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On Tadeusz Kantor's The Dead Class


Tadeusz Kantor Cricot 2 The Dead Class Theatre of Death Krzysztofory Polish theatre Witkacy Bruno Schulz Polish Jewish culture Polish identity directing Jerzy Jarocki Konrad Swinarski Andrzej Wajda film documentation DVD


Konstanty Puzyna (1929-1989) was one of Poland’s foremost literary and theatre critics. He was literary advisor to the Teatr Wybrzeże in Gdańsk, and to the Teatr Dramatyczny and Teatr Ateneum in Warsaw. From 1971 to 1989 he was chief editor of the theatre journal Dialog, and he also published regularly in Polityka and Teatr. He edited or co-edited collected works by Stanisław I. Witkiewicz, Antonin Artaud, and Wilam Horzyca, and his essays on theatre were gathered in several volumes, including: To co teatralne (What is the Theatrical, 1960), Burzliwa pogoda (Stormy Weather, 1971), Syntezy za trzy grosze (Syntheses for Three Pennies, 1974), Półmrok (Twilight, 1982).

Tadeusz Różewicz (1921-2014) was a poet, playwright, and novelist, and among the leading writers working internationally. His work has been translated and performed in numerous languages; his best-known works in English translation include: The Card Index and Other Plays (1969), Faces of Anxiety: Poems (1969), The Witnesses and Other Plays (1970), The Survivor and Other Poems (1976), Conversation with the Prince and Other Poems (1982), Reading the Apocalypse in Bed: Selected Plays and Short Pieces (1998), and Recycling (2001).

Andrzej Wajda is an internationally acclaimed theatre and film director, and the recipient of both a European Film Award and an Oscar for outstanding achievement in cinema. Among his best-known films are: A Generation (1955), Kanał (1956), Ashes and Diamonds (1958), The Wedding (1972), The Promised Land (1974), Man of Marble (1977), Man of Iron (1981), Holy Week (1995), and Katyń (2007), while his theatre productions include: Hamlet (1960), Crime and Punishment (1984), and The Dybbuk (1988).

The Dead Class – a ‘dramatic séance by Tadeusz Kantor’ – premiered on 15 November 1975, in the basement of the Krzysztofory Gallery in Kraków.

This was the first official version of the production, which travelled to the Edinburgh festival in August 1976 and which continued to be performed until mid-1977. The second version (1977-1986) – which saw significant changes among the actors and the characters in the production – was performed much more extensively outside Poland, and became the best-known version of The Dead Class abroad. A third version by Kantor was also prepared in 1989.

The first version of The Dead Class was documented by the distinguished film and theatre director Andrzej Wajda in 1976, several months after the premiere. Wajda’s film is published by Polish Theatre Perspectives on DVD with English subtitles (2015). On 9 September 1976, shortly after making his film, Wajda met with two other key figures of Polish theatre: the literary critic Konstanty Puzyna, and the poet, dramatist, and essayist Tadeusz Różewicz, to discuss the reception of The Dead Class and their personal responses to the performance. This text is an edited transcript of the conversation that took place between them.[1]


The Dead Class (1975). Photograph: Jacquie Bablet, courtesy of Cricoteka.

The Dead Class (1975). Photograph: Jacquie Bablet, courtesy of Cricoteka.

Konstanty Puzyna:
In Tadeusz Kantor’s The Dead Class, there is something that stays in the memory months after having seen the performance. This is not only due to the fact that it is an excellent production, as we see strong productions from time to time. Perhaps most important of all is that it comprises a sort of culmination of Kantor’s theatre, his crowning achievement to date. At the same time, it is a performance that – in contrast with his others, which are typically quite impersonal, quite ‘cold’ – says much about the artist, about his approach to art, to the world, to life. It is also a kind of homage or epitaph to a world that has already disappeared, to a social milieu that no longer exists, to an epoch that belongs to the past. An epitaph that is poignant and magnificent.

