ISSN 2451-2966


Dorota Sajewska

Living Leftovers of History

<i>Interior</i> Maurice Maeterlinck/<i>Varsovian Anthem</i> Stanisław Wyspiański, dir. Jerzy Grzegorzewski, premiere: 6 March 1976, Stefan Jaracz Theatre, Łódź, Photo: Andrzej Brustman. Source: Encyklopedia Teatru Polskiego.

Interior Maurice Maeterlinck/Varsovian Anthem Stanisław Wyspiański, dir. Jerzy Grzegorzewski, premiere: 6 March 1976, Stefan Jaracz Theatre, Łódź, Photo: Andrzej Brustman. Source: Encyklopedia Teatru Polskiego.

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Dorota Sajewska, 'Living Leftovers of History', Polish theatre Journal, no 2(6)2018.
Living Leftovers of History

Stanisław Wyspiański, the Polish theater artist, poet, painter, architect, interior and graphic designer, wrote to his friend and fellow playwright Lucjan Rydel on 2 May 1897:

Pawlikowski promised to stage Warszawianka [Varsovian Anthem, 1893–1898] next season, in October, and release it along with Maeterlinck’s Intérieur [1894], for All Saint’s Day.1

It is easy to imagine that the idea of juxtaposing a political drama about the death of a young insurgent with Maeterlinck’s existential play about the death of a young girl as an as a funeral celebrating the death of conventional realism and the modern “theater of death” would excite Wyspiański. He was thrilled not only at the prospect of his long-awaited theatrical debut especially alongside the already acclaimed Belgian poet but most importantly with the underlying concept for showing both pieces together:of highlighting, during a single performance, the relationship between a gesture and an image. This is a crucial relationship for Wyspiański and Maeterlinck’s texts, as well as for theater criticism and performance theory. Tadeusz Pawlikowski finally realized his plan to stage the two plays in 1901 in Lviv, albeit under circumstances that altered the intended impact as the entire event was framed by a patriotic context,2 emphasizing the background of the November Insurrection, a failed Polish rebellion against Russia in 1831. But the project as it was originally conceived survived in the history of theater thanks to its reconstruction by Jerzy Grzegorzewski.While staging Interior and Varsovian Anthem in 1976 at the Stefan Jaracz Theater in Łódź, the director above all drew attention to the relationship between gesture and image, expressed through the division of the stage space into two parts by means of a massive window supported by two white columns in the classicist style of 19th century architecture. By placing the action of Interior behind the window and by having Varsovian Anthem play out in the foreground, directly in front of the audience, it would seem that Grzegorzewski based his show on the accurate observation that the plays represent complementary commentaries on the theatrical situation.

Interior reveals a boundary placed between the stage and the audience, by means of two characters (The Old Man and the Alien). They possess knowledge of and comment on events that take place beyond the stage as well as on the characters (a Mother, a Father, Two Girls, a Child) pantomimed onstage in the enclosed space of the house and observed through the window together with the audience. In Maeterlinck’s drama, image is not exclusively coextensive with the visible since there are images existing in the form of words. As a result a certain regime of images emerges, which, as Rancière would say, “presents the relationship between the sayable and the visible, a relationship which plays on both the analogy and the dissemblance between them,”3 and due to which the stage becomes a place where a play between the dissemblance of two identities of word and image manifests itself. The constant permeation of the two replaces dramatic action, or more precisely leads to a fundamental transformation of the essence of drama towards stasis. As a result, the category of time becomes problematized and, what is even more significant, the relationship between dramatic time and stage time is presented in reverse order: while typically audiences encounter the time of the drama’s action in condensed form (for example, many years in Shakespeare’s Chronicles are reduced to several hours onstage), in Interior an extremely short dramatic time (one can already see the approaching party, which is about to inform the oblivious family locked inside the house of the daughter’s death) is mercilessly stretched out and, in a sense, spatialized. Both history and space are drawn apart; as Jean-Luc Nancy put it, one witnesses the “spacing of time, of time, that is, as a body.”4 The spectator, as a witness to the play’s action as it is suspended over time, becomes that body in Maeterlinck’s Interior. However, the witness is not understood as a passive onlooker but as an active subject, an “emancipated spectator” who transgresses the division between witnessing and the action through the realization of her own position as a participant in the power structure expressed in “the distribution of the sensible”.5

One encounters a static drama in Wyspiański’s Varsovian Anthem as well; the play encapsulates its action in a seemingly nondramatic image. However, the relationship between image and action works a little differently than in Maeterlinck’s work. Here, the order of the images is based on a confrontation between the static character of the twenty-one figures onstage, immobilized in poses inside a mansion and directly observed by the viewer, and the dynamics of a battlefield, no more than evoked through atmosphere, gesture, and music while the battle itself takes place outside the frame of the stage. The static image of the twenty-one characters is not, as in the case of Interior, subordinated to the narrative of characters who see and know, but is torn apart by the sudden intrusion of the realities of war, expressed onstage in the mute scene with The Old Man. Based solely on physical action The Old Man enters, salutes, hands over a package with a bloody ribbon, salutes again, and leaves the scene tears apart the aesthetic dimension of the image, revealing its fundamentally political aspect: in the safe space of the mansion (within the frame of the image) are the generals of the uprising, while on the actual battlefield, outside of the frame and facing immediate danger, the regular, nameless soldiers fight. Although The Old Man is an embodied character, and the entire scene is in fact a rhythmically (and musically) organized score without the support of the spoken word, he is primarily a discursive sign of an insurgent, marking the boundary between the brutality of the war (against the oppressor) and the safety of the mansion (homeland, home) and at the same time mediating between history and myth. That is how Wyspiański creates, in Varsovian Anthem, a model “image of history” a Geschichtsbild. The term denotes a flexible construct that transgresses the opposition between looking and acting, and which does not need to conserve a particular version of memory or interpretation of history, but within which due to the particular relationship between perception, interaction, and different media an image reveals its own mode of being and its role in constructing memory and history.6 The sense of that image has been brilliantly analyzed by Jan Nowakowski who called Varsovian Anthem a “synthetic vision of a real historical moment, and the staging of the content of that moment, such as its character, atmosphere, and crucial internal tensions.”7

