An eminent actor, director, educator and theatre manager. Born 14 August 1877 in Lublin; died 18 June 1955 in Warsaw.
An eminent actor, director, educator and theatre manager.
Zelwerowicz’s father was a participant of the January Uprising of 1863 and was later deported to Siberia. He passed away when the boy was but seven years old. Two years later, Zelwerowicz and his mother moved to Warsaw, where he attended the 4th Men’s Philological Gymnasium. Theatre was his already his great passion at this time. Against school rules, the boy attended performances at the Variety Theatre and at numerous garden theatres. In 1890, at age 13, under the pseudonym of Werowicz, he took a job with the Łódź-based theatre of Michal Wolowski, which was in Warsaw at the time. He made his stage debut as a servant in Shakespeare’s Comedy of Errors.
Soon discovering his ‘trick’, his mother simply removed him from the theatre. Yet not much later, Zelwerowicz’s passion for the theatre caused him to be expelled from his gymnasium and banned from enrolling in any school within the Congress Kingdom when he was caught watching a performance of Gabriela Zapolska’s Małka Szwarcenkopf at one of Warsaw’s garden theatres. To continue studying, he had to move to Russia proper. He found himself in the city of Orel, where he attended the local gymnasium and passed his baccalaureate exam in 1892. Returning to Warsaw, he was persuaded by his mother to enrol at the Leopold Kronenberg Higher School of Commerce. He simultaneously studied in the evenings at the Warsaw Music Society Drama School (completing it in 1897). In 1898-1899 he studied the social sciences at Geneva University, but when he returned to Poland for a vacation in 1899, he joined a theatre in Łódż and never returned to the university in Switzerland.
He was hired by Wołowski, who had given Zelwerowicz his first role ever in a Shakespeare comedy a decade earlier. In Łódź, the artist played both bit parts and larger roles, and his work was very well received. Less than a year after his initial engagement, he received a number of other job offers. Edmund Rydygier wanted to hire him on at his theatre in Poznań, Tadeusz Pawlikowski proposed that he come to Lviv, while Jozef Kotarbinski offered him a job at his theatre in Kraków. Zelwerowicz chose Kraków.
6 Polish Theatre Directors Who Revolutionised the Stage
The young actor was in Kraków for seven years (1900-1907), perfecting his acting skills, imbibing the city’s artistic atmosphere, broadening his knowledge of both the Polish repertoire and avant-garde drama. At the time, Kraków theatres staged plays by the likes of Henrik Ibsen, August Strindberg, Anton Chekhov, Maxim Gorky and Maurice Maeterlinck. Stanisław Wyspiański was working at the same Kraków theatre. In 1900 he staged his famous play The Wedding (originally: Wesele) with Zelwerowicz playing Kasper and Czepiec, and a year later his production of Adam Mickiewicz’s Forefathers’ Eve (originally: Dziady) featured the actor as the Priest and Bajkow. At the Kraków theatre, Zelwerowicz soon became unofficial protégé of the eminent actor Kazimierz Kamiński, who trained and prepared him for difficult acting challenges like the part of Father Bentivoglio in Schönthan’s Rebirth. He also taught him the art of stage disguise, which Zelwerowicz grew fond of and later found difficult to abandon. He performed in many farces, and his job position was that of a comedian. Yet in Kraków he also appeared in plays of the Polish Romantic repertoire, among them several by Juliusz Słowacki: he was the Grand Duke in Kordian (1901), General Krechetnikov in Father Marek (1901), Grabiec in Balladyna (1902) and the Major in Fantazy (1907). He played a number of Shakespearean characters, including Stefano in The Tempest, Falstaff in Henry IV and Bottom in A Midsummer Night’s Dream, and he was no stranger to Russian drama, one of his best performances of the period being the title character in Anton Chekhov’s Uncle Vanya (1906).
In 1908, Zelwerowicz was appointed director of the Victoria Theatre in Łódź, which he turned into a stage characterised by modern acting and directing. He assembled a very good ensemble that included Stefan Jaracz and Kazimierz Junosza-Stepowski. The Victoria showed the works of Shakespeare as well as of Gorky and Zapolska, and promoted the grand Polish repertoire with plays by Słowacki, Wyspiański and Aleksander Fredro. Zelwerowicz staged the world premieres of Wyspiański’s Klątwa (The Curse) (1909) and Słowacki’s Samuel Zborowski (1911). In 1909 the Victoria Theatre burned down and a new building was made available to its ensemble, but this new edifice was also consumed by fire in 1911. The troupe moved to Warsaw in 1912, performing at the United Theatre of Franciszek Rychlowski, but this private theatre shortly went bankrupt.
