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Leon Schiller

Leon Schiller, 1931, photo: Jan Binek / National Digital Archives /
Leon Schiller, 1931, photo: Jan Binek / National Digital Archives /

One of the finest Polish theatre directors who introduced the idea of monumental theatre. He born March 14, 1887 in Kraków, died March 25, 1954 in Warsaw.

Schiller, whose real name was Leon Jerzy Wojciech Schiller de Schildenfeld, was descended from an Austrian family that had become Polish. He was educated at the Nowodworski St Anne's Gymnasium and passed his baccalaureate examinations as an extramural student in 1906. His home education acquainted him with French and music. While at school, Schiller made friends with Juliusz Osterwa, acted in the Zielony Balonik cabaret, singing old Polish and French songs as well as his own compositions, and was a keen follower of Kraków's theatrical scene. After his baccalaureate, he enrolled in the Department of Philosophy at the Jagiellonian University, where Romantic studies became one of his key areas of interest. As a student, he continued to appear in the cabaret, and in Arnold Szyfman's Figliki Theatre.

In 1907, he gave up his studies and went to Paris to study at the Sorbonne. He contacted Edward Gordon Craig, one of the famed reformers of twentieth-century theatre, who exchanged letters with him and printed his essays in his theatrical magazine, "The Mask" (including one on Stanisław Wyspiański's theatre). The two men met in person in 1909, in Paris, where Schiller lived intermittently until 1911. His stay in Warsaw in 1911 was marked by his performances in Szyfman's literary cabaret, Momus. During his short sojourns in Munich he developed an interest in the theatrical projects of Max Reinhardt's (1910) and in 1911 he may have visited Emil Jacques-Dalcroze's Eurythmics Institute in Hellerau.

When he returned to Kraków in 1912, Schiller completed the Commercial Academy's Undergraduate Course and joined his father's company. He did not, however, part with the theatre – he became a reviewer, contributing to the magazines "Goniec Poniedziałkowy", "Krytyka" and "Museion", proving himself an expert on European theatre. In 1913, he was a co-organiser of the Modern Stage Painting Exhibition in Warsaw. He spent World War I mostly in Kraków, making trips to Berlin and Vienna. During his six-month stay in Vienna, he studied music composition at the Viennese conservatory. He established the Formist group with Tytus Czyżewski, Zbigniew and Andrzej Pronaszko in 1917, the year in which he settled in Warsaw and joined the city's Teatr Polski. He also made his debut as a director (with Konstanty Tatarkiewicz) putting on Tadeusz Konczyński's Krolewna Lilijka / Princess Lilijka. His first solo directorship - Miłość i loteria / Love and Gamble after Jean Pierre Florian – followed in 1918. The same year, Arnold Szyfman, who took over as Teatr Polski's manager from Ludwik Solski, made Schiller the Theatre's music and literary manager. It was then that Schiller wrote the script of Szopka staropolska, a nativity play styled as folk poetry; Aleksander Zelwerowicz staged it in 1919. In 1920, Schiller and Ryszard Bolesławski produced Molière's The Would-be Gentleman.

Photo from Stall With Songs/"Kram z piosenkami", dir. Leon Schiller, The National Theatre in Warsaw, 1968, photo: Edward Hartiwg / National Digital Archives /
Photo from Stall With Songs/"Kram z piosenkami", dir. Leon Schiller, The National Theatre in Warsaw, 1968, photo: Edward Hartiwg / National Digital Archives /

In the 1920s, Schiller was first the director and literary manager of the Society of the Warsaw Theatres and then the artistic manager of the Maska Theatre. From 1922-24, he associated himself with Juliusz Osterwa's Reduta Theatre and it was there that he created the first two of his grand, styled shows in 1922 and 1923, respectively: Pastoralka / The Nativity Play, incorporating excerpts from old Polish Christmas mystery plays, and Wielkanoc / Easter, a sixteenth-century mystery of Christ's Passion, using texts by Mikołaj from Wilkowiecko. Schiller based both scripts on "excavated" old Polish works, yet gave them an original shape. He interspersed Wielkanoc with his own, period additions, some of them comic interludes, others as if borrowed from liturgical theatre. He would revisit old Polish writings a number of times, creating a musical theatre based on his own scripts. His "singing pictures", brimming with spontaneity and joy, reflected his vast knowledge of old Polish literature, and drew extensively from national and religious tradition.

