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Kantor's Compelling Magic


Tadeusz Kantor Cricot 2 The Dead Class Wielopole, Wielopole Let the Artists Die! Nuremberg


In 1977, gallery owner Johanna Ricard invited Kantor’s theatre company, Cricot 2, to perform The Dead Class in Nuremberg. I attended this performance with my family and took my son, who at that time was seven years old.

We sat on cushions, not on chairs, because the show took place in the Alte Messe (Old Trade Fair Building), which was not a theatre. I was fascinated by The Dead Class. Or rather, this is not a strong enough expression; I should say instead that it completely blew me away. But I also wondered how my son would respond to this experience and if he might suffer some kind of ‘permanent psychological damage’ from it. However, my concerns were completely unjustified; he laughed the whole time. While the other adults and I took the production extremely seriously, my son seized on its comical aspects. Later, when I saw The Dead Class again in Kantor’s own performance space (the ‘cave’ of the Galeria Krzysztofory in Krakow), I noted how gaily the Polish audience enjoyed the show. These experiences helped me to realise that Kantor’s work was not only melancholic and tragic but also comical. Ever since the performance of The Dead Class in Nuremberg, I felt deeply attached to Kantor and his art.

In December 2010, we organised a little exhibition at my publishing house to commemorate the twentieth anniversary of Kantor’s death. We presented photographs of Wielopole, Wielopole, some of his paintings from my collection, and letters Kantor had written to me. This friend, who I met nearly four decades ago, is still very much present in my life. His letters show how close our friendship was; something that I did not realise during his lifetime because I was too mesmerised by his work and personality, and had such enormous respect for him. Apparently, he felt similarly. When we met, there was usually a harmonic and relaxed atmosphere. Kantor usually maintained a dignified distance; his attitude was courteous, within the tradition of the Austro-Hungarian culture; although several times I saw him in a rage, sometimes with me as his target. His fits of anger always concerned art, not people, and they were not controlled by his mood. When it came to these fits, no artist was spared, not even him. I accepted those lapses because I always felt like a servant of his art.

I remember such a moment when Kantor erupted in 1985, when we arranged the world premiere of his production Let the Artists Die in Nuremberg. For six weeks of rehearsals, I rented a private theatre that he disliked. But he did not tell me this stoically over a cup of coffee, but rather via a theatrical scene.[1] Kantor loved such theatrical moments in real life. He put me on the spot; I had no choice, I needed to find him an appropriate rehearsal space. Finally, I found the Alte Giesserei (Old Foundry). We had to build a stage, a grandstand for the audience, toilets, lights, etc. This was a huge effort. However, the Cricot 2 actually performed there.

I also remember a rehearsal of Wielopole, Wielopole, which was brought to Nuremberg in 1981. I took administrative care of Kantor’s guest performances, and we had organised, with the best intentions, brand new desks for the Last Supper scene. Because Kantor disliked them, he ranted to all of us, starting in German, then switching to French, and ending in Polish. Among other insults, he accosted the Italian actors and told them that their nation had not generated anything original since Michelangelo. Everyone was embarrassed. Some of the older Polish actors’ eyes were filled with tears. Completely panicked, I ran around the theatre, the Nuremberg Schauspielhaus, and told the technicians that we immediately needed the oldest desks available. Once found, we laid them as you would in front of an altar. Kantor accepted them. The desks were again sawed off and screwed together, and were finally used in the performance. Eventually, these desks from Nuremberg travelled with Wielopole, Wielopole around the world.

After this rehearsal, I accompanied Kantor to his hotel, thinking ‘My god – if I have to accompany Kantor while he’s in a rage, it’s certain that he’ll direct his anger towards me’. Against all expectation, Kantor was extremely calm. Now relaxed, he commented that he was very content because he had made his actors so anxious that the show would surely succeed. Indeed, that night the performance was exceptional.

I never took his rage personally, and I clearly remember the intense atmosphere during the rehearsals. Nevertheless, they were also amusing to be a part of, and we laughed a lot. Even after Kantor’s death, the members of his theatre company continue to feel extremely attached to him. Conflicts among the actors arose, in my opinion, only after he died; I never experienced them previously. While he was alive, all of them dedicated themselves to the common cause.

From time to time, I hear myself called ‘Kantor’s patron’. But I do not see myself as such. To be sure, I was sometimes able to help him, as I did other artists. As I mentioned, for Kantor I organised the world premiere of Let the Artists Die in Nuremberg in 1981, the guest performances of Wielopole, Wielopole in 1981 and then of I Shall Never Return. Even now, I publish books by young artists that might help them to get ahead. Perhaps this is typical for an arts patron, but I see myself rather as a friend or a partner of those artists, not just as somebody who gives something to support them. I feel richly rewarded, the same as they might feel showered. Art and artists have been meaningful throughout my life.

During the last scene of Let the Artists Die, when the actors build a barricade against the society that neither understands nor accepts them, I never felt as though I belonged on the side of the society. Although I belong to its establishment, I imagine myself instead with the artists on the barricades. I feel the same as a member of the Freunde der Bayreuther Festspiele (Friends of the Bayreuth Festival) and its artists. Perhaps this like-mindedness or congeniality is a reason for my support for the arts. When I experience an artwork, I do not feel like somebody who merely observes the artwork, but rather I feel like somebody who is part of it. Some wonder how, at my old age, I can still be so enthusiastic. However, for me it indicates great fortune. When I experienced the compelling magic of Kantor’s theatre, these images, this music, I was never interested in its ‘meaning’. I am fascinated by the ‘pure magic’ of his theatre, beyond all interpretation, analysis, or classification. Although, very rarely, I may approach such feelings during other experiences with other works of art, Kantor remains for me an absolutely singular artist.

Edited and translated from German by Uta Schorlemmer.


  1. ^ The documentary by Andrzej Białko, Tadeusz Kantor. Ein begnadeter Tyrann (Tadeusz Kantor: A Gifted Tyrant), perfectly shows Kantor’s rage. This film was published on the DVD accompanying Kunst ist ein Verbrechen. Tadeusz Kantor, Deutschland und die Schweiz (Art is a Crime: Tadeusz Kantor in Germany and Switzerland), ed. by Uta Schorlemmer (Kraków and Nuremberg: Cricoteka and Verlag für moderne Kunst, 2007).