Polish Cabaret under the Communist Regime
#language & literature
small, Piotr Skrzynecki during the 10th anniversary of Piwnica pod Baranami, 26th May 1966, photo: Lucjan Fogiel / Forum, piotr_skrzynecki_fot_lucjan_fogiel_forum.jpg
Good cabaret is an atmosphere and its programme is a worldview. That’s what cabarets were like in the Polish People’s Republic: amusing and disturbing, appealing to the viewers’ intellects, provoking their conscience. Cabarets intrigued with their form and fascinated the audience with the perfection of their execution. Culture.pl looks back at a few of the most notable.
In line with one of Witkacy’s ‘Rules of the Portrait Company’ which stipulated that ‘misunderstandings are excluded’ – we want to clarify at the outset what sort of cabaret we are talking about here. ‘The nature of Polish cabaret is somewhat different from that in the rest of the world. In the rest of the world, cabaret is associated with dancing girls, strip-teases and slick dialogue. In Poland, however, politics reigned in cabaret,’ recalls Tadeusz Drozda in Rzeczpospolita, 12-13 October 1991.
Once, when I began my set at the Nowy Świat Café, these four guys shoved their way into the club. There were no seats available, but they seemed to have some clout, because a new table appeared especially for them. They sat down, stayed for ten minutes, then rose and walked out. Evidently, the four German businessmen saw that there was a cabaret playing and they thought they’d have a few laughs. But what did they see? Some guy standing there, muttering something in Polish. People were laughing, but they didn’t understand a word. They asked someone if it was going to be like that the whole time; people said, ‘Yes, yes, jawohl!’ So they said, ‘Danke schön.’ And they left.
On the River Vistula, people readily remember cabaret programmes that arose in an atmosphere of rebellion against the existing reality, in a spirit of shattering binding conventions.
Audiences eager for intelligent entertainment were united in laughter by cabaret troupes, enjoying barbs directed at glaring examples of the stupidity, indolence and hypocrisy of the ruling classes at a time when the rulers shared one specific address. The clear-cut division of ‘us’ and ‘them’ made laughter in unison possible.
After the war, the best exemplars of literary cabaret were the troupes Piotr Skrzyniecki’s Piwnica pod Baranami (The Cellar Under the Rams), Jerzy Dobrowolski’s Konia I Owcy (Horses and Sheep), Edward Dziewoński’s Dudek (Hoopoe) and the TV show Kabaret Starszych Panów (Old Timers' Cabaret) with Jeremi Przybora and Jerzy Wasowski. In their footsteps followed the Salon Niezależnych (Salon of Independents), Elita (Elite), Tey (You), and Pod Budą (Under the Booth) cabarets. Also Pod Egida (Under the Aegis), but only when its leader Jan Pietrzak was at odds with the governing circles, for his humour clearly failed him whenever faced with more benevolent rule.
The long-awaited democratic changes in Poland led, however, to entirely new lines of political division which greatly affected everyone, including cabaret audiences. Let us, then, look at the cabarets that constituted the resistance beforehand in the times of People’s Poland.
Piwnica pod Baranami (The Cellar under the Rams)
This Kraków-based cabaret played an unparalleled, influential role from 1956 onwards during the post-war period of neglect and erosion of the Polish intelligentsia. It flourished under the leadership of Piotr Skrzynecki, not without input from others; to name just a few of the most significant figures in the early years of the troupe’s development, one should take into account Wiesław Dymny, Kazimierz Wiśniak, Joanna Olczak, Janina Garycka, Zygmunt Konieczny and Ewa Demarczyk.
The cabaret's name, meaning 'the Cellar under the Rams', comes from the fact that the building above the cellar it is based is known as the 'Palace under the Rams' (Pałac pod Baranami), and there are even rams’ heads flanking the entrance to the courtyard. The cabaret venue can still be found on the western side of Kraków’s Old Town Square today, entertaining crowds every evening.
But at the height of its notoriety during the communist regime years, Piwnica pod Baranami was a phenomenon that reached far beyond the usual concept of cabaret. It was an enclave for artists whose creativity breached the boundaries of officially sanctioned thinking. The generally hermetically sealed state system of fierce ideological propaganda was left powerless in the face of such detached and unpredictable phenomena like the artistic personalities gathered in Piwnica, who had clear aesthetic tastes and clear-cut points of view, accompanied by a deep distaste for all official pomp and ceremony.
