A Concise History of Polish Theater from the 11th to the 20th Centuries

Available from The Edwin Mellen Press or at Amazon

A preface from Daniel Gerould, Lucille Lortel Distinguished Professor of Theater and Comparative Literature, Graduate School, City University of New York

Theater is culturally bound to its own time and place in immediate ways that poetry, painting, and music are not. Above all, theater is performance before a live audience that cannot be reproduced or recreated, and thus of all the arts, acting, along with dance, is the most ephemeral and the hardest to capture in words. These are the inherent difficulties in telling the story of any theater, including that of one’s own native land. If, in addition, that theater is a foreign one with its own peculiar traditions embedded in unfamiliar customs and manners, the task is all the more daunting, especially if the country in question has a strange and troubled past that is not easy for outsiders to grasp.

All this, by way of an introduction, may serve to explain, but not excuse the fact, that until now no one has attempted to write a history of Polish theater for English-speaking readers. The case of Poland is a curious one; Polish theater had played an extraordinarily important role in the country’s history, but few people in the West know anything about its traditions, so alien are they to our own experience. In the Anglo-American world we are accustomed to think of theater simply as entertainment, or at best as an art form that provides aesthetic pleasure and, from time to time, food for thought.

Now imagine a theater, that, on the contrary, is regarded as the repository of moral values and the guardian of national identity, and envisage a land in which playwrights, actors, directors, and stage designers have been expected to serve and even sacrifice themselves as prophets and sages. Such a country is Poland where the life blood of theater flows from a current of romantic nationalism that has no real counterpart in the Anglo-American tradition.

Whoever would convey this unusual story to an English-speaking audience must have many qualifications. First of all, to win and hold the reader’s attention, the author must have an insider’s intimate knowledge of the subject and at the same time a profound understanding of the audience for whom the book is intended.

Kazimierz Braun has unusual qualifications for the task. As a director, manager, theater artist, author, scholar, and teacher, he has been totally involved with Polish theater throughout his career─in Poland, in America and Europe, and as a cultural ambassador between East and West. Wherever he has been, he has created Polish theater, studied it, taught it, and written about it. Only a lifetime commitment and passionate love for theater in all its aspects can give such an authoritative grasp of the subject.

Passion, a vivid eye for detail, and a bold thesis animate A Concise History of Polish Theater from the 11th to the 20th Centuries. Braun’s history is concise, but it is also comprehensive, encompassing a splendidly variegated range of interests, including the history of theater buildings, the theatrical history of the cities, the lives not only of performers but also of audiences─who they are, where they sit, how they react. Everything connected with actors stirs Braun’s intellectual curiosity and inspires his writing: their wages, costumes, manners and morals, touring, strikes and boycotts, and above all their training and programs of study at theater schools.

Now for the bold thesis, thread that unites all the different elements with Braun’s history is the national function of theater in Poland, its mission as a resilient force for survival and salvation in a centuries-long battle for freedom and independence. In this struggle Polish theater has taken the most diverse shapes and utilized the greatest variety of spaces indoors and out─ ranging from vast pageants and patriotic manifestations in public places to a single actor reciting poetry for a few listeners in a small room of an apartment. In Poland clandestine theater─something unknown in America─has had a long and important history as a response to censorship and persecution. Performance in homes and churches figures prominently in A Concise History of Polish Theater.

It is in this context that Braun himself enters the story as a child during the Second World War when he attended one man shows in his family home. At such clandestine performances Braun first comes to understand theater as communion and sacerdotal sacrifice, subordinated to higher spiritual values. The author now is a witness to the events he describes and soon will become a major player; he is a part of the history that he recounts.

The story that Braun tells of post World War II Polish theater under communism is now seen close up with vivid immediacy. We watch as the managers, directors, and performers confront moral dilemmas and adopt different stances as the regime attempts to neutralize the avant-garde and manipulate theater artists through bribes and threats. Personal participation enables Braun to give his narrative a truly dramatic quality. Theater was a crucial battlefield in the struggle of Poland with oppressive totalitarianism. All aspects of life were infected, and theater was constantly at risk of being compromised and corrupted. In a system that sought for total control, every avant-garde experiment or innovation became an anti-regime provocation.

