We enter the archives – with photos, illustrations, documents, which we can freely arrange, and each time we will get a different story about public theatre, or perhaps even public life. We can do it that way, or in totally different way. The proposal of a journey through the history of public theatre in Poland which we are presenting at this exhibition is an invitation (and perhaps a provocation) to think about it, originating in our experiences, studies and beliefs – the same ones that shape the anniversary year of 2015, the Year of Public Theatre in Poland.
Public means pertaining to us all. This is the way we want to think about public theatre in its diverse manifestations. Two hundred and fifty years of public theatre is a good occasion to ponder on its mission. It should be noted, however, that the aim of the present exhibition is not to recreate existing narratives about those two hundred and fifty years. Rather than that, the goal is to look at public theatre from contemporary perspective and find various analogies in the past, at the origins of public theatre. Our starting point, therefore, is our today. This is the place from which we look into the past.
When establishing public theatre, Stanislaus Augustus wanted to change the customs of Poles. He wanted to make true citizens out of Sarmatians. Whether it was a successful attempt remains a debatable issue. Undoubtedly, however, public theatre became a tool of social change, a testing ground for subsequent stages of emancipation, for violating the taboo and overcoming social barriers. A clear example of that could be the attitude towards women. 18th-century public theatre made an unambiguous breakthrough by inviting women to the stage. Initially, it resulted in a strong, stigmatising criticism. After the opening night of “Natręci” in 1765, a Saxon spy, Jan Heine, reported that “Polish comedies mostly present love intrigues, so accurately re-acted by movements and words that only mattresses are missing. Young girls learn there what they had not experienced yet”.
From that moment onwards, the public scene becomes a place for breaking the sexual taboo. Women who played on Polish stages became stars and at the same time sexual fetishes. On the one hand, therefore, theatre turns woman’s body into a fetish, on the other hand it emphasizes problematic situation of women in theatre and in social life. It functions as a space to present subordination, as well as emancipation.
The same occurs in the context of non-heteronormative identities. Nowadays, subordination and dependency on the dominating power is shown in a critical manner, and the emphasis shifts towards emancipation.
In the performance entitled “Niech żyje wojna!!!” by Monika Strzępka, Agnieszka Kwietniewska, playing the character of Gustlik, known to Polish viewers from the series about four tankmen, becomes an icon of multiple exclusions: as a Silesian, a woman, a Black… In a way the character of Black will become in the Polish theatre of the recent years a manner to talk about exclusion and symbolic violence.
The recent seasons are abundant in returns to the romantic canon that defined the tradition of Polish theatre throughout the whole 20th century. They are, nevertheless, un-obvious revisits: Radosław Rychcik presents “Dziady” in the entourage of American pop culture, Michał Zadara makes references to horror movies; Paweł Demirski and Monika Strzępka turn Krasiński’s “Nie-Boska komedia” upside down revealing astonishingly contemporary complexity of the problems incorporated in Krasiński’s drama. Public theatre becomes a venue for discussion with tradition, a place from which we can observe anew the seemingly well-known and tamed topics concerning the Polish legacy.
Today’s theatre, like the public theatre in the 18th century, becomes a space for exploration of the very notion and understanding of tradition: both in terms of broadly understood cultural heritage, as well as theatre tradition. Anew do we watch legendary stagings and their creators, like in “The Prince” by Karol Radziszewski, who presents Jerzy Grotowski’s artistic output in a totally different light, or in “Geniusz w golfie” by Weronika Szczawińska, who opens to us new ways to talk about the works of Konrad Swinarski.
It became established that theatre was to be a “temple of the Polish language”. It must be admitted that throughout the whole 19th century, the theatre was one of the few spheres of public life centred around the Polish language. Particular role in the shaping of the Polish of theatre was played by Aleksander Fredro, and Fredro’s works to a large extent defined the perception of classical repertoire as a linguistic model. After Poland regained independence, there were calls to make the National Theatre an “academy of the spoken word and performing art”, or a “model of Polish pronunciation and poem recitation”. This tradition remained present on the main stages throughout the whole 20th century. Not more than half a century ago, the 200th anniversary of the establishment of the National Theatre was celebrated and among numerous postulates made then, one stated that “the statute should oblige the National Theatre to present jewels of the Polish language, constituting at the same time pearls of the Polish drama”.
