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Gustaw Holoubek

Gustaw Holoubek, photo: Włodzimierz Wasyluk / Reporter / East News
Gustaw Holoubek, photo: Włodzimierz Wasyluk / Reporter / East News

An exceptional theatre and film actor and stage director born on April 21, 1923, in Krakow. Died in Warsaw on March 6, 2008.

Table of contents: | Early life | Professional Career | Settling in Warsaw | Significant Awards |

An 'intellectual actor'who throughout his career has exhibited a propensity for distancing himself from the roles he has played. A critic once wrote: 

[Holoubek] belongs to that species of actor who always plays only himself, yet one can never get enough of him.

Early Life

Gustaw Holoubek graduated from B. Nowodworski High School in Krakow. In 1939 he participated in the defense of Poland as a member of a military training unit. He was taken prisoner and sent to the prisoner of war camp at Altengrabow, from where he was later transferred to a camp in Toruń. Released in 1940, he returned to Krakow, where he spent the remaining years of the war working for the Municipal Gas Authority. During the German occupation of Poland, he was a member of an underground theatre. In 1945 he passed the exams for the Dramatic Studio of the Teatr im. J. Słowackiego (J. Słowacki Theatre) in Krakow that had been founded by Karol Frycz. He graduated from the studio in 1947.

During the initial years of his career on stage, he performed in a number of Krakow theatres, which at the time constituted a single institution known as the Miejskie Teatry Dramatyczne (Municipal Dramatic Theatres) (1947-1949). Throughout this time he also served as an assistant under Władysław Woźnik at the theatre school in Krakow, where he taught acting. In 1949 he became a member of the acting troupe of the Teatr Ślaski im. St. Wyspiańskiego (Stanisław Wyspiański Silesian Theatre) in Katowice, also serving as this institution's artistic director from 1954 to 1956. In 1958 he established relationships with a number of Warsaw theatres. He appeared on stage at the Teatr Polski / Polish Theatre (1958-1959), Teatr Dramatyczny / Dramatic Theatre (1959-1963) and Teatr Narodowy / National Theatre (1964-1968).

In 1968 he returned to the Teatr Dramatyczny for a longer engagement, serving as artistic director from 1971 to 1982. From 1970 to 1981 he was president of SPATiF (Association of Polish Theatre and Film Actors). From 1976 to 1982 he served as a deputy to the Sejm (parliament) of the Polish People's Republic. In 1981, during a SPATiF convention that resulted in the restoration of the organization's former name - Związek Artystów Scen Polskich (Association of Polish Stage Artists) - Holoubek was selected honorary chairman of the association. Soon afterwards, in 1982, the association was dissolved by authorities. That same year Holoubek was rehired by the Teatr Polski. From 1989, he was linked to the Teatr Ateneum (Athenaeum Theatre) in Warsaw, and became this stage's artistic director in 1997. Holoubek was also active as an educator from 1973. He began as a lecturer at the State Higher School of Theatre in Warsaw and was a professor at this school (now called the Theatre Academy) from 1989. Holoubek was elected to the Senate of the Republic of Poland in 1989 and served as a member of this newly formed legislative body for one term.

Professional Career

Gustaw Holoubek debuted on the professional stage in 1947 as Charis in Józef Karbowski's staging of Stefan Flukowski's Odys u Feaków / Odysseus and the Phaeacians at the Stary Teatr (Old Theatre) in Krakow (1947). He was cast mostly in minor comedic roles at the beginning of his acting career in the theatres of Krakow. In 1949 he moved to Katowice with Władysław Woźnik, who was appointed director of the Silesian Theatre and would serve in this capacity for two seasons. During this time, Woźnik succeeded in turning Holoubek into a dramatic actor and in instilling in him a vast respect for language.

Many years later, Holoubek would say,

The teacher to whom I owe everything - from the fundamental knowledge I possess, through my faith in the fact that poetry can be useful, to the practical support I received during my initial years on stage in Katowice - is Wladyslaw Woznik. In my view, his knowledge of the theatre arts was greater than that of all those who I have had the opportunity of knowing in my life. (...) The period in Katowice from 1949 to 1956, he continued, was for me a basic acting course in confrontation with the best and most vibrant audiences, because we performed for workers and the young intelligentsia - the abundant and lively intelligentsia that bloomed after the war. We went on mammoth tours, traveling a total of about one hundred fifty thousand kilometers by bus, performing in forty different localities in Silesia, places we visited on a regular basis (M. Czanerle, Gustaw Holoubek. Notatki o aktorze myslącym / Gustaw Holoubek - Notes on a Thinking Actor, WAiF, Warsaw, 1972).