Kazimierz Braun has a special feeling for actors and actresses and the rare ability to describe vividly their stage presence and bearing, their vocal and gestural language. His favorites among Polish theater artists are the performers. Above all, he admires Helena Modjeska and Halina Mikolajska, Juliusz Osterwa and Mieczysław Kotlarczyk, because they were noble and heroic artists who joined art to ethics. For Osterwa (who was a model for Grotowski), acting was a sacrifice enacted before spectators as witnesses to the sacred act. Osterwa performed The Constant Prince 2000 times, in 200 different locales, before 400,000. Braun admires artists who show personal courage and integrity, take political stands in opposing the regime, hastening the moral transformation of the public and the historical transformation of the nation. Braun eloquently commemorates victims and pays tribute to those whose careers have been destroyed by the regime.

It is no wonder that at the end of his narrative, once communism has been overthrown, Braun is troubled by the desire on the part of some of the younger generation of artists to forget the patriotic and national function of theater. Such a loss of cultural memory could only be an impoverishment.

But what is ultimately striking at the end of this exciting one-thousand-year history is that a theater as intensely national as that of Poland has been so influential in the twentieth century. Braun’s book serves as a convincing explanation of how Polish traditions have produced such a large number of artists and playwrights who have become major creators of modern theater. Kazimierz Braun tells supremely well the fascinating story of a little known national theater, once largely closed upon itself, that in the past fifty years has transformed itself into a confident outward-looking tradition at the forefront of world theater.


Poland received Christianity in the Latin rite from the West in A.D. 966. The very first liturgical drama was recorded in Latin in England about A.D. 970. Thus, almost at the same time, Poland entered the family of Western Christian nations and Western culture gave the theater, forgotten or suppressed for about five centuries, a fresh start. Since the 11th century until today, theater in Poland and in the whole of Western culture has been developing at a similar pace.

From its early liturgical beginnings until the Enlightenment, Polish theater followed general European patterns. At the end of the 18th century, it began to produce its own artistic and institutional forms. In the 19th century, it perfected them, to develop mature and original works in the 20th century.

Throughout its whole history, Polish theater was both a mirror of and an active participant in the history of the Polish nation. The pressure of history, which always and everywhere conditions theater life, was especially strongly felt in Poland and influenced all aspects of theater. We can say that the history of Polish theater is an expression of the history of the Polish nation, and that the history of the Polish nation is imprinted in the history of the Polish theater.

In the Middle Ages (circa 11th─14th centuries) Poland was laboring to find its place in European Christian civilization. Its territory enlarged and its population multiplied. Towns were laid out and churches built. Administrative, judicial, and educational institutions took shape. Though not without setbacks and defeats, Poland was emerging as the Eastern center of Western culture. Theater was establishing its niche in the life of the nation, at first within the realm of religious practices, then as a part of academic curricula, and finally as secular, courtly and folk entertainment.

In the 15th century Poland became an active player in the Renaissance revolution. The union of Poland and Lithuania, the “Commonwealth of Two Nations,” was one of the principal European powers. Within its borders Poles, Lithuanians, Byelorussians, Ukrainians, Jews, Germans, Czechs, Slovaks, Russians, Hungarians, Tartars, and other minorities lived and peacefully cooperated. The foundations of a democratic system based on multilayered elections, including the election of the king, were in place. The 16th century saw the zenith of that sociopolitical formation, the oldest democracy in modern Europe, characterized by political stability, military strength, economic prosperity, intellectual growth, and blossoming arts, including remarkable theater works.

The gradual fall of the Commonwealth of Poland and Lithuania in the 17th and 18th centuries was a result of both the internal decay and the intrusion of external forces. The Polish version of democracy did not produce strong state institutions; rather, the country sank into anarchy, weakened both politically and militarily. At the same time, Poland’s neighbors were building absolute systems of central governments based on professional bureaucracies, armies, and police. The awakening of the nation and an energetic reform movement brought forth brilliant fruit: the modern, democratic Constitution of the Third of May 1791, the third document of this kind after the American Constitution (1787) and the French Declaration of the Rights of Man (1789). During the time of Poland’s decline, theater had gradually lost contact with other European centers and waned into provincialism. Within the context of the reforms, however, it rejuvenated, and quickly caught up with the rest of Europe. Poland’s great achievement was the creation of The National Theater (1765), a public, state institution, one of the first such in the world. The rescue efforts came too late. Poland lost its independence in three consecutive partitions (1772, 1793, and 1795) and its territory was divided between Russia, Prussia, and Austria. Fighting desperately to the end in the insurrection led by Thaddeus Kościuszko (1794) Poland did not defend its freedom. The First Polish Republic vanished politically. Yet, its culture, including language, religion, and the arts saved Poland by saving memory and preserving hope. Indeed, culture, in which theater was one of the leading forces, allowed the Polish nation to survive.

