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Master of the Apocalyptic Stage: Josef Szajna at 80

Jósef Szajna at 80


Having survived the Nazis and the communists, Polish playwright Jósef Szajna has created an intense body of work that recalls his experiences in raw and dangerous terms.

Jósef Szajna (b. 1922), Sylwety i cienie, installation, 1983.

ósef Szajna was born in 1922 in Rzeszow, a town in southern Poland on the borders of Slovakia and Ukraine, whose name is easier to pronounce (Zh--zhu) than to spell. With his friend and fellow stage director, Jerzy Grotowski, also from Rzeszow, and his rival, Tadeusz Kantor, from Kraków nearby, he was a powerful influence on the development of avant-garde theater during the 1970s across Europe and the United States--and the only one of that formidable trio who is still alive.
        To celebrate his eightieth birthday, the Siemaszkowa Theater in Rzeszow opened a small museum and gallery in his honor and staged the Festival of European Classical Plays, of which he was the honorary president. But with Poland about to enter the European Union and the signs of post--Cold War prosperity to be seen in every shop, the unique voice of Szajna, which used to echo like a terrible scream from the heart of central Europe, seemed muted and benign. Szajna was still there and gave press conferences, but his bleak vision of humanity seemed more tranquil, as if he had passed through the depths of despair and was climbing the mountains again, rejuvenated in his later years. Perhaps he was speaking for Poland.
        When he was young, Szajna was a sportsman and "not a very good student," by his own admission. In 1938, he won the Polish national diving championships, but when he was seventeen, on the eve of World War II, he became a soldier, fighting for the Polish resistance. The Gestapo caught him and sent him to Auschwitz and then, after a foiled attempt to escape, to Buchenwald, two dreaded concentration camps. The identifying number on his arm was 18729, which he interpreted to mean by numerical divination that he was "twice alive." His age when he was captured was eighteen, the first two numbers, and the last three numbers add up to eighteen as well.
        He was placed in a cell in the death block. "Waiting for execution brought me closer to the problems of eternity, closer to God. Everything became metaphysical. All that we believed in," he later wrote, "... races, classes and political views--were not important anymore. We were an archipelago of human/inhuman psyches, floating in a sea of numbers." He and other inmates suffered under the ironic motto Arbeit macht Frei (work makes you free). It did make many of them free, in death.
        Szajna survived by an extraordinary chance. The camp commandant was replaced by a more liberal one, and his death sentence was commuted to labor within the camp. From his paintings and collages, we can still feel what life must have been like in those camps--the piles of muddy, worn-out boots, the humorless grins as the dying pulled back their drying lips across their teeth to allow more space for air, the barbed wire mesh twisting against the cold, gray skies. Other artists drew such scenes. Feliks Topolski and Mervyn Peake were among the group of British war artists who went into the camps as they were liberated and sketched what they saw in rapid, intense, visual memorials. But they were visitors. Szajna lived there. There is no sentiment in his eye, no room for pity. Through his paintings, he tells us simply: "This is what it was like. This is how we survived. This is how we died."
        He lasted the war and studied at the Academy of Fine Arts in Kraków, from which he graduated in 1953. He belonged to a passionate generation of young Polish artists that included such film and stage directors as Roman Polanski and Andrzej Wajda, who refused to be confined by any one artistic discipline. As technicians, they were generalists. Their imaginations might be seized by an image, a story, a character, a snatch of music, or, usually, a theme that combined all these elements. Such a theme was rarely confined either to the past or the present. It was a fusion between the two. Classic plays were produced as if they were modern masterpieces. In 1964, a Polish academic, Jan Kott, published Shakespeare Our Contemporary, the most influential work of Shakespearean criticism in our time, commenting upon their example.
