In mid-1989, Tadeusz Kantor started work on a performance which he could not attend. He died in Kraków on 8th December, 1990, after one of the last rehearsals of this play, which was eventually finished by the Cricot 2 theatre. The premiere showings of this French-German-Italian co-production took place in Toulouse and Paris in January 1991.
Kantor himself was to play the part of the Owner of the Poor Room of Imagination, who is celebrating his 75th birthday in the performance. Hence its title, Today Is My Birthday / Dziś są moje urodziny. The artist’s words were played on tape, overlapping with the voice of the Self-Portrait (played by Andrzej Wełmiński) – they both delivered the same text:
I’m 'on stage' again.
I think I’ll never fully and clearly
explain this habit
to You or to me.
Actually it’s not a stage
but a border.
The artist’s presence on stage was to be multiplied thanks to his recorded voice and the characters of the Self-Portrait and the Shadow. In the end, an empty chair belonging to Kantor played a role in the performance.
Today Is My Birthday is a very strongly autothematic work in which Kantor returned to the unrelenting memories of war, friends and family. It was the first time that Kantor referred so clearly to his paintings in his theatre. It’s worth mentioning that in the end of the 80s he worked mainly on figurative painting, creating mostly self-portraits.
The set of the play was to bring to mind a painter’s studio; three huge frames were placed on both sides and in the middle of the stage – images whose 'inhabitants' moved, came to life, tried to cross the threshold from one dimension to another. One of the frames was 'inhabited' by the Self-Portrait, who from time to time left or fell out of frame, made gestures characteristic of Kantor and doubled Kantor’s recorded voice. On the other side of the stage, a frame was taken up by one of the Infantas from Velazquez’s paintings. Kantor often painted that Infanta himself. Through the biggest frame, the one located in the middle, the Family, led by the Poor Girl and the Friends – Maria Jarema and Jonasz Stern – came onto the stage. The Family Members: the Father, the Mother, Uncle Stasio – were posed as in an old family photograph, which stood on a table during the performance, next to a cup and a kerosene lamp. The Family members also repeated the gestures on the photograph.
Kantor used authentic recordings of the voices of Father Śmietana from Wielopole Skrzyńskie and Jonasz Stern telling about how they miraculously avoided death during the war. A desperate letter written by Meyerhold was read out loud… War comes on to the stage – soldiers, torturers and the torturers’ victims.
After Kantor’s death, questions arose about whether the Cricot 2 Theatre should present Today Is My Birthday without its creator. In the end, the play ran from 1992. To some critics and theatre experts Today Is My Birthday is a finished work, to others this play is incomplete because of Kantor’s absence.
Its potential richness, which didn’t have the chance to fully reveal itself, was noticed by Marek Pieniążek:
Kantor’s death irrevocably closed time on the stage, which could have pulsated and developed to the rhythm of his living presentness during the performance. The lack of the artist lessened the realness of the stage events, which had to reveal themselves without a connection to the time constructed by the narrative and epiphanic actions of the creator.
Author: Karolina Czerska, December 2014
- M. Paluch-Cybulska, Tadeusz Kantor: … “Velazquez’s Infantas Like Relics or Madonnas” / Tadeusz Kantor: „…Infantki Velázqueza jak relikwie lub madonny” (in:) Today! Taduesz Kantor. Metamorphoses of Death, Memory and Presence / Dziś! Tadeusz Kantor. Metamorfozy śmierci, pamięci i obecności, edited by M. Bryś, A.R. Burzyńska, K. Fazan, pub. Wydawnictwo Uniwersytetu Jagiellońskiego, Kraków 2013
- M. Pieniążek, The Creative Act as Mimesis. Today Is My Birthday – Tadeusz Kantor’s Last Spectacle / Akt twórczy jako mimesis. Dziś są moje urodziny – ostatni spektakl Tadeusza Kantora, pub. Universitas, Kraków 2005
- Tadeusz Kantor. The Last Spectacles of the Cricot 2 Theatre / Tadeusz Kantor. Ostatnie spektakle Teatru Cricot 2, edited by A. Halczak, Cricoteka, Kraków 2001
- I’m Leaving the Light On, Because I’ll Be Back Soon. Taduesz Kantor as Remembered by His Actors / Zostawiam światło, bo zaraz wrócę. Tadeusz Kantor we wspomnieniach swoich aktorów, edited by J. Kunowska, edited by J. Kunowska, pub. Cricoteka, Kraków 2005