The Post-traumatic Theatre of Grotowski and Kantor

The Post-traumatic Theatre of Grotowski and Kantor

History and Holocaust in ‘Akropolis’ and ‘Dead Class’

By Magda Romanska
Foreword by Kathleen Cioffi

Anthem Studies in Theatre and Performance

Anthem European Studies

A historical and critical analysis of the post-traumatic theatre of Grotowski and Kantor, examining the ways they represent Auschwitz in their respective pivotal works ‘Akropolis’ and ‘Dead Class’.

Hardback, 420 Pages


December 2012

£70.00, $115.00

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About This Book

Despite its international influence, Polish theatre remains a mystery to many Westerners. This volume attempts to fill in various gaps in English-language scholarship by offering a historical and critical analysis of two of the most influential works of Polish theatre: Jerzy Grotowski’s ‘Akropolis’ and Tadeusz Kantor’s ‘Dead Class’. By examining each director’s representation of Auschwitz, this study provides a new understanding of how translating national trauma through the prism of performance can alter and deflect the meaning and reception of theatrical works, both inside and outside their cultural and historical context.

Although theatre scholars have now gained familiarity with ‘Akropolis’ and ‘Dead Class’, there remains little understanding of the complex web of cultural meanings and significations that went into their making – they remain broadly but not deeply known. Grotowski and Kantor both sought to respond to the trauma of the Holocaust, albeit through drastically different aesthetics, and this study develops a comparative critical language through which one can simultaneously engage Grotowski and Kantor in a way that makes their differences evocative of a broader conversation about theatre and meaning. Ultimately, this volume invites and engages with many questions: how is theatrical meaning codified outside its cultural context? How is it codified within its cultural context? What affects the reception of a theatrical work? And, above all, how does theatre ‘make meaning’?


The book demonstrates how both productions were deeply political responses to that “taboo subject.” Romanska painstakingly works to decode [it]. An invaluable resource.
—Theatre Annual A Journal of Performance Studies

This text is a valuable resource for those looking to better understand the complex creativity of Grotowski and Kantor within their Polish historical, social, and literary context.

Richly documented chapters. Through its argumentation and design, the book demonstrates a sophisticated dramaturgical strategy for re-historicizing and recontextualizing theatre and performance events.
—Theatre Journal

Romanska opens up areas of these two productions which have been unavailable.
—New Theatre Quarterly

The task, which the author sets out and performs, starting from such a clearly defined research perspective, is both remarkable and impressive in its momentum and size.

“[A] valuable resource for those looking to better understand the complex creativity of Grotowski and Kantor within their Polish historical, social, and literary context. […] It is not only a rich explanation of these dramatists, but also serves as an engaging overview of the Polish literary tradition.” —Alena Aniskiewicz, “”

“[Romanska’s] richly documented chapters interweave primary sources, critical commentary, and contemporary theory (for example, Adorno, Agamben, Bettelheim, Améry) on each topic. […] Through its argumentation and design, the book demonstrates a sophisticated dramaturgical strategy for re-historicizing and recontextualizing theatre and performance events […] The book also introduces English-language students to a significant national literature and encourages them to undertake equally rigorous, culturally specific readings in their fields of interest.” —Mary Karen Dahl, “Theatre Journal”

“Non-Polish-speaking scholars of Grotowski and Kantor will be grateful for Romanska’s work. She opens up areas of these two productions which have been unavailable; trauma and Holocaust survivors will be glad to be made aware of them; and Romanska indicates the direction for further analysis in this area.” —Alison Jeffers and Brian Schutis, “New Theatre Quarterly”

“A brilliant cross-disciplinary comparative analysis that joins a new path in theatre studies, revitalizing the artistic heritage of two great twentieth-century masters: Tadeusz Kantor and Jerzy Grotowski.” —Professor Antonio Attisani, Department of Humanities, University of Turin

“Among the landmarks of postwar avant-garde theatre, two Polish works stand out: Grotowski’s ‘Akropolis’ and Kantor’s ‘Dead Class.’ Magda Romanska scrupulously corrects misconceptions about these crucial works, bringing to light linguistic elements ignored by Anglophone critics and an intense engagement with the Holocaust very often overlooked by their Polish counterparts. This is vital and magnificently researched theatre scholarship, at once alert to history and to formal experiment. Romanska makes two pieces readers may think they know newly and urgently legible.” —Martin Harries, author of “Forgetting Lot’s Wife: On Destructive Spectatorship,” University of California, Irvine

“As someone who teaches and researches in the areas of Polish film and theatre – and European theatre/theatre practice/translation more broadly – I was riveted by the book. I couldn’t put it down. There is no such extensive comparative study of the work of the two practitioners that offers a sustained and convincing argument for this. The book is ‘leading edge.’ Romanska has the linguistic and critical skills to develop the arguments in question and the political contexts are in general traced at an extremely sophisticated level. This is what lends the writing its dynamism.” —Dr Teresa Murjas, Director of Postgraduate Research, Department of Film, Theatre and Television, University of Reading

