The Rhapsodic Theatre: A Theatre of the Word

Quality of Mercy
Production still from The Quality of Mercy, a 2011 tribute to Karol Wojtyła, Divine Comedy Productions, Oxford.

Today I will begin a three-part series examining the theologies and theories of two 20th-century Polish theatre companies, Karol Wojtyła and Mieczysław Kotlarczyk’s Rhapsodic Theatre and Jerzy Grotowski’s Laboratory Theatre. Today’s post introduces the theological underpinnings of the Rhapsodic Theatre. In my next post, I will provide an introduction to Grotowski’s Laboratory Theatre, and his theoretical concept of the Poor Theatre. Finally, I will compare the Rhapsodists to Grotowski, to understand how their different theologies influenced their theatre theories.

In 1941, 21-year-old Karol Wojtyła (later known as Pope John Paul II) joined director Mieczysław Kotlarczyk and a group of other young actors in the foundation of the Rhapsodic Theatre, an underground theatre company which engaged in ‘cultural resistance’ against the Nazis.[1]

This company, also known by its theoretical stance as the ‘Theatre of the Word’, was committed to a theatrical style that emphasized the text, spoken aloud with dignity and clarity, and contained a minimum of stage movement or spectacle. This emphasis on the text rather than visuals was partly a product of the Rhapsodic’s underground existence – if their productions, held in private homes, had been discovered, all the participants could have been executed on the spot. However, the Rhapsodists continued their emphasis on the spoken word even when they became a professional theatre in Kraków after the war. For the Rhapsodists, the word was preeminent, because the Word was the beginning and end of human existence.

Karol Wojtyła was only involved with the Rhapsodic Theatre for the first year-and-a-half of its 26-year existence, but he later wrote several essays and reviews on the work of the Rhapsodists, which are the only theoretical texts about the theatre currently available in English.[2] In ‘On the Theater of the Word’, Wojtyła wrote that:

The rhapsodic company has accustomed us to a theatre of the word…. Is not every theater a theater of the word? Does not the word constitute an essential, primary element of any theater? Undoubtedly it does. Nonetheless the position of the word in a theater is not always the same. As in life, the word can appear as an integral part of action, movement, and gesture, inseparable from all human practical activity; or it can appear as “song”—separate, independent, intended only to contain and express thought, to embrace and transmit a vision of the mind. In the latter aspect, or position, the word becomes “rhapsodic,” and a theater based on such a concept of the word becomes a rhapsodic theater. And so without entering into deliberations on the primacy of word or movement in the art of the theater, we can safely assume that according to the rhapsodic principle, the word is a pre-element of theater.[3]

For the Rhapsodists, ‘the fundamental element of dramatic art is the living human word’, which takes priority over gesture.[4]

This priority of word over gesture reflects the Rhapsodists’ philosophical commitment to the government of reason over action. As Wojtyła states in ‘Drama of Word and Gesture’, ‘The supremacy of word over gesture indirectly restores the supremacy of thought over movement and impulse in man’.[5] Participating in a Rhapsodic performance can help audience members restore the priority of intellectual reflection over physical impulse, so that their actions arise from reflective thought and are in conformity with the divine Word:

Man, actor and listener-spectator alike, frees himself from the obtrusive exaggeration of gesture, from the activism that overwhelms his inner, spiritual nature instead of developing it. Thus freed, he grasps those proportions that he cannot reach and grasp in everyday life. Participation in a theatrical performance, almost in spite of him, becomes festive as it reconstructs in him the proportions between thought and gesture that man, at least subconsciously, sometimes longs for. In all this too is the catharsis, the psychological purification, that the theater can bring about.’[6]

The word is preeminent in the theatre because thought must precede action in man.

On the other hand, the theatre of Jerzy Grotowski, a contemporaneous Polish director, was very much based on physical impulse, and on making physical impulses immediate – uncensored by the rational mind – and immediately visible to the audience. Grotowski was an atheist, but explored world religions, including Catholicism, and was especially interested in incorporating ritual elements into his theatrical vocabulary.  

In my next post, we will explore the effect of Grotowski’s theology on his theatre theory. Then we will be ready to tackle these questions: Is Christian doctrine committed to the priority of reason over action? And if so, must a theatre springing from a Christian commitment privilege word over physicality?

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

[1] George Weigel, Witness to Hope: The Biography of Pope John Paul II (New York: HarperCollins, 1999): 44.

[2] All of these essays and reviews, as well as Wojtyła’s plays, are available in Karol Wojtyła, The Collected Plays and Writings on Theater, translated with introductions by Boleslaw Taborski (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1987). The theatre’s primary founder, Mieczysław Kotlarczyk, wrote a book of theory called The Art of the Living Word (Sztuka żywego słowa), to which Wojtyła wrote the forward, but the book has not yet been translated into English.

[3] Printed in Karol Wojtyła, The Collected Plays and Writings on Theater, translated with introductions by Boleslaw Taborski (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1987): 372.

[4] Wojtyła, ‘Drama of Word and Gesture’, Collected Plays and Writings on Theater, 379.

[5] Ibid., 380, bold added.

[6] Ibid., italics added.

Image credit: Production still provided courtesy of Divine Comedy Productions.


  • 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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  1. says: T Miguel

    It’s very interisting this article. Maybe it’s important to do research about opositions and relationships beetwen Wojtyla and Grotowski’s theater. Is there some influence of Reduta Theatre over Rhapsodic Theatre?. (I’m Brazilian, forgive me for my poor English)

  2. says: Cole Matson

    There indeed is. You can see my longer article about the influence of the Reduta on the Rhapsodic Theatre at

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