Exceptional actor, director and theatre theoretician. Creator of one of the most important Polish theatrical currents and founder of the experimental Reduta [Redoubt] Theatre. Born 23 June 1885 in Kraków; died 10 May 1947 in Warsaw.
His real name was Julian Andrzej Maluszek and he came from a family of limited means. He studied at St. Anne's Gymnasium in Kraków but failed to advance to the last grade and dropped out of school. He took a theatre job to earn money. In 1904 he joined the ensemble of the People's Theatre and assumed the stage name of Juliusz Osterwa, proposed by Leon Schiller, his erstwhile school colleague. On the stage in Kraków he met artists like Józef Węgrzyn, Maria Dulebianka and Stefan Jaracz. In 1905 he began appearing as a mimic at Krakow's famed Green Balloon Cabaret. He became famous as an impersonator, expertly caricaturing the acting styles of celebrated stage artists. That same year Ludwik Solski recruited him for the Municipal Theatre in Kraków; subsequently, he would perform on stages in Poznan (1906-1907) and Vilnius (1907-1909). During this time he also traveled extensively, visiting Switzerland, Italy, Austria, France, Greece and Germany, where he learned about the German theatre and, while in Berlin, became enraptured with the idea of chamber theatre as exemplified by the Kleines Theater. In 1910 he moved to Warsaw and signed on with a farcical theatre. A young actor unrivaled in charm, refinement, elegance and his sense of humor, he excelled at playing leading men: sentimental lovers and jovial seducers. He quickly gained immense popularity as an actor in the light comedic and farcical repertoires. His breakthrough came in 1912 with the role of the Prince of Reichstadt in Edmond Rostand's The Eagle at the Grand Theatre, an essentially romantic role that gained him fame throughout the country.
Throughout this time Osterwa was thinking about a different kind of theatre and preparing to play more serious roles in a more ambitious repertoire. At the beginning of World War I he was an actor at the Variety Theatre and successfully directed a production of Stanislaw Wypsiański's Wesele / The Wedding there (1915). However, it was wartime and as an Austrian subject in the Russian partition he was shortly deported into the depths of Russia, specifically to Samara. Other theatre artists, including scenery designer Wincenty Drabik and Arnold Szyfman, the founder of the Polish Theatre in Warsaw, met with a similar fate. While in exile, Osterwa hardly abandoned his theatrical work. In Samara he staged a production of Lucjan Rydel's Jasełka / Nativity Play (1915) among other works, with Drabik serving as production designer. Later, Osterwa traveled to Moscow where Szyfman had opened a temporary branch of the Polish Theatre, staging only Polish plays. At this theatre Osterwa and Drabik mounted productions of Wyspiański's The Wedding and Bolesław Śmiały / Boleslaus The Bold (1916). In this period Osterwa acted in plays completely differing from those in which he had acted in previously, appearing in the dramas of Juliusz Słowacki, Wyspiański and Adam Mickiewicz.
In Moscow the actor familiarized himself with the ideas preached by Konstantin Stanislavsky's Moscow Art Theatre and actually met Stanislavsky. He also had an opportunity to meet and engage in discussions with Alexander Tairov, another Russia theatre reformer. In 1916 he moved to Kiev and became artistic director of the Polish Theatre there. He directed many productions in the Kiev stage, including comedies as well as dramas by Wyspiański and Słowacki. He directed Jan Kochanowski's Odprawa posłów greckich / The Dismissal of the Greek Envoys and Stefan Żeromski's Sułkowski, a play he had tried to stage in Warsaw in 1913. He also registered many successes as an actor, putting in great performances in the title roles of Franciszek Zabłocki's Fircyk w zalotach / The Dandy's Courtship, Słowacki's Kordian and Książę niezłomny / The Constant Prince and Żeromski's Sulkowski. As an actor, Osterwa had by this time long abandoned all mannerism and "broad gesturing". His acting style was realistic, subtle, at times poetic, very precise and characterized by an understanding of the text. He handled verse adeptly, delivering it without oratorical bathos, and also employed realistic stage whispering.