The meta-medial, and meta-historical potential of the image, discovered in this early drama, became, in my opinion, a foundation of Wyspiański’s stage practice, which was based on the reenactment of “images of history.” By making the theater into a place and a tool for researching the strategies of historical imagery the ways of viewing the past, transmitting history, and staging memory the works of Wyspiański are a kind of historiosophy in practice. His works often employ strategies of reenactment that reveal relationships between action and image and a uniquely understood dynamic of the theater: as always already being a site of repetition and furthermore as a machine of memory and of remembering. Maybe that is why the Ghost from Wyspiański’s Hamlet (1904), a hybrid text integrating narrative and dramatic forms  disappears uttering the words that repeated with a punctuation so characteristic of the Polish poet become a meta-commentary, bringing out, and much more emphatically than in Shakespeareʼe original, not so much the question of individual memory as that of memory in general: “Adieu, adieu, adieu! – Remember me! – – – / Remember – about me! / (disappears).” From that perspective, disappearance comes to determine not only the process of remembering, but also of all appearing, thus becoming for Wyspiański not just a loss of source permeated by nostalgia, but the most solid foundation of theater.

The second act of the play Wyzwolenie (Liberation; 1903) is in point of fact a particular philosophical treatise on emergence and disappearance, with an agonic game the essence of drama taking place between the main character Konrad and the “embodied Others,” The Masks. It is here that the appearance of each consecutive Mask is conditional upon the disappearance of the previous one and only this dynamic allows for grasping the continuum of time not as a natural course of history but as a performance staged by Wyspiański that problematizes the linearity of duration. Let us recall a few comments that are exchanged between two Masks:

Ledwo, że larwa gdzieś przepadła, / Barely has one maggot disappeared,
inna się już na scenę wkradła […] / already a new one onstage must be revealed […]

Zaledwie maska ta gdzieś znika, / Barely has that mask disappeared,

już nowa za nim się pomyka. […] / a new one follows him in speed. […]

Zaledwie ta ze sceny schodzi, / Barely the old one leaves the stage,

już nowa drogę mu zagrodzi. […] / already a new one crosses his way […]

Precz znikła; nowa już się skrada, / Gone to hell; a new one sneaks around,

już za nim tropi, śledzi, bada. […] / follows him, traces, peeks […]

Znika, a nowa już powstanie, / Disappears, and a new one takes its place,

by nowe zadać mu pytanie: […] / to spew demands in his face: […]

Już nowa, – ledwo tamta pada – / A new mask – last one barely hit the ground –

znów nieodstępna od Konrada. […] / again, can’t be reached through Konrad’s mind […]

Znikła; już inna jest i bada / Disappears; yet a different one is there

niepokojącą myśl Konrada. / examines Konrad’s thought so frail.8

In the act with the Masks, Wyspiański seems to be performing a reversal of the traditional historiographical logic that recognizes past events as belonging exclusively to the past; and at the same time, a reversal of the traditionally understood archive that identifies the disappearance of matter/body as their respective absence. The dynamic of the appearance and disappearance of Masks transforms the ephemeral into an act of remaining, of gathering thoughts as traces, as remnants of an encounter, while revealing itself as a particular medium of communication, which is based on the always already interactive, bodily memory. That memory has to be “read through genealogies of impact and ricochet.”9 Konrad, as a complex intertextual character, constitutes a kind of bodily archive of the history of Polish drama and theater (or more broadly, of Polish culture). The Masks, on the other hand, as a foreign surface knit with one’s own face (“Masks in this act will mark / those who hide their thoughts in the dark / and never state them clear, / hence, while theirs, they claim many heirs”10 ) perfectly illustrate the relationship between man and object, between animate and inanimate matter. Due to that fact in each subsequent collision between Konrad and a new Mask, there appears not so much a presence as a past encounter, understood in terms of a “resonance of the overlooked, lost, muted, clearly unacknowledged.”11 From that perspective, the body in Wyspiański’s theater becomes a medium that saves those aspects of the event that escape traditional forms of recording and preserving history and documents that which is marginal and marginalized in culture. However, the bodily archival practices are not aimed at complementing the traditional archive in order to create a “full documentation,” but, on the contrary, they highlight the incompleteness and fragmentariness of memory as well as the relativity of historical narratives based on memory.

