Tuesday, November 30, 2010

On Poland (By Way of Austin)

In the Times yesterday, there was an article about Poland and the divisive cultural environment that is now thriving there. What struck me most about it was this quote:
“Poles always feel they need to have an enemy,” Urszula Slawinska, 38, said one day as she walked along a sidewalk in Warsaw, an average citizen, headed home, uninvolved in politics, yet keenly aware of what was happening around her. “Because of our history we define ourselves, to be Polish meant to protect our country. So now that we don’t have to protect ourselves, we still need to find an enemy.”
In reading this, I was reminded of Dr. Oscar Brockett, my theater history and criticism professor at the University of Texas, who died a few weeks ago. That may seem like an incredible leap of logic—how does a story about European politics relate to theater history?—but I think Dr. Brockett would have appreciated how I made that connection and why.

In one of the lectures in his Contemporary Theater History class, Dr. Brockett told us about Jerzy Grotowski's 1962 production of Akropolis by Stanisław Wyspiański. In the original play, written in 1904, figures from the stained glass windows in the Krakow Cathedral come to life on the night before Easter and reenact Biblical and mythical stories; in the end, the Christ figure (as Apollo) is resurrected and destroys the cathedral in order "to free the Polish mind from the shackles of its own culture."1 The play was a source of national pride for many people (although, as this writer notes, its nationalism can be read with an ironic perspective that may well have been intended by Wyspiański) that Grotowski twisted into a wicked commentary on Polish society. He set the action in a concentration camp barracks and had the prisoners play the different parts; the characters were ultimately "freed" by a headless Christ-figure they constructed from the detritus on the set which "led them" into the gas chambers. I see Grotowski's interpretation of the play as a corollary to the statement that Slawinska gave to the reporter: he is saying—in a very graphic and, I imagine, extremely powerful fashion*—that the Poles are, essentially, their own worst enemy.

I've been lucky to have many great teachers—while I was a student and in the decades since—but Dr. Brockett influenced me more than any other. His History of the Theatre is, without a doubt, the definitive theater history textbook. It was so thorough that his classes could easily have been just a rehashing of its contents (as, indeed, my undergraduate theater history class had been). Instead, he brought to his lectures a wealth of stories and images (he lectured without notes, as I recall, and had the most amazing slides—as in carousel, not Powerpoint—of influential productions to illustrate his points) that made it obvious that his book could have easily been a multi-volume encyclopedia.

What really made him unusual as a history teacher, however, is that he was just as concerned—perhaps even more concerned—with the current state of theater. Since it first appeared in 1968, Dr. Brockett made sure that the History was always current: the 10th and last edition just came out in 2007. At the end of his Contemporary Theater History class, he was telling us about influential Off Broadway productions that were only a few years old or that were playing in New York at that moment—Richard Foreman's Film is Evil, Radio is Good, Eric Bogosian's Talk Radio and The Wooster Group's LSD (...Just the High Points...). He also provided me with the adage that I still hold true (and repeat often) to this day: there is no such thing as presenting "the play as written;" the act of staging a play is the act of interpretation.†

I think it's telling that, although I had gone to UT to get an MFA in acting, more of my graduate credits are in theater history and criticism. In my very first class with Dr. Brockett, his syllabus required us to write a number of papers by the end of the semester. Concerned that I'd be trying to write a bunch of papers in the last week of class (my M.O. as an undergraduate), I decided to get a jump on them and wrote the first one before the second week of class. Unfortunately, I hadn't read his instructions very carefully and I hadn't proofread my work before I turned it in: what was supposed to be 7-10 pages was less than 5 and riddled with typos. Dr. Brockett corrected all of my mistakes (he also believed, as I said in my previous post, that spelling counts... also punctuation and grammar) and wrote at the end that four-and-a-half pages was woefully short of the assignment but "assuming that you misunderstood: B-." Reading that, I imagined him thinking, "Well, he's an actor; what should I expect?" Whether that was in his mind or not, I made certain from that point on that it would never be a question again.

In my last exchange with Dr. Brockett, a few days before I moved to New York in 1987, he told me how concerned he was that I might never finish my degree (he was right) and that I didn't need to write the remaining three papers I owed him for one of his courses. A few minutes later, I heard a knock on my office door and he poked his head in and sheepishly said maybe I should do them, after all (I'd already told him that I would, in spite of his earlier protests). Thousands of times over the years, I've thought about writing to tell him how much he and his classes meant to me. Most of the amazing productions I've seen since graduate school—certainly all of my favorite productions‡—and every piece that I've ever created, connect back to something I learned from him. But I never did that; I waited too long. Not that he needed to hear it from me: I could tell from the comments on his obituaries that he had plenty of students who kept in contact with him and with whom he had close relationships. It would have meant a lot to me, though; maybe just to make sure he knew I wasn't the doofus actor that I imagined he thought me.

By way of returning this post to Poland, from whence it sprang, I leave you with this short excerpt from Peter Brook's video of Grotowski's Akropolis. The video sucks but it's at least a little taste of what must have been an incredible production.

1 Relations Between Cultures by George F. McLean, John Kromkowski.
* For an excellent description of the production, with illustrations, check out Theater: a Way of Seeing by Milly S. Barranger.
† He's also responsible for my favorite smart-ass comment that, strictly following the Aristotelian belief that the purpose of drama is "to teach and to please," the lesson of Othello is that women should look after their linens; for the t.v. series, Miami Vice (this was 1987, after all), it was "don't get caught" because the criminals all lead incredible lives until the cops catch up with them.
‡Including The Wooster Group's 2005 piece, Poor Theater, which incorporated Grotowski's Akropolis into the production.

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