Holoubek debuted at the theatre in Katowice in the role of the aged Perchykhin in Gorky's Mieszczanie / The Petty Bourgeois, directed by Edward Żytecki (1949). While in Katowice, the actor also debuted as a director, staging a production of Trzydzieści srebrników / Thirty Pieces of Silver by Howard Fast (1951). Holoubek put in a number of important performances while working on the Silesian stage. He put in multiple appearances in productions directed by Roman Zawistowski. These included a role of Oront in Moliere's Mizantrop / The Misanthrope (1951), and the roles of Latka in Fredro's Dożywocie / The Annuity (1951) and King Jan Kazimierz in Słowacki's Mazepa (1953). He also acted in plays he himself directed, appearing as Doctor Rank in Ibsen's Nora / A Dolls House (1953) and in the title role in Slowacki's Fantazy (1955). As Jan Paweł Gawlik wrote of the latter performance, "This was an exceptional Fantazy, saturated with a clear and engaging note of self-irony, a Fantazy who with perverse, careless and deep passion seeks the truth about his environment, the world, himself" (J.P. Gawlik, "Twarze teatru" / "Faces of the Theatre," Wrocław, 1963). When he became artistic director in 1954, Holoubek invited Tadeusz Kantor to work at the theatre in Katowice. Kantor, a major theatrical innovator, staged a production of Lorca's Czarujaca szewcowa / The Shoemaker's Prodigious Wife there.

Settling in Warsaw

In 1956 Holoubek was forced to leave Katowice due to a serious lung illness that required a change in climate. He settled in Warsaw permanently in 1957.

In Warsaw, says Holoubek, I decided to do the opposite of what I had been doing until then, namely, to define myself through my profession. I wanted to use every opportunity that I could find to articulate what I personally wanted to say through the characters I played. I wanted to express my view of the world, life, morality; I wanted to express my aesthetic - this was the purpose for which I used my acting (M. Czanerle, Gustaw Holoubek. Notatki o aktorze myslącym, WAiF, Warsaw, 1972).

The first role he played in Warsaw was that of Judge Cust in Ugo Betti's Trąd w Pałacu Sprawiedliwości / Corruption in the Palace of Justice. In this production, directed by Maria Wiercińska on the Chamber Stage of the Polish Theatre (1958), Holoubek's performance proved a revelation.

I remember the moment when Gustaw Holoubek appeared in front of a Warsaw public, wrote Zbigniew Raszewski. (...) On stage, a group of aces and big wigs. At a certain moment, far upstage and to the right instead of straight in front of us, an actor enters the stage. He is none too conspicuous in appearance, he looks at no one, sits down (there, in the depths) and calmly begins to read a newspaper. The aces and big wigs continue to debate, but absolutely no one is listening to them. Everyone looks fascinated upon this puzzling figure with a newspaper. This was a provocatively neutral entrance. (One of the most beautiful I had ever seen) (Z. Raszewski, "Teatr w świecie widowisk / Theatre in a World of Spectacles, Krag Publishing, Warsaw, 1991).

Andrzej Władysław Kral thus described the characters created by Holoubek:

His heroes always seem to be contemporary men - no matter their costumes - because as an actor he is interested in the enduring elements of human nature, in passions that vary in terms of form of expression but are unchanging in substance. He does not tolerate internal stylization; any and all stylization of emotional content is alien to him" (A.W. Kral, "Teatr" / "Theatre" monthly, 1959, no. 6).

The impression he made with this first Warsaw entrance was solidified by his portrayal of Goetz in Sartre's Diabeł i Pan Bóg / The Devil and the Good Lord at the Dramatic Theatre, directed by Ludwik René (1960).

From these two roles - the Judge and Goetz, wrote Edward Krasiński, began to arise the legend of Holoubek, an actor of a generation that had endured bitter experience and rebelled. His fame gradually acquired mythical proportions. He was thought of as an 'actor-intellectual' characterized by reflective acting, philosophical reflection, 'intellectual acting' that countered pathos and convention, was cold, ironic, expressive of the tragedy of hell created by man and times of contempt" (E. Krasiński, "Dialog" / "Dialogue" monthly, 1992, no. 5).

At the Dramatic Theatre in Warsaw, Holoubek's roles included that of Oedipus, a man possessed of a mysterious and not entirely conscious knowledge of fate, in a production directed by Ludwik René (1961), and the title role in Hamlet in a production he directed himself (1962).