It is worth highlighting that what Wyspiański practiced in his theater work, deeply immersed as he was in historical-cultural reflection, constituted a subversive application of premodern strategies of manifesting national awareness based on “ethno-linguistic, cultural premises substituting for an independent country.”12 It is known that one of those practices tableaux vivants fascinated and inspired him since his early childhood. That incredibly popular form of entertainment in the 19th century, taking place on a massive scale in private homes, entertainment venues, and even outdoors, entailed reconstructing a painting, literary work, or sculpture by both amateurs and professional actors who would replicate a scene captured in a particular work of art by means of scenography, costume, and above all pose, that is, by facial expression and the appropriate disposition of the body. These spectacles, in which living pictures, first arranged and then enlivened onstage, were “treated as if they were almost documentaries”13 could be seen as a kind of didactic art, whose revolutionary potential was later discovered by Bertolt Brecht, as well as a prototype of contemporary historical reenactments, conserving the image of the nation and its past. Barbara Markiewicz stresses the fact that within the technique of tableaux vivants and its history, it is possible to “recognize the emergence of a fundamental institution of modern democracy the public sphere,”14 which makes it imperative for any research on the essence and function of tableaux vivants to also include, apart from aesthetic considerations, reflection from the field of political theory. “Political philosophy mustn’t only describe political systems, institutions or structures of power. It also has to take into account the ways in which they are understood. This is to say, it should consider they ways they are presented, particularly the images associated with them.”15 It is beyond any doubt that tableaux vivants, based on assumptions shared by a given community, reveal their potential to translate existing, socially sanctioned connections between images and concepts into desired political relationships, and hence to remodel socially established ways of thinking. From that perspective, what becomes crucial is the reconstruction of specific (living) pictures, with reference to distinct political concepts, in order to reveal the ongoing changes in the meaning of those concepts and images in specific political-historical conditions.

Tableaux vivants can thus be seen as a special kind of metamedial performance addressing the relations between the animate and the inanimate. They constituted a theatrical form whose essence lay not in action but in motionlessness; they were live reproductions, organic copies of specific works of art and not of the reality being portrayed in the given work. Though tableaux vivants, being always a re-enactment of something that had already been reproduced from reality, fundamentally represent the notion of repetition, they also give the viewer a sense of participating in a fleeting and singular event, as attested to by the fact that people were always trying to preserve them, first through descriptions and drawings capturing the static action as faithfully as possible, and later through the use of photography.16 Also problematic was the matter of the original work of art itself, as most often the painted scenes were re-enacted on the basis of copies of the original works of art, stand-alone reproductions serving as illustrations in magazines or books, or being photos from albums or even postcards for mass distribution.17

Wyspiański was interested in tableaux vivants as a cultural phenomenon in which the society freely restaged carefully selected images from Polish history (as they were interpreted in works by Mickiewicz, Sienkiewicz, Grottger, or Matejko), which allowed for the survival and preservation of Polish culture outside of the state’s official circulation, at a time when Polish culture was under the constant threat of being ultimately annihilated. At the same time, Wyspiański saw tableaux vivants as a cross-media artistic practice that focused the spectator’s attention on the relationship between the stage and painting, between action and its disruption, a performing body and an immobilized one. Wyspiański based Varsovian Anthem on the model of tableaux vivants; he attempted to probe the endurance of the spectators’ participation in a suspended dramatic action, thus analyzing time (duration, history) itself and arguing that its structure is not linear, but always that of actualization through repetition. Already in that early drama, the past appears as the present in the form of material residue, a remnant of history.18 It is symbolized by a bloody ribbon, thanks to which the crowd of immobilized characters onstage is infiltrated by the dynamic of the battle that takes place in the distance. However, it was in his later works particularly in Liberation and Akropolis (Acropolis, 1904) where tableaux vivants acquired the status of – what Hubert Damisch calls – “a theoretical object”19 – and underwent critical and historiosophical reflection in which images of the past first had to undergo deconstruction and only then could be reconstructed. That twofold move in the epistemic process allowed Wyspiański to show Geschichtsbilder as interpreting the culturally dominant paradigm of looking at historical events – often politically instrumentalized in the name of a particular politics of memory.

Liberation occupies a special place among Wyspiański’s works in the context of the relationship between memory and disappearance, history and the present, image and action, as well as between the staging and performing. It was in this particular work that Wyspiański employed a reconstruction of “images of history” (including the history of theater) as a kind of epistemic action in the most extensive way. Liberation, which takes place on the stage of the Krakow Theater, where it  premiered on February 28, 1903, is based on the concept of metatheater. The main protagonist, Konrad, a hero from Adam Mickiewicz’s Romantic drama Dziady (Forefather’s Eve), comes up onto the stage to liberate contemporary Poland from the burden of tradition: from theatrical conventions, as well as from political and social inertia. In the first act, Konrad tries to write a new play in a collective process on stage, but his efforts fail because of the commercial habits of the actors. The second act, which takes place behind the stage, portrays the philosophical and political confrontation between Konrad and The Masks. In the third act, Konrad comes back onstage to continue the failed attempt to create a “new art of life”. Here he has to confront not only actors not interested in experimental theater, but also the Polish Ghosts from Wawel Cathedral preserving the “tradition of death,” both in political inertia and conventional art. The metatheatrical structure is used by Wyspiański to obtain a number of effects: to deconstruct the 19 th century theater of illusion, to show the process of theatrical production, to explore various acting styles and acts of perception, and to analyze the theatricality of politics and the influence of cultural heritage on any resistance to change. Thus, the meaning of “theater” is broadly extended – encompassing the complexity of the theater as an multimedia art form as well as social practices, cultural forms of memory, political gestures and rituals.

