Memories, Far from Dead, of Tadeusz Kantor

Tadeusz Kantor moved to Cracow from the Galician hinterland upon graduation from an excellent secondary school, studied here and risked his life by staging clandestine plays under the Nazi occupation, conducted a running skirmish with the communist bureaucracy while existing on the black-market fringes of the cultural market, and ended up winning world renown and laying a substantial claim to the title of foremost avant-garde theatrical artist of the late twentieth century without ever forsaking the imaginative space of his provincial origins. Ho hum, another Cracow-conquers-the-world success story. Not exactly. Kantor gave more than a few signs that he was exasperated to the point of animosity with local pettifogging and backbiting. Cracow, in turn, repeatedly indicated that the feelings were reciprocal. The titles of two of his last plays, Let the Artists Die and I Shall Never Return, hint at the sentiments involved. When asked where he would never return, he replied: "To Cracow." Kantor rarely staged his later work here, even while regularly winning praise in New York, Milan, or London. Yet he died here on a December night in 1990, after rehearsing a new work in a humble cultural center on the road to Nowa Huta. His life, his work, and the way it ended are in fact a pessimistic Cracow morality tale about the impossibility of escaping from memory or of assigning an unambiguous significance to the things that matter most. If the Nazis had known what Kantor was up to when he staged Wyspianski's Return of Odysseus (in a private apartment) as the tale of a defeated Wehrmacht veteran trudging home after the defeat at Stalingrad, they would have sent him to Auschwitz. His father, on the Germans' blacklist of Polish patriots, had already died there. Once Kantor began winning acclaim, various segments of Cracovian opinion saw him as a hippie threatening to drag the city's youth off the straight and narrow, or as a cosmopolitan opportunist who succeeded abroad despite never having made anything of himself in Poland. Envy had something to do with the latter view, along with ignorance, sometimes willful, of the fact that Kantor never tried very hard to fit into the restricted official scene in People's Poland. His persona, productions, theoretical work and pronouncements were a long, uproarious attack on conventionality, including the banal conventionality of the institutionalized avant-garde: the cultural bureaucrats who made it difficult for him to work in his own city, and the official critics who then pilloried him for going abroad to take advantage of the creative freedom he could not find at home. Eschewing professional actors generally (his artistic program compelled him to regard actors as disreputable impostors hired from a low-rent employment agency), Kantor put together a troupe of local painters, craftsmen, and hangers-on, and took them on a triumphant, quarter-century-long tournee through

Togo. static draping practiced by Christo (an artist he scorned as a commercialized lightweight). the 1930s hallucinogenic portrait painter and absurdist writer Stanislaw Ignacy Witkiewicz. he took in the guiding principles of the avant-garde. Israel. the author and performer. but. One of Kantor's umbrellas even turned up as a subversive element in the official May Day parade. often in the cellars of the Krzysztofory Palace on the Rynek. A leading "happener. Switzerland. who is in her best bra and has a leaf stuck on her nose--that guy thinks he's a conductor and the sea is his orchestra. At the time. Germany. Australia. Japan. He became obsessed with "packaging" things. Looking up. The conductor. that is. He specialized for a time in the dramas of Witkacy. He called his group Cricot2. On artistic scholarships to France in the fifties. **** Uninformed holidaymakers idly looking for amber as they trudged head down along the margin of the beach and the Baltic Sea near the Polish village of Osieki in 1967 may have sensed at a certain moment that they had wandered into the middle of something unusual. *** . who found themselves manipulated and manhandled into the action. and released multiple compositions featuring his favorite object. as opposed to the grandiose. the umbrella. and then started mixing things up. In one Witkacy production. an allusion to an earlier Cracow "painters' theatre" that flourished at the Artists' Club on ul. Austria. In Kantor's hands. Iran. Czechoslovakia. Yugoslavia. Italy. Wales. the United States.Scotland. he seemed to be an academically trained. Venezuela. Belgium. who had divided his time between Cracow and Zakopane. Cricot2 often made its debut in a given country at a major festival. Sweden. but also for the texts and the actors. but only eight of those occasions were in Cracow. Spain. and Iceland. Kantor also worked in overtly theatrical modes. Finland. Witkacy's plays became traps not only for the audience. the Netherlands." or arranger of happenings. Lobzowska when Kantor was a student before the war. angular figure in a frock coat standing atop a lifeguard's seat and waving his arms about as if--get this. Greece. Kantor sent his packages out into the world and made them move. He employed official letter carriers to deliver an outsized envelope through the streets of Warsaw. He added three-dimensional elements that extended beyond the frames of his paintings. professional stage designer and painter gone wrong. Kantor confined his cast to a clothes cupboard. Canada. England. Look at him. says Kowalski in the unbuttoned check shirt he is wearing over his blue nylon swimming trunks to Kowalska. his audience sat in rows of beach chairs. in the Polish capital. and then began wrapping them. France. enthusiastic reviews and return invitations followed almost invariably. The troupe mounted Kantor's major productions 191 times. beating time and coaxing the waves out of the depths. was Tadeusz Kantor. Behind the conductor. they saw a gaunt.

