Spécialités de la maison polonais

Presentation on an international conference:Theatrical Commentary. Tracing the Traditions, York University in Toronto

Theatrical criticism in Poland is a truly …. royal activity. In the literary sense of the word; one of the first – in the 60s of the 18th century – Polish theatre critics was our last king, Stanislaus August. The King was also the first to translate Shakespeare. However, he translated Julius Cesar not into Polish but into French. It was characteristic for the tradition of our culture:  Poland in the past used to be a multi-nation, multi-ethnic country, a truly cultural melting pot. It was in the centre of Europe a certain point of 'intermixing and criss-crossing' – it was a 'huge crossroads' between the East and the West of the continent. Poles, the subjects of Polish kings, the citizens of the Republic of Poland, obviously talked in Polish, but they also spoke, on a daily basis, German, French, and often Flemish, Lithuanian, Yiddish, and sometimes even English. It was a unique in the 18th century Europe phenomenon. A sort of a 'gene' of the modern European Union.
The rapid development of the press during the Enlightenment epoch contributed to the creation of a truly professional theatrical criticism. One of the first critics of this kind was a Jew from Gdańsk, Ludwig Gomperz. On the one hand, he was a typical regular reviewer, writing reviews from theatrical premieres. On the other hand, he was an author of books full of interpretations of actors' styles, ranges of staging, analyses of the relationship between the drama and the performance. Reading the texts by Gomperz today enables us to imagine the artistic portrayal of the Gdańsk theatre of the 70s and 80s of the 18th century. That is the discrepancy of the phenomenon at its very onset – between the literary whims of the king and a laborious everyday work of a bourgeois Jew. It is a good starting point for the two hundred and fifty years of uninterrupted tradition.

In order to further describe the history of 'resources and means' of the Polish theatrical criticism, it is necessary to start from an awkward question; what we understand by theatrical criticism.  It is obvious that the notion is capacious. I believe that both in the historic course of the phenomenon and in its today's understanding, the notion of 'theatrical criticism' embraces three very different blocks of literary expression connected with the theatre:
1.  it belongs to journalism,
2.  it is one of literary genres,
3. it is a form of scientific writing, in result of academic research, documenting the history of the theatre or creating its theory.

Obviously, each of these three blocks, called jointly theatrical criticism, embraces many literary genres. Respectively, criticism, as a genre of journalism, includes both the extended press information (radio and television) and current commentary as well as a more general columnist reflection. As a literary genre, theatrical criticism is one of the types of essay writing – a theatrical essay is not different due to its style, but due to its subject. Finally, a scientific text concerning theatrical criticism is both a theoretical reflection, a historical essay, a documentary article, a reconstruction of past theatrical landscapes and a diagnosis of contemporary phenomena. While essay writing criticism is characterized by a subjective point of view, the ambition of academic theatrical criticism is an attempt to objectify the phenomena.

In different categories, I divide the whole theatrical criticism into normative and analytic, namely hermeneutic, which – in accordance with the humanities understanding Dilthey – depicts and interprets a performance so to speak from the inside, without a scale of esthetic norms predetermined by a critic. Normative criticism, on the other hand, evaluated a performance from a point of view of a priori esthetic, ideological and  philosophical assumptions. In the Polish experience, normative criticism had its extreme dogmatic form in mid-20th century, in the times of the so called socialistic realism, namely under the pressure of Stalin doctrine. To refer to the times using a word; 'pests' is too elegant a word. Yet, the roots of the normative criticism date back in the Polish tradition as early as the beginning of the 19th century. Fortunately, these were not ideological principles, but esthetic ones that outlined the critical horizon for the Society of Xes operating in Warsaw at that time. It was a group of intellectuals who, after secretive meetings, published reviews signed with a letter X. These erudite, outstanding professionals of the art of interpretation, as the followers of the esthetics of French classicism, tried to lead the Polish theatre on its leash. Fortunately, to no avail.  

Dogmatists are incurable optimists: they believe in eternity, at least in the eternity of the doctrines which they support. In the 20s of the 20th century, the style that occurred in Poland and made the Xes give in, was romantic thinking. However, it was only during the epoch of positivism that theatrical criticism flourished like it had done during the Enlightenment. It was the golden age of criticism, when dailies, weeklies and quarterlies were full of critical texts, ranging from extended information, reviews, essays to first serious academic studies. The latter referred to drama rather than the theatre. On the other hand, an essay and a review took on mammoth proportions – a deep analysis of the staging and actors' creations after the premiere was often dragged on in … several issues of a weekly. Critics, often academic professors, were true experts, the theatre of stars was the most popular art in Poland, actors mania was raging and people had time to read newspapers.

At this point of my short walk through the long history of the Polish theatrical criticism, a certain literary work is worth mentioning, as it does not fall in any way into the genre patterns. What I have in mind is the critical work of Stanislaw Wyspiański. It is our great poet, playwright and stage-manager (whose work inspired Craig to introduce a term of a theatre artist) who in 1905 to publish Study on Hamlet. This, strange in a way, book is a kind of an essayistic analysis of Hamlet, a fascinating staging sketch of this tragedy and at the same time it includes an extensive, written in rhyme interpretation of the scene of Lady Macbeth's sleep as it was performed by Helena Modjeska. I know hundreds of descriptions of this scene in the interpretation of our outstanding actress who played in Shakespeare's plays on American and Polish stages; but owing to Wyspiański's work, I can literary see her creations. It is absolutely unique in the world's standards: a poem, poetry in its finest form as a piece of writing from the field of theatrical criticism!

