Zbigniew Ziembiński is an actor and director who founded the modern theatre scene in post-war Brazil. Born on 17th March 1908 in Wieliczka, he died on 18th October, 1978 in Rio de Janeiro.
He studied literature at the Jagiellonian University. He made his first steps on the stage as early as in 1927, at the Juliusz Słowacki Theatre in Kraków. He debuted in the role of Zakrystian Leuthier in the play Mon curé chez les riches (Proboszcz wśród bogaczy), which premiered on 29th August, 1927. When Aleksander Zelwerowicz saw Ziembiński playing the main character in Simone by Deval, he invited the young actor to his theatre in Vilnius. Ziembiński accepted Zelwerowicz's offer to direct Fernand Crommelynck's play The Sculptor of Masks (Maski) – the premiere took place on 1st October, 1929. Soon afterwards, Zelwerowicz recommended him to go to Warsaw and take the extramural exam in directing. On 16th December, 1929, he passed the exam with an excellent grade from the Association of Polish Stage Artists (ZASP), which made him the youngest professional director in Poland. Actress Hanna Małkowska reminisced:
This young man, who leaped directly from university to the Juliusz Słowacki Theatre stage, was never a beginner – he was a ready actor from the very start. His phenomenal diction stunned, as he was able to speak at the speed of a machine gun and still maintain perfect articulation. Moreover, he also immediately became a director. Zelwerowicz commissioned him to direct several plays, which Zbigniew did exquisitely, and after one season of practice passed his directing exam, right after which he was invited by Szyfman to work at the Polski Theatre and became the youngest director in Poland.
In the 1930/31 season Ziembiński worked at the Polski and Mały Theatres in Warsaw. In 1932, he started working as the actor and director at Warsaw's Municipal Theatres (1932/33-1933/34). He also worked as a visiting actor at the Nowy Theatre in Poznań, and later returned to the Polski and Mały Theatres, until the Second World War broke out. Some of his most acclaimed works include the Poet (in The Wedding by Stanisław Wyspiański), Chopin (Summer at Nohant by Jarosław Iwaszkiewicz) the Judge (Geneve by George Bernard Shaw), Zbigniew (Mazeppa by Juliusz Słowacki), Khlestakov (The Government Inspector by Nikolai Gogol), Stanisław Potocki (November Night by Wyspiański), and Freddy (Shaw's Pygmalion).
In the first weeks of the War Ziembiński found himself Romania. He recalled those moments in an interview for the Brazilian theatre organization SNT:
I left Warsaw convinced that this was just a temporary commotion, bound to last up to two or three weeks. We were retreating towards Russia. Romania was our only possible direction. I spent four months there, preparing theatre performances for Polish refugees.
The Group of the Warsaw Theatres' Artists, later known as the Polish Theatre in France or by its colloquial name: Ziembiński's Team (Zespół Ziembińskiego), was inaugurated on 17th November, 1939, with a performance of Stefan Żeromski's play My Quail Has Fled. The performance featured Irena Eichlerówna. After the premiere and second performance in Bucharest, the production travelled to other cities in Romania. Later on, it was accepted by the French Theatre Board and staged on 10th February, 1940 at Théâtre Antoine in Boulevard de Strasbourg, Paris. It was equally well received in France, earning positive reviews both in the national and the emigré press. After the capitulation of France, Ziembiński managed to get hold of a Brazilian visa. On 4th January, 1941, when he departed from France, he wasn't intending to stay and work in Brazil. He had been invited to work as director in an amateur theatre group in New York, however U.S. visas were much more difficult to obtain. Thus, Ziembiński embarked on the long journey by ship to Rio, hoping that it would be easier to reach New York City from there. On 6th July, 1941, after a six-month long-trip, he found himself in Rio de Janeiro. He was thirty-three years old, broke, and spoke no Portuguese.
In very short time, he got in contact with the local theatrical circles and made friends with members of the amateur theatre group Os Comediantes. He did the lighting for the play Right You Are (If You Think So) by Pirandello and directed The Wedding Dress by the young journalist and playwright Nelson Rodrigues. The latter, which premiered on 28th December, 1943 at Rio's Teatro Municipal, proved to be a breakthrough performance for Brazilian theatre. The Wedding Dress would likely not be as successful had it not been for the perfect combination of three elements: script, scenography, and directing, and three people: author, scenographer, and director. The encounter of these three prominent figures: Nelson Rodrigues, Tomás Santa Rosa, and Zbigniew Ziembiński generated a masterpiece that revolutionised Brazilian theatre.
Ziembiński was known to be a demanding director who arrived with a great wealth of theatre experience and knowledge. Yan Michalski, a theatre critic of Polish descent, and author of Ziembiński's biography, asserted that:
until the Brazilian theatre underwent a renaissance in the 1940s, it was most of all the theatre of an actor, a star-actor. […] Audiences went to see plays mainly for the actors, such as Procópio, Eva Tudor, Alda Garrido, and not for the text or the director, who at the time was practically non-existent. That is what defined the old, conservative theatre that preceded Ziembiński's revolution, as the theatre of the actor.
The theatrical circles started referring to the pre- and post-Ziembiński era. “Ziembiński stunned Brazil”, Luiza Barreto Leite, an Os Comediantes actress, said. He stunned it because he proposed staging solutions, directing methods, and repertoire that no one had heard about before. In the first ten years of his stay in Brazil, he directed ten plays. He also starred in six of them, which ought to be counted as an act of courage, considering the fact that he didn't speak Portuguese at the time of his arrival to the country. In 1949, he was invited to take the post of a director at Teatro Brasileiro de Comédia (TBC), which in the 1950s became one of the biggest theatres in São Paulo. Nearly all directors at TBC were Italians and graduates of Italian theatre schools, who, together with Ziembiński had a major influence on the tastes of the São Paulo elites. Ziembiński directed several plays at the TBC, which made it to the Brazilian theatre history books.
In 1963, Ziembiński returned to Poland for six months. On 20th December, 1963, the Stary Theatre in Kraków (directed by Zygmunt Hübner) showed Nelson Rodrigues' Boca de Ouro, translated by Zbigniew Ziembiński and Jerzy Lisowski. The play had fifty-two performances. On 19th March, 1964, Współczesny Theatre in Warsaw, directed by Erwin Axer, presented Vereda da Salvção by Jorge Andrade, translated by Ziembiński and Małgorzata Hołyńska – the latter was shown just fifteen times. The Biographical Dictionary of Polish Theatre diagnosed:
Almost twenty five years of isolation, or perhaps a mistaken choice of script, made Ziembiński miss the taste and sensitivity of Polish spectators and critics. The performances directed by Ziembiński in the 1963/64 were received politely, but with reservations. They were praised for their plasticity and the power of expression in group scenes, and proficiency in directing the actors, but criticised for outmoded expressionist style on one hand, and naturalist tendencies on the other.
When the artist died in 1978, fifteen thousand people gathered in Rio de Janeiro's Municipal Theatre to mourn the artist. The epitaph on his tombstone says in Portuguese: "O pai polones do moderno teatro brasileiro" (the Polish father of modern Brazilian theatre).
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Author: Aleksandra Pluta, May 2015, translated with edits by Ania Micińska, June 2015
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