Schiller staged more productions at the Reduta, notably Pochwala wesolosci / In Praise of Merriness (1924), a show consisting of theatrical songs, and Dawne czasy w Piosence, Poezji i Zwyczajach Polskich / Old times' Polish Songs, Poetry and Customs (1924) as well as Aleksander Fredro's Nowy Don Kichot / New Don Quixote to music by Stanisław Moniuszko (1923).

Schiller left the Reduta in 1924 because of a conflict with Osterwa; some of the theatre's crew left with him. Shortly afterwards, he was appointed artistic manager of the Bogusławski Theatre, a tenure he was to hold for two years (the municipal authorities closed the theatre in 1926 to open a cinema on the premises). Schiller had managed the Bogusławski Theatre on his own for two seasons before co-running it with Wilam Horzyca and Aleksander Zelwerowicz. The Theatre had opened as a popular venue for the masses, and Schiller aimed to combine this mission with top intellectual and aesthetic standards of performance. He managed to create an avant-garde venue with an ambitious repertory, a cradle of modern Polish production integrating various domains of theatre activity and working with the finest artists and musicians. He produced spectacular performances with Formist sets designed by Zbigniew and Andrzej Pronaszko and Wincenty Drabik, and used light in a modern way, along with the music marking the rhythm of the shows. It was at the Bogusławski Theatre that he prepared premières of three plays: Tadeusz Micinski's Kniaź Patiomkin (1925), a historical work on revolution set in a mobile, three-dimensional design; Stanisław Wyspiański's Achilleis (1925) and Stefan Żeromski's Róża / The Rose (1926).

"Schiller's staging of 'Róża', emphatic and man-like, evoked the metaphysical dimension of the struggle for national freedom as well as being an ecstatic cry of protest against the abuse of freedom in free Poland," wrote Henryk Rogacki (H. I. Rogacki, "Leon Schiller. Człowiek i teatr" / The Man and the Theatre, Łódź, 1995).

Schiller also staged Shakespeare at the Bogusławski Theatre: The Winter's Tale in 1924 and As You Like It in 1925. It was also there, in 1926, that he first attempted a Romantic drama. His choice was Zygmunt Krasiński's Nie-boska Komedia / The Un-Divine Comedy; Schiller filled Krasiński's vision of revolution with many references to the Bolshevik upheaval. Meanwhile, his passion for musicals prompted him to produce two more "singing pictures", Podróż po Warszawie / Travelling across Warsaw and Bandurka (1924).

Schiller's work at the Bogusławski Theatre brought to the fore the characteristics of his multi-faceted theatrical pursuits: modern staging and respect for the word, expressive courage in tackling social issues, interest in revolutionary changes and, concurrently, metaphysical musings on the world.

After the closure of the Bogusławski Theatre, Schiller returned - as a director - to the Teatr Polski; it was still managed by Arnold Szyfman. There he put on a naturalistic and socially involved production of Stefan Żeromski's Dzieje Grzechu / A Story of Sin (1926), a show attacked by the press and the audience, yet highly popular, attracting huge attendances owing to its scandalous reputation and charges of pornography, brutality, anarchy, and a Bolshevik flavour.

