Jerzy Grotowski and Antonin Artaud: Between Heaven and Hell

By Rick Segreda

There is a Charles Addams cartoon featuring that venerable member of his "family," Uncle Fester, as part of an audience for a play. Apparently they must be watching a tragedy, for everyone is weeping. Everyone, that is, except for Uncle Fester, who is laughing out loud. Besides its morbid humor, this cartoon also captures the two different views of humanity in the theatres of Jerzy Grotowski and Antonin Artaud, two artists noted more for their similarities than their differences. Even though both artists conceive of their productions as religious experiences for the actor and his audience, the nature of the experiences are different: while one artist views man as moral, while the other views man as immoral.

This is not to say Grotowski, the internationally acclaimed director from Poland whose work with his Laboratory Theatre from 1959 to 1976 revolutionized modern theatre, and Artaud, the dark genius from France whose experiments with, and theories about, theatre in the 1930's influenced many contemporary artists, have nothing in common. Indeed, they have much in common.

In terms of style, for example, they are quite similar. Violence, for instance, is a frequently recurring theme in their work.1 They also believe that the audience should not be complacently separate and distant from the actors during the performance.2 As a result, both artists have had the audience sit in and around the action, with the plays staged in hospitals, factories, airplane hangars and other real environments.3

As far as aesthetic philosophy goes, both artists assert that what makes theatre theatre is the relationship between the performer and the spectator.4 They also believe that acting involves the actor presenting the complete psychological and emotional essence of his being before the spectator.5

In terms of their artistic goals, both artists intend for their theatres to benefit society. In Grotowski's work, the recurring themes of persecution, martyrdom, and suffering by individuals for causes of debatable worth, such as Christianity, is meant to make each member of the audience think more deeply about what is life's purpose and meaning.6 With Artaud, theatre, or at least his theatre, performs a civilizing function by being an outlet, both for the actor and the spectator, of negative, destructive impulses that all individuals harbor within themselves.7

The most important similarity between the two artists, however, is their mutual conception of theatre as a religious experience that provides spiritual exaltation for both the actor and the audience. As Oscar G. Brockett and Robert R. Findlay, authors of Century of Innovation: A History of European and American Theatre Since 1870, state, Grotowski's theatre, "like the tribal theatre...aims at purification [and is] its orientation."8 Albert Bermel, author of Artuad's Theatre of Cruelty, describes the "ideal Artaudian performance [as something which] compares with a traditional service in a house of worship where religious comfort reconciles each congregant with his lot, promising him a spiritual reward."9

Thus one might assume that both artists' art is essentially the same. But it is not. Even though Raymonde Temkine, in her book, Grotowski, noted that one critic described the Laboratory Theatre production of Marlowe's Dr. Faustus as the "the most complete realization and the most upsetting one of Artaud's dreams,'"10 the fact is that the nature of the art is different for both artists because they function on different levels of awareness. Grotowski's art assumes that man is moral in that he has an intrinsic concern for their well-being of his fellow man. Artaud, on the other hand, assumes that man is innately selfish to the point of harming others to satisfy his lusts.

With Grotowski, this is evident both with his productions and with what he expects from an audience. For example, his productions of Calderon's The Constant Prince and his own play, Apocalypsis cum figuris, adapted from the Bible, as well as material from T.S. Eliot, Simone Weil, and Fydor Dostoyevsky, deal with the painful plight of a Christian martyr and a Christ-figure respectively.11 What Grotowski wants from his audience is not merely that they be engrossed in the drama but that they judge for themselves who in the play is right or wrong in his actions. As Phillip Auslander says in his Theatre Research International article, "'Holy Theatre' and Catharsis," the object of their [the Laboratory Theatre's] performance [is] to produce a state of self-contemplation by example."12

Beyond the narrative elements in these productions, however is the palpably painful violence that is inflicted upon the actors portraying the protagonists. The violence is so genuine that, as Ronald Hayman noted in his book, Theatre and Anti-Theatre, the audience is made "uncomfortable at its own passivity,"13 which is part of Grotowski's intention. Yet the efficacy of such an intention is based on the a priori assumption that an audience will be so affected by the spectacle of another human's suffering that they will be forced to worry, think, or feel unease.

