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Edmund Wierciński

An esteemed stage director, actor and educator. Born on February 19th, 1899 in Jurgowo in the Wołkowysk district; died on September 13th, 1955 in Warsaw.

He spent his early youth in Vilnius, where he studied at a local school and had his first theatre experiences. He became a member of the clandestine independence organization "Wyzwolenie" ["Liberation"], which developed on the ideas and traditions of an early 19th century secret student movement at Vilnius University. This group also organized clandestine amateur theatre performances, and Wierciński himself co-organized a production based on Adam Mickiewicz's Dziady / Forefather's Eve part III, playing the role of Gustaw-Konrad. This production was staged by Karol Borowski, a director at the local professional theatre in Vilnius, where Wierciński saw productions of the plays of Stanisław Wyspiański, Juliusz Słowacki, Zygmunt Krasiński and Aleksander Fredro. He also saw a number of performances at Warsaw theatres.

Soon after the start of World War I, the artist and his family traveled to Tomsk in Siberia. He passed his baccalaureate in 1916 at a gymnasium in Tomsk and subsequently enrolled in the Department of Law at Tomsk University, where he was an active member of the Polish student organization "Ognisko" ["Bonfire"], which also organized amateur performances, staging works like Forefathers' Eve and Słowacki's Maria Stuart / Mary Stuart.

In 1918 Wierciński volunteered for the Polish Army in Siberia and was delegated to the Representation of the Polish War Committee in Tomsk. Subsequently, in 1919, he was sent to the army's school for artillery instructors. When the Polish armies in Siberia laid down their arms, he was among those sent to a prisoner of war camp in Krasnoyarsk. Soon afterward, he made his way back to Poland through Finland. While wandering around Russia, he had hardly forgotten his passion for the theatre, attending performances in Saint Petersburg as well as in Moscow - at the Moscow Art Theatre (MXAT) among other venues. He developed a lively interest in Russian theatre and its reformers, including Konstantin Stanislavsky, Vsevolod Meyerhold and Alexander Tairov, and read the works of western European theatre reformers Edward Gordon Craig and Georg Fuchs.

Upon returning to Poland, he settled in Warsaw. He began studying law at Warsaw University (1921), but quickly shifted to philosophy (1922-1925). At the university, he also organized an amateur theatre group called the "Koło Sztuki Dramatycznej" ["Dramatic Arts Club"], within which he tackled both the classical Polish repertoire, staging excerpts from Wyspiański's Noc listopadowa / November Night and Wesele / The Wedding and from Słowacki's Ksiądz Marek / Father Mark and Balladyna. The group also made attempts at the newest drama, working on Tadeusz Rittner's W małym domku / In a Small House and Maurice Maeterlinck's Princess Malena.

In 1921 he abandoned his plans to become a lawyer and joined Juliusz Osterwa's Reduta Theatre. He was fascinated by the exploratory theatre idea propagated by this Warsaw troupe and became one of the most zealous "Reduta adepts". In 1922 he passed a professional acting exam before a special committee of the Union of Polish Stage Artists. Wierciński was with the Reduta throughout its 1924 national tour and through 1925, when it remained in Warsaw. The theatre then relocated to Vilnius. Wierciński gained significant experience with the troupe, thoroughly subscribing to its proposal of theatre as mission. He perfected his acting skills and learned ensemble acting, textual analysis and detailed language work. After debuting as Rafael in Zygmunt Kawecki's Balwierz zakochany / A Barber in Love (1921), he went on to play the Evangelist in a stylized spectacle titled Wielkanoc / Easter based on texts by Mikołaj of Wilkowiecko and directed by Leon Schiller (1923), and Hubert Olbromski in Stefan Żeromski's {C}Turoń {C} directed by Osterwa and Limanowski (1923). Osterwa also cast him as the Genius in Wyspiański's Wyzwolenie / Liberation (1925), Wernyhora in the same author's The Wedding (1925) and - in what would be his final role at the Reduta - Don Fernando in Calderon-Słowacki's Książę Niezłomny / The Adamant Prince (1926).