When Juliusz Słowacki's ashes were brought to Poland in 1927, the coffin lay at Warsaw's St John's Cathedral before interment in the Wawel compound. Schiller marked this occasion with Królowi duchowi w dniu jego powrotu / To King-Spirit on His Day of Return, an open-air show in the Old Town marketplace based on Słowacki's Kordian and Ksiądz Marek / Father Marek. His other 1927 production - this time staged at Teatr Polski - was Słowacki's Samuel Zborowski. Received as a national mystery play, this production was not intended as a grand show; instead, it highlighted the poetic and dramatic qualities of the text.

The following year, Schiller revisited Shakespeare, producing Julius Caesar, then, in 1929, he put on Bertolt Brecht's The Threepenny Opera. This première provoked a scandal, as a result of which Szyfman decided not to renew Schiller's contract. Edward Krasinski wrote:

"Bold and audacious, Schiller's production got Szyfman into major trouble, bringing financial, moral and political losses. Some of the audience left the theatre before the end, censors interfered, critics (...) protested against the abominations, sadism, naturalistic bluntness, low-life and thieving jargon, trivial music (E. Krasinski, "Leon Schiller w Teatrze Polskim 1917-1952" / Leon Schiller at Teatr Polski, Warsaw, 1987).

Schiller was a great artistic personality by then and so, after the attack, there were voices defending him and protesting against his departure from the theatre. Before he left, he had produced Wyspiański's Bolesław Smialy in 1929, using Wyspiański's première staging of 1903 and set design by Karol Frycz. He also staged Wojciech Bogusławski's Krakowiacy i gorale / Cracovians and Highlanders, an open-air performance shown in the Old Town the same year.

At the time, Schiller sympathised with the communist left and worked with the Workers' Theatre Studio operating under the auspices of the Communist Party of Poland. He had always been open about his left-wing views, and it was not the first time that he had been attacked and expelled from the theatre because of them.

In 1929, he moved to Łódź to become director of the town's Teatr Miejski run by Karol Adwentowicz. There he produced Anderson and Stallings' The Rivals in Carl Zuckmayer's adaptation (1929), The Good Soldier Svejk after Jarosław Hasek (1930), and Friedrich Wolf's Cyankali (1930). In doing so, he implemented his programme of contemporary, left-wing, socially and politically involved theatre called "Zeittheater" - a theatre strongly rooted in its time, inspired by expressionism and the German avant-garde. The Rivals contained a powerful anti-war appeal, Cyankali dealt with abortion, and Svejk provided a biting political satire.

In 1930, Wilam Horzyca employed Schiller as artistic manager of the Lvov City Theatres. He produced Victory after Joseph Conrad (1930), Henrik Ibsen's Hedda Gabler (1931) as well as contemporary "Zeittheater" plays, such as Gerhart Hauptmann's Dorothea Angermann (1930) and Arnold Zweig's The Case of Sergeant Grischa (1931). All of his performances used stage designs by Władysław Daszewski.

Schiller did not stay in Lvov for long. He soon spoke in favour of a countrywide actors' strike and subsequently came under attack from the right-wing press. He went to Warsaw to run the Teatr Melodram, but in 1932 Horzyca re-employed him at the Lvov Theatres despite the protestations of the municipal authorities. It was Horzyca's idea for Schiller to produce Adam Mickiewicz's Dziady / The Forefathers' Eve with Andrzej Pronaszko's stage design. This production was an excellent example of monumental theatre, also known as "Total Theatre", which developed the ideas of Adam Mickiewicz, Stanisław Wyspianski and Gordon Craig. Already evident in Kniaz Patiomkin and then in Samuel Zborowski (Teatr Polski in Warsaw, 1927), Ksiadz Marek (Teatr Nowy in Poznan, 1928) and Kordian (Teatr Wielki in Lvov, 1930), this trend was kept up in Schiller's subsequent productions of Polish romantic dramas, using an avant-garde approach.