Even though formally it resembles a three-act drama, the text itself has very little in common with conventional dramatic literature. As a text that was written for the stage (and so “always already repeated”) it underwent numerous transformations due to the ways in which it was produced and received. Furthermore, the various book editions constituted as Leon Schiller stated “the most complete scripts for those who know how to read them.”20 What is most important, however, is that the genealogy of that text is connected to theater, not to literature, to particular stagings that have become important events in the life of society such as the world premiere and reception of The Wedding by Wyspiański that took place on 16 March 1901, or Dziady by Mickiewicz, adapted and directed by Wyspiański on 31 October 1901. After all, Liberation, begins with a scene recreating a theatrical event that had taken place a year earlier and was still alive in the minds of the spectators. It is not Konrad as a literary (and mythical) construct that enters the stage but the actor Andrzej Mielewski, who also played Konrad in the very Dziady Wyspiański had rewritten and staged, and was still playing them in repertory. That fact of theatrical repetition was crucial for contemporary spectators, who, while reacting with reservation to Wyspiański’s new work, were enthusiastic about the “performer playing the part of Gustaw-Konrad from Dziady,” being able to “transform into Konrad from Liberation during the second night.21

It was the memory of spectators of the (recent past) event that Wyspiański cared for the most. The entire structure of the play attempts to convince us of that fact by resting on the interplay between what has been seen and overlooked, remembered and forgotten, and what has been recalled, repeated, and recreated. Liberation is composed of a spectacle (interrupted for the period covered by the second act) entitled “Contemporary Poland” which, being a reenactment of the theater of politics, presents Polish society as divided against itself, being stuck in permanent conflict between classes and ideologies, lacking any constructive political program. However, the spectacle-within-the-play is framed by backstage situations showing the specific process of its establishment, recollection, or perhaps reanimation. For the first minutes of the play one witnesses something like a rehearsal of the spectacle, together with the demonstration of the mechanisms and means required for its creation, or rather, its re-creation on a stage of very specific dimensions: “[…] twenty steps in width and length / Quite an extensive space, / in which to enclose Polish thought.”22 With this clash of acting and reenacting we are able to fully understand the words of Robespierre on the essence of political reconstruction as a “spectacle of spectators.”23 “Contemporary Poland” is based on the repetition of already existing cultural (and theatrical) patterns, words, situations, objects, and characters – a kind of archive of social behaviors internalized and forever revisited in the bodies of the audience members. There is a reason why Konrad-Mielewski states already at the beginning: “This soil I loved / with rage / burned by desire I consumed this earthly stage! – / I’m in every man, I live in every heart”24 (these words are a travesty of Konrad’s words from “The Great Improvisation,” the most significant and finest monolog in Dziady: “Now, I’m soul-bound with my motherland; / With my body I swallowed its soul”).

But before Konrad is able to undertake the challenge of restaging the national spectacle, or more precisely, even before he is to appear on the stage, the spectators have to confront the theater technicians, called Workers, resting after their work on the still empty stage. Wyspiański’s play begins with a reflection on their status, work, and their material conditions.

Wielka scena otworem, / Expansive stage wide open,

przestrzeń wokół ogromna; / With vast spaces around it;

jeszcze gazu i ramp nie świecono. / Gas and ramps have not yet been lit.

Kto ci ludzie pod ścianą? / Who are the men by the wall?

Cóż tu czynić im dano? / What are they here for?

Czy to rzesza biedaków bezdomna? / Is it a band of homeless souls?

Głowy wsparli strudzone, / Resting their tired heads,

cóż ich twarze zmarszczone? / Why are there frowns on their faces

Przecież pracę ich dzienną płacono. / When their wages have been paid?25

These men of labor always present and indispensable, but invisible are first presented in a theatrical “degree zero,” outside of any kind of “as if” and only after the appearance of or rather after they are confronted by Konrad’s thought and work do they become actors who play Polish workers hailing from peasantry. The scene of the Workers resting that opens Liberation, one based on a radical reduction of theatricality and on a juxtaposition of acting and non-acting, reveals an understanding of the theater that is highly characteristic of Stanisław Wyspiański; an understanding where, one is tempted to say, theater is defined like in Jerzy Grotowski’s concept as “poor,” and the actor as “deprived.” That very understanding of theater as an expression of absolute honesty determines, I believe, the development of the play: the mass of workers (“The force is you”) of which Konrad will demand that they do the right thing throw off the shackles and spill blood offstage (“Sit on the sidelines and in the corners until I summon you to action”) would perform an authentic act of self-revelation in order to change history. That is why “Contemporary Poland” based on highly conventional, theatrical gestures, takes place after the Workers have left. They will later come back onstage as a Chorus, but only after Konrad reveals the “as-if-reality” of the theater, and will remain with him after he has been left “alone on a vast and empty stage.” Despite the lack of physical presence of Workers during the spectacle of “Contemporary Poland,” the alienation of work at a theater marked at the very beginning by means of their bodies comes to determine the intransigent conflict between the director and actors on the one hand, who perform roles based on “pretending,” and Konrad on the other hand, who believes that acting is about revolutionary action and forsaking the “as if.” It is that very fact that makes “Contemporary Poland,” understood as a “reconstruction of images of history,” a means of showing the meta-theatrical and meta-political dimension of theater, in which actors not only play actors, but rather “are actors being actors working,”26 and as such reveal themselves to the audience of Liberation.

Reading Liberation from the perspective of reconstructive practices aims to show that, for Wyspiański, debunking the myth of the ephemerality of the theater did not mean as it did for the Romantics and the heirs to the Romantic tradition, such as Jerzy Grotowski reconceiving theater for ritual. Instead, we were to lead theater back to politics. That is why, in Liberation, Wyspiański contrasts the “actor-courtesan” not with the “actor-saint” but with an actor of the revolution. This take on Wyspiański’s work allows us to see him as an entirely modern artist of the theater and as a philosopher of modernity, conscious of the deep connection between the myth of the uniqueness of a theatrical performance and the economic-production processes as well as matters related to technical reproduction. When it comes to establishing the relationship between economy and culture, it is not history that turns out to be the key, since the question is not as Walter Benjamin claimed about the economic origins of culture, but about presenting the “expression of the economy in its culture.”27 So one could claim that the theatrical reconstruction created by Wyspiański in 1902 which revealed the economic process as an “evident pre-phenomenon” of the subsequent signs of (stage) life brought to light the conclusions that Benjamin summed up in his most famous 1936 essay, The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction:

