| go to "cue to cue" index | go to entry page | | go to other departments |


Home Page & Banners
Click Here to Visit our Sponsor

by Margaret Croyden

Jerzy Grotowski
On January 14, 1999 one of the most important and influential theater persons, Jerzy Grotowski died. On March 21, 1999, friends and admirers of this master of the theater gathered together at the St. Marks Church in the East Village to memorialize him. The occasion was solemn and sad but not depressing; in fact, in remembering Grotowski, a magical personality and a brilliant genius, was to remember something of the past, and to remember the history of the theatrical renaissance of the sixties, a time when Grotowski and the rest of the avant garde theater flourished. It was remembering our youth.

The church with its stained glass windows, its simple altar and white washed walls and its quiet unobtrusive arrangement of the seats was the ideal place to think of Grotowski. It was not far from this church that Grotowski and his Polish Laboratory theater made its appearance in 1970. There, in the simplicity of the Washington Square Church in Greenwich Village, people fought to get a seat. Grotowski, his company, and his philosophy and acting methods took hold, and was destined to change traditional concepts of the theater. Who can forget the beauty and tempestuousness of his company as they performed "The Acropolis," or "The Constant Prince" with the magnificent Richard Cieslak, or "Apocalypsis Con Figuris," possibly Grotowski's most sophisticated piece? To have seen the Grotowski company that year was to be present at a truly significant and unforgettable event. And to have known Grotowski and Cieslak was to experience an unique relationship, one that is cherished and remembered forever.

What follows is a summary of some of the speaker's remarks so that those who could not attend this memorial will get a taste of the tone and quality of the occasion.

Precisely at 1:30 in the afternoon, the opening ceremony began. After a brief moment of silence, Grotowski's voice, as in a dream, was heard. A translation from the French follows.

JERZY GROTOWSKI (ON TAPE): "Theater has been a great adventure in my life, it has conditioned my way of thinking, my way of seeing people and looking at life. But I didn't look for theater. In reality I always have been looking for something else. But I would say that my language has been formed by theater.

"When I was young I asked myself what would be a possible job that would enable me to look for the other one and myself, to look for a dimension of life that would be rooted in what is normal, organic, even sensual, but that would go beyond all this, that would have a sort of axis, another higher dimension that would surpass us. At that time, I wanted to study either Hinduism, to work on the different techniques of yoga, or medicine, to become a psychiatrist, or dramatic art to become a director. It was the Stalinist period, censorship was very heavy. Performances were censored, but not rehearsals and the rehearsals have been for me the most important thing. There something happened between a human being and another human being, that is the actor and myself that touched this axis beyond any control from the outside. It means that the performance has always been less important that the work in the rehearsals. The performance had to be impeccable, but I always went back towards the rehearsals even after the premiere because the rehearsals have been the great adventure. In the end, it has been this search for the human being in the others and in myself that lead me to theater. But it could have lead me to psychiatry or to the study of yoga.

"When I was young I had a professor who gave me private lessons without being paid. He was a great wise man and a specialist in Hinduism. When I began doing theater, I invited him to a performance but he refused. Why, had he refused, I asked him? He said, 'Because no matter what you do, it will transform itself into a hermitage.' Now I find myself with my present work, beyond performance and any public work, with the artists looking for this interior axis, I find myself, as he was saying, in an hermitage."

Harvey Lichtenstein, who first produced Grotowsky in a Greenwich Village church (and is well-known as artistic director of the Brooklyn Academy of Music) was next. He read excerpts from a letter, dated June 4, 1969, that he had received from Grotowski's close friend and agent, Madame Ninon Karlweiss:

HARVEY LICHTENSTEIN: "Grotowski has become quite disturbed," (she wrote) "with the mushrooming of so called followers. In fact he has written an important article in the French paper 'Le Monde' where he starts a campaign against 'Grotowskites.' His idea is no longer to teach actors in a couple of weeks the basis of his method because he has found out that it's then misunderstood and used for sensational purposes instead of being a preparation for long and arduous work entailing not only physical effort but, more important, a great deal of spiritual development and growth. Therefore, what he proposed is a series of lectures on this theme using the presence of his company to illustrate in their performances what he means by his training because they are trained and, in their acting, they demonstrate what he really intends. Now the space in which he wants to perform: he refuses now to appear on the stage of a big theater. He did it once in France when he was still unknown, but now he wants to disengage himself completely from the commercial theater and stick to his premise.

