A theatre and film actress, educator; born 4 November 1925 in Katowice; died 18 September 1989 in Warsaw.
Aleksandra Śląska in Ostatni etap, 1947. Photo: Studio Filmowe Kadr / Filmoteka Narodowa / www.fototeka.fn.org.pl
In 1947 Aleksandra Wąsik (the actress's real name) graduated from the State Drama School that was affiliated with the Słowacki Theatre in Kraków. While at the school she adopted the name Śląska based on the suggestion of Wiesław Górecki, one of her lecturers. Her teachers in Kraków included some of the greatest individualities in Polish theatre - Juliusz Osterwa, Ludwik Solski, Aleksander Zelwerowicz, Jerzy Leszczyński, Władysław Woźnik, Bronisław Dąbrowski, Zofia Jaroszewska, and Karol Frycz. Śląska later often cited them as the chief source of her knowledge and skills, underlined the importance of what they gave her. She made her professional debut in 1946 while still a student, playing Rózia in Wanda Wasilewska's propaganda play Bartosz Głowacki, directed by Józef Karbowski on the stage of the Slowacki Theatre in Kraków. Shortly, the young actress proved a great success as Stelka in Juliusz Slowacki's Fantazy, playing opposite Juliusz Osterwa, who simultaneously appeared in the title role and directed the production (1946). After graduating, she remained in Kraków for two years, performing at both the Stary Teatr / Old Theatre and the Slowacki Theatre, which at this time operated as a single institution known as the Municipal Dramatic Theatres. Śląska was cast in a range of plays, portraying Maria Magdalena in Karol Hubert Rostworowski's Judasz z Kariothu / Judas Iscariot (dir. Józef Karbowski, 1947), Marianna in Alfred de Musset's The Moods of Marianne (dir. Władysław Krzemiński, 1947) and Pascuala in Lope de Vega's Fuente Ovejuna / The Sheep's Well (dir. Bronisław Dąbrowski and Maryna Broniewska, 1948). She bid farewell to Kraków with an exceptional, later legendary performance as Amelia in Słowacki's Mazepa, directed by Józef Karbowski (1949).
In 1949 Aleksandra Śląska moved to Warsaw and joined the ensemble at the Teatr Współczesny (Contemporary Theatre), headed at the time by Erwin Axer. She gained attention with her very first appearance as Liesel in Leon Kruczkowski's Niemcy / Germans, directed by Axer. At the Contemporary Theatre, which at the time was a branch of the National Theatre, she went on to play Vivie in George Bernard Shaw's Mrs. Warren's Profession (dir. Axer, 1951). Axer also cast Śląska when directing productions at the National Theatre, giving her the roles of Ruth (which she played alternately with Irena Eichlerówna and Danuta Szaflarska) in Germans (1955) and Violetta in Słowacki's Kordian (1955).
In 1956 Śląska moved to the Athenaeum Theatre in Warsaw, with which she would remain affiliated until the end of her life. She first appeared on stage there as a guest artist, playing Irena in Jerzy Lutowski's Sprawa rodzinna / A Family Matter in a production directed by Janusz Warmiński in 1952. Having turned the theatre into her professional home, Śląska refused to be the kind of actress who appeared in dozens of productions. Instead, she polished every one of the thirty characters she created at the Athenaeum, many of which are recorded as significant achievements in the history of Polish theatre. Initially, she primarily portrayed the female leads in contemporary plays. She was unforgettable as Blanche in Warmiński's famous staging of Tennessee Williams' A Streetcar Named Desire (1958) and as Joanna in another of the director's productions, Jean Paul Sartre's The Condemned of Altona (1960). She played Mother Joan of the Angels in John Whiting's The Devil as directed by Andrzej Wajda (1963), Inez de Castro in Henri de Montherlant's A Queen after Death, directed by Jerzy Kreczmar (1964), Charlotte Corday in Peter Weiss' Marat/Sade as staged by Konrad Swinarski (1966), and the title role in Stanisław Ignacy Witkiewicz's Matka / The Mother (dir. Warmiński, 1983). She highly valued the plays of Anton Chekhov and August Strindberg, appearing as Helena in Uncle Vanya (dir. Kazimierz Dejmek, 1968), Arkadina in The Seagull (dir. Warmiński, 1977) Ranevskaya in The Cherry Orchard (dir. Warmiński, 1985), Alice in The Dance of Death (dir. Jan Świderski, Zdzisław Tobiasz, 1974), and Tekla in Creditors (dir. Warmiński, 1981). She simultaneously worked with director Maciej Prus, appearing in his productions of classical works, portraying Elizabeth de Valois in Friedrich Schiller's Don Carlos (1972) and Idalia in Słowacki's Fantazy (1973).
