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Kantor's Waxworks: Anti-theatricalism and the personnel of the theatre


Tadeusz Kantor Cricot 2 Bauhaus avant-garde modernism objects object-actor mannequins waxworks Theatre of Death Edward Gordon Craig Heinrich von Kleist Eleonora Duse Oskar Schlemmer The Return of Odysseus Dainty Shapes and Hairy Apes The Dead Class Wielopole, Wielopole I Shall Never Return


Andrew Bielski is a doctoral candidate in the Department of Performing and Media Arts at Cornell University, and an HSS Chateaubriand Fellow (2014-2015). His research examines points of contact between theatre, postwar French philosophy, and psychoanalysis, and his writing has appeared in (a) the journal of culture and the unconscious and Incertains regards: cahiers dramaturgiques, among other publications. His thesis examines the theatre of French militant philosopher Alain Badiou, whose Éloge du théâtre he is translating for Polity Press. In addition to his research activity, Bielski is a stage director and dramatist. He was the Founding Artistic Director of the Egress Theatre Co. in New York City (2002-2008), where he adapted and staged works by Jean Genet, Franz Kafka, Nikolai Gogol, and Gérard de Nerval.

— Tadeusz Kantor[1]

Passion for the Real

In their introduction to Against Theatre: Creative Destruction on the Modernist Stage, editors Alan L. Ackerman and Martin Puchner employ the expression ‘creative destruction’ in order to describe a classic trope of modernism: that of the positive force of a modernist theatre turned against itself, a theatre that critiques and even seeks to destroy itself.[2] The creative aspect of this anti-theatrical destruction is witnessed by the fact that its procedure of internal critique – in spite of, or perhaps as a result of its sometimes violent manifestations – has given rise to some of the most compelling innovations in the history of theatrical theory and practice.

Tadeusz Kantor’s early creative output represented an energetic engagement with the aesthetic discourses and artistic practices of modernism.[3] While the historic avant-gardes offered important models for his own anti-theatrical investigations, the brutality of the Second World War compelled Kantor to reposition his work in relation to these models in important ways.[4] Through this repositioning, Kantor widened the scope of his project, taking as its object not only the tenets of the ‘conventional’ stage, but the limits demarcated by that theatre’s critique within the discourse of his modernist predecessors.

The topoi of modernist anti-theatricalism thus provide a set of coordinates for observing the originality and force of Kantor’s exploration of the mediality of the theatre. This observation is borne out with particular clarity in Kantor’s interrogation of two tropes of modernist anti-theatre: the rhetorical opposition of human performer and anthropomorphized object, and the figure of the modernist visionary, theorized and theatricalized as puppet-master.

A critique of personalized mimesis emerged as one of the features of modernist anti-theatricalism, and was the driving force behind many of the most significant theatrical reforms of the twentieth century. As the innovations of modernism gathered steam, the resistance of the body of the human performer to its programs of abstraction and defamiliarization became increasingly pronounced, contributing to a profound ambivalence around the figure of the stage actor.[5] Among the solutions advanced for dealing with the intractable body of the human performer, perhaps the most notorious was Edward Gordon Craig’s call for its replacement with an anthropomorphized object, developing the ideas of Heinrich von Kleist. Kleist extolled the marionette’s freedom from affectation and its defiance of the laws of gravity, while Craig saw in its docility an answer to the stage actor’s emotional caprice.[6] For both, the apparently limitless faculties of the anthropomorphized object announced the obsolescence of the human performer.

It is no accident that the appearance of the anthropomorphized object on the modernist stage should coincide with a concentration of creative authority in the figure of the autonomous theatrical visionary. Craig’s über-marionette was simply the most arresting feature of a wide-ranging program of consolidation of creative power in the figure of the stage director, situated, as it were, at the other end of the marionette’s strings. In a comparable instance of the simultaneous emergence of the theatrical auteur and his anthropomorphized subordinates, Antonin Artaud’s Theatre of Cruelty modeled its actors after the marionette-like movements Artaud saw in the performers of the Balinese theatre, while condensing the figures of the dramatist and director into ‘a kind of unique Creator’.[7] This double movement is further reflected in works such as Arthur Schnitzler’s Der Puppenspieler and Jacinto Grau’s El Señor de Pigmalión, which number among the many treatments of the marionette and puppet-master motifs in modernist drama.[8]

The appearance of the wax figure among the ranks of Kantor’s anti-mimetic arsenal represented the crowning achievement of a program designed by Kantor to contest violently the representational authority of the human performer. His doubling of the actors in his Cricot 2 ensemble with uncannily precise, life-size mannequins – the products of a radical reimagining of stage objects – is particularly illustrative of the way Kantor’s theatre problematized the discourse of his anti-theatricalist predecessors. Rather than jettisoning the body of the human performer in favor of the anthropomorphized object, Kantor bound the two in an agonistics that continually re-submitted both personalized mimesis and the under-examined expressivity of stage objects to a performed critique.