During the 123 years of foreign rule, theater actively participated in the Polish struggles for freedom. A series of uprisings in 1830, 1846, and 1863 did not change the situation, but kept the national identity alive. Art was the nation’s conscience, spirit, and sanctuary; theater was its heart. The international success of two Polish actors testified to the high level of Polish theater of the time: Helena Modjeska became a star in America and Bogumił Dawison conquered the German stages. Toward the end of the 19th century, Polish theater artists began to participate in, and in some areas to lead, the European avant-garde movements; Stanislaw Wyspiański became one of the first modern “total theater artists.”

Polish contributions of blood, military efforts, and diplomatic offensives during World War I, combined with the simultaneous collapse of all three of its partitioners (Russia, Germany, and Austria), resulted in the restoration of Polish sovereignty in 1918, which was defended in the victorious war against Bolshevik Russia in 1920.

The Second Polish Republic (1918-1939) was again a free and independent state, fulfilling the dreams of many generations, yet, tormented by social and political conflicts, economically and militarily frail. Theater thrived in the two inter-war decades. Stanislaw Ignacy Witkiewicz was a precursor of the “theater of the absurd” on a universal scale; Juliusz Osterwa’s acting reforms were parallel to those of Konstantin Stanislavsky; and Leon Schiller’s directorial masterpieces were comparable to those of the best European directors such as Vsevolod Meyerhold or Erwin Piscator.

In 1939, the Fourth Partition of Poland between two totalitarian regimes, Nazi Germany and the Soviet Union, put the life of the nation under mortal threat of annihilation. Fifty years of new captivity followed. The Nazi and Soviet occupations (1939-1945) were succeeded by unwanted Communist rule (1945-1989). During that time theater was one of the major energies helping the nation to survive, maintain its identity, and resist the totalitarian system. The most rigid Stalinist repression (1945-1956) suppressed theater creativity, but after the relative loosening of the Communist grip in 1956, theater revitalized and started to produce great, powerful, innovative, and imaginative works. Polish directors, as well as companies, were allowed to travel abroad and revealed to the world their astonishing artistry. They opened new avenues for theater experiments in the world. Among the most celebrated were: Jerzy Grotowski and his Lab Theater, Tadeusz Kantor and his Cricot 2 Theater, and Włodzimierz Staniewski with his Gardzienice Association.

The constant and unyielding opposition of the nation to the totalitarian regime resulted in uprisings, revolts, and strikes in 1956, 1968, 1970, and 1980. Finally, the mass movement of Solidarity brought Communism down. Poland, though devastated economically and morally, emerged again as an independent, free country in 1989. The theater of the Third Polish Republic was faced with the challenge of finding its proper place in a new political, social, and economic system. As I write these words, this process is under way.





of Poland, 966
The Piast Dynasty





Origins of Medieval Theater






Liturgical Drama






Nativity Plays



Passion Plays

Miracle Plays

Kazimierz the Great


Morality Plays

Jagiellonian Dynasty

Union of
Poland and Lithuania


Secular Theater






Renaissance Theater

Mystery Plays

Commonwealth of Two Nations



Educational Theater



Baroque Theater



Court Opera Productions



Enlightenment Theater



National Theater, 1765

Partitions: 1772, 1793, 1795
Loss of Independence, 1795
Russian, Prussian, Austrian Rule 1795-1918



