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This constellation brings together two essays that address the questions ‘Where is Poland?’ and ‘What is Poland?’ Krzysztof Zajas argues that there is no such thing as one Polish culture, while showing how constructions of the ‘centre’, be it in the form of ‘Polishness’ or ‘cultural achievements’, not only homogenize but mask the work of Polonization and colonization in its attempts to subordinate Lithuanian, Ukrainian and Belarusian lands. Dorota Sajewska shows how after 1989 two narratives re-emerge simultaneously, the harmed Slavic subaltern and an interest in multicultural heritage paired with colonial influence in the borderlands. While she uses Stanislaw Wyspianski to constellate the local and transnational in order to position Poland within a global cultural archive, Sajewska’s primary focus is on racialized forms of violence and the sideways or peripheral glance at European history that allows new understandings of epistemological traditions in historiography and the decolonisation of knowledge production.
The phenomena Kris Salata and Tadeusz Kornaś refer to as ‘ritual theatre’ within the Polish tradition are closely related by influence and inspiration. In the first section of the ritual constellation, Salta investigates Juliusz Osterwa’s and Tadeusz Limanowski’s interwar company and institute Reduta, and subsequently, the postwar Laboratory Theatre of Jerzy Grotowski and Ludwik Flaszen. Kornaś addresses those theatres that emerged in response: Gardzienice, Węgajty, Studium Teatralne, Chorea, Pieśń Kozła (The Song of the Goat) and Zar. While each of these institutions developed its own practice and philosophy, they share in common a search for theatre as a transformative cultural action, performed by the actor-as-whole-person, acting on their own behalf in renewed encounter with the spectator. All operated on the periphery of mainstream theatre: as its grassroots alternative, but also literally – away from traditional performing venues and circles of established theatregoers, and often away from urban centres, thriving in close proximity to nature and to the remnants of folk rites and oral cultures.
Mirosław Kocur defines ‘Staropolska’ as an umbrella term that is used to bring together multiple social, class, religious, ideological and aesthetic issues that signalled different cultural formations emerging in the period between the twelfth and the eighteenth centuries in a territory which was not ethnically or politically homogeneous. In the same constellation, Agnieszka Marszałek approaches Staropolska from the perspective of spectators and diverse publics and argues that its theatre was ‘a combination of changing ways of demonstrating belonging to various communities and representing specific particular interests, models of behaviour, as well as signalling one’s own presence (and separateness) within what was then called the state, society or the nation’. Marszałek insists that theatre became ‘Polish’ only with the establishment of a public theatre (1765–67). Even then, a knowledge of foreign languages (French, Italian, German) was crucial.
Piotr Olkusz and Dobrochna Ratajczakowa’s Polish Enlightenment constellation not only discloses the processes contributing to the construction of modern Poland, but also how, in the atmosphere of postwar hopes, many Polish scholars focused on the eighteenth century, visibly expressing animosity towards the Romantic paradigm dominant in prewar Polish culture; it was much easier to set functionalism and political involvement against traditionalism and nineteenth-century realism in an atmosphere backed up by declarations of objectives shared by authorities. Ratajczakowa links the theatre and the press as crucial processes of social transformation from the broader public sphere to ‘concrete audiences present in physical places’, and shows how Wojciech Bogusławski and dynamic forms of audience reception in the late eighteenth century paved the way for a highly politicized and engaged forms of spectatorships in the twentieth century. Olkusz charts the clash between public and national theatre, articulated in the dialectical tensions between the Enlightenment outlook and the Romantic paradigm.
Many claim that Polish theatre is political. Joanna Krakowska maps this narrative in Polish historiography, which, as she stresses, is usually construed in cycles determined by political events. Politicality, however, is a capacious and diverse category that offers the possibility of seeing theatre in Poland both as political and as a medium declaring itself to be apolitical, which can become the most meaningful political gesture of all. Krakowska invites us to consider theatre history in relation to the political subject while Grzegorz Niziołek asserts that ‘Polish mainstream theatre is anti-political rather than political’. He demonstrates how political analysis is usurped by an ethical imperative and is thus seen as a threat to the national values – rather than political theatre, theatre was used to strengthen national identity, which obscured wrongdoing. Nevertheless, even theatre that is not explicitly political, Niziołek argues, has produced political effects, and any given historical moment positions theatre in relation to a dominant ideology.