The paradox of Piwnica lies in the fact that it was a cabaret that steered clear of passing fads, dealing with politics at best with a light-hearted irony and, thanks to its absolute independence, it began to play an important quasi-political role, which on many occasions caused it problems.
During the years 1956-1989, the laughter generated in the cellar of the Palace Under the Rams was one of the most strident forms of defence for society’s excluded people – including authors and artists, particularly beginners – against the actions of a deplored power. Oddly enough, Piwnica continues to this day and does the same thing. It puts up a defence against the amoral thinking and spiritual deadness of an ever-richer world.
Kabaret Starszych Panów (Old Timer’s Cabaret)
Two impeccably educated gentlemen – from a world in which the principles of honour and humour reigned supreme, but now seemingly inadvertently caught up in the oddly mundane post-war reality – constantly yet tactfully surprised and moved an entire generation of Poles. The preserved TV episodes of the Kabaret Starszych Panów (Old Timer’s Cabaret), written by Jeremi Przybora and Jerzy Wasowski, continue to entertain with their lasting appeal. The sophisticated standard of the humour they offered spoke not only to the educated elites; it brought joy to everyone, regardless of social status or position in life.
During the 1960s, the streets would empty during broadcasts of their show – entire families, their friends and neighbours, would all gather together in front of the few televisions then available. Exceptional attention was given to each broadcast in the Podhale region – the mountainous region’s residents had special regard for the satire, according to theatre director Adam Hanuszkiewicz. They would often say that educated people like the duo could no longer be found anywhere. It was Hanuszkiewicz who demanded schedulers that they re-broadcast the first episode of the cabaret two extra times – ‘And then no-one will ever let you take them off-air’ – which is just what happened.
Alongside the main duo, an unending constellation of the brightest stars made cameos before the TV cameras, including Irena Kwiatkowska, Barbara Krafftówna, Kalina Jędrusik, Wiesław Michnikowski, Mieczysław Czechowicz, Wiesław Gołas, Edward Dziewoński, Bronisław Pawlik, Bohdan Łazuka, and Jarema Stępowski. The roles they played in the show were every bit as memorable as any of their other stage or film roles.
Each show also established Jeremi Przybora’s literary mastery and the musical craftsmanship of Jerzy Wasowski. The two men perfectly complemented one another in composing great songs which are now considered – and rightly so – classics of the genre. Many lines would become catchphrases repeated in households all over Poland, including ‘Szuja! Naomamiał, natruł i nabujał!’, ‘Wespół w zespół, by żądz moc móc zmóc!’, and ‘O, Romeo, słowiczy sokole! O, tęsknoto niewieścich pokoleń!’
Kabaret Dudek, founded and directed by Edward Dziewoński, inaugurated its activity on 13th January 1965 with its premier programme Spotkajmy się na Nowym Świecie (‘Let’s Meet on Nowy Swiat’ – the theme tune, sung by the troupe at the end, was earlier part of the repertoire of Ludwik Sempoliński). The cabaret’s shows were performed in the Nowy Świat Cafe at 61 Nowy Świat Street in Warsaw.
During their shows, a banner could be seen above the stage with the phrase Upupa epops, the Latin name of the hoopoe bird from which the cabaret got its name. A stylised bird, designed by Eryk Lipiński, served as the cabaret’s logo.
Over ten years, the cabaret put on around 1000 shows made up of almost 200 discrete sketches and monologues and the songs of dozens of composers and authors. Half of this volume was the work of just two authors: Stanisław Tym (who began his association with Dudek as one of the most dedicated authors of the Student Theatre of Satirists, or STS, and of Jerzy Dobrowolski’s cabaret Owca) and Wojciech Młynarski. Audiences also frequently enjoyed pieces by Andrzej Bianusz and Andrzej Waligórski.
Młynarski was invited to work with Dziewoński towards the end of 1964. He was already the winner of the Opole Music Festival’s song competition, but, as he would later stress, his talent developed fully only with Dudek, where he learned to tailor songs to specific performers. In his book Sex, Art and Alcohol: Social Life in the ‘60s, Andrzej Klim wrote:
When, during one return voyage after a lavish alcohol-fuelled captain’s ball, Wojciech Młynarski and Wiesław Gołas ventured out, supporting one another on the slippery deck, to watch the arrival of the ship [the transatlantic MS Batory] in Gdynia’s port, they found themselves accompanied by seagulls strolling silently along the railing. Gołas joked at the time, ‘Why are these gulls walking so loudly?’ Two days after their return to Warsaw, the song ‘The Stomping of the White Gulls’ had been written, with lyrics by Wojciech Młynarski.
