Theater archives

Memory Songs


On a warm spring evening, Ellen Stewart gives her customary pre-performance blessing in La MaMa’s lobby. The downtown doyenne gestures to members of Poland’s Song of the Goat Theatre, who are waiting in the corner to perform Chronicles, A Lamentation, and her face lights up. “When Jerzy Grotowski brought his company here in 1967, he was like my son,” she declares proudly, “and these artists, from Song of the Goat, are like his grandchildren.”

The ensemble, whose Polish name is Teatr Piesn Kozla, are indeed direct artistic descendants of Grotowski, even if there are no blood relatives among the cast. Grzegorz Bral and Anna Zubrzycki founded the company in 1997 after working with Gardzienice, the renowned experimental group formed by Grotowski’s 1970s collaborators. What’s more, Song of the Goat spent its first four years in residence at the Grotowski Center in Wroclaw before converting a 14th-century monastery into a permanent studio and school in 2002.

For those who think physical acting, incantation, and ritual now belong to theater history tomes, Chronicles (at La MaMa E.T.C. Annex Theatre through May 2) gives a rare glimpse of Grotowski’s living legacy. The piece, a music-and-movement version of the Sumerian Gilgamesh epic, forsakes irony, artifice, and ornament to emphasize pure, physical immediacy.

When the lights rise on five seats resembling gravestones, a pair of veiled women begin chanting an ancient lament for the Babylonian king, who sought immortal life in seduction and battle. As breathing and vocalized weeping give way to broad movement, the women extend their rhythms to a chorus of men, creating a rich polyphonic weave of narration and grieving. In story and song, the seven ensemble members then recite Gilgamesh’s short tale, enacting key episodes through wailing, droning, dancing, and brandishing incense and torches. Gilgamesh demonstrates his godlike prowess in war and love, but his aspirations for eternal life collapse, taking humanity’s hopes for immortality with him.

The company spent two years developing Chronicles, traveling to Greece, Albania, and other parts of the Balkans to learn the form and techniques of traditional lamentation songs—some dating back more than 2,000 years. Lamentation music contemplates life’s mysteries on the occasion of death, linking the two worlds in eternal music. When I visited the company at its Wroclaw home in February, they performed Chronicles in the monks’ former refectory, where the ancient lamentations offered suitably spiritual nourishment.

Earlier this year, New York audiences saw the Wooster Group question the theater’s fidelity to Grotowski’s memory in Poor Theater. Now Song of the Goat has arrived to keep the flame alive, singing of death, memory, and myth.