Similarly, with Grotowski's production of Arkopolis, the success of Grotowski's intentions is dependent upon the audience being humane enough not to remain indifferent to the condition of the actors as well as the characters. Adapted from a text by Stanlislaw Wyspianski,14 the play concerns the fate of what appears to be concentration camp inmates. On what is supposed to be the night of the Feast of the Resurrection, they build a gas chamber into which, at the end, they are lead into by a man carrying a headless puppet whom they believe is the Messiah. For this production the actors created a shock effect through their appearance of utter desolation; sickly pale skin, hollow cheeks and diluted pupils, conveyed not with make-up but through sheer performance.15

This is not the case with Artaud, however, who assumes that man's instincts tend towards the hostile and perverse. Whereas with Grotowski the protagonists are victims, with Artaud, they are victimizers. In his play, The Cenci, adapted from Shelley, the protagonist is a wealthy, greedy, and cruel Count who lusts after his own daughter.16 As with Grotowski, Artaud wants his actors to be thoroughly convincing, but the response he wants from his actors is empathy with the monstrous Count, not pity for his victimized daughter, at least until she too becomes brutal in her revenge.17 It is Artaud's way of cleansing us of our destructive impulses by letting them come to the surface of conscious being. But unlike with Grotowski, the success of Artaud's theatre depends on the assumption that our instincts are to hurt -- not to help -- one another.

The result of these different views of man is that we have two types of art, each with a separate purpose. Like Betolt Brecht, Grotowski assumes that his audience is moral enough to care about the differences between right and wrong. Thus, like Brecht, Grotowski feels he can stimulate the audiences' critical and analytical faculties by presenting plays that dramatize moral conflicts. For example, Brecht's The Measure Taken and The Exception and the Rule raise the question of whether or not charity hinders social progress.18 Similarly, with Arkropolis, Grotowski forces the audience to consider whether or not the promise of salvation in Christianity is a dangerous illusion.

If Grotowski thinks his art will benefit society by sharpening his audience's awareness of what is truly right or wrong, Artaud feels that he can benefit society by making the audience understand that it does not really care about these distinctions.19 As Auslander says, Artaud wanted us to "recognize and confront our dark impulses so we can be free, or at least in control, of them."20 Since Artaud's theories, if not in actual practice, he expected his "theatre of cruelty" to have universal popularity,21 he believed that it would purge the evil instincts of every member, rich and poor, in society by letting these instincts enjoy actualization under the safe context of ritualized theatre.

Thus the argument leveled against Artaud's theories by Margaret Croyden in her book, Lunatics, Lovers, and Poets: The Contemporary Experimental Theatre, the mass awakening of destructive desires in people would lead to lynch mob madness is not a substantial one. It does not take into account the fact that these negative impulses would be released in the deliberately unreal context of theatre, where, presumably they would not hurt anyone, nor does Croyden's argument acknowledge the fact that in the ideal Artaudian experience, such impulses would be exhausted. Writes Croyden: "Hitler's storm trooper meetings...took place within the framework of gigantic theatrical spectacle, and the effect, rather than to curb barbarism, was to encourage it."22 The storm trooper meetings might have indeed taken place with the framework of theatrical spectacle, but it was not a fictional framework.

As for the spiritual lifts both artists' promise, there indeed is one, but the natures of the lifts are different. With Grotowski it is the spiritual exaltation achieved through experiencing suffering and pain. As Hayman points out about The Constant Prince: "He submits to torture and castration, and he suffers physically, but at the same time his physical actions make it apparent that there is another level on which his feelings are closer to ecstasy than to agony...He appears to be in a state of grace."23 What is expected of the audience, if they have decided for themselves, that the ordeal of the actor and his character is meaningful, is that they will be moved by the spectacle of noble suffering. Also, as Brockett and Findlay point out, the physical and psychological capabilities of the actors to endure so much pain should "exceed those of the audience so far that a sense of wonder is aroused in the spectators."24

With Artaud we have a different route to ecstasy. On this route, like the punk protagonist in Anthony Burgess' A Clockwork Orange, who empathizes with the Christ-flogging Roman soldiers, the audience identifies with the persecutors rather than with the persecuted. Therefore we are supposed to empathize with the incestuously lustful count in The Cenci or the bloody and greedy conquistadors in The Conquest of Mexico.25 The actors play out all our evil until they are exhausted out of us, leaving both actor and spectator cleansed. There should be a feeling a spiritual purity.

Furthermore, another difference is that with Grotowski the lift is voluntary. Free choice exists on several levels. First, is the very act of being at one of Grotowski's productions. Not even counting the fact that his shows were limited to an audience of forty to sixty spectators,26 Grotowski's art is for an elite audience. Not "elite" in the sense of wealth, power, status, or education, but as being, as Grotowski himself said, "among the few with a 'spiritual hunger' and longing to 'communicate' through the event."27 Secondly, once there you are not instantly swept up into the event but drawn into, as Auslander said, "a state of contemplation"28 by the existential nature of the production.