In Lvov, Schiller produced the entire Dziady. Highlighting the drama's qualities as a mystery, his production was antagonistic to Stanislaw Wyspianski's 1901 staging of the work. The following year, Schiller produced Mickiewicz's drama in the Vilno Teatr na Pohulance and in 1934 at Warsaw's Teatr Polski. The story was acted out at the foot of Three Crosses erected on what was almost an empty stage, with changing colours for the sky. The sets included grey and brown platforms and, as the story moved on, additional items appeared, such as a cross-section of a little Orthodox church, a grille, a window, a door arch.

"One of the most interesting qualities of this production was the inter-penetration of spheres of human drama, even though the director set them apart all the time ...", wrote Zbigniew Raszewski. "Underlying the entire production was the need to penetrate to the deepest layers of truth, the ones which, though still accessible to our experience, are difficult to express in an ordinary language" (Z. Raszewski. "Krotka historia teatru polskiego" / A Brief History of the Polish Theatre, Warsaw, 1990).

Schiller's last production of Dziady was at the National Theatre in Sophia in 1937.

Sergey Tretyakov's Speak Out, China and Juliusz Słowacki's Sen srebrny Salomei / Salome's Silver Dream were two other Lvov productions by the Schiller-Pronaszko team, made in 1932; the press accused Sen Srebrny Salomei of being anti-Polish. Later the same year Schiller was arrested, because of what some deemed his "left-wing" art and his widely known political views. In addition, Schiller had signed an anti-war appeal containing an endorsement of the politics of the Soviet Union. This triggered off a sharp press campaign against the supposed promoter of "the red theatre", and Schiller had to leave Lvov.

A helping hand was extended by Stefan Jaracz, who invited Schiller to co-manage the Ateneum Theatre. As a result, Schiller again tried contemporary repertory, producing Carl Zuckmayer's The Captain of Koepenick (1932) with Jaracz as a superb Voigt the cobbler, as well as Tretyakov's Speak Out, China (1933), his third production of the play, this time staged as a photomontage.

In 1933, Schiller established the Department of Directing Art at the National Institute of Theatrical Art, which he was to run until the war. Meanwhile, after a period of stormy co-operation, he had parted with Jaracz, who had left the Ateneum. From 1934, Schiller ran the Nowe Ateneum Theatre together with Karol Adwentowicz, and had started to work with the Society for the Promotion of Theatrical Culture. As the Society included Warsaw's Teatr Polski, Schiller resumed directing there and produced Crime and Punishment after Fyodor Dostoyevsky (1934), Shakespeare's A Midsummer-Night's Dream (1934) and King Lear (1935), Stanisław Wyspiański's Wyzwolenie / Liberation (1935), and Słowacki's Kordian (1935).

In the 1930s, Schiller's heterogeneous yet invariably distinctive and expressive staging gave way to neo-realism, with sparser use of theatrical means and a rejection of naturalism and the radical avant-garde. Still, Schiller spoke of respect for humanity and against a disregard of the tragic fate and choices of individuals.

Closer to the war Schiller staged his productions in a number of cities, including Warsaw, Łódź, Vilna and Lvov. His most notable productions from that period were Anna Karenina after Leo Tolstoy at the Warsaw Teatr Kameralny in 1938, and Thornton Wilder's Our Town, which he staged three times in 1939, at the Teatr Narodowy in Warsaw, the Teatr Miejski in Łódź, and the Teatr Wielki in Lvov, respectively.