"He wants a bare space--preferably a church--with the following measurements: width--33 feet: length--44 feet; height--20 feet. And a clean wooden floor. No lights. No nothing. He is bringing in his own projectors (a couple at the most). He needs no stagehands, no lighting men. His actors do all the work. I mentioned the acoustics. His answer was 'There are no bad acoustics. There are only actors who don't know how to use their voice within a given space....It must be clean-bare-with nothing to distract the spectator from the playing of the actors.

"But when I promised Grotowski that maybe he did not need to transfer the wooden benches on which the spectators are seated in 'Apocalypsis,' he looked at me reprovingly, and said that I should know that objects used artistically have a spirit of their own, and that these benches were made by a peasant whose family had made benches for churches for over two centuries. So these benched had to go.

"I cannot describe 'Apocalypsis' for you. It is beyond all description. Nothing on the stage, but five figures dressed in white lying on the floor. Two old projectors (spots) in the corner--and as I said before, a loaf of bread and a napkin. Slowly from the shadows a dark figure emerges. It is the Innocent of the Village. Then it happens. Are these people real peasants? Or are they Lazars speaking the Book of Job--or Jesus speaking words of T. S. Eliot, Jean Simon Weil, Judas, the Parables of the Gospel, Simon Peter, or the words of Dostoevski's Great Inquisitor? This is the spectator's guess. But when the lights go out, and the end is played by candlelight located below the faces of the actors, you know that you have seen innocence and goodness rejected once again from the world, and therefore the Apocalypsis is upon us. And this is done by two faces confronting each other. Simon Peter and...Jesus??... So find the right space and work on the lectures."

It was my turn to speak next. (It was easy for me to record my own remarks.)

MARGARET CROYDEN: "To talk about Grotowski now that he is gone, is to remember and relish all the glorious moments when our lives touched. It is to remember when I first saw his company in Edinburgh in 1968 where they stunned everyone with 'Acropolis', and 'The Constant Prince' with the inimitable Richard Cieslak. There in his dingy hotel room I first found Grot and interviewed him, and later introduced his work to the "New York Times." It was then that my life long friendship with Grotowski and Cieslak began. I remember Grot, the man, smoking his pipe, drinking cognac, staying up all night talking, laughing, gossiping, giving advice about all things large or small, with an ironic adorable look in his eyes. Whether at a New Year's gathering in Andre Gregory's house, or in Sicily at a celebration for Peter Brook, or at the Crillon Bar in Paris where Grot loved to eat caviar and drink vodka, or eating hamburgers in my apartment at 2 a.m. in the morning, Grotowski was supremely himself. And he would give himself up to you regardless of how he felt, and in recent years, he was not feeling well at all.

"Thinking about Grot's life and times, is to recall also the amazing theater of the 60's, of which he was a part. The Becks and the Living, Chaikin and the Open Theater, Richard Scheckner and Dionysus, Andre Gregory and Alice, Richard Foremen and Bob Wilson, Ellen Stewart's, La Mama, and Peter Brook's new international experimental company.

