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A Commentary on Andrzej Sapija's 'The Return of Odysseus' by Tadeusz Kantor: Notes from Rehearsals


Tadeusz Kantor Andrzej Sapija Cricot 2 I Shall Never Return Wielopole memory Theatre of Death The Return of Odysseus Second World War Underground Theatre Stanisław Wyspiański drawings mannequins emballage


Katarzyna Tokarska-Stangret graduated in Polish philology from the Cardinal Stefan Wyszyński University in Warsaw. She is completing her PhD dissertation at the Jagiellonian University in Kraków on film documentation of Tadeusz Kantor’s practice, with a focus on his production of I Shall Never Return. Since 2007 she has served on the editorial team of Teatr, and has published articles in Dialog and Teksty Drugie.

Powrót Odysa Tadeusza Kantora. Notatki z prób | directed by Andrzej Sapija (Łódź: Wytwórnia Filmów Oświatowych, 1989) | published on DVD by Cricoteka (Kraków: Ośrodek Dokumentacji Sztuki Tadeusza Kantora Cricoteka, 2006).[1]

DVD of Sapija’s documentary 'The Return of Odysseus' by Tadeusz Kantor: Notes from Rehearsals, published by Cricoteka in 2006.

DVD of Sapija’s documentary 'The Return of Odysseus' by Tadeusz Kantor: Notes from Rehearsals, published by Cricoteka in 2006.

Tadeusz Kantor (1988)[2]

The Polish filmmaker Andrzej Sapija has directed several documentaries devoted to Tadeusz Kantor and his theatre, including a number of the works among the Cricoteka film series released on DVD from 2006 to 2008.

Perhaps the most ambitious and intricate in its conception and scope is his 1989 documentary, ‘The Return of Odysseus’ by Tadeusz Kantor: Notes from Rehearsals, which Kantor himself considered to be the most insightful film about his work. At the time of making this film, Sapija had already been documenting Kantor intermittently over a four-year period. ‘The Return of Odysseus’... was realised following Kantor’s penultimate production I Shall Never Return, which was rehearsed in Kraków and Milan in 1987-1988, and premiered in Milan in April 1988. The film makes use of extensive footage taken at the time of these rehearsals (from October 1987 and April 1988), as well as archival images and recordings, incorporating a diverse range of materials pertaining to Kantor’s life and art.

As is evident from both the interview excerpts with Kantor included in the film and his writings from the period, Kantor already considered I Shall Never Return to mark something like a closing chapter in his work, noting that it would likely be his last ‘personal confession’.[3] The opening shots of the film reinforce this sense of finality – the camera pans over Kantor’s grave, depicting a young boy at a school-desk, designed by him before his death in 1990. We then see storerooms filled with dusty props and objects from Cricot 2’s performances, and a voiceover reading of Kantor’s words, posing us the question: ‘Maybe then we will desire to walk across the stage to find the remnants of life, which moved us a moment ago, as we would walk through a cemetery. Was it only fiction?’ (2min. 02sec.).[4] This convergence of death with life, of fiction with reality, will remain a key theme throughout the film. Later, in an interview specially arranged by Sapija for the documentary, Kantor states:

Death is the final act, the knowledge and experience of the end. After death we can do nothing, because we are no more. This intriguing notion of the end will remain unimaginable. Death is the ultimate disaster of the organism that possesses the greatest gift of all – consciousness. That’s the way I see [I Shall Never Return]. Something is discontinued and I am faced with so-called ‘eternity’, which, to me, means nothingness. Two years before she died [the artist] Maria Jarema said to me: ‘Now I’ve got to hurry’. The truth is that her last two years were the most creative.... Life ‘shrinks’, and we’ve got to accomplish a great deal during that final, short stage (38:02; translation modified).

Again, towards the end of the documentary – this time through a voiceover citation from Kantor’s 1988 text ‘The Real “I”’ – we hear that for Kantor, the ‘moment has finally arrived in my artistic life, which I begin to consider as a résumé [...] when one makes a self-examination’ (54:46).[5] Sapija’s film addresses this critical juncture in which Kantor was undertaking a pressing reappraisal of his life and art.

