Dorota Sajewska

The Myth of the Ephemerality of Theater

Angielska wersja artykułu / English version of:

Dorota Sajewska, Mit efemeryczności teatru, „Dialog” 2015 nr 1, s. 80–92

Let us begin with a peculiar paradox, stemming from the emancipation of performance from drama and the emancipation of theater science (history of theater) from literature studies (history of literature) that took place at the turn of the 20th century in European humanities. The emergence of both the autonomy of the art of theater and the autonomy of the field of theater studies I consider to be absolutely seminal for the myth of the ephemeral nature of the theater, which this essay will explore. That particular myth characterizes the theater as a space wherein live action is experienced in a unique and wholly unmediated manner and a place subject to the inexorable process of disappearance.

Early Polish methodological inquiries—penned by Leon Schiller, Władysław Zawistowski, Mieczysław Rulikowski, and Wiktor Brumer[1]—similarly define the “essence of the stage act” through its impermanence in space and time. The definition was rounded out with a stipulation calling for the creation of a potentially comprehensive documentation of the theatrical “here and now” that would safeguard it from eventual disappearance. No wonder, then, that the Association of Polish Stage artists attempted—already in the 1920s—to establish a facility to collect theatrical documentation by creating the Polish Theater Science Institute headed by Wiktor Brumer. No less symptomatic were Władysław Zawistowski’s plans (ultimately unsuccessful) to establish Almanach, a periodical that would serve as a platform for continuous documentation. Eventually, after taking over as editor-in-chief of Scena Polska, Zawistowski argued for the necessity to establish an “Archive” section in the magazine thusly:

The need to archive all facts and data pertaining to Polish theatrical life, served in the West and in Russia by all sorts of annually published theater yearbooks and frustrated in Poland by the lack of similar publications, imposes upon Scena Polska the obligation to collect and order the most important facts and figures, and to publish them in consumable form, as archival material [emphasis mine—DS] for any future research effort inquiring into the history of theater in Poland. The most transient and ephemeral of all the arts, theater not only leaves basically no trace of itself, it is unable—without support from libraries and theater archives—to produce even the most basic data for future scholars that would allow them to create scientific reconstructions of theater performances [emphasis mine—DS], even recent ones, to the extent that it is possible.[2]

From the very beginning, therefore, the notion stipulating the need to focus on spectacle rather than dramatic literature was accompanied by the belief in the need to create theater sources within logocentrically defined archives. The process of archiving was supposed to involve the transposition of (materially) ephemeral nature of performance into written matter, into an “account” of the performance, written as objectively as possible, which would them serve as a meta-source for (textual) reconstructions penned by theater scholars. Additionally, from the very beginning, sources bound for transformation into text about a performance, reproducible on a variety of levels (from factual to theoretical), included not only theatrical copies, reviews, memoirs, journals, and contemporary accounts, but also the whole of iconographic material whose visuality was reduced—or “dissected down”—to its essential functions, in this case to providing information on a given spectacle.

This paradox of emancipation and repression characterizing the moment of the emergence of theater’s autonomy was perfectly illustrated by Julia A. Walker in her Why Performance? Why Now? Textuality and the Rearticulation of Human Presence (2003).[3] The American scholar examines the moment spectacle and text were severed, in a context broader than purely theatrological, focusing on the institutionalization of this separation and the consequences thereof. Examining, on the one hand, the efforts of German theater theorist and historian Max Hermann, who posited the independence of the notion of spectacle from dramatic literature, and referencing the work of American scholars of orality who claimed the independence of Oral English from English literature on the other, Julia Walker argued that the concept of spectacle as something related to the body and corporeality was resuppressed as theater began to emancipate itself. She simultaneously emphasizes that the separation of performance from text resulted, through negation, in the emergence of the modernist category of the “literary” which, due to its “anti-performative bias,” turned out to be highly enduring. As a result, that which was supposed to be the source of the impermanent nature of performance—voices, postures, gestures, rhythm, and movement, or the body, to put it simply—was eventually recognized as a rather paltry area of academic inquiry and somewhat incidentally expelled from the institutional circuit. Thus, corporeal methods of communications were either excluded from academic research or were subsequently subjected to metaphorization and transformation into linguistic and textual forms.

