Theatre Out of the Ruins: The Premieres of Post-War Warsaw
default, Theatre Out of the Ruins: The Premieres of Post-War Warsaw, Syrena Cinema at 4 Inżynierska Street, 1946, photo: PAP, center, kino_syrena_1946_pap_19481001_09k.jpg
In 1939, the diverse, multicultural creative life of Warsaw was brutally interrupted by World War II. The barbarity of the occupation, however, was met with active resistance by many theatre artists, who endeavoured to continue their creative work even during the war. Apart from the few dramatic institutions that the Nazi Germans permitted to operate, Polish artists fostered an underground theatre scene – in which their participation carried enormous risk.
A tragic choice
Tadeusz Kantor presented his clandestine wartime performances in a private Kraków apartment. Now legendary in Polish theatre history, the audience was welcomed by a sign on the door which read: ‘Enter this theatre at your own risk’ (originally: ‘Do teatru nie wchodzi się bezkarnie’). This slogan, interpreted more metaphorically today, was taken quite literally at the time. Participating in illegal cultural events, which differed greatly from the official performances the occupiers allowed as propaganda, could even mean risking one’s life.
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Some theatre artists suspended their creative work during the war, faced with the choice of participating in sanctioned theatre, which offered a pitiable repertoire and the risk of being interpreted as conspiring with the occupiers. The Association of Polish Stage Artists (Związek Artystów Scen Polskich – ZASP), which became an illegal entity in and of itself, called for the boycott of officially sanctioned theatre, accusing those who worked there of collaboration with the enemy.
A bombed-out café
The Nazi Germans allowed for only lowbrow, often risqué forms of entertainment, as they considered only these to be suited to Polish society. Taking part in the underground theatre was thus a source of hope for Polish artists to maintain a sense of national pride and an eventual return to normalcy. The performing arts in Poland ultimately survived the devastating years of war – often in extreme forms, such as performances that took place in prisoner-of-war and concentration camps.
In Warsaw itself, plays were staged in cafés, such as the famed U Aktorek (At the Actress’) café on Mazowiecka Street. The Polish Theatre Institute (Państwowy Instytut Sztuki Teatralnej) remained in operation, under which secret acting and directing classes were organised. The Clandestine Theatre Council (Tajna Rada Teatralna) was established in 1940. It was led by such extraordinary artists as Bohdan Korzeniewski, Leon Schiller, Edmund Wierciński, Stefan Jaracz and Andrzej Pronaszko, among others, who worked together to envision the shape of Polish theatre after the war.
The Warsaw elite enjoyed plays staged during the occupation by Leon Schiller. These starred the wardens of a shelter for ‘fallen’ girls run by Sister Benigna (an ex-actress named Stanisława Umińska) in the Henryków neighbourhood of Warsaw’s Białołęka district. Together with these devoted young women, Schiller staged productions including Pastorale and The History of the Glorious Resurrection of Our Lord.
They performed until the very last days before the Warsaw Uprising, as if they wished to transform the surrounding brutal reality itself. The last play before the massacre, Kantata na Otwarcie Teatru Narodowego (A Cantata for the Opening of the National Theatre) – both written and directed by Schiller – was interrupted by a Nazi German mortar attack, which caused a fire in the café on Mazowiecka Street. The poet Stanisław Ryszard Dobrowolski described this place as ‘the most extraordinary theatre’ he had ‘ever seen’.
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The day that Warsaw theatre was reborn is often considered to be 17th January 1946, on the first anniversary of the liberation of the city. This date marked the premiere of Juliusz Słowacki’s Lilla Weneda at the Polski Theatre, as directed by a gravely ill Juliusz Osterwa.
The right bank of Warsaw, however, had been abandoned by the Nazi Germans as soon as the autumn of 1944. As such, it was rebuilt much sooner than the rest of Poland’s capital – and saw even earlier post-war theatrical premieres.
One of the most important figures in the theatre milieu at this time was Jan Mroziński, an actor who organised performances in the liberated part of Warsaw. His Koncert Popularny (Popular Concert) was staged as soon as October 1944 – comprised of fragments of Wyspiański’s Liberation, A Song of the Soldiers of Westerplatte by Konstanty Ildefons Gałczyński, and Jankiel’s concert from Pan Tadeusz.
Soon, the newly founded Warsaw Theatre led by Mroziński moved to the building of the Syrena Cinema at 4 Inżynierska Street (today, the home of a TV studio). Many other performances of poetry, sketches, dances and the national hymn played by an orchestra, as well as the Polonaise in A-Flat Major by Chopin, were staged in this new venue. Stanisława Mrozińska (then Nowicka), a stage designer, vividly recalled these early post-war events:
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In this case, it is difficult to talk about any artistic ambitions. Attention was paid above all to giving the audience a chance to immerse themselves in the liberated Polish language.