Another classic song, The Ballad of the Wild West, also originated aboard the Batory when Młynarski and Tadeusz Suchocki (Dudek’s accompanist and composer) observed the behaviour of Gołas and Jan Kobuszewski walking about the deck of the ship wearing cowboy hats.
The group of stars most closely associated with the cabaret consisted of five actors: Irena Kwiatkowska, Wiesław Michnikowski and the aforementioned Dziewoński, Gołas and Kobuszewski. Kobuszewski and Dziewoński appeared in every programme. Great hopes existed for Bogumił Kobiela whose initial collaboration with Dudek was abruptly cut short by his premature death.
This master of comic acting performed, among other scenes, in the Klementynki quartet – a parody of the then-popular women’s song-and-dance ensembles (e.g. Filipinki, Alibabki). Along with the scene’s other performers (Kobuszewski, Gołas and Dziewoński), Kobiela wore a wig with pigtails, a white blouse and chequered skirt. In the number’s finale, he stretched out on the piano and waved his legs, invariably throwing the audience into paroxysms of laughter.
After the cabaret stopped performing in 1975, it sporadically reunited for special occasions, such as television appearances. In 1987, Dziewoński tried to restart Dudek properly. The attempt to wade into ‘the same river’ using actors of the younger generation turned out to be an artistic fiasco and, two years later, the cabaret definitively announced its termination.
In most reminiscences of people associated with Dudek, what stands out are the mutual courtesy and excellent co-operation of all those who worked there, regardless of their roles in the troupe. Since the responsibility for producing each programme was jointly shared, the group also enjoyed a shared sense of success without over-emphasising any individual.
The cabaret’s standards were perfectly conceived sketches: ‘The Knot’ based on a pre-war vaudeville routine by Konrad Tom about doing business, with Dziewoński as Beniek Rapaport and Michnikowski as Kuba Goldberg, and Tym’s ‘Study, Jaś!’ with Kobuszewski, Gołas and Bronisław Pawlik. As for songs, there was We’re Going to Poland with lyrics by Młynarski and music by Jerzy Wasowski, masterfully performed by Wiesław Gołas.
Owca – The Sheep
The Owca Cabaret was founded in 1966. It was created by Jerzy Dobrowolski, who was the director and writer of most of Owca’s texts. The cast consisted of Józef Nowak, Wojciech Pokora, Andrzej Stockinger, Jerzy Turek, Stanisław Tym and Dobrowolski himself.
Owca had only one programme because it didn’t last long. Three years after its founding, the authorities banned its performances. Its message was too timely, and the overflowing crowds it drew can be seen as proof. Dobrowolski’s cabaret poked fun at the absurdities of daily life and sent up incompetence, rudeness, stupidity, primitivism and the newspeak of the ruling powers, as well as the conformism of those under their rule.
A wonderful example of Owca’s work was their word-association routine about job interviews in journalism. The interviewer offers a word and the applicants have to respond immediately with an appropriate association:
Mastering these terms made it possible to write that ‘the entire nation, standing on the solid ground of unwavering principles, firmly rejected the slanderous libels that impact the vital interests of the broad masses.’ Standing out from the crowd of flawlessly responding applicants is one hopelessly incompetent candidate, who loudly complains that if there are broad masses, there surely must be skinny ones as well.
Also outstanding was the meeting sketch. After a boss’s speech, the delegates have their say: ‘Us who work out in the field have already discussed the matter, and I personally believe that it now requires deeper discussion, urgently, in daily practice.’ So the boss notes in his summary that he was pleased to hear that he had ‘discussed the matter, which now requires deeper discussion, urgently, in daily practice.’ He calls another meeting in a month later to discuss the results of the ‘deeper discussion among the staff in the field, urgently, in daily practice.’
The Owca Cabaret showed it had an exceptionally perceptive eye for the realities of its time. It did not hesitate to parody popular songs, monologues, national and traditional Polish songs, and even certain dances. The Owca Cabaret issued certifications to those needing them, testifying to the audience member’s intellect – its certification ‘entitles the bearer to be considered an intellectual, and partially frees the bearer from professional employment.’ It’s interesting to think what a viewer of a similar show mocking today’s reality would be entitled to –would we find as perceptive an observer these days?
