Dr Faustus

Poster for "Dr Faustus", author: Waldemar Krygier

a performance based on Christopher Marlowe’s drama (c. 1589), with the premiere (which was also the first ever Polish performance of Marlowe’s drama) taking place on 23 April 1963 at the Laboratory Theatre of 13 Rows in Opole. Script and direction: Jerzy Grotowski. Stage design: Jerzy Gurawski. Costumes: Waldemar Krygier. Assistant director: Eugenio Barba. Cast: Zbigniew Cynkutis (Faustus), Rena Mirecka and Antoni Jahołkowski (Mephistopheles), Ryszard Cieślak (Wagner, Valdes, Benvolio), Maciej Prus then later Mieczysław Janowski (Jacob), Zygmunt Molik (Old man, Bartek), Andrzej Bielski (Cornelius, the Cardinal, Emperor Friedrich), Tune Bull (Helen of Troy). The performance used Jan Kasprowicz’s translation, which Grotowski radically re-edited and rearranged. The multiple locations and times of the plot were reduced (as they were in previous stagings) to a single scene which provided the situational frame. The scene was a farewell banquet to which Faust, on his deathbed, invites his students (this role was performed by the audience and two actors – Zygmunt Molik and Maciej Prus, who made comments as characters portraying ‘ordinary people’ and thus also provided the audio background to the action). During the course of this peculiar Last Supper, the main protagonist presented particular scenes from his life to those gathered, thus performing something of a dramatic confession. The central element of the performance space designed by Jerzy Gurawski was a wooden stage-cum-table which filled the entire auditorium, with its T-shape constructed from two parallel rows of platforms in one direction and a single row at the top. The audience members sat along the platforms on which Faustus played out his life. The performance began with greeting the guests and the opening part of the monologue in which the lead character presents himself. After this there followed a series of scenes recalling the key moments from Faustus’ life: he went to Cornelius and Valdes seeking the secret spell for summoning Satan. This conversation was played out as a confession, with Faustus eventually receiving the spell as his absolution. The blasphemous nature of the performance was clearly evident in the scene in which the spirits are summoned through singing the hymn ‘Ludu, mój ludu’ (O, My People). A double Mephistopheles then appeared, summoned by the hymn and played simultaneously by Antoni Jahołkowski and Rena Mirecka, who wore black habits. The double Mephistopheles replaced the Good and Evil angels, protagonists from the original text, who battle for Faustus’ soul. In Grotowski’s performance there was no choice: as in Cain, good and evil appeared as a single entity. The signing of the pact with the devil was preceded by Faust’s self-abasement, during which he vilified himself, beat himself and touched his genitals in an obscene manner. The sealing of the bargain took the form of a baptism, with Faustus immersing himself in the space between two rows of tables, which was accompanied by the sound of gurgling. The scene concluded with an image making reference to the iconography of the Virgin Mary: the female Mephistopheles, promising Faustus that s/he would fulfil his every order, with a gesture reminiscent of the Virgin Mary cradled the leading protagonists in her arms. After signing the bargain with the devil, Faustus removed his old clothes and replaced them with a new white Dominican cassock. He initiated the realisation of his desires and whims with the ‘reading of the woman’ sequence, in which the body became a book of ‘the mysteries of nature’. Following a subsequent scene which revealed the trap into which Faustus had fallen (the female Mephistopheles took on the function of an agent provocateur, a false Angel tempting Faust to convert), the lead protagonist learned about the world’s triviality (a discussion about beer conducted by peasants sitting among the audience) and its sinfulness. Mephistopheles (Jahołkowski and Mirecka alternately) appeared as allegorical characterisations of the Seven Deadly Sins, with Faustus absolving each of them in turn. This was Faustus’ first so-called miracle, with further such miracles following: healing the Pope’s pride with a slap and restoring Benvolio’s inner child by healing his rage. Following this scene, the action returned to the Last Supper, with Faustus summoning with his gaze Helen of Troy, who then laid with her legs open before he approached her barefoot three times and each time ran away before assuming the foetal position. Following the devil’s presentation of a false alternative to both Paradise (Mirecka laying on a platform with her arms folded as an image of ‘a good death’) and also Hell (Jahołkowski in his death throes), Faustus begins his final grand monologue which ultimately ends with a scream and a series of inarticulate sounds resembling erotic ecstasy. The dead man is carried away by the male Mephistopheles, who places him over his shoulder like quarry hanging inertly with his head facing downwards and his arms banging against the boards of the stage. They are followed by the female Mephistopheles with his/her hands positioned as if praying and humming ‘Ludu, mój ludu’. The performance, full of blasphemous references to Christian iconography, became a mystery play depicting the life and death of a ‘saint who is acting against God’ (Flaszen, Grotowski and Company, p. 97). His fundamental principle was that the world as we know it is intolerable to live in, thus redemption can only possibly be achieved by going against its rules. By rejecting the rules of the world, Faust indicated that a different – both epistemological and redemptive – perspective must necessarily be in existence: a perspective which can be experienced only by paying the price of denying that which is innate. In staging the myth of a rebel by using both Christian symbolism and the dramatic model of the mystery play, Grotowski made reference to the figure of Jesus Christ, interpreting him heretically as a rebel who would redeem us from the world and the Law. As a reminder and repetition of this rebellion and sacrifice, Dr Faustus became an attempt at a blasphemous Mass and evoking a human, non-religious Eucharist, in which the human-actor who becomes body and blood is sacrificed. Of fundamental significance to the efficacy of theatrical performance understood in such a way is the realness of the actor’s sacrifice, which radically transcends the limits of theatrical play. In working on the role of Faustus, particularly his final monologue, Grotowski together with Zbigniew Cynkutis attempted for the very first time to bring about the total act. This was only partially successful, because despite it working during one-on-one rehearsals, it could not be structured to such an extent that it could be reproduced precisely. Nevertheless, it was indeed work on this performance that showed the way towards the fulfilment of the total act that came with The Constant Prince. Outside Opole, Dr Faustus was presented as part of guest appearances in Kraków (9–15 May 1963), Łódź (8–18 June 1963), Świdnica and Wałbrzych (October 1963), Zielona Góra (17–21 October 1963) and Poznań (23–31 October 1963). The performance also raised awareness of Grotowski abroad. Fragments of Dr Faustus were recorded during a rehearsal in June 1963 by Michael Elster and then used in the film The Laboratory Theater (Polish title List z Opola) which was later presented during foreign tours. Furthermore, on the initiative of Eugenio Barba, participants of the 10th Congress of the International Theatre Institute being held in Warsaw during the performances by the Laboratory Theatre of 13 Rows in Łódź, were brought to that city on a bus that had been hired by Barba in order that they witness the performance. The performance made such a great impression on the participants of this ‘excursion’ that the group subsequently received invitations to perform abroad, including one invitation to the Theatre of Nations in Paris. Although the central cultural authorities were opposed to the company’s trips abroad in 1964 and 1965, the reputation that the group gained as an extraordinary theatre functioning in Poland made the road to the later triumphs of Grotowski and his actors much easier.


