This legendary performance at the Laboratorium Theatre directed by Jerzy Grotowski was the artist's last work and is considered to be his most radical. The show took four years to prepare, and premiered in 1969, causing political and moral scandal.
The director used unconventional methods of working with actors, and strove to destroy the illusion of a theatre performance, replacing convention with authentic experience. However, this is not the only reason why the legend of Jerzy Grotowski as an artist anathematised by the Church has remained alive for over a quarter of a century.
The Primate of the Millennium – Cardinal Stefan Wyszyński – spoke against the creator of the Laboratorium Theatre during a famous sermon in 1976 at the Skałka church in Kraków, calling his show Apocalypsis Cum Figuris ‘real filth’, which demoralises the Polish nation as much as drunkenness. What shocked the ecclesiastical authorities so much? Konstanty Puzyna called it a world-class performance:
Apocalypsis is almost devoid of a literary scenario. The text is a chaotic patchwork of quotations from the Bible, hymns, Dostoyevsky, Eliot, and Simone Weil. They are all seemingly unrelated. There are just flashes of unclear associations, for example it is possible to notice that when he accuses, Szymon-Piotr uses the words of the Grand Inquisitor from The Brothers Karamazov, while Ciemny (The Dark) speaks in Eliot’s poems, when he defends himself bitterly and pathetically. These texts do not form a plot whatsoever, but have an ancillary role, like a prop. Grotowski’s stage poem is built entirely on the actions and experiences of the actors, which only hint at the plot and the issues at stake. They are all unclear, entangled and ambiguous. The performance is ruled by the law of poetry, not prose, the law of distant associations, overlapping metaphors, and merging images, actions, and meanings. It makes allusions to biblical scenes and contemporary rural customs, liturgical symbols and a hooligans' party, a dandy from the suburbs and David in front of the Ark.
Grotowski, who experimented with Christian tradition and the Gospels, was also attacked by the Polish right wing, which considered him a charlatan and a blasphemer. The Italian Annamaria Cascetta analysed the performance in her book La Prova del Nove. Scritture per la Scena e Temi Epocali nel Secondo Novecento:
Apocalypsis Cum Figuris travelled the world as a model and a souvenir of a creative effort, which is unique in the history of twentieth-century theatre, and of an extraordinary team – the theatrical company of Grotowski, who was already involved in something completely different. Over time, the intimate bond between the spectators-participants in the ritual has been strengthened, simplifying the art form, muting the lights and highlighting the contrast with the darkness. The impact of Apocalypsis is due to its form: Grotowski did not reach a wide audience immediately. For many years, he presented it to small groups of spectators, as a profound experience for those really interested in this form of communication and art.
The show was co-directed by Ryszard Cieślak, the costumes were designed by Waldemar Krygier, and among the actors were Antoni Jahołkowski, Ryszard Cieślak (Ciemny/ The Dark), Zygmunt Molik, (Judas), Zbigniew Cynkutis (Lazarus), Elizabeth Albahaca/Rena Mirecka (Maria Magdalena), and Stanisław Scierski (Jan). It was first shown behind closed doors on 19th July, 1968, and the official premiere was on 11th February, 1969. The show travelled to Paris, New York, London, Sydney, Venice, Philadelphia, and Milan.
Sources: eteatr.pl, grotowsk.net, The Collected Writings of Jerzy Grotowski, ed. AL, transl. Bozhana Nikolova, May 2015