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Between the Local and the Global: Or, what Wrocław has given us


Wrocław New York André Gregory Wallace Shawn Recovered Territories migration Second World War Jerzy Grotowski Oder public realm performative democracy interculturalism Kalambur Cape Town kapia


Elżbieta Matynia is a professor of Sociology and director of the Transregional Center for Democratic Studies at the New School for Social Research in New York. Her research in political and cultural sociology focuses on democratic transitions in Eastern Europe and beyond, and more recently on the concept of borderlands in the emerging ‘shared Europe’ and beyond. Her monograph Performative Democracy (2009), published in the Yale Cultural Sociology Series by Paradigm Publishers, explores a potential in political life that easily escapes theorists: the indigenously inspired enacting of democracy by citizens, identifying the conditions for performativity in public life.

It was summer, 1982, and I was sitting in an air-conditioned movie theater in Manhattan, one of those places where New Yorkers who have to stay in town in steamy August love to go.[1]

The movie was seemingly simple: two middle-aged men – a chubby playwright who, as I later learned, actually lives in a roach-infested studio on the Lower East Side, and a theater director, a slender resident of an Upper East Side building with doormen – meet in an elegant restaurant, and have a conversation over dinner. They talk for almost two hours. And that’s it.

The movie was Louis Malle’s My Dinner with André, and I remember it particularly well as this was the first time I felt that I understood most of the conversational English coming from the screen. But what made me feel really at home with the movie was that at some point – when they were served the main course, quail with wild rice – the director, André Gregory, told the story of his trip to Wrocław. It had happened several years before, I imagine in the late 1970s, and he had gone to Wrocław to meet Jerzy Grotowski and take part in a workshop run by his Laboratory Theater. André Gregory talked about how this unusual place, its special people, had changed the way he thought and lived ever since. His dinner guest, the penniless playwright, Wally Shawn (both actors playing themselves), tried hard to understand the sources of gratification found by André in the entire experience, especially his interaction with nature and the strange pleasure he took in touching wet, moldy soil – and Wally responded by reflecting on his own pleasure provided by the extravagant purchase of an electric blanket the previous winter. The blanket was truly wonderful, he went on, and in the chilly winter nights it shielded him from the nasty drafts in his poorly insulated apartment building.


Wallace Shawn (left) and André Gregory in My Dinner with André.

Though I was not a privileged jet setter, but a poor postgraduate student stuck in New York City during the period of martial law in Poland, I suddenly saw myself as a fortunate member of a very special community. I could have easily joined in on that conversation between the two quintessential New Yorkers, as I felt at home both with Wally’s poor housing and threadbare pleasures of the East Village, and with André’s cosmopolitan experiences, opaque to most of the audience. I seemed to know the way people know, their ways of knowing, in both places.

I remember seeing André Gregory briefly in 1975 at The Theater of Nations Festival in Warsaw, his long, characteristic face difficult to forget, but watching the film I could not foresee that some dozen years later, in 1994, I would find myself having an elegant lunch with him and Grotowski, on the occasion of a presentation to Grotowski of an honorary degree by the New School for Social Research, where I taught. And there was no way that I’d have imagined myself drinking wine and chatting about Polish theater with Wally Shawn, whom I indeed got to know in the 1990s at the home of Irena Grudzińska Gross. But what André and Wally and I might really have had in common was above all Wrocław…

I am not from Wrocław, and only recently have I realized how much I and many of my generation owe to that city, so different from any other in Poland, because of its exceptional legacy. Located strategically between Warsaw, Prague, and Berlin, Wrocłavians share a common heritage with Poles, but also with Austrians, Czechs, and Germans, as the city has been ruled from Kraków, Prague, Vienna, and Berlin. As a result of peace treaty arrangements ending the Second World War, Wrocław – then the German city of Breslau, the second largest after Berlin – was assigned to Poland, while the eastern Polish territories, including Vilnius and Lviv, were taken over by the Soviet Union. At that time Breslau/Wrocław underwent dramatic population shifts. The German population of the city was expelled in 1945 to 1948, and Wrocław became a frontier city, a part of Poland’s ‘Wild West’ – gradually populated by the inhabitants of Lviv and the other formerly Polish cities in the east. This experiment in an almost total – and euphemistically named – ‘population exchange’ left a durable mark on the city’s culture and the borderland mentality of its citizens, who – perhaps more than the inhabitants of other parts of Poland – are open to difference and to intercultural dialogue.[2]

