Andrzej Żurowski[1]

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Interpretation in itself is artistic work. Any interpretation, that is, both of the world and of man. All along the spectrum: from the interpretation given in a philosophical treatise to a diagnosis made by a surgeon over an operating table. In the theatre, the interpretation of the human condition and of the world is (though perhaps not always) the masterwork of the director’s art and of the actor’s art. Directing and acting do belong to the art of interpretation. Therefore, in turn, the interpretation of a theatrical performance—precisely what a theatre critic does—is equally a work of art; that is, a work of the art of interpretation. Criticism is an art form. Or at least it occasionally achieves the level of such.

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Theatrical criticism in Poland is truly a royal activity—in the literal sense of the word: one of the first Polish theatre critics, in the 1760s, was our last king, Stanislaus August. The King was also the first to translate Shakespeare. However, the parts of Julius Caesar he translated were not into Polish, but into French. This was characteristic of a tradition in our culture: in its past, Poland was a multi-national, multi-ethnic country—a true cultural melting pot. It was in the centre of Europe, and a natural point of “inter-mixing and criss-crossing”; it was an important crossroads between the continental East and West. Poles—the subjects of Polish kings, the citizens of the Republic of Poland—obviously spoke in Polish, but they also spoke, on a daily basis, in German, French, and often Flemish, Lithuanian, Yiddish, and sometimes even English. It was a phenomenon unique in 18th century Europe, and 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 of theatrical premieres. On the other hand, he was the author of books filled with interpretations of actors’ styles and of staging, and analyses of the relationship between the drama and the performance. Reading the texts by Gomperz today enables us to imagine the artistry of the Gdańsk theatre of the 1770s and ‘80s. Thus, there was a discrepancy in the phenomenon of our theatre criticism from the very outset—between the literary whims of a King and the laborious, everyday work of a bourgeois Jew. This is a good starting point for considering the two hundred and fifty years of uninterrupted tradition.

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To enable us to further describe the history of Polish theatrical criticism, it is necessary to start from an awkward question: what we understand by theatre criticism. It is obvious that the notion is capacious. I believe that both in the course of the historical phenomenon and in today’s understanding, the notion of theatre criticism embraces three very different areas of literary expression connected with the theatre:

  1. it belongs to journalism
  2. it is one of the literary genres
  3. it is a form of scientific writing, the result of academic research, documenting the history of the theatre or creating its theory

Obviously, each of these three areas, jointly called theatre criticism, embraces many literary genres. Taking them one at a time: criticism as a genre of journalism includes the broader media coverage (radio and television), and current commentary as well as a columnist’s more general reflections. Theatre criticism as a literary genre is among the types of essay writing—a theatrical essay is not different due to its style, but due to its subject matter. Finally, theatrical criticism as a scientific text is 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 characteristically to objectify the phenomena.

Using alternate categories, I divide the whole of theatrical criticism into analytical and normative. The analytical—namely, hermeneutical criticism—in accordance with the humanities as understood by Dilthey, interprets a performance from the inside, so to speak, without a scale of esthetic norms predetermined by a critic. Normative criticism, on the other hand, evaluates a performance from the point of view of ana priori esthetic, of ideological and philosophical assumptions. In the Polish experience, normative criticism reached its extreme in terms of dogmatic form in the mid-20th century, in the time of so-called socialist realism, namely under the pressure of Stalin’s doctrine. To use the word “pests” to describe the critics of those times is too polite a word. Yet, in the Polish tradition, the roots of normative criticism date back as early as the beginning of the 1800s. Fortunately, these were not ideological principles, but esthetic ones that outlined the critical horizon for the Society of Xs, who were operating in Warsaw at that time. This was a group of intellectuals who, after secretive meetings, published reviews signed with the letter X. These erudite, outstanding professionals of the art of interpretation, followers of the esthetics of French classicism, thus tried to lead the Polish theatre on its leash. Fortunately, it was to no avail.