This logocentric foundation of the study of theater and performances became particularly distinct in the 1970s and the 1980s, two decades which in my opinion warrant a deeper inquiry, for a variety of reasons, and which I personally consider more interesting, from the perspective of European (including Polish) history and theater theory, than the discursive aspects of the performative turn analyzed by Julia A. Walker, for which American culture and science seem to be a more fitting context. In Europe, the 1970s and 1980s were characterized by the unquestioned domination of theater semiotics as the fundamental methodology in theater performance analysis. Key scholars of the field included Tadeusz Kowzan, Anne Ubersfeld, and Erika Fischer-Lichte. The methods they developed, although undoubtedly revolutionary to the state of theater sciences of the period, nevertheless resubordinated the body to text through their reliance on “performance accounts” striving for maximum objectivity and the fetishization of the theatrical sign expressed in the desire to decipher and interpret theatrical signs along the lines used for linguistic signs.

The notion stipulating the impermanence of the theater and the impossibility of reconstructing it in a manner other than intellectual—or conceptual—rendering the corporeality of performance essentially null and void, resonated in the phenomenological interpretations of the theater, developed in the 1970s from the theories of Roman Ingarden and repeatedly brought up by Irena Sławińska, first in a 1975 essay published in Dialog called “The Influence of Roman Ingarden on Contemporary Theater Studies,” and later in its subsequent incarnations—“Contemporary Reflection on the Theater” (1979) and “Theater in Contemporary Thought” (1990). Dietrich Steinbeck’s theses laid out in his Introduction to the Theory and Systematics of the Study of Theater, which Sławińska brought up and considered the only “coherent attempt to craft a system of knowledge about the theater around Ingarden’s notions,” seem to somewhat radically—albeit very clearly and comprehensively—explicate what I believe to be the theater studies-spawned myth of the ephemerality of theater; therefore, I shall bring up a couple of fundamental diagnoses:

The theater does not exist as a thing preserved in space, but as a process (Vorgang) that is like an event (Ereignis) in nature.


Contrary to the aesthetics professed by other arts, theater science does not comprise its own objects. It is only through appropriate mental efforts does it create, materialize these objects (dingfest machen).

The fact that theatrological concepts pertain to things “lost,” things that already flickered out of existence bears a series of difficult epistemological problems: the structure and function of these “lost” phenomena cannot be verified empirically, only intellectually.

The spectacle is reconstructed, or reconstituted, to be more precise, by a historian of the theater who uses verbal means, description, and analysis to create its representation.

Material relics of the performance are not in and of themselves the subject of study in theater science: a performance is not the sum of its material constituents, but a conceptual structure which we reconstruct over the course of the epistemic (erkenntniskritisch) process.


Contrary to other arts, the theater is not created with posterity in mind, but the present. Thus, it remains doubly inaccessible to us: not only is it fleeting and transient as an art form, but the reactions of the first viewers are also unavailable to us.[4]

Each of these deserves its own critical inquiry, but I would like to focus here on the paragraph dealing with “material relics of the performance,” because what transpires therein is the twofold exclusion of the body as document. All that is material in and constitutive to the theater—the things in-and-of-themselves and places in-and-of-themselves—are degraded in this interpretation to mere traces or remnants of the performance and then relegated outside the limits of scientific understanding. What, in turn, generates theater’s fundamental relationship—the human body interacting with objects and places—remains unnoticed, disturbingly omitted. This particular perspective of treating people and objects—the disappearing, invisible body first and foremost among them—not as memory-preserving media but mere incomplete remnants of the performance exerted a tremendous influence on the understanding of the document of a theatrical event, and thus on the formulation of the idea of a theatrical archive which also peaked in the 1970s.

