An exceptional actress, known as 'Poland's Eleonore Duse'. Born on the 19th of April 1908 in Warsaw; died there on the 12th of September 1990.
An exceptional actress, known as 'Poland's Eleonore Duse'.
In her youth, Eichlerówna studied at the preparatory school run by Janina Tymińska and at the renowned Maria Konopnicka School in Warsaw. She first tasted the theatre while still a pupil, appearing in school productions as the Napoleonic Nike in Stanisław Wyspiański's Noc Listopadowa / November Night and playing the title role in Juliusz Słowacki's Balladyna. In 1926 she enrolled at the State Drama School, which was affiliated with the Warsaw Music Conservatory and had, since 1923, been headed by Aleksander Zelwerowicz. Apart from Zelwerowicz, Eichlerówna's teachers at the school included Wojciech Brydziński, Mariusz Maszyński, Stanisław Stanisławski and Romana Popiel. She was still a student when her vast acting talent, imagination and poetic ear were recognized. In 1929 she passed a professional acting exam that required her to perform excerpts from a number of works from the Polish literary canon. Her performance as Ophelia in Wyspiański's Ophelia's Death proved a favorite, and Arnold Szyfman sought to hire her on at the Polish Theatre in Warsaw where he was general manager at the time. Yet Eichlerówna decided to go to Vilnius with Zelwerowicz, who had just been appointed director of the Theatre on Pohulanka Street. In 1929 she debuted there as Zosia in Adam Mickiewicz's Dziady / Forefathers' Eve. She would spend the next two years in Vilnius. Shortly after her debut, she played "crazy Julia" in Jan August Kisielewski's drama W Sieci / In the Net, which proved another significant role. She then portrayed Hermia in Zelwerowicz's exquisite production of Shakespeare's A Midsummer Night's Dream (1929) and the title role in a production of Carlo Gozzi's Turandot (1930), skillfully combining cruelty with feminine sweetness, reviewers noted. The actress proved a sensation as Katie Pearl in Gordon Abbot and Philip Dunning's Broadway (1930). Observers called her acting 'contemporary', described it as composed of spare but expressive means. Mieczysław Limanowski wrote,
Without Ms. Eichlerówna, Broadway in Vilnius would have made no sense and had no charm. She is this production's soul, an enchanting presence that, unbeknownst to viewers, holds their attention and prevents them from ridiculing this combination of feigned cabaret and film (Słowo Polskie, 08.03.1930 in: A. Grodzicki, Irena Eichlerówna. Szlachetny demon teatru / Irena Eichlerówna - A Good Demon of the Theatre, Warsaw, 1989).
Eichlerówna continued to appear in lighter plays, yet while in Vilnius she also offered her first performance as Joanna in Wyspianski's November Night (1930), a highly dramatic role, and subsequently played the title character in Oscar Wilde's Salome (1931). Eichlerówna's left Vilnius in 1931, when Zelwerowicz resigned as managing and artistic director of the municipal theatre there.
She quickly found employment at the Słowacki Theatre in Krakow, managed at the time by Teofil Trzciński, but would not remain there long. She was cast in minor productions and generally felt she was not living up to her potential. Perhaps the sole exception came with her performance of the title character in Gabriela Zapolska's Panna Maliczewska / Miss Maliczewska (1932), which was very-well received. In 1932 Eichlerówna moved to Lviv to work with the Municipal Theatres, managed at the time by Wilam Horzyca. In Lviv Horzyca had created a theatre that quickly became famous throughout the country. Productions were staged by notable directors such as Leon Schiller, Wacław Radulski and Edmund Wierciński, while designers affiliated with the theatre included Andrzej Pronaszko, Władysław Daszewski and Otto Axer. Eichlerówna was initially triumphant, performing in a series of salon comedies, for example playing Nell in Marcel Achard's Mistigri as directed by Janusz Strachocki (1932). She was then offered a series of sensational performances in productions directed by Waclaw Radulski, playing Polly in Bertolt Brecht's Threepenny Opera (1933) and Rozina in Filippo Tomasso Marinetti's futuristic drama Prisoners of War (1933). Critics and the public alike adored her as the German spy Anna Lesser in Fräulein Doktor, a thriller set during World War I and written especially for Eichlerówna by Jerzy Tepa (1933). Shortly thereafter she debuted at the Polish Theatre in Warsaw (1933) in this same role. Critics underlined the actress's vast talent for portraying tragic stage heroines. Cleopatra was yet another of these; Eichlerówna played her in Lviv under the direction of Wilam Horzyca, the theatrical innovator who first brought the works of Cyprian Kamil Norwid to Polish stages (1933). She met the challenge ably, granting her character sensitivity, conveyed primarily through the voice. Eichlerówna had a very broad vocal scale and used her voice both ably and subtly. Her acting was usually seen as original, her interpretation of characters was clear. A technically mature actress, she achieved clarity despite using muted means of expression. She often enriched characters relative to their presentation in literature, granting them new features and tones in performance. The actress was incomparable at shaping her heroines' complex interiors, approaching each character individually, with precision and with thoroughness unmatched by her peers.
