The most world-famous Polish artist and the most Polish of the world’s most famous artists; an artistic genius and a charismatic leader, famous for being a man of the theatre, and remembered as a painter as well. He used to say that in his plays, he directs paintings, substituting paints with actors and props. Tadeusz Kantor spoke to audiences from all over the world – from Sydney and Tokyo to Shiraz, Paris and New York. This article sums up the most important premières and events of Kantor’s Cricot 2 Theatre.
A family from Wielopole
Not much has remained of Kantor in his Wielopole Skrzyńskie home-town.
Tadeusz was born in 1915, in the old presbytery of a multicultural Polish-Jewish town on the borders of the Austro-Hungarian Empire. He spent six years in Wielopole, and all that remains to commemorate his presence there are a few priceless lists, manuscripts, documents and photographs placed in a tiny museum. There are some school registers, diplomas and a 19th-century school desk from Pstrągówka primary school. Marian Kantor – Tadeusz's father – was the school’s headmaster, a teacher and a soldier of the 2nd Brigade of the Polish Legion commanded by General Józef Haller. He took part in the September Campaign, but was arrested by the Nazis and sent to the Auschwitz concentration camp, where he died.
The past echoes at the theatre. Kantor reconstructed the colourful world before the Holocaust and brought back stories about his “dear, absent” relatives: Mother Helena, Uncle Józef (rector of the presbytery where Tadeusz used to live with his mother and sister), Uncle Staś – the Exile, and Grandmother Katarzyna. His father returns as Marian – The Recruit in the touching play Wielopole, Wielopole. A popular poster designed by Kantor presents the Wielopole Skrzyńskie church in a black and white photograph that dates back to the beginning of the 20th century. Kantor visited Wielopole Skrzyńskie in his student days, and again later, on 15th December, 1983, when a staging of Wielopole, Wielopole took place in the local church. Years later, Kantor recalled:
All of the foreign opinions […] think of me as terribly national […] if Wielopole, that hole next to Rzeszów is understandable in New York. Then excuse me, but all those critics are saying nonsense and I am terribly national. Even terribly provincial.
In the year 1980, the world of Tadeusz Kantor’s childhood was also accessed by German director Michael Kluth, who accompanied Kantor during his difficult, tense and conflict-filled rehearsals for the Wielopole, Wielopole play, presented on German stages as well. The footage is a part of the A Family from Wielopole documentary.
Sean Connery wearing gaberdine and sidelocks. Cricot 2's breakthrough tour of Great Britain
An avalanche of texts, reviews and English-language publicity in the top British titles after the 6-week long tour of the Dead Class play in 1976 helped to spread Kantor’s fame elsewhere – from Mexico and Los Angeles to Shiraz and Tokyo. The Polish genius was compared to Surrealists and Dadaists, Marcel Duchamp, Gordon Craig, Magritte, Artaud, Genet. By the end of the 1970’s, Kantor was already famous all over the world.
The Dead Class, which tells about the impossibility of returning to the past and childhood, was deemed the world’s best theatre play by Newsweek magazine. The play was vigorously discussed in London, Edinburgh, Norwich, Cardiff and every other place visited by the Cricot 2 artists.
“A horrifying Danse Macabre of the 20th century” – a reviewer wrote after the first few shows presented at Edinburgh Festival Fringe. It was during this event and the staging of Lovelies and Dowdies that Kantor invited some of the audience members, including Sean Connery and Joseph Beuys, to join him on the stage. Richard Demarco, a charismatic Scottish artist, art promoter, influential director of The Fringe and Kantor’s long-time associate, recalled in an interview with Culture.pl:
I regard it is a mistake to consider Kantor simply in terms of theatre. I always remember the day when he received the Rembrandt Prize for painting. I know of no man of theatre who has ever been the recipient of the Rembrandt Prize. He is essentially a visual artist, a superb sculptor and painter. I think it is very sad when people referred to his stage sets and his costumes as theatre props, that’s a profound misunderstanding. Everything he made was an artwork, manifestations of his genius as a visual artist.
