Dominika Larionow


The concept of authenticity in theatre can be examined with reference to a socio-cultural phenomenon that took place after the European unification, namely, the new meanings that national traditions have acquired in Poland, a country that has re-shaped its identity for the past twenty years, and the various approaches to the concept of Polish national theatre. The changes in the structure of the theatrical message that have occurred in Polish theatre since the end of the Communist era are of special interest. These changes consist largely in the shift from theatrical illusion to realism understood as a genuine setting, an authentic story, or a psychological truth.

To begin with, a distinction has to be made regarding the name: the National Theatre, with a capital letter, refers to a building in Warsaw that has had little to do with the changes in contemporary Polish theatre after 1989. This study will concentrate on Polish national theatre in lower case, which refers to a concept rather than an actual physical theatre. It is not place-restricted but rather concerns a group of artists. It is necessary to create that distinction so no confusion arises, due to a number of historical issues that influenced the development of culture in that particular area.

After World War II, the Polish theatre played a significant role in the country. It had the power of creation thanks to illusion, a potent metaphorical message. A good example is the 1967 staging of The Forefathers’ Eve by Adam Mickiewicz, directed by Kazimierz Dejmek. The nineteenth-century Romantic poet and playwright included a range of anti-Russian elements in his text. The protagonist, played by Gustaw Holoubek, gave the key monologue (referred to as the Great Improvisation) in handcuffs. The sight of Holoubek coming up to the audience and rattling his chains drove them crazy with delight. The play was accepted by the then omnipresent censorship, but the force of the gesture and the stage prop used was one of the reasons why it never went beyond the first night. Students in Warsaw protested several times against the ban issued by the governing party (PZPR, the Polish United Workers’ Party). The events that followed gave rise to a series of purges and expulsions in March 1968, not a particularly laudable period in Polish history. However, it would be an overstatement to claim that theatre was powerful enough to be capable of causing nationwide political skirmishes. What the example goes to show is only that theatre in the times of communism was entangled in politics. It was a particular marriage, a relationship of love and death, one might say, paraphrasing Tadeusz Kantor. The power of the theatre lay in unspoken gestures, words, sometimes in the magic of the attire and stage arrangement. Those artists perfected the skill of building metaphors out of unconventional elements. Where expressing one’s opinion verbally was impossible, illusion grew in power. This was how the love relationship with the regime developed. This lethal relationship lasted fifty years and its consequences, pertaining to the very sense of the concept of national theatre, are quite profound. The idea is connected with poets, playwrights and theatre artists. This means that reference was being made to the aesthetic canon created by Polish romantic poets (mainly Adam Mickiewicz and Juliusz Slowacki) while artists like Stanislaw Wyspianski interpreted their ideas in the early twentieth century. 

This brings us to a significant issue that is directly related to Polish history. All the above-mentioned artists created the national theatre at the time when Poland was missing from the European map, the country having been divided between the Austro-Hungarian, German and Russian empires as of late eighteenth century. Thus their works were a sign of protest against the partitioners of their land. They conceived theatre as a mission. It was an area that on one hand protected national myths, even to the effect of creating them from proto-Slavonic culture (in any understanding of the concept), on the other it played a significant educational role, supporting the national spirit. The theatre was a weapon used to fight against the invader, the governing public and political administration. Thus the post-war times made no significant change to the function of theatre, as the struggle went on. Few artists of the second half of the twentieth century dared to undermine the works of the great romantic poets. An aesthetic canon, which could not be interpreted critically, was established. The impossibility to differ stemmed from the fact that the dramatic works in question, much like monuments, were firmly believed to be protecting national identity and their destruction would lead to the destruction of the nation. Mickiewicz’s The Forefathers’ Eve was naturally part of that canon. A case in point is Konrad Swinarski’s production of this play in Cracow in 1976.

This was the first production of the play – whose vision is in line with the concept of Poland as a messiah of nations, a “sacrificer” -- after the highly controversial staging of Dejmek in 1967. The young but already renowned artist decided now to interpret the play in his own fashion, but he had to face the famous monologue and chains attributed to Holoubek’s interpretation. Swinarski opted for a different way of acting out that particular part. His protagonist would also walk out toward the audience but several steps further than Holoubek, on a platform protruding out of the proscenium toward the first rows, and the play’s main monologue was delivered on an almost empty stage. Two Devils are the only characters listening to the protagonist. Here Swinarski wanted to pay heed to the text of the play and highlight his own interpretation of the sacrificial table. He therefore had the two devils make scrambled eggs during the monologue. It was spectacular, but met with severe criticism on account of making fun of the great national poet. Interestingly, Swinarski was partially of German origin, a fact that was promptly pointed out. Incidentally, the whole fuss was made over two eggs, which were at that time hard to come by.

The concept of a national theatre concerned several literary works that could be put on stage, preserving the aesthetics of the Monumental Theatre, combining the notion of pathos both in acting and in the stage arrangement. Interpretations departing from the canon did not enjoy popularity. It is often only after decades or centuries that the importance of re-interpreting the ideas and works of great writers becomes visible. No aesthetics can be taken for granted as universal.