From 1934 to the outbreak of World War II, Eichlerówna was affiliated with theatres in Warsaw. She was a great star of the stage by this time, and was an ensemble member first at the Polish Theatre and subsequently at the National Theatre. During this time she also put in guest appearances on other stages in the capital city as well as at theatres in Lviv and at the Municipal Theatre in Łódź. At the Polish Theatre, Eichlerówna offered successful performances as Vladka in Włodzimierz Perzyński's Aszantka / The Ashante (1934) and Lollina Paulina in Karol Hubert Rostworowski's Kaligula / Caligula, a spectacular production staged by Leon Schiller (1934). Her portrayal of Jimena in Pierre Corneille's El Cid, directed by Karol Borowski at the National Theatre (1935), proved her greatest performance in a classical role, though one achieved through very modern acting. Though critics generally considered the production unsuccessful, Eichlerówna was lauded for her work. Adam Grzymała-Siedlecki wrote,
Her Jimena featured levels of unfeigned, thoroughly honest psychic vibration, and some of her lines made us tremble in rapture. This Jimena was not traditional. The approach was new, almost contemporary, but thoroughly convincing, and overwhelming to us (A. Grzymała-Siedlecki, Z teatrów warszawskich 1926-1939 / From Warsaw's Theatres 1926-1939, Warsaw, 1972).
Eichlerówna was very popular with the public at this time, for her performances in Madame Sans-Gêne by Victorien Sardou and Emile Morau (Grand Theatre in Lviv, 1937) and in Charles de Peyret-Chappuis's Szaleństwo / Madness (National Theatre, 1938), among others. Though a highly esteemed actress, Eichlerówna participated in two excellent workshop productions mounted by directing students at the State Theatre Art Institute. She played Death in Jean Cocteau's Orpheus directed by Krystyna Severinowna-Zelwerowiczowa performed at the New Theatre in Warsaw in 1936 and the title role in August Strindberg's Miss Julie, a production that was Erwin Axer's directing thesis performed at the National Theatre in 1939.
Eichlerówna fled to Romania when war broke out. In Bucharest she was associated with the Warsaw Theatre Artists' Ensemble. The group staged Stefan Żeromski's Uciekła mi przepióreczka / My Little Swallow has Flown, directed by Zbigniew Ziembiński with Eichlerówna playing Dorota. Performances were attended by the many Poles who had found refuge in Romania from the wartime turmoil. This production toured other Romanian cities where Polish refugee camps existed, and was also later shown in Paris (1940). Eichlerówna left France for Brazil under the name of Stypinska. There she appeared in Portuguese language stage productions and also did radio work. Her many roles included Miss Clessa in Nelson Rodriguez's Vestido de noiva / Wedding Dress in a production mounted by the Os Comediantes group at the Phoenix Theatre in Rio de Janeiro (1945). Though successful in Brazil, she decided to return to Poland.