As Michal Kobialka writes, Kantor’s ‘self-examination’ involved him ‘turn[ing] his own individual life into a ready-made object’.[6] With I Shall Never Return, Kantor’s role within the performance thus changed accordingly; for the first time, he crossed the invisible line that had previously separated him from the world of the performance in past productions such as The Dead Class (1975), Wielopole, Wielopole (1980), and Let the Artists Die (1985). In doing so, he appeared among the characters of ‘Cricot’s ancient battles’, and other figures from his past – notably the mannequin of his father, Marian Kantor, and the title character of his wartime, underground production of The Return of Odysseus (1944). The returning figures acted out fragments from previous performances, within frames overlaid like photo negatives, while The Return of Odysseus ‘was shown not as the restaging of scenes from the 1944 production but as a collage of scenes played by the characters from Wielopole, Wielopole, Dainty Shapes and Hairy Apes, and The Dead Class’.[7] With I Shall Never Return, Kantor no longer controlled and determined the stage space from ‘outside’, projecting his memories there; rather, ‘the space of life and the space of art [...] coalesced’.[8]

Maria Stangret as the Rabbi from Wielopole, Wielopole (1980). Photograph: Maciej Sochor, courtesy of Cricoteka.

Maria Stangret as the Rabbi from Wielopole, Wielopole (1980). Photograph: Maciej Sochor, courtesy of Cricoteka.

Sapija’s documentary would appear to have been shaped considerably by Kantor’s own perspective at this point; he addresses the whole person, perhaps mindful of Kantor’s sentiment that ‘Everything I have done in art so far, has been the reflection of my attitude toward the events that surrounded me, toward the situation in which I have lived’ (50:02).[9] The influence of Kantor’s approach to I Shall Never Return seems apparent not only in the selection of materials but in the very form and structure of the film. Onscreen, we see various examples of Kantor working on scenes in which fragments of his life and creations are reconstructed and inter-imposed, including the two dancing Bishops from Where are the Snows of Yesteryear?, the Rabbi from Wielopole, Wielopole, and the Hasidim from The Water Hen, all making their return as ‘apparitions from the past’ (16:47). As we witness Kantor at work, his rehearsals already evoke something like a celluloid space; as he himself noted in 1988, the characters of this production ‘continuously repeat all their movements and activities as if they were recorded on a film negative shown interminably’.[10] In Sapija’s own montage this process is taken up and further extended to incorporate additional elements such as drawings and paintings, manuscripts, set reconstructions, emballages, designs, and photographs – often ‘reanimated’ by rapid shifts in camerawork, panning effects, and associative sequencing. He moves fluidly between all of these elements, layering them additionally with original interview footage (although it is only Kantor who is visible and is heard to speak, not his interlocutor), and with readings from Kantor’s texts. The filmmaker presents a ‘transparent narrative’, employing Kantor’s own words and works as a kind of meta-commentary to the creation of I Shall Never Return; this process of ‘giving voice’ to Kantor is also hinted at within the film’s subtitle (Notatki z prób) which suggests that these are written notes kept by Kantor himself. Sapija does not seek to examine historical and biographical details; rather he appears to ‘listen’ intently to his subject – who emerges as such through the numerous overlapping and intersecting ‘folds’ that are presented in the film. The result is a valuable document that weaves together a palimpsest of ‘poor fragments’ from a broad spectrum of Kantor’s life and work, and which establishes a subtle, self-reflexive space in its own right – echoing Kantor’s own treatment of ready-mades taken from his past. Indeed, we might even suggest that such a film about Kantor would only have been possible following the process that led to I Shall Never Return.

Lech and Wacław Janicki as the Dancing Bishops from Where Are the Snows of Yesteryear? (1979; photo from 1982). Photograph: Jacquie Bablet, courtesy of Cricoteka.

Lech and Wacław Janicki as the Dancing Bishops from Where Are the Snows of Yesteryear? (1979; photo from 1982). Photograph: Jacquie Bablet, courtesy of Cricoteka.