Elita (The Elite)
Tadeusz Drozda and Jan Kaczmarek had their own separate cabarets. But they decided to join forces and, in 1968, they launched Elita, the Cabaret of the Wrocław Polytechnic. According to Jan Kaczmarek, the creation of the new troupe took place at a pivotal moment in history: when Tadeusz Drozda treated him to a beer. The student movement was very active at the time: there were poetry tournaments, jazz ensembles, song exchanges, cabarets, and more.
At one point, there was a cabaret in each department of Wrocław Polytechnic, Kaczmarek recalled. ‘There was a cabaret in the electronics department and another one in the electric department. Since the polytechnic wanted to show off its cabaret at the Fama Festival, it began to round up talent from the various cabarets and, as a result, Tadek Drozda, Jurek Skoczylas and I were the first to join the united cabaret. Then Roman Gerczak came onboard, he’d become involved with Kołobrzeg music. Next were Leszek Niedzielski, Włodek Plaskota, Andrzej Waligórski and Staszek Szelc.
Elita scored its first successes at the Fama student music festival in Świnoujście, but its breakthrough moment came with its performance at the National Festival of Polish Song in Opole in 1971 when Elita won the Radio Committee award.
Jan really hated performing.
Tadeusz Drozda recalled how Kaczmarek tried to run away from the Fama concert.
He wanted to be a normal, decent engineer, but I wouldn’t let him. I used blackmail, resorted to lies and to a variety of dirty tricks. But history ultimately bore me out.
After the troupe won its first honours, editor Andrzej Waligórski brought Elita onto his radio show, Studio 202. On 1st April (!) 1974, Waligórski gave Kaczmarek a permanent position on the radio and, over time, he hired all the others too apart from Drozda, who had moved to Warsaw. Studio 202 absorbed Elita, and Elita absorbed Studio 202. The two groups were identical in personnel, with the exception of the Young Doctor (Ewa Szumańska) who performed only on the radio. Several attempts were made to dissolve Studio 202 and to fire its members, but Waligórski swore that, as long as he lived, he would stand firm in preventing such intrigues and plots against the artists of Studio 202 from succeeding.
The Elita Cabaret managed to maintain a rare knack for harmonious co-operation. They would attend each other’s family celebrations together. Jerzy Skoczylas said he would never forget the distinguished waiter in the cafe of Wrocław’s artistic association who, at Skoczylas’ wedding, discreetly whispered to him: ‘It seems to me that Mr Plaskota has been throwing cake.’
The troupe often appeared on festival stages and on television, always winning the appreciation of the entire audience. People valued the artists of Elita for their sparkling humour and authenticity.
Salon Niezależnych (The Salon of Independents)
Based on its name alone, this group of three performers – Jacek Kleyff, Janusz Weiss and Michał Tarkowski – drew heightened attention from the communist authorities, who would not tolerate any deviation from the one legitimate point of view as espoused by party ideologues. At the same time, the troupe chose a name for itself made up of two words that fomented unease amongst the rulers: where does the tendency towards elitism expressed in ‘Salon’ come from and what can be expected of people who declare themselves ‘Independents,’ openly declaring their distaste for any kind of subordination?
Politics, more or less brutally forcing its way into the lives of every citizen of the Polish People’s Republic, made itself evident from the very start of the artistic activity of Kleyff, Tarkowski and Weiss. It’s sufficient to state that their first public appearance as a trio took place on 12th December 1970 – a day before communist leader Władysław Gomułka’s fateful price hikes – at the U Alego student club in Bydgoszcz.
Crowds pushed their way into that small architects’ club in a cellar on Warsaw’s Koszykowa Street – as they would throughout Poland – to see the performance by two architecture students (Kleyff and Tarkowski) and one Polish literature student (Janusz Weiss). From December 1970 to June 1976 – a period when vocal dissent was often violently quelled – their shows were one of the few available oases of free speech in Poland.
In its shows, the Salon Niezależnych provided a healthy dose of mockery of the communist reality. In spite of all the positive energy of the actors and their youthful uncompromising nature, their humour condemned and punished. What did it attack exactly? The lies of propaganda, newspeak, incompetence, primitivism and obtuseness of the ruling class.