As proof that Grotowski's quasi-Brechtian approach to the religiously ritualized theatre gives their audiences free choice regarding their feelings about the spectacle, one can point to the very mixed reactions his work has received. For instance, Bermel's complaint about one Grotowski production was the he "felt unable to enter, much less share, the performance with [the actors] and had no sense of the necessity of an audience."29 On the other hand, J.P. Davidson, reviewing Apocalypsis cum figuris for Plays and Players wrote the he emerged "from the darkness purified by the events, chastened by the awareness that one has been, as it were, a witness at another Calvary."30

Free choice, however, has no place in Artaud's aesthetics. According to Artaud, our passions and impulses are too strong for us to do anything about them.31 Brechtian alienation techniques, with their implied attitude of how we are free to change the world, would make no sense in Artaud's theatre. It is these uncontrollable impulses with cause problems for man, according to Artaud. Rather than trying, like Brecht, to make us think, or like Grotowski, make us think and feel, Artaud only wants us to feel. That is why Artaud's theatre is manipulative in it's attempts to, as Auslander says, trigger "psychic activity the exposure to certain kinds of universal images."32 Not only the visual, however, but the aural was used for such as purpose. For instance, in Artaud's 1935 production of The Cenci, both music and sound effects had a rhythmic beat to so as to induce a hypnotic trance effect."33

What is most interesting, though, about these two artists' seperate views of mankind is how it demonstrates through art two different Christian perspectives: that of Catholicism and Protestantism. This is in spite of the fact that both artists reject traditional religion, believing that it no longer fulfills its purpose to spiritually transfigure man. They insist, however, that man is still has spiritual needs.34 But consciously or unconsciously, elements of traditional religion appear in their work.

In Grotowski's work, the influence of the Roman Catholic Church is clearly evident. The very title of Grotowski's manifesto, Towards a Poor Theatre, evokes the notion of poverty vows in the Catholic tradition of religious service. Sure enough, the actor training program outlined in the book, whereby the actor is expected to give up all vain aspirations to fame and status, dedicating himself totally to his craft, practicing spiritual exercises like Yoga and living ascetically, all over a course of seven years,35 resembles the demands made on those entering a religious order in the church.

In his art's realization, Grotowski's Catholicism is evident in both theme and style. In terms of theme, once can point to the idea of salvation through suffering, which is a Catholic notion, in plays like Akropolis, The Constant Prince, and Apocalypsis cum figuris, Croyden even describes how the prince, through "physical suffering...attains beatitude, a triumph of spirit over flesh."36 As was noted above there is the element of free choice in Grotowski's art, a view that salvation is at least partly self-willed, which is a notion more Catholic than Protestant. From a theological position, Grotowski's concern with moral and religious questions reflects an Aristotelian-Thomistic longing to make sense out of existence. As Brockett and Findlay note, what Grotowski wants "is not an introverted, self-indulgent response [from the spectator], but a communion [from one spectator to another, as well as with the actors] which bring meaning and order into existence."37

In terms of style, Grotowski's art reveals his Catholic roots in several ways. For instance, it is worth noting that his plays run from 45 to 50 minutes, the average length of a Catholic mass.38 The Catholic notion of self-denial is carried over in productions that use no make-up, lighting effects or elaborate costumes, with the only music and sound effects being those that the actors produce.39

But where Grotowski aspires to the angelic in his art, Artaud delves in the demonic in an expression of of man that is many ways classically Protestant in its negativity. Just as how man in Luther and Calvin's theology is so tainted with Original Sin that nothing he can do will save him from Hell except admit his helplessness, so we have in Artaud a view of man so held in bondage to his will that only by admitting his weakness at controlling himself, thereby indulging and finally exhausting his will, is there any freedom. Even in contemporary Protestant theology, Artaud's notion that the fear of death is the source of all our dangerous impulses40 corresponds with Paul Tillich's notion that destructive "conflict and tragedy in human life comes from sin [but] finitude makes sin possible."41

It is worth mentioning that whereas Grotowski might be reacting to Poland's communist state with one sort of religious message, Artaud might be reacting to France with another. As Thedore Hoffman mentions in an Art in America article: Grotowski might also be studied as an opportunist who had found in a discredited religious heritage the only available means of artistic freedom in a conformist society. He may have been obliged to his unique find an unassailable transcendence that illuminates the roots of human experience in a politically acceptable form of art...behind the construction lurks the ancient speculation that real freedom in art feeds on the threat of repression.42 In this sense, French bourgeois culture was not without its own brand of conformity, if not repression, in what to Artaud seemed like popular, yet smug assurances that willed adherence to a commonly accepted code of behavior would be enough to make for a happy society.

