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"The functions of comedy and the qualities of different kinds of laughter have been at the forefront of my inquiries, which investigate how laughter can combat what is backward, and how it can dispel fear and even thrive in oppressive regimes." - Daniel Gerould, New York, August 2010

Daniel Gerould


We here at the Segal Center are still trying to cope with the tremendous loss of our colleague and friend Daniel Gerould, and we are not able to do so. Daniel's door, that was always open, is closed and we refuse to believe that he will never open it again. He was a gentleman and a gentle man, an Homme de Lettres, a great scholar, a man of the theatre, devoted to life, art and his marriage to Jadwiga. He had a deep, sincere believe in the transformative power of the arts. Daniel truly and profoundly loved teaching and he loved his students here at the program.

Click here for a PDF of Daniel's CV

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Daniel’s biographical notes and introduction to his last Segal Center publication: QuickChange.

Biographical Note:

Daniel Gerould was the Lucille Lortel Distinguished Professor of Theatre and Comparative Literature at the Graduate Center, City University of New York, and director of publications and academic affairs at the Martin E. Segal Theatre Center. He had a B.A. (1946), an M.A. in English Literature (1949), and a Ph.D. (1959) in Comparative Literature from the University of Chicago, and a Diplôme in French Literature from the Sorbonne (1955). Before coming to the Graduate Center he taught at the University of Arkansas (1949-51), the University of Chicago (1955-59), and San Francisco State University (1959-1968), where he established and headed the Department of World and Comparative Literature. He visited Poland in 1965 on a travel grant from the U.S. Office of Education International Studies Project with California State Colleges, developed an interest in Polish theatre, and then taught for two years at Warsaw University as a Fulbright Lecturer (1968-70). He was an exchange scholar in the Faculty Research Program with the Soviet Union at Moscow State University in 1967.

He was the editor of the journal Slavic and East European Performance: Drama—Theatre--Film (since 1981) and of the twelve-volume Routledge/ Harwood Polish and Eastern European Theatre Archive (1996-2002). He has translated twenty-one plays by Stanisław Ignacy Witkiewicz (Witkacy), and written extensively about Witkiewicz and twentieth-century avant-garde drama and theatre. His play Candaules Commissioner has been performed in France, Germany, and America. For his translations from Polish he has received numerous awards, including prizes from the Polish International Theatre Institute, Los Angeles Drama Critics, Polish Authors Agency, Jurzykowski Foundation, American Association of Teachers of Slavic and East European Languages, American Council of Polish Cultural Clubs, and Marian Kister. He was the recipient of the City University of New York Award for Excellence in Teaching (Graduate Center) and was honored by TWB, Theater Without Borders, as a Groundbreaker in international theatre exchanges. Daniel Gerould was an avid jazz collector, and was married to the Polish scholar and translator Jadwiga Kosicka, with whom he frequently collaborated.

QuickChange - introduction
Daniel Gerould
New York, August 2010

The essays and translations in this volume, written over the past fifty years and previously uncollected, reflect my abiding interest in artistic creativity and the transformative power of the arts. They are for the most part devoted to individual theatre artists or to collective issues eliciting responses from different artists. Each essay is a separate inquiry about some aspect of the theory and practice of the arts of performance.

Theatre and drama find their natural place in the history of the arts. Theatre history, intellectual history, and history of the arts should, I am convinced, go hand in hand. Tadeusz Kantor, the subject of two of my essays, declared his goal to be “placing theatre within the realm of the totality of art.” Could anything be simpler, and at the same time as all-embracing?

Quick Change is the title of the collection not only because it is the subject of one of the pivotal essays, but, more significantly, because the art of transformation is the talisman or open-sesame of my entire output. Theatre for me is the art of metamorphosis. Changing one’s skin and shedding one’s old self is fundamental to the dramatic impulse. “I want to be different, to begin again and again; to shed myself as a snake sheds its skin,” says Shaw’s Adam in Back to Methuselah.