In this constellation of playwriting and new writing cultures in Poland, Ewa Guderian-Czaplińska argues that the playwright occupies a central position in twentieth-century Polish culture. In the interwar period, she charts heated dramaturgical disputes over the country’s path to modernisation. Guderian-Czaplińska proposes the term ‘ariergardist’ – artists who forfeit or reject the notion of progress inherent in the avant-garde, before analysing major writers of the postwar and contemporary periods. Marcin Kościelniak takes up Paweł Demirski’s manifesto, calling for a change in interpretive and aesthetic criteria to account for artistic innovation, to articulate contemporary forms of collaboration between writer and director, and to contest the literary associations of playwriting cultures and the modernist notion of ‘autonomous art’. Ultimately, he declares that the term text for staging offers a more accurate designation of writing and directing collaborations than ‘play’ or even ‘text for theatre’.
Polish theatre modernism covers the fin de siècle, the interwar period and contemporaneity. Katarzyna Fazan analyses its dramaturgy and materialization on stage. Wyspiański’s Monumental Theatre was used by Schiller to promote a form of nationalism in the interwar period, but reappears in the post-1989 transformation in the theatre of Grzegorzewski to help explore national identity, memory and the past itself. This reveals the tension between Polish traditionalism, conservatism and processes of social democratization. However, this progressive function – as a training ground for new lived experiences and arena for generating subversive cultural and social relations (Wyspiański, Przybyszewski and Zapolska) – does not necessarily lead to the theatre’s own renewal, as noted by Jarząbek-Wasyl in her analysis of artistic directorship, actors and the status of the audience in Polish modernist theatre. She analyses the forms of theatre (especially in Kraków and Lwów) from entertainment to being a site of political, social and moral protest to suggest that modernist theatre represents heteronomous unity refracting neo-Romantic, twentieth-century avant-garde and postmodern attributes.
Beth Holmgren charts the modes in which men functioned as gatekeepers in nineteenth-century professional theatre, which showed not only the parochialism of their views but a deep anxiety around sexuality that required the disciplining of women’s bodies on and offstage. She reveals how actresses pioneered new ways of living that escaped entrapments of conventional marriage and which allowed some financial autonomy. Beata Guczalska details the treatment of actors from the twentieth century to today; although not persecuted as in other European contexts, actors were still subjected to a lack of social recognition and stability, poverty and a dependence on patrons. A history of acting is also shown to be one of shifting technologies: lighting, photography, radio, illustrated newspapers and cinema. Marek Waszkiel explores both the political and satirical valences of puppets as well as their aesthetic forms. He also analyses the development of acting in relation to objects that thinks acting through dialectical relationships. In this way, the history of puppetry is embedded in a history of ‘acting’, and this offers a new mode of considering performer training, craft and profession.
In this constellation on Polish Romanticism, Zbigniew Majchrowski argues that messianic Romanticism became a language of consolation that gave hope and promise of freedom and, at the same time, turned out to be a language of collective violence against individualist existential projects. And as Włodzimierz Szturc adds, this negative dialectic was a fertile ground for one of the most important topics in the Polish drama and theatre, that of death and history, which can only transcend the real decline of states, nations and their cultures in the process of abstracting them, as will be evidenced in the works of many Polish playwrights and directors inhabiting other critical constellations in the volume. He argues that understanding the rights and standing of the peasantry in contrast to the szlachta (nobility) reveals forms of national affiliation and patriotism and the problems presented in cultural nostalgia or sublimation of the past.