Naturalistic acting was nothing strange to Reduta actors guided by Mieczysław Limanowski and Osterwa, both of whom emphasized the precisely analyzed mental states of characters. Yet Limanowski and Osterwa hardly sought to impose a single acting style on their actors. Wierciński's performances were a departure from realistic acting. More synthetic and poetic in approach, they were marked by the artist maintaining a distance to the parts he played. He often resorted to pompousness, almost enlarging or deforming character traits and actions. In any case, as an actor he felt most comfortable in a poetic or stylized repertoire, rather than in a purely realistic one. He supported his acting talent with a strong inner conviction that there was a need for poetic and experimental theatre that sought new forms and did not remain flatly realistic or naturalistic. In 1925, by which time he was slowly beginning to part ways with the Reduta, Wierciński wrote the following in a letter to his wife:

"I long for colors, forms, structures - for Art. (...) Either way I am a deadly foe of realism in art - the realism of life, that is. I want grand, festive art" (in: E. Krasiński, "Edmund Wierciński", Warsaw, 1960).

Initially, Wierciński also worked on analyzing texts at the Reduta, and then was given responsibility for mounting revival productions. His debut as director came in 1927 with a production of Felicja Kruszewska's Sen / Dream. At the time, an artistic dispute was developing between Wierciński and Osterwa, with the former strongly opposing the realism that had "gripped" the Reduta's productions in Vilnius. Critically very well received, Dream proved a manifesto of Expressionist theatre with Formist scenery and movement and gesture tending toward the grotesque. Wierciński and a group of actors abandoned the Reduta subsequent to this premiere. The rebel group soon made a place for itself at the New Theatre in Poznan, where Wierciński revived Kruszewska's Dream (1927) and continued to experiment with theatrical form. He also directed Ferdinand Crommelynck's The Sculptor of Masks (1927) and Stanisław Przybyszewski's Śnieg / Snow (1927), and somewhat later Emil Zegadłowicz's Łyżki i księżyc / Spoons and the Moon (1928) and Stanisław Ignacy Witkiewicz's Metafizyka Dwugłowego Cielęcia / The Metaphysics of the Two-Headed Calf (1928). Yet his brand of experimental theatre failed to gain the public's understanding as audiences generally disliked plays that departed significantly from so-called life truths. Wierciński later admitted that rigid symbolic treatment sometimes led him to resort to a kind of conventionality. Yet it was with these productions that he learned to employ theatrical form, experiment with light and stage visuals, work on composing group scenes.

In 1928 Wierciński abandoned the Poznań theatre and spent the next two years acting and directing with the Municipal Theatres in Łódź. He partly abandoned experimentation, skillfully and innovatively staging many comedies, including Wojciech Bogusławski's Henryk VI / Henry VI (1929) in a production that was conventionally stylized and very well received by critics and audiences. Yet he also directed Słowacki's Father Mark (1928), Shakespeare's Hamlet in a production inspired by the ideas of E.G. Craig (1930) and Ernst Toller's Hinkemann (1929), which seemed to expand on his previous repertoire interests in that it had a strong social theme. The latter production seemed to reflect certain neo-realist tendencies, or to embody the so-called 'composed realism' that Wierciński would steadily develop in his subsequent work as a director (he passed the requisite extramural exam in 1929).

