Theatre director, essayist and pedagogue. One of the most significant figures of post-war theatre in Poland. Born on the 1st of January 1917 in Vienna, died on the 5th of August 2012.
Erwin Axer, as one of the star pupils of the great stage manager Leon Schiller, often proved to be at odds with his mentor, as Marta Fik suggests in her article "Thirty-five Seasons" / "Trzydzieści pięć sezonów", WAiF, 1981. This rebellion, however, was never ideological or political. Axer opposed the vision that saw theatre as being something monumental, deeply rooted in Romanticism, and very close to Schiller.
Axer principally staged contemporary Western European and American plays, including Major Barbara by George Bernard Shaw (1947), The Glass Menagerie by Tennessee Williams (1947), The Respectful Prostitute, the first postwar staging of one of Jean Paul Sartre's plays. "His Lódź plays are much indebted to Italian neorealist cinema", wrote critic Rafal Węgrzyniak.
After spending his childhood and youth in Lwow (Lviv), he went on to graduate in 1939 from the Directing School at the State Theatre Academy in Warsaw. His directorial debut was the one-act play by Eugene O'Neill Moon of the Caribbean at the National Theatre in Warsaw. Before the war, at that same theatre, he directed the opera Nędza uszczęśliwiona by Maciej Kamieński (1938) and L'Annonce faite a Marie (1912, Tidings Brought to Mary) by Paul Claudel in 1938, and, in March 1939, Miss Julie by August Strindberg. The first two years after the war, he worked as a director and actor at the Polski Teatr Dramatyczny in Lwow (Lviv). It was there that he directed Panna Maliczewska / Miss Maliczewska, by Gabriela Zapolska, in 1941, in which he also played episodic roles.
In late 1942, he left for Warsaw after his father, a well-known lawyer, was arrested. He took part in the Warsaw Uprising, after which he was in a German POW camp. From there, he was taken to the Harz mountains, where he worked in a quarry. After he returned to Poland, he and Michal Melina became directors of the Teatr Kameralny Domu Zolnierza (Studio Theatre of the Soldier's Home) in Lódź, which was renamed Teatr Wspolczesny (Contemporary Theatre) when it moved to Warsaw in 1949. He was the theatre's director until 1981. From 1954-1957, he was the director of the united stages of the Contemporary and National Theatres.
After 1949, when socialist realism was the required artistic norm in Poland, Axer primarily directed plays that had propagandistic overtones propaganda, such as Niemcy / The Germans by Leon Kruczkowski (1949), Zwykła sprawa / Nothing Unusual by Adam Tarn (1950), and Domek z kart / House of Cards, by Emil Zegadłowicz (1953). Asked many years later about the limits of compromise with the authorities during that period, he said,
During the years 1949-1953, popularly known as the 'Stalinist' years, it is difficult to speak of compromise. The Ministry of Culture determined a list of several hundred plays from which we could choose, including both classics and modern works. We chose what in our opinion we did not have to be ashamed of, considering the circumstances. Although the opportunities for initiative were limited, as is clear, the audience, lacking other options, did not fail us. We concentrated on technique. Our troupe gained experience, and I slowly built my career.
- Erwin Axer in "Past and Future" / "Przeszłość i przyszłość", Życie / Life, 18-19 January 1997).
After the socialist realist period was over, he could return to his interest in contemporary literature. When the Contemporary Theatre was merged with the National Theatre, he directed only in the main building on Theatre Square. The Polish premiere of Ostry dyżur / Emergency Room, by Jerzy Lutowski (1955), was "called political (...) and was to be linked forever with the idea of the 'Thaw'" - a time of coming to terms with the "mistakes and distortions" of communism after the death of Stalin (Marta Fik in "Thirty-five Seasons" / "Trzydzieści pięć sezonów", WAiF, 1981).
An important production during that period was the premiere of Juliusz Słowacki's play Kordian (1956) - one work from the "monumental" Romantic canon directed by Axer in virtually its original, unabridged form. The performance challenged the traditional staging of this play, and was "ascetic and almost rhapsody-like". (Zygmunt Greń, "Powrót Kordiana", Życie Literackie, no. 21/1956) "The modernity of this production of Kordian is not some kind of ideological, experimental modernity, or something extravagant. It is simply the individualism of the director, Axer, which we have seen on more than one occasion in the past few years, and the artistic experience that he has acquired and adapted, have given the group qualities that we usually call 'modern' in theatre." (August Grodzicki, "Kordian nowoczesny i aktualny", Życie Warszawy, 29-30 March 1956)
Our Town by Thornton Wilder (1957) marked Axer's return to the Contemporary Theatre (Teatr Wspolczesny). In 1938, Axer was Schiller's assistant for the Polish premiere of Our Town in the National Theatre. His play strayed from Schiller's idealised vision for what awaits us beyond the grave, shifting the focus to the "here and now". The Contemporary Theatre, which during the 1960s and 1970s worked with directors such as Jerzy Kreczmar, Aleksander Bardini and Andrzej Łapicki, served as a "window on the world", presenting the most interesting plays from recent European and American playwrights. It was regarded as an intellectual theatre that engaged in a dialogue with intellectual audiences. The strong artistic position of the theatre was for the communist authorities proof of its liberal cultural policies. Each premiere on Mokotowska Street was regarded as a real event.