Tadeusz Różewicz: You say it’s something that stays with you, albeit among other excellent performances.... In my opinion, this production is the only one of its kind, and this is why we remember it so well. Another thing: regarding what you said about the period, the themes that the production evokes – in my view, it isn’t the theme that remains engraved in our memories, it’s the form. It is through the form that we remember it.

Puzyna: I didn’t mean the ‘theme’ as such, but the performance as an epitaph to a certain epoch. I wouldn’t know how to distinguish the ‘theme’ from the ‘form’ here....

Andrzej Wajda: For me, it is the most moving production that I’ve seen in Polish theatre. Its force is considerable; it is both the culmination of Kantor’s work and of other experiments and investigations that find their perfect, most refined form in The Dead Class.

Puzyna: In what does this perfection consist?

Wajda: Probably in the fact that Kantor has succeeded in creating a ‘theatrical theatre’ [teatralny teatr], an ‘integrated theatre’ – a performance where everything comes from the same source, a work of absolute unity. A ‘Theatre of Tadeusz Kantor’. The actors are completely subjugated to his will. The visual aspect of this performance is something that only he would know how to create. He also displayed an exceptional musical ear: this whole performance became his own musical composition. Moreover, there is no subordination to a literary text. It seemed clear that the words came to Kantor during the course of the rehearsals, that they only became necessary at a certain moment. The words emerged as the performance was being developed.

Puzyna: In his previous productions – based on Witkacy’s texts, and thus texts created for the theatre – there wasn’t any subordination to the text either: the text moved along in parallel to the action; in parallel but independently of the rest. This resulted in clashes [between the two], but these were almost unintentional, as if by chance. You could say the same about all the harmonies, the consonances between them as well. With The Dead Class, we see none of this. The text, as you rightly say, is fully integrated within the performance. Although Bruno Schulz’s story ‘Emeryt’ (The Old-Age Pensioner) serves as the point of departure, it’s not Schulz’s text that we see in the production but fragments of Witkacy’s Tumor Mózgowicz (Tumour Brainowicz) – which are present, in scraps – so that Schulz’s presence is felt principally in terms of the atmosphere.... [2]

Różewicz: Schulz is also present in the ‘plasticity’ of the performance.[3] And this atmosphere is brilliantly captured by Kantor.

Puzyna: Yes. I was fascinated by this atmosphere of the school at the beginning, this cheder atmosphere; the Schulzian aspect in this is captured well, although it’s not at all literal. We could easily compare it to Wojciech Jerzy Has’s film The Hour-Glass Sanatorium (1973) in which the Jewish quarter [of the town of Drohobycz] is reconstructed with an extraordinary care in terms of all the details, the costumes, and so on.... You could almost sense the consultants and advisors there, and more besides. I just didn’t sense Schulz there anymore. For me, all this was lacking in life. Whereas in Kantor, the atmosphere is captured in an extraordinary manner.... We don’t know how this came about; it’s difficult to describe. There is something in the ‘plastic’ side: the silhouettes, the costumes, the blackness of the objects, a bowler hat here, a cap there, a specific kind of hubbub, everyone piled together on the benches.... The cheder is deliberate. And it’s very Schulzian. For me, in any case, it was terribly Schulzian. However, Schulz is only here as an inspiration and not as a theme. It’s simply a point of departure – a sort of initial dialogue between Kantor and Schulz.[4]

Wajda: We haven’t mentioned another element that causes this performance to leave such a strong impression: that is, the presence of Kantor himself in the action, among the actors of his séance. In this world of the dead, Kantor figures as the only living being.

