Themes and Meanings

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Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 551

Since drama is a living, syncretic art, which unites the expressive capabilities of the word, visual gesture, tempo, and even architecture, any summary of a play is doomed to be at best incomplete, at worst misleading. The problem is especially apparent when one turns to the dramas of Tadeusz Kantor. This dramatist, who was also a noted avant-garde painter, constructed his plays as visual canvases, in which sparsity of language and suggestive visual theatrics combine in a powerful, distilled alloy to effect the message the playwright wished to convey to his audience. A summary of a play by Tadeusz Kantor is about as effective as a verbal summary of a Flemish painting. Nevertheless, such a summary may provide insight into the philosophical underpinnings of Kantor’s drama.

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Critics often refer to Kantor’s plays as “séances,” following the subtitle of his first play, Umara klasa (pr. 1975; The Dead Class, 1979). Deceased personages populate Kantor’s stage. Their constant shuffling back and forth between their shadowy existence and the life-experience of the audience (the only “live” people in the theater, according to Kantor) is indicative of the playwright’s distinctive conception of drama. In his plays, Kantor sought to evoke the interpenetration of the world of the living and the world of the dead. In the disjointed action of Kantor’s theater, there is a curious, constant ebb and flow from one world into the other. For Kantor, the world of life is one’s present state, where one is today. The world of the dead is memory, and the people preserved in it are the ghosts of that “other world” which constantly barge in on the living, usually haphazardly, often awkwardly, always urgently.

The very personal theater of Tadeusz Kantor, then, is an attempt to dramatize visually the intricate workings of memory. The “poor room of my childhood,” elsewhere termed “the poor room of our imagination,” can be seen as the artist’s mind, through which flutter figures and events from the past. This explains the discontinuities in Wielopole, Wielopole, as well as the repetitions, which, at first glance, may seem to be redundant. Kantor did for theater what James Joyce did for the novel: He visualized the unpredictable processes of free association.

However, it would be unjust to say that Kantor “only” mapped the kaleidoscopic scenes of one’s semiconscious reveries. He also showed how one passes judgment on people or events in memory, poeticizing them by interweaving particular memories with the large cultural and artistic heritage which affords people the archetypal signifying material with which they assign people and things a classifying meaning. For example, in Wielopole, Wielopole, Kantor does not simply rue the hard lot of his family, spun out in all directions by the centrifuge of history; he infuses it with a strong pathos by superimposing upon it themes from the Passion of Christ. To be sure, the Passion has lost all of its grandeur in Wielopole, Wielopole—all that remains is its great pain and pathos. There are no great, salvific messages to be drawn from the “Passion” of the family in Kantor’s drama (as might be found in the works of the Polish Romantics, who were enamored of messianism); what is inescapable is their helplessness, made even more pathetic by their smallness, their generality.

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Characters