        There were practical reasons for this fusion of ancient and modern. After the war, Poland came under the thrall of communism. It was one of the buffer states of the Soviet Union. Its theater was subject to censorship by
Kukla, Replika I, 1971
the Ministry of Culture, which received its instructions directly from Moscow. Polish artists, having been given such good advice before, were skilled at ignoring it. Among their methods was to use well-known texts, such as from Shakespeare, to comment upon current events. Thus, Richard III was used as a metaphor for Stalin and Stalinism. The habit spread among parts of the Eastern bloc: Romania, Hungary, and what is now the nation of Georgia.
        For the artists from Kraków, there was an additional reason, which had little to do with evading the censor. It was their way of presenting the totality of human experience. If, like Szajna, someone had experienced the horrors of the prison camps, as many had, the memories were hard to erase. But could they be contained? Could someone who had endured such nightmares ever come to terms with normal living or place what had happened to him in a wider perspective? The long heritage of the theater came to their aid. In the Shakespearean and Greek tragedies, there were similar situations. They became the metaphors for the human condition. Thus, Birnam Wood marched to liberate Auschwitz, the Trojan women sailed from the ghettos, and an archbishop was murdered in a Warsaw cathedral. Recent events found expression through the masterpieces of the past. The classics were revived and enriched as well. The days of traditional Shakespeare productions were happily over.
        Or nearly over, for, as the Festival of European Classical Plays at Rzeszow's Siemaszkowa Theater demonstrated, there is still a lot of doublet-and-hosery around. The director, Peter Brook, called it "deadly" theater, which is not necessarily bad theater. Deadly theater may be very competent, on a technical level and may contain excellent performances, but it is predictable. It follows conventional lines of interpretation, in which Romeo and Juliet are star-crossed lovers--and nothing more--and Hamlet is a gloomy and irresolute prince of Denmark. It fails to make the connection between the passions on the stage, which may be well played and spoken, and those of real life.
        In Szajna's productions, even in his sets, the passions of real life seemed to stretch at the limits of what the stage is capable of doing, too immediate for comfort, too intense for the general public, not deadly but raw and dangerous. He started his career as a designer at the Teatr Ludowy in Nowa Huta, "the first socialist city in the world," at a time when socialist realism was the law laid down by the Ministry of Culture. He ignored it. In this drab town, he created one of the most exciting small theaters in Europe by transforming the auditorium into an open space with hanging forms and structures, "ripped horizons full of mysterious holes and curtains."
        The Polish critics did not know what to make of him. They made puns at his expense: "Szajnism" (Szajna's style) is like "szmacism" (rags and tatters). His design for John Steinbeck's Of Mice and Men received an award in Paris in 1958. He won scholarships to study in France, but his first contact with the works of Kandinsky, Braque, and Picasso did not change his vision, much though he admired them. His roots were still in central Europe with the Polish expressionists, notably Witkacy. During these early experiments at the Teatr Ludowy, the seeds of "environmental" theater were planted and grew, from which off-off-Broadway, such as Richard Schechner's Performing Garage, and London fringe theaters drew their inspiration in the later 1960s and '70s.
        In 1962, he joined forces with Jerzy Grotowski, whose Thirteen-Rows Theatre in Opole was emerging

