One of the major figures in Polish experimental theatre, Włodzimierz Staniewski, is the founder of the world-famous company, “Gardzienice.” In January 2018, Tomasz Wiśniewski conducted a three-day interview with Staniewski on his recent production of Stanisław Wyspiański’s Wesele…(Wedding…). Originally published in the Polish quarterly Konteksty, the conversations will be part of Włodzimierz Staniewski and the Phenomenon of “Gardzienice,” a book edited by S.E. Gontarski, Tomasz Wiśniewski and Katarzyna Kręglewska for Routledge. It is also part of the Between. Research project. This article provides exclusive access to an extract of the interview, translated in English for the first time.
Tomasz Wiśniewski: You celebrated four decades of “Gardzienice” in 2017. Thematically, the festival was devoted to the wedding celebration, and you presented Stanisław Wyspiański’s Wesele… for the first time on the “Gardzienice” stage.
Włodzimierz Staniewski: The theme of the wedding and mating has been present in “Gardzienice’s” thinking for ages until it became so insistent that it demanded to become a full-blown, autonomous piece of work. I wanted Wesele…to work like a gate you went through to conduct the anniversary celebrations. They put up gates like that both in classical times and as part of our not-so-distant wedding traditions.
This anniversary celebration was also supposed to be a ritual of conjuration, with Wesele… waking up the spirits from ancient times. As far as I know, no one has addressed this in the hundred years since Wesele…was written. But it’s worth doing because that way Wesele…gains a more universal dimension. It’s a play that deserves international fame. After all, Wyspiański was interested in ancient history. InWesele…, there are spirits who appear as demons from history. The dramatis personae are usually treated as historical artifacts, viewed through contemporary, historical politics. But I was concerned with calling up the powers of hell, and with filling up the stage with demons. But that’s the way it is – it’s the stuff of madness, the sources of the ancient theatre. In any event, what do we know about the ancient theatre? It’s all the Enlightenment’s systematizing rubbish, which is a so-called modern recasting of Aristotle, the greatest “systematizer” in our history. And systematization is, after all, a leveling out.
TW: During the play, the spoken words, extracts, and phrases from Wyspiański’s writing also appear in the form of projections. You try to make sure that we, the spectators, don’t lose the words, even though they’re there all the time, interwoven with music and images. The three names next to the title show us how to read the production: words –Wyspiański, music – Zygmunt Konieczny, and images – Jacek Malczewski. You interweave those three layers and call up a specific Polish tradition by naming those three.
WS: That’s right: those three names make you think a lot. Wyspiański mostly works in a floral and ornamental style. But I need to note here that he was also deeply into esotericism and mysticism. What’s the connection between his work and the explosion of weirdness personified in the characters of the play? Well, they bring us to the conjuring up of spirits –in other words, they bring us to our forefathers (the dziady)! In turn, the evocation of Malczewski is as if we were to say to ourselves: “It’s a shame Wyspiański didn’t paint like Malczewski!” Malczewski touches deep structures, alien states, and an alien reality. His work is – to use words that give us a taste for Malczewski – surreal as if he were a precursor of surrealism. On the other hand, the symbolism that he evokes is that of some kind of unusual pantheism. It’s a Bosch-like linking of the most utterly different beings with each other: animals and humans, humans and animals and the world of nature. And again I’m using a word that’s a leitmotif today –in Malczewski’s work we’re dealing with a demonic pantheism.
When I added Konieczny in order to make that trio, I was stressing the value of his creative work. I believe that in the future, Konieczny will have his encyclopedia entry, and not just in popular music. His extraordinary pieces will be recognized beyond the borders of popular music. It’s a matter of good fortune that we’re friends, we feel a mutual closeness (though we don’t see each other that often). I’d say that Konieczny is closer to Malczewski than to Wyspiański. If Konieczny would just write music to Malczewski’s paintings, that would be really something! Zygmunt is a genius at reading the syllables of fine poetry and adding music. So, that trio is some sort of far-reaching hint to the fourth person missing who links the three of them together.
TW: I think I know where this is going! But Staniewski, who links it all together, in addition, dresses his characters in Polish folk costumes, he projects images and tries – with all the theatrical means at his disposal – to achieve unity within the production. Are we on the right track?
WS: With regard to folk costumes, we always use a range of costumes. In what is called my avant-garde experimenting, I came to the conclusion – I confess this very uneasily – that costume is incredibly important in theatre. While working on Wesele…, we tried to get the right kind of costume that would stay true to Wyspiański and Malczewski – but on the basis of a slight betrayal. We looked for costumes that have a more universal effect. They’re inspired by what is Polish and what is Slav, but will be able to be read by the indigenous Tarahumara people, or by an American or German audience, or an Israeli one, or an audience in Palestine. It’s a matter of getting a universal style and color.
