Theorizing Performer-Object Interaction in Grotowski, Kantor, & Meyerhold
Acta Universitatis Tamperensis No. 1619

By Teemu Paavolainen
September 2011
Tampere University Press
Distributed by Coronet Books
ISBN: 9789514484643
294 pages
$87.50 Paper original

The general theme of the thesis is performer-object interaction, as enacted and perceived in the theatre – its overarching research question, how varieties of “meaning” may already be enacted and perceived, thereby. In theorizing this, the work generally subscribes to the cognitive turn of the humanities, but also aspires to nudge it toward an ecological ontology, more congenial to the theme: of mind or cognition “beyond the brain,” “out of our heads,” inseparable from action and perception. The key concepts of the study (metaphor, image schemas, affordances) originate from cognitive linguistics and ecological psychology; the central case studies concern three specific productions directed by Jerzy Grotowski, Tadeusz Kantor, and Vsevolod Meyerhold.

Chapter 1 isolates the key notions of agent and object, to theorize general processes of perception, action, and cognition: progressively blurring such traditional terms for stage objects as set, props, or costume, it proceeds from “domain-specific” abstractions through “basic-level” categories and “ecological” affordances, to the “domain-general” work of conceptual blending and metaphor. In its more philosophical framing, the chapter addresses metaphors of “the Great Chain of Being” – instrumental to the artificial division of mind over matter and subjects over objects – and instead, makes a theoretical case for the ecological grounding of all cognition, modified by the four influential e’s: mind as embodied, embedded, extended, enacted.

In Chapter 2, this theoretical framework is further elaborated in a detailed analysis of Meyerhold’s 1922 staging of The Magnanimous Cuckold – from the affordances of its “constructivist” setting to an extended discussion of its “biomechanical” acting (the then metaphors of reflexology and Taylorism, contrasted with distributed and enactive notions of cognition and skill) and from the “cultural ecology” of early Soviet Russia to the variety of interpretations the interplay of all these have historically afforded. Toward the end, the general theory is developed into something of a tentative method, as concerns how the notions of image schemas and affordances may intertwine to serve the “ecological validity” of performance analysis.

With Chapter 3, the conceptual focus shifts to Kantor’s and Grotowski’s notions of “poor theatre,” reflecting as they seem, a cultural ecology very different from that of Meyerhold’s Russia – that of “real socialism” in Communist Poland. Key metaphors of the general mindset thus identified, Chapters 4 and 5 present detailed analyses of Akropolis, as staged by Grotowski and Józef Szajna first in 1962, and of Kantor’s 1985 production of Let the Artists Die! – the former, ranging from “plot points” of performer-object interaction to the ecological and enactive emphases of Grotowski’s later work; the latter, from some of Kantor’s overarching objects and metaphors, throughout his career, to “distributed” notions of memory and selfhood.

To conclude, a brief Epilogue will address not only the metonymical and metaphorical “afterlives” of Grotowski and Kantor, respectively, but some of the tensions and continuities that go with “performing humanity” in the ever more mediatized ecologies of new technology that we currently inhabit. While only emerging with these new ecologies, on the notions of extended and distributed cognition such ostensibly contemporary metaphors as the “cyborg” or the “posthuman” only go to define what we’ve always been already – if by the “human post” we mean a self-contained Cartesian individual, somehow disentangled from its ecological embedding.


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