Those artists like Villiers de l’Isle-Adam, Sologub, and Kantor, who believe deeply in the transformative powers of art are sorcerers and wizards. Reaching back to the buffoons and clowns of antiquity, Quick Change is the epitome of the theatrical—it existed in sixteenth-century commedia dell’arte, in seventeenth-century Kabuki as hayagawari (one actor sometimes playing six roles in a single act), and in nineteenth and twentieth-century variety theatre, home to the protean artist, transfigurator, or transformist.

A unifying motif behind all of the essays is the creation of forms, the pleasure we take in these, and our admiration for the skill of their artificers. Art lives by its dwelling in form. My fascination is for these artistic shapes: their fabrication, traditions, and histories. Forms are born, grow old, and die. Sometimes they are reborn—the recovery of old forms and the rediscovery of dead authors are crucial archeological activities. As Ludwik Flaszen, Grotowski’s dramaturg, explains, “We do not wish to discover something new, but something forgotten.

Asserting the priority of form in no way denies the mutual attraction between art and life and their frequent cohabitation; it simply affirms that form is what makes art art. My exemplars along these lines of thought are the Russian Formalists, known for their belief in the artfulness of art and their curiosity about genres and the patterns, structures, and techniques of popular arts like melodrama. In his Notebooks, Chekhov writes, “Behind new forms in literature there always follow new forms of life.”

My first contacts with theatre came about through magic, at which I dabbled as a child. I watched sleight-of-hand artists demonstrate tricks to one another at magicians’ conventions, and I went to performances of master illusionists, like the Great Thurston, who staged spectacular acts with large casts, fancy props and costumes, and elaborate stunts dependent on complicated technology. At home I created a life-size dummy with a carved coconut head, who wore a hat, coat, shirt, tie, and trousers and had a concealed tube running from the basement up his left leg to his mouth that enabled me to carry on conversations and make jokes with my parents’ guests at dinner parties.

I also regularly attended the circus, rodeos, and stunt car shows, since my father, a newspaperman, was the regular recipient of free tickets. At all of these spectacles, the self-extolled daring and skill of the performers were sources of wonder and delight, and I relished all the hyperbole, hoopla, and razzmatazz. I attended the stage shows accompanying the films at large movie houses and featuring big bands, such as Jimmy Dorsey, Bob Crosby, and Cab Calloway (the latter—constantly changing flamboyantly colored zoot suits—was himself a quick-change artist). I went to jazz concerts to hear James P. Johnson and Wild Bill Davison at Sunday matinees where teenagers were tolerated, although still the exception, not the rule.

By the late 1930s and early 40s I started attending the legitimate stage with my mother. At that time many Broadway-bound productions tried out first in Boston, and I remember Ethel Barrymore in The Corn Is Green by Emlyn Williams and Arsenic and Old Lace with Boris Karloff. I felt myself a seasoned spectator, was at home among audiences, and was always ready to applaud bravura displays of virtuoso acting. The seed had been planted, although it wasn’t until the 1954–55 season in Paris (where I was an exchange student) that I again became an intensive spectator, followed by a similar stint in 1967 in Moscow (where I was on a faculty research grant).

These essays are addressed to friends, colleagues, and peers, who will perhaps have read some of them at the time of their original publication, but, beyond that limited circle of scholars, I now hope to reach a broader public of intellectually curious readers and theatregoers. To make the essays appealing to newer generations, I decided not simply to republish them verbatim as documents of historical value, but instead to revise and bring them up-to-date.

In a few cases revision meant only adding or updating the endnotes, but more often than not it has involved changing tenses, providing a present-day perspective, incorporating new materials previously inaccessible, and writing the endings that had not yet occurred at the time of composition because many of the stories I was telling were still ongoing. The fall of the Berlin Wall, the sudden collapse of communism in Eastern Europe, and the Soviet Union’s quick demise were coups de théâtre radically altering the development of the theatre and modifying our assessments of its import. New materials have come out of archives, formerly censored authors have had their complete works published, and reviled and despised writers have been exalted. Given the opportunity to take into account all of these changes, I could not fail to revise the essays.

