Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1213
Tadeusz Kantor (KAHN-tohr) was one the most internationally famed experimental Polish playwrights. He was also a renowned graphic artist, dramatic theorist, and innovative producer of the plays of Stanisaw Ignacy Witkiewicz. He was born in 1915 in the small village of Wielopole, which lies in southern Poland, between the cities of Tarnów and Rzeszów. In early youth, Kantor was exposed to strong Christian and Hebrew elements in his family life, and the things seen and persons known in his childhood were to have a lasting effect on his drama.
He first showed talent as a painter and, like his master Witkiewicz before him, was accepted into the prestigious Akademia Sztuk Piknych (Academy of Fine Arts) in Cracow. There he received formal training as a painter and graduated in the fateful year of 1939. The subsequent Nazi occupation of Poland, which was to last until 1945, was an extremely trying period for the Polish nation. Bent on destroying Poland completely, the Nazis struck at the roots of Polish culture, closing theaters and universities and imprisoning those Poles who participated in clandestine education and artistic presentations. Kantor was one of the courageous people who kept Polish culture alive during this dangerous period. He organized the Teatr Niezaleẓny (independent theater), which produced experimental versions of Polish classic theater in private apartments for small audiences. One of the plays staged by Kantor at this time, Stanisaw Wyspiaski’s Powrót Odysa (pb. 1907; The Return of Odysseus, 1966), was to have a lasting effect on the playwright’s own creative processes. It was from this play that Kantor drew the cornerstone of his theatrical philosophy: There are two worlds present to the artist—the worlds of life and death. Life is the present time; death is memory. The dramatic process, like memory itself, is populated by wraiths who shuttle between the two worlds, and the dramatic experience, for Kantor, is above all a “séance.”
Following the war, Kantor became very active in the artistic scene in Cracow. He was co-organizer of the first postwar art exhibition in Poland, as well as the Grupa Krakowska (Cracow group) avant-garde circle. In 1955, Kantor founded the experimental Cricot 2 theater. Polish critic Artur Sandauer breaks Kantor’s theatrical development into two halves: the period of “destruction” and the period of “destruction affected.” In the first period, Kantor went about “destroying” traditional theater so that he could create his own “autotheater” from the rubble in the second. During the first phase of Kantor’s development he experimented primarily as scenographer and producer of Witkiewicz’s dramas. Most important in his destructive period were his stagings of Witkiewicz’s Wmaym dworku (1923; In a Small Manor House, 1961) in 1961, and in 1963, Wariat i zakonnica (1923; The Madman and the Nun, 1966). In this second production, Kantor experimented with “zero theater.” Bruiting the slogan “Theater doesn’t represent, it becomes,” Kantor strove to erase the dividing line between theatrical illusion and reality. He used the blandest items in his scenography—chairs, drawers, bags, and suitcases—practical items “of the lowest rank” which cannot represent anything but themselves. Instead of actors playing waiters, he cast real waiters in his dramas, thus creating the paradoxical situation of nonactors acting their everyday roles and forcing his audiences to ask themselves what is real, what is truth, and what is illusion.
Kantor never abandoned his graphic vocation. Indeed, his own theater is linguistically sparse: The audience finds itself confronted in the theater with a series of images, rather than acts or scenes, and the artist often reveals something of his current theatrical plans in plastic exhibitions arranged a few months before the premiere of a new drama. In 1975, Kantor won national and indeed international renown with his “theatrical séance” entitled The Dead Class. This drama, which won medals for Kantor in international competitions in Rome and Milan, brings before the audience’s eyes the shadows of deceased schoolboys, who wander over the borderline between That Side and This Side to occupy once again the benches they had filled as children—carrying in their arms mannequins of the children they had once been. In Wielopole/Wielopole, produced five years later, Kantor refined his curious collagelike technique, stressing how traumatic the passage from “there” to “here” can really be. Death, for Kantor, was a fascinating yet horrifying event—not so much from a physical standpoint as from a psychological one. At death, a person is caught in amber, as it were, the amber being the memories of other people. Each remembers the dead person in a different way: They remember incompletely, as they have caught but one facet of the person’s personality—or their memories are horrifying and hurtful, as the dead person is no longer able to correct the misapprehensions of his mourners. In Wielopole/ Wielopole, this point is made clear in a scene in which the actor portraying a deceased uncle is strapped to one side of a rotating bed and an identical mannequin is strapped to the other. Two factions of the family fight over which uncle to crank on top and mourn. Which side is right? Which is the real uncle?
Let the Artists Die was Kantor’s next great success, premiering in Nuremberg and Cracow in 1985. In the Guide du spectacle prepared by the dramatist, the interaction of the two worlds of death and life, which intersect in the “Poor Room of the Imagination,” is explained in photographic terms. Memory, according to Kantor, is like a microfiche of photographic negatives. They may be placed one on top of the other with none of the images blurred or destroyed by the others. Much confusion may ensue as a result of the mixing of times and persons and even different aspects of the same person. The title of this most ironic of Kantor’s dramas has to do with the idea that in death, artists can achieve immortality. The question, however—given the two-dimensional and various nature of one’s three billion or so personal memory microfiches—is, Is that immortality to be desired? In Wielopole/Wielopole this idea was explored in a preliminary way: An old-fashioned camera became a machine gun which at the same time destroyed the actors and immortalized them. Near the conclusion of Let the Artists Die, the actors turn killing machines on the people in the audience, who leave the theater with the chill of immortality coursing down their spines, a chill that could, perhaps, be effected only by Kantor’s own brand of realism.
Kantor seemed to be saying in I Shall Never Return that this process is inevitable. In the final scene of this séance, billed as “Theater of Life,” Kantor himself remained on the stage, alone. This final image was then borne away in the memory microfiches of the audience. The world of death catches up with the artist, who had been holding it at bay for so long, and he will “never return here again,” except as one chooses to conjure him up at leisure, inviting him into the “poor room of the imagination.” In his final play, Today Is My Birthday, first performed shortly after his death, this concept is taken one step further: An empty author’s chair sits on the stage while scenes from his past are enacted.
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