"In the forefront there was always Jerzy Grotowski. His art and philosophy influenced everyone. His "poor theater" become a revolutionary force, challenging conventional concepts of theater. His method was studied, written about and emulated. People tried his body exercises, they went to Poland for his and Cieslak's workshops, they published books about him and began to worship him. Though his work was not actually adaptable, he nevertheless represented an ideal, a way, a symbol of pure theater. He was a magician who could influence many people, especially the young. Eventually, even the establishment recognized his genius. The MacArthur foundation awarded him their prestigious grant, and in the last years of his life Paris showed its appreciation and elected him to the College De France, one of the few foreigners so honored.

"Despite his reputation and his spectacular success, Grot left off performing altogether and what he called the social game to continue his own personal search. He settled in Pontedera Italy to work with a small group carefully and quietly experimenting with ancient rituals, ancient sounds, and organic movements. This group became well known all over Europe and still exists and is still working. In the end, Grotowski, ill and dying, labored to put his work in order, leaving his legacy to the leader of the group, Thomas Richards.

"But the main thing about Jerzy Grotowski for me who knew him for thirty years was his basic humanity, and his commitment to a set of principles that he never wavered from. Yes, Grotowski the artist was revered. And rightly so. But I revered him not only because of his art, but because he was a rare being and a devoted friend, and had remained faithful despite the distances between us. Years ago, when I came out of the Polish woods after a remarkable experience devised by Grotowski and led by my dear Richard Cieslak Grotowski told me to search for another Way---to follow my own flame. For me, Grot was the flame. He had the uncanny ability to make a profound difference in one's life. We who loved him know that in losing him, we lost something essential and irreplaceable. But something very precious remains within us forever."

Next was Judith Malina, co-founder with the late Julian Beck of The Living Theater.

JUDITH MALINA: (Malina began by chanting softly.) "Hosanna, Hosanna...The hymn of praise with which the "kohanim", the priests in the temple blessed the congregation. Hosanna: that we have had such a teacher, such a guide, such a friend among us. And what will we do now? How to go on without him? How do we use what he has shown us? For we are the happy few who knew him, gathered now to memorialize him. Here, and everywhere in the world, where we gather to mark Grotowski's passing, it is for us who have heard and understood to fulfill that far-reaching vision. And after all, Grotowski meant to teach us. He retreated from the theater so as to do this vital research. And now the lesson has become ours.

"And who are we? I don't see the great stars of Broadway here, though they too, have benefited from his revolutionary quest. Their motives, however, are so far from ours, and so far from his as to preclude any real understanding on their part.

"But I see here the adventurous and the great creative spirits of that bolder theater which we have made. We are the continuity. We are the people who will further the experiment.

"And what does he ask of us? That we go deeper into ourselves before we speak. That the actor speak only her deepest truth. That we labor mightily with our resistance to that truth. That we learn to express it. Every time we make it prettier, make it easier, more palatable, more charming, we betray Grotowski and his legacy. To imagine that the voyage is limited to a particular historical decade, is to miss its meaning.

"It is a difficult time for the arts. We need to draw inspiration from Jerzy's dying breath and to go as far as we dare, as he did. Then from the gloom comes the Hosanna. That's what he taught us. That's what we still need to learn."

Next to speak was Bill Reichblum, currently the Dean of Arts and Sciences at Bennington College.

BILL REICHBLUM: "Many artists are cursed in their old age, or at the time of their passing to be remembered only by their own generation, especially in the ephemeral world of theater. But the presence of Jerzy Grotowski is still spirited and still flowing. I am sure that for all of us Jerzy set a standard of rigor, discipline, and responsibility that we might not be able to attain, but we know that a standard has to be fought for; we know we have to challenge ourselves before we attempt to challenge our collaborators, and those to whom we offer ourselves.

"The significance of Jerzy's place in theater history will never be forgotten. But more directly, this remarkable man will continue to be present as only a master teacher can be from the past, in the present, and towards the future. In my tradition, there is a spiritual understanding that there are always thirty- six just men in the world. These thirty-six do nothing less than keep alive the searches and the world of God. I have no doubt that Jerzy was one of the thirty-six. Although in passing, the person is replaced, we acknowledge that he can never be displaced, never forgotten by those to whom he gave so intimately, so forcefully and so vitally.