Stanisław Ignacy Witkiewicz (Witkacy)
There was little journalistic spontaneity in the sketches and songs of the trio, but one could always sense their philosophical subtexts. The texts sought to achieve universality, at times surprising the viewer with absurd notions. The content included historical context: for example, the sober observation in one song that each nation must deal with its own particular silences.
On the one hand, the cabaret was the winner of numerous music festival awards (Fama – 1971, 1973, 1974; the Student Song Festival in Kraków, 1972; the National Festival of Polish Song in Opole – the Golden Pin in 1972), while on the other hand, it was constantly being harassed by the ruling powers. The cabaret’s end was ultimately brought about by the Censorship Office and the Security Services. The final ban on the salon’s activity in 1976 followed Jacek Kleyff’s signing of the Letter of 59, an open letter signed by many intellectuals protesting the regime's 1975 changes to the constitution.
After the dissolution of the troupe. Jacek Kleyff created the Orkiestra Na Zdrowie (Orchestra for Health) in a village near Lublin. Michał Tarkowski first went on to appear in films, and then later began producing them. Janusz Weiss, after a scandal involving a stage manager, developed closer ties with radio and television.
The student cabaret Klops (Meatball) was established in the mid-1960s at the Physical Education Academy in Poznań by Zenon Laskowik, Krzysztof Jaślar and Aleksander Gołębiowski. In 1970, with the support of the director of the Poznań Stage, it was soon reshaped into the professional cabaret Tey (its curious name was local Poznań dialect for the standard Polish word ‘ty’, meaning ‘you’). Tey’s first appearance took place on 17th September 1971 in a hall on Masztalerskiej Street in Poznań. After various peregrinations, it found its permanent home on the corner of the Old Market Square and 44 Woźna Street. Laskowik used to say ‘I don’t know who that cleaning woman [woźna] was or more so who she was with to get a street named after her.’
The cabaret’s fame and prestige were solidified by the Golden Pin it won in 1973 and an award in the cabaret tournament during the Opole Polish Song Festival in which Tey bested the Salon Niezależnych, Pod Egida and Elita. From that point on, the Poznań cabaret never again had to worry about attendance at their performances. They went on many national tours and some abroad (they sometimes performed as many as seven shows a day!) and soon television, too, took an interest.
From its first appearances on television entertainment programmes, the cabaret’s leader Zenon Laskowik offered viewer’s a new standard in effortless jokes, told seemingly spontaneously with on-target allusions tossed in offhandedly. Initially, Laskowik partnered with Janusz Rewiński and Rudi Schuberth. His greatest popularity and fame, however, came when he worked as a duo with Bohdan Smoleń, recruited from the Kraków cabaret Pod Budą.
Its performances were like a magnet, drawing audiences to various types of cabaret marathons and festival appearances. In the opinion of many fans and critics, the troupe’s greatest achievement was its show ‘Stylu sklepu’ at the Opole cabaret marathon in 1980. Television didn’t broadcast it at the time, but, some months later at the special request of coal miners, 70 minutes were finally shown. In the final scene, Zenon Laskowik as a television reporter interviews Bohdan Smoleń, who plays a veteran female worker.
– Good day. We’re from TV. Ready? Good day.
– Good day!
– Can you tell us what sort of factory we’re in now?
– Nope. I can’t tell you, ‘cause it's a state secret! I can only say that I make five zlotys for every... bauble.
– What’s your name?
– Pelagia! I’m the oldest worker in this plant. I’ve been working here for… hoo-boy! And maybe longer. My husband and children also work here and their photos are behind the plant.
– In front of the plant.
– Behind, ‘cause we’re rebuilding.
– So, behind the old one.
– Yes, my old man is hanging around there, too. We’re very connected to the plant, especially through its financial assistance programme….
– Calm down, ma’am. Everyone has it like that, really. Mrs Pelagia, can you….
– Can you tell us what kind of baubles you produce here?
– Oh, different kinds, all kinds. Here we make round ones, mushroom-shaped ones, and cigar-shaped ones.
– We are talking about Christmas tree ornaments, aren't we?
– Them too. You know what an assortment we have? From the A variety to the N variety.
– You can just cut this bit out….
In the opinion of Jaślar and Rewiński, Tey’s texts were written by the team, but Laskowik always saw to it that the scripts were signed with his name. He said of Tey that it was supposed to be ‘a factory of jokes and money’. After martial law, Tey continued to prosper until 1988, but it never returned to its old exceptional form.