[F]or the first time in world history, mechanical reproduction emancipates the work of art from its parasitical dependence on ritual. To an ever-greater degree the work of art reproduced becomes the work of art designed for reproducibility. […] But the instant thecriterion of authenticity ceases to be applicable to artistic production, the total function of art is reversed. Instead of being based on ritual, it begins to be based on another practice-politics.28

That conviction is most fully expressed by the character of The Old Actor who keenly confronts the ephemerality of theater with the permanence of revolution and importance of politics:

Mój synu – mówi matka – ho, to twój ojciec z bronią / My son, says the mother, it’s your father with a rifle

walczył za świętość naszą i zdobył się na czyn… / he fought for our virtues and took action…

(Legł w sześćdziesiątym trzecim; dziś zapomniany grób). / (He fell in ’63; today his tomb forgotten).

nikt wieńców mu nie dawał, nie rzucił kwiatu, świec… / no one brought him wreaths, flowers or a light…

Mój ojciec był bohater, a ja to jestem nic. / My father was a hero, and I am merely nothing.29

The ephemerality of the theater resonates in a particular way in this context, something radically different from the “hard” theatrological interpretations that highlight the essential fleetingness of a theatrical event in time and space. However, in Wyspiański’s work ephemerality does not signify ontological fragility or the nostalgic transience of theater (an event). On the contrary, it bespeaks the mediocre and illusory character of a socially established image based on the logic of consumption, only apparently able to guarantee lasting recognition:

Sława artystów! Nie dziwne mi wieńce. / Glory of artists! Wreaths are no surprise,

gdy mój święciłem dzień trzydziestu lat na scenie. / when I celebrated my thirtieth year onstage.

Oklaski miałem ich, uznanie i znaczenie. / I had their applause, recognition and respect,

Efemeryczne to, przez jeden wieczór lamp, / It’s ephemeral, for one night in the light of lamps,

a gaśnie, gdy pogasną skręcone rzędy ramp. / and goes dark, along with rows of ramps.30

Like Benjamin, by allowing history to decay into images and not stories within his works, Wyspiański shows that historical truth emerges from the collision between our reality and the past events that reveal themselves in the light of an image that flashes here and now.31 Within the historiosophy practiced in the theater, Stanisław Wyspiański awakened a yet unrealized knowledge of the past. He “dissolved,” as Benjamin would say, “mythology into the space of history,” and tried to find a “constellation of awakening”32 based not on progress but on the actualization of the revolutionary body. Benjamin argued that “the first stage in this undertaking” would be for a historian to adapt the principle of montage or “to assemble large-scale constructions out of the smallest and most precisely cut components.”33 The goal would be to break with historical naturalism and instead grasp the structure of history through a montage of its debris: “But the rags, the refuse these I will not inventory but allow, in the only way possible, to come into their own; by making use of them.”34 What is more, this gesture of montage is never hidden or masked. On the contrary following the example of the critical, epic theater of Bertolt Brecht it should express itself through a series of interruptions in the structure consisting discontinued gestures.35

A congenial example of historiography understood in this manner can be found in Wyspiański’s Acropolis, which is both a reconstruction and a montage of remnants of history. This dramatic poem, well known through a legendary adaptation by Jerzy Grotowski and Józef Szajna (1962), who transplant the action to the reality of a concentration camp, is originally set at Wawel Cathedral in Krakow. For centuries the cathedral has played a crucial role in political life as a Polish “Altar of the Fatherland” – a ritual space of coronations of Polish kings, as well as a most significant necropolis housing the tombs of monarchs and national heroes. Wyspiańskiʼs drama was created as a theatrical response to an initiative to thoroughly renovate Wawel between 1895 and 1910. While the renovation was still in the preparatory stage, Wyspiański set out to scrupulously document all the old architectural details, intending his sketches to serve as a reference for the work of future renovators.36 At the same time, when Wawel was being reconstructed, he closely followed the public debate on the cathedral as the “Polish Acropolis,” as well as deliberations on the social, symbolic, and utilitarian value of specific elements in the cathedral. Employing his ability to see what is overlooked and marginalized, Wyspiański made the works of art that had been expelled from the archive of memory and history during the national reconstruction into the protagonists of Acropolis. The play is based on the concept of the reanimation of statues, tapestries, frescos and paintings that have been forgotten in the long history of the cathedral or considered unnecessary during the renovation. Ewa Miodońska-Brookes reminds us of the truly political method of reclaiming history’s leftovers:

All of the works of art that were criticized in the press, but also those that were discarded, moved or destroyed during the restoration process have become the blueprints for Wyspiański’s characters in Acropolis.37

Removed from the archive of Polish culture, the sculptures are granted a second or even a doubly second life in Wyspiański’s drama: personally connected to the art and architecture of Wawel, the playwright38 not only retrieves their material presence by introducing them on stage, he also reanimates them, giving them the power to act, vitality and physical strength. As a result, Wawel, which for a long time had merely been as Leszek Kolankiewicz rightfully observes – a “dead object of cult, a souvenir and a document,” reveals its “secret, dramatic structure.”39 Hence Acropolis becomes a philosophy of theater recorded as the drama of reconstruction, based on an examination the boundary between life and death, organic and non-organic matter, man and object and, finally, between an event and the process of its documentation. In conclusion, Wyspiański suggests the possibility of a complete detachment of the copy from the original, as well as of discovering in repetition a life that is sovereign and autonomous vis-à-vis the original event.

