10 Stage Props by Kantor
#photography & visual arts
small, 10 Stage Props by Kantor, Tadeusz Kantor in Cricoteka, 1983, Kraków, photo: Tadeusz Rolke / Agencja Gazeta
Crosses resembling cannons, a penny-farthing circling to the sound of the Francois waltz, and a camera that turns into a machine gun: Tadeusz Kantor's mobile sculptures were more than mere stage props and decoration.
Kantor himself said that they carry enough inner tension and meaning to be considered autonomous works of art. What was the meaning behind them? Through the following 10 objects, Culture.pl brings back to life the extraordinary theatrical everyday life of Poland's most famous theatre – Cricot 2.
An emblem of a period in Kantor's theatrical output: Teatr Śmierci (Theatre of Death). A return to childhood: four wooden, light brown desks with obedient students behind them. 11 life-size dummies with natural hair and glass eyes.
The text itself is not important. Tadeusz Różewicz wrote that during the performance he could breathe and take a rest from words. Kantor showed what happens in our heads when we reminisce, dream of turning back time, do the homework that we never did. Thus the actors are dragging corpses on their backs – dummies that won't detach. Adult actors are scolded by the janitor, recite old poems, sentences and phrases in Latin. A moving image of a lost childhood, compared to an attempt to communicate with spirits.
– wrote critic and art historian Krystyna Czerni for the Wirtualne Muzea Krakowa (Krakow's virtual museums) website.
The desks are one of the most recognised symbols of Cricot 2, and, as a matter of fact they were invented by accident. During a holiday stroll on the seaside Kantor came across an abandoned school building. He peeked through the window and saw a deserted classroom. "It made an impression on him", says Krystyna Czerni –
He filled the space with his own thoughts, ideas, visions. It so happened that in the 70s Kantor took part in a couple reunions of his high school in Tarnów. The threads and motifs reappear in Kantor's plays. He portrays ageing people with grey hair sitting behind narrow desks, trying to remember and bring the reality of 40 years ago back to life."
The desk was featured in many foreign exhibitions, in Paris and Rome among others. Other props can be seen at the Centre for Documentation of the Art of Tadeusz Kantor - Cricoteka in Kraków.
A Waltzing bike
The small metal penny farthing, another prop from Umarła Klasa (The Dead Class) appeared on the stage over 500 times, in 56 cities, 20 countries and on 5 continents. To the beat of the Waltz François (a Polish waltz composed in 1905 by Adam Józef Karasiński), with a boy-sized dummy in a school uniform attached to the wheels, an elderly man rode it while waving goodbye. Kantor remarks: "The old man doesn't part with his bike, a pathetic and mangled toy from his childhood...".
In the Cricoteka archives we find can comments by the actor who rode the bike on stage, Andrzej Wełmiński:
For a long time we thought about what the bike should look like, how it should move. Tadeusz would make drawings. The next day three of us Kantor, Jasiu Książek and I went to a locksmiths' workshop. Within a couple of hours the bike was ready. From a pile of junk we chose wheels, a ratchet device, screws, rods and tried them out. And Jasiu did the welding. Then we attached the dummy and I came up with the idea that his hand should move.
The thudding of a mechanical cradle
"One of the best known objects from Dead Class", says Małgorzata Paluch-Cybulska. It's a mechanical cradle for children made from a wooden chest. Inside, two balls rhythmically knock against its interior. In a piece for Życie Literackie, a weekly literary magazine Elżbieta Morawiec wrote,
Another theme appears in Dead Class alongside the Waltz François: the thudding of the mechanical cradle, strangely reminding of the brutal, measured beat of a parade march. The rhythm of the shows becomes increasingly nervous, convulsively trembling […]. The woman standing above the cradle is singing a Jewish lullaby in a hoarse voice – it sounds like a dramatic psalm of despair, but, in a moment, transformed into Rozhulantyna [from a play by Witkacy], she will begin to rattle away about some absurd cause.
The part of Rozhulantyna from Stanisław Ignacy Witkiewicz's Tumor Mózgowicza (Tumor Brainiowicz) was played by Maria Stangret. This construction recurred in another one of Kantor's plays Nigdy tu już nie powrócę (I Shall Never Return Here).
No ordinary closet
When closed – it was cut off from the world, but showed multiple ways of sensing. When open – it revealed secrets. Old, decaying, and stained, alongside a rubbish cart and a trunk, the closet featured in W Małym Dworku (Country House). The play was inspired by a piece by Stanisław Ignacy Witkiewicz and premiered in January 1961 in the Kraków-based Galeria Krzysztofory. Kantor commented:
"I discovered a new theatrical place… A closet. (Kids discovered it long before me). I called the closet the INTERIOR OF THE IMAGINATION"
Inside, there were a dummy in a school uniform hung on a hanger and actors: they were crammed against each other, screaming, talking. The claustrophobic closet reappeared in other plays, among others in Der Schrank (Closet) played in the Baden-Baden Stadttheater. In the German performance the piece of furniture had extra hangers which the actors could grab on to and swing, colliding with sandbags.
The cannon cross
The cross, which rested on a metal undercarriage with wheels, resembled a loaded cannon. It was constructed in 1980 as part of the set design for Wielopole, Wielopole. The show premiered in the same year in the building of an old cloister in Florence. The set design was composed of the cannon cross and 15 other, smaller crosses of old wood. Throughout Kantor's career over 30 crosses were made for him.
Did Kantor have an affection for crosses? Kantor grew up in a parsonage under the guardianship of his uncle (the brother of his grandmother). The churches, cemeteries, streets and crossroads in the small, multicultural Galician town Wielopole Skrzyńskie were dotted with crosses. Kantor doesn't use the crosses in his shows to make a religious statement. To him, they are everyday objects, and symbols of the graves of soldiers and protection against evil spirits. In one scene, actors push the cross like a bike.