For the most part I have chosen to write about the underrated, the ignored, and the forgotten rather than the overexposed and universally celebrated. I have never been much concerned with whether an artist was a major or a minor figure, a canonical or non-canonical artist, since these valuations are constantly shifting and highly unreliable. Witkacy is a case in point, having gone from controversial outsider to classic of the avant-garde in three decades. My essays are open to writers of all provenance. Shakespeare and Molière, as well as Shaw and Ibsen, also put in frequent appearances.

I refuse to impose any hierarchy, and rather than ordering the essays chronologically or grouping thematically or by nationality (all Polish or Russian together), I have presented them seemingly at random as a variety show, at which the reader may pick and choose whatever looks interesting or amusing.

I consider these essays as part of a process of discovery and recovery, forays into murky and sometimes lurid areas, peopled by strange obsessive figures like Villiers de l’Isle-Adam, Tadeusz Miciñski, Fyodor Sologub, and Alexander Scriabin, whose overheated imaginations gave birth to grandiose projects and the creation of myths of the future. The connections of the stage to the paranormal, to magic and alchemy, to the occult and esoteric, to the erotic and the macabre, are notorious and have often given the theatre a bad name as “sensational,” and led its apologists to defend it as rational, instructive, and socially useful. The tensions between these two views of theatre—as metaphysical or as ethical—are at stake in a number of the essays, which consider the function of drama, particularly that of comedy. I endorse both views as equally valid, but express a personal preference for the sensational.

The functions of comedy and the qualities of different kinds of laughter have been at the forefront of my inquiries, which investigate how laughter can combat what is backward, and how it can dispel fear and even thrive in oppressive regimes. The relation of art to ideology, seen from the viewpoint of the artist, is a question that recurs in my essays, which are often situated against the background of life in Eastern Europe during the cold war.

My initial encounter with Eastern European drama came about thanks to Tom Lantos, then the director of overseas programs at San Francisco State College, who arranged for me to go to Poland for five weeks in the summer of 1965 as part of a faculty travel program underwritten by the State Department and paid for in counterpart funds. Tom was a Hungarian Jew who along with his young wife to be had been saved by Raoul Wallenberg in Budapest in 1944; he subsequently became an influential US congressman from 1981 until his death in 2008.

At that point modern Polish theatre was terra incognita in the United States and in most of the rest of the world. This was five years before Grotowski’s theatre first appeared in New York and fourteen before Kantor brought The Dead Class to La MaMa. That I discovered Witkacy and got to meet many of the principal figures in the Polish theatre was a matter of good fortune. Witkacy was for me a found object that I came across by chance.

On my first full day in Poland, a meeting for me had been arranged with a bureaucrat in the theatre section at the Ministry of Culture in Warsaw, not far from the hotel where I was staying. I walked to the ministry and entered the office. Beneath a small picture of Lenin on the wall behind his desk, the official, Jerzy Sokolowski (later one of the editors of the journal Teatr), and I conversed in Russian because at that time I did not know Polish. After a few perfunctory remarks about the organization of the Polish theatre and its repertory, the official grew animated as he told me about a remarkable Polish playwright active during the 1920s and 30s who was in the process of being rediscovered, and he explained to me that the productions of his plays, many being staged for the first time, were the most exciting events taking place in the Polish theatre.

At that point he pulled open the bottom drawer of desk and drew out two compact gray volumes of plays (eight-by-five, more than five hundred pages each), which he proudly displayed. That was how I first became acquainted with Stanisław Ignacy Witkiewicz.

I took the volumes he handed me and looked at the covers: Dramaty at the top and the author’s pen-name signature, Witkacy, across the lower left half. After that, the volumes went back into the desk drawer.

Later, I learned that this was the precious edition of all of Witkiewicz’s plays that had recently been published (1962) in a drastically limited edition after several years of hard bargaining between the authorities and the editor, who had turned down the option offered by the censor, of a larger printing with some discrete cuts (of remarks that could be offensive to the Soviets), choosing instead an edition of only three thousand copies with no omissions. Eagerly awaited, this edition was sold out even before the day of its release; copies in bookstores were kept beneath the counter for those in the know who had the right contacts.

