Published in Slavic and East European Performance, 14:2 (1994), 29-31.

Copyright (c) Slavic and East European Performance, 1994.

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"Polish Theatre: From the Shadows of the Communist Past to the Challenges of the Democratic Future" a lecture by Kazimierz Braun, 28 April 1994, Bruno Walter Auditorium, Lincoln Center

David A. Goldfarb

Kazimierz Braun arrived alone at Walter Auditorium about twenty minutes in advance of his lecture and sat in the last row, reading a newspaper, waiting for things to happen. The moderator, who apparently did not know Braun by sight, found a seat in the front row, then walked out to the foyer to await the featured speaker. Meanwhile, the appointed time arrived, so Mr. Braun no stranger to matters of staging folded his newspaper and overcoat, walked to the front of the auditorium, and introduced himself from the auditorium floor in front of the stage. There were only about twenty-five guests in the hall, so he asked that all move forward so that he could speak directly, without a microphone. By this time, the surprised moderator returned to protest that the microphone was necessary for recording purposes, so that persons who could not attend would be able to hear the talk, but Braun insisted that for the persons who were actually there, amplification would only get in the way. The moderator agreed to record from the air mikes without piping the sound back into the theater, so that Kazimierz Braun could address his public face-to-face, with technology on the outside gazing into the closed circle of audience and speaker.

The phenomenological notion of "the face-to-face," it was apparent from this lecture, is central to Kazimierz Braun's theory, historical understanding, and practice of performance.

Braun divided the history of Polish drama into two traditions: the theater of independent Poland prior to the partitions at the end of the Eighteenth Century and from 1918 to 1939, and the theater of "captivity" covering the partitions, the Second World War, and the age of "homo sovieticus," applying Jozef Tischner's term,* from 1939 to 1989. Expanding the metaphor of his title, Braun viewed the "captive" periods as times of "shadow," both in the sense of dark repression and in the sense of shelter. The "challenge" now is to maintain a lively, independent artistic tradition during the shift to a decentralized economy. Braun identified the most significant dangers to culture as commercialism and the tendency to "follow the crowd," the goal of entertainment overtaking the goals of art, and the emergence of tendencies that Braun called "barbaric," namely the attitudes that it is right to "rob the foreigners" and that wealth is simply a matter of "claiming" what one deserves as repayment for years of oppression, no matter how one came by such wealth.

The current situation, Braun described as a conflict between "culture" and "civilization." "Culture" is "direct interhuman personal communication," for Braun, or "the face-to-face" in the sense that probably has its roots in Emmanuel Levinas, and likely came to Braun by way of the Polish Christian phenomenologist, Father Jozef Tischner. "Civilization" is communication mediated by artifice. Braun offered shaking hands and spiritual life as examples of culture, and the telephone and materialism as examples of civilization. Theater, for Braun, is "an interhuman process, artistically conditioned," therefore within the realm of culture. It is "interhuman" by virtue of the relation of the artist to the public, conditioned by certain institutional or organizational structures which facilitate an artistic expression. Such a schema might take on many forms, but the nature, for Braun, of the immediate contact between artist and public might be clarified by his remembrance of Tadeusz Kantor as, in his opinion, the greatest Western theatric artist of the latter half of the Twentieth Century. Kantor was physically present in all phases of a production, often engaging the public from the moment they entered the theater building. Kantor was immediately essential to his own theater, completely fulfilling the ideal of the face-to-face.

Braun did not agree with the popular sense that artistic theater is completely dead in Poland. Despite a general decline in spectatorship, the rise of consumerism, and a loss of idealism as state funds for the arts shrink and market concerns supervene, well established directors like Jerzy Jarocki, Andrzej Wajda and Jerzy Akser are doing well at the major national theaters. Braun noted that the culture of subversion has not disappeared among the youth who attend the theater, and named several young but experienced directors whom he believed were doing valuable work, among them Warsaw director Maciej Wojtyszko, Krzystof Babicki and Andrzej Dziuk, creator of the S. I. Witkiewicz Theater in Zakopane. According to Braun, most of the hundred or so state theaters in Poland are still operating, and the administrative structure has not significantly changed. With the notorious exception of the company that produced Metro, which seems to have found a Warsaw following despite its miserable failure on Broadway, there do not seem to be any truly private theaters emerging.

As a positive example of someone surviving the economic changes, Braun told an anecdote about Jerzy Gudejko, formerly an actor in Braun's theater. Gudejko, conducting Solidarity chants, led a countermarch against the traditional May Day parade in 1982 during martial law. The demonstrators planned to collide comically with the parade in front of the reviewing stand where military and local officials were watching. One of the Soviet generals lost his hat as he and his colleagues were evacuated from the podium, and Gudejko put it on as he conducted with ever more extravagant gestures. For this he was sentenced to eighteen months in prison, despite Braun's attempts to intervene, but was released in a general amnesty before the completion of his prison term. Today he applies his talents and courage as the director of the leading actor's agency in Warsaw, playing what Braun sees as an important role in the transition to a more independent theater.

Braun, born in 1936 in Mokrsko Dolne in Poland, has been teaching at SUNY Buffalo since 1985, a year after he was fired by the Communist government from his position as Artistic Director of the Contemporary Theater in Wroclaw, for his activism in Solidarity. When I asked whether he had any directing plans, he stated that he felt academic life in the United States left little room for a professional directing career, and he chose the university for the security it could provide him and his family. He did indicate, however, recalling with nostalgia his "adventures" in the theater, that he was open to the possibility of returning to Poland for occasional productions, if there were any credible offers.

* Clarification, 2009: While Tischner never claimed to have coined the term, homo sovieticus, generally attributed to Aleksandr Zinoviev, my impression from Braun's talk was that Braun was most influenced by Tischner's use of this term in his lectures and in publications like Etyka solidarności i Homo sovieticus (Cracow: Znak, 1992).--DG


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David A. Goldfarb


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