It was a struggle because it entailed a retelling, this reinstitution was also supposed to be a restoration—maybe even a revision—therefore implying writing anew, as if one’s own work; and if one’s own, then definitely communal, at least to some extent. This Wyspiański method has two distinct characteristics: although it employs fictional wholes, the drama has a fragmentary structure; its characters, meanwhile, with Konrad from Liberation an emblematic example, tend to be not characters as much as mediums for the author to express himself, and do so directly, rather than within the fictional framework. Although Aniela Łempicka could not yet have been familiar with the concept of “performance art” when she argued in early 1970s that Wyspiański “transformed drama into a highly staged vehicle for auteur expression”[10] (although she did wonder whether she was dealing with sort of happening avant la lettre), she did however, propose to call what was happening on stage a séance of art and liberation. But then she quickly corrected herself: “At this point, it is almost more of a public discussion than art.”[11]

As we probably remember, Kantor also called his The Dead Class a séance (clearly alluding to the spiritualist ceremony), while Wajda gave the recording of Kantor’s play the subtitle “The Seance of T. Kantor.” Truth is, however, that Grotowski and Szajna’s Akropolis, predating Kantor’s efforts by more than a decade, was already a séance of sorts.

Curiously enough, so was Elizabeth LeCompte’s spectacle, or, more precisely, her “series of simulacra.” In Tu es le fils de quelqu’un, Grotowski argues that when he struggled with dramatic literature in his capacity as producer, he felt as if he was facing off against the greatest authors of the past, themselves representing past generations, ancestors, forerunner. And Grotowski considered Wyspiański such a forerunner. And thus, artists from across the ocean manage to reach—via a blurry, proto-television recording of one of his works—the forerunner of the inscrutable Polish artist.

[1] The extent of Józef Szajna’s contribution to Akropolis varies depending on the source of the information. Initial posters and playbill identify Szajna as producer, side by side with Grotowski, before him even, contrary to alphabetical order. Meanwhile, the credits of the recorded version said “staged and directed by Jerzy Grotowski,” whereas Szajna was listed elsewhere, after the rest of the cast, as the corealisateur and the man responsible for costumes and props. Szajna spoke at length about his contribution to the production of Akropolis in an interview with Anna Jamrozek-Sowa and Magdalena Rabizo-Birek, later published in the Rzeszów-based Fraza magazine; Anna Jamrozek-Sowa and Magdalena Rabizo-Birek, “Cenię sobie spotkanie z Grotowskim,”Fraza 1 (1999).

[2] Józef Szajna, “Wybory i odniesienia” in Zbigniew Taranienko, Szajna—70 lat (Warszawa: Centrum Sztuki “Studio”–“WarSawa,” 1992), ?.

[3] It did not make a good first impression on me either, and I voiced my dissatisfaction rather emphatically. To makes matters worse, I did so thrice: the first time to Schechner, when he asked my opinion at the celebrations of the fortieth anniversary of the Odin Teatret at Holstebro; the second time in a poll for Didaskalia magazine; the third time in a long conversation—a dispute, really—with Joanna Walaszek after Niziołek’s postdoctoral examination. Now I regret it. Only Walaszek saw the performance for what it truly was and wrote a terrific text about it, “A Meeting with The Wooster Group,” that was printed in the 64th issue of Didaskalia; reprinted as Joanna Walaszek, “A Meeting with the Wooster Group. ‘Poor Theatre’ in Warsaw, 2004” in Ślady przedstawień (Warszawa: Oficyna Wydawnicza Errata, 2008).

[4] Poor guy! He had to deal with “one of the most difficult texts of Polish 20th century literature,” which featured “a peculiar, eclectic language,” replete with multiple “inadequacies.” Ewa Miodońska-Brookes, “Wstęp” in Stanisław Wyspiański: Akropolis, ed. Ewa Miodońska-Brookes (Wrocław: Zakład Narodowy im. Ossolińskich, 1985): iii, xciii, xcviii.

[5] In Tadeusz Sinko’s interpretation, Akropolis was the final instalment of a dramatic trilogy that explored the question of national existence, see: Tadeusz Sinko, “‘Boska komedia’ Wyspiańskiego,” Przegląd Współczesny 36 (1925); “Boska komedia Wyspiańskiego” in Stanisław Wyspiański, Dzieła, vol. 4, Dramaty. Wesele; Wyzwolenie; Akropolis, ed. Adam Chmiel and Tadeusz Sinko (Warszawa: Biblioteka Polska, 1927).

[6] See: Władysław Ekielski, Akropolis. Projekt zabudowania Wawelu obmyślany przez Stanisława Wyspiańskiego i Władysława Ekielskiego, Kraków w latach 1904-1906 (Kraków: self-published, 1908).

[7] Ewa Miodońska-Brookes, “Wstęp” in Stanisław Wyspiański, Akropolis, xlviii.

[8] Aniela Łempicka, “Wstęp” in Stanisław Wyspiański, Wyzwolenie, ed. Aniela Łempicka (Wrocław: Zakład Narodowy im. Ossolińskich)

[9] Wyspiański’s artistic program, outlined in letters to Adam Chmiel, dated August 7 and August 13, 1904, and in the 1907 letter to Ludwik Solski, essentially boiled down to: “read with your thoughts and struggle through,” as cited in Ewa Miodońska Brookes, “Wstęp” in Stanisław Wyspiański, Akropolis, xxx.

[10] Łempicka, “Wstęp,” viii.

[11] Łempicka, “Wstęp,” xviii-xix.