Secrets, Dreams & Stars: Spiritual Experiments in Theatre
default, Juliusz Słowacki’s Horoscope by Franciszek Augustyn Prengel, ‘Polski Kalendarz Astrologiczny. Almanach Wpływów Kosmicznych na Rok, center, slowacki_horoskop.jpg
These artists treated theatre like something more than art and entertainment. For them, it was a way of exploring, of knowing, a way of life.
Jerzy Grotowski put it bluntly: ‘I am not interested in theatre as such’. The character of this medium, with its stubborn anthropocentrism and ritualistic roots, makes it a naturally become a field for spiritual experiments. All these artists considered spiritual matters important – theatre and drama was not a goal in itself but rather charted a path towards extrasensory cognition.
Juliusz Słowacki & the stars
The connections of directors and playwrights with gnosis and mysticism are nothing new – one person who suffered from the ‘mystical bite’ was the Polish Romantic poet Juliusz Słowacki, who also explored the arcane knowledge of astrology, closely followed the lunar cycle and examined the Orion Belt. And while the mystical dimension of Polish Romanticism (influenced by Andrzej Towiański) is something widely known and present in the curriculum of Polish schools, the knowledge of gnostic and esoteric inclinations of the great writers is not really canon. Today, few people realise how important and esteemed field the study of stars actually was. Up until the 18th century astrology had its own department at the Jagiellonian University in Kraków and it was treated not like divination or a system of beliefs, but like an exact science connected to mathematics, which overlappedwith astronomy.
‘Was the bard an astrologist?’ – this is the question posed in an article Juliusz Słowacki i Gwiazdy (Editor’s translation: Juliusz Słowacki and the Stars) written by Franciszek Augustyn Prengel – the most famous star-expert of the inter-war period. In the article, published in the 1933 in the Polski Kalendarz Astrologiczny (Polish Astrological Calendar), he describes the mind of the playwright-poet as ‘open to the beauty of the starry sky’:
Not only did he succumb to the romantic spell of the firmament covered with a carpet of shining diamonds, but he also tried to unravel the mysteries hidden in the celestial book of being.
Prengel read Słowacki’s writings in hope of finding traces of the bard’s practical interest in the psychological dimension of the movement of celestial bodies. In his impressive analysis, the propagator of Polish astrology placed Słowacki next to Shakespeare and Goethe – two other outstanding playwrights and lovers of astrology. The author of Kordian is also believed to have written horoscopes himself – he described this passion of his in letters he sent his beloved mother from Florence. But Słowacki was most definitely convinced of a pan-psychic character of the universe in which the cosmic and earthly matters combined in one spiritual space – a space full of secrets that could only be discovered through esoteric insight.
In the mystical writings from the late period of his career (which began with his meeting with Towiański), Słowacki enthusiastically predicted the coming of a new era during which the alert observation of the sky would lead men to the truth:
What a time it will be when the planets will tell their secrets to men! When the Sun will speak of its mysteries! And Jupiter and Mars and Venus!
Under the patronage of St. Genesius
Mickiewicz Unravelled: A Little-Known Fact about Poland's Best-Known Bard
The theatrical work of Juliusz Osterwa also had a mystical dimension – especially in the last years of his life, when the founder of the legendary Reduta Theatre devoted all his energy to the vision of creating a new theatrical order, inspired by the rules of monastic life. His stay in the Dominican Order monastery in Kraków during a closed retreat inspired Osterwa to develop a well-deliberated idea for his dream organisation. At first, the artist envisioned the order as a lay association that would function similarly to a monastery – Osterwa liked the separateness of such organisations and their concentration on the communal life, as well as their devotion to work and a higher goal.
‘Dal’ (Distance), because that was the name Osterwa imagined for his dream order, was supposed to develop its own internal language and its members, ‘Dalanie’, were supposed to wear special uniforms and live according to the same rhythm. Soon after, Osterwa’s vision expanded and gained a more religiously inspired character. ‘Genezja’, a theatre-monastery, was inspired by the legend of St. Genesius, a Roman martyr who converted to Christianity as a result of a revelation he had while performing on stage in front of Emperor Diocletian.
Osterwa read hagiographies and, overcome by his vision of creating a quasi-monastic theatrical organisation, he compared the history of Reduta Theatre to the history of creation of the order of St. Francis of Assisi. He informed Stefan Jaracz (among others) of his plans – in a letter written to the actor in 1944, Osterwa expressed his belief that ‘the purpose of the theatre has to overcome the boundaries of its activity’.
He constantly understood the theatrical activity as an integral part of life and did not believe in a division between the artistic and private sphere: ‘the theatre can be the space for the transformation of the soul’. With that in mind, he also wrote to Jaracz about his idea for the staging of Stanisław Wyspiański’s Wesele (The Wedding):
Anybody who will take part in it, will feel joy in the wind of the Might and Charm of the Mystery of Being.