This is a good place to bring up the notorious discussion on the methods of documenting theater and reconstructing performances that raged in Poland in 1975, its key assumptions laid out in the July issue of Dialog. Stefania Skwarczyńska’s “Sprawa dokumentacji widowiska teatralnego,” one of the debate’s most important and representative texts, included an attempt to define the relationship, which the author considered fundamental, between the record and the performance:

Their [i.e. the records—DS] quality, number, and authoritativeness—as well as the scholar’s skill in extracting relevant performance data from seemingly unrelated documents, such as bills for props—determines the comprehensiveness of the reconstruction and its academic value, the latter measured, pursuant to historical knowledge of the theater, by the probability of its adequacy with regard to the relevant performance.[5]

Seeing considerable insufficiencies in sources documenting the history of the theater, Skwarczyńska demanded that we undertake, for posterity’s sake, a “wide-ranging effort to collect documentation of theater performances,” assiduously enumerating the dozens of types of documents—aside from the most obvious ones, such as the director’s copy, the set decoration designs, the programme, the posters, the photographs—generated in the course of producing a theatrical show, including two video recordings capturing the performance from two different angles; a number of close-up-rich “cinematic portraits” captured at different points of the play to document the performances of individual actors; cinematic shots of the audience; detailed script for the play drafted by the AD; verbal accounts of the performance sourced from audience members of different ages, educational background, and social standing; notes documenting the audience members’ first impressions; a chronicle of changes introduced in the course of producing the show and its run; rehearsal recordings; accounts of discussions over the final shape of the poster, the programme, etc.

Stefania Skwarczyńska’s vision remained, on the one hand, impossible to realize, while constituting itself, on the other, as a fundamental point of reference used even today (“the ideal model”) in deliberations on the theatrical archive as a place collecting relics and remnants, provided they can be described as representational expressions of a fleeting event, which (ostensibly) a theater play qualifies as. All, except the one which established the myth of the ephemeral nature of theater—the body. Today, Skwarczyńska’s vision seems an excellent testament of theater science whose drive towards its own emancipation ultimately situated the body and corporeality on the side of disappearance, in opposition to the “preservation” of objects (read as text), texts, and images (read as text). That particular vision is also a good starting point for a more contemporary critique of archivist thinking—the concept and status of the source, the record, the original.

It does not seem accidental that this repression of the body through rediscursivization in theater studies took place over the course of the 1970s and 80s. I consider it a politically and ideologically ambiguous reaction to the radical presence of the body in performance art and theater of the 1960s and 70s. The avant-garde of that period strived, on the one hand, for peak emphasis of the material nature of the voice, the efficiency of gesture and trained bodily movement, while nurturing, on the other, the myth of theater and performance as arts of disappearance. Artists such as Marina Abramović, Bruce Nauman, Vito Acconci, the Viennese Actionists, and even Jerzy Grotowski, pursued these objectives in a twofold manner: their either subjected their own actions to obsessive self-documentation using all the technological means at their disposal in that period or flatly refused to document their efforts, especially visually, attempting to radically confront bodily experience with a culture rooted in the hegemony of the gaze and anchoring reason and cognition in the concept of gaze.

This aspect has been perfectly illustrated by Rebecca Schneider in her book Performing Remains,[6] particularly in the chapter “In the Meantime: Performance Remains,” which is a deeply revised version of her 2001 essay “Archives. Performance Remains.”[7] In the book, Schneider offers an in-depth analysis of the place of the artistic event (performance, spectacle, show) in the Western culture of the archive. The author also demonstrates how the logic of the archive, rooted in the collection (and classification) of material remnants of history, understood here as linguistic or visual sources, had to incorporate the acting body in the space of absence—as a foreign object, under constant threat of death, something which, in its impermanence, escapes the logic of the archive. We may, therefore, claim that by entangling itself in the process of indicating its own autonomy, theater science has, so to speak, castrated itself at the very outset. By crafting the myth of the uniqueness of the theatrical event, that is the myth of the disappearance of the theater, theatrology bound it, on the one hand, exclusively to its material vestiges, and, on the other, to the persisting degradation of the significance of the body to the process of writing the history of theater, thus rejecting the possibility of seeing the body as archive and vehicle for memory.