The year 1989, when communism collapsed in Poland, was not particularly significant to the history of Polish national theatre. The breakdown in the interpretative value of old masters’ works and the limited potential of theatrical illusion dates back to the Martial Law, after 1981. At that time, Polish theatre artists suffered from a sort of stagnation which resulted in lack of significant productions. In spite of Andrzej Wajda’s excellent productions of Dostoevsky’s works at the Stary Teatr in Cracow such as The Possessed (1970), Nastasia Filipovna (1977), or Crime and Punishment (1984), no major spectacle that would influence theatre history appeared at that time. The year 1989 failed to bring about the expected artistic revival. Theatre was undergoing a severe crisis, as it turned out that there was no longer an enemy that it could combat. The breakdown was observable not only in literature, but in aesthetics in general. The theatre could address the viewer directly, but no one knew how to go about it. The method of creating illusion created previously failed now to be of any use.

The saviour was Krystian Lupa (born in 1943), a director and set designer living in the times of communism but making his most significant works after 1989. He dismissed the concept of illusion in theatre in favour of realism. He would not base his productions on Polish literature, concentrating instead on German language works. His productions, including Robert Musil’s Man without qualities (PWST, Cracow 1990), Malte, or the prodigal son’s triptych inspired by the work of Rainer Maria Rilke (at the Stary Teatr in Cracow in 1991) and Herman Broch’s The Sleepwalkers (Stary Teatr, Cracow, 1995) were exceptionally long, between 6 and 14 hours, sometimes divided between two nights. Their realism manifested itself in the characters’ every single gesture. Lupa timed his characters according to how long they took to develop particular emotions, thus achieving the optimal psychological truth motivating them. The actors often lapsed into prolonged silence, a counter-point to the situation. Lupa would design space himself, rarely resorting to professional set designers. He created multi-functional interiors that required little technical manoeuvring during the play. As a result, virtually empty areas were created, divided into sections by platforms. The role of doors and windows was significant, with barriers locking the play within an illusory box separated from reality. The audience were like onlookers, peeping into people’s real lives. The reality of the situations was magnified by taking the time to have meals.

Lupa has achieved a spectacular success, both in Poland and in Europe. In the 1990s, he was the one that the concept of national theatre was associated with, due to his showing characters undergoing transitional periods, facing identity and other problems. Theatre was a reflection of social feelings; it spoke of the average man in the street, not a romantic hero pervaded with ideology. Politics was not mentioned either. These issues, no doubt, influenced the spectacular success of the director’s lengthy performances. 

In late 1990s and early 2000s a new generation of artists appeared, such as Grzegorz Jarzyna, Krzysztof Warlikowski or Przemysław Wojcieszek, working now in a free country. They approach the literary tradition of their homeland in a creative way, neglecting the currently held interpretations, rewriting works, adding their own or somebody else’s texts. This results in a literary-theatrical collage that addresses the audience in a contemporary language, avoiding the rhetoric of old masters.

Most Polish plays used now contemporary costumes, stage props and vivid, colourful lights. Przemysław Wojcieszek’s drama Made in Poland attempted to bring together the romantic hero and the contemporary world. First shown in 2004 in Legnica at Helena Modrzejewska Theatre, it tells the story of Bogus (diminutive of Bogdan), a young, and unemployed lad who is a little lost in his world. He is suspended between his love to God, who gives him nothing, his fruitless tuition in secondary school, the petty mafia of car thieves who give him trouble and his admiration of the singer Krzysztof Krawczyk, a symbol of the affluent 1970s. His stage prop is a baseball bat; he sports a tattoo on his forehead that says Fuck off. The play was staged outside the theatre, on an area that was typical of times gone by, a housing estate with concrete blocks of flats and a corrugated tin grocery store. The play begins in the parking lot with Bogus smashing car windows and destroying everything in a frenzy. Then the plot moves to an empty space made out of the grocery store, which Bogus runs into, followed by the audience. It was there that the subsequent scenes were acted. The stage set was very skimpy, there was hardly anything there. An element that stood out was a blinking, cheap holy picture. The production was hailed as a contemporary romantic paradigm. Bogus was seen as a romantic hero that rebels against the world, looking for the good and dismissing the evil that surrounds him. The realistic setting was the main asset of the performance. Blocks of concrete and grocery stores like the one in the play are found in each Polish town and in the countryside, where they remind of the fallen system of state-owned farmsteads. Thus the new romantic theatre intended to move out of the stage – an illusory box -- close to the audience’s natural habitat.