With post-1968 ‘incredulity toward metanarratives’, the idea of a single, universal, history was displaced by a pluralism of historical approaches. Cognizant of recent shifts in the conceptual frameworks of history and archive, the editors ask how the history of theatre should be written today. How could it be written to reveal the tensions between and contradictions in the past and present imaginations shaping events and objects? How could it accommodate different, often contradictory, historiographic strategies? They contend that ‘it is not that what is past casts its light on what is present, or what is present its light on what is past; rather, an image is that wherein what has been comes together in a flash with the now to form a constellation’, as Walter Benjamin put it. Given these contexts, the editors propose a particular historiographic approach in the organization of chapters that challenges synchronic approaches to theatre history, and instead build historical narratives through ‘constellations’, a direct reference to Benjamin, who constructed novel conceptions of historical time and historical intelligibility based on spatial dialectics.
Małgorzata Leyko’s study of German theatre in Polish lands offers a transnational panorama that resists ‘methodological nationalism’. She interprets this history in various modes from coexistence and expansion to domination or inspiration. At different historical moments, theatre was the site of exclusion or the space of Polish–German exchange. German theatre cultures offered new models and artistic strategies, while during the Nazi occupation and the Second World War theatre was often a site of ideological indoctrination and complicity, or a refuge for those trapped and persecuted in ghettos and camps. Aleksandra Sakowska then demonstrates that Shakespeare has not been passively received by Polish culture. She argues that the process of translating Shakespeare into Polish has complicated and enriched plays like Hamlet and made them generative of new meanings, both within Polish territories and abroad. The multiple forms of translation and adaptation of Shakespeare over the centuries are not positioned as a purely ‘foreign influence’ or ‘cultural sociability’.
In the first half of this constellation, Alyssa Quint and Michael Steinlauf bring us from the arrival of Jews in Poland through to the nineteenth century, the explosion of Jewish culture after 1905, when Russia relaxed its laws on cultural production, and the Second World War when the Jewish population was decimated in the Holocaust. While some histories ignore postwar Jewish theatre in Poland, this essay demonstrates its continued presence despite waves of emigration in response to multivalent anti-Semitic social and political factors and the re-engagement with Jewish history and identity in the new millennium. Martynas Petrikas then offers a detailed analysis of Polish theatre in Vilnius, a city that he argues was central to the formation of mythogenic narratives for Lithuanians, Poles, Belarusians and Jews. This reveals the city as the site of a dynamic interweaving of performance cultures.
Krystyna Duniec and Agata Adamiecka-Sitek question the seemingly incontestable values and lineages of standard historiographies that are foundationally patriarchal and evidence how theatre profited from the trade in women’s bodies, and Duniec notes that through theatre we can chart the move from marginalization to empowered presence for LGBTQ groups. Duniec focuses on the interwar period, which she interprets as a time of tremendous innovation in theatre practices that remain/repeat today. She notes that through theatre we can chart the move from marginalization to empowered presence for LGBTQ groups. The Polish People’s Republic, as Adamiecka-Sitek shows, proclaimed gender equality but in reality reproduced bourgeois gender relations that excluded women from empowered positions in theatre institutions. She then charts how women’s narratives emerged outside of a ‘homosocial’ order built on fraternal ties that she traces from the establishment of public theatre.
In the two essays devoted to the Polish avant-garde, Dorota Jelewska and Anna R. Burzyńska argue that the heterarchical forms of the interwar and the postwar avant-gardes allow us to see these constellations both as destroying the existing topology of representation as well as constructing inter-reality in which art annexes real objects (Tadeusz Kantor), marginalized and broken objects are material witnesses to past and current events (Józef Szajna, Jerzy Bereś) and colour, sound and the body of the performers (Maria Pinińska-Bereś, Ewa Partum) replace transmission of logos, which had been central to Aristotelian poetics and aesthetics. While dealing with the history of the avant-garde, Jelewska notes that, despite significant accomplishment of women artists in Poland, it was not until the 1970s that women developed their space for action and expression. Burzyńska specifically explores an acoustic history of the Polish avant-garde, breaking with artistic conventions that have traditionally excluded sound interpreted as mere noise, and considers ways in which different voices have been assimilated by or have resisted nationalist discourse.