Maybe that is the reason why it was only the 2004 reenactment of Jerzy Grotowski and Józef Szajna’s 1962 staging of Acropolis by the Wooster Group that was able to illustrate the concept of body-as-archive which in my opinion is fundamental to Wyspiański’s theater. The Wooster Group’s reconstruction was executed not through a bodily-spiritual reminiscence of sources the method demanded by Grotowski in his concept of body-memory but instead via the naively mimetic recreation of gestures on the basis of a set of available audio-visual materials.40 In this way, the New York artists managed to reach Wyspiański’s understanding of history as a montage from pieces of its debris. in his article entitled “Kłącze Akropolis,” Leszek Kolankiewicz observed this phenomenon:

[when] actors from The Wooster Group get together to imitate actors from Laboratorium Theater, who performed in Acropolis and they imitate with great mastery their copy contains only what was caught by the camera: if there were only heads and arms, they would repeat that very composition and movement of the limbs and heads, while sitting down, because the imitation didn’t involve legs, since the image didn’t preserve it.41

Wyspiański was convinced that the character of the relationship between humans and objects is physical and active, and also that objects possess an autonomous power of preserving memory. To him, the “here and now” of theater was not in danger of disappearing, since he understood the present as the material record of the past. As a painter, however, he knew perfectly well that there is a fundamental relationship between matter and perception and that as Henri Bergson would say things act within us, because we are part of what we perceive: “My body is, then, in the aggregate of the material world, an image which acts like other images, receiving and giving back movement,”42 more so, “[t]he objects which surround my body reflect its possible action upon them.”43 From that particular perspective, reconstruction turns out to be not only an exercise in recollection but, most importantly, a reaction to instructions delivered to us by other bodies, and objects.44

By employing the perspective of reconstruction in researching the theatrical work of Stanisław Wyspiański, one is able to see him as a seminal figure not only for modern theater, but most importantly for contemporary theatrical historiography the latter based on a complex relationship between body and image, an event and its documentation. This perspective also forces one to review the history of 19th century Polish theater, and to break the pattern of framing it as based solely on drama (traditional, logocentric approaches), or as yet another spectacle providing a manifestation of Polish culture. Wyspiański, viewed from the perspective of reconstruction practices, is not a performer, restorer, or potential deconstructor of the paradigmatic Polish national theater as it was created by the Romantic writers. Or at least, he is not only that. He turns out to be more of a reconstructor of 19th century images of history that informed the paradigm of Polish culture into the 20th century. He might well be the creator of the “anthropology of reconstruction,” a modern branch of the humanities that emerged out of the rubble of the Great War,45 which employs the concepts of fragment, remnant, remains, and mediation as the only possible perspectives from which to experience reality and history.

It is not surprising that it was only on the occasion of the 1916 stage production of Liberation that an art critic noticed that the author of the play is, in fact, a “historiosopher, who expresses himself through poetry.”46 The context of the war led also to a different opinion on the importance of Wyspiański’s various works Liberation, always considered only as a “minor” play, was reconsidered as the key work among his writings.

Liberation is one of the most intriguing plays for anyone wanting to learn about Wyspiański’s national ideology. […] The drama seems to be placed behind a kind of a glass wall where one can see it, but never touch it with the nerve of our sensibility. While in The Wedding we have living people for protagonists, people who kept the Polish suffering, shame, desperation and hopelessness inside of them, in Liberation we are presented with the non-biological categories of poetry, politics, apathy, or willingness to act as protagonists in human form […].47

Those were the words of Adam Grzymała-Siedlecki from an article published on 27 April 1916 in Kurier Poznański, in which he reported with great perceptivity on the latest news from Teatr Polski (at the time based in German-occupied Warsaw), right next to the letters of the Polish soldiers fighting on the front lines, while serving in the Prussian army.

The text is a fragment of Dorota Sajewska’s book Necroperformance. Cultural Reconstructions of the Theatre of Great War, which will be published by DIAPHANES, Berlin, Zürich 2019.

Translated by Simon Wloch


Benjamin, Walter, Illuminations, ed. Hannah Arendt (Schocken Books New York, 2007)

Benjamin, Walter ,“N [On the Theory of Knowledge, Theory of Progress],” in: id., The Arcades Project, trans. by H. Eiland, K. McLaughlin, The Belknap Press of Harvard University Press (Cambridge Mass, London, 2002)

Bergson, Henri, Matter and Memory, trans by. Nancy Margaret Paul and W. Scott Palmer (Zone Books, New York, 1991)

Bois, Yve-Alain, Hollier, Denis, Krauss, Rosalind, “A conversation with Hubert Damisch”, October 85, Summer 1998

Dąbrowski, Stanisław, “Sceniczne dziejeWyzwolenia,” in Wyspiański i teatr: 1907–1957 (Państwowy Teatr im, Kraków: Juliusza Słowackiego, 1957)

Didi-Huberman, Georges, Strategie obrazów. Oko historii 1, trans by. J. Margański, Korporacja Ha!art (Warsaw-Krakow, 2011)

Gerould, Daniel, “Historical Simulation and Popular Entertainment”, The Drama Review 33 (1989)

Grzymała-Siedlecki, Adam, “‘Wyzwolenie’ na scenie warszawskiej”, Kurier Poznański, April 27, 1916

Komza, Małgorzata, Żywe obrazy. Między sceną, obrazem i książką (Wydawnictwo Uniwersytetu Wrocławskiego Wrocław, 1995)

Kolankiewicz, Leszek, “Kłącze Akropolis”, Dialog 1 (2015)

Markiewicz, Barbara,Żywe obrazy. O kształtowaniu pojęć poprzez ich przedstawienie (Wydawnictwo IFiS PAN Warsaw, 1994)