The main title of Sapija’s film refers in part to Kantor’s evocation of his Return of Odysseus within the production of I Shall Never Return; however, one of the underlying threads in the documentary is also the wider significance of the 1944 performance for Kantor’s whole oeuvre, and the continuities and developments within Kantor’s praxis that follow from this seminal work. As the title and range of materials included within it suggest, Sapija’s film is not solely focused on the rehearsal process for I Shall Never Return. Rather, Kantor’s approach to this production serves as a point of departure for a broader exploration of his artistic trajectory. Complex sequencing devices serve to cross-reference numerous elements derived from Kantor’s wartime writings and practice with his perspective in the 1980s; these elements are only rarely distinguished or referenced explicitly by Sapija – often they are simply interspersed, with few indications about the source, period, or the extent of the revisionism on Kantor’s part. For those unfamiliar with his work, it may be difficult to unpick the layering of direct citations or echoes from earlier phases of work from fragments pertaining to Kantor’s later remembering of his past or his ‘personal mythology’ (with regard to the latter, it is notable that increasingly through the 1970s and 1980s Kantor repeatedly traced the origins of key ideas within his later work to The Return of Odysseus, and that his notes on the production were in an almost permanent state of revision).[11] Sapija’s film supports a coexistence and convergence of these perspectives – according to what Kantor terms ‘my expanding past’, in which ‘[e]verything is intertwined – one could say: exists simultaneously’ (18:06).[12] Thus, archival manuscripts and photographs from the wartime Return of Odysseus are interspersed with text and re-worked sets and images from the 1980s (from 6:34).[13] Fragments of Kantor’s notes on reconstructing his childhood room in Wielopole, Wielopole are interspersed with footage of Kantor directing his actors on the piecing together of The Return of Odysseus for I Shall Never Return, and photographs of his childhood town of Wielopole Skrzyńskie (19:36-23:05). Sapija’s montage here creates a particular commentary on Kantor’s work with memory, but also constitutes a de facto reflection on the documentarist’s own methodology; as we hear the narrator reading the following words from Kantor’s notes, we also see numerous ‘small pieces’ of Kantor’s past being put together on film:

The room of my childhood is a dark hole full of junk. It is not true that a childhood room in our memory is always sunny and bright. It is a dead room as well as a room for the dead. Recalled by memories, it dies. If, however, we take small pieces out from it one by one – for example, a piece of carpet, a window, a street going nowhere, a ray of sunshine that hits the floor, [...] mother’s coat, [etc.] – maybe we will begin to put together a real room of our childhood (21:11).[14]

What is crucial here is the way in which such configurations suggest multiple and concurrent possibilities for reading Kantor’s (and Sapija’s) evocations of memory. There is no direct or historically sequential access to the ‘origins’ of the fragments that appear in the film; rather – like wreckage [wrak] – their ‘function is only recoverable in recollection’ (35:31).[15]

Tadeusz Brzozowski as Odysseus in The Return of Odysseus (1944), the Independent Theatre. Photograph: Zbigniew Brzozowski, courtesy of Cricoteka.

Tadeusz Brzozowski as Odysseus in The Return of Odysseus (1944), the Independent Theatre. Photograph: Zbigniew Brzozowski, courtesy of Cricoteka.

Significantly, each of the opening sections of footage from rehearsals for I Shall Never Return in the film is prefaced and/or accompanied by fragments that cite or echo The Return of Odysseus. Indeed, through the film we perceive this production emerging as a key reference point within Kantor’s acknowledged ‘self-examination’. A commentary compiled from Kantor’s reflections on Odysseus underlies a succession of images that evoke the wartime performance;[16] significantly, we hear an extract from Kantor’s director’s notes from 1944, set within the context of Kantor’s later reflections during the 1980s: ‘When I was working on the production of Stanisław Wyspiański’s play The Return of Odysseus at the Underground Theatre in 1944, I jotted down the following short sentence in my director’s book: “Odysseus must really return”. Ever since that day, I have remained faithful to the meaning of this sentence’ (6:50).[17] In situating the rehearsal footage from 1987-88, Sapija continues to quote Kantor at length on this subject: ‘It was not merely the war and Troy from which Odysseus returned. More importantly, he returned from “out of the grave”, from the realm of the dead, from the “other world” into the sphere of life, into the realm of the living; he appeared among us’ (7:27).[18] Here we have the prefiguration of the return of the dead in Kantor’s ‘Theatre of Death’ cycle, and indeed, we see various figures from this cycle in the film immediately after the citation, with Odysseus established as their ‘precedent and [...] prototype’[19] by the narrator/Kantor. However, with I Shall Never Return, Kantor has begun to thoroughly interrogate the ‘realness’ of this return,[20] and Odysseus is further established as the prototype for the breaking of the dichotomy between the imagined/remembered and real spaces within this production.[21]