In the next broadly defined period of his creative life, Wierciński collaborated with Leon Schiller. During this time the director was affiliated with the Municipal Theatres in Lviv (1930-1931), Warsaw's Melodrama Theatre (1931), once again with the Lvov stages (1932) and finally the New Athenaeum Theatre in Warsaw (1932-1933). He then worked on various Warsaw stages, at the Żeromski and Chamber theatres as well as at the Reduta Institute. From 1934 until World War II broke out, he was a staff actor and director at the theatres of the Society for the Promotion of Theatrical Culture and continued to guest direct at the Municipal Theatres in Lviv. During the 1930s the artist took a stronger interest in social issues and relevant subject matter. In Stanisława Przybyszewska's Sprawa Dantona / The Danton Case (Grand Theatre in Lvov, 1931), Wilhelm Herzog's The Dreyfus Affair (Melodrama Theatre in Warsaw, 1931) and Eugene O'Neill's All God's Children Got Wings (Grand Theatre in Lvov, 1932), he expertly combined realist and factographic forms with directorial metaphor, and the latter production was seen as a manifesto of neo-realist theatre. Shakespeare's A Midsummer Night's Dream, which Wierciński staged in Lviv with Constructivist settings designed by Andrzej Pronaszko (1932), proved more formal, akin to his earlier Hamlet.

During Germany's World War II occupation of Poland, the director was an active member of the underground. In 1941 Wierciński, Bohdan Korzeniewski and Schiller founded the Secret Theatre Council, which organized theatre life during the occupation and formulated plans for postwar theatre life. Additionally, Wierciński and his wife created shows featuring poetry and music, while he also continued to be an educator. Since 1934 he had been lecturing at the State Institute of the Theatre Arts and during the war he continued to teach during secretly organized classes.

"His lectures and exercises always strongly emphasized art's social significance and its need to link into contemporaneity and society", wrote Edward Krasiński of Wierciński the educator. "He valued links with tradition highly but also devoted much attention to more recent creative currents. (...) He demanded that his students be rational and ethical, that they think logically and employ reason in commanding their imagination and emotions" (E. Krasiński, "Edmund Wierciński", Warsaw, 1960).

In 1942 Wierciński contracted a pneumonia and entered long-term treatment, among other places at a sanatorium in Otwock. At the war's end, in 1945, he relocated to Łódź.

Wierciński and Bohdan Korzeniewski ran the Poetic Stage of the Polish Army Theatre in Łódź for the 1945/46 season. While there, Wierciński created his famous staging of Jean Giraudoux's Elektra (1946), seen at the time as a Polish national mystery play filled with tragedy and tragic irony. A mature, philosophically thought-out production, it seemed to both audiences and critics to embody certain political themes that were linked to the Warsaw Uprising and somewhat less than comfortable to the country's new rulers. Shortly after the premiere, further performances were cancelled and the experimental stage was disbanded. In these highly unfavorable political circumstances, Wierciński sought a place in the theatre, yet found this very difficult given his inflexibility and refusal to cater to the authorities. He refused to mount any ideological or 'pre-manufactured' productions. Soon, he became an inspector for the Union of Polish Stage Artists, visiting theatres and describing their artistic status. He also guest directed in Katowice and Kraków. In 1949-1952 he worked at the Dramatic Theatres in Wrocław, and from 1952 to his death he was affiliated with Warsaw's Polish Theatre, which had been his professional home during the 1947/1948 season. He continued to teach and from 1952-1954 served as dean of the Stage Directing Department at the Higher School of Theatre in Warsaw.

He produced very mature work in the last years of his life, mounting an excellent rendition of Shakespeare's As You Like It at the Polish Theatre in Wrocław (1951) and a series of wonderful productions at the Polish Theatre in Warsaw, including El Cid by Wyspiański-Corneille (1948), Fantazy (1948) and Horsztyński by Słowacki (1953), and - his last production - Alfred de Musset's Lorenzaccio (1955). Wiercinski collaborated with scenery designer Teresa Roszkowska on all his final productions, in which he succeeded almost completely in giving form to the idea of vast or monumental theatre, and certainly to that of a poetic theatre that no longer sought to impress through formal means, instead becoming tranquil, transparent and clear in its themes, and thus seemed more classical.

Awards and distinctions:

  • 1951 - State Award, 2nd class, for his work as a director at the Dramatic Theatre in Wrocław 1953 - Golden Cross of Merit; Officer's Cross of the Order of the Rebirth of Poland
  • 1955 - State Award, 1st class, for his work as a stage director

Author: Monika Mokrzycka-Pokora, September 2006's picture
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