The Dead Class is one of the many performance pieces in which Tadeusz Kantor made use of his background as a visual artist. Kantor’s childhood memories of Wielopole, a small town in Eastern Poland with its cross section of Roman Catholics and Jews, help determine the shape, character, and atmosphere of his paintings, drawings, collages, emballage (wrapped humans), happenings, and theatrical performances. Kantor’s exploration of the possibilities of the theater led him to Witkiewicz’s “theory of pure form” as a means of extending the spatial and temporal possibilities of the stage. However, in his stagings of Witkiewicz’s Mtwa: Czyli Hyrkaniczny wiatopogld (1923; The Cuttlefish, 1970), produced in 1956, and Kurka wodna (1922; The Water Hen, 1969), produced in 1968, and other plays, Kantor gave his actors freedom of action from Witkiewicz’s texts. While remaining faithful to the main threads of plot, Kantor broke up Witkiewicz’s dialogue to serve as an accompaniment. These stagings anticipate Kantor’s use of Witkiewicz as a participant in the creation of The Dead Class.
Although the theatrical devices of puppets, wax figures, machinery, and emballage can be traced to Kantor’s staging of Witkiewicz’s plays, The Dead Class was his first presentation of his own mythology and the mythology of his period. Like The Dead Class, Wielopole, Wielopole (pr. 1980; English translation, 1982) is not based on a literary text but represented Kantor’s return to his childhood and the interwar period of Polish history. As in The Dead Class, the period is evoked through the manipulation of stage imagery, the use of music, and Kantor’s own choreography of the events as the director of the performance. Niech sczena artysci (pr. 1985; Let the Artists Die, 1985) presents Kantor’s story from three perspectives—as a six-year-old boy, as the creator of the performance, and as himself in the future, dying. Time is not presented linearly, however, but as simultaneous action, or as the ongoing split of a man into three different figures. I Shall Never Return (1988) explores, through the imagery of the actors of his troupe wandering aimlessly onstage encumbered by the baggage of life, Kantor’s potential departure as artist and director.
Kantor’s use of the theater as self-exploration reflected his journey as both man and artist. His theatrical presentations all show the inner processes by which he created imagery, though in somewhat altered contexts. Kantor’s sequences of performances emerging from The Dead Class do not follow the logic of a linear narrative. To emphasize his rejection of plot, he began rehearsals without a text, relying instead on drawings or descriptions of images. The thread that links all Kantor’s presentations is the superimposition of his childhood on a remembered context, linking his individual imagination to the imagination of Polish culture.