The current public theatre approaches classics with less piety. It treats it, just like it does the whole tradition, as a field for experiments, a place where notions of works and canons are researched, rather than just one for staging “jewels of the Polish language”. We know all too well that language is not a transparent description tool, and that the choice of a specific language or a convention brings far-reaching consequences. To understand it one must sometimes break into the text and language.
The tension between the public mission and finances has been an intrinsic part of theatre since the beginning of its existence. Arnold Szyfman, founder of the Polish Theatre in Warsaw, created in his theatre – formally private one – a scheme of financing ambitious performances through income from commercial productions. In the longer run, however, such policy never worked out. Therefore, many say that public theatre should be financed from public money, which would guarantee its full artistic and ideological independence.
Actually from its very onset, the public theatre in Poland has been inseparably connected with finances. It remains a certain paradox that throughout the whole 18th century public theatre was a private institution: first it was the royal theatre, later it took the form of companies whose goal was also to earn money.
Bogusławski’s “Taczka occiarza” enjoyed great popularity and as time went by it became a synonym of commercial theatre. There was even a couplet circulating around Warsaw:
„Whenever the company happens to be short of cash / It’s rolls to the stage with its 'Wheelbarrow' in a rush”.
Public theatre is also a rostrum to talk about economic situation, exclusion, as well as financing of culture. Paweł Demirski and Monika Strzępka are masters in it – their performance “Był sobie Andrzej, Andrzej i Andrzej” was probably the most well-known and accurate satire about the relations between authorities financing culture and creators.
The theatre established by king Poniatowski was to be a voice of the royal propaganda. Together with “Monitor” is was to offer a space for debate and shape public opinion. It was never meant to create works of art; rather than that it was to be a medium affecting the society, commenting political and social events. The idea of theatre as a “temple of art”, a place detached from social reality, was only born much later, and in Poland it was never fully implemented.
Today’s theatre, like the one in the times of king Stanislaus Augustus, often comments on the reality, it is a forum where public opinion is shaped. The current media landscape is different than the one in the 18th century, yet the theatre, like the press, still builds the public sphere. Bidirectional flow in the public space is its raison d’être .
From the very beginning of its existence, Polish public theatre was locked indoors. First it was the Saxon Opera House (Operalnia Saska), then the theatre at the Commission square, currently Krasiński square. In Krakow, theatre was first hosted in the Hall in the Spiski Palace, later in a building in Szczepański square. Theatre buildings were landmarks of representative city centres, their architecture, more and more decorative, was becoming an expression of the aspirations of elites. With time, theatre became a place of entertainment, an exclusive venue, an institution of less and less democratic character.
Public means nothing less than accessible for everyone. Obviously, such accessibility is conditioned by economic factors. Entry to the first public theatre in Operalnia Saska was not for free – in this respect the Saxon theatre operating earlier in the same building had been much more accessible: the entry was free. Accessibility is, however, connected not only with finance – theatre is a institution that clearly marks the centre. Theatres operate only in specific places, usually in large urban centres, where one has to travel for a performance. Obviously touring theatre companies have always been there, trying to find audiences in smaller locations. Actors performed outside of their home theatres. This is by the way still the case with many impresario theatres. However, it was most likely Juliusz Osterwa who created the strongest bond between theatre tours and public mission. For his Reduta, performing in the countryside was a part of regular business and a form of culture-forming and civic activity. Truly public theatre is accessible to everyone, irrespective of their place of residence.
Theatre, however, is not just a building and not just an institution. Each time institutional theatre locked itself in decorative interiors, there appeared movements leading it outside: to the streets, to non-theatrical places, which were, however, more accessible.
Theatralisation was not only about organizing performances in public places. The goal was rather to infect the public life with theatrical virus, which was mastered by contemporary artists such as Paweł Althamer or Joanna Rajkowska. Their works, inscribed in the urban space, redefine the public space.
Kuratorzy—Dariusz Kosiński (Instytut Teatralny im. Zbigniewa Raszewskiego), Piotr Morawski (Instytut Kultury Polskiej UW)