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 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...
(The entire section is 2,020 words.)