Theatre of Sources
Primitivism and Spiritual Therapy in the Neo- Avant garde: Jerzy Grotowski
The Avant garde is an artistic movement which followed Modernism, and can be considered an early phase of Post-Modernism. The Avant garde can be split into two phases: The Historical Avant garde, which began prior to World War II, and the Neo- Avant garde, which followed it. The Neo- Avant garde can be classified as a period of experimentation between the 1950s and 1960s by practitioners such as Jerzy Grotowskiand Richard Schechner. Avant garde Theatre, defines the ideology as a “philosophical grouping...linked by a specific attitude to western society, a particular aesthetic approach, and the aim of transforming the nature of theatrical performance” (Innes 4). The defining aspects of the Neo- Avant garde are the interconnections in ideologies of the practitioners that dominated the movement and the rejection of western conventions and beliefs. This is explored through the actors physical presence, spectatorperformer dynamics, the links between theatre and ritual, catharsis and the aspiration to reconnect theatre and life (Innes 1-2). The underlying concept connecting the aforementioned aspects is that of primitivism, which will be discussed in this essay in the context of Jerzy Grotowski.
Primitivism is the defining quality of the Avant garde movement, comprising of “exploration of dream states or the instinctive and subconscious levels of the psyche; and the quasi-religious focus on myth and magic, which in the theatre leads to experiments with ritual and the ritualistic patterning of performance” (Innes 2). Polish Practioner Jerzy Grotwoski’s work concerned itself with primitivism and the “return to mans ‘roots’, in both psyche and prehistory. Grotowski’s theatre aimed to strip away social and cultural boundaries. His vision to transcendent to the spiritual was driven by his ultimate quest for spiritual therapy of the community, demonstrated by his emphasis on using ritual form (Innes 149). “Ritual’ will be approached through Anthropologist Victor Turner’s theory as an activity which “mirrors established social institutions and values...and transforms them” (Alexander 62). Turner’s theory of ritual as a transformative mechanism goes hand in hand with Grotowski’s mplementation of ritual in his theatre process. Grotowskimakes use of ritual as a way to transcend the structures established by society by advocating for a return to the primal.
In this essay, Grotowki’s interest in the Avant garde concept of primitivism in relation to the spiritual healing of the community will be explored through three phases in his work: Poor Theatre, Paratheatre and Theatre of Sources. In addition, an exploration of the phases in Grotowski’s theories, the evolution of Grotowski’s performance theories will be analyzed in the context of communal healing of the spirit through ritual and use of primordial forms of theatre. This essay applies an Anthropological approach to Grotowski and his use of ritual as it concerns itself with the relationship between society, theatre and the ideas conceived by the two. This essay explores Grotowski’s preoccupation with the Neo- Avant garde notion of returning to the ‘roots of theatre’ explored through the phases of Poor Theatre, Paratheatre and Theatre of Sources in order advocate for the ‘spiritual healing’ of the community.
Poor Theatre is the term Grotowski gave to his performance style, coined in 1968. This style eliminates any superfluous theatre elements, and focuses on the presence of the actor as theatre’s unique and distinctive element. More formally, it can be defined as Grotowski’s performance style “founded on an extreme economy of stage recourses and filling the remaining void with high intensity acting and a heightened actor/ spectator relationship” (Pavis 278). The performances and effects of Poor Theatre were based on the following elements: the lack of traditional scenery and stage, the intimacy between the actors and spectators, the presence of the actors body and finally, the actors revelation of their vulnerability. While Poor Theatre comprises of several elements, this essay will focus on first, lack of scenery and the elimination of the superfluous and second, the importance of the spectator/ actor relationship in relation to the eradication of the audiences social personas. In Grotowski's words, “By gradually eliminating whatever proved superfluous, we found that theatre can exist without make-up, without autonomic costume and scenography, without a separate performance area (stage), without lighting and sound effects, etc. It cannot exist without the actor-spectator relationship of perceptual, direct, "live" communion” (Grotowski 19). Through the elimination of superfluous theatre elements and use of ‘myth’ in Poor Theatre, Grotowski brings spectators back to the ‘essential’/roots’ and calls for the elimination of their manufactured ‘social personas’ in order to heal the community.
The elimination of what is not necessary to theatre such as the scenery and lighting is done with the intention to draw the spectators entire focus to the presence of the actor. Grotowski advocates for a theatre of poverty; a primitive form of theatre which depends mainly on the actors presence. Grotowski stresses on the presence and authenticity of the performer. He developed several actor training methods with the goal of enabling the actor to eradicate what blocks their mental processing in order to reveal their authentic selves. In his words, “we attempt to eliminate his (actors) organism’s resistance to this psychic process” (Grotowski 16). He calls this process ‘via negativa.’ This enables actors to reveal their primal or essential self to the audience and posed as an “existential challenge to the audience in reversing normal behaviour patterns, which are designed to cover and protect this private centre of personality” (Innes 152). This is best represented in Grotowski's production of The Constant Prince (1969). The prince was able to control his own torture and destroy his body to purify his spirit. Moreover, the audiences visual perspective of the actors, gave them a sense of moral transgression towards what they were witnessing. Innes considers The Constant Prince to be the “most extreme example possible of an actor overcoming psychological blocks to achieve self-transcendence” (Innes 162). The revealing of the actors vulnerability enables the performer to strip away cultural and social boundaries imposed on them, and in turn allows for the audience to recognize their ‘social persona’ in order to remove the mask they have created based on cultural and social impositions.
In Poor Theatre, myth has the function of enabling spectators to drop their mask for reality. Grotowski finds that today society is distanced from myth due to a lack of shared faith. Therefore, Poor Theatre calls for confrontation with myth rather than identification. Grotowski articulates that the return to a concrete mythical situation is an experience of common human truth (Grotowski 23). Grotowski often makes use of myths in Poor Theatre such as Christopher Marlowe’s Dr. Faustus(1589) in Faust and the Classical Sanskrit text Shakuntala (5 AD) in his production of Shakuntala. Grotowski describes the function of myth in Poor Theatre as follows: “We can attempt to incarnate myth, putting on its ill- fitting skin to perceive the relativity of our problems, their connection to the "roots," and the relativity of the "roots" in the light of today's experience. If the situation is brutal, if we strip ourselves and touch an extraordinarily intimate layer, exposing it, the life-mask cracks and falls away” (Grotowski 23).” The role of myth in Poor Theatre is to enable the audience to abandon their mask or social persona in order to drop their mask for reality, undoing their societally conditioned preconceived notions of themselves and society.
Poor Theatre aims to enable spectators to lose their mask for reality that they have been socially engineered to construct. With a return to what is primal or essential to theatre, this socially constructed mask can be dropped and ‘reality’ can be exposed. Grotowski does this through the use of via negativa to free the actors and in turn reveal their essential self to the audience as a way to advocate for the audience to do the same. Moreover, he utilizes myths to enable the audience to look at the situation from this ‘mythic/ primitive’ perspective and expose its relatively in order to drop their mask for reality and heal society.