Holoubek also began to collaborate with Kazimierz Dejmek, director of the National Theatre, and put in some excellent performances on this stage. These included the title character in Shakespeare's Richard II directed by Henryk Szletyński (1964), Przelecki in Żeromski's Uciekła mi przepióreczka / My Little Quail Has Flown directed by Jerzy Goliński (1964), Riccardo in Rolf Hochhuth's Namiestnik / The Deputy directed by Kazimierz Dejmek (1966) and finally Gustaw-Konrad in Dejmek's historical staging of Dziady / Forefather's Eve (1968). After the authorities dismissed Dejmek from his position as director, in a gesture of solidarity Holoubek and a group of actors abandoned the theatre.

In 1969 Holoubek once again signed on with Warsaw's Dramatic Theatre for what would turn out to be a prolonged period. As the artistic director of this stage, he created a theatre with a reputation for artistic quality, ensuring that it possessed a contemporary repertoire and cooperated with outstanding artists, including directors Ludwik René, Jerzy Jarocki, Maciej Prus, Kazimierz Dejmek, Bohdan Korzeniewski, scenery designers Kazimierz Wiśniak and Jan Kosiński, and musician Stanisław Radwan. He assembled one of the best acting ensembles in the post-war history of Poland. Actors who appeared on stage at the Dramatic Theatre under his tenure included Jadwiga Jankowska-Cieślak, Zbigniew Zapasiewicz, Andrzej Szczepkowski, Piotr Fronczewski and Marek Walczewski. During this period, the Dramatic Theatre toured its productions throughout the United States, the Federal Republic of Germany and the Soviet Union. Holoubek's directing projects at the time included Fredro's Zemsta / The Revenge (1975) and Shakespeare's Hamlet (1979). He himself appeared in plays of the classical repertoire, seeking as ever to imbue his performances with contemporary references. The characters he portrayed included Segismundo in Calderon's Życie Snem / Life Is a Dream directed by Ludwik René (1969), Lear in Shakespeare's Król Lear / King Lear directed by Jerzy Jarocki (1977) and Thomas Beckett in Eliot's Mord w Katedrze / Murder in the Cathedral directed by Jerzy Jarocki (1982). He also put in excellent performances in contemporary dramas, playing Skrzypek in Mrożek's Rzeźnia / The Slaughterhouse directed by Jerzy Jarocki (1975), Theodore Hickman in O'Neill's Przyjdzie na pewno / The Iceman Cometh directed by Jerzy Antczak, Fior in Gombrowicz's Operetka / Operetta directed by Maciej Prus (1980) and Superiusz in Mrożek's Pieszo / On Foot directed by Jerzy Jarocki (1981).

Pieszo / On Foot, directed by Jarocki, premiered during the tumultuous times of Solidarity's surges, struggles and dreams. Viewers applauded the production, critics extolled its artistic strengths. A group of military officers, however, protested (...) by publishing an open letter in 'Żołnierz Wolności' ('Soldier of Freedom'). (...) This letter proved a bad omen" (E. Krasiński, "Dialog" / "Dialogue" monthly, 1992, no. 5).

The stability of the Dramatic Theatre began to waver for political reasons. In 1983 Holoubek was removed from his position as director soon after state authorities disbanded ZASP (the Association of Polish Stage Artists), of which Holoubek was president. This was part of the government response to the actors' boycott of regime-run television and radio after December 13th, 1981, when Martial Law was declared in Poland. In addition to all this, Holoubek had rendered himself unpopular with the authorities immediately after the imposition of Martial Law by handing in his resignation as a parliamentary deputy in protest.

Holoubek is and remains a representative of that species of the Polish intelligentsia that is dying before our eyes," wrote Janusz Majcherek. "In this particular case, this member of the intelligentsia is a great actor, but not for a moment has he abandoned - I say this without hesitation - the mission of the intelligentsia, a mission that often, and especially during politically unfavorable times, also involves complications and compromises. (...) Holoubek has subordinated his acting career to his way of being, entwining it with political reality, with the prerogatives and choices of the intelligentsia. He has imposed his own personality upon his work as an actor, accustomed audiences to the fact that he is something more than an actor" (J. Majcherek, "Holoubek" in: "Gustaw Holoubek. Album jubileuszowy" / "Gustaw Holoubek - An Anniversary Album," Wydawca Państwowy Teatr Ateneum im. S. Jaracza w Warszawie / S. Jaracz Atheneum Theatre in Warsaw State Publishing House, Warsaw, 1997).