Różewicz: It’s interesting what you say there. I have a note here about Kantor’s presence among the spectators and the actors. I wrote that, for me, Kantor’s presence – his physical presence – constitutes one of the main elements of the composition. A thin, dark figure – an incredibly expressive ‘black fire’ raging among the actors. Right from the start I remained under the spell [of this fire]. Then, I started to make certain comparisons (not very original, it must be said) with Paganini, or even with something demonical. I’ve known Kantor for about thirty years – I know he’s not a demon. He’s an agreeable person, with his own particular faults and qualities. I observed his silhouette, the expression on his face, the movements of his hands, also the way he was dressed: a black scarf thrown whimsically over his shoulder. I observed him with a joyful astonishment. The scarf was a necessity in fact, because when I went to the cellar to see the performance it was really cold – the heating was broken. But for me Kantor was also an actor, although he wasn’t ‘connected’ to the rest of the performance. He was the soul of all this, he was right at the centre of everything.... The performance couldn’t have gone ahead without him.

I chatted to Jerzy Jarocki – who’s a professional director, a man of theatre in every sense of the word – who has a different take on this issue from us.[5] He told me that Kantor was so meticulous about this performance that it would be able to run without him. I don’t agree. Jarocki also added that he considered The Dead Class to be Kantor’s best production to date. I don’t know about this. I’ve seen his other productions: each has its own particular quality. Nevertheless, it could be that this is the most carefully conceived....

Puzyna: I suppose what Jarocki meant by saying that the performance could work without Kantor’s presence is that this performance is an extremely precise ‘mechanism’; it is precise, coherent, and effective. Only, without Kantor, the work would not be the same.

Wajda: I share your view entirely. The level of interest that this performance created is also truly extraordinary. Everyone is in agreement that this is something remarkable. The performance doesn’t have any opponents; it’s as if Kantor – who previously had a particular circle of dedicated spectators, who were close to and in need of such theatre – suddenly began to address a much larger audience. This production touched many more people. Everyone I’ve come across not only said that this performance was beautiful and Kantor’s best production, but also that it surpassed everything they habitually see in the theatre.

Puzyna: I don’t think it was consciously directed to a broader audience. This was more the result of some kind of greater ‘charge’, something that took place in preparing this performance – something that perhaps even Kantor himself didn’t foresee. What is striking here is not only the originality of the performance’s poetics, but its force and its very personal tone – and this doesn’t come from Kantor’s participation onstage but more from what Kantor has to say in this performance, even if he were to be physically absent. That said, his physical presence added enormously to the dynamics of the whole. Kantor is truly the only living person among all these dead people; or, to put it in other terms, he is a sort of ‘narrator’ who half remains within the reality of the performance and half outside it. Even though he says nothing. [...] He realigns the benches, picks up objects from the floor, sometimes helps the actors to tidy something away. At times, he whispers something in their ears or confers with them. But above all, he conducts. It’s worth observing his hand, which meticulously imposes a particular rhythm throughout the performance. When the action loses some of its colour, when it begins to ‘drift’, when it goes flat, it’s worth observing Kantor’s hand: its edginess, its receptivity, the almost imperceptible movements of the fingers – their force, their dynamism – as if this hand were breathing new life into the actors, the action, the whole performance.

Unfortunately, none of this occurs in the ‘normal’ theatre, where we have the impression that the performance is simply repeated. We know that the premiere is the liveliest occasion, the most intense, the moment of flight; but often at that stage the performance hasn’t yet been ‘broken in’. With time it becomes mastered, but the inner life of the production fades – it becomes mechanical, repetitive, grey. Usually it ‘frays’ over time. Whereas here, we have the feeling that the performance we’re attending is really performed just for us – that another time it would be different, that it’s created especially for those who come to see it. I dream about this in the theatre; for the director to conduct the performance in our presence each night....

