A theatre manager, founder of the Polish Theatre in Warsaw and stage director. Born 23 November 1882 in Ułanów; died 11 January 1967 in Warsaw.
A theatre manager, founder of the Polish Theatre in Warsaw and stage director.
In 1896 the Szyfman family relocated to Krakow. Arnold Szyfman was enrolled in a local gymnasium and passed his baccalaureate exam in 1901. In Krakow he often attended theatre performances and years later recalled that the premiere of Wyspiański's Wesele / The Wedding impressed him vastly. Upon graduating from secondary school, he enrolled in the Philology Department of Jagiellonian University. He completed his studies there in 1906. In the meantime, he spent 1903-1904 studying philosophy and art history in Berlin. Simultaneously, he got to know German theatre, paying special attention to the work of Max Reinhardt, attending performances at the Berlin Opera, seeing productions of the works of Richard Wagner. At this time he also started collaborating with the press, contributing to periodicals like "Krytyka" / "Criticism", "Czas" / "Time" and "Nowa Reforma" / "New Reform". His playwriting debut came in 1906 with the play Fifi, which Ludwik Solski staged at the Municipal Theatre in Krakow. Immediately thereafter Solski offered Szyfman a position as a literary collaborator, thus allowing him to get more deeply involved in theatre. Around this time he traveled to Berlin to see a series of performances by the reformatory Moscow Art Theatre.
His involvement in theatre was initially at the organizational level. In 1906, assisted by Leon Schiller, Karol Frycz, Teofil Trzciński and Witold Noskowski, he founded a literary chamber theatre known as Figliki [Little Tricks], whose repertoire quickly expanded to include one-act plays by Wlodzimierz Perzynski, Gaston Armand de Caillavet and Robert de Flers, and Anton Chekhov, as well as variety shows written by Adolf Nowaczynski, Leon Schiller, Boguslaw Adamowicz, Wincenty Rapacki (Jr.), Wladyslaw Buchner and Antoni Orlowski. This literary and artistic cabaret did not survive for long. Shortly, Szyfman relocated to Warsaw and immediately got involved with another project, namely, organizing the city's first cabaret stage. Momus, as it was called, opened its doors in 1907 and immediately faced official censorship when repertoire restrictions were imposed on the fledgling organization. Leon Schiller appeared regularly at this theatre as he had at the Figliki. The cabaret soon fell out of favor with the Warsaw press for including wordplay that made light of a religious hymn in one of its programs. In 1910, under very unfavorable circumstances, Momus suspended its activities with the public boycotting its performances and the press pursuing a smear campaign against it.
In the meantime Szyfman had become engrossed in another project: namely, he intended to build a large private theatre in Warsaw. He initiated discussions with Warsaw's aristocracy and gentry, and before too long he had accomplished the impossible - having gathered the necessary funds, he presided over the placement of the cornerstone of a new theatre building. Previous to this, he had traveled throughout Europe with architect Czesław Przybylski to look at modern theatre buildings. By 1912 Szyfman was assembling an acting troupe. Once formed, and before it performed on the stage of the newly erected Polish Theatre, the group went on a tour that spanned a number of eastern cities in Polish areas and a number of Russian cities. The troupe was composed of stage directors Józef Sosnowski, Maksymilian Węgrzyn and Aleksander Zelwerowicz, and actors Maria Przybylko-Potocka, Maria Dulebianka, Jerzy Leszczynski, Kazimierz Junosza-Stepowski and Józef Węgrzyn.
In 1913 the Polish Theatre opened its doors with a premiere of Zygmunt Krasiński's Irydion directed by Szyfman in scenery designed by Karol Frycz. Szyfman served as director of the theatre he had created until 1939 with a hiatus in the years 1915-1918. As an Austrian subject, during World War I he was deported deep into Russia. He was initially in Kiev before moving on to Moscow, where he attended many theatre performances, above all those at the Moscow Art Theatre. He also met with Konstantin Stanislavsky while there. In 1916 he organized the Polish Theatre in Moscow, where he staged productions of Aleksander Fredro's Zemsta / Revenge as well as Juliusz Słowacki's Fantazy and Lilla Weneda / Lilla Veneda. This theatre operated for only one year. Later, Szyfman worked with the Moscow-based Biofilm film studio and the Moscow Dramatic Theatre. In 1918 he returned to Warsaw and the Polish Theatre, where he proceeded to open a second stage known as the Teatr Maly (Little Theatre).
