Kantor’s Theatre of Death In Five Scenes
Culture.pl recalls five famous performances of Tadeusz Kantor and his “Theatre of Death.”
The Dead Class
The Dead Class has been performed over 1,500 times in many countries around the world, and in 1976 it was deemed by Newsweek as the best theatrical play in the world.
The main characters of the play are elderly men who return to their school desks after many years, carrying backpacks and mannequins – figures of the aged men’s childhoods. The grand entrée of the actors is accompanied by the sound of the annoyingly recurring Francois Waltz. A lesson takes place, the senior pupils make faces, cry out and shove one another. The images from the class blend with great history (a reference to the outbreak of World War I) and with fragments of Witkacy’s play Tumor Brainowicz / Tumor Mózgowicz.
Wielopole, Wielopole premiered in Florence on June 23, 1980. The poster for the play became famous. Tadeusz Kantor placed on this poster a black and white photograph from the beginning of the 20th century, showing the parish church in Wielopole Skrzyńskie, his hometown. The parish priest at this church was Kantor’s grandmother’s brother – Father Józef Radoniewicz. This is where the artist’s parents were married and he was baptised. He was born in the church’s presbytery, where he also spent the first six years of his life.
In this play death is omnipresent. The action takes place in a 'Room of Imagination' in which various images from the family’s life, wartime memories and scenes referring to Christ’s passion overlap. The space of the room which contains such ordinary pieces of furniture as a bed or a closet is invaded by crosses and recruits coming straight from the war.
Let the Artists Die
Let the Artists Die opened a series of performances by Kantor in which reflections on his achievements and transformations of old motifs played a very important part. The performance’s title is linked to an anecdote often told by Kantor: the neighbours of a Paris gallery run by Catherine Thieck didn’t want to agree to the reconstruction of this gallery located in a shared tenement building. One of the neighbours shouted in protest: “Let the artists die!”
The artist told Krzysztof Miklaszewski:
In this performance, I wanted dying to be an “adhesive”, joining various symptoms of life, and becoming almost a structure of the whole.
I Shall Never Return
I Shall Never Return / Nigdy tu już nie powrócę was the last play which Kantor finished, and the last of his works presented with his participation. The international co-production I Shall Never Return premiered in Milan on 23rd April, 1988. For the first time, Kantor decided not only to be on stage (which he had done before) but to be a fully-fledged actor. He played the part of 'I – in person'.
I Shall Never Return is a collage made from memories – scenes, characters and props once used in Kantor’s theatre. After some time, characters – phantoms from Kantor’s previous plays – barge onto the stage. They jostle and comment on the presence of the person that gave them their stage existence.
In an interview with Ewa Gil-Kołakowska, the artist stated that:
Life is sufficient material for making theatre. I came to this conclusion quite late, but I’m convinced that the art of theatre doesn’t require literature.
Today Is My Birthday
In mid-1989, Tadeusz Kantor started work on a performance which he could not attend. He died in Kraków on 8th December, 1990, after one of the last rehearsals of this play, which was eventually finished by the Cricot 2 theatre. The premiere showings of this French-German-Italian co-production took place in Toulouse and Paris in January 1991.
Today Is My Birthday is a very strongly autothematic work in which Kantor returned to the unrelenting memories of war, friends and family. The set of the play was to bring to mind a painter’s studio; three huge frames were placed on both sides and in the middle of the stage – images whose 'inhabitants' moved, came to life, tried to cross the threshold from one dimension to another.
Kantor himself was to play the part of the Owner of the Poor Room of Imagination, who is celebrating his 75th birthday in the performance. In the end, an empty chair belonging to Kantor played a role in the performance.
Sources: Culture.pl, ed. PZ, Janurary 2015