Wajda: There I agree with you, and I believe with some authority: I’ve already seen this performance five times. [...] It’s the only performance I’ve gone to see so many times. It had such an impact on me that I decided to film it. I never film my own productions. I’ve never done this, because I think there’s something problematic about transferring your own work into another genre. But [with The Dead Class] I said to myself that it might be possible to transpose it to the screen – if not the whole performance, then at least Kantor himself within it. Because, for me, he plays the most important role, and he drives this constant renewal of the performance each night. I’ve seen this production five times, and each time I was struck with the same force. I don’t mean by this that the force of a production necessarily needs to be linked to the presence of the director onstage. The condition for this is in the way of fitting together the work of the actors during the rehearsals so that they become truly interdependent, even after a hundred or two-hundred performances; it’s in the fact of the actors’ coming together that the ‘electricity’ is generated that renews the performance.

Certainly there is always this secret dream of the director to be able to enter into what happens onstage, to participate in it, to influence the performance directly. Those of us who work in a ‘normal’ professional theatre don’t have this possibility. We struggle to see our performances living their own life, to see that our disposition – our good or bad humour one particular evening – has no influence on what happens onstage. This is my regret; whereas Kantor’s particular state of nervousness leads to specific changes every night. [...]

Tadeusz Kantor (left) and Andrzej Wajda during the filming of The Dead Class in 1976. Photograph from Andrzej Wajda’s private archive.

Tadeusz Kantor (left) and Andrzej Wajda during the filming of The Dead Class in 1976. Photograph from Andrzej Wajda’s private archive.

Różewicz: Puzyna and I have only seen this performance with our bare eyes, but you’ve been able to see it from two different perspectives: through your own eyes and those of the camera. You infiltrated this form, while we remained more on the outside; [...] I’m sure you managed to capture various elements that escaped us.

Wajda: Undoubtedly; but on the other hand, the camera is of course an inanimate object – it only becomes animated through what it records. There is also this aspect of ‘laying bare’ or ‘exposing’ the material, which was my biggest fear – that this atmosphere that pervades the cellar in which Kantor performs, this kind of magnetism might escape, leaving only its shadow on the film....[6]

I know what I’ve filmed won’t resemble what we experienced at the Krzysztofory. I counted on the fact that since Kantor himself took part in the recording process, and I was filming him, I would be able to reveal some aspects that the theatre spectator couldn’t see. This is the principal shift that I rely on in filming The Dead Class. I think too that by shooting certain scenes outside, we may also manage to reveal something new.

Think also of the beginning of the performance: Kantor remains standing and waits for the audience. He just waits – ‘I’m ready. Here are my actors. We are waiting for you. Come in, please sit down’. This is the impression we receive; but it’s not possible to convey this clearly with the camera. [...] There are really only two possible shots: one where I show Kantor himself and the other where I show the audience. [...]

Różewicz: You cut short what was going on among the audience.

Wajda: Regrettably, I had to. I couldn’t show people coming in for a quarter of an hour. Or rather, maybe I didn’t have the courage to do it.

Puzyna: You’d have to make a separate film about just that sequence – a half-hour short about the beginning of the performance. Or a five-hour film about the entire process of the performance...

Wajda: It’s strange but what touched me most in this performance was that there was no question of me, Andrzej Wajda [as a director], viewing myself as such during The Dead Class; the performance itself has this great individuality, and I felt the urge to submit to it. I had the feeling of wanting to do something so that others might also get to know this production – a desire to preserve it in the archives. I knew it wouldn’t be the same thing, and from the start I understood the limitations of my role. Because it’s not about millions of television viewers seeing the performance thanks to this film[7] – what’s important is [this desire] to share something with someone else. There aren’t many things that would move me to this point and push me towards this kind of ‘self-effacement’.

Różewicz: This is an interesting account. Because many people consider that it’s worth filming certain productions, that many exceptional theatrical performances were lost because of the lack of film technologies at the time. But while the camera is capable of capturing certain movements, it risks losing the ‘spirit’ of the work. It wouldn’t be a document of the performance. Or rather, the document would distort the ‘legend’ of the performance.

Andrzej Wajda (left) and Tadeusz Kantor at Kopiec Krakusa (Krakus Mound), Kraków, discussing filming of one of the exterior scenes in The Dead Class in 1976. Photograph from Andrzej Wajda’s private archive.