His camera pointed at the Army. The photographer checks again. He begins to laugh. He turns some winch. A big gun barrel appears. He presses something— and another barrel comes out, aimed straight at the platoon. Now the photographer roars with laughter.
Kantor drew parallels between photography and shooting in Wielopole, Wielopole. Waiting for the flash of the camera, the actors look like a row of recruits. They freeze when instead of the shutter they hear a salvo. The camera with its gun barrel and scroll with bullets hanging from the side turns into an instrument of torture. Playing the part of the photographer is the actress Rychlicka.
One Does not Look Through a Window Unpunished
The window is a new piece of furniture in Kantor's "imagination chamber". It calls up and triggers the memory. Commenting on Wielopole, Wielopole, Kantor wrote,
An important window! [...] A long STREET and at its end a PINK MULTI-STOREY TOWNHOUSE. This corner is where I used to lose sight of my mother when she would go away for periods, this exact corner, which was the END OF THE WORLD.
According to Małgorzata Paluch-Cubulska, the window is more than the memory of the cityscape of a Galician town where "old Jewish women hung pillows in red pillowcases from the windows", it's an area of experience. "The window hides many obscure secrets. The window inspires fear and premonitions of what is outside" explained Kantor.
The object was probably inspired by a picture by Stanisław Wyspiański published in 1901 on the cover of Maurice Maeterlinck's play Interior. According to the Virtual Museums of Małopolska website, the draft was the poster for a lecture by Stanisław Przybyszewski and a performance of Maeterlinck's play with Gabriela Zapolska in the lead role. Drawn by Wyspiański, the little girl is peeking through the window the same way that the Woman Behind the Window peeks through the window in Kantor's play.
The actors in Dead Class also peep through old, stained glass, and the idea resurfaces in Bardzo krótka lekcja (Very Short Lesson), a series of images called Nie zagląda się bezkarnie przez okno (One Does not Look Through a Window Unpunished), and several other artworks from the 60s, 70s and 80s.
Odysseus by the sink
This metal sink was used on stage for the first time in 1985 in the play Niech sczezną artyści (Let the Artists Vanish). Three years later it came with the troupe to Milan for the premiere of Nigdy tu już nie powrócę (I Shall Never Return Here), in which, for the first time, Kantor was one of the actors.
Walking among small metal tables and wooden stools on the Teatro Piccolo stage are the characters from Kantor's historical plays (among them is Odysseus). They blurt out lines and lift up objects from the Cricot 2 repository. The sink is there too. It's a mobile waterpipe designed by Kantor. The closed design of the machine enables it to be relocated. "Reality of the lowest rank" Kantor would call it, while the curator and photographer Wojciech Nowicki wrote,
The sink is a defined place: it's the place of the mother, the servant, a creature of the lowest rank. The kitchen is shabby and belongs to those that deserve it, defined mainly by the sex (it has to be a woman). Kantor's sink, [...] is a place where making food is thought of as a torment: from the beginning, from the gathering of the potatoes up to the washing of the dishes, everything is done by one person. That's one way of looking at a sink -- as a place that is tied to the person who uses it, like a farmer is bound to the earth. From today's perspective the sink is a type of enslavement, but also, if you look at it differently, it's a place of ordinary work (although associated with exploitation). The concept remains the same: a large container under a type of watering can on a platform. A concept of fate, that reoccurs regardless of time and place.
The first version of the giant wooden mouse trap was a prop in Nadobnisie i koczkodany (Dainty Shapes and Hairy Apes. It had a glass syphon and a metal sheet bowl. The remodeled version, equipped with a wooden stool for the victim played its part in Nigdy tu już nie powrócę (I Shall Never Return Here). It resembled a guillotine from the Middle Ages, a frightening torture machine which transformed fiction into reality. The performance is also a good example of the coupling of the actor with the object and their effect on one another.
"Without the actors, the object would be a broken-down shipwreck, useless."- wrote Kantor.
My room on stage - Kantor's self-portrait
In Dziś są moje urodziny (Today in my Birthday), he turned the stage into his workshop. In the guide to the show he wrote,
I decided to live on stage, to have a bed, tables, chairs, and, of course, paintings. Mine. I often imagined my apartment in the theatre, in the middle, almost on the stage – not in the hotel. Therefore mine – as I call it. An Imagination Chamber – on the stage. I have to arrange it. It shouldn't look like a decoration. To gather the objects from my room. As if I actually decided to live (!) on the stage. So: bed, tables, chair, door (important), a water heater with a pipe, and »paintings«, on easels.
Painting frames were set up on stage, mobile frames that came to life with the actors. In one of them was Kantor's self-portrait: a wooden, folding chair and easels. The director himself was meant to play in Właściciel Pokoju Wyobraźni (Owner of the Imagination Chamber) [editor's translation]. But things didn't turn out as planned. Tadeusz Kantor died after one of the last rehearsals on 8th December, 1990. The show premiered a short while later, in January 1991 at the Théâtre Garonne in Toulous. The show was performed in 22 cities all over the world until June 1992.
Tadeusz Kantor year
the legacy of kantor
Sources: Quotes from the permanent exhibition of the Centre for Documentation of the Art of Tadeusz Kantor - Cricoteka in Kraków (Ośrodek Dokumentacji Sztuki Tadeusza Kantora Cricoteka) and the website Wirtualne Muzea Małopolski. Object descriptions by Małgorzata Paluch-Cybulska. Additionally: TVP
Author: Anna Legierska, translator: MJ