Kantor’s interrogation of the personnel of the theatre did not stop at the figure of the stage actor, however. It is well-known that Kantor appeared onstage in many of his productions, surveying, conducting and correcting the action from the periphery of the playing space. In the autobiographical I Shall Never Return (1988), the threshold separating the diegetic and extradiegetic worlds of Kantor’s stage was disrupted further when he abandoned this position, appearing for the first time as a character in one of his own works: in the role of Tadeusz Kantor. Just as he had arranged for the actors of the Cricot 2, Kantor shadowed his appearance onstage with that of a wax-figure double. By applying to his own person the procedure of anti-mimetic doubling developed for his actors, Kantor likewise submitted to interrogation the legitimating authority of the modernist auteur’s genius. Through the explosive critique that characterized his theoretical thought and theatrical practice, Kantor pushed the notion of ‘creative destruction’ to its limits, sparing nothing; not even Kantor himself.

The Über-Marionette and the Object-Actor

Craig’s expulsion of the actor from the stage has in many ways come to emblematize the modernist assault upon a vulgar and outmoded theatrical mimesis. Given its violent rhetoric, it is significant that the eponymous characters of Craig’s ‘The Actor and the Über-Marionette’ never actually confront one another in the essay. Its epigraph – which invokes Eleonora Duse’s call for the eradication of all actors by plague – would appear to promise a grisly showdown in the course of which a blathering Romeo is eviscerated by a serene über-marionette, thus freeing the theatre once and for all from its detrimental reliance upon organic material. Yet at no point during its coup does the inanimate usurper actually encounter the human performer it supplants. Craig simply demands that the actor go, and that the über-marionette take her place.[9] Through its prerequisite dismissal of the privileged repository of theatrical mimesis, this sequence of discrete exit and entrance precludes the possibility of an ‘embodied’ critique of mimetism upon Craig’s figurative stage. This omission is underscored ironically by the fact that, despite the seemingly boundless faculties it introduces, the anthropomorphized über-marionette cannot help but recall its referent; while the new ‘super performer’ conducts its death-defying leaps, the human actor remains an obscure, yet perceptible offstage body.

Oskar Schlemmer was one of the first theatre theorists to have wondered at the avenues left unexplored by the ‘paradoxical exclusiveness’ of Craig’s charge, from which he explicitly distinguished the investigations of the Bauhaus Stage Studio.[10] For Schlemmer, more compelling possibilities for reimagining the actor were suggested by the productive co-presence of the human body and inanimate object onstage, each of which would ‘experience, through this confrontation, an intensification of their peculiar natures’.[11] By exploiting the productive tension at play between the performer and the instruments of their modification, Schlemmer’s vision for the actor of the ‘new theater of glass, metal, and the inventions of tomorrow’ challenged both ‘conventional’ approaches to the theatrical body and its exclusion from Craig’s stage (see Figure 1).[12]

Figure 1: Experiments in the Bauhaus Stage Studio (Walter Kaminsky, Werner Siedhoff, and Oskar Schlemmer). Photograph: Erich Consemüller.

Figure 1: Experiments in the Bauhaus Stage Studio (Walter Kaminsky, Werner Siedhoff, and Oskar Schlemmer). Photograph: Erich Consemüller.

Kantor echoed Schlemmer’s doubts with respect to the über-marionette, writing, ‘I do not believe that a MANNEQUIN (or a WAX FIGURE) could replace a LIVE ACTOR, as Kleist and Craig wanted. This would be too simple and too naïve’.[13] At the heart of Kantor’s ambivalence concerning the performer, a revulsion before the ‘imitation, wheedling, coquetry, and psychological exhibitionism’ of personalized mimesis contended with a deep preoccupation with the ineffable appearance of the human body in stage space.[14] For Kantor, recuperating the primeval shock of the performer’s appearance before the spectator would require a theatrical apparatus capable of frustrating the former’s tendency towards the ‘exulted mannerism’ of ‘so-called acting’.[15] Inspired by the work of the Bauhaus Stage Studio, Kantor began a systematic exploration of the productive tension between the human performer and inanimate object in his theatre, a tension he provided for theoretically in the figure of the Object-Actor.

Kantor’s manifestos are littered with object formulations, among them the Abstract Object, the Artistic Object, the Real Object, and the Poor Object. The Object-Actor arose from a series of negotiations between these terms. The Nazi occupation of Poland and its attendant ban on artistic activity lead Kantor to abandon his early exploration of the Abstract and Artistic Objects and turn to what he called the Real Object. Reflecting upon the clandestine production in 1944 of Stanisław Witkiewicz’s The Return of Odysseus, staged in an abandoned flat in occupied Kraków, Kantor expressed an urgent need to discover a theatrical reality concrete enough to respond to the brutality of the war:

Abstraction, which existed in Poland until the outbreak of World War II, disappeared in the period of mass genocide… Bestiality, brought to the fore by this war, was too alien to this pure idea….
Realness was stronger.
The anger of a human being trapped by other human beings cursed
A  R  T  .  We had the strength only to grab the nearest thing,
and to call it a work of art![16]

While the