Andrzej Wajda (left) and Tadeusz Kantor at Kopiec Krakusa (Krakus Mound), Kraków, discussing filming of one of the exterior scenes in The Dead Class in 1976. Photograph from Andrzej Wajda’s private archive.

The problem of preservation is very interesting because it is always current. I had the chance to see several filmed fragments of Dziady (Forefathers’ Eve) in Konrad Swinarski’s staging (1973). Screened on television, from a videotape, it just became bad theatre. Mediocre acting, poor delivery of the text...

Puzyna: It’s not unusual for a cinematographic document not only not to render the performance, but even to falsify it completely. Of what remains of Dziady, what Krzysztof Miklaszewski filmed in Kraków during the rehearsals seems much better.[8] Swinarski is present and we realise all of a sudden that he is the main actor, and that the film is not at all about Dziady – even if this was the premise – but about the rehearsals, about Konrad Swinarski’s way of working.

Wajda: That is something different. The impossibility of filming a complete performance is down to a very simple reason: it’s that film and theatre are two entirely different things, because their processes of creation are entirely different. [...] When you film a theatre production, it’s something already complete. You film the result. It’s not interesting because the whole process has already taken place. [...]

Filming The Dead Class in Plac Nowy, Kraków, 1976. Photograph from Andrzej Wajda’s private archive.

Filming The Dead Class in Plac Nowy, Kraków, 1976. Photograph from Andrzej Wajda’s private archive.

During the shooting of The Dead Class, by giving myself completely to this film, I ended up becoming Kantor’s assistant. I became fixated on his every gesture, looking out for his acceptance or disapproval; I was listening to his every word, each of which – through me – was immediately carried out. One morning, we went to Plac Nowy in Kazimierz, where we were to film one of the scenes later that evening.[9] Kantor wanted to make a scrapheap in the foreground. I asked him what it should be made of. He replied that earlier that morning, when he left the house, he saw a truck full of waste cardboard – brown, corrugated cardboard for recycling. Immediately I told the crew to search for this truck. And by the evening, all the cardboard was in place. Kantor just threw it a glance, without showing any surprise, and pointed to where he wanted the scrapheap. A moment later, there was a great pile of cardboard in the middle of the street. Kantor commented that it would be a good idea to pour some water over it. No sooner had he said these words than, with a gesture of my hand, a street-cleaner drove up from a side street and turned the pile into something virtually unrecognisable. Kantor observed our preparations approvingly, but when we’d finished he remarked in a low voice that we should have set fire to the heap first because the water had left all the stiff corners of the boxes intact. So, on my signal, an assistant rushed up with a jerry-can full of petrol and a moment later a fire was already burning. Nevertheless, I felt happy – I was Tadeusz Kantor’s assistant...

Puzyna: It’s a Faustian scene that you’re describing there...

Różewicz: Our conversation has often expressed feelings of sympathy and happiness. And what’s interesting is that when I began to think about writing an essay on The Dead Class, I started precisely from these kinds of words. For me as a person – not as a playwright or author, and so on – the biggest surprise and of greatest significance in this performance was the joy and astonishment that it produced. These two sensations accompanied me throughout the whole performance. I am not among those critics who put the performance to one side in order to make space for themselves and their agenda. I repeat: for me, there was joy and astonishment. Joy that something like this could take place, and that I could be present there. However, if I have to speak about this production as a playwright, I cannot speak simply about joy. It’s not that this artist was suddenly visited by the Holy Spirit and the work suddenly emerged out of nowhere and nothing. [...] It took years to reach this form...