Romantic Drama




The Second Republic, 1918-1939

and Soviet Rule, 1939-1945





Communist Rule, 1945-1989




The Third Republic, 1989



Afterword by Clive Barker, Editor New Theater Quarterly, London, England

The existence of the Polish theater has been inextricably linked to the history of Poland. Perhaps this is why so little is known about it. The history of Poland has been characterized by a continual struggle for existence against occupation and division, which has deflected attention away from the integral Polish identity and culture. Reflecting and participating in this process, the history of the Polish theater has been characterized by a lifelong struggle for existence, against cultural suppression, censorship, and proscription. This struggle has been an integral part of the larger struggle for national, cultural, and political liberation. The theater has developed strategies for disguise, alternative forms, and sustained opposition. At times, these strategies have had to be carried out in exile, as in the great Romantic period of Polish Drama. At other times at home they have taken the form of subtle games with authority to circumvent prohibition by the use of allusion and metaphor. The links between theatrical activity and nationalism has been a source of pride to those who have participated on both sides of the equation, which is why the Polish theater continually acknowledges a debt to its past and draws so heavily on its past for renewal and strength.

In constructing the concise history of the Polish theater from its early medieval origins to the present post-totalitarian situation, Kazimierz Braun has taken full recognition of the interweaving of theater, political history, and personal inspiration and ingenuity. It is a history of frustration and accommodation, and of courage and commitment.

Those of us who have come lately to an acquaintance with the Polish theater as the experimental theater of Kantor and Grotowski and the political groups, such as the Eighth Day Theater and Akademia Ruchu (the Movement Academy), as well as their current successors in Gardzienice and Teatr Biuro Podróży (the Theater Travel Office), we might be grateful that the struggle for expression, against repressive and philistine repression, has taken such rich and varied forms and became available to us, as tensions eased, and the western festivals began to offer opportunities to see and appreciate the work.

The present book, because it charts the integration of art and political nationalism in detail can be read as more than one volume. It is, in intention, a concise history of Polish theater. Inevitably, however, it is also a history of Polish national struggle. Inevitably, because of the geographical position of Poland, it is also a history of a neglected aspects of European theater history, as well as that history viewed from a fresh viewpoint, with Polish eyes. Either way, there is much to inform and stimulate, to move to pity and delight the reader.

About the author:

Kazimierz Braun is a director, writer, playwright, and scholar. He received his Master of Letters degree at Poznań University, Poland, an MFA in Directing at Warsaw Theater Academy, PhD in Philosophy at Poznań University, and PhD in Theater at Wrocław University. He was director, artistic director, and manager at theaters in Poland, and he has taught at the universities and schools of drama in Poland and the United States. He also directed plays for television. He published 31 books on theater history, novels, poetry, collections of essays, and plays. His most memorable productions include: Birth Rate by Rozewicz, Anna Livia based on Joyce, and The Plague based on Camus in Wrocław, Poland; The Old Woman Broods by Rozewicz in Dublin, Ireland; Rhinoceros by Ionesco at The Guthrie, in Minneapolis; A Man for All Seasons by Bolt, in Buffalo; and Dummies Ball by Jasienski at SUNY Buffalo. He has also directed plays by Shakespeare, Moliere, Brecht, Pirandello, and the Polish classical and modern authors. Recipient of several artistic and scholarly awards, including the Guggenheim and the Fulbright, Braun was characterized by Thomas Leff as “an especially creative force” in Polish theater, and by Richard Burns as “one of the leading world directors.” Currently, Kazimierz Braun is Professor at the State University of New York at Buffalo.

All information herein is © 2003 by Kazimierz Braun and is made available by permission of the author. This information may not be duplicated, republished, reprinted, retransmitted, or used without the express written consent of the author.

1 thought on “A Concise History of Polish Theater from the 11th to the 20th Centuries”

  1. kay koebert gallagher

    Could you offer any suggestions to help me . !- I am not Polish – I am 88 yrsof age and am trying to help a young lady out who wrote me a letter and asked me to help her . The nam is Carolina Baran and her husband is listed as andrew Donski . I joined the polish group in phila for help and i goit some suggestions. The name that she is Looking for is Gdonski and the womans name is baran . One person toldm eto look in Baranoskie and I found they were from Buffalo , N.Y and the girl is Christine Baranoski – an actress in t.V and many movies to her credit . It states that she was born in buffalo and her bio. is there – it states that her ancestors were in the theatrical business
    but doesn’t give and names or places in POland . Christine is a name that is used for years in the Gdonski Family . Incidentally , I do not know where the Gdonskis and the Brans came from . Could you have any ideas . I would like to help her out while I am still on this side of the grass, myself. Thank You! kaytg@comcast.net

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