His subsequent period of cooperation with Kazimierz Dejmek at the Polish Theatre in Warsaw proved less than harmonious. During his seven years at this theatre, Holoubek was cast in only five roles, including that of Stańczyk (the Jester) in Wyspiański's Wesele / The Wedding directed by Kazimierz Dejmek (1984), the title role in Dürrenmatt's Romulus Wielki / Romulus the Great, also directed by Dejmek (1985), and Leibniz in Tadeusz Bradecki's Wzorzec dowodów metafizycznych / A Model of Metaphysical Proofs directed by the author (1987).

In 1989 at the Atheneum Theatre, Holoubek put in an engaging performance as the Hero in Tadeusz Konwicki's Mała apokalipsa / A Minor Apocalypse directed by Krzysztof Zaleski. This director also mounted a production of Shakespeare's The Tempest with Holoubek as Prospero (1991). Holoubek himself directed Słowacki's plays Mazepa, in which he played King Jan Kazimierz (1992), and Fantazy, with himself in the title role (1994). One of his most recent performances of significance was as Wilhelm Fürtwangler in Ronald Harwood's Za i przeciw / For and Against, directed by Janusz Warmiński (1995).

Holoubek has appeared in almost one hundred Polish Television Theatre productions under directors like Jerzy Gruza, Zygmunt Hübner, Andrzej Łapicki and Ludwik René. He himself directed television productions of Ugo Betti's Trąd w Pałacu Sprawiedliwości / Corruption in the Palace of Justice (1970), Fantazy (1971), Słowacki's Beatrix Cenci (1973) and Kordian (1980), Hamlet (1974), Gorky's Na Dnie / The Lower Depths (1994) and Zapolska's Panna Maliczewska / Miss Maliczewska (1997).

Holoubek's career in Polish film has been no less illustrious. In his first feature role he played the alcoholic Kuba in Wojciech Has' Pętla / The Noose based on the prose of Marek Hłasko (1957). Holoubek went on to work with Has on a number of other occasions, appearing as Mirek in Pożegnania / Partings based on the prose of Stanisław Dygat (1958), Dziadzio (Grandpa) in Wspólny pokój / One Room Tenants based on the work of Zbigniew Uniłowski (1959), the attorney Rennert in Rozstanie / Goodbye to the Past (1960), Don Pedro Velasquez in Rękopis znaleziony w Saragossie / The Saragossa Manuscript based on the work of Wacław Potocki (1964) and Doctor Gotard in Sanatorium pod Klepsydrą / The Hourglass Sanatorium based on the prose of Bruno Schulz (1973). Holoubek has also worked closely with Tadeusz Konwicki, appearing in a number of this director's films, playing roles like the Farmer in Salto / The Dance (1965), Max in Jak daleko stąd, jak blisko / How Far, How Near (1971), the Poet in Opowieść o 'Dziadach' Adama Mickiewicza. Lawa / Lava. The Story of Adam Mickiewicz's 'Dziady'  based on Mickiewicz's Dziady / Forefathers' Eve (1989). The actor has also worked with a number of other directors, including Janusz Morgenstern (Wiewiórski in Jutro premiera / Opening Tomorrow, 1962), Leonard Buczkowski (Von Steinhagen in Czas Przeszły / Time Past, 1961); Napoleon in Marysia i Napoleon / Maria and Napoleon, 1966) and Janusz Zaorski (the Professor in Pokój z widokiem na morze / A Room with a View of the Sea, 1977). He is known to the wider public for playing Professor Tutka in the television series Klub profesora Tutki / The Professor Tutka Club, which was based on the works of Jerzy Szaniawski and was directed by Andrzej Kondratiuk (1966-1968).

Significant Awards

  • 1952 - State Award, 3rd class,
  • 1953 - State Award, 2nd class,
  • 1961 - Award of the Theatre Critic's Club for his performance as Goetz in Jean Paul Sartre's Diabeł i Pan Bóg / The Devil and the Good Lord at the Dramatic Theatre, directed by Ludwik René
  • 1966 - State Award, 1st class
  • 1972 - Award of the Minister of Culture and Art, 1st class
  • 1977 - Golden Mermaid for Achievements for the Capital City of Warsaw
  • 1978 - State Award, 1st class

In addition, Gustaw Holoubek has received the following medals and commendations: Banner of Labor 1st and 2nd class, Cavalier's Cross of the Order of the Restitution of Poland, commendation for Cultural Activist of Merit.

Author: Monika Mokrzycka-Pokora, March 2003; updated: March 2008.'s picture
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Gustaw Holoubek


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Gustaw Holoubek


Gustaw Holoubek


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