My domain is words – I write them, so it’s against my nature that I’m improvising speaking at the moment. The Dead Class is liberated from the word; it’s the theatre of a visual artist. It’s a welcome break from [the dominance of] words... I don’t anticipate the lines – any bons mots or ripostes, any pirouettes or aphorisms – nor do I expect to be made to laugh. I’m not waiting to hear the story or the dialogue, but I still experience a real sense of tension. It seems to me that this performance has succeeded in freeing itself from certain ‘hang-ups’: from the ‘hang-ups’ of words and dialogues, regardless of whether they are amusing or intelligent. I’m not only speaking about mediocre authors who effectively bury the theatre with their words, who bury the work of the actors, the director, everything... I’m speaking about good authors too. [...] But with Kantor [...] a strange transformation took place in our presence. It’s the form that’s memorable… It’s this that becomes dominant, primary – in fact, the form becomes the content. That’s how I’d put it. The form creates the content...

Puzyna: I don’t know which of these is primary here, or even if such conventional categories as ‘form’ and ‘content’ can help us in this case. The unity, the integrity of this performance, I would say, comes from the fact that it is so intensely personal. In effect, we don’t speak about the rest of the group, we speak only of Kantor himself: Kantor, Kantor, and again Kantor. This is very significant. And this is how it is.

I’d like to recall that it’s not the first time that Kantor has remained onstage during his performances. He already did this in other productions, for example, in The Water Hen (1967) or in Dainty Shapes and Hairy Apes (1973) – and this didn’t have the same effect. Because in The Dead Class, there is something more. In his other productions, Kantor assumed a more technical role, perhaps he was even a kind of ‘effect’ insofar as he’s a character who directs the action; or in any case, this is the impression that he conveys. Whereas here, everything is so much derived from him that it is he himself who fascinates us, because he reinforces the personal tone of the whole piece.

The Dead Class (1975). Photograph: Jacquie Bablet, courtesy of Cricoteka.

The Dead Class (1975). Photograph: Jacquie Bablet, courtesy of Cricoteka.

Wajda: [Kantor’s participation in his performances] already has its own history. At the beginning he also used to take part in his productions, but he would do so while sitting among the audience. Besides, what else could he have done with himself? If the audience is positioned all around the performers, the director can’t exactly sit out in the wings. So Kantor sat among the audience to watch the action. I remember him clearly: he chewed on his fingernails and threw tantrums. But he only rarely intervened in the performance itself, and then only minimally – to push something out of the audience’s way, for instance. Kantor remained seated when he was watching Dainty Shapes and Hairy Apes. I observed him because he fascinated me: I saw a truly discontented director. Then, the fact of him later getting up off his chair one day and entering into the space seemed to me to be a natural move on his part.

Puzyna: Yes, but he had already done this in The Water Hen. I saw this piece twice: in Warsaw and later in Nancy. But with this performance it might perhaps be explained by the unusual working conditions: in Warsaw, they performed in the Zachęta gallery and in Nancy in a cellar that was unfamiliar to them. Maybe something didn’t go how he wanted, which caused him to intervene during the performance? Maybe he was on edge because they hadn’t rehearsed enough, because they were on tour, because there were nerves, because he felt he needed to hold things together? Kantor entered into those performances – he took part in them.

Wajda: It seems to me that this is a logical step, a certain development of what he was doing. If I enter the stage from the wings in a normal theatre, this means I’m another character. People would wonder who I am, what role I have to play, and would want me to introduce myself. But Kantor has no need of introduction. That’s why it’s called ‘a séance by Tadeusz Kantor’. He gives a ‘séance’.[10] [...]

Różewicz: The theoretical issues at the heart of this performance are your speciality, Konstanty. I know you’ve studied Kantor’s Theatre of Death ‘manifesto’ associated with this production, since investigating the relations between theory and practice is your particular domain.[11] As for me, I am only capable of defining the artistic value of this text in terms of its literary form. It’s a sort of contemporary poem that, from the perspective of its written style, its appearance, approaches my ‘school’, if I can put it like that.