“This is a lucidly and even beautifully written book that convincingly argues for a historically and culturally contextualized understanding of Grotowski’s and Kantor’s performances. It should be required reading in any introduction to performance and theater studies course. I am convinced that this will not only be the book on each of the two directors but also and especially the only one that manages to develop a framework allowing a discussion of both men and their performances together. In other words, this will be the book on the subject the author set out to explore. It’s very rare that one can say that about any book!” —Dr Anne Rothe, Department of Classical and Modern Languages, Literatures, and Cultures, Wayne State University

“In this authoritative study of two masterworks of twentieth-century theatre, Magda Romanska does more than offer astute close readings. Prying open the suffocating embrace of universalism in which Grotowski and Kantor have long been held, she restores their literary, historical, national, and aesthetic contexts. Thanks to her, two of the world’s the most influential, important and celebrated theatre artists will no longer also be among the least understood.” —Professor Alisa Solomon, Director, Arts and Culture MA Program, Graduate School of Journalism, Columbia University

“Every page speaks volumes to the breadth of Romanska’s readings and the number of sources she has used to bring both works into their multiple contexts. From the perspective of its potential use as course material, the in-depth exploration of some of the links that have been missing in Western criticism and scholarship is particularly valuable.” —Professor Tamara Trojanowska, Department of Slavic Languages and Literature, University of Toronto

‘This volume unpacks the multiple layers of meaning in two of the most acclaimed theatre productions of the twentieth century, Grotowski’s ‘Akropolis’ and Kantor’s ‘Dead Class’. Romanska reclaims both the Polishness and the Jewishness of Grotowski’s and Kantor’s chefs-d’oeuvres… and untangles the strands of meaning in their work in a most impressive way, thus helping us to fully understand their achievement.’ —from the Foreword by Kathleen Cioffi

Author Information

Magda Romanska is an award-winning writer, theatre scholar and dramaturg. Educated at Stanford, Yale and Cornell, she is currently Associate Professor of Theatre and Dramaturgy at Emerson College in Boston, and a research associate at Harvard University’s Minda de Gunzburg Center for European Studies.


Anthem Studies in Theatre and Performance

Anthem European Studies

Table of Contents

Foreword by Kathleen Cioffi; Preface; Acknowledgments; List of Illustrations; Introduction; PART I: OUR AUSCHWITZ: GROTOWSKI’S “AKROPOLIS”; Chapter 1: Jerzy Grotowski: A Very Short Introduction; Chapter 2: Native Son: Grotowski in Poland; Chapter 3: Grotowski: The Polish Context; Chapter 4: Grotowski, the Messiah: Coming to America; Chapter 5: The Making of an Aura; Chapter 6: On Not Knowing Polish; Chapter 7: “In Poland: That is to Say, Nowhere”; Chapter 8: “Akropolis”/Necropolis; Chapter 9: The Vision and the Symbol; Chapter 10: “This Drama as Drama Cannot Be Staged”; Chapter 11: Two National Sacrums; Chapter 12: “Hollow Sneering Laughter”: Mourning the Columbuses; Chapter 13: Against Heroics; Chapter 14: Representing the Unrepresentable; Chapter 15: Trip to the Museum; Chapter 16: Bearing the Unbearable; Chapter 17: The Living and the Dead; Chapter 18: Jacob’s Burden; Chapter 19: The Final Descent; Chapter 20: Textual Transpositions; Chapter 21: “Akropolis” After Grotowski; ILLUSTRATIONS; PART II: OUR MEMORY: KANTOR’S “DEAD CLASS”; Chapter 22: Tadeusz Kantor: A Very Short Introduction; Chapter 23: “Dead Class”: The Making of the Legend; Chapter 24: “Dead Class” in Poland; Chapter 25: The Polish History Lesson; Chapter 26: “Dead Class” Abroad; Chapter 27: On Not Knowing Polish, Again; Chapter 28: The Visual and the Puerile; Chapter 29: The National and the Transnational; Chapter 30: Witkiewicz’s Tumor; Chapter 31: An Age of Genius: Bruno Schulz and the Return to Childhood; Chapter 32: Conversing with Gombrowicz: The Dead, the Funny, the Sacred and the Profane; Chapter 33: Panirony: “A pain with a smile and a shrug”; Chapter 34: Raising the Dead; Chapter 35: “Dead Class” as Kaddish…; Chapter 36: “Dead Class” as “Dybbuk,” or the Absence; Chapter 37: The Dead and the Marionettes; Chapter 38: Men and Objects; Chapter 39: “Dead Class” as “Forefathers’ Eve”; Chapter 40: “Dead Class”: The Afterlife; Postscript; Appendix: Table 1. Chronology of Events; Table 2. Comparison between Wyspiański’s “Akropolis” and “Genesis”; Table 3. Comparison between Grotowski and Kantor; Notes; Bibliography; Index 


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