Séances, Dragons & Chakras: Kraków's Magical Past
In 1913 Zelwerowicz was hired by the Polish Theatre, newly founded in Warsaw by Arnold Szyfman. He would work with Szyfman for over 35 years, with breaks. The Polish Theatre was his professional home in the years 1913-1917, 1918-1919, 1921-1925, 1931-1934, 1936-1937. After World War II, he worked there again from 1947 to the end of his life. During the interbellum, he collaborated with Juliusz Osterwa’s Reduta (Redoubt) Theater and was also associated with the Municipal Theatre in Warsaw (1919-1920, 1926-1929). In the latter half of the 1930s, he worked with the Grand Theatre and all the theatres of the Society for the Encouragement of Theatrical Culture. The 1920/1921 season saw him act as the director of a theatre in Łódź, in 1925-1926 he co-managed the Bogusławski Theatre in Warsaw with Wilam Horzyca and Leon Schiller, and in 1929-1931 he managed the Theatre on Pohulanka Street in Vilnius. Throughout the two decades of the interbellum, he also made guest appearances in many Polish cities, including Poznań, Łódź, Vilnius and Lublin.
Zelwerowicz acted in over 800 productions during his career. He had a vivid, distinct and spontaneous acting style and great ease in creating and sensing mood changes. Sensitive to the tone, rhythm and tempo of dramatic language, he focused viewer attention on himself in both lighter and more ambitious plays. He frequently appeared in Fredro’s and Moliere’s works, as well as in Enlightenment-era comedies, but he also had a passion for the Polish Romantic repertoire and for contemporary drama. His appearance on stage, even if silent, was sometimes suggestive enough to prompt the audience to begin carefully observing the action. He was a master character actor, demonstrating great humour and bravura in farces. He would often ‘escape to’ a lighter repertoire that allowed him greater freedom in exercising his imagination. Wilam Horzyca wrote about one of his farcical roles:
Poland's Unique Take on Romanticism: Why Is It So Different?
This incredible figure appeared on stage (...). It stood on one leg, spun around, did a pirouette, rolled to the door on the left, then, through a series of riotous convulsions, found itself again at stage centre where, like a giant, superhuman beetle, it circled the centrally placed table and stopping once again to spin around on one foot (...), it saluted someone flying above the audience and finally surprised all by dropping onto the seat of a chair (...).
W. Horzyca, 'Aleksander Zelwerowicz', Warsaw, 1935
Zelwerowicz was also no stranger to formal experimentation, which did not always bring critical approval. In comedies he would seek the grotesque in a character, conveying his inner bitterness. For example, he applied an expressionistic style in portraying Baron Regnard in his own staging of Leonid Andreyev’s He Who Gets Slapped (1922). Yet these innovations were always limited by Zelwerowicz’s own peculiar theatrical sense and love of old theatre. Leon Schiller even referred to him as a subversive and traditionalist in one. With time his acting became more realistic, yet instead of being dry and calculated, his realism was temperamental and passionate, allowing him to portray suffering and torn characters with dramatic energy. He worked a lot and created real characters that ranged from highly successful through controversial to outright defeats. He put in many excellent performances at the Polish Theatre, including as MP Warcholik in Adolf Nowaczynski’s Nowe Ateny (A New Athens, 1913, dir. Józef Sosnowski), John Michael Flaherty in John Millington Synge’s The Playboy of the Western World (1913, dir. Sosnowski), Doctor Higgins in George Bernard Shaw’s Pygmalion (1914, dir. Arnold Szyfman), Argan in Moliere’s The Imaginary Invalid (1921, dir. Zelwerowicz) and Porfiry in Leon Schiller’s exquisite stage adaptation of Fyodor Dostoyevsky’s novel Crime and Punishment (1934). At the Reduta Theatre, he played Hippolytus in Papierowy Kochanek (The Paper Lover) by Jerzy Szaniawski (1920), the author he most esteemed among contemporary Polish playwrights. He also directed productions of five of the authors plays, putting in great performances in two of them – as the Lawyer in Adwokat i Róże (The Lawyer and Roses, New Theatre in Warsaw, 1929, dir. Zelwerowicz) and as Director Parwitz in Krysia (National Theatre in Warsaw, 1935, dir. Zelwerowicz). On the experimental stage of the Boguslawski Theatre in Warsaw, he directed Gogol’s The Inspector General, casting himself as the Mayor (1926). He also appeared in productions directed by Schiller at this same theatre, portraying Thersites in Wyspiański’s Achilles (1925) and the Secret Police Commander in Stefan Żeromski’s The Rose (1926). He acted in a number of productions at the National Theatre in Warsaw, offering excellent performances as the title character in Józef Bliziński’s Pan Damazy (Mr Damazy, 1935) and as Jenialkiewicz in Fredro’s Wielki Człowiek Do Małych Interesów (A Great Man for Small Matters, 1935) – both of which productions he also directed. Edward Csatò wrote:
Secrets, Dreams & Stars: Spiritual Experiments in Theatre
The image of a character filled with violent force and violent passion (...) and yet precise in its details. That would be Zelwerowicz.