Finally, one should note that, since Artaud's theories about how theatre should be were never realized to the extent Grotowski's were, the ultimate test of which artist was correct was correct in his about man and art has not happened. Until then it will be useful to remember that despite their common conception of theatre as a religious experience, their moral conception of man was different and therefore so was there art.


1 Ronald Hayman, Theatre and Anti-Theatre (New York: Universe Books, 1979), p. 227

Albert Bermel, Artaud's Theatre of Cruelty (New York: Taplinger Publishing Company, 1977), pp. 72-74

2 Oscar G. Brockett and Robert R. Findlay, Century of Innovation: A History of European and American Theatre and Drama Since 1870. (New Jersey: Prentice-Hall, Inc.,1973), p. 749

Ibid., p. 380


3 Ibid., p. 380

Philip Auslander. "'Holy Theatre' and Catharsis," Theatre Research International, 9(Spring 1984):23

4 James Roose-Evans, Experimental Theatre: From Stanislavsky to Peter Brook (New York: Universe Books, 1984), p.147

5 Brockett and Findlay, p. 748

Ibid., p. 337

6 Auslander, p. 25

Margaret Croyden, Lunatics, Lovers and Poets: The Contemporary Experimental Theatre (New York: McGraw-Hill Book Company, 1974), pp. 144-145

7 Auslander, p. 23


8 Brockett and Findlay, p. 747

9 Bermel, p. 23

10 Raymonde Temkine, Grotowski (New York: Avon Books, 1972), p. 143

11 Hayman, pp. 227-231

12 Auslander, p. 25

13 Hayman, p. 23

14 Croyden, p. 136-137

15 Ibid.

16 Bermel, pp. 72-74

17 Auslander, p. 23

18Martin Esslin, Brecht: A Choice of Evils (Great Britain: John Dickens and Company Ltd. ,1959), pp.258-259

19 Auslander, p. 22

20 Ibid., p. 24

21 Croyden, p. 70

22 Croyden, p. 70

23 Hayman, p. 228

24 Brockett and Findlay, p. 749

25 Bermel, p. 70


26 Croyden, p. 150

27 Jerzy Grotowski, Towards a Poor Theatre (New York: Simon and Schuster, 1968), p.40 

28 Auslander, p. 23

29 Bermel, p. 110

30 J.P. Davidson, "Grotowski in Poland," Plays and Players, 23(March 1976):23

31 Gabriele Wickert, class lecture on Artaud, Manhattanville College, 18 April 1987

32 Auslander, p. 21

33 Bermel, p. 85

34 Jerzy Grotowski, "Holiday," Theatre Quarterly, 3(April-June 1973):20


35 Grotowski, Poor Theatre, pp. 205-215 

36 Croyden, p. 152

37 Brockett and Findlay, p. 747 

38 Croyden, p. 150

39 Grotowski, Poor Theatre, p. 41

40 Wickert, class lecture

41 David E. Roberts, "Tillich's Doctrine of Man," in The Theology of Paul Tillich, ed. Charles W. Kegley and Robert W. Bretall (New York: The Macmillan Company, 1959), p.125

42 Theodore Hoffman, "Grotowski and Schechner: Servitudes of Freedom," Art in America, 59 (March - April 1971):81



Bermel, Albert. Artaud's Theatre of Cruelty. New York: Universe Books, 1979.

Brockett, Oscar G. and Findlay, Robert R. Century of Innovation: A History of European and American Theatre and Drama Since 1870. New Jersey: Prentice-Hall, Inc.,1973

Croyden, Margaret Lunatics, Lovers and Poets: The Contemporary Experimental Theatre (New York: McGraw-Hill Book Company, 1974.

Esslin, Martin Brecht: A Choice of Evils Great Britain: John Dickens and Company Ltd.,1959.

Grotowski, Jerzy Towards a Poor Theatre New York: Simon and Schuster, 1968.

Hayman, Ronald Theatre and Anti-Theatre New York: Universe Books, 1979.

Roberts, David E "Tillich's Doctrine of Man," in The Theology of Paul Tillich, ed. Charles W. Kegley and Robert W. Bretall New York: The Macmillan Company, 1959.

Roose-Evans, James Experimental Theatre: From Stanislavsky to Peter Brook New York: Universe Books, 1984

Temkine, Raymonde Grotowski New York: Avon Books, 1972.




Philip Auslander. "'Holy Theatre' and Catharsis," Theatre Research International, 9 (Spring 1984):23

Davidson, J.P. "Grotowski in Poland," Plays and Players, 23 (March 1976):23

Hoffman, Theodore. , "Grotowski and Schechner: Servitudes of Freedom," Art in America, 59 (March - April 1971):81


Wickert, Gabriele Lecture on Antonin Artaud, Manhattanville College, 18 April 1987


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