Zagubieni, 1986. Oil on canvas, 160 x 100 cm.

as another small light in the semidarkness of Cold War Europe. As Szajna was dedicated to environmental sets with simple materials, so Grotowski was convinced that the real dramatic power in theater lay in the relationship between the actor and the audience, with the play's text providing a mutual game plan. They were opposed to grand spectacles and director's theater. Grotowski was younger than Szajna by some eleven years and was trained in Moscow (as well as Kraków) where he was taught the Stanislavski method, which stressed the near-mystical identification of the actor with the role. Grotowski intensified this training, transforming the method into something like a religious discipline, a confessional, in which the actor strips off layers of false identities in his attempts to come to terms with the role. Those attending this deliberately small theater were onlookers at the process of self-analysis, often painful and revealing, like an open psychotherapy session.
        Together, Szajna and Grotowski staged the Polish patriotic classic Acropolis, written by Stanislaw Wyspianski at the turn of the twentieth century, which became in their hands a self-critical assessment of old Poland, the dying nineteenth-century state that was never master of its destiny. "I introduced old, rusty wheelbarrows, broken bathtubs, pipes from a heater, ripped bags instead of costumes, wooden boots," wrote Szajna later with glee, bringing the imagery of the concentration camps into its decor.
        When Grotowski brought together his collection of essays, Towards a Poor Theatre, published in 1968, which was required reading for many drama students in the West, his ideas about poverty were often confused with the images of Szajna. But they had less in common than many may have believed. Grotowski's poverty was close to asceticism, a renunciation of wealth, whereas Szajna was thinking of rock-bottom survival.
        I had the impression that such distinctions meant little to the Polish companies that appeared at the festival. The festival's director, Jan Nowara, was artistic director of the Siemaszkowa Theater, which had brought together some good Polish companies in a well-balanced program of classical plays. The Stary Theater of Kraków, once the home of Wajda and Swinarski (who directed the world premiere of Peter Weiss' Marat/Sade), presented a nineteenth-century farce by Alexandro Fredro, the Polish "Feydeau," Ladies and Hussars, which was funny enough, if you like cannons and epaulettes and fainting women. There was a modern-dress Romeo and Juliet, set in a concrete jungle, which displeased some critics because they felt it was vulgar and lacked poetry. There was a competent Uncle Vanya from Lodz and an undercast production of Gogol's The Inspector-General, from another famous Polish theater, Teatr Ateneum in Warsaw. The most memorable evening for me came with a musical version of The Magician of Lublin, based on a book by Isaac Bashevis Singer, with haunting songs by Zygmunt Konieczny. This was one of three productions from the home theater, which spoke well of Nowara's local team, the others being an imaginative Electra and a subterranean Romanticism-Purification by Adam Mickiewics, set in the caverns below Rzeszow.
        What I most missed was the passion, the energy, and the refusal to do anything twice that so characterized the theater from southern Poland during the early 1960s, and then spread across Europe. Perhaps we should be grateful that the era has gone. There is less cause to be passionate. The memories are fading. But some people, like Szajna, remember where the skeletons were buried. In 1969, he created Reminiscence, a work that beyond all others distilled and exorcised his memory of the camps. He created a set of human silhouettes, large photographs of Auschwitz prisoners, long registers of forgotten names, and rows of worn boots. The spectator was left to contemplate his isolation, surrounded by these dead but eloquent objects.
        In 1971, as a result of his international success, he was offered his own theater in Warsaw, Teatr Studio, housed within the huge Palace of Culture that dominates the city center, a Stalinist gift from Moscow, intended to be the headquarters of the Soviet intelligence agencies. He had the luxury of working with a few actors who understood what he required and of designing the auditorium as he wished. Like Grotowski, Szajna liked to work with athletic actors, whose bodies made sculptural statements. Acting in a conventional sense was rarely required from them. He built bridges across from the proscenium arch into the audience, so there would be little separation between the stage and the auditorium. The actors and the public would be in the same room.
        In the Teatr Studio, he created the plays for which he will be remembered--the Replika series, Witkacy, Dante, and Cervantes. The fact that the last three titles are the names of famous artists will surprise few who are familiar with his work. For Szajna, art was never an entertainment, never an escape. Beauty that parades as fashion or elegance had no appeal for him. Art was primarily a way of transforming the pain and suffering of life into a metaphysical statement about life, itself. Why did he or anyone else want to survive in the camp? Was not death preferable to life? And are the various pleasures that we appreciate while we are alive enough to compensate for what we have to endure? The compensation lies not in sentiment but understanding. The artists that Szajna commemorated in performances that were far removed from stage biographies were those who converted their recognition of life's sufferings into metaphysical statements that rose above the pleasures and suffering.
        The first full Szajna production that I experienced came as a complete surprise. I had seen some of his work before, as a set designer for a memorable Macbeth in Sheffield and in a touring exhibition, but Replika resembled an extraordinary animation of one of his pictures. The open stage was littered with newspapers like autumn leaves, which first were bundled together into a large ball and then became an egg. Within that egg speckled with newsprint, there were creatures struggling to get out. An arm emerged, or was it an arm? A limb of some kind certainly--and more limbs--emerged until, miracle of miracles, a human or something like one stood in front of us, maybe several humans joined together. They struggled to free themselves, from each other and the newsprint. The struggling became more violent, reaching a pitch, then subsiding. Then the old newspapers turned back into leaves again, and all that was left was a child's spinning top, humming, humming, as we left the theater.
        I cannot remember which number in the Replika series it was. They were all different. And perhaps now I will have changed too and will feel this statement less keenly than I did then, when the Vietnam War was still on, and body bags were unloaded every day from the military transport aircraft. Perhaps this is generally true of the West, as we become more affluent, and confident, and less ready to listen to these horror stories from the past. But not far away, as the planes fly, there are human limbs struggling to get out of piles of newsprint and stretch themselves momentarily in the sun, before resigning themselves to their holes in the ground.
        The child's top is still spinning.

John Elsom is a contributing editor to the Arts section of The World & I.

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