A virtuoso at selecting which acting skills to use, Śląska invariably focused on her characters, explored them in the minutest detail, often adopting a singular coolness or distinction in her approach to them. Interested in the many facets of human nature, she proved capable of recreating them on stage through precision, without resorting to over expression, in a manner both strong and pure.
"I am extremely engrossed with exploring the psychological complexities of my characters. No matter if the work is classical or contemporary, no matter if it explores philosophy, politics or morality, humans have the right to be complicated in all these domains," she was quoted as saying in 1964. "(...) Dishonesty is the most dangerous thing for actors. I'm under the impression that contemporary acting is mostly about what is generally called closely familiarizing audiences with one's character. What does familiarize imply? It implies demonstrating the character's many aspects, diversifying the character internally (...)" (in: "Aleksandra Śląska 1925-1989", ed. B. Lasocka, Warsaw 1990).
Her performances were memorable for her skillful emphasis of her characters' complexity, for power and passion demonstrated in spite of great finesse in terms of stage presence, for her contemporary take on characters, even in classical plays. At base, she granted all her characters the strong intentions, neuroses and passions of the contemporary woman.
Also a film and radio actress, Śląska created nearly one hundred fifty characters for Polish Radio Theatre productions, additionally recording many readings for radio shows on literature. Early in her film career she was excellent as the Oberaufseherin in Ostatni Etap / The Last Stop, Wanda Jakubowska's semi-documentary film about female prisoners of Auschwitz (1948). She was just as convincing as SS Officer Liza in Andrzej Munk's Pasażerka / Passenger (1963). Other significant roles included Konstancja Gładkowska in Aleksander Ford's Młodość Chopina / Chopin's Youth (1951), Krystyna in Wojciech Jerzy Has' debut film Pętla / The Noose (1957), Joanna Orłowska in Janusz Majewski's Czarna suknia / The Black Dress (1967), and, finally and unforgettably, Queen Bona in Majewski's television series about the monarch (1982). The elegance, sophistication, coolness and loftiness that she brought from the stage suited these regal roles exceptionally. When the English television mini-series Elizabeth R was dubbed into Polish, Śląska put in a very fine performance in lending her voice to the protagonist, Queen Elizabeth I, played in the original by Glenda Jackson. She infused similar determination and charisma into her portrayal of Mary Stuart from Słowacki's play, directed for television by Ireneusz Kanicki (1965). She made frequent appearances in televised theatre productions, playing over thirty roles in all, including She in a production based on Fyodor Dostoyevsky's A Gentle Spirit (dir. Warmiński, 1968) and the title character in Henry Ibsen's Hedda Gabler (dir. Jan Świderski, 1974). Gustaw Holoubek also cast her in his television productions of Słowacki plays, and under this director she portrayed Amelia in Mazepa (1969) and Cenci's Mother in Beatrix Cenci (1973).
Aleksandra Śląska began teaching early on in her professional life. In 1955 she became the assistant of Professor Władysław Krasnowiecki, president of the State Higher School of Theatre in Warsaw at the time. She worked at the institution for two years. Almost two decades later, in 1973, as a renowned actress she became a senior lecturer at the school in Warsaw and continued to teach there until her death. In 1987 she was appointed an assistant professor. She was highly committed to her work as an educator and quite passionate about it. She took it seriously, believing it was important to convey the knowledge she had obtained from the best in her profession, important to build a tradition, to educate future generations of actors. She underlined that she found teaching enriching: in explaining the complexities of character creation to her students, she had to verbalize and analyze aspects of her own acting. She was intent on maintaining and elevating the status of the acting profession, never treating it as a craft or as the provision of a service. She sought to make each character she created a work of art in itself.