Puzyna: To be frank, this ‘manifesto’ seems to me to be a little naive, a little bit vague, and I don’t discern any particular ‘theory’ there. It troubles me rather than helping me to understand The Dead Class...

Wajda: I noticed something interesting about this text. I went to the meeting with Kantor in Warsaw where he gave a reading of his ‘Theatre of Death’. He read out something that I’ve never been able to find in his published text. I glanced through his manifesto and asked myself: why isn’t it there? What he said was: ‘The problem, for me, was where to perform. Then I said to myself: “these are dead people; this should be something that takes place off to one side, something unimportant. This is why we perform off to one side, in a corner”’. I have to say that it must’ve taken quite an imagination to decide to go and perform in the corner like that. And, in effect, right through the performance, we are present at something that happens away ‘in a corner’. Something unimportant, which takes place off to one side.

Puzyna: Yes, that’s right. Even when Kantor brought the production to Wrocław, to the Bernadine Church near the Museum of Architecture, this impression remained. An entirely empty church, and despite all this space, everything continued to take place ‘in a corner’.

The ‘François Waltz’, played through several speakers, worked remarkably well there. The musicians were seated a long way back, behind the spectators. The waltz came to us in waves. It dissipated somewhat in the space, then, gradually increasing in volume, submerged us only in order to distance itself again. In these waves of sound, a vast space would open up, and at the same time there would be this tight huddle in the corner. The result was wonderful. With respect to spatio-musical imagination, Kantor revealed possibilities I could never have guessed at here.

Wajda: What interested me in particular was the lighting. I took care to observe it with a view to the filming, because when you shoot a film it’s about not spoiling these effects. So I had to analyse it, to see how it was done. I admit I’ve rarely seen anything so beautiful in terms of lighting effects in the theatre: just three ordinary light bulbs. But what positioning!

Różewicz: I’d like to say a word about another essential aspect of this production. It concerns the performance’s musicality; the music (the ‘François Waltz’) is not written for the production, it’s not an original score, it’s well-known – even to the extent of being banal. But the music is also not an ‘illustration’ of what occurs in the performance. Every element of the performance is bound to the others, including Kantor the conductor... There is a musicality underlying the whole construction. This ‘pseudo-conventional’ musical element is stretched out like a safety net beneath the other elements of the performance, and can support them if they fall. With us, when it comes to music in the theatre, we normally make it ‘illustrate’ something...

Wajda: This [what Kantor did] is the ‘integration’ to which many people aspire in the theatre. However, as you rightly noted earlier, this kind of integration becomes impossible if we begin from a text. Because in placing ourselves at the service of the text, we begin to battle against it. This is very common in our theatre: we battle against the text and perish with it. [...]

Puzyna: What was it that most appealed to you about The Dead Class? The theme of death? The collision of childhood and old age? Or perhaps something else...?

Różewicz: There is a paradox here: that this performance is about death – in a way it is performed by the ‘dead’ – and yet it was able to produce in me such great joy. That, full of these dead people, it remained so alive – a living performance.

Puzyna: One of the most striking things for me was this kind of lyrical tone that emerged despite the apparent detachment and distance in the performance. Even the black humour in it had a certain lyricism. This humorous side has always been there with Kantor, but before it was drier, more detached. Here, there is something warm, something more personal. As if, for the first time, Kantor started to take account of his own life – before us and also before himself. A taking account of his two essential poles: childhood and death.[12]

Wajda: You won’t manage to elicit a better response than the one Tadeusz Różewicz gave us earlier: the sense of joy and astonishment that one feels with this performance. Hearing it expressed in this way by this poet, I realised that it’s enough to say two words to touch on what is essential. My impression of this performance is the same as his. Where does this impression come from? I think it’s from the fact that I feel this lack of air around me [in my everyday life]. It feels difficult to breathe, there is nothing to breathe. And then, I enter this cellar in the Krzysztofory, and I feel free, released. Here everything is possible. This feeling that one always has in the presence of a great work of art: the feeling of the world returning to how it could be. Stunned, I embrace this worldview; I accept it and I understand it.