The Polish Theatre was extremely well equipped, having a revolving stage among other things. It was certainly Poland's most modern theatre building at the time. In short order Szyfman was able to create a theatre whose hallmarks included modern staging. Some of the finest scenery designers of the age worked there, among them Karol Frycz, Wincenty Drabik, Stanislaw Sliwinski and Wladyslaw Daszewski. Collaborating stage directors included Leon Schiller, Aleksander Zelwerowicz, Aleksander Wegierko, Karol Borowski and Ryszard Boleslawski. Szyfman also, though not too frequently, directed productions, staging such works as Shakespeare's Hamlet (1922) and Romeo and Juliet (1931), Zygmunt Krasinski's Nie-boska Komedia / The Undivine Comedy (1920) and George Bernard Shaw's Pygmalion (1920). The theatre's close-knit troupe of exceptional actors included Kazimierz Junosza-Stepowski, Jozef Wegrzyn, Aleksander Zelwerowicz, Jerzy Leszczynski, Janina Romanowna, Jan Kurnakowicz and Jan Kreczmar.
For years the theatre was stable in maintaining a high standard, though as a private enterprise it had to support itself and to do so emphasized a light repertoire that attracted sizeable audiences. During the inter-bellum, Shakespeare, masterfully staged, dominated the stage at the Polish Theatre. Szyfman also contributed to popularizing the plays of Shaw. Juliusz Slowacki was the third author in terms of number of plays produced. Alongside world classics and the Polish Romantic repertoire, the theatre also mounted productions of contemporary plays by Polish authors like Karol Hubert Rostworowski, Stefan Zeromski, Jerzy Szaniawski and Adolf Nowaczynski, as well as new plays from the west. Szyfman proved capable of reconciling art with finances.
"(...) Raised on Wyspianski and the staging models of Kotarbiński and Solski, I dreamed of a theatre devoted to Polish dramatic poetry, works from the grand repertoire and contemporary plays exploring important issues of the age", the director once said. "Technically, it was supposed to be an integral theatre, that is, the kind where all the elements - troupe, execution, settings and direction - would be equally important, though subordinate to a compositional concept issuing from the written work". ("Wiadomości Literackie" ["Literary News"], 1938, no. 15)
Szyfman seems to have succeeded in realizing these intentions. He himself was perceived as a highly controversial individual, though he was undeniably a capable organizer and an efficient manager. He co-founded the Union of Polish Theatre Managers (1919) and the Polish Theatre Society (1928). In 1918-1919 and 1928-1931, he published the periodical "Teatr" ("Theatre"). Szyfman endured immense attacks when he became head of the Towarzystwo Krzewienia Kultury Teatralnej [TKKT - Society for the Encouragement of Theatre Culture], which was the umbrella organization for five Warsaw stages. Stefan Jaracz referred to him at the time as a "master of opportunism", and later Szyfman was accused of being a theatrical "dictator". He remained the head of the TKKT from 1934 to 1936. In 1937 he founded a troupe known as the Polish Ballet, which he managed until 1938, traveling with it to Paris, London and a number of German cities.
In 1940, during Germany's World War II occupation of Poland, Szyfman was arrested by the Gestapo. Later released, he remained in hiding outside Warsaw. After the war, he initiated the effort to reconstruct the Polish Theatre and headed the organization responsible for reconstruction of the edifice of the Grand Theatre, which reopened in 1965. He once again stood at the helm of the Polish Theatre in 1945-1949 and 1955-1957, and led the initiative that resulted in the opening of the Theatre Museum in Warsaw in 1957.
Arnold Szyfman authored the book "55 lat teatru" ["55 Years of Theatre"] (1961) as well as tow collections of memoirs titled "Moja tułaczka wojenna" ["My Wartime Wanderings"] (1960) and "Labirynt teatru" ["The Labyrinth of the Theatre"] (1964). In 2001 Marian Kubera made a documentary film about Szyfman titled Teatr - Życie całe / The Theatre – My Whole Life.
Awards and distinctions:
- 1925 - Officer's Cross of the Order of the Restitution of Poland; French Legion of Honor Cavalier's Cross; Corona d'Italia Officer's Cross
- 1946 - Golden Cross of Merit
- 1959 - Order of the Banner of Labor, 1st class
Author: Monika Mokrzycka-Pokora, September 2006