During the war, he initially lived in Warsaw, writing and managing the Underground Theatre Council with Bohdan Korzeniewski, Edmund Wierciński and Andrzej Pronaszko. In mid-March, 1941, he was imprisoned in the Warsaw Pawiak prison. From there he was transferred to Auschwitz, but his family's financial assistance secured his release by the end of May 1941. While a prisoner at Auschwitz, he underwent a profound religious conversion, his feelings bordering on the mystic, prompting him to become a Benedictine oblate. Later, he directed some poignant performances with the inmates of the Samaritan Sisters' Home for fallen girls in Henrykow: Pastoralka (1942), Gody weselne / Nuptials (1943) and Wielkanoc / Easter (1944). During the Warsaw Uprising of 1944, he led the theatre brigade, staging productions at the front line. After the Uprising collapsed, Schiller, by then a second lieutenant of the Home Army, was taken to the Murnau prisoner-of-war camp. Even there he was involved in theatrical activities and continued to write. After the US army liberated the camp, Schiller moved to Lingen near the Dutch border, where he set up the Bogusławski Teatr Ludowy under the patronage of the Polish YMCA. He produced Gody Weselne and Kram z piosenkami / The Song Stall, and showed them in a number of venues within the English occupation zone in Germany, as well as in Holland.

Schiller returned to Warsaw in 1945, but soon moved to Łódź, living there until 1949. He sided with the authorities, easily adjusting to the new realities. Indeed, he involved himself intensely and zealously in political activities: he joined the Polish Workers' Party, served as a deputy to the Sejm in 1947, and was a delegate to the workers' parties uniting congress. He was appointed chancellor of the National Higher School of Theatre, initially based in Łódź. He edited the theatrical magazine, " Łódź Teatralna", and was appointed editor of the magazine, "Teatr". From 1946, he managed the Teatr Wojska Polskiego (Polish Army Theatre) in Łódź, where his most noted productions were Bogusławski's Cracovians and Highlanders (1946), and Fernando de Rojas's beautiful, poetic fairy tale, La Celestina (1947). He also staged an excellent and moving interpretation of Shakespeare's The Tempest (1947), as well as Jan Drda's morality play, Igraszki z diablem / Trifling with the Devil (1948) and Maxim Gorky's The Lower Depths (1949).

In 1949, Schiller moved to Warsaw to continue as chancellor of the theatre school that had been transferred from Łódź. He also took over as the manager of the Teatr Polski from Arnold Szyfman, who had been recalled for political reasons. Soon Schiller, too, was dismissed by the authorities, losing his positions as the chancellor of the National Theatre Academy and the manager of the Teatr Polski.

"We have nationalised factories and mines, we have distributed land among the peasants, we have thrown me out of the theatre," Schiller would later remark ironically.

In the last period of his creative life, Schiller was all but removed from the theatre, although he managed to guest produce a few premières, notably Stanislaw Moniuszko's Hrabina / The Countess (1951) and Halka (1953) at the Warsaw Opera. In 1950, he became chairman of the Association of Polish Theatre and Film Artists, an organization replacing the disbanded Union of Polish Stage Artists (ZASP) that had existed since pre-war times. He also started to manage the Theatre Section of the National Arts Institute. In 1952, he established "Pamietnik Teatralny", a quarterly devoted to the history and criticism of the theatre. At that time he met Bertolt Brecht on his visit to Warsaw, and started to promote his theatrical ideas. He twice went to Berlin, inviting Brecht to Poland in 1952.

Schiller died on March 25, 1954 and was buried in the Alley of Merit at the Warsaw Powazki Cemetery.

His key essays and articles were collected in the volume, Teatr ogromny (Warszawa, 1961) ed. Zbigniew Raszewski and Jerzy Timoszewicz.

Honours and awards:

  • 1947 - 1st prize of the Minister of Culture and Art during the Shakespeare's Festival for the production of The Tempest at the Teatr Wojska Polskiego in Łódź;
  • 1949 - Award at the Russian and Soviet Arts Festival in Katowice for the production of Maxim Gorky's The Lower Depths at the Teatr Wojska Polskiego in Łódź; national award for theatre;
  • 1950 - National (team) award of 2nd degree for the staging of Stanislaw Moniuszko's Halka at the Poznan Opera;
  • 1950 - Order of the Banner of Labour, 1st class;
  • 1953 - Gold Cross of Merit.

Author: Monika Mokrzycka-Pokora, August 2006's picture
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Leon Schiller


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