One of the most publicised productions was Bertold Brecht's The Resistible Rise of Arturo Ui (1962), with Tadeusz Łomnicki in the leading role. It was a production whose serious message peered out from behind its grotesque trappings. "Demystification is the only honour contemporary art has. Erwin Axer understood this. And that is why Arturo Ui is not only impeccable in terms of theatre. It has modern bite. And that is the greatest achievement of the theatre and the actor. And the group as a whole." (Jan Kott, "Brecht czyli Teatr", Przeglad Kulturalny, no. 5/1962)
Axer's great success as a director and managing director was the famous-now legendary - production of Tango by Sławomir Mrożek (1965). Tango broke with the tradition of grosteque stagings of Mrożek, with marionette-like heroes whose actions were supposed to be "purely absurd". Tango, according to the director's wishes, was staged almost realistically instead.
The actors' actions (...) took on certain psychological motives, though in comparison to Axer's other work, these were barely sketched out here, and were intended to be more a means of expression than a goal in themselves. As a result, it was possible to preserve the play's many meanings, which included a serious side.
- Marta Fik in "Thirty-five Seasons" / "Trzydzieści pięć sezonów", WAiF, 1981
Axer often reached for the plays of Mrożek appreciative of its absurdist approach to reality.He also directed the following plays at his theatre: Szczęśliwe wydarzenie / Fortunate Event (1972), Krawiec / The Tailor (1979), Wdowy / The Widows (1992), Miłość na Krymie / Love in Crimea (1994) and Ambasador / The Ambassador(1995).
He succeeded in introducing difficult contemporary literature into Polish theatre, including Macbeth, by Eugene Ionesco (1972), Lear by Edward Bond (1974), Ein Fest für Boris (English trans., A Party for Boris, Polish trans. Święto Borysa (1976), Triptychon by Max Frisch (English trans., Triptych; Polish trans., Tryptyk) (1980).
Axer's rare stagings of the classics include Iphigenia (Polish trans., Ifigenia w Taurydzie) by Johann Wolfgang Goethego (1961), The Three Sisters by Anton Chekhov (1963), Mary Stuart by Friedrich Schiller (1969) and The Power of Darkness by Leo Tolstoy (1971). Critic Rafal Węgrzyniak wrote,
Erwin Axer preferred directing that was oblique, subordinate to the ideas and poetics of the play, focused on working with the actors. In Polish postwar theatre, Axer is the only director that remained faithful to his artistic method for almost thirty years, but who also has been able to express himself in a theatre of which he himself has been director since 1946 (...). Faithful of course does not mean "not subject to evolution" - he clearly has evolved (...). Being faithful to his method has been connected simply with a general conviction that the most important elements in theatre, besides the audience, are the play itself and the actors. As a result, he has always avoided plays that clearly require complicated staging. (...) His artistic temper, literary tastes and way of looking at the world all place Axer closer to modern dramaturgy.
Of Axer's qualities as a director, Marta Fik wrote:
He avoids outright metaphors and overly expressive methods, and gives his own commentary discreetly through the presentation of some situations, which are usually so imbued in the climate of the play as a whole that many of the solutions added by the director are attributed to the play's author instead, and also through the way the roles are played?/prowadzenia ról. It is common knowledge that the strong point of Axer's productions is the acting, and acting of a certain kind: not overly expressive, more likely to mute the various kinds of passions, or leave them to the imagination, than to express them outright.
- "Thirty-five Seasons" / "Trzydzieści pięć sezonów", WAiF, 1981
In later years, Erwin Axer directed the Polish premieres of the following plays: Semiramida by Maciej Wojtyszko (1996) and Am Ziel (At the Finish Line; Polish trans., U celu) by Thomas Bernhard (1997). Am Ziel, which takes place below the surface of everyday life, "is an exceptional production for Warsaw theatres. While most Warsaw directors work in the 'entertainment realism'' style, whose examples we have at the Contemporary Theatre, this director, older by a generation, attacks our having grown accustomed to 'pleasant' theatre. His theatre is harsh, but truthful as a result." (Roman Pawłowski, "Czekajac na wakacje", Gazeta Wyborcza, no. 146, 25-26 June 1997)
In 1999, Erwin Axer returned to the stage of Poznań's New Theatre (Teatr Nowy) with George Bernard Shaw's Androcles and the Lion, which he had directed in the Contemporary Theatre (Teatr Wspolczesny) in 1967, as well as in the Schauspielhaus in Düsseldorf. The season 2001/2002, he has directed Easter by August Strindberg in the Contemporary Theatre (Teatr Współczesny).
In1962 Axer began working abroad - in West Germany, Switzerland, the USSR, USA and the Netherlands. Since 1972, he has been the permanent guest-director at the Burgtheater in Vienna. During the 1990s, he also directed at the Thalia Theatre in Hamburg.
From 1949 to 1979, with small breaks, Erwin Axer taught at the Directing Department of the State Theatre Academy in Warsaw. He is the author of numerous essays about theatre and short literary forms that are often compared to the prose of Anton Chekhov; these have been published over the years in the monthlies Dialog and Teatr. Some have also been published in the following books: Listy ze sceny (1955, 1957); Sprawy teatralne (1966) and Ćwiczenia pamięci (1984, 1991, 1998). "Axer's artistry is manifested in its good dose of honesty and restraint, lyric tone and ironic distance. Almost all of the stories told by author have a dramaturgy all of their own. I suspect that the perfection of this prose - because it is prose of the highest quality - is based on a thorough knowledge of the secrets of good dramatic writing, acquired during his years as a director. (...) The case of Erwin Axer, a man of the theatre who has dedicated himself to writing, is clearly not a rarity. [...] The quality of Axer's writing is remarkable." (Rafal Węgrzyniak "Axer - nobilitacja anegdoty", Tygodnik Powszechny, no. 15/1992)
Author: Monika Mokrzycka-Pokora, November 2009.
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