By 1948 she was working with Erwin Axer, who headed the Teatr Kameralny / Chamber Theatre in Lodz jointly with Michał Melina. Eichlerówna got a warm reception from audiences, offering an excellent performance as Mary Grey / Joan in Maxwell Anderson's Joan of Lorraine (1948, directed by Axer). At the Teatr Rozmaitości / Variety Theatre in Warsaw in 1949 she appeared as Maria in Włodzimierz Perzyński's Lekkomyślna siostra / The Frivolous Sister directed by Dobiesław Damięcki. Then successfully played Phaedra in Jean Racine's play of the same title at the Polish Theatre in Poznań in 1949, directed by Wilam Horzyca. She proved capable of offering equally convincing performances as Ruth in Leon Kruczkowski's Niemcy / the Germans performed at the Teatr Współczesny / Contemporary Theatre in Warsaw in 1949, directed by Axer and Mrs. Warren in George Bernard Shaw's Mrs. Warren's Profession performed at the Contemporary Theatre in Warsaw in 1951, directed by Axer, yet she performed rarely, having trouble finding a home theatre, and at times demonstrated her bitterness. Witold Sadowy wrote,
Postwar reviewers accused Irena Eichlerówna of demonstrating a kind of mannerism and of using her voice strangely. They did not notice that this mannerism was something intended, a thoughtful artistic choice. After the war, Eichlerówna had as many supporters as she had detractors, but none could be indifferent to her great talent. Each new role was a national event; one almost had to see Eichlerówna so that one could then discuss her in company (Gazeta Wyborcza-Łódź daily, 07.11.2005).
Many critics underlined that her acting was in no way "dated" and remained thoroughly modern. Naturally, Eichlerówna made no effort to adopt the conventions of Socialist Realism. Her situation changed somewhat with the advent of the post-Stalinist 'thaw'. At the National Theatre, Eichlerówna played a number of great performances, playing Mary Stuart in Friedrich Schiller's drama of the same title in 1955, directed by Wladyslaw Krasnowiecki, Phaedra in Racine's drama in 1957, directed by Horzyca and Mary Tudor in the lesser melodrama of the same title by Victor Hugo in 1959, directed by Krasnowiecki. Jan Kott noted,
Eichlerówna clearly plays one of the Mary Stuarts Schiller had in mind. And hers is the most wonderful and the most feminine of them, the most heroic and the most oppressed, the most passionate and the most innocent. She assumes all the relevant moral rights and adds an irresistible charm (Przegląd Kulturalny, 1955, No. 47 in: A. Grodzicki, Irena Eichlerówna. Szlachetny demon teatru / Irena Eichlerówna - A Noble Demon of the Theatre, Warsaw, 1989).
In subsequent years the actress performed little, yet when she did, her work was excellent. She was Mother Courage in Bertolt Brecht's play of the same title performed at the Teatr Narodowy / National Theatre in 1962, directed by Zbigniew Sawan, Agrippina in Racine's Britannica performed at the National Theatre in 1963, directed by Wanda Laskowska, the Chamberlain's Wife in Aleksander Fredro's Pan Jowialski / Mr. Joviality performed at the Polish Theatre in Warsaw in 1967, directed by Jerzy Kreczmar, and Orbanova in István Örkèny's Catsplay performed by the Teatr Mały / Little Theatre in Warsaw in 1973, directed by Jan Machulski. The veteran actress bid farewell to the stage in 1986 when she played Matilda von Zahnd in Friedrich Dürrenmatt's The Physicists in a production directed by Lech Komarnicki at the Little Theatre.
Eichlerówna's credits also include three films. Before World War II she offered an excellent performance, well-received by both the public and critics, as prosecutor Krystyna in Juliusz Gadan's film Wyrok życia / A Judgment for Life (1933). This was followed soon afterwards by an appearance in an unsuccessful film adaptation of Stefan Żeromski's Róża / The Rose (1936, directde by Józef Lejtes). Her final film role came in 1966 as Zofia in Wojciech Jerzy Has's Szyfry / Codes. In 1930 the actress also began a long association with Polish State Radio during which she offered many excellent performances in radio plays. Her credits also included more than a dozen appearances in Polish Television Theatre.
Awards and distinctions:
- 1952 - Officers' Cross of the Order of Polish Restitution
- 1955 - State Award, 2nd class for her activities as an actress in the preceding decade
- 1959 - State Radio and Television Award for her roles in the radio plays Szaleństwo / Madness, Złoty sznur / The Golden Rope and Mary Tudor; Medal of the Banner of Labor, 1st class
- 1963 - Polish National Radio and Television Committee Award for her performances on Polish Radio Theatre
- 1965 - Polish National Radio and Television Committee Award for her performance in the Polish Television Theatre production of Jerome Kilty's Kochany kłamca / Dear Liar directed by Jan Kulczyński; Award of the Minister of Culture and Art, 1st class for lifetime achievement as an actress in the theatre
- 1977 - Award of the Minister of Culture and Art, 1st class for outstanding achievement in the acting profession
- 1981 - Award of the Capital City of Warsaw
Author: Monika Mokrzycka-Pokora, November 2006.