"(...) Seriousness was perhaps Aleksandra's most important trait, perhaps her fundamental trait," recalled Gustaw Holoubek. "Yes, seriousness. During our initial months together at the Studio Theatre, I was charmed above all by her spontaneity, emotionality, her almost ethereal lightness. Yet I don't see that as contradicting my contention that she was serious from the outset. No, I don't mean sad. She just treated both her work and her life seriously. Everything seemed to be a duly executed duty" (in: "Aleksandra Śląska 1925-1989", ed. B. Lasocka, Warsaw, 1990).
As a stage actor, she was a perfectionist and she taught her students to be the same. She believed improvisation to be indispensible on stage as a way of supplementing repetition with freshness, yet saw improvisation as possible once an actor had thoroughly analyzed and resolved the minutest details of a character. Śląska's credits also included three directing projects. In 1978 she directed herself in Peter Hacks' one woman play Rozmowa w domu państwa Stein o nieobecnym panu von Goethe / A Discussion in The Stein Home About the Absent MR. Goethe. At the Athenaeum Theatre in Warsaw, on the side stage known as Stage 61, she directed two thesis productions featuring her acting students - Tadeusz Rittner's Lato / Summer (1987) and Yukio Mishima's Madame de Sade (1988). She herself portrayed Madame de Montreuil in the latter production in what would prove to be her final stage appearance.
In 2013 Śląska was posthumously granted the Heroin of the Polish Cinema Award which is founded by ZASP (the Association of Polish Theatre, Film, Radio and Television Artists) in order to promote achivements of the greatest represetatives of the Polish cinema.
Awards and distinctions:
- 1950 - State Award, 3rd class for her portrayal of Basia in the film Dom na Pustkowiu / The lonely House directed by Jan Rybkowski;
- 1954 - Officer's Cross of the Order of the Restitution of Poland; Cannes International Film Festival distinction for her portrayal of Hanka in Aleksander Ford's film Piątka z ulicy Barskiej / Five Boys from Barska Street;
- 1955 - Polish People's Republic 10th Anniversary Medal; State Award, 2nd class for a decade of exceptional film performances;
- 1963 - Medal of the Standard of Labor, 2nd class;
- 1964 - State Award, 2nd class for her exceptional achievements as an actress; Polish State Radio and Television Committee Award for her performances in Television Theatre productions directed by Jerzy Gruza - Hilda in Jerzy Broszkiewicz's Skandal w Hellbergu / Scandal at Hellberg and Mrs. Stevenson in Lucille Fletcher's melodrama Sorry, Wrong Number;
- 1966 - "For Service to Warsaw" Award;
- 1967 - Polish Millennium Award; "Cultural Activist of Merit" Award; Award of the Capital City of Warsaw; Best Actress for the role of Joanna in Janusz Majewski's film Czarna suknia / The Black Dress at the 4th International Television Festival in Prague;
- 1968 - Polish State Radio and Television Committee Award for her portrayal of Amelia in the Television Theatre production of Juliusz Słowacki's Mazepa directed by Gustaw Holoubek;
- 1975 - Golden Screen Award;
- 1978 - "Przyjaźń" [Friendship] weekly theatrical award for her portrayal of Arkadina in Anton Chekhov's The Seagull as directed by Janusz Warmiński at the Athenaeum Theatre in Warsaw;
- 1982 - Polish State Radio and Television Committee Chairman Ensemble Award, 1st class for her achievements as an actor, in particular for familiarizing audiences with the historically significant figure Bona Sforza in the television series Królowa Bona / Queen Bona directed by Janusz Majewski;
- 1985 - Acting Award at the 11th Opole Theatre Confrontations for her portrayal of the title character in Stanisław Ignacy Witkiewicz's Matka / The Mother, directed by Janusz Warmiński at the Athenaeum Theatre in Warsaw;
- 1989 - "National Cultural Activist of Merit" Award.
Author: Monika Mokrzycka-Pokora, December 2006