I have to draw a thick line between the Wrocław I got to know, and the Wrocław of my father’s generation. My father saw Wrocław in 1948, when he and his friends were brought there in canvas-covered trucks from central Poland – along with eventually a million and a half other Poles – to visit the celebrated Exhibition of the Recovered Territories. This was an event that was to signal the completion of the forced migrations, and which also marked the final homecoming of the so-called ‘ur-Polish’ lands.


‘The Needle’: monument dedicated to the Exhibition of the Recovered Territories in Wrocław. Photograph: Adam Czelny, courtesy of the City Museum of Wrocław. 

I first came to Wrocław as a student in the mid-1970s to see the Laboratory Theater’s Apocalypsis cum figuris. Prepared by two irreverent misfits, Grotowski and Ludwik Flaszen, it was a spiritual and disturbing performance that left one feeling strangely anxious – a far cry from any orthodox state-sponsored production. By then I’d been reading Wrocław’s consistently outstanding Odra monthly, a journal of critical essays, poetry, and cultural commentaries, and a journal that undoubtedly could not have been published in Warsaw. By then I’d also heard of the Kalambur student theater, opened as a result of the October ’56 thaw, with its already legendary 1965 staging by Włodzimierz Herman of a bold Witkacy play on dictatorships, The Shoemakers. It was Kalambur that had organized the International Festival of Open Theater, which I and many of my friends from other parts of the country began to come to Wrocław to attend. And it was Wrocław that nurtured the unique Henryk Tomaszewski Pantomime Theatre, and it was Wrocław that brought to Poland extraordinary jazz performers for its Jazz on the Oder Festival…

In the monological world that we grew up in – a world with newly erected walls, a cleansed past, and increasing ethnic homogeneity (officially cherished as a great achievement following the expulsion of Jews in 1968), a world in which private passports belonged to the state – Wrocław of the 1970s and ’80s emerged as a site of polyphony, plurality, and dialogue. Or even – though I am not sure whether Zygmunt Bauman would agree – as the site of a certain ‘liquidity’. It was an uncanny site both for my father and for me, but for different reasons. For him it would probably have seemed unheimlich, as he knew that those streets had spoken German only a few years before. For me it was an unusual place of fleeting encounters with unfamiliar sounds, images, faces, ideas and projects, and my friends and I hungered for it. Wrocław was a city far away from the power that was centralized in Warsaw, and perhaps for this reason it functioned as a major scene of counter-cultural projects… as a de-centered center.


The Teatr Laboratorium production of Apocalypsis cum figuris. Photograph: Maurizio Buscarino, courtesy of the archive of the Grotowski Institute.

I stress the social role of theater and performance in those times, as the theater was above all a place to meet people and ideas, and a process that appeared to have no end in sight. In the decade 1970-80, for the generation of people in their twenties and thirties, born and educated under Communism, it was this theater that provided a space for discussion and a sense of community. It was theater that instigated the surfacing of what Hannah Arendt would call the associational realm for appearance, debate, and eventually action. Unlike other forms of art, theater requires personal, live appearance and the presence of both actor and audience. Although the theatrical actions mentioned here were indeed limited in time and space, they provided a temporary residence for action and speech, and what I call an ‘embryonic public realm’.[3]

