Themes and Meanings

(Survey of Dramatic Literature)

Tadeusz Kantor’s The Dead Class combines allegory, symbolism, the plastic arts, and politics to present a class of old people who carry the vestiges of the children they once were strapped to their backs. The Dead Class is Kantor’s personal evocation of the past, a schoolroom in a pre-World War I provincial town in Poland, part of the Austro-Hungarian Empire. The “Waltz Françoise” serves to evoke a mood of decadence and disintegration. Kantor’s evocation of the past is, however, projected not through the development of obvious themes emerging from plot or characterization but rather through imagery, actions, repetitions, objects, and tempo mirroring the visual and aural structure of his memory.

The performance of The Dead Class is closely related to Kantor’s The Theatre of Death Manifesto (1975), which explores the notion that it is the function of art to express life through an appeal to death, absence, or emptiness. Consequently, it is difficult to speak of thematic meanings in the montagelike series of images in The Dead Class. The strongest representation of emotional significance relates to the exploration of life as a death class, where old people carry around with them their puppet alter egos. These old people themselves, however, are puppetlike in their existence onstage. Kantor stressed that the wax puppet figures and mannequinlike characters transmit a terrifying message of death and nothingness. Although deceptively similar to the real actors, they continue to exist beyond an impassible barrier. Thoughts about life and death emerge from watching the automatic movements and responses of the old students, sitting behind the school desks with faces the ashen color of death. Sitting motionless in odd, frozen poses and wearing identical black burial clothes and bowlers, they stare ahead with unseeing eyes. Their sudden unfreezing at a sign from the director or as a response to...

(The entire section is 798 words.)