Throughout Sapija’s documentary, as in Kantor’s performance, this distinction between fiction/memory and reality is constantly brought into question, and Kantor’s biography is viewed through the porous border between life and art that so occupied Kantor at the time of I Shall Never Return – as if ‘the people from the world of fiction enter my room’.[22] We are frequently reminded of Kantor’s personal implication within these multi-layered spaces. As a prelude to the returning figures in rehearsals for I Shall Never Return, we hear Kantor’s admission that ‘I gave them life, but they also gave me theirs’ (3:11),[23] and later, following further rehearsal footage of the Cricot 2 ‘veterans’ and actors playing Kantor’s family-members: ‘I began to believe that the figures from my works would appear in my life. That they shall return and might even remain with us for a while. I would meet them at the stairway, at the street corner’ (26:14).[24] Again, these reflections appear through the prism of a real return and a ‘LAST JUDGEMENT’ in Kantor’s work, and as an extension of Odysseus’ return.[25] The final stages of Sapija’s film take up this thread once more, with the question of Kantor’s ‘self-examination’ and his ‘faithfulness’ to the ideal initiated in The Return of Odysseus. Sapija poses a question by citing a text by Kantor contemporary with I Shall Never Return:

How was it really
with that reality?
Have I really done for it all that I could? [...]
When I wanted to be a child,
someone else was a child [...].
When I wanted to die,
someone else was dying for me.
He was playing the part of me dying. [...]
When with persistence, [with] longing, [...]
I kept returning to the memories
of my School Class,
it was not I, but the others (the actors)
who returned to the school desks –
returned, ‘performed’,
and ‘pretended’ (54:55).[26]

Sapija’s particular dramaturgy in the film reflects Kantor’s intention to do away with this dichotomous representation, and to ‘enter the stage [...] as a real “I”’. As Kobialka writes in his concluding remarks on the performance, ‘Maybe, now, the impassable barrier had finally disappeared. Nothing separated Kantor from his “ready-made objects”. Nothing separated Kantor from “their voices”. Nothing protected his consciousness from doubt’.[27] We could perhaps say the same of the figure that emerges from Sapija’s work, who is disseminated among his creations, his memories, who is subject to them, and who becomes indivisible from them.

The ‘Grand Emballage of the End of the Twentieth Century’ from I Shall Never Return (1988; photo from 1989). Photograph: Tommaso Le Pera, courtesy of Cricoteka.

The ‘Grand Emballage of the End of the Twentieth Century’ from I Shall Never Return (1988; photo from 1989). Photograph: Tommaso Le Pera, courtesy of Cricoteka.

Given that both I Shall Never Return and Sapija’s film evoke ‘unstable’, dispersed, elusive spaces[28] – ‘almost like metaphors, but unlike narratives, which pulsate, which appear and disappear’[29] – it is perhaps fitting that in ‘The Return of Odysseus’... both the documentarist and his subject leave us with nothing to hold on to, no firm conclusions, despite the sense of finality that increasingly pervades the last scenes of the film, and the references to Kantor’s imminent death.[30] The documentary ends by recalling its opening sequence, with the camera ‘peering’ through a window into a school room and a mannequin-boy at a desk, before once more panning along the similar figure of Kantor’s grave (from 56:00). These images – along with the mass-grave ‘Grand Emballage of the End of the Twentieth Century’ from I Shall Never Return – are followed by a kind of ‘epilogue’ comprised of a short excerpt from an interview with Kantor, conducted especially for the film. Unlike some previous interview fragments, this time we hear no prepared statements or assured commentary. Rather, Sapija chooses to leave us – or perhaps he himself is left[31] – with a brief scene in which Kantor attempts, without success, to recall the ‘most important thing... my great discovery... [...] I had it on the tip of my tongue, but it’s gone now’.

Translated from Polish by Duncan Jamieson, Adela Karsznia, and Paul Vickers.