It was Demarco who gave Kantor to the world. Thrilled by his artistic vision during their first meeting in Kraków at the beginning of the 1960s, he provided money for the artists’ travel and visa expenses out of his own pocket. In an interview with Aleksandra Kaniewska for Respublica magazine Demarco explained:
I got into debts, I took a mortgage on my home. But I don’t regret it. I always regarded myself as Kantor’s debtor, never the other way around.
“Kantor shows us what we are missing”
He was a man of the world. He referred to avant-garde and it was universal; understandable all over the world. He was charismatic, and his avant-garde alphabet allowed him to connect with the world’s top artistic environments – explained Maciej Nowak in a film about Kantor produced by TVP.
Whatever this is, it’s excellent – critics of The Glasgow Herald wrote – They do use words, in Polish naturally, but they give the impression of being used as a pure sound, rather as paint might be, to express mood rather than meaning.
The press from the Welsh city of Cardiff were also very enthusiastic:
Kantor is evoking a lost world of Europe… The impact of The Dead Class, another unforgettable production, is indeed like communing with a ghostly world, familiar, but farther from us than the moon… Kantor shows us, with a shudder, what we are missing.
On 9th June, 1982, Tadeusz Kantor left for another 3-week long Dead Class tour of Britain.
Paris-Lille-Toulouse: “Hieronymus Bosch described by Hugo and translated by Beckett”
Kantor visited France multiple times; the first time he left for France was in 1947 for his Parisian scholarship. His last visit took place in 1989, a year before his death. Cricot 2 amused French audiences for decades. After the Dead Class and Let the Artists Die shows in 1977, Jean-Claud Piau wrote in the Nord Éclair column:
Hieronymus Bosch described by Hugo and translated by Beckett.
It was during a staging in Théâtre de La Salamandre in Lille that Nat Lilienstein made his recordings of the show for FR3/La S.E.P.T. television. Kantor himself admitted that he would like to create art understood in all languages. How can one save the value of word and share it without translation?
An autonomic theatre, independent of text and literature – this is when one creates a universal language. During a conference in Lille one of the audience members accused me of being against text. I said that a word is not just a sound, but also a meaning. I’m not using texts that need to be recreated on the scene. The text is being composed along with the creation of the play itself. What’s most important is the content. And it is the content that I throw at the audience – said Tadeusz Kantor in an interview for Radio France Internationale.
The scene described by Kantor took place in the Roger Salengro Theatre in Lille, right after the staging of I Shall Never Return, a play that critics and theatrical historians described as the ultimate manifesto of individual theatre. Besides being the director, the scenographer, and the author of the script and photos, this time Kantor also performed as an actor. He told stories about himself, about his life and work. Why? As he explained at the RFI:
I was triggered by the problem of consumerism, the civilization of the masses, which I am very much against. Art, theatre, politics, wars, economy, communication – everything is becoming mass, while an individual, a private person, becomes endangered, despite freedom and democracy. I do not wish to be an apostle or a missionary – these are my true feelings. I accentuate them by introducing the “I”, my life that withstands the threat of mass culture. The more something bothers me, the stronger I become – he added.
During his last stay in France, Kantor painted some of his famous pieces, including My Last Cigarette prepared for an exhibition at the Parisian Galerie de France. In 1989, Tadeusz Kantor became a Commander of the Ordre des Arts et des Lettres. The French première of Kantor’s last play, Today is My Birthday, took place in 1991 in Toulouse after the artist’s death.
Kantor ist da!