"In the act of remembering Jerzy, there is also my memory of someone who is both present and not present today. Where Jerzy discovered the deep connections between our world and the world carried within us, Chiquita Gregory found a way to make deep connections between individuals. I still hear them scheming plots, and the total joy and raucous laughter of this collaboration. Together, they remain a part of my dreams and of my heart.

"Now, the life force of Jerzy continues within us and within our actions. Each of us, I am sure, is extraordinarily grateful for having been touched, having been sparked by Jerzy. We can also be grateful that his work will directly continue though his relationship with his intended heir, Thomas Richards. I know how important Thomas has been to Jerzy in the last thirteen years, and the absolute vigor of Thomas' understanding, intellect, and imagination. In honoring Jerzy, we should honor his determination to continue to transmit his work to new generations of artists, explorers, and students through Thomas Richards and the Work Center in Pontedera.

"One of the many stories Jerzy loved was the story of Bal Shem Tov who went to a certain place in the forest, lit a fire in a specific way and practiced a specific meditation of prayer. Over a long period of time, after his passing, the specific words of the prayer were lost. Then the specific way of lighting the fire was lost. Then even the specific place in the forest was lost. This could be perceived as a disaster, a complete break from the past. However, the lesson is that this was not the case, because at least, we still have the story.

"Now each of us has our individual stories of Jerzy. And the stories and their meanings will continue to be brought forth from within us."

Actor/director Andre Gregory was the last speaker. Gregory told amusing anecdotes about his long friendship with Grotowski; he told about their travels together and their wonderful talks in the desert, on beaches, and even while sitting on the rocks in an ocean. Although Gregory was humorous and captured the spirit of Grotowski in these amusing talks, everyone in the room knew how much Grotowski had meant to Andre Gregory and his late wife, Chiquita Gregory . Both were intimately involved with Grotowski from the beginning and before Chiquita Gregory died, she made an amazing film of Grotowski's work in Pontedera that illustrated what Grotowski and his protegee, Thomas Richards, were searching for. The film was shown in many places in America and especially in Europe, and is now part of the heritage of the amazing world of Jerzy Grotowski.

The memorial ended with a tape recording of a choral group, "Le Choeur Sirene" singing a liturgical work based on the great spiritual text, "The Lamentations of Jeremiah," composed by Vladimir Martynov. Orignally staged as a theater piece by the well known Russian director (and friend of Grotowski), Anatoly Vassiliev, the music filled the space with glorious sounds that expressed perfectly the grand and indomitable spirit of Grotowski. So splendid was the music that everyone sat transfixed and a rare quiet enveloped the room; no one moved, whispered, or coughed; each sat with his or her own thoughts listening carefully to the music reverberating through the church. When the music stopped there was an extraordinary silence again, the solemn and beautiful silence of a deep emotional meditation. Then, the ceremony ended--precisely at the moment the church bells rang out. A fitting tribute to my friend--the remarkable Jerzy Grotowski. [Croyden]

Photo of Margaret Croyden
Margaret Croyden is a theater reviewer and essayist for the New York Theatre Wire.
Introducing: NY Theatre Wire E-mail
Our version of Hotmail and Yahoo Mail
Become a full-fledged member of the theater community! By using your NYTW mail account, you'll be telling the world you support the dramatic arts. It's free, private and efficient. User's tip: you can set up our mail page as your home page, making it easy to check your Email and access all departments of the NYTW from one screen.

Join our NYTW Rush Club!
Members are eligible for free ticket offers, invitations to special previews and openings, meetings with artists (actors, directors, etc.) and much more!
Enter your email address below, then click the 'Join List' button:

| home | listings | columnists | reviews | what's new? | people page | cue-to-cue | welcome |
| museums | NYTW mail | recordings | what's cool? | who's hot? | publications | classified |