Founded as a student theatre at the University of Poznan in 1964 under the aegis of the state socialist student union (SZSP), by the 1980s the 8th Day had become the most famous of the underground alternative theatre groups. The group's name derives from the Polish poet Galczynski: "On the seventh day, the Lord God rested, and on the eighth, He created theatre". At their inception, 8th Day were a typical literary student theatre group, performing drama and poetry. Their development of a more physical, non-verbal theatre stemmed from their association with one of the practioners of Grotowski's laboratories and the experience of the student protests of March 1968. As artistic director, Lech Raczak, said in 1986: "we realized that it is necessary to deal not only with what's going on in the arts but also what is happening in society". Raczak, however, rejected the description of the group's performances as "political theatre" as too limiting: "In a monopolized system such as Poland everything becomes political. If you make any gesture different from what the authorities want, that gesture immediately carries political weight. So the term 'political' results from the distortion and unnaturalness of social life here".
Their theatre is non-linear, without cause-and-effect, with the texts and actions created solely through group improvisation. In early performances, such as Inspection of the Crime Scene (1973), the predominance of action over text was determined by the activities of the censor, who objected to the group's exploration of the authoritarian mentality of neo-fascist movements, which also held some relevance for the Polish context. The most renowned of the 8th Day's early performances was In One Breath (1971), a piece based on poems from Stanislaw Baranczak's eponymous collection, which itself offered commentaries on the events of 1968. The workers' strikes on the Baltic coast in winter 1970-71 gave a new coloration to both the poems and the production. The latter focuses upon a film crew doing a documentary about a blood donor centre, into which - in an obvious reference to the bloodshed of 1970 - a corpse is carried. The production travelled abroad and received numerous prizes in Zagreb, Lodz, and their native city, as well as a Ministry of Culture prize. The implicit references to the responsibility of an earlier government for the tragedy of 1970 meant that the performance could be seen as evidence of radical change in the cultural climate and the authorities' behaviour. 8th Day undermined these cosy assumptions on the part of their official patrons by staging a second part, confirming that nothing had changed under Gierek. This proved a less palatable message for the authorities, and, although the production went on tour to Holland and the UK in 1972-73, on its return, the Poznan Provincial Committee officially banned any further performances. This marked the beginning of the group's troubles with the Communist regime.
The end of funding by the SZSP led the 8th Day to acquire professional status towards the end of the 1970s. In 1979 the State Entertainment Body, Estrada, which normally dealt with singers and cabaret artists, took over sponsorship of the group. Since Estrada's concern was with the popular nature of the artists in its care, rather than the ideologically correct contents favoured by the SZSP, interference into the group's programme decreased at the level of the patron. The years after 1976, however, saw the group move towards more politically contentious themes, with productions being more deeply rooted in everyday life. The increase in police harassment after that caesura stemmed from the group's sympathies with the activities of the Workers' Defence Council (KOR), and ultimately the authorities came to view it as KOR's theatre.
Accordingly, the group would effectively prepare two versions of productions: the first for the censor, with most of the contentious material removed, which was accepted for performance, when the unacceptable matter would be restored. Invariably, this brought further repression upon the group - 48-hour detentions without charge, flat searches, trumped up charges of "financial irregularities", confiscation of props and sound systems - all of which indicated the irritation that the group caused the authorities.
A series of productions in the late 1970s brought the 8th Day to the forefront of Polish alternative theatre and gave its members the reputation of uncompromising critics of the state-fostered media disinformation campaign known as the "propaganda of success". Discounts for All (1977) attempted to show the corruption ordinary people experienced through being subjected to official lies, their consciousness transformed by the constant compromises they had to make. Oh, How Nobly We Lived (1979) showed the interpenetration of philosophical and political issues as it satirized the materialist propaganda of the Gierek years. A censorship memorandum of 20 September 1978 indicates the basic strictures on reporting the group's work: "short pieces of information and factual discussions may be released. All positive evaluations of its activity (e.g. the contents of the programme, its social usefulness, artistic values, etc.) should be eliminated. Any doubtful matters should be consulted with the administration." Despite such paltry allowances, the group suffered an total news blackout in the official media during 1976-79.
The authorities continued to create difficulties. In 1980, the 8th Day was invited to the Theatre of Nations festival in Amsterdam. Having initially agreed to their appearance, the Ministry of Culture withdrew permission at the last moment. When the group was again denied passports to appear in Holland, Solidarity threatened to call a series of strikes in support. Subsequently, the group was also allowed to travel further afield, even to Mexico, to attend festivals. In return, it played benefits in factories and during student strikes.