  1. ^ Translations of fragments from the film have been modified according to the published English-language versions of Kantor’s texts where appropriate, and thus may differ slightly from the subtitles included on the DVD. Timings from the DVD edition of the film are given in brackets throughout the article for ease of reference. Eds.
  2. ^ Tadeusz Kantor, ‘To Save from Oblivion (March 1988)’; this piece was included in the programme to I Shall Never Return. See Kobialka, Further on, Nothing... Tadeusz Kantor’s Theatre (Minneapolis and London: University of Minnesota Press, 2009), pp. 389-393 (p. 393); all translations of Kantor’s texts in the book were made by Kobialka.
  3. ^ See Kantor, ‘To Save from Oblivion’, p. 389.
  4. ^ Tadeusz Kantor, ‘New Theatrical Space. Where Fiction Appears (1980)’, in Further On, Nothing, pp. 336-349 (p. 337).
  5. ^ Kantor, ‘The Real “I” (April 1988)’, in Further on, Nothing..., pp. 394-98 (p. 395).
  6. ^ Kobialka, Further On, Nothing..., p. 315.
  7. ^ See Kobialka, Further On, Nothing..., pp. 321-322. For comprehensive descriptions of the performance of I Shall Never Return, along with details of the returning characters, see Further On, Nothing..., pp. 312-326, and Krzysztof Pleśniarowicz, The Dead Memory Machine: Tadeusz Kantor’s Theatre of Death, trans. by William Brand (Aberystwyth: Black Mountain Press, 2004), pp. 259-269.
  8. ^ Kobialka, Further On, Nothing..., p. 324.
  9. ^ Kantor, ‘The Real “I”’, p. 394.
  10. ^ Kantor, ‘Memory (1988)’, in Further On, Nothing..., pp. 411-414 (p. 412).
  11. ^ See, for example, Kantor’s texts in the section ‘Theatrical Place’, in Further On, Nothing..., pp. 329-367, passim.
  12. ^ Kantor, ‘The So-Called Development in Art and Chronology’, in Further On, Nothing..., pp. 360-367 (p. 360).
  13. ^ In this sequence, the camera reveals numerous fragments pertaining to The Return of Odysseus: there are three pages of manuscripts, footage of a room containing a gun barrel, photographs of Tadeusz Brzozowski (Odysseus) sitting with his back towards the gun, and shots of Odysseus’ room. Other than two of the manuscripts, none of these documents derive from the original production. The first image features a contemporary reconstruction of the stage design by Kantor, the shot of Odysseus has also been subject to adjustments by Kantor and Sapija, while the room was designed by Kantor especially for the film and constructed in the Łódź Film School workshop in 1988. The accompanying text on The Return of Odysseus is from 1980.
  14. ^ See Kantor, Wielopole, Wielopole, ed. by G. M. Hyde, trans. by Mariusz Tchorek (London: Marion Boyars, 1990), pp. 34 and 32; edits by Sapija.
  15. ^ Kantor, cited in George Hyde, ‘Poland (Dead Souls Under Western Eyes)’ in European Theatre 1960-1990: Cross-cultural perspectives, ed. by Ralph Yarrow (London and New York: Routledge, 1992), pp. 182-219 (p. 195).
  16. ^ These include the motto from Stanisław Wyspiański that Kantor used for the performance (delivered twice by Kantor: once on a recording projected during rehearsals for I Shall Never Return, and once rephrased during an interview for the film – from 4:24), and transitions between the German military loudspeaker suspended above the stage during The Return of Odysseus and the speaker used in I Shall Never Return (4:10 and 8:00). In 1944, the speaker was a real object that had been used to deliver public propaganda announcements by the occupying forces, and which delivered the war announcement in the performance. In the footage of rehearsals for I Shall Never Return, we hear instead Kantor’s own, recorded voice emanating from the speaker. See note 13 for further evocations of The Return of Odysseus during this opening section of the film.
  17. ^ Kantor, ‘The Infamous Transition from the World of the Dead into the World of the Living: Fiction and Reality (1980)’, in Further On, Nothing..., pp. 349-367 (p. 349). The original fragment from Kantor’s wartime director’s notes appeared with added emphasis: ‘Odysseus must REALLY return’. See ‘The Return of Odysseus III’, in Further On, Nothing..., p. 101.
  18. ^ ‘The Infamous Transition...’, p. 350.
  19. ^ Ibid.
  20. ^ As Kantor puts it, in this regard ‘I began to be a harsh judge of myself’. ‘The Real “I”’, p. 395.