Miodońska-Brookes, Ewa, „Introduction”, in Stanisław Wyspiański, Akropolis (Zakład Narodowy im. Ossolińskich Wrocław, 1985)

Nancy, Corpus, Jean-Luc, trans by. R. A. Rand (Fordham University Press, New York, 2008)

Nowakowski, Jan, „Introduction”, in Stanisław Wyspiański, Warszawianka; Lelewel; Noc listopadowa (Zakład Narodowy im. Ossolińskich, Wrocław, 1967)

Niziołek, Grzegorz, Polski teatr Zagłady, Polski teatr Zagłady (Instytut Teatralny im. Zbigniewa Raszewskiego, Wydawnictwo Krytyki Politycznej Warsaw, 2013)

Lipszyc, Adam, Sprawiedliwość na końcu języka. Czytanie Waltera Benjamina, Wydawnictwo Universitas (Krakow, 2012)

Olsen, Bjønar, W obronie rzeczy. Archeologia i ontologia przedmiotów, trans by. Bożena Shallcross (Instytut Badań Literackich PAN, Warsaw, 2013)

Piotrowski, Piotr, Sztuka według polityki. Od „Melancholii” do „Pasji”, Universitas, Kraków 2007

Prussak, Maria, “Pieśń Wawelu”, in Maria Prussak, Wyspiański w labiryncie teatru (Instytut Badań Literackich PAN, Warsaw, 2005)

Rancière, Jacques, Geschichtsbilder, trans. by Roman Voullié, (Merve Verlag, Berlin, 2013)

Rancière, Jacques, “The Emancipated Spectator”, trans by. G. Elliott (Verso, London,, 2009)

Rancière, Jacques, “The Future of the Image”, in: id., The Future of the Image, trans by. G. Elliott, Verso (London, New York, 2009)

RE//MIX. Performans i dokumentacja, ed. Tomasz Plata, Dorota Sajewska (Instytut Teatralny im. Zbigniewa Raszewskiego, Komuna Warszawa, Wydawnictwo Krytyki Politycznej, Warszawa, 2014)

Schiller, Leon, “Wyspiański w literaturach zachodnioeuropejskich”, in Leon Schiller,Na progu nowego teatru (PIW, Warsaw, 1978)

Schneider, Rebecca, Performans pozostaje, RE//MIX. Performans i dokumentacja, red. Tomasz Plata, Dorota Stykowa, Maria, Barbara, Teatralna recepcja Maeterlincka w okresie Młodej Polski (Zakład Narodowy im. Ossolińskich, Wrocław, 1980)

Wyspiański, Stanisław, Warszawianka, Zakład Narodowy im. Ossolińskich, Wrocław.

Wyspiański, Stanisław, Wyzwolenie [Liberation] (Zakład Narodowy im. Ossolińskich, Wrocław, 1970)

1. In Maria Barbara Stykowa, Teatralna recepcja Maeterlincka w okresie Młodej Polski, Zakład Narodowy im. (Ossolińskich, Wrocław, 1980), p. 43.

2. Maria Barbara Stykowa writes on the subject in greater detail: ibid., pp. 59–60.

3. Jacques Rancière, “The Future of the Image”, in: id., The Future of the Image, trans by. G. Elliott, Verso (London, New York, 2009), p. 7.

4. Jean-Luc Nancy, Corpus, trans by. R. A. Rand (Fordham University Press, New York, 2008), p. 41.

5. See: Jacques Rancière, “The Emancipated Spectator”, trans by. G. Elliott (Verso, London, 2009), p. 42.

6. See: Jacques Rancière, Geschichtsbilder, trans. by Roman Voullié, (Merve Verlag, Berlin, 2013).

7. Jan Nowakowski, „Introduction,” in Stanisław Wyspiański, Warszawianka; Lelewel; Noc listopadowa (Zakład Narodowy im. Ossolińskich, Wrocław, 1967), p. liv.

8. Stanisław Wyspiański, Wyzwolenie [Liberation] (Zakład Narodowy im. Ossolińskich, Wrocław, 1970), pp. 64–160.

9. Rebecca Schneider, Performans pozostaje, RE//MIX. Performans i dokumentacja, ed. Tomasz Plata, Dorota Sajewska (Instytut Teatralny im. Zbigniewa Raszewskiego, Komuna Warszawa, Wydawnictwo Krytyki Politycznej, Warszawa, 2014) s. 29.

10. Wyspiański, Wyzwolenie, p. 62.

11. Ibid.

12. Piotr Piotrowski, Sztuka według polityki. Od „Melancholii” do „Pasji”, p. 13. Piotr Piotrowski interprets the painting by Jacek Malczewski titled Melancholia as a classical example of the manifestation of national awareness at the end of the century.

13. Małgorzata Komza, Żywe obrazy. Między sceną, obrazem i książką (Wydawnictwo Uniwersytetu Wrocławskiego Wrocław, 1995), p. 292.

14. Barbara Markiewicz, Żywe obrazy. O kształtowaniu pojęć poprzez ich przedstawienie (Wydawnictwo IFiS PAN, Warsaw, 1994), p. 11.

15. Ibid., p. 16.

16. See: Małgorzata Komza, Żywe obrazy, p. 332.

17. See: ibid., p. 354.

18. See: Rebecca Schneider, p. 37. “As past and yet present in varied remains.”

19. Yve-Alain Bois, Denis Hollier, Rosalind Krauss, “A conversation with Hubert Damisch”, October 85, Summer 1998, pp. 3–17.

20. Leon Schiller, “Wyspiański w literaturach zachodnioeuropejskich,” in Leon Schiller, Na progu nowego teatru (PIW, Warsaw, 1978).

