The Dead Class

by Tadeusz Kantor

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The Play

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The Dead Class is a performance composition made up of Tadeusz Kantor’s own texts and those of Stanisaw Ignacy Witkiewicz’s Tumor Mózgowicz (pr., pb. 1921; Tumour Brainiowicz, 1980), the principal idea from Bruno Schulz’s short story “The Pensioner,” and the ideas of dehumanization and infantilization from Witold Gombrowicz’s Ferdydurke (1938; English translation, 1961). Kantor calls these Polish writers “participants in the performance”; however, the use of the texts is entirely absorbed for the purposes of The Dead Class.

The Dead Class is divided into three parts, but the performance is presented without intervals in a series of actions, entrances, exits, and repetitions. The first scene opens in a turn-of-the-twentieth-century schoolroom, with four rows of dust-covered desks on which lie crumbling notebooks and readers. To the side, a privy has been knocked together, with a waxen-faced dummy of the Beadle, dressed in black, to guard it. Twelve old people dressed in black, with black bowlers on their heads and white, grayish faces, stand behind the desks, staring straight ahead. Kantor raises his hand, and in response, the old people sit down. At another sign from Kantor, they raise their hands to show that they have questions to ask. Suddenly they depart, leaving only the Old Man Exhibitionist behind.

Next follows the Grand Entrance and Parade of Dead Childhood, as the old people reappear with effigies of themselves, as child pupils in black school uniforms, growing out of their bodies. They circle the stage repeatedly and finally return to their desks. A lesson about Solomon follows, while two oldster-students drag the Old Man Exhibitionist to the privy and pull his trousers down so that he exposes his backside; he remains in this position for the duration of the lesson. In the meantime, the students ask questions and answer in ever quicker tempo, waving their hands about frantically.

The Old Man in the Loo goes into the privy and, as Tumour Brainiowicz, speaks lines from Witkiewicz’s play. Suddenly the Somnambulist Prostitute, the Old Man with the Bike, and the Woman Behind the Window assume their roles in disjointed portions from Tumour Brainiowicz.

Gradually, everybody’s voice and movements slow down; the students return to their desks and at first drowsily, then ever more frantically, shout phrases remembered from history and Latin classes. The Old Man Repeater is shoved to the front of the class. Extreme disorder follows, and Polish and Latin phrases drown one another out, culminating in gibberish. Kantor, by raising his hand, calms the class down, and a grammar lesson by the Old Man Repeater follows. As his speech gradually disintegrates into incoherence, the students fidget and respond to his lesson on phonetics by producing dissonant vocal compositions, accompanied by grotesque gestures and the making of terrible faces. Soon they are thrashing about on the floor in little groups. At a signal from Kantor they exit, leaving their childhood dummies behind their desks.

The Charwoman, a big, skinny woman, played by a man, rises from the corner and begins cleaning by throwing the frayed books about, thereby speeding up their disintegration. She picks up a newspaper from 1914 and begins reading about the assassination of the Austrian crown prince in Serbia. The Beadle jumps up and, saluting and singing the anthem of the Austrian Empire, exits. “The Historical Delirium” can now be heard from the loudspeakers.

The next scene introduces the Family Machine and the Mechanical Cradle. The Family Machine, pulled in by a group of students, looks like a combination of a gynecologist’s table with stirrups and an instrument of torture. Another group of students chase the Woman...

(This entire section contains 1204 words.)

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with the Mechanical Cradle and put her on the Family Machine. The Charwoman brings the Mechanical Cradle, resembling a child’s coffin, and every motion of the cradle is synchronized with the movements of the Woman with Mechanical Cradle strapped in the Family Machine. These movements grow increasingly violent as both contraptions are wheeled out.

The Great Cleaning Up occurs as the Charwoman, carrying a broom/scythe, sweeps the floor; with every sweep, one of the oldster-students falls. In the meantime, an excerpt of a nursery rhyme from Tumour Brainiowicz about a fetus that was eaten by a kitten is recited by the Somnambulist Prostitute. A family quarrel among characters from Tumour Brainiowicz occurs. Finally, the old people return to their desks, and a lesson about Prometheus follows; as one pupil is questioned, others prompt him. As the students prompt the reply of “camel,” they begin shouting, and general disorder follows, with the word “camel” declaimed in all possible ways. The Old Woman Behind the Window (she carries a window frame) now addresses everyone and suggests an Outing. The old people obediently get up and stroll, then skip two by two around their desks, gradually moving more slowly, and then freeze until there is a sign from the conductor to exit.

Part 2 introduces a sequence titled “Scheming with Emptiness,” based on the Robinson motif from act 2 of Tumour Brainiowicz. This enaction forces a metamorphosis of the dead class into a more lively mode; however, the transformation is purely external and does not deny their simultaneous existence as a dead class. The logic of the quoted action is maintained until the cycle of events discontinues, the reminiscences of the students gain predominance, and action dissipates into an exit.

At a signal from Kantor, the old people enter the hall, moving like a funeral procession, with the Old Man Repeater/Obituary Distributor running in and handing out and scattering black obituary lists. The unbearably long list drones on through the loudspeaker until finally the “Waltz Françoise” is heard, and the scene changes into a Simultaneous Orgy with an erotic dialogue from Tumour Brainiowicz. The action from Tumour Brainiowicz is interspersed with conversations among the members of the dead class. The Woman Behind the Window announces that a boat has arrived in Baagaya Bay, and, as the Stranger Green enters, holding a black pirate flag, stimulates the students out of their passivity. Thereupon, a colonial expedition is enacted.

