Tadeusz Kantor’s theater could be characterized to a large extent as a theater of objects , a description that applies to both his actors and himself. In his later productions, Kantor was sometimes the subject of his own work, and he appeared onstage as a visual element of his own productions—giving directions to the actors and technicians, musing over the action, and playing the role of Tadeusz Kantor in his black jacket and trousers and tieless, plain white shirt. His stage presence was greatly enhanced by his long, gaunt face, which he set in a mask of haunted contemplation briefly interrupted with small bursts of irritation or humor.
Kantor’s work reflected such an imaginative and insightful ability to transform objects and people into complex, unique performances in large part because of his background in the visual arts. He clearly subscribed to Craig’s notion of the total theater artist and, as such, personally designed and shaped every aspect of his productions. His dramatic works employed virtually none of the conventions of traditional theatrical staging, and his scenography was completely composed of discarded, worn-looking objects and clothing, which he altered to bring them into his special theatrical universe and put to ingenious, surprising use. The colors in his productions were predominantly flat, pale grays, bone, and black, with accents of purple and red.
The other cause of his theatrical inventiveness has been necessity. His early productions with the Independent Theatre had to be staged in secret because artistic activity of any sort was prohibited by the Germans under penalty of death. In the case of Wyspiaski’s Powrót Odysa (pb. 1907, pr. 1917; The Return of Odysseus, 1966), Kantor staged this brooding and sinister play as a modern story of a soldier returning home from the front. Performed in a room of an apartment that had been partially destroyed by the war, without benefit of a stage or set, Kantor transformed the space through the use of objects into the metaphoric waiting room of a train station. Odysseus returns to find his homeland under Nazi domination. Partly as a reaction against the then fashionable school of constructivism, Kantor employed objects such as a decayed wooden board, a muddy broken cartwheel, a mastlike object, an object that looked like the barrel of an old rifle, large, anonymous parcels covered with dust, and a soldier’s uniform to create a total environment. In this way, he meant to overwhelm the text with the historical circumstances and the style of performance into which it had been thrust.
After the war, Kantor went to Paris, where he became familiar with Surrealism and abstract expressionism, both hitherto unknown in Poland. He was appointed to the faculty of the Krakow Academy of Fine Arts but subsequently lost his professorship after he refused to participate in official cultural life after the imposition of Socialist Realism. His...
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