The Dead Class

by Tadeusz Kantor

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Themes and Meanings

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Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 798

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 a languid waltz only reinforces the purposelessness of their animation.

Other images strengthen the theme of life as death, when each aged pupil returns to his desk carrying his child-puppet image, presumably a dummy referring to a dead childhood that has been forgotten in the wild, frenzied rush of the “Waltz Françoise.” While their child puppets sit lifelessly at their desks, the old students break into chants and fights, with their gray faces horribly distorted by senile puerility. As they endlessly repeat their lessons in history, Latin, and grammar and raise their hands to question or answer, these repetitive responses and gestures, which are always presented as uncompleted actions, suggest an eternal imprisonment in repetition and incompleteness.

More obvious references to reinforce the imagery of death relate to the Charwoman with her broom/scythe; with her broad, sweeping movements, she suggests death as the Grim Reaper, and her transformation into a chorus girl/whore brings to mind the “whoremaster” of existence. Significantly, it is the Charwoman/Death who brings in the coffinlike Mechanical Cradle. While the Charwoman performs the ritual of washing the bodies she has mowed down, the Woman with the Mechanical Cradle is strapped on the Family Machine, and as the cradle rocks with the wooden balls/testicles rattling inside, the woman’s knees are pulled open and closed by the Family Machine, in a travesty of the birth-death cycle.

The use of Witkiewicz’s play Tumour Brainiowicz contributes to the meaning of The Dead Class , not through its own textual symbolism and thematic development, but in that it allows the dead class to play a “role” for a brief moment, thereby animating them into the purposefulness of the colonial expedition scene. Once their roles dissipate, they return to their automaton existence in the enactment of the rituals of birth...

(This entire section contains 798 words.)

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and death. Even the significance of death is undermined, as the funeral march is held with great pomp and a shower of obituaries is scattered about; the old students use the obituaries as playing cards, while mumbling an endless litany of names and exchanging banal condolences.

The theme of death and imprisonment in images is also projected through such means as the mechanical repetitions of the Old Man with a Bike as he endlessly circles the stage, the repetitive baring of her breast and thigh by the Somnambulist Prostitute, the eternal regression into the anal stage of the Old Man in the Loo, the inability to enter into life by the Woman Behind the Window, who is always looking in from the outside, and the Beadle’s automatic responses and salutes to any allusion to the Austro-Hungarian Empire. Each of these characters is trapped in a frozen gesture, to be endlessly repeated as he or she waits for release from the director. The repetition, speeding up, slowing down, and freezing of these images ultimately creates the cumulative effect of a seance in Kantor’s summoning of the dead class.