‘Dal’ and ‘Genezja’ were Osterwa’s grand, unfulfilled dreams. Even though, as observed by Lucyna Muszyńska in her study Reduta jako Mistyczne Zwierciadło Świata (Reduta as a Mystical Mirror of the World), his visions later ‘took on an extreme character’, the almost religious devotion of the founder of Reduta Theatre was above all a devotion to the word – to its precise and authentic embodiment.
In 1972, Jerzy Grotowski, who considered himself a continuer of Osterwa’s thought, observed that Osterwa’s ideas contained…
…something moving just as extraordinarily as an image of a real person’s life through which this person was guided by something incomparably stronger than ordinary reflexes. This person was guided by some other longing.
Grotowski: a false mystic?
6 Polish Theatre Directors Who Revolutionised the Stage
The continuation of the legacy of the Reduta Theatre was stressed by Grotowski who took the group’s emblem when he founded his Laboratorium Theatre. The director of Apocalypsis Cum Figuris did not consider himself an imitator of Osterwa’s work, but his spiritual successor. According to Grotowski, Osterwa’s activity made it possible to…
…move towards a different perspective, in which man could meet man over something that has some meaning, some purpose and some purity – over something of which they would not have to be ashamed.
And just like the man behind the idea for ‘Genezja’, Grotowski, guided by this same ‘other longing’, saw theatre as a way towards an extrasensory and interpersonal experience. It is common to easily and automatically link Grotowski with the concept of ‘ritual’ or with para-religious activity. But the director did not create any cult that could be easily characterised. He was rather a constantly active discoverer, who looked for the spiritual truth and the arcane knowledge of the consciousness in many sources: in the gnostic sphere, in Gurdjieff and Jung, but also in the Upanishads and the Vedas. He travelled to the East: to Central Asia, China and, several times, to India.
Although he started with plays, he moved towards para-theatre until he reached a moment in which he reduced the artistic dimension of his activity to almost nothing. He was constantly interested above all with what happened outside the theatre.
A performance was not a product or an artistic project for him. It was a possibility to have a communal ‘festival’ within the bounds of the inter-human ecology. For him, theatre was like a ladder that could be discarded once one reached the top. The fact that when applying to the Directing Department at the AST National Academy of Theatre Arts in Kraków, Grotowski planned to study in Indology and medicine (specifically, psychiatry) is not without importance. He looked for various roads that could lead him to decipher the spiritual and psychological dimensions of men and theatre was only one of them.
Grotowski’s late period is especially important in this context – it is when Przedsięwzięcie Góra (Mountain Project) was prepared, also known as Góra Płomienia (Fire Mountain, 1977). It was one of the last attempts to create a new communal experience based on the structure of ritual and inspired by its spiritual potential for transformation – it was undertaken by a group of members of the Laboratorium Theatre led by Jacek Zmysłowski and Grotowski oversaw the project.
The director presented the idea for the project two years earlier. Its name directly corresponded with the Arunaćali Mountain (Mountain of Red Flame), a site of Hindu pilgrimages which was associated with Grotowski’s spiritual guru, the mystic Ramana Maharshi, and to which Grotowski also travelled. Grotowski’s ashes were scattered at the slope of Arunaćali.
Part of Przedsięwzięcie Góra consisted of a series of collective ‘Vigils’. Grotowski said that they:
last day and night (…). People reach the Mountain and leave, others experience the Road, take part in a Vigil and leave…
It was mostly about the suspension of the situation of acting, to which Grotowski was particularly ‘sensitive’. He spoke out against the mundanity of life, against the mechanical enacting of repetitive patterns. He saw the extra-theatrical experience without spectators (and almost without words) as a possibility of mutually living out the presence of other people in an inter-human event.
It can be said that this project was in fact an anti-thesis of theatre and everything theatrical. The spiritual discoveries of Grotowski and his associates led them to reject the medium with which they began their journey.
In one of his interviews, Krystian Lupa called Grotowski ‘a false prophet’. Lupa considered him a victim of egocentrism that only imitated the figure of a real guru. He wondered about it in a conversation with Łukasz Drewniak:
I am not sure whether Grotowski was a kind of mystic or only pretended to be one. I know that he was a first-rate intellectual but was he a carrier of illumination? Was he, like the Eastern mystics, an individual that carried out the act of insight within himself? Because this is what mystical experiences are about. Or maybe he was an intellectual who pretended something like that.
The Grotowski Glossary
Although Lupa himself is deeply involved in spiritual matters, he’s never considered himself a mystic. The reading of his writings – Labirynt (Labirynth) and Podglądanie (Peeping) – clearly shows that: they are full of ellipses, as if the artist remained in a constant state of uncertainty that prohibits him from proclaiming any spiritual ‘truths’.