  21. ^ As Kantor instructs his actors to recall fragments of their old lines and roles in rehearsals, we hear voiceover excerpts directly evoking Kantor’s theoretical writings from the wartime period, regarding the need ‘to create such atmosphere and such conditions so that the illusory reality which is placed in them, becomes something that can be believed in; something real and concrete. So that Odysseus, returning to his Ithaca, does not appear in the domain of illusion, but in the dimension of our reality’ (10:40). See Kantor, ‘The Last Stage of Odysseus’s Journey: Theatre. 1944’, in Further On, Nothing..., p. 334. The above quotation directly echoes Kantor’s short wartime text ‘Concreteness’, in which he states: ‘I want to create such atmosphere and circumstances which will make the illusory dramatic reality positioned in it believable and concrete. I do not want my Odysseus to move around within an illusionary dimension but within and without our reality...’ See Further On, Nothing..., p. 96.
  22. ^ Kantor discussing I Shall Never Return, in ‘A Painting (1990)’, in Further On, Nothing..., pp. 490-496 (p. 494).
  23. ^ Kantor, ‘Program notes to I Shall Never Return’, cited in Kantor, A Journey Through Other Spaces: Essays and Manifestos, 1944-1990, ed. and trans., and with a critical study by Michal Kobialka (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1993), p. 353.
  24. ^ This fragment, probably written in the 1980s, nonetheless evokes Kantor’s wartime reflections on Odysseus: ‘Odysseus’ image has gradually changed. It became more and more vivid. I was waiting for him. This feverish condition had nothing to do with a dream; it was real. Odysseus would appear to me more and more often; however, I noticed that he would stop at the threshold of my tiny room. I would see him disappear around the corner, or in a dark lobby, where, with his back to me, he would pretend to be extremely preoccupied with something, even though I felt that he knew perfectly well that I was looking for him... at the station, where I would see him get off the train and then quickly disappear into the crowd.... These half-dreams, half-mystifications, convinced me that Odysseus refused categorically to be only an image. I had to think about it. In times of madness created by men, in times of war, death and its frightening troupes, which refused to be shackled by Reason and Human Senses, burst into and merged with the sphere of life’. Kantor, ‘Odysseus 1944’, cited in Kobialka, Further On, Nothing..., pp. 40-41. A re-elaboration of this passage was also undertaken in Kantor’s later reflections on I Shall Never Return, from 1990 – extended from Odysseus to the other figures from the production: ‘The people from the world of fiction enter my room. I would meet them at the stairway, at the street corner; they do not differ from us, but they behave in a strange way; they avoid me; they pretend that they are preoccupied with something; they run away. Fiction penetrates my real life’. Kantor, ‘A Painting’, p. 494.
  25. ^ Kantor, ‘Program Notes to I Shall Never Return’, in A Journey Through Other Spaces, p. 354.
  26. ^ Kantor, ‘The Real “I”’, pp. 395-96; edits by Sapija.
  27. ^ Kobialka, Further On, Nothing..., p. 326.
  28. ^ See ibid., p. 324.
  29. ^ Kantor, ‘Memory (1988)’, p. 414.
  30. ^ For example, we hear Kantor’s words: ‘I understand this last journey in my life as well as in my art as a neverending journey beyond time and beyond all rules...’ – here the camera suddenly cuts again to the cemetery, panning forwards along Kantor’s grave – ‘I felt it was a fulfillment of my unrelenting thought of returning to the time of youth, the time of “boyhood”. [...] There was my home. The real one. I shall be dying, but, I will not admit that I am old’. Kantor, ‘The Real “I”’, p. 396; edits by Sapija.
  31. ^ As Sapija states of this fragment of the film: ‘All your intentions as a filmmaker are left in pieces, like in [...] the closing scene of [the documentary] ‘The Return of Odysseus...’, when [Kantor] forgets what he wanted to say, what was apparently “the most important thing”…’. See the interview with Sapija, Documenting Kantor’ elsewhere in this volume (pp. 329-334 of the print edition; citation on p. 331).

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