Reflections on a Theatre of the Embodied Word

Truly a theatre of the embodied Word - Jesus crucified, York Mystery Plays, 2010.
Truly a theatre of the embodied Word - Jesus crucified, York Mystery Plays, 2010.
Truly a theatre of the embodied Word – Jesus crucified, York Mystery Plays, 2010.

This is the final post in my three-part series comparing the theology of the Rhapsodic Theatre to the theology of Jerzy Grotowski’s Poor Theatre. In my previous posts, we examined the Rhapsodic Theatre’s emphasis on the word and the Poor Theatre’s emphasis on the body. The question we will explore in this post is: How should the word and body relate in a Christian theatre?

One can argue that the word – i.e., thought and reason – should control impulse. After all, the Christian is asked to ‘not be conformed to this world, but be transformed by the renewing of your minds, so that you may discern what is the will of God’, and act accordingly.[1] This verse speaks to the desire of Mieczysław Kotlarczyk, the founder of the Rhapsodic Theatre, to ‘transmit a vision of the mind’[2] which would transform the audience into a community shaped by the Gospel – to form a community by the Word as word. In the creation of a Christian theatre, we operate according to the verse from Romans quoted above and agree that being conformed to the Word is a good thing.

However, Christianity is also a religion of incarnation, in which the Word is incarnate in a body. This body is not a docetic spiritual body but is fleshly. In the same way, if we want to present the Word in the theatre, we cannot stop with presenting simply an intellectual vision, incarnate only in disembodied words (themselves as evanescent as the airwaves upon which they are carried) or in the ‘spiritual bodies’ of intellectual pictures and concepts. We must present the Word as incarnate in physicality, if we are fully going to engage in theatre’s specific witness as a physical art form. Here is where Grotowski’s intuition of the body as necessary and revelatory can help us.

Grotowski’s definition of theatre as ‘what takes place between spectator and actor’[3] focuses on the presence of two bodies in space, rather than on the word, as the bond of communion in the theatre. This emphasis on the body can be reconciled with a theatre of the word, which also requires two bodies in space, since it is not literature; however, in a theatre of the word, bodies and their movement directly serve the word.

We live in a post-incarnational world, and the Word is embodied. Therefore, as members of the Body of Christ, we are also embodied words, or rather, embodiments of the Word. As St Teresa of Ávila says, ‘Christ has no body now, but yours’.[4] As Christians, with our bodies, we express the Word.

And this is where the Theology of the Body comes in. God’s Word of love and self-donation is written in our bodies, in their encoded language of mutual self-giving in spousal love, which creates new embodied words (offspring), new icons of God’s love created through our love for each other.[5]

Therefore, Grotowski is on to something when he says that the actor must use his body in an act of self-donation – ‘[o]ne must give oneself totally, in one’s deepest intimacy, with confidence, as when one gives oneself in love’.[6] He is also wise to be wary of the actor giving himself to many people, which he considers prostitution. He must give himself to one. But since he needs to give himself to the many members of the audience, in order for them to receive the Word, can he accomplish this by giving himself to Christ, as his soul’s Bridegroom?

By serving the Word, as opposed to his own impulses, the actor gives himself to Christ. However, by serving the Word in a fully embodied way, by uniting both his spirit and his body to the Word, the actor performs the Word, and witnesses to the necessity of proclaiming it in embodied action. By giving themselves, in their union of spirit and body, to the Word, the actors perform the conception of the Word in the hearts of the audience. That Word will be borne out of the theatre by that audience, and be incarnated in their actions in society.[7]

The question is how to pursue a physical theatre such as Grotowski’s, but one which conforms to and thus communicates the Word, such as Kotlarczyk’s. For example, should the words it chooses to communicate directly communicate the Word, by being taken from Scripture or Christian texts, or can it communicate the word through texts which are not clearly Christian, or questioning of Christianity? In the actual development of the performance score, should the actor replace Grotowski’s ‘secure partner’ with Christ as the ‘point of orientation’ of his performance, the invisible scene partner to whom he offers himself in performance?[8] These questions show where theorizing must be tested by practice. And so, for the moment, my theorizing ends.

Cole Matson is a third-year PhD student in the Institute for Theology, Imagination & the Arts. He is exploring the possibility of creating a truly Eucharistic theatre by putting the work of Jerzy Grotowski in dialogue with John Paul II.


1. Romans 12:2, NRSV (source).

2.  Karol Wojtyła, ‘On the Theater of the Word’, The Collected Plays and Writings on Theater, translated with introductions by Boleslaw Taborski (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1987), 372.

3. Jerzy Grotowski, ‘The Theatre’s New Testament’, Towards a Poor Theatre, ed. Eugenio Barba (London: Methuen, 1991), 32.

4. St Teresa of Ávila, ‘Christ Has No Body’ (source).

5. For more on Theology of the Body, read John Paul II, Man and Woman He Created Them: A Theology of the Body, translation, introduction & index by Michael Waldstein (Boston: Pauline Books & Media, 2006).

6. Grotowski, ‘The Theatre’s New Testament’, 38.

7. This conception of the actor’s work brings up the necessity of considering not only the place of the Word in a ‘eucharistic’ theatre, but also the place of the entire Trinity.

8.  For more about the ‘secure partner’, see Grotowski, ‘American Encounter’, Towards a Poor Theatre, 201-3. For ‘point of orientation’, see Grotowski, ‘The Actor’s Technique’, Towards a Poor Theatre, 181.

Image credit: “York Mystery Plays 2010: Crucifixion” by John Robinson (Flickr: robbophotos), shared under Creative Commons Attribution 2.0 Generic licence.


  • Cole Matson is an actor, producer, and arts administrator. He received his PhD from the Institute for Theology, Imagination and the Arts in 2016.

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