Eugenio Barba: Ziemia popiołu i diamentów. Moje terminowanie w Polsce, przełożyła Monika Gurgul, Wrocław 2001.

Zbigniew Cynkutis: Notatnik-pamiętnik, do druku podała Malina Cynkutis, opracowanie Zbigniew Jędrychowski, „Notatnik Teatralny” 2000 nr 20–21, s. 167–174.

Ludwik Flaszen: „Tragiczne dzieje doktora Fausta”. Komentarz do przedstawienia, przedruk [w:] Ludwik Flaszen, Teatr skazany na magię, przedmowa, wybór i opracowanie: Henryk Chłystowski, Kraków – Wrocław 1983, s. 306–309; przedruk [w:] Misterium zgrozy i urzeczenia. Przedstawienia Jerzego Grotowskiego i Teatru Laboratorium, pod redakcją Janusza Deglera i Grzegorza Ziółkowskiego, Wrocław 2006, s. 70–71.

Michael Kustow: Ludens Mysterium Tremendum et Fascinosum, „Encore” (Londyn) IX–X 1963, s. 9–14, przekład polski: Ludens Mysterium Tremendum et Fascinosum, „Proscenium” Teatr Polski w Poznaniu, sezon 1963/1964, styczeń – luty 1964.

Zbigniew Osiński: Grotowski i jego Laboratorium, Warszawa 1980, s. 114–118.

Zbigniew Osiński: „Tragiczne dzieje doktora Fausta” według Marlowe'a, [w:] Tadeusz Burzyński, Zbigniew Osiński: Laboratorium Grotowskiego, Warszawa 1978, s. 33–34.

Raymonde Temkine: Le théâtre psycho-dynamique de Jerzy Grotowski. Expérience de théâtre total, „Les Lettres Nouvelles” X 1963, nr 31, s. 121–133.

Agnieszka Wójtowicz: Od „Orfeusza” do „Studium o Hamlecie”. Teatr 13 Rzędów w Opolu (1959-1964), Wrocław 2004, s. 93–116.

Alicja Zatrybówna, 13 Rzędów. Antyteatr czy teatr nowoczesny?, „Gazeta Zielonogórska” 1963 nr 252, z 23 października, s. 3; przedruk [w:] Misterium zgrozy i urzeczenia…, s. 171–173.