'Teatr' monthly, 1946, no. 6
Zelwerowicz debuted as a director in 1913 with Henrik Ibsen’s An Enemy of the People, which he staged at the Polish Theatre casting himself as Doctor Stockman. He followed this up at the same theatre with Aristophanes’ Lysistrata (1913), a famous production of Shakespeare’s Julius Caesar (1914) featuring exquisitely choreographed group scenes (considered one of the best productions of the time at the Polish Theatre), and The Barber of Seville (1918) by Pierre Beaumarchais to name but three of his directing projects. He also staged plays from the Romantic and post-Romantic repertoires, including Part III of Adam Mickiewcz’s Forefathers’ Eve, the dramas of Słowacki, Wyspiański, and the comedies of Fredro, Shakespeare and Moliere.
Very early on, when still in Kraków, Zelwerowicz discovered his educational talent. Still a young actor, he was offered an opportunity to teach recitation and stage acting. In 1918 he began lecturing at the Warsaw Drama School and continued teaching at the Drama School of the Warsaw Conservatory from 1921. Two years later he became this school’s director and instituted a series of fundamental teaching reforms. He managed this school until 1929, and then again from 1931. In 1932 it was transformed into the State Institute of Theatre Art, of which Zelwerowicz remained director until 1936. After the war, in 1945, he opened the State Institute of Theatre Art in Łódź but managed this school for only one year. In 1947 he left for Warsaw, where he established the State Drama School (later renamed the State Higher School of Theatre). He remained the rector of this institution until 1949. His ties to the school did not cease then, as he remained its honorary rector and continued to teach there until his death. In 1955, the school was named after him. He was ‘an exceptional educator’, wrote Witold Sadowy. Sometimes unpleasant and biting, he was nevertheless loved by his students, for whom he cared, whom he loved like his own children and even supported financially. Yet he always did this in a way that did not offend anyone’(from Gazeta Wyborcza-Stoleczna 27.06.2005). In 1910 he travelled to Moscow to examine first hand the methods applied at the Moscow Art Theatre. He then conveyed the knowledge he gathered there to his students, yet he never taught the Stanislavsky Method developed at MXAT. He was always a greater proponent of artistic conventions in theatre rather than of pure realism or naturalism. Education remained a great passion for him throughout his lifetime, and his method of teaching assigned importance not only to developing skills, but also to the general education of actors, to their function in society and intelligence, which to his mind could be developed through broad theoretical education.
‘Pakty i Fakty’: The Last-Ever Polish Interwar Cabaret Revue
In 1911 Zelwerowicz began appearing in films, recording a number of successes in this medium. He also wrote quite a bit about theatre. His memoir titled Gawędy Starego Komedianta (An Old Comedian’s Tales) was published posthumously (Warsaw, 1958). During Germany’s World War II occupation of Poland, Zelwerowicz withdrew from theatre life. At the war’s end, he settled initially in Łódź, where he became associated with the Polish Army Theatre, portraying the Priest in Wyspiański’s The Wedding directed by Jacek Woszczerowicz, a production that inaugurated theatre activities in Poland after the war. Subsequently, he invested great energy and emotion in his portrayal of the Beggar in Jean Giraudoux’s Elektra (1946), a production staged exquisitely by Edmund Wierciński on the new Poetry Stage of the theatre in Łódź. In the postwar period, he appeared a number of times in roles that he had come to be identified with. At the Polish Army Theatre in Łódź, he portrayed Mr Joviality in Fredro’s comedy of the same title (dir. Henryk Szletyński, 1945) and Mr Damazy in Blizinski’s play as directed by himself (1946), while at the Polish Theatre in Warsaw he played the Major in Słowacki’s Fantazy (dir. Edmund Wierciński, 1948). He bid his farewell to the stage playing Jaskrowicz in Stefan Zeromski’s Grzech (The Sin) as directed by Janina Orsza-Lukasiewicz at the Theatre of the Rzeszow Region in 1954. He had played Jaskrowicz once before, in a production directed by Bohdan Korzeniowski at the Polish Theatre in 1951.
- 1950 – State Award, 1st class for creative artistic and educational achievements
- 1951 – State Award, 2nd class (group award) for his performance as Jaskrowicz in Bohdan Korzeniowski’s production of Stefan Żeromski’s Grzech / The Sin at the Polish Theatre in Warsaw
- 1977 – “Righteous Among the Nations” award of the Yad Vashem Memorial Institute in Israel for individuals who helped save Jewish lives during the Holocaust, granted to the artist (posthumously) and his daughter
Lost & Destroyed: In Search Of Classic Polish Films
Author: Monika Mokrzycka-Pokora, September 2006