Dogmatists are incurable optimists: they believe in eternity, or at least in the eternity of the doctrines which they support. In the 1820s, Polish Romanticism arose in Poland and overcame the Xs. However, it was only during the following epoch of Polish Positivism that theatrical criticism flourished again as it had done previously during the Enlightenment. This was the golden age of theatre criticism, when dailies, weeklies and quarterlies were full of critical texts, ranging from extensive information, reviews and essays to the first serious academic studies—these last pertaining to drama rather than the theatre. But an essay or a review could take on mammoth proportions; after a premiere, a deep analysis of the staging and the actors’ creations often dragged on through several issues of a weekly. Critics, often academic professors, were true experts; the theatre with its stars was the most popular art in Poland; “actor mania” raged; and people found time to read newspapers and periodicals.

At this point in my short walk through the long history of Polish theatrical criticism, a certain literary work is worth mentioning, as it does not fall in any way into the usual genres. I am thinking of the critical work of Stanisław Wyspiański. This is our great poet, playwright and stage manager, whose work inspired Edward Gordon Craig to introduce the term theatre artist, and who, in 1905, published his Study on Hamlet. This book—in some ways strange—is a kind of essayistic analysis of Hamlet, a fascinating sketch of the staging of this tragedy, while at the same time including an extensive interpretation, written in rhyme, of Lady Macbeth’s sleepwalking scene as it was performed by Helena Modjeska. I know hundreds of descriptions of this scene as interpreted by our outstanding actresses who have played Shakespeare on American and Polish stages; but owing to Wyspiański’s work, I can truly “see” Modjeska’s creations. It is an absolutely unique piece of writing: a poem, poetry in its finest form as theatrical criticism!

So, in this short discussion of the Polish spécialité de la maison, we are now in Poland during the communist regime, which let up somewhat after the Stalin era, though it was still oppressive. In the 1960s and ‘70s, the theatre and criticism employed an elaborate Aesopian language, by which they communicated perfectly with the audience even about the political matters most sensitive to the regime. All this time, the specifically Polish formation and building-up of stage communication and critical reflection has been called the theatre of allusion; it would be better to call it the theatre of parabola, as we used it to talk about the law, political rights and infringements, about law and order and the frenzies of history, about the individual tied up by extra-individual powers when The World is out of its form (The Time is out of joint)—not in short-term categories, but rather in historiosophical order. The 1962 Richard the III—famous in Europewas a play directed by Jacek Woszczerowicz, who also played in it; here, he spoke to us about the Great Mechanism of History, as it had been perceived in Shakespeare by Jan Kott.Dziady (Forefathers’ Eve) by Mickiewicz, directed in 1967 by Kazimierz Dejmek, with a great performance by Gustaw Holoubek, engaged the nation in the mystery of a tangled community. In 1973, Adam Hanuszkiewicz, with the help of Antigona, conducted a public discussion on the tragic nature of the conflict between the political rights of the state and the moral rights of an individual. And everything was clear. And after 1968, after the revolt of the intelligentsia and the anti-Semitic disgrace of the communist revenge, when Jan Kott stayed abroad as an expatriate and his name was on the censorship list, I referred to him not as Kott but as a certain critic, and everybody who was interested knew who I meant.

Paradoxically, political entanglement is both the misfortune and the good fortune of the Polish theatre: the muzzle of political restrictions arouses opposition and may be creatively stimulating. Censorship, owing to its appalling and sinister nature, when applied to the unruly Poles, mobilized us, the people of the theatre and writing. The principle was that the more oppression there was, the stronger our counter-reaction became; it forced us to look for sophisticated means of artistic and intellectual expression, of feelings and thoughts. In other words: we also owe it to the nasty deceased, censorship, that the Polish theatre flourished in the 1960s and ‘70s, when our theatre—and our critical reflections on it—belonged among the best in the world.