The ambiguity of theater as a genre – operating on the borders of art and reality, art and social life, art and social cognition – makes it a particularly apt system for supporting, facilitating, and channeling communication. The fact that this communication was taking place within a ‘softly’ institutionalized theatrical framework made it somewhat more tolerable, and less threatening for the authorities. (Elsewhere I argue that a closer examination of the activities of the young theater movement of the ’70s and ’80s may help us to understand how, under the constraints of political hegemony, the establishment of a public space could take root, preparing the way for a breakdown of the structures of domination).[4] When Milan Kundera wrote that ‘It was the theater, the films, the literature and philosophy that, in the years before 1968, led ultimately to the emancipation of the Prague Spring’, he had in mind the vibrant theatrical scene, with Ionesco, Beckett, and plays performed by the young generation of Czech critical playwrights in the so-called ‘small theaters’ of Prague.[5] I would like to suggest that Wrocław was the caretaker of that movement, the host of these early interactions, encounters, meetings with the other – with different ways of thinking, different ways of being, new publics.

There was always a visible crowd of foreigners, colorful pilgrims who came to study with Grotowski for longer or shorter periods of time: actors, directors, journalists, thinkers, or writers. André Gregory was one of them. And finally, there were the International Festivals of Open Theater, hosted by Kalambur every two years, and the foreign theater groups invited by Kalambur between the festivals.

The encounters I am talking about were temporary, tentative, fleeting, since theater itself is a fleeting art. But the message of openness was a powerful one. Artistically provocative and politically audacious theaters came from all over: from Canada, Argentina, Portugal, Japan, Brazil; the Bread and Puppet came from Vermont, Kathakali from India, El Teatro Campesino from Mexico, and The Performance Group with Richard Schechner from Manhattan’s Lower East Side. (Regarding the latter, I remember how striking for us Poles was their ethnic diversity, as among them were African-American and Latino actors. We had also interacted with Americans of African and Spanish descent who were studying at major Polish universities, and what was in fact the natural diversity of Americanness made a huge impact on us.) Once the performances were over, we all – that is the actors, their crews, and the mostly Polish audience – sat long into the night in the smoke-filled Kalambur Club, talking, trying to figure out how to outsmart the system to get a passport, pretending that we were living in a normal society and engaging in real plans to refurnish the world. But also this was a place that made it possible to discover that one’s identity is also, at least partially, a personal work-in-progress, and that it does not have to be constrained by any standardized kit of cultural resources.


The Bread and Puppet Theater, mid-1980s. Photograph: Walter S. Wantman.

That’s what Wrocław was all about: a yearning for plurality, the high-spirited conversations utterly disrespectful of any center, and the openness to difference, while struggling against prefabricated and imposed forms. That was our carnival, with its built-in, temporarily sanctioned dissent, and it was here, in this de-totalizing counter-site to Warsaw’s officialdom, that a non-state (i.e. non-official) public space emerged. This tentative sphere of association and dialogue facilitated the surfacing of networks of civility, and prompted the recovery of an embryonic public sphere. For the generation growing up in the 1970s and ‘80s, Wrocław managed to open the gate to a larger, and clearly much more diverse world.

The entrance to Kalambur in 2009. Public domain image courtesy of Julo.

The entrance to Kalambur in 2009. Public domain image courtesy of Julo.

Now, three decades later, almost everything is different. The bipolar world with its walls and curtains is over, but sharp new divisions have emerged, and – as I understand it – our question here is: how to make our lives livable in this new world that is tightly interdependent, yet riddled with all sorts of conflicts? What, in today’s world, are the conditions that generate dignity rather than humiliation, trust rather than suspicion?

I know that I am an odd optimist, as I always look for sources of hope, and I do not want to sound hopelessly naive, but I’d like to suggest some directions in thinking that, I believe, could actually be translated into social practice. I think that we ought to look locally, on the ground, in the places each of us knows best – the sites and narratives that have helped each of us to transcend political or cultural divisiveness, ease tensions, mend fences, launch friendships, and sustain what turned out to be realistic dreams. The projects or practices that I have in mind and that I have experienced myself – not only as promising, but also as fulfilling the promise – are of a kind that create a public sphere where there is none, or activate it where it is now taken for granted.

