Discuss the ways in which Grotowski's proposals for 'Holy Theatre' can be related to the ideas about the function and purpose of performance which came out of the historical avant garde.

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Grotowski’s work on a ‘Holy theatre’ with his Theatre Laboratory took place from 1959-70 after which he stopped producing theatrical work to carry out paratheatrical work. The term ‘Holy Theatre’ is focussed on making theatre more like ritual. Actors had to be trained thoroughly, not just rely on inspiration for their performance. In the search for ritual within the theatre, Grotowski sought a collective experience for the audience which, as a result of the decline of religion, is rarely found in late twentieth century societies. It is also important to establish that by using the term ‘Holy theatre’, Grotowski does not intend any religious connotation, he was in fact an atheist, ‘holy’ refers more to the ritual aspect of the theatre and the experience of the audience, which could be compared to experience brought on by a religious ceremony. The historical avant garde is the name given to the collective ideas and methods of theorists, writers and directors working in Europe from (for the purposes of this essay) 1895-1930 who saw opportunities for performance to act as a counter-culture and be like ritual. I have looked in particular at the work of Jarry, Apollinaire and Artaud, especially the texts Ubu Rex and The Breasts of Tiresias. In relation to Grotowski, I have focussed on accounts of his productions of Dr Faustus and Akropolis. There are certain themes that I will look at which I feel can be related between the two genres, these are; the influence of war on theatre, the role of the audience in theatre and performance as a ritual.

Grotowski wanted to create a new relationship between the actor and spectator. He knew that without the spectator, theatre would not exist and so wanted to create a complete experience for them. He wanted more than Brecht’s desired audience response and felt that if the audience only related to a performance intellectually as in a Brechtian performance or aesthetically which might be found in Stanislavskian productions, they were not fully experiencing the event. Grotowski fought to break down the barrier between actor and spectator, as through this a spectator could fully become part of the production. In several of his productions Grotowski gave the audience a specific role. In Dr Faustus, they were guests at the table at Faustus’ ‘last supper’ and in Akropolis they were given the role of being the living, while the actors were the dead, moving among them. There has been no other point in theatre history where such an importance was placed on the role of the audience, making their presence essential to convey the full meaning of the production. This use of an audience shows the influence of medieval drama and folk ritual on Grotowski as in these, the actors/performers were amongst the audience who were also encouraged to participate. In each of his productions, Grotowski used staging which brought the action right to and around the audience, the proscenium arch was never used as this made a physical divide between the actor and spectator. It is these practices which help to bring about the state of ‘ritual’ within Grotowski’s theatre.

In examining the ideas which came about from the historical avant garde I have focussed on the forms of theatre centred around two avant garde texts, Jarry’s Ubu Rex and Apollinaire’s The Breasts of Tiresias. I have also studied Artaud’s theories of performance as I feel that one could not write about the historical avant garde without including some of Artaud’s work as it has influenced so many practitioners, including Grotowski. There is no doubt that, similar to Grotowski, members of the historical avant garde wanted to create a new theatre that went against the mainstream ideas of the time. I have found similarities between Grotowski and the Dadaist movement, of which Apollinaire was a member. Dadaists saw themselves as ‘anti-art’; “For everything art stood for, Dada was to represent the opposite. Where art was concerned with aesthetics, Dada ignored them. If art is to have at least an implicit or latent message, Dada strives to have no meaning, interpretation of Dada is dependent entirely on the viewer. If art is to appeal to sensibilities, Dada offends.” To reconstruct this quote in relation to Grotowski; if theatre is concerned with aesthetics, Grotowski used none. If Wyspianski’s Akropolis was the highest point of any civilisation, Grotowski made it the most disgusting point. If theatre entertains, Grotowski shocked and appalled his audiences. One could also use the phrase ‘counter-culture’ in relation to the avant garde and Grotowski. This was used to describe especially the theatre of Jarry’s time. When Ubu Rex was first performed in 1896, audiences were in uproar at the playwright’s use of language and treatment of characters which went violently against the norms of society in France at the time. The play directly attacks the ideals of the bourgeoisie using satire, however the way Jarry’s production really offended the audience was by going against every expectation that they had brought to the theatre. The audience of the time would have been expecting naturalistic drama in a realistic setting. What they were presented with was a vibrant, abstract set which had little to do with the action of the play and a placard, placed on the stage at the beginning of a scene, stating the setting. Jarry believed that “a descriptive placard has far more “suggestive” power than any stage scenery. No scenery, no array of walkers-on could really evoke ‘the Polish Army marching across the Ukraine’”. I feel that this idea of theatre’s communicative functions can be seen as contributing to Grotowski’s theories of Holy theatre as although he did not use vast abstract, artistic sets, he did not see it as important to have an elaborate set to convey a production and would use only props or pieces of set essential to the action of the production. I see this as similar to the use of placards to describe a setting as it is more straightforward and direct, letting the actor’s work speak for itself. The use of theatre as a ‘counter-culture’ is an important way in which Grotowski’s ideas for theatre seems to have developed out of the historical avant garde.

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The most important way in which the theatre of the avant garde can be related to Grotowski’s work on Holy theatre is through their desire for theatre to be a ritual. Both practitioners during the avant garde, including Artaud, and Grotowski wanted theatre to become a cathartic experience for the audience. They wanted performances to come from ‘within’ the actors rather than the external influences a director like Stanislavski might use. They wanted the audience to be guided through the theatre event in a trance-like state by the actor, in a relationship similar to that of a member ...

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