Schneider not only deconstructs the myth of the ephemeral nature of performance along the lines of Derrida’s critique of archivist thinking, but also demonstrates how the patrilineal, archon’s law-based logic of the archive can be subverted, overcome, and even “queered” to some extent. To do so, Rebecca Schneider introduces into the very heart of her inquiry the concept of “reenactment,” which, due to its dual theoretical and practical nature perfectly situates itself on the intersection of body and history. On the one hand, the concept refers to reenactment practices that have been a staple of contemporary art in the past decade and which, generally speaking, entail the reenactment—usually with the help of video, pictures, rehearsal accounts, oral histories—of artistic efforts deemed a part of performance art, today already considered art history, but perceived by 1970s art circles as profoundly ephemeral in nature. Thus, as an artistic practice, reenactment reveals the paradox of preserving singular events while putting its own media-like structure front and center. This is why, the author argues, instead of reinforcing the traditional opposition between preservation and documentation on the one hand, and ephemerality and singularity on the other, reenactment practices suggest embracing an alternative logic which dictates that events in and of themselves are already forms of documentation, whereas the gesture of archiving may itself be treated as an event. Each repetition of an event—whether reenactment or providing a spoken, written, photographic or video account thereof—is itself subject to the laws of ephemerality. While it does not exactly overlap with the ephemeral nature of the event that it reenacts, it develops its own energy capable of completely erasing the differences between itself and the original.

It should not be surprising, therefore, that given that Rebecca Schneider’s book offers a wholly new philosophy of history and performance art, the author decided to open it with a rather subversive passage, writing in the preface:

I went to Civil War. I did not go to an archive, though that would have been the most legitimate path to set for myself as a scholar interested in history. Instead, I went to witness battles mounted in the again of a time out of joint, as a scholar interested in history’s theatrical returns.[8]

Thus, Schneider returns in her book to the roots of theatrical reenactment—historical reenactment, the fairly naive yet highly popular pastime during which people lend their bodies to those whose flesh has long withered away and died. And, as it happens, it is these practices—although from the logocentric perspective of the logic of the archive they may seem a “ludicrous copy of something only vaguely imagined”—that radically subvert the myth of the ephemerality of the event: the bodies of people participating in reconstruction are in and of themselves a sort of ruin, or—within a performative repetition—a living remnant of history.

In her book, Rebecca Schneider does not get embroiled with the findings of European theater scholars; instead, her interests tend to focus on the political relationship between the American identity and the return of widespread warfare and terrorism, as well as deliberations exploring the linkages between the tradition of European theater (Jerzy Grotowski) with the legacy of American performative art (The Wooster Group) and the efforts of classic avant-garde artists (Gertrude Stein), icons of pop-culture and performance art (Andy Warhol, Marina Abramović), as well as the more contemporary representatives of the visual arts (Tino Seghal). However, Schneider’s inquiries can be credibly applied—despite the present duality of aesthetics and history—to not only contemporary theater studies, but also to the precepts of the field in its nascent state. They also enable us to rediscover and reinterpret the history of theater studies, as the myth professing the uniqueness and irreproducibility of the theater event was already subverted in the early 20th century by Nikolai Evreinov in his essential work on spectacles of the past and the methods of producing them and acting them out. Evreinov’s reenactment practices—whether at the Starinny Theater, where he focused on reenacting the rules and performances of medieval theater (1907-1908) and the theater of the Spanish Golden Age (1911-1912), and where he wanted to produce the ultimately unreleased commedia dell’arte, or in the form of reenacting the October Revolution in The Storming of the Winter Palace (November 7, 1920)—created a wholly different perspective of looking at the theater than the one embraced in that era by the nascent field of European theater studies. Instead of trying to convert theatrical signs into linguistic ones, they offered a strategy of updating and documenting the event by reincorporating it and revising it in the body. Thus, Evreinov’s practices did not provide a perfect rationale for the possibility of reenacting theater as much as argued that theater itself is a eternally a place of reenactment.