Take one: the packing of a gigantic “Hand of Saint Peter”, which is about to be sent into the unknown. A man with a large rucksack carries his life’s possessions on his back. A confrontation with Dürer’s Rhinoceros, Humanballage taking place on Nuremberg square (site of the NSDAP rallies), starring Maria Stangret, and Rembrandt’s Anatomy Lesson in Nuremberg’s Kunsthalle appear later. In the Kantor ist da / Kantor is here documentary from 1968, Dietrich Mahlow tells the story of Kantor’s presence in the German art world. What has remained from Kantor’s tour and how did it influence contemporary German artists? He cherished his relationships with the artistic environment; he had a particularly important connection with Joseph Beuys.
In 1966 in Baden-Baden, Kantor prepared the play Der Schrank / The Wardrobe, along with German actors. The Wardrobe is based on Kantor’s previous staging of Witkacy’s Country House. Dr Uta Schorlemmer, the curator of an exhibition on Kantor’s German and Swiss footprints showcased in Kraków’s Krzysztofory Gallery a decade ago, explains:
This theatrical experiment was initially received with scepticism, and only after the tour in Germany did it turn out to be a success. Along with the exhibitions in Düsseldorf in 1959, in Lausanne in 1964 and in Baden-Baden in 1966, with numerous visits to Ahrenberg’s atelier in the Swiss Chexbres and the professorship in Hamburg in 1961, the staging of The Wardrobe was the beginning of Kantor’s international career as a painter and theatrical artist.
Nuremberg was particularly important to Kantor’s career. The Rembrandt’s Anatomy Lesson happening was showcased in Kunsthalle. In 1985 Kantor received an invitation from Karl G. Schmidt, a German banker and art patron, and premièred his Let the Artists Die play in the Institut für moderne Kunst. The play was the third international success for the Cricot 2 Theatre. Let the Artists Die was staged nearly 300 times in theatres across the world. The title also references the biography of Veit Stoss, a medieval sculptor, who came to Nuremberg from Kraków in 1472 to create Europe’s largest altar.
In 1990, Kantor was awarded with the Order of Merit of the Federal Republic of Germany for his significant impact on Europe’s contemporary art and his contribution to the revival of German culture.
In Dante's city
1980, Florence. Side alleys of the basilica at via Santa Maria 25 are filled with dozens of photographs, posters, sketches, reviews of the Cricot 2 plays and tours, and stagings of Kantor’s underground theatre plays. The church is crowded, and everyone is waiting for the belated première: Wielopole, Wielopole turned out to be a tremendous success in Italy as well.
The play was received enthusiastically, the applause wouldn’t stop – recalls Juliusz Kydryński in a single Polish report from the Florence première published in Życie literackie journal – I saw an old Roman basilica, which had long since stopped being a place of cult worship, currently entrusted to Kantor and his team. The interior of the beautiful building at via Santa Maria 25 wasn’t properly arranged yet, the onset of work – as always – caused severe trouble. Organizational mostly, which is more understandable given that Kantor’s visit to Italy raised great interest in Europe’s theatrical community, stacks of correspondence, invitations and propositions would arrive, you would always need to be present at the spot and, regardless of the fact that the play that was then prepared and shaped, initiate the works of the theatrical centre and lead workshops and exercises for the enthusiastic youth. In fact it was Kantor who had to take care of all these things: the choice of co-workers was way more than difficult than it would seem.
Kantor was already well known to the Italian audience. Earlier on, Cricot 2 had received a Comune di Firenze and Teatro Regionale Toscano internship. A few years later, the première of I Shall Never Return, another Cricot 2 play, took place in Milan. Kantor used to say it was the most intimate play of our civilization.
In the times of paradoxical consumerism, mass communication, homicides, a little something remains; an individual life – Tadeusz Kantor said during a press conference in Rome.
Tadeusz Kantor owed his great Italian success to Professor Luigi Marinelli, a remarkable Slavist who was Kantor’s translator during his stays in Italy. Marinelli is also one of world’s top promoters of Kantor’s work. In 2003, together with Silvia Parlagreco, Marinelli published La classe morta, and plans to release an Italian version of Tadeusz Kantor’s manifestos and texts in 2015.