The provisions of Martial Law, which suspended all artistic activity, fell more heavily on the 8th Day than other alternative groups. Only in June 1982 was its suspension lifted. Instead of responding with the expected agit-prop, anti-state production, the group produced the somewhat provocative A Fable (1982), based on Faulkner's novel, with an emphasis on the beauty of everyday life, even in the crucible of life at the front in WWI. Although the production ended with the massacre of the soldiers and reminded Polish audiences of the massacre at the Wujek mine, the passages of dreams were at least as important, for, as Raczak said in the mid-1980s, the group was attempting to "remind people that behind the everyday world, or hidden somewhere in its drabness, are certain higher values". At this time, in the increasingly illiberal climate prevailing until the accession of Gorbachev, the state tried to clamp down on the group: Estrada tried to withdraw the government subsidy, but the absence of a news blackout facilitated a wave of protests against that move, and forced a rethink.
Continuing the trend of playing down political messages in their work, the 8th Day mounted Ascent (1982), a production based on the poetry of Osip Mandelstam and the memoirs of his wife, imagining his experiences on his way to and in prison. This performance was more reminiscent of their student origins, with the physical theatre, which had defined their career from the late 1960s, in the descendant.
Report from a Besieged City (1983), based on poems by Baranczak and Zbigniew Herbert published in the "second circulation", which was first performed at an international street theatre festival in Jelenia Gora, confronted the experience of Martial Law more directly. In order to circumvent censorship regulations, which did not require a preview of texts performed by foreign theatre groups, the 8th Day invited some 30 foreign participants to take largely minor roles. In subsequent performances, the censorship office and state authorities proved less accommodating.
Up to the mid-1980s, the state authorities cancelled a dozen foreign trips that the group had planned. This coincided with increasing restrictions on where it could perform officially, and these excluded Warsaw, Cracow and a number of other major cities. In 1984, the local provincial governor announced the withdrawal of all government subsidies, apparently as an act of reprisal against the 8th Day's performances with other alternative theatre groups at the Church on Zytnia Street in Warsaw. A comprehensive news blackout followed this announcement of the official disbanding of the group. In response, the group became an underground theatre, performing extensively all across Poland in parish halls and churches.
The shift to performances outwith official venues brought advantages in terms of the group's no longer being required to submit their performances to official approval, since the Church lay mostly outside the authorities' sphere of influence. However, it coloured the reception of the 8th Day's work and survival on hand outs after performances provided a precarious living. On a more subtle level, while state censorship had been removed, "metaphysical" censorship remained an issue. The group's performances shocked their sometimes coerced audiences, and it was obvious that the group was tolerated as a token example of alternative theatre.
A new production Wormwood (1985) should have been taken to the Edinburgh Festival in 1985, but the authorities granted only half of the 8th Day passports to travel. Instead, a new production, called Auto Da Fe was quickly devised. Based on Tadeusz Konwicki's A Minor Apocalypse, a biting satire on Polish life at the end of the 1970s, which was still officially banned in Poland, the production won a "Fringe First" prize. The Polish authorities denounced the award to a group which "did not exist". Later, those who had been allowed to leave Poland took the production around Western Europe, while those left in Poland mounted a different version under the novel's original title. Due to increasing harassment, the latter fell into inactivity, until the chance came for them to join the others at Ferrara in Italy in June 1988, whereupon the 8th Day became a theatre-in-exile.
In the 1990s, the group have been able to return to Poland and perform at least two new productions: No Man's Land (1991), and, in collaboration with Travel Agency Theatre, Sabbath (1993) . Having always felt themselves part of Europe, the concern expressed by 8th Day member Ewa Wojciak in 1991, reflected fears of the risk of a revival of national xenophobia in the new political conditions. In the absence of a single, common enemy (the Communist state), the question of alternative theatre's identity and relevance has to be continuously rethought.
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Cioffi, Kathleen and Ceynowa, Andrzej, "An Interview with Director Lech Raczak", The Drama Review, 30/3, 1986, pp. 81-90
Gluza, Zbigniew, Osmego dnia, Warsaw: Wydawnictwo KARTA, 1994
Goldfarb, Jeffrey C., The Persistence of Freedom: The Sociological Implications of Polish Student Theatre, Boulder: Westview Press, 1980
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Robinson, Marc, "We Won, Therefore We Exist", The Drama Review, 30/3, 1986, pp. 73[-]80
Tyszka, Juliusz, "The School of Being Together: Festivals as National Therapy during the Polish 'Period of Transition'", in New Theatre Quarterly, 13/50, 1997, pp. 171-182
Wojcik, Agnieszka, "Alternative Theatre (Poland)", Index on Censorship, 14/1, 1985, pp. 11-14
Country entry for Poland; Country entry for Poland; Black Book; "Second Circulation" Theatre of the Eighth Day 17 Nov 1997