The premiere of Majster i Czeladnik (The Master and the Apprentice) by Józef Korzeniowski, directed by Janusz Strochocki, was the first drama staged after the war in Praga. The premiere took place on 18th November 1944. The actors rehearsed in the unheated hall of the Railway Division. Gabriela Zapolska’s The Morality of Mrs. Dulska, directed by Zbigniew Bończa-Tomaszewski, premiered on 9th December.
Luckily, Mroziński managed to acquire an electric power generator on the occasion of a visit from Wincenty Rzymowski, the Minister of Culture of the Polish Committee of National Liberation. Thus, the candles and oil lamps that previously lit the stage were replaced by artificial sources of light. Given that the winter of 1944 was especially harsh, the actors had to perform in many layers of their own clothes instead of stylised costumes.
In the uniforms of the enemy
When the headquarters at Inżynierska Street was attacked by the Nazi Germans from the other side of the River Wisła, the theatre moved to the nearby Popularne Cinema building at 20 Jan Zamoyski Street. There, Gabriela Zapolska's play The Morality of Mrs. Dulska continued to attract numerous audiences. In the beginning of 1945, the cinema was renamed as the Popularny Theatre and in September, it became the Powszechny Theatre. These represented the earliest iterations of one of the best contemporary theatres in Poland today, now known as the the Zbigniew Hübner Powszechny Theatre.
Many other plays were staged in the new building, including Aleksander Fredro’s Maiden Vows (Śluby Panieńskie), which premiered on 8th March 1945, and Włodzimierz Perzyński’s Szczęście Frania (Frank’s Luck), which premiered on 2nd April 1945. The new building housed the first post-war theatrical organisation in Warsaw, the Municipal Dramatic Theatres (Miejskie Teatry Dramatyczne), which was led by Mroziński and brought together five of the capital’s theatrical initiatives.
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The biggest play staged at Zamoyski Street, however, was The Mayor of Stilmonde by Maurice Maeterlinck, a Belgian Nobel Prize winner. The premiere of the play, as directed by Ryszard Wasilewski, took place on 8th May 1945 – the same day that Nazi Germany surrendered and World War II finally came to a close. This was truly meaningful, as Maeterlinck’s play, which dealt with the events of World War I, was in fact anti-German in sentiment.
Bolesław Wójcicki wrote in Życie Warszawy:
For us, the people living in ruined Warsaw after almost six years of disaster, no topic could be as absorbing for us as a German invasion.
At that time, the people of Praga had many unmet needs – but instead of giving up, they were inspired to search for alternative solutions. For example, the actors in The Mayor of Stilmonde played in the authentic, original uniforms of the enemy.
There was no way we could sew uniforms in these conditions and there was no chance we could find uniforms from the times of World War I. Luckily, army depots could offer a number of Nazi uniforms in an almost ideal state.
Art among the ruins
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Post-war documentation of the destruction. The Mermaid of Warsaw and the destroyed building of the ‘Syrena’ rowing club on the banks of the River Wisła at 8 Solec Street, with a view of Praga, photo: Eugeniusz Haneman
The role of Floris in The Mayor of Stilmonde was played by Witold Sadowy, a stage actor, an author of books on theatre, and a recipient of the Order of Polonia Restituta. He will celebrate his 100th birthday in the year 2020. Sadowy warmly recalled Mroziński, to whom he owed his debut:
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He was an outstanding actor and an extraordinary comedian. He was my first boss and I owe everything to him. He was a man of passion and engagement. He was adored by his colleagues and the audience. In the hardest times, when Warsaw was in ruins, when people had nothing, when getting the smallest thing was problematic, he created theatre. He made sure that people weren’t hungry, that they got a bowl of soup and a loaf of bread every single day.
From ‘Gazeta Wyborcza’, 2009, trans. AJ
The left bank of Warsaw was liberated on 17th January 1945. The first post-war theatre opened there was the Mały Theatre at 81b Marszałkowska Street, which was a branch of the Powszechny Theatre in a small cinema. Mały welcomed audiences until 1950, when Marszałkowska Street was widened and the building at 81b was demolished.
A ‘tedious opera’
The premiere of Juliusz Słowacki’s Lilla Weneda took place exactly one year after the liberation of Warsaw from German occupation, on 17th January 1946, in the Polski Theatre in Warsaw – the first nationalised post-war theatre, led by Arnold Szyfman and Jarosław Iwaszkiewicz. The play was directed by Juliusz Osterwa, who was gravely ill at the time and passed away a year later. Before his death, however, he also managed to stage Fantazy (A Fantasy) in Kraków, where he played the main character.
Soon after the premiere of Lilla Weneda, the Odrodzenie weekly (the first post-war arts magazine) published a review of the event. Stanisław Witold Balicki called Osterwa ‘a martyr’ and the play itself ‘improper’, as it drifted away from lyricism and fairy tales and moved towards dramatic realism.
