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2011: NUMERO SPECIALE La Bibbia in Scena

Motivi biblici nell’opera teatrale di Stanisław Wyspiański e Jerzy Grotowski

June 27, 2011
June 27, 2011


The paper deals about two plays by the so called “fourth bard” of Polish literature, the modernist
playwright Stanislaw Wyspianski (1869-1907). Best known for his drama The Wedding (1901), Wyspiański
devoted his first theatrical work, an opera libretto published only after his death, to Daniel (1895).
In this early  work, the Biblical theme is developed according to the messianic virtues attributed to
poetry by the main Polish romantic poet and playwright, Adam Mickiewicz. While writing about Daniel,
Wyspiański was inspired by a Rembrandt’s painting, Belshazzar's Feast (1635) preserved at the National
Gallery in London. As a matter of fact, the biblical thread of Daniel’s prophetic dream about the subduing
of Three Kings (Daniel 7: 24) was exploited by Wyspiański in order to allude to the political predicament
of the Polish nation oppressed by the three parting powers: Prussia, Austria and Russia. The play was
therefore edited by Austrian censorship and was staged for the first time only in 1927, once Poland had
regained her independence: not on a Polish scene, though, but by the Krokewer Yidish Teater in Dawid Liebl’s
yiddish translation.  
The second play partly centered on a biblical theme is Akropolis (1904), a monumental drama set in Cracow’s
Pantheon, the Wawel cathedral. In the second act of the play, the characters of the tapestries hanging on the
walls of the cathedral come to life. One of the tapestries portraits the story of Jacob (Genesis: 25-33).
Wyspiański was very likely inspired by  Raffaello’s fresco paintings in Eliodor’s room at the Vatican,
and by Gerhard Hauptmann’s fragment Das Hirtenlied. The playwright closely follows the text of the Bible
but for a few „apocryphical” insertions, the more relevant of which refer to Jacob’s struggle with the Angel.
The Angel defies Jacob, founder of tribes”, claiming that he’ll thread „on the weak ones, in this graveyard
of tribes”. Much has been debated on where the action of the drama should take place. Wyspiański himself thought
about staging Akropolis in the cathedral on the Wawel hill, but the best known production of the play, performed
by Jerzy Grotowski (1962), dispensed from the original setting. For Wyspiański, the cathedral on the Wawel hill,
with her tombs, was the most significant achievement in Polish national history  and culture, but for Grotowski
the most meaningful event in the history of the whole humankind had taken place in Auschwitz extermination camp.
Grotowski sees the setting of the play – using Wyspianski’s words - „in a graveyard of tribes”. This graveyard
is not longer the peaceful and magnificent cathedral where the playwright used to stroll in search of
inspiration, but a dramatically real one, the graveyard in which millions of human beings belonging to
all nations have been buried after having completed the crematorium in which they and their companions
will be burned. Grotowski has not altered Wyspiański’s lines, just changed the order of the scenes,
so that Jacob’s struggle with the Angel could be at the centre of  a play which could be reintepreted
by the light shed on Auschwitz  extermination machine by Tadeusz Borowski’s concentrationary  short stories.
The last line of the play comes from a caption imagined by Wyspiański for its monumental drama, but the old
words have for the modern audience a tragic and complete new meaning: „they’re gone, spirals of smoke float
in the air”.