21. Stanisław Dąbrowski, “Sceniczne dzieje Wyzwolenia,” in Wyspiański i teatr: 1907–1957 (Państwowy Teatr im. Juliusza Słowackiego, Kraków, 1957), 107.

22. Stanisław Wyspiański, Wyzwolenie, p. 11.

23. See: Daniel Gerould, “Historical Simulation and Popular Entertainment”, The Drama Review 33 (1989): p. 163.

24. Stanisław Wyspiański, Wyzwolenie, p. 5.

25. Ibid., p. 11.

26. Compare Rebecca Schneider, Performans pozostaje, op. cit., p. 114.

27. Walter Benjamin, “N [On the Theory of Knowledge, Theory of Progress]”, in: id., The Arcades Project, trans. by H. Eiland, K. McLaughlin, The Belknap Press of Harvard University Press (Cambridge Mass, London, 2002), p. 460.

28. Walter Benjamin, Illuminations, ed. Hannah Arendt (Schocken Books New York, 2007), p. 224.

29. Stanisław Wyspiański, Wyzwolenie, p. 197.

30. Ibid.

31. See: remarks on the subject of dialectic image in, for example: Adam Lipszyc, Sprawiedliwość na końcu języka. Czytanie Waltera Benjamina (Wydawnictwo Universitas, Kraków, 2012), p. 515.

32. Walter Benjamin, The Arcades Project, p. 458.

33. Ibid., p. 461.

34. Ibid., p. 460.

35. See: Georges Didi-Huberman, Strategie obrazów. Oko historii 1, trans by. J. Margański, (Korporacja Ha!art, Warsaw-Krakow, 2011), See also remarks by Grzegorz Niziołek in: id., Polski teatr Zagłady, Polski teatr Zagłady, (Instytut Teatralny im. Zbigniewa Raszewskiego, Wydawnictwo Krytyki Politycznej, Warsaw, 2013), p. 421.

36. See: Maria Prussak, “Pieśń Wawelu,” in Maria Prussak, Wyspiański w labiryncie teatru (Instytut Badań Literackich PAN, Warsaw, 2005), p. 101.

37. Ewa Miodońska-Brookes, „Introduction,” in Stanisław Wyspiański, Akropolis, (Zakład Narodowy im. Ossolińskich Wrocław, 1985), p. xvii. Among the rejected works were included: “allegorical characters from the monument of Sołtyk, who had been transformed into Clio, Lady, and Time in Act 1 of Acropolis; a female character from the moved, and destroyed, monument of Skotnicki, condemned for being stylized as ancient characters from the tombstone of Ankwicz: Maiden and Cupid; or the monument of Włodzimierz Potocki (removed from its original location, it spent three years packaged before it was set up in queen’s Zofia’s chapel in the cathedral); characters from the Trojan and Jacob Tapestries donated to the diocese museum; and finally the much critiqued monument of David from which the Harpist was born”.

38. Maria Prussak recalls the influence of Wawel Cathedral on the majority of Wyspiański’s work – “from the legend of his debut to an unfinished Zygmunt August, written on his death bed”, Maria Prussak, "Pieśń Wawelu", p. 100.

39. Leszek Kolankiewicz, “Kłącze Akropolis”, Dialog 1 (2015), p. 124.

40. These materials included TV recordings of MacTaggart from 1968, rehearsals of the play, as well as a secretly shot conversation with Stefa Gardecka, former secretary of the Laboratorium Theatre.

41. Leszek Kolankiewicz, “Kłącze Akropolis”, p. 122.

42. Henri Bergson, Matter and Memory, trans by. Nancy Margaret Paul and W. Scott Palmer (Zone Books, New York, 1991), p. 19.

43. Ibid., p. 21.

44. See: Bjønar Olsen, W obronie rzeczy. Archeologia i ontologia przedmiotów, trans by. Bożena Shallcross (Instytut Badań Literackich PAN, Warsaw, 2013), pp. 181–183.

45. The thesis concerning the connection between the experience of war and the birth of the philosophy of fragments was presented by Marta Leśniakowska in her paper “The Experience of War, Anthropology of Reconstruction,” presented at the conference “First World War – It’s influence on art and humanities. Summary on it’s centenary,” which took place on the 14 October 2014 at the Institute of Arts at the Polish Academy of Sciences (PAN) in Warsaw. The author used a concept of the anthropology of reconstruction in her paper mainly in the context of a prosthetic body, discussed on the basis of visual materials, primarily photography and film. My proposed research perspective, which I call the “anthropology of reconstruction” has been developed independently on the basis of theoretical-theatrical reflection.

46. Adam Grzymała-Siedlecki, “‘Wyzwolenie’ na scenie warszawskiej”, Kurier Poznański, April 27, 1916, supplement.

47. Ibid.

Dorota Sajewska

is an Assitant Professor for interart studies at the University of Zurich and for theatre and performance at the Institute of Polish Culture, University of Warsaw. Her interests include the medial and the political in theatre, contemporary theories of archives, anthropology of performance and decolonizing knowledge. She has published writings on theatre, theatre scenarios, and the monographs “Chore sztuki”. Choroba/tożsamość/dramat (2005) and Pod okupacją mediów (2012). She has co-edited and co-authored the RE//MIX Performans i dokumentacja anthology (2013), and edited the series of publications issued by the Dramatyczny theatre in Warsaw between 2009 and 2012. She co-translated Hans-Thies Lehmann’s Postdramatic Theatre into Polish (first Polish edition 2005, 2nd ed. 2009). Her latest book, Nekroperformans (2016), considers the physicality of the Great War troops as reconstructed by, and in, culture.