"All the great dramatic heroes as interpreted by Osterwa above all became very natural and simple, live and human", noted Jozefa Hennelowa. "Father Peter lost his monumentality, Kordian revealed his complex psyche of a nervous youth, Konrad acquired intellectual strength" (J. Hennelowa, J. Szaniawski, "Juliusz Osterwa", Warsaw, 1956).
In 1918, after World War I had ended, Osterwa returned to Warsaw and worked with Szyfman at the Polish Theatre, directing Słowacki's The Constant Prince (1918) and Wyspiański's Wyzwolenie / Liberation (1918). Yet he was unhappy working on a traditional stage that kept him from pursuing his own theatrical ideas that had crystallized by then. In 1919 he moved his troupe to the Reduta Rooms of the Grand Theatre, where he founded his own Reduta [Redoubt], Poland's first laboratory theatre. The Reduta, still operating as a branch of the Variety Theatre, opened with a production of Ponad śnieg bielszym się stanę / Whiter Than Snow Shall I Be by Stefan Żeromski (1919), a writer with which the troupe would continue collaborating.
By 1921 the theatre was an independent institution. Shortly thereafter, an acting school named the Reduta Institute was operating alongside the theatre. Osterwa founded this experimental theatre with Mieczysław Limanowski, who he had first met in Moscow, where both artists had taken in intense interest in the ideas being explored at MXAT. Limanowski took it upon himself to implement the innovative idea of working with actors to complete a deep analysis of the text prior to situational rehearsals. Initially, the Reduta only staged Polish plays. In Osterwa's view, theatrical reform affected staging and acting issues, but also involved shaping a new, social dimension of theatre art that implied full responsibility for one's work and for viewers. Osterwa advocated simplifying scenery, which was to be placed on small, 'chamber' stages providing close, almost intimate contact with audiences. Communal effort became one of the Reduta's most important principles. Creating as an ensemble and fair distribution of administrative and technical duties were supposed to ensure communal responsibility for each and every stage work created. The Reduta's members not only worked together, but also lived together. For this reason, people began calling Osterwa's theatre a commune, and even went as far as describing it as a monastic order because its actors had to meet very high ethical standards, not only in their complete devotion to stage work, but also in life. Actors of the Reduta had to complete penetrating analyses of each text, gain or solidify their literary knowledge of the play being worked on. Then they could begin rehearsals designed to extract the truth about the text. Osterwa saw language as most important; language, and not spectacular staging, was supposed to engage viewers' imaginations. All manner of petty stardom, flirting with the audience and acting that tough attractive, was empty and showy, were to disappear from the troupe's ensemble acting. As per Stanislavsky's ideas, actors were supposed to truly embody their characters, live the emotions. Yet Osterwa refrained from imposing a single stage vision on his students and collaborators, remaining open to actors' individual approaches and to formal experimentation, seeking innovation through currents like Symbolism and Expressionism. It was not until later that the acting style at Reduta was restricted to realism or naturalism. Another rule at the theatre called for constantly improving upon characters and staging. Osterwa was unwilling to treat a theatrical work as ready when finished once and for all, preferring to see it as a process. The Reduta's mission involved a strong social component. The group organized many tours, sowing its works throughout Poland during the summer as well as in the fall and winter. In 1924 it also began organizing the public lectures of such exceptional literary scholars as Limanowski, Stefan Srebrny, Tadeusz Zieliński and Edward Boyé. While not all these ideas were implemented completely and some became distorted with time, the Reduta remains one of the most interesting experiments in Polish theatre history. Prominent innovators Jerzy Grotowski and Włodzimierz Staniewski later referred to the Reduta tradition in pursuing their own work.
