Grotowski’s Context: Sickness, War and Oppression

Interview with Paul Allain

Paul Allain is Professor of Theatre and Performance and Dean of the Graduate School at the University of Kent, Canterbury. Since collaborating with the Gardzienice Theatre Association from 1989 to 1993 he has gone on to write extensively about the theatre. He has published several edited collections on Grotowski as part of the British Grotowski project.

Paul’s films about physical acting for Methuen Drama Bloomsbury will be published at Drama Online in Spring 2018 as Physical Actor Training – an online A-Z.  Draft films are currently available at the Digital Performer website.


Connections to the IB, GCSE, AS and A level specifications

  • artistic intentions
  • theatrical style
  • key collaborations with other artists
  • methods of creating, developing, rehearsing and performing
  • significant moments in the development of theory and practice
  • social, cultural, political and historical context

PC: You have mentioned how important the imagination and associations are when the Theatre Laboratory were developing their work. These are very subjective connections that cannot be separated from context. What was the context and how is it revealed in his productions?

PA: It is a really important point, as I think the context is often overlooked. Grotowski was working in Poland until he started to tour internationally. His work was then picked up by Eugenio Barba with the production of Dr Faustus which, like all his productions, was performed in Polish. People sometimes say that Grotowski was dismissive of language but it was the Polish language and it was very beautiful language, often recited or sung very fast. He was working with beautiful text and the dramaturgical work was important. People who don’t know Polish overlook the textual elements, that’s why they focus on the physical aspects too much.

PC: What other contextual reference points were there?

PA: The Second World War was another key contextual reference. Grotowski was born in 1933, so he was six when the war started in his country. Hel peninsula was invaded by the Germans and they took over Poland within six weeks. He was used to deprivation, violence and fear at a very young age. His mother was key in bringing him up through that. She educated him, and was very interested in Hindu and Indian culture. He was also very ill and was told that he had a year to live, but somehow he survived to the age of sixty-six. He had recurring health problems and it is interesting thinking about the impact this might have had on him as someone who is working beyond their own life expectancy. Did it impact the urgency, the rigor, the intensity of how he lived; of what he expected from other people? He never had children; never married. It perhaps explains his transience, for he was very much a wanderer later on, absorbing different source cultures.

PC: How did the work change as he moved?

PA: Poland in the 1960s was a very isolated, Soviet occupied country, behind the iron curtain. He lived in the tiny town of Opole before he moved to the bigger city of Wrocław where he became well known. In Opole, it was a very marginal, experimental theatre where he’d sometimes perform just for two people. In the seventies, when people could travel more, he became an international figure. It was quite a big transition from Opole to Wrocław to the Edinburgh Festival; in 1969, he was suddenly on the international stage. There was a lot of interest in Polish theatre at that time: figures like Tadeusz Kantor started making an impact on the world stage. There’s something about the difficulty of their working environment: the poverty. ‘Poor theatre’ is a phrase that Ludwik Flaszen coined for the work with Grotowski; but it was also poor economically and in its material resources. If you see the Apocalypsis room, as the main space in Wrocław is called, it’s not a very big studio. This is someone who’s an international figure, but he had very simple means. He’s a very political person and I think this is often overlooked. With something like The Constant Prince, although it is inspired by Calderón de la Barca’s seventeenth century play, in Poland the implications of seeing someone being tortured by the Moors to the point of death meant something very particular. People tend to think that Grotowski’s work wasn’t very political but for his local audiences it was extremely political; they understood this was Poland being sacrificed to the Russian oppressors. They had that allegorical meaning but it didn’t necessarily translate to other countries. When it was shown in New York or Manchester there was a whole different set of expectations and people focused more on the aesthetics. The context is absolutely vital; it’s very Polish but it also became very international.

Full interview here:


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