Juliusz Słowacki's Lilla Weneda directed by Michał Zadara
The choice of 'Lilla Weneda' for the ceremonious opening of the theatre, on the anniversary of the capital's liberation, as well as the announcement of its repretory rpove that it will only be yet another eclectic stage, without a clear social and artistic countenance, without a new countenance. [...] The unconvincing scenery, the misuse of the curtains, the bizarre manner of reciting the poetry, the confusion of the pathos of the diction and the movements of naturalistic freedom – made for, with an evidently great amount of work, an exceedingly tedious opera.
In the first years after the war, Warsaw was not considered the leading place for theatre. A much more important centre was Łódź, where the directors Leon Schiller and Iwo Gall worked, as well as Kraków, with its Stary Theatre and Słowacki Theatre.
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Warsaw, March 1946, Karasia Street 2, taken as documentation by the Biuro Odbudowy Stolicy (Capital Rebuilding Office), photo: Karol Pecherski / APW / FORUM
In Warsaw, Arnold Szyfman directed plays with outstanding casts. His productions saw adequate funding and organisational support. In 1947, Szyfman presented two monumental dramas in less than six months. In March, it was Oresteja, which was criticised by Tadeusz Peiper: ‘The director sometimes loses the meaning of the situation’.
In July, he staged Hamlet at the Shakespeare Festival. The play was translated by Jarosław Iwaszkiewicz, with the stage and costumes designed by Karol Frycz. The actors were accompanied by music composed by Stanisław Moniuszko, as adapted by Tadeusz Szeligowski. The graphic notation was found by Szyfman in the library of the theatre, which had fortunately survived the war. In his correspondence with the director, Szeligowski praised this unknown work by the famous composer:
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Please give attention to Ofelia’s songs, which resemble the madness of ‘Halka’, the beautiful fanfares resembling those from ‘The Haunted Manor’. I ask that you emphasise Moniuszko’s music throughout, because it’s worthy of attention and because it’s such an interesting part of his legacy.
Wacław Borowy described Szyfman’s Hamlet as a play that ‘astonishes with the colours of the costumes and the variety of the scenery and decor’.
Warsaw boasted many other important performances, including those directed by the outstanding actor and expressionist director Edmund Wierciński. In 1948, in the Polski Theatre, he directed Le Cid, a tragedy by Pierre Corneille adapted by Wyspiański, as well as Fantazy.
The musical score for both performances was composed by Witold Lutosławski. The cast of Le Cid was equally famous, as it included Nina Andrycz, Jan Kreczmar and Marian Wyrzykowski. One of the roles in Fantazy was played by Aleksander Zelwerowicz. The premiere of the latter play, which took place on 10th July, was part of the programme of the 35th anniversary of the Polski Theatre and the 40th anniversary of Szyfman’s artistic work.
In his review of the play, Edward Csató wrote:
I am about to write about a performance which I consider an important part of the development of our theatre. [...] The Warsaw staging of ‘Fantazy’ is an enticing and brave phenomenon. It is the only example I know of an intellectual and radically rational interpretation of Słowacki’s play.
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‘Fantazy’, directed by Edmund Wierciński, Polski Theatre in Warsaw, 10th July 1948, photo: Adam F. Kaczkowski / Instytut Teatralny
In March 1948, Jan Kreczmar directed A House Near Auschwitz (originally: Dom pod Oświęcimiem), a play by Tadeusz Hołuj, who himself was one of the prisoners of the Auschwitz concentration camp. The pre-premiere of the drama sparked an intense discussion in the press, which published statements by both critics and the audience. The rehearsals for the performance were carefully watched by Józef Hen, who published his backlash in his memoirs, titled I Have No Fear of Sleepless Nights. He asked rhetorically in his notes: ‘Should you save a person at the risk of yourself and your family?’
The first era of post-war Polish theatre ended in 1949, when the doctrine of socialist realism was proclaimed in Poland.
Originally written in Polish by Marcelina Obarska, Jan 2019; translated by AJ, Apr 2019; edited by LD, May 2019
druga wojna światowa
teatr powszechny im. zygmunta hübnera w warszawie
Sources: ‘Teatry Warszawy 1944–1945: Kronika’ by Tomasz Mościcki, 2012; ‘Warszawskie sezony teatralne 1944–1949’ by Tomasz Mościcki, 2016; ‘Teatr czasu Wojny: Polskie ŻycieTeatralne w Latach II Wojny Światowej (1939–1945)’ by Stanisław Marczak-Oborski, 1967; ‘Teatr Wśród Ruin Warszawy: Wspomnienia i Dokumenty z Lat 1944–1945’ by Stanisława Mrozińska, 1958; aict.art.pl; polskieradio.pl; naszemiasto.pl; warszawa.pl