As the enactment of the expedition dissolves, the Woman with the Mechanical Cradle moves to the foreground and sits on a garbage heap. Members of the dead class gallop about their desks and, in passing, spit on her and dump more garbage over her. This action leads into part 3, as the Woman with a Mechanical Cradle sings a lullaby in Yiddish while rocking the cradle. The Charwoman begins the ritual of washing corpses. Against this background, the Woman with the Mechanical Cradle and the Old Man in the Loo engage in a conversation whose sentences are devoid of meaning and connectedness. Other members of the dead class try to eavesdrop and to find out what is in the cradle. Finally, two wooden balls resembling testicles are revealed. The Charwoman continues washing the corpses. The Old Man with the Bike rides around and around. Action becomes increasingly disjointed and repetitive. The cradle rattles on. The Charwoman disappears and returns as a chorus girl/whore, bumping and grinding. The Beadle sings the Austrian Empire’s national anthem. These actions are repeated until the movements slow down, becoming more automatic, and someone applauds, thereby breaking the aura of the séance.

Dramatic Devices

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The performance composition of The Dead Class out of fragments and references to other texts serves, by the very nature of the random use of the material, to suggest the impossibility of presenting dramatic texts by theatrical means. The “participation” of the three Polish avant-garde writers—Witkiewicz, Gombrowicz, and Schulz—is used as a theatrical device rather than as a representation or interpretation. Consequently, it is not of any importance for the spectators to know the original texts or, for that matter, to understand Polish. The very choice of these particular writers, however, does call attention to reasons that Kantor chose them as “participants” in his performance. Witkiewicz’s highly surrealist and absurdist plays, usually misunderstood in his lifetime, were, however, included in the repertoire of the original Cricot theater, established during the interwar period. In calling his own theater Cricot 2, Kantor included Witkiewicz as part of his seance of the dead class. Thus Witkiewicz’s Tumour Brainiowicz, with the doubling up of characters from the dead class, emerges as a performance out of time and space.

The traces of Gombrowicz and Schulz are more difficult to determine. Schulz’s story “The Pensioner,” whose pathetic, doddering hero returns to his old schoolroom, provides the central visual idea. From Gombrowicz, Kantor drew on Ferdydurke and his symbolic isolation and foregrounding of parts of the body, such as backside, finger, and snout, as well as the making of faces and the sudden eruptions of schoolboy pranks and jokes. Images from all three works, however, serve primarily as echoes that fade as they are absorbed to the purposes of The Dead Class.

To emphasize that The Dead Class is his creation, Kantor remains onstage for the duration of the performance and conducts it by indicating climaxes, musical passages, entrances, and exits. The dead class comes to life or fades into inaction in response to his signals. Kantor’s presence emphasizes the theatricality of the performance by breaking down all illusions. The performance is not always played in a particular order, and actions may change from performance to performance.

A central theatrical device is the use of actors as puppets, marionettes, or aesthetic objects. Characters are not individualized but participate instead in the visual phantasmagorias as part of Kantor’s painterly creation. One of the more significant images from The Dead Class juxtaposes puppets and actors to bring out thematic significance. Much like Kantor’s drawings, paintings, and collages, the old men of the dead class create visual rather than textual significance with their black bowlers and their dead eyes staring ahead. Objects have an equal status as actors in Kantor’s pictorial representation. All materials used onstage are on the same level; the objects, like the actors and their child puppets, reveal the infinite cycles of transformation and destruction to which they are subjected. The desks, privy, and crumbling books and notebooks are part of the imagery of the dead class. The strangely constructed machines, such as the Family Machine and the Mechanical Cradle, constitute kinetic metaphors for the life cycle. In the repetitive rocking of the Mechanical Cradle and the vulgar opening and closing of the legs of the Woman with the Mechanical Cradle on the Family Machine, the cruelty and irony of the birth/death cycle are projected.

Music, sound effects, and voices over loudspeakers are used as part of the composition to create an emotional atmosphere, or as contrasts or oppositions. At times, Kantor changes the volume so that music dominates as part of the emotional scenery, as when the sentimental strains of the “Waltz Françoise” pervade the stage and the old students sway as in a trance. Suddenly, in mid-phrase, the music ceases, and the actors are left bewildered and without a text.

The essence of Kantor’s performance of The Dead Class is that he isolates theatrical ingredients, abstracts them, and places them into unusual relationships to one another. Actors, texts, physical objects, and performance space all have an equalized status. When, during the performance, one ingredient dominates, Kantor as the director disrupts that hierarchy with a wave of his hand and sets the next scene into motion. The spectator is thereby constantly reminded that The Dead Class is Kantor’s personal dredging up of the past—in fact, his “dramatic séance.”


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Sources for Further Study

Gerould, Daniel. “Tadeusz Kantor (1915-    ): A Visual Artist Works Magic on the Polish Stage.” Performing Arts Journal 4, no. 3 (1979): 28-38.

Kantor, Tadeusz. A Journey Through Other Spaces: Essays and Manifestos, 1944-1990. Edited and translated by Michael Kobialka. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1993.

Kantor, Tadeusz. “Kantor—Candor.” Interview by Michai Kobiaika. Stages 6 (1973): 6-37.

Klossowicz, Jan. “Tadeusz Kantor’s Journey.” Drama Review 30 (Fall, 1986): 98-114.

Kott, Jan. “The Theatre of Essence: Kantor and Brook.” In Theatre of Essence and Other Essays. Evanston, Ill.: Northwestern University Press, 1984.

Mikaszewski, Krzysztof. Encounters with Tadeusz Kantor. Edited and translated by George Hyde. London: Routledge, 2002.


Critical Essays