In its first period, the Reduta did not stage plays from the so-called grand Polish repertoire, but it did extend its care over two contemporary Polish writers - Żeromski and Jerzy Szaniawski. Its productions included Żeromski's Turoń / The Skin of the Beast (1924) and Szaniawski's Papierowy kochanek / The Paper Lover (1920), Ewa / Eva (1921) and Lekkoduch / The Idle Man (1923). A number of mystery plays were also staged, including Kazimierz Przerwa-Tetmajer's Judasz / Judas (1922), as well as Pastorałka / A Pastoral (1922) and Wielkanoc / Easter (1923), both of which Leon Schiller compiled from early Polish mystery texts and directed. Most of the directing at the Reduta was done by Osterwa, though he often did this with Limanowski. He was reputed to be an excellent director highly skilled in working with actors and capable of precisely expressing the meanings of his productions. His directing style was referred to as "concealed" or "transparent".
In 1923 Osterwa took over the Variety Theatre for two years. Throughout this hiatus, Limanowski and Schiller ran the Reduta. At the Variety (renamed the National Theatre at Osterwa's request), Osterwa directed Żeromski's Uciekła mi przepióreczka / My Little Quail Is Gone (1925) among others, expertly playing Przelecki.
In 1925 Osterwa moved the Reduta to Vilnius, where the ensemble installed itself at the Theatre on Pohulanka Street. The theatre inaugurated its presence in the city with performances of Wyspiański's Liberation, which Osterwa restaged casting himself as Konrad (1925). Another directorial and acting success came with his production of Słowacki's The Constant Prince, in which he played Don Fernando. Touring extensively at the time, the theatre performed this production in Vilnius and many other cities around Poland. In little more than 900 days, the troupe gave over 1500 performances in 173 cities throughout the country, and also visited Latvia in 1925. In addition, Osterwa often performed away from Vilnius at this time. During these guest appearances he would perform roles he was familiar with, including the Dandy, Mazepa, Kordian, Don Fernando, Przelecki and Sułkowski. The fees he earned were used to patch up the Reduta's shaky budget.
In 1931 Osterwa once again moved his theatre to Warsaw, opening the so-called Trzecia Reduta [Third Redoubt]. He performed at the National Theatre, creating a number of new characters that included the title role in Friedrich Schiller's Don Carlos (1932). In 1932 he became director of the Słowacki Theatre in Krakow, where he intended to present primarily Polish drama, though both the classics and new plays. He failed to implement this plan completely as he resigned his position after three years (running the Reduta throughout this period). In Kraków his productions included Słowacki's Fantazy (1932) and Żeromski's Sułkowski (1932), and also revivals of The Wedding, Liberation and The Adamant Prince. In terms of foreign plays, he staged the work of Pierre Corneille, Shakespeare and Schiller. As an additional activity, he mounted productions for young people.
In the early 1930s he was far from finished with his stage career, appearing in landmark roles like that of Konrad in Liberation. From 1935 to the outbreak of World War II, he primarily focused his energies on the Reduta, where in 1936 he premiered his production of Cyprian Kamil Norwid's Pierscień Wielkiej Damy / The Grand Dame's Ring with himself playing Count Szeliga. He also continued to tour Poland with his theatre.
During Germany's World War II occupation of Poland, Osterwa lived in Krakow, where he gave diction lessons and made clandestine recitations in the homes of friends. Also in this time, he wrote about theatre, kept a journal and newly annotated two plays - Antigone and Hamlet. Though quite ill, he returned to the theatre after the war, directing Przepióreczka / The Quail for the re-opening of the Słowacki Theatre with himself as Przelecki (1945). A year later he directed Słowacki's Lilla Weneda / Lilla Veneda at the Polish Theatre in Warsaw, casting himself as Slaz. Before he passed away, he served as the general director of Krakow's theatres and the city's State Drama School. He made his last appearance on stage in 1946, playing the title role in Fantazy at the Slowacki Theatre.
Author: Monika Mokrzycka-Pokora, September 2006
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