The actors in Wesele…each play several roles. They change costumes in a hurry, sometimes in front of the audience. In Wesele…Wyspiański says that you have to hurry with everything, right up to the final “jakieś ich chwyciło spanie” (“some slumber seizes them”). The majority of the characters are rushing off somewhere or running away from something. The lines are hurried, short, torn, often barked out.
You could say a lot about costumes. In Wesele…there are characters from the world of fantasy, alongside the hyper-real. How should characters be dressed who need to be seen as meta-real beings, or as phantasms from another world? By referring to an existing model or by creating your own? In knitting the stage together, you test out what is frozen on canvas or in the projections through movement. It’s only on stage that I see if a costume works on its own, and I wrestle with what needs to be changed. Is it the color, the cut, an addition, a slit, making it look a little shabby? The work never ends.
Theatre guides our imagination differently from the literary text and the picture, though we work off of those. That’s commonplace I suppose, but it needs to be remembered. It doesn’t matter how much a painting inspires us, we have to remember that when we set an image in motion, other miracles may happen along the way. It’s the director who has to conjure up those miracles. Then he stops being a director and becomes the author of stage work.
TW: Yesterday during the rehearsal, you demanded that the actors perform as if they were taking some kind of robbers’ oath. This had particularly interesting consequences when it came to establishing the ending. As I understand it, the end is constantly evolving. When you all finally chose the song sung over the open coffin, you described the relations between actors and audience in these words: “Sing as if you were calling out to the audience, ‘Take the goddamn happiness that’s there in front of you because in three years’ time there’s going to be a terrible war.’” You finished with a darkly prophetic, blunt message, and yet one that’s simultaneously full of energy.
WS: Not so much “darkly prophetic,” more “prophetic.” No darkness. The darkness –the evil – is the future that awaits us.
TW: So would you like to discuss that prophetic ending? At yesterday’s rehearsal, it sounded very strong.
WS: I always wonder if Wesele…is a deep text. In my student days, we treated it as a collection of bon mots– “niech na całym świecie wojna, byle polska wieś spokojna” (“let war the entire world derail, while in Polish villages peace prevails”), “cóż tam, panie, w polityce” (“what’s up, sir, in politics”), or “witam Panie Włodzimierzu, żona stroi się w alkierzu” (“welcome, Mr. Vladimir, your wife’s dressing up in the alcove here”). In terms of composition, it’s like a folk tale. I had a nonchalant attitude towards the play; it’s like a lajkonik(a traditional, medieval hobby-horse figure) or a nativity scene, a sort of folk Singspiel. I’m sure the major 20thcentury Polish writer Witold Gombrowicz was “guilty” here with his contempt for Wesele…, and the masochistic tones that you can feel in it. An attempt to open up the depth of Wesele…is a little like opening up a grave crypt. It’s not an easy job, because maybe it stinks dreadfully there, or maybe some pestilence will come out of there.
And how can we accept the ending that the text points to? Why, for God’s sake, should we sink into a tempting lethargy, narcosis, a fuddle, or some kind of hiding away in a hole, when you can shoot up to the stars and gain heights the likes of Conrad or Modrzejewska? In the ending, I want to be someone other than Wyspiański. I’m not in the slightest bit interested in commenting on Polish reality with it. I don’t assent to the stigma of misfortune. “Dawn is coming!” should be all lit up. You have to track it and move like a hunter after the game, or a robber after loot.
If Wyspiański wanted the end to tell us that there was a curse hanging over our tribe, then the play is going into deeper structures, into metaphysics. But the task of the descendants – our task – is to think and act in order to break and lift the curse. To do that, it’s necessary to change the theatre from a temple of art, into a temple of Asclepius (the Greek god of medicine).
TW: I recall that we observe the opening of coffins during the ending.
WS: Yes, that’s right, coffins. It wasn’t possible to avoid coffins. Half of Poland shouts: “Don’t open them – forget!” The other half says: “Open them and never forget!” It’s like in the sejm(parliament) meetings; there’s a Rejtanquote, “Open them up and teach a blood-stained memory!” And someone else says, “Don’t open them up because if you do, a Polish Hell will emerge.” In the final version, we stood firm on opening the things up. I didn’t want them for esthetic reasons, but the coffins forced their way onstage. Coffins are part of Polish mythology: Jewish coffins, Volhynia coffins and Smoleńsk coffins. There’s nothing we can do about it. Though maybe it’s time to go to the cemeteries, drink vodka together over the graves as is part of our tradition, drive off sorrow and complete the robbers’ oath.
Gardzienice, 17 and 19 January 2018
Transcription and editing of Polish text: Katarzyna Kręglewska
English Translation: David Malcolm
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This post was written by Tomasz Wiśniewski.
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