My proposition, therefore, involves not only an attempt at performing a critical examination of the relationship between body and archive in the context of theatrical art, but also an attempt to (re)incorporate reenactment practices into critical reflections on theater, its history, and the field of theater study. As Skwarczyńska observed, reenactment repeated today need not be limited to the somewhat crippled “additional research effort” with which the theater scholar is “saddled,” “stripped—due to the fleeting nature of the theatrical event—of direct contact with the subject of his study.”[9] If theater studies manage to incorporate the “hard” concept of reenactment, defined here as the arduous process of trying to isolate “traces of the performance” from spotty sources and documents in order to detect the epistemic process within the performative repetition of reenactment practices, then it will become apparent that it is possible to draft a story, wherein the body functions as a full-fledged archive, giving us live access to history and politic, including the history and politics of theater and theater studies.

Reenactment practices launched in early 20th century—as efforts revealing the conservative nature of the then-nascent institutionalized theater science. In my opinion, defining the essence of the theatrical work through its unique nature, thus reinforcing the myth of the ephemerality of the theater, has to be seen as a political gesture, involving at attempt at separating action from its documentation, present from the past, and, ultimately, art from politics. By guaranteeing the autonomy of the spectacle from text, literature, and social reality, and channeling the attention of scholars towards immanent analyses of performance, theater science served as one of the many instruments at the behest of power-knowledge, preventing the repetition of radical political acts and suppressing of the memory thereof. These acts survived in the “naive,” popular spectacles that the more progressive artists employed in order to subject them to performative repetition.

We need to emphasize that reenactment practices within the theater (and subsequently in film, performance art, and visual arts) are rooted in the use of reenactment of important political events as a specific form of cultural memory, reaching all the way back to the French Revolution which, according to Daniel Gerould, was the “first great European political and social upheaval that its creators immediately perceived as a spectacle to be enacted and reenacted.”[10] The perception is backed by numerous historical reenactments of the destruction of the Bastille held on the event’s first anniversary in both public spaces (e.g. La Prise de la Bastille in the Notre-Dame Cathedral) and professional theaters, whose chief objective was to illustrate the new role of the masses in the making of history.[11] By engaging with the same gesture of repetition, Evreinov assumed a century later the position of those who reembodied revolution—countering the notion of the singularity of events—by bringing up the fact that the October Revolution was already supposed to be, at least in the eyes of those who were working to make it a reality, a reenactment of the (spectacle) of the 1789 revolution. Evreinov’s inquiries and his efforts turned out to be simultaneously revolutionary in two separate dimensions—meta-political and meta-medial—thus morphing into a sort of practical and theoretical knowledge on both politics—its fundamental principles and ultimate objectives—as well as theater as self-referential medium.

It is my belief that the work of early 20th century Polish artist and philosopher of the theater Stanisław Wyspiański also situates itself in such a political, media, practical, and theoretical perspective. His works involve a series of attempts at employing reenactment strategies in order to reveal specifically defined theatrical dynamics: as eternally a place of reenactment, a machine of memory and remembrance. Maybe this is why the Ghost from Hamlet, the play itself an essential element of such a definition of theater, disappears in Wyspiański’s take behind phrases which, accompanied by the Polish poet’s distinct use of punctuation, become a sort of meta-commentary and develop the issue of not only individual memory but memory in general to a much greater extent than the original: “Fare thee well — Remember me! ——— / Remember — about me! / (disappears).”[12] In this perspective, disappearance seems to determine not only remembrance, but all appearance as well, thus becoming to Wyspiański not the nostalgic loss of primary sourceness, but rather the most durable foundation of the theater instead. Rather than define it as the specific birthplace of the original, he instead sees the source as repetition reiterated (born, emergent) here and now. In Wyspiański’s view, repetition is performed on the theatrical stage. Additionally, repetition is eminently theatrical in character—the process of resummoning, of updating the past is key here, as is the act of mediation itself or, in other words, mediality as phenomenon.