Jan Klata, another young director, opts for a different strategy. His two most famous productions are H based on Shakespeare’s Hamlet, shown in the Gdansk Shipyard, the birthplace of Solidarity, and Fanta$y according to the romantic poet Juliusz Słowacki, shown in the Teatr Wybrzeze in Gdansk, but using a stage set that referred to housing estates. Klata’s latest production, a highly controversial one was It is Transfer! (Wrocław Contemporary Theatre 2006, also shown in Berlin in 2007). It tells the story of the expulsion of German citizens from parts of Poland that used to belong to Germany and of Poles expelled from areas acquired by the Soviet Union. Klata made no recourse to a literary text, but used authentic memories of living witnesses of those times who were invited to act them out. The result was an original performance, a mixture of theatre and documentary. The play uses a regular stage, an elevated platform of the type used for rock concerts, occupied by important personas; Stalin, Churchill and Roosevelt are the only characters played by actors. Underneath there are ten regular people sitting in regular chairs wearing everyday clothing. They tell the audience about the fate that befell their families, an average German’s ignorance of Nazi crimes and rapes of German women after 1945 committed by the winning Russian soldiers. An elderly woman displaced from today’s Ukraine pulls out a list of her village’s inhabitants and begins to read out names, Polish and Ukrainian. We are told of looting done by Russian soldiers. The stories are intertwined with aggressive rock music sung by a group of rulers dividing Europe.     

The documentary character of the play was subject to severe criticism, on account of exploiting people and making a wrong use of their personal experiences. The play’s overtone, describing Nazi Germans as victims of the wild winning army rather than murderers responsible for World War II, was criticised. On the other hand, the play initiated a discussion about the massive expulsion that has dominated Polish-German relationships recently. Wroclaw, where it was first shown, turned from a demographically German into a truly Polish city after World War II. Similarly, other Polish towns where Germans used to live, generated interest due to the production.

On balance, the Polish theatre after 1989 has been undergoing a transformation; the place and function of theatre has been changing. The road from meticulously creating messages through illusion to genuine realism has been long. In early 1990s a major character in modern Polish humanities, Maria Janion, announced the demise of the romantic paradigm. This meant the tendency to lock all romantic literature in a box and put it on a shelf in the Museum of Literature. Her words referred partially to the changes taking place in culture. For theatre, the period of budding democracy does not mean departure from the literature of romanticism, as young artists now have a chance to polemicize. However, today’s opinions are rooted in stage props and sets referring to the outer world outside the theatre. Reality is more and more often understood as real places (Wojcieszek), a true story (Klata), or the character’s psychological truth (Lupa). It is through reality that theatre wants to access the audience that redefines their identity. In the twenty first century, the Polish national theatre becomes a realistic one. The fifty years of communist rule meant more than lack of freedom and no passport in one’s drawer; it also meant falsifying the nation’s history. Thu, being attached to realism implies now the willingness to tell the truth, while illusion means introducing an artificial element, something untrue. Researchers are then reduced to nostalgia connected with illusion understood as the magic of the scene; we may have to wait another fifty years to witness its revival.


This exposé, devoted to the contemporary understanding of national theatre as an idea, was written in 2007. The theses contained in it have not lost their relevance. The last twelve years in Poland have been characterized by a real "fight" for national theatre in the sense of public theatre. Directors of new generations, such as Michał Zadara (born 1976), Weronika Szczawińska (born 1981), Radosław Rychcik (born 1981), and Krzysztof Garbaczewski (born 1983) have tried to find their aesthetics and place in the Polish theatre of the new millennium. They have certainly redefined the concept of national theatre through social ideologies. It was about showing on the stage not only problems of poverty, but touching the issue of people excluded for various reasons, like sexual orientation,  political views, the experience of violence, or  migration. Between 2007 and 2015, theatre as an institution brought together a group of deeply involved artists and also became an arena of current social disputes.

For the past few years, we have been observing a major regression in Poland related to political change. In 2015, a party - Law and Justice - with a national-conservative program came to power. The government formed by this party built its propaganda message on a strong notion of the nation, based on and supported by ethnicity and religiosity. The implemented cultural policy wants strong centralization, that is, dependence on state finances by theatres, museums, and other institutions related to culture. Both theatres and directors who are not subordinated to the vision imposed by the government are being harassed. Institutions have a limited budget and changes are made to director positions. It should be assumed that the continuation of such a sharp cultural policy will take the theatre back to the vision and goals known from the years of communism, which would mean an aesthetic regression. Finally, two questions can be left unanswered: will conservative governments ultimately destroy the notion of national theatre by linking it to ideology? Will it be the opposite: will theatre defend its own artistic freedom? Maria Janion is currently silent, although a return to the era of terror would perhaps mean a return of romanticism, mysticism, and thus faith in the power of transmission of the spectacle as an image. Time will tell if we are going to experience a time loop or just the opposite.

Dr. Dominika Larionow, from the Department of Art History at the University of Lodz, is the author of  Przestrzenie obrazów Leszka Mądzika [Spaces of images by Leszek Mądzik] (2008) and „Wystarczy tylko otworzyć drzwi… Przedmioty w twórczości Tadeusza Kantora [„You only need to open the door…” Objects in the works of Tadeusz Kantor] (2015). She is a member of the Editorial Committee of Theatre Arts Journal: Studies in Scenography and Performance and was also a member of the Editorial Board of Theater and Performance Design. She served as a Convener of the Scenography Working Group of the International Federation for Theatre Research (2006-2013).