And I would suggest that we look into the city, or into the urban idiom in general, and its potential for engendering a public sphere where encounters can take place, where matters can be disputed, a plurality of voices generated, and a sense of choice secured. The mediaeval message was that city air sets you free; once you are within the city walls, no master can claim ownership of you. The city also furnishes the possibility to step out, to exit, to move between communities, to explore marginal spaces. Diogenes Laertius did not care much about Athens when he stated, ‘I am a citizen of the world’. Yet to voice that statement, to make it effective, he needed that city, its public space, its Agora, to deliver his message.

The discursive quality of cities is evidenced by the fact that they furnish what Arendt calls a ‘space of appearance’; according to Arendt, this is the necessary condition for an actual public realm to emerge. And cities were punished for displaying this potential. They were destroyed, since the destruction of a city is the destruction of civility… as in the case of Troy, Warsaw, Dresden, or even Wrocław. A peculiar form of the destruction of the fabric of a city was the cleansing of Cape Town’s famous District Six, the forced removal of a thriving colored and Indian community, the demolition of its physical infrastructure, and the removal of its people to the sandy flat lands outside of the city – a particularly graphic instance of the implementation of the policy of apartheid.


Richmond Street, District Six, Cape Town. Photograph: Cloete Breytenbach, © Ethnic Art, courtesy of the District Six Museum.

A friend of mine recently published a wonderful book on the friendship between two poets, Czesław Miłosz and Joseph Brodsky, a Lithuanian Pole and a Russian Jew, two poets who lived in the United States, and who several years apart, as American poets, were awarded the Nobel Prize in Literature. Irena Grudzińska Gross, the author of the book, calls their work in the English language ‘poetry with an accent’, as it enriches the tones of American poetry, introducing into it new elements, and opening it to the rest of the world.[6]

I believe that there are cities with an accent. New York is clearly one, Cape Town makes its own miraculous recovery, Sarajevo was such a city, and so was the Wrocław of the late ’70s. Those are virtual borderlands, places from which one can see the world beyond. In the past, such lookouts used to be the harbor-cities of Gdańsk or Odessa, full of different flavors and voices. Today we should try to identify such places and note the practices of the local communities that maintain and support their respective accents, their impurity, and their hybridity. These are the best places for rich and effective encounters.

As a person who studied theater once, I am of course a big partisan of face-to-face interactions, but I admit that there are other, mediated forms of communication, in which the negotiation of differences and learning from each other can take place. One can meet over dinner and have a private conversation with André, but one can also make a film of that conversation, so that others can identify with the issues, discuss them in class, publish and read the reviews, arrange extra screenings, interviews, give awards…

The key task is to take care of a healthy public sphere, to furnish it, set the stage for conversation, and cultivate forms of communication so that we can get to know each other better, and perhaps even to understand each other better.[7] And I believe that the city has the capacity to facilitate and stage encounters and conversations between people of different backgrounds, or generations, or genders, or locations, or religions. ‘Conversation’ here, of course, is a figure of speech, the presentation and recognition of different paths taken, of available and viable choices, of elements and positions that familiarize us with the unfamiliar, and that dialogize culture. The very objective and challenge of such a ‘conversation’ between strangers, or people who have little in common, who may nurse wounds, or hold grievances (vis-à-vis each other), is not to seek an agreement, but to listen – or to learn how to open up in order to listen. That is as far as the engagement with strangers has to go. Everything else is a bonus. We do not have to agree, but we need to try to understand the other side. I like Anthony Appiah’s golden rule of cosmopolitan philosophy (even if I am not crazy about the term itself): we should take other people’s interests seriously; take them into account, we should learn about other people’s situations, and then use our imaginations to walk a while in their moccasins.[8]

There seems to be a consensus among various thinkers dealing with the issues of intercultural dialogue (Anthony Appiah, Agnes Heller, Michael Walzer) that the kind of agreement in which one party is expected to give up its position – especially when it concerns deeply embedded values – is not necessary, and in fact is rarely possible. Perhaps we can learn from an ecumenical approach, a readiness to de-totalize the truth.