is impossible. as the theatrical demiurge. Plesniarowicz shows how Kantor summoned his old people. one of the small glass negatives used before the triumph of flexible film) that. The processions range from the tragic. Yet Kantor makes the actors keep trying over and over. Drawing extensively on Kantor's theoretical writings and his own interviews with the artist. comes from his own childhood. in simple terms. as in the Hebrew lesson suggesting the loss of so many members of the class in the Holocaust or the heartbreak of the childless woman haunted by the hollow knocking sound of the Mechanical Cradle. Kantor. He turned his actors into "bio-objects. whose only official employment was as a stage designer. in many cases. who were. a task shared by the actors. Kantor was always onstage during performances. In The Dead Class. stage design. have to the uniformed schoolboy he had once been? That moment at the seashore marked the birth of The Dead Class. At moments. Plesniarowicz shows that Kantor's task. Resurrection of those images. or lamenting the actors. those memories. the futile victims of Kantor's endeavor. burdened by the children they once were. Each of these processions ends with the "intervention of the cleaning woman"--death--who sweeps the pupils back into their benches. broke down the division between actors. and props. That. he saw his own past as a pupil in the Galician shtetl of Wielopole. then the old people who were once those children struggle to rise up from beneath them. the grown-up artist. Plesniarowicz reconstructs each work and demonstrates that they all share a common circular or spiral structure and a characteristic rhythm. he spotted an abandoned one-room wooden school. still dressed in their uniforms. is the drama. was an attempt to bring these old images to life. Out for a walk. Where now were the schoolmates with whom he had shared the benches in the lost world of that little town. It develops differently each time. Furthermore. cajoling. but always collapses ." Krzysztof Plesniarowicz's The Dead Memory Machine takes Kantor's major works apart and discovers the design that underlays them. the child-mannequins alone occupy the school benches." attaching them to or imprisoning them in the props. Then it starts all over again. into a series of processions around the stage. to the nonsensical and vaguely suggestive drivel of an old man in the toilet. the pupils from the little Galician schoolroom are now old people. the seminal play in what Kantor called his "Theatre of Death. in a sense. they carry burdens consisting of Kantor's mannequins of themselves as children.It was during a stay at the seaside where he conducted the waves that Kantor happened upon the concept that would catapult him into world prominence. Kantor's episodes start with a static image. with a synagogue on one side of its archetypical square and a church on the other? And what relation did Kantor himself. and he also brought props to life and made them actors. like an old photograph (to be precise. berating. directing. Peering in through its windows.

but also part of the burden of Cracow's cultural past. in a later play. One of Kantor's final plays includes a photographic studio with an old-fashioned studio camera mounted on a tripod. the studio from the artist's own youth. Plesniarowicz's book casts them into an analytical framework with explanatory power. . a fatal character not unrelated to the great love of Kantor's final years.back into impossibility. Plesniarowicz uses diagrams and convincing analysis to show how Kantor kept enriching and adding variations to the basic scheme. "Madame de la Morte" comes on stage. The image--the memory--is always there. 1994. Have an opinion on this article? Send us your comments All material on this page © Cracow Letters 2003 Krzysztof Plesniarowicz. the book is an adequate starting point for imaginative reconstruction. Therefore. death. Kantor died in Cracow at the age of 75 in 1990. The Dead Memory Machine: Tadeusz Kantor's Theatre of Death. Yet it can never be brought fully to life. which was always as close to performance art as it was to the conventional understanding of theatre. yet memories remain stubbornly dead. Translated by William Brand. the pallor of Polish history. in a central role. His onstage presence was central to his work. Cracow: Cricoteka. it is no longer performed. fading into the Cracow background from which they arose. For those coming to Kantor fresh. the motive for action and the burden from which the actors can never disentangle themselves. Indeed. when the actors are finally in place and ready to be captured for eternity. Memory is the stuff of life. which we can try to bring back to life in our minds. The performances have turned out to be "ecological art. Or. it suddenly turns out that the camera is in fact a machine gun. and always. For those who witnessed the performances or who watch them today on video. Kantor's later plays reach out to embrace the rituals of his own family background." biodegradable. in their own terms. they are fainter and fainter images. even if we know that the effort is finally futile.

Wales. He served during the 1990s as director of the Cricoteka. a revised and updated version. . studio and museum that Kantor established to preserve his heritage. who specialize in contemporary theatre.The author of the book reviewed here. including additional biographical material to place the artist more fully in his local context. the archive. The Cricoteka published this volume in English in 1994. is professor of theatre at the university in Cracow. the prestigious publishers in Aberyswyth. is forthcoming from Black Mountain Press. Krzysztof Plesniarowicz.

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