It is worse, though, when in an acute political fight, the theatre and criticism change their social functions, stop carrying out their artistic and philosophical aims, instead becoming a means for extra-artistic, strictly political causes. This was what happened in Poland in the 1980s and ‘90s—in the epoch of Solidarity, martial law, the agony of communism, and finally a smooth coup and the crawl towards democracy. Theatrical activity became a pretext; it was used by the critics in the political struggle for “the only correct cause”—that is, the cause that was unchangeably “the only one,” but which, naturally, changed depending on the occasion. During the Solidarity Movement, deeper reflection and diagnosis of societal ills was supplanted in the theatre by political posters and false religious hysteria, while the critics focused on and exploited every patriotic and catholic tendency. During the period of martial law and the final years of communism, the critics were eager to fall on their knees before even the weakest and most embarrassing kitsch, as long as it was produced and performed on stage by artists with the “correct” opinions—namely, by those known for their anti-communist attitudes and beliefs. This continued to be the case—though without the camouflage of the previous censorship—in the first years of democracy.

Of course, such practice in times of political frenzy and obsession is understandable. However, it is dangerous, as we came to experience a great deal ourselves. It leads to a caricature of the theatre, and to the fall of criticism as an art of interpretation. Even worse, it can mean that criticism descends from its respected ideological principles to… unwelcome coquetry. It is such coquetry criticism that has become the curse of Polish theatrical criticism in the last twenty years—in particular, the curse of young critics who are, as a generation, consolidated with their peers from the theatre and stage, and who are so opinionated. Their pseudo-criticism is not concerned with analysis; it baldly passes judgment. Unsurprisingly, these judgments are positive for those who are allies in their own way of thinking and trivial youthful revolts, and negative for anyone with a different esthetic approach or who follows any tradition. Concerning art, the latter are considered just old and old-fashioned: out-dated.

And these high priests of the new—and the newer!—even have a “solution” to the problem of their helplessness in the art of dramatic interpretation. It’s simple: if you—the young post-modern critic—can’t analyze a performance, or are dealing with a performance that can’t easily be analyzed using the chaotic post-modern approach, leveling everything with everything else—then go ahead and use that post-modern approach: mix sense with nonsense in your review; write gibberish; lash out and promote freely; pass unlimited judgments. Then you will surely shine in the 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 periods of grandeur in the theatre and in theatre criticism are such short seasons that they might actually be called holidays. At present, we find ourselves at a turning point in the theatrical art. Which means that the holiday is right before us.


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[1] Born in 1944, expert in theatrical matters, essayist and theatre critic, Prof. PhD. Żurowski is lecturing at the Theatre Department (part of Polish Studies Institute) at the Pomeranian University in Słupsk, Poland.
In years 1967-2001 he was working for Polish Television, Gdańsk, as a head of TV Theatre Dep. and a commentator. He made about twenty documentary films on Asian, South American and European cultures for Polsh TV. He also worked as Literary Manager for the Rhapsody Studio, the Baltic Opera and the Wybrzeże Theatre in Gdańsk as well as the Music Theatre in Gdynia.
From 1981 he has been the Vice-President of the International Association of Theatre Critics for twenty years; he became its Honorary life Vice-President in 2001.
There are about thousand Żurowski’s publications on theatre history and on Polish and international contemporary theatre, which were published in Polish and foreign periodicals and collective books in Europe, America and Asia)
Ten of his twenty three published books, Andrzej Żurowski devoted to Shakespeare. In the monographic studies: Polish Shakespearelike (1976), Thinking Shakespeare (1883), Shakespeare Overhadowed by Stars(2001), Shakespeare – Their Contemporary (2003), Shakespeare and the Violent Maestrom (2004),Prehistory of Polish Shakespeare (2007), he has discussed the four-hundred-year-old Polish Shakespearian theatre presenting a picture of a phenomenon which has been significant for Polish culture. Some of his books were translated into Russian, Romanian and Armenian languages. In 2010 was published newest Żurowski’s books: MODrzeJEwSKA ShakespeareStar and next – The Concert of Stars. Helena Modjeska’s Ophelia and Edwin Booth’s Macbeth noted by Edward Tuckerman Mason – is prepared in USA.

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Spécialité de la maison polonaise: Criticism as an Art of Interpretation