The Master’s covert hero is Jerzy Grotowski, the famous theatrical innovator who founded the Theatre Laboratory and was a leading figure in Polish culture in the second half of the twentieth century. The Grotowski character, who is called Maciej Szymonowicz, does not actually appear in the novel, though his spirit is invoked at every step of the way. His life story and artistic achievements are the object of endless speculation and are revealed in the memories of people who knew him. The plot is simple: an American television producer commissions a French journalist to do the research for a major film about Szymonowicz, so the journalist heads off for Poland (it’s 1992) and begins an investigation in which he follows up lots of leads. He is also, perhaps chiefly driven by personal motives, because long ago, in the 1970s, he was involved with Szymonowicz’s theatre. Now, as he undergoes a mid-life crisis, he realises that the spiritual adventures he experienced in Poland all those years ago were the most significant events in his boring, sterile life. But his most important task is to seek out the truth about the Master and his phenomenal theatre, a truth that exists on many planes, including the political dimension. Wildstein asks how artistic freedom and art with a capital ‘A’ were possible in communist Poland. He is interested in many issues derived from various ways of thinking about history and reality. Here questions arise about the spiritual state of today’s Poles, about modern culture in the West, and about whether the myth of great art is possible in these times.
- Dariusz Nowacki
“Bring the guy here!” shouted Johnson excitedly. “That’s what our public wants! Our fans are expecting a miracle!”
An ever deeper darkness was pouring in through the huge office windows as the glass cage on the forty-fourth floor of the skyscraper floated gently above the slowly rotating earth, which lay beneath them, bulging with tunnel-like streets and quivering from the motion of cars and pedestrians, both almost invisible from here.
“It’s a wonderful idea, mon petit Paul. Especially now. Because, you know, we’re judged by the measure of time. This is just the right moment to rediscover a forgotten prophet, now that communism has collapsed. The evil empire has fallen apart and there’s nothing threatening us. Not that anything really ever threatened us! Right, Paul? Yes, it looked as if after all that it was time for common sense to triumph, at every geographical latitude. Now that all those ideologies have collapsed and revealed their poisoned entrails, their stench should be enough to put us off any kind of Messianism or plans for saving the world and all the mortals in it for a long time, so let’s get back to common sense! But can man live by common sense? He can’t live by bread alone, can he? The second millennium is ending. It’s the dawn of a new era! And we’re going to be its high priests, its heralds. We’re going to lead the way down new paths, because we’re the ones who know scientifically, know best of all, the needs of humanity – our audience. And in our cuisine we’re going to serve up meals for the highest price, and our clientele will lick their lips and ask for more. Inventive dishes, so they don’t get bored, new ones all the time, but actually they’ll be just the same, because you can’t change people’s habits too suddenly.”
Johnson leapt up and ran round the desk, around Paul, who was staring at its surface. The squat figure waved his short paws about, while outside the window, lights flared up in the translucent structures of the endless city. With a broad sweep of his arms Johnson seemed to be bringing the electrical flames to life, illuminating one glass block after another, so you could no longer tell where the lights were on and where they were just being reflected. At a sign from the clown, New York was coming to life in the darkening void like a nocturnal beast.
“It’s fantastic that you’ve found this Russian prophet… all right, Polish if you like… I know you’ll find him. You know, I remember when he came here… When was it? Twenty, twenty-five years ago? You had to have a special invitation to get to see his show… his magic. Three shows, and about thirty tickets for each one… for the whole of New York. I went crazy trying to become one of the chosen few, and I failed. I was still young, and it was such a distinction. And it was an incrediblesuccess, one that he achieved - just imagine - by spurning the public. And the whole town talked about it for much longer than all the premieres, all the hit movies being screened at the time. Even now it sets me thinking – so you really can play that many instruments, you can win by flouting the rules, against all common sense… Perhaps this Master guy really is smarter than all the rest of us put together? The biggest audience of all, the one that can’t see the show, unanimously bestows the highest praise on it… You don’t really have to have the show at all. I didn’t think like that in those days. Sure, I was naïve, I believed in revelations… But the revelation I believed in most was the one I had no access to – I could sense how much I’d lost. It was like a blow. Yes, petit Paul, that was in the days when ideologies were all the rage. In those days we fought for peace and waged war against aggression, and didn’t earn badly out of it. Do you remember my Vietnam reports? You too – young intellectuals from the Old and New Worlds, on behalf of the newest world. You remained passionate for longer than I did. You went to Poland in search of that guru, and it worked out well. I believe in providence. Now we’re really going to make a guru out of him.
“Yes, Paul, he’s a hero for our times. We’ll bring him out of the Slavonic backwoods, and out of the post-communist chaos a prophet will emerge, one of the few who will bring us what’s sacred. They bring God to barren earth, for the waiting multitudes ready to pay any price. And we’ll be his high priests. He’ll conduct his masses in our glass temples.
“There’s no need to weep over the world’s disenchantment – we’re going to re-enchant it again. After all, we’ll be providing illusions, magic and mystery. Such-and-such a number of inches, a safe, comfortable screen size, the right size for our viewers – they’re only human, after all. And we won’t get above ourselves either - we’re democrats, because we’re the same as them, the ether of their ether, the physicians of their souls, the high priests of their revelations, we allow pocket-sized pilots to open up new dimensions at the push of a button.”
Through the glass walls, along the far edges of the visible world the city was changing colour in a cobweb of lights in the unfathomable depths of the dense water, as the glowing plasma of Kennedy airport quivered on the horizon. The Tower of Babel spun round in space as Johnson leaned towards Paul Tarois and said: “Bring me the prophet, and I’ll make you rich. We’re going to make him into the greatest transatlantic star. The latest story you told me about him is worth a fortune. It’s got everything our audience wants – triumph over politics, black magic, death and mystery. We’ll make a show out of it. Go forth and create the world!’
Translated by Antonia Lloyd-Jones