It is probably due to the influence of Carls Gustav Jung, whom Lupa considers his master, that the director believes so strongly in the significance of dreams. He also used the idea of a ‘dreaming body’ created by the controversial American psychotherapist Arnold Mindell who developed Jung’s concept of individuation (the process of man’s integration and their gaining of an autonomous identity over the course of psychological development). Lupa’s use of internal monologues is based on this theory. It claims that our psychological processes manifest themselves through dreams and somatic ailments.
‘The dreams of the aunt are the property of Krzesisława Dubielówna’. This is a note written next to the description of Kuszenie Cichej Weroniki (The Temptations of Quiet Weronika), a Wrocław-based performance of Lupa’s from 1997. Dreams are important for Lupa – they are a separate figure, an object and a piece of property belonging to a specific dreaming mind. Grzegorz Niziołek wrote that Lupa’s staging of Witkacy’s Bezimienne Dzieło (Nameless Work, Stary Theatre, 1982) was ‘tantalising with oneiric palpability that suggestively and deceitfully undermines the everyday idea of reality’. This oneiric property is also achieved by Lupa’s masterful use of time – the hours-long shows play with the perception of the audience, often introducing them into a state that is close to a trance. This was, for example, the case of the aptly named Miasto Snu (The City of Dreaming), a staging of Alfred Kubin’s The Other Side that lasted for more than six hours. Anka Herbut wrote in Dwutygodnik bi-weekly that:
Lupa created a gray and blue narcoleptic city that escapes any attempts to systematise it in reference to time and space.
Lupa’s theatre is often a space that is open to transgressions coming both from the actors and from the audience.
In Magia Zbliżenia i Tajemnica Dystansu (The Magic of Closeness and the Mystery of Distance), the German theatre scholar Uta Schorlemmer noticed that individuation is for Lupa, above all, an aesthetic and not therapeutic experience. But these two dimensions seem to constantly interact in the director’s work. It is emblematic for artists who look in theatre for a space for spiritual discoveries – art and life, just as ethics and aesthetics, merge into one.
Since childhood, Lupa has been developing his vision of a dreamland he called Juskunia. It has its own map, language and capital. According to the director, it is a kind of spiritual self-medication through attempts to create a new place, a new harbour.
Speaking of Juskunia, Lupa refers to Jung and his theory dealing with the therapeutic dimension of such attempts. The imagined city-state became a returning reference point for the artist, his own utopia distorting the boundaries between ‘life’ and art.
It is impossible to sum up Lupa’s relationship to the spiritual in just a few sentences. It is certain that he has always wanted to explore the mysteries of consciousness through theatre and to reach the deepest layers of the unconscious. As Grzegorz Niziołek writes in Sny, Komedie, Medytacje (Dreams, Comedies, Meditations), in his shows, just like in dreams,
…the richness of motifs, which is impossible to describe, ties the seemingly distant events and characters together with a hidden thread.
Vibrant Voices: Polish Theatre’s Journey to the Early 21st Century
20th cemtury polish theatre directors
20th century polish theatre
Today, the possibility of a mystical experience within the bounds of a performative show are discussed, among others, by Krzysztof Garbaczewski. Fascinated by the legacy of Grotowski, he points to the not so obvious connections between the newest technologies and the thoughts of the founder of the Laboratorium Theatre. For Garbaczewski, the help of VR technologies creates the possibility of a communal experience that assumes the character of a game. He discussed his performance New Territory as something ‘flavoured with mysticism’ but remaining neutral in relation to the sacrum:
We open a kind of a spiritual pathway, but we use purely practical tools – without one god or another.
It may be that immersive technologies, by opening up virtual realities, will allow us to have mystical experiences that would be qualitatively different than what came before. Unique feelings, earlier induced by hashish and opium (Słowacki) or mescaline (Witkacy), can now be introduced through the digital, which offers, at least on the surface, safer hallucinations. What the apocalyptic visions demonising the technological advances describe as the final step towards extreme social alienation can become a foundation for the creation of a new, digitalised rituals. It will be a communal festival called ‘multiplayer VR’.
Sources: Polski kalendarz astrologiczny na rok 1933, Wielkopolska Biblioteka Cyfrowa;Grotowski. Teksty zebrane, Wydawnictwo Krytyki Politycznej; Grotowski. Źródła, inspiracje, konteksty, Z. Osiński; Reduta jako mistyczne zwierciadło świata, L. Muszyńska; Listy Juliusza Osterwy, Państwowy Instytut Wydawniczy; Sny, komedie, medytacje, G. Niziołek; Podróż do nieuchwytnego. Rozmowy z Krystianem Lupą, B. Matkowska-Święs; Magia zbliżenia i tajemnica dystansu, U. Schorlemmer; e-teatr.pl; grotowski.net
New? Young? Younger? - Polish Theatre After 1989