Translated from Polish by Duncan Jamieson and Adela Karsznia.


  1. ^ The text that appears here is an edited version of an extended conversation published as ‘O Umarłej Klasie’ (On The Dead Class), Dialog, 2 (1977), 135-142. All footnotes are by the PTP editors.
  2. ^ Puzyna is referring to ‘The Old-Age Pensioner’ from Schulz’s Sanatorium under the Sign of the Hourglass. As Krzysztof Pleśniarowicz elucidates, ‘In the program notes for The Dead Class, Kantor designated Witkiewicz and Schulz as “participants in the séance” (as opposed to “characters in the performance”, the dead pupils and the actors who serve to bring dead memory back to life). The pre-war artists belonged to a vanished world; they supplied only roles that “disintegrated every few moments”. They were reminders of their own tragic fates – Witkiewicz’s suicide on September 18, 1939, and Schulz’s murder at the hands of the Nazis in the Drohobycz ghetto on November 12, 1942’. See Pleśniarowicz, The Dead Memory Machine: Tadeusz Kantor’s Theatre of Death, trans. by William Brand (Aberystwyth: Black Mountain Press, 2004), p. 194.
  3. ^ In Polish, ‘plasticity’ and ‘plastic’ [plastyczność and plastyczny] are terms that designate the malleability and flexibility of a material or a work to receive and give form, and also its capacity to transform or destroy it.
  4. ^ On Kantor’s evocation of the cheder, Pleśniarowicz explains further: ‘The return to school of an adult hero or of an old man in his second childhood is described in both Gombrowicz’s Ferdydurke and in Schulz’s short story Emeryt (‘The Old Age Pensioner’). But whereas in Schulz the teacher asks how much is five times seven, in The Dead Class he asks about the number of King Solomon’s wives. After all, the action at times “occurs not in a regular school, but in a cheder, and the questions are then posed not by a teacher but by a melamed’, as Artur Sandauer remarked, defining this transposition as “the designation of the mark of Jewishness that Schulz left unspoken”’. See Pleśniarowicz, The Dead Memory Machine, p. 198, and Artur Sandauer, ‘Sztuka po końcu sztuki’ (Art after the End of Art), Dialog, 3 (1981), 100-113 (p. 111).
  5. ^ For more on Jerzy Jarocki, see the interview with Krystian Lupa, ‘Returning to the Garden of Childhood’, elsewhere in this volume (pp. 272-317 of the print edition, especially pp. 280-83).
  6. ^ The Dead Class was performed in a corner of the basement of the Galeria Krzysztofory, in Kraków. The space is located beneath the current main offices of the Centre for the Documentation of the Art of Tadeusz Kantor Cricoteka.
  7. ^ Wajda’s film of The Dead Class has been screened a number of times on Polish television.
  8. ^ Miklaszewski was an actor in Kantor’s theatre from 1973-1986, and also a television presenter specialising in arts and culture programming. He made a number of film documentaries on theatre, including films on Kantor and Swinarski, and published a book Encounters with Tadeusz Kantor, trans. and ed. by George Hyde (London and New York: Routledge, 2005).
  9. ^ Plac Nowy is a large square in the Jewish quarter of Kraków.
  10. ^ The publicity materials for The Dead Class described the production as seans dramatyczny Tadeusza Kantora: ‘Dramatic séance by Tadeusz Kantor’.
  11. ^ See Tadeusz Kantor, ‘The Theatre of Death’ (1975), trans. by Michal Kobialka in Kobialka, Further On, Nothing... Tadeusz Kantor’s Theatre (Minneapolis and London: University of Minnesota, 2009), pp. 230-239.
  12. ^ For further discussion of these themes in The Dead Class, see Lupa, ‘Returning to the Garden of Childhood’ (pp. 287-91 of the print edition).

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