But what is necessary is an initial assumption of hospitality and generosity. And neither has anything to do with how lavish the context of the encounter may be. Hospitality is crucial for people to come, to be ready to open up. And the generosity I have in mind is of an epistemological kind. I would like to suggest that one should listen carefully and try hard to understand practices rooted in unfamiliar, locally inspired, perhaps even parochial initiatives that are founded on provincial, local knowledge – knowledge often discredited by sometimes presumptuous foreign centers of scholarship and culture. To appreciate such initiatives even more fully, one should try to walk in their moccasins, sneakers, espadrilles, sandals, or valonkas. And again, following the generosity and imagination of André Gregory, we should pay attention to local knowledge, to ‘knowledge with an accent’, as it could be for us a source of new arrangements and solutions addressing the issues that divide communities and societies.

And a final question: How to make sure that we can actually meet, and listen effectively to, a stranger? How to meet and how to facilitate learning from each other? Is there any available design, something that could help to envision and implement such a dynamic encounter?

The Agora is of course one model of such a civic architecture, as it is a space of appearance and dialogue. The civic architecture is motivated by a desire for a kind of hospitality and openness that nurtures dialogue in all its variety. One talks about arranging tables, constructing roundtables, and about building bridges. My own favorite is a special bridge designed with a kapia, a widened space in the middle, as described in Ivo Andrić’s novel, The Bridge on the Drina. The kapia is a place where those who would otherwise not meet can look at each other, sit next to each other, enjoying the view, the breeze, a cup of Turkish coffee, and get to know each other. Not a marketplace, not a temple, not a court, not a school, the kapia was a place that people did not have to stop at, or come to, but they did.[9]


Ivo Andrić in front of the kapia on the Mehmed Paša Sokolović Bridge, on the Drina at Višegrad. Photographer unknown.

Kapias can be real or virtual: they could be plazas, or carefully designed activities for crossing various borders with the principles of hospitality and generosity in mind: scholarships, joint study projects, theater workshops, or festivals.

And no matter how grandiose this may sound, it is truly rewarding to see today that Wrocław, building on its daring past and without the constraints imposed by the previous system, continues to play the role of a kapia, a civic stage, that now benefits the even larger community of the citizens of Europe and citizens of the world.


  1. ^ This paper was updated and developed from a presentation first given at the New Agora Symposium, Wrocław, 5 July 2007.
  2. ^ For more on the post-war migrations, see Paul Vickers, ‘Staging Memories of Forced Migration in Jan Klata’s Transfer!’, Polish Theatre Perspectives, 1 (2015). Eds.
  3. ^ See Hannah Arendt, ‘Power and the Space of Appearance’ in Arendt, The Human Condition (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1998; 2nd edn.), pp. 199-207.
  4. ^ Elżbieta Matynia, Performative Democracy (Boulder: Paradigm Publishers, 2009), especially see chapter two, ‘Staging Freedom’ (pp. 15-31).
  5. ^ Milan Kundera, ‘The Tragedy of Central Europe’, The New York Review of Books, 31.7 (27 April 1984), 33-38.
  6. ^ Irena Grudzińska Gross, Czesław Miłosz and Joseph Brodsky: Fellowship of Poets (New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 2009).
  7. ^ For more on the idea of furnishing public spaces see my book Performative Democracy (op. cit.), especially chapter five, ‘Furnishing Democracy: The Story of Two Roundtables’ (pp. 79-114). Using theatrical analogies I reconstruct the theatrics of negotiated settlements at the two separate roundtables that brought an end to communism in Poland and to apartheid in South Africa. I argue that in both cases this was accomplished by providing a ‘space of appearance’, by authorizing and legitimizing the actors, by necessitating the drafting of a script, by establishing the rules of negotiations, and so on.
  8. ^ Kwame Anthony Appiah, Cosmopolitanism: Ethics in a World of Strangers (New York: W. W. Norton & Co., 2007), p. 63.
  9. ^ Elżbieta Matynia, ‘An Old Bridge and a New Agora’, presentation at the New Agora symposium, Sarajevo, June 2006.

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