The second act of Wyspiański’s Liberation, comprising a philosophical treatise on appearance and disappearance as the problem behind mediating the source, involves an agonic game—the essence of drama—held between Konrad and the embodied Other, the Masks. Here, the appearance of every new Mask is contingent upon the disappearance of its predecessor, and it is only this dynamic that illustrates the continuum of existence staged by Wyspiański himself. Let us bring up a couple of passages exchanged between one Mask and another:

Barely the last maggot came and went, / another has already taken the stage […] Barely one mask flees, another takes its place. […] Barely one exits stage left, another replaces it. […] One is gone; its replacement already creeping in, / lurking, shadowing, watching. […] Disappears, and another emerges / to ask questions: […] Already a new one — the last one barely gone — / already close to Konrad’s side. […] It’s gone; a new one already here and examining / Konrad’s disturbing thought.

In Wyspiański’s work, Liberation occupies a special place in the context of the relationship and mediation between memory and disappearance, between history and the present, between theatrical matter and flesh. This particular play features Wyspiański’s most complex attempt to use reenactment as a sort of epistemic effort. The text—although resembling a drama in three acts from a formal standpoint—does not have all that much in common with dramatic literature, or at least with how that literature was defined in the nineteenth century. It’s a text written for the stage (and thus “eternally reenacted”), subject to multiple transformations induced by realization and reception, a text which even when published as a book exists, to quote Leon Schiller, as “the most exhaustively complete script for those able to read.”[13] Most importantly, however, the genealogy of this particular text is linked with theater rather than literature, with specific performances understood as social events—like the national premiere and reception of Wesele, staged on March 16, 1901, and the October 31, 1901, rendition of Dziady, adapted and directed by Wyspiański. Liberation, set “on the stage of a Krakow theater,” opens with a reenactment of a theatrical situation which took place a year prior, the events still fresh in the audience’s memories. Thus, it was not Konrad as literary (and mythical) construct who took the stage, but the actor Andrzej Milewski who played Konrad in Wyspiański’s interpretation of Dziady. This instance of theatrical repetition—somewhat disregarded in later literary analyses of Liberation—was essential to contemporary audiences who, although rather reserved in their appreciation for Wyspiański’s effort, nevertheless heaped enthusiastic praise on “the performer playing Gustaw-Konrad in Dziady” who “transformed himself over the second evening in Konrad from Liberation.”[14]

And it is the memory of the audience as witness of a (recent) event that Wyspiański cared about the most. This is evident in the underlying structure of the play, based around the interplay of the perceived and omitted, the remembered and forgotten, and the invoked, repeated, and reenacted. The majority of Liberation comprises a spectacle (interrupted for the duration of the second act) called Modern Poland which—in its capacity as a reenactment of both the Polish national theater and political spectacle—serves as reenactment proper in Wyspiański’s play. Nevertheless, it is preceded by a very specific process of its establishment, summoning, or reanimation—the opening minutes of the performance are a sort of rehearsal for the spectacle, revealing the methods and mechanisms of its enactment or reenactment upon a stage of very exact dimensions: “twenty steps in length and width / The space is enough / to hold the entirety of Polish thought.”[15] And it is only this juxtaposition of acting and reenactment allows us to fully understand what Robespierre meant when he claimed that the essence of political reenactment lies in “spectacle of spectators.”[16] Modern Poland is based around the repetition of pre-made cultural (and theatrical) clichés, phrases, situations, objects, and characters, internalized and revised time and again in the bodies of the spectators. It is not without reason that already in the opening Konrad-Mielewski describes himself thusly: “I have loved this realm / madly / and lusting for it I possessed it with my flesh! — / I am inside every man, dwell inside every heart,” the passage a travesty of the words of Konrad uttered in The Great Improvisation: “Now my soul is my nation incarnate; / My body has swallowed its soul.”[17]

Before Konrad undertakes to reenact the grand national spectacle, however, before he even appears on stage himself, the audience will be confronted with workers populating the theater premises. Wyspiański’s play opens with reflection on their societal status, their work, and their material conditions.