Within a few days after my first encounter with Witkiewicz, I met Konstanty Puzyna, the editor of that two volume edition, who suggested the idea of translating the playwright into English. That’s how it all started. Now, some forty years later, I have translated nineteen of the twenty-one plays in those two compact volumes.

Living in the USSR in 1967 on a faculty exchange at Moscow State University and then spending two years in Poland as a Fulbright lecturer at Warsaw University from 1968 to 1970 enabled me observe firsthand how theatre functions in totalitarian regimes. As I became acquainted with writers and theatre artists in both Russia and Poland, I learned how their careers were shaped by ideology and saw the roles that they were forced to play. In Russia the novelist and playwright Vassily Aksyonov (1932–2009) was my guide. In Poland central to my understanding was my friendship with Zygmunt Hübner (1930–1989), director of the Teatr Stary in Cracow during its heyday in the 1960s and then director of the Teatr Powszechny in Warsaw and author of the essential book, Theater and Politics.

The position of the artist in twentieth-century totalitarian communist states has never ceased to fascinate. In the Soviet Union and its satellite Eastern bloc countries, which fostered, financed, and pampered its obedient musicians, painters, and poets as prize exhibits to be displayed to the world, the honored and decorated artist was expected, in return, to speak on behalf of the regime or at least refrain from criticizing it. Theatre artists in particular had to tread a delicate line in order to get their work produced without compromising their principles. Forced to co-exist with a hostile ideology that provided benefits and sets limits, the playwright, director, or actor, while seeming to subscribe to a rigid dogma, had to find ways to oppose and transcend it. Failure to play the game adroitly might result in loss of one’s job and privileges or worse: loss of citizenship, expulsion, and exile (as happened to Aksyonov).

Finally, a few words about the craft of translation, to which I have devoted much time and thought. The translator is a medium at a séance, possessed by and speaking for the author. In my translations of Witkacy, I have tried to find a voice for a highly idiosyncratic playwright who was in search of a new autonomous stage language. Translation can also be a political weapon. A controversial and subversive author whose plays in performance were often subject to censorship in communist Poland, Witkacy gained posthumous prestige and security at home by being recognized abroad. Translation and subsequent foreign production and publication in the West helped assure the playwright’s ultimate triumph over those who tried to suppress him.

There are four essays about Witkacy in Quick Change, but given the nature and scope of the collection, it was not possible to reprint any translation of his plays. Instead, I have included a selection of his letters and also translations that accompanied seven other essays as integral parts of the original publication. Five of these are theatrical—all miniatures in different dramatic idioms indicating the range of styles and forms that have attracted me as a translator: a lyrical Pierrot text by a mime, two naturalistic comédies rosses, a pornographic puppet play, and a surreal poetic evocation of post-revolutionary disenchantment. The other two examples are English renderings of theoretical texts—an important and undervalued aspect of the translator’s work.

Of the many wise and clever things said about translation, two strike me as particularly incisive. Goethe writes, “People may say what they like of the inadequacy of translation, it is and remains one of the weightiest and worthiest of employments in the general life of the world.” Struggling with intractable passages and full of self-doubts, the bedeviled translator can turn to this generous encomium for reassurance. In Beyond Good and Evil, II, 28, Nietzsche points out the greatest difficulty facing the translator, “That which translates worst from one language to another is the tempo of its style.” This warning should be heeded. Quick Change demands fast rhythms. In his advice to potential future directors of his plays, Witkacy insists that the dialogue be spoken as rapidly as possible.

What has been the domain of these essays? Nothing vast, and yet, I hope, something substantive and coherent—the roughly one hundred years of modern European performance stretching from the founding of the Moscow Art Theatre to the death of Grotowski (with a few excursions back in time to antecedents and ancestors). This epoch saw the flowering of modern theatre—and its eventual end. My essays have touched on a few of the theatrical events and issues—both big and small—occurring within that panorama, and they have raised questions about the power of the theatrical arts which transcend the particular incidents that occasioned my inquiries.

This epoch is now over and complete—almost all its major practitioners are either dead or inactive. These essays are in praise of the art, and in remembrance of the artists, of that past time.