The Play

(Survey of Dramatic Literature)

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...

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Dramatic Devices

(Survey of Dramatic Literature)

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.


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(Great Characters in Literature)

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.