So, in this short presentation I am concentrating on the Polish spécialités de la maison. And now we are in Poland during the communist regime, which let up after the epoch of Stalin, though it was still oppressive. In the 60s and 70s of the 20th century, the theatre and criticism elaborated a certain Aesop language, by the means of which they communicated perfectly with the audience even in political matters most sensitive to the regime. All this formation of the time, the Polish specificity of building the stage communication and critical reflection, is called by us the theatre of allusion. It would be better to call it: the theatre of a parabola; as we used to talk about the law, rights and infringements of politics, about the law and order and the frenzies of history, about an individual tied up by extra-individual powers, when the World is out of its form ( The Time is out of joint 15), not in short term categories, but rather in historiosophical order. Famous in Europe Richard the III, a play from 1962 directed by Jacek Woszczerowicz who also played in it, talked to us about this Great Mechanism of History, as it had been perceived in Shakespeare by Jan Kott.  Dziady by Mickiewicz, directed in 1967 by Kazimierz Dejmek with a great performance of Gustaw Holoubek was a national mystery of a tied-up community. In 1973 Adam Hanuszkiewicz, with the help of Antigona, conducted a discussion on the tragic nature of the rights conflict between the right of the politics of a state and the moral right of an individual.  And everything was clear. And when after the year 1968, after the revolt of the intelligentsia and anti-Semitic disgrace of the communist revenge, when Jan Kott stayed abroad as an expatriate and his name was on a censorship list, I referred to him not as Kott  but a certain critic, and everybody who was interested knew whom I meant.
Political entanglement is both a misfortune and at the same time a paradoxical …. fortune of the  Polish theatre: a muzzle of political restrictions arouses opposition and may be creatively stimulating. Preventive censorship, appalling and sinister owing to its nature, when applied to unruly Poles, it mobilized us – the people of the theatre and writing. The principle was: the more oppression there was, the stronger the reaction became – it made us look for sophisticated means of artistic and intellectual expression of feelings and thoughts. In other words: we owe it also to the nasty deceased, the censorship, that the Polish theatre flourished in the 60s and 70s of the 20th century, when our theatre and critical reflection on it, belonged to the top ones in the world.
It is worse, though, when in an acute political fight, the theatre and criticism change their social function and at the same time stop being an artistic and philosophical aim in itself, becoming a means for extra-artistic, strictly political causes. It was what happened in Poland in the 80s and 90s – in the epoch of Solidarity, martial law, agony of communism, and finally a smooth coup and crawling towards democracy. Theatrical activity became a pretext; it was used by the critics in a political struggle for 'the only correct cause'. The cause that was unchangeably 'the only one' and which naturally ….changed depending on the occasion. In the times of the Solidarity Movement – a deeper reflection and diagnosis was supplanted on stage by political poster and falsely religious hysteria, while critics focused on and exploited patriotic and catholic traits. During the martial law and the final years of communism, critics were eager to fall on their knees even before the weakest and most embarrassing kitsch if only it was produced and performed on stage by the artists from the 'right' option, namely by those known from their anti-communist attitude and beliefs; the situation was analogous, though without the previous censorship camouflage, in the first years of democracy.
Obviously, such practice in times of political frenzy and obsession is understandable. However, … it is dangerous, which we experienced on ourselves a lot. It leads to a caricature of theatre and a fall of criticism as an art of interpretation. Worse even, it may mean that criticism  will descend from a respectable position of ideological principles to … unwelcome coquetry. It is such coquetry criticism that has become the curse of the Polish theatrical criticism in the last twenty years. Especially, the curse of the young critics who are, as a generation, consolidated with their peers from the theatre and stage, and who are so opinionated. Such pseudo-criticism does not care about analysis; it baldly passes judgement – obviously in plus towards those who are allies in the style of thinking and in trivially youthful revolts; in minus towards separate and different esthetic approaches and followers of the tradition – those who are old and old-fashioned as far as age and art is concerned and whose time has passed.
And where do these high priests of new and even newer theatre have a recipe for their professional helplessness in the art of interpretation of a dramatic work? The recipe is simple indeed. If you – the young post-modernist critic – have problem with analyzing a performance, which cannot be easily analyzed with the use of post-modernist chaos leveling everything with everything – then make use of … post-modernist convention, concoct sense and nonsense in your review, write gibberish, lash and promote, pass judgement without limitations and then for sure you will shine in the light of avant-garde.
Enough of joking and there is no need to grumble. Art – as we all know- changes with time along a sinusoid. Not every day do we have a holiday and the times of grandeur in the theatre and criticism are such short seasons that they might actually be called holidays. At present we  have found ourselves in such a turning point in the theatrical art. Which means precisely that the holiday is right before us.

                                Andrzej Żurowski

P.S. One more word, just to raise our spirits. As it is known, interpretation is artistic work in itself. Any interpretation, both of the world and man. In various orders – from the interpretation done in a philosophical treatise up to a diagnosis made by a surgeon over an operating table. The interpretation of man's and the world's condition is in the theatre, though not always, a masterpiece of the director's art and the actor's art. Direction and acting do belong to the art of interpretation. Therefore, the interpretation of a theatrical performance as a figure of the world – namely precisely what a theatrical critic is doing, – is equally a piece of art, a piece of the art of interpretation. Criticism is art. It is or at least it occasionally happens to be such.

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