Sprawling stage wide open, / With vast spaces around it; / Gas and ramps have not yet been lit.  / Who are the men by the wall? / What are they here for? / Is it a pack of homeless souls? / Resting their weary heads, / Why do they frown / When their wages have been paid?[18]

These workers—always present and indispensable, but rarely visible in the theater—are first presented in a theatrical “condition zero,” outside of any kind of “as if” situation, and only after the appearance of—or rather in light of—Konrad’s thought and work do they become actors who play Polish Workers hailing from the peasantry. The situation with the w(W)orkers that opens Liberation, one rooted in a radical reduction of theatricality, reveals an understanding of the theater highly characteristic of Stanisław Wyspiański; an understanding where, one may say, theater is defined as “poor,” and the actor as “deprived.” We would be hard-pressed, however, to find a more misleading association. This reduction of theatricality is used by Wyspiański to alienate, rather to uplift any sourceness and primary nature of the theater—here, the empty stage is first and foremost a specific place, and one burdened with history, one where the past is being updated through interaction between itself and human flesh. The fact that in Liberation history is reanimated within the space of the theater by workers is undoubtedly political and, in my opinion, determines the expression of the play. It is of this mass of men (“The force is you”) that Konrad will demand that they do the right thing—throw away the shackles and to spill blood off stage (“Sit on the sidelines and in the corners until I summon you forth to action”). That is why Modern Poland, itself based on gesture which is then set against action—will unfold only after the w(W)orkers have left. They will later come back on stage as the Chorus, but only after Konrad reveals the “as-if-reality” of the theater and will remain with him after he has been left “alone on a vast and empty stage.” Despite the lack of any sort of physical presence of the w(W)orkers during the performance of Modern Poland, the alienation of working at a theater—marked at the very outset by means of their bodies—will determine the essentially intransigent conflict between the director and the actors on the one hand, playing roles based on “pretending,” and Konrad on the other, who believes that acting is rooted in revolutionary action and abandoning the “as-if.” It is precisely why Modern Poland, understood as reenactment, becomes a means of exposing the meta-theatrical and meta-political dimension of the theater, wherein actors do not only play actors, but rather are, to quote Rebecca Schneider, “actors being actors working,”[19] and as such reveal themselves to the audience of Liberation.

Reading Liberation from the perspective of reenactment practices aims to demonstrate that for Wyspiański, debunking the myth of the ephemerality of theater did not entail—as it did for the Romantics and the heirs to the Romantic tradition such as Jerzy Grotowski—recovering theater for ritual. On the contrary—the incessant separation of presented figures and situations from “the truth of the source,” the permanent historicization of the present, and the utilization of mechanisms intended to alienate words and gestures, were all supposed to give theater back to politics. That is why, in Liberation, Wyspiański contrasts the Actor-courtesan not with the actor-saint but with an actor of the revolution. Such a take on Wyspiański’s work portrays him as an entirely modern artist of the theater and a philosopher of modernity, cognizant of the profound relationship between the myth of the uniqueness of a theatrical event and the processes of economic production and technical reproduction. We could, therefore, claim that Wyspiański’s 1902 theatrical reenactment brought to light the diagnoses that Walter Benjamin summed up in his most famous essay, the 1936 The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction:

[…] for the first time in world history, mechanical reproduction emancipates the work of art from its parasitical dependence on ritual. To an ever-greater degree the work of art reproduced becomes the work of art designed for reproducibility. […] But the instant the criterion of authenticity ceases to be applicable to artistic production, the total function of art is reversed. Instead of being based on ritual, it begins to be based on another practicepolitics [emphasis mine—DS].[20]

That belief is best expressed by the character of the Old Actor who keenly confronts the ephemerality of theater with the permanence of revolution and importance of politics:

My son, says the mother, it’s your father with a rifle / he fought for our virtues and acted… / (He fell in sixty three; today, his tomb is forgotten). / None brought him wreaths, flowers or a light… / My father was a champion, I am merely nothing.[21]

Thus, the ephemeral resonates in Wyspiański’s work in a particular way, radically diverging  from the theatrological interpretations brought up earlier in this essay. In his work, however, ephemerality does not necessarily signify ontological fragility or nostalgic transience of the theater; on the contrary—it testifies to the mediocrity and the illusory character of a socially constructed image rooted in the logic of consumption, only ostensibly capable of guaranteeing lasting recognition:

O, glory of artists! Wreaths are no surprise, / I had these hands full of them, / when I celebrated my thirtieth year on stage. / I had applause, recognition, and respect, / It’s ephemeral, but one night in the light of lamps, / and then it goes dark, along with rows of ramps.[22]

[1] See: Eleonora Udalska, ed., Teatrologia w Polsce w latach 1918-1939 (Warszawa: Państwowe Wydawnictwa Naukowe, 1979).

[2] As quoted in Wiktor Brumer, “Niedomagania polskiej teatrologii” in Teatrologia w Polsce, 95-96.

[3] Julia A. Walker, “Why Performance? Why Now? Textuality and the Rearticulation of Human Presence,” The Yale Journal of Criticism 16, no. 1 (Spring 2003): 149-175.

[4] Irena Sławińska, “Ingardenowska teoria dzieła teatralnego” in Teatr w myśli współczesnej: ku antropologii teatru (Warszawa: Państwowy Instytut Wydawniczy, 1990), 29-30.

[5] Stefania Skwarczyńska, “Sprawa dokumentacji widowiska teatralnego,” Dialog 7 (1975).

[6] Rebecca Schneider, Performing Remains: Art and War in Times of Theatrical Reenactment (New York: Routledge, 2011).

[7] Rebecca Schneider, “Archives. Performance Remains,” Performance Research 6 (2001): 100-108.

[8] Schneider, Performing Remains, 1.

[9] Skwarczyńska, “Sprawa dokumentacji,” 130.

[10] Daniel Gerould, “Historical Simulation and Popular Entertainment,” The Drama Review 33, no. 2 (1989): 162.

[11] Gerould, “Historical Simulation,” 163.

[12] For comparison’s sake, we should bring up the translation crafted by Józef Paszkowski which Wyspiański himself used, and a more contemporary one by Stanisław Barańczak. In Paszkowski’s rendition, the passage goes: “Fare the well, fare thee well; remember me. / Disappears,” while Barańczak’s offers: “Farewell, farewell. And remember me / Disappears.”

[13] Leon Schiller, “Wyspiański w literaturach zachodnioeuropejskich” in Na progu nowego teatru (Warszawa: Państwowy Państwowy Instytut Wydawniczy, 1978).

[14] Stanisław Dąbrowski, “Sceniczne dzieje ‘Wyzwolenia’” in: Wyspiański i Teatr, ed. Alfred Woycicki (Krakow: Teatr im. J. Słowackiego, 1957), 107.

[15] Stanisław Wyspiański, Wyzwolenie (Wrocław: Zakład Narodowy im. Ossolińskich, 1970), 11.

[16] Gerould, “Historical Simulation,” 163.

[17] Wyspiański, Wyzwolenie, 5.

[18] Wyspiański, Wyzwolenie, 11.

[19] cf. Schneider, Performing Remains, 114.

[20] Walter Benjamin, Illuminations, ed. Hannah Arendt (New York: Schocken Books, 2007), 224.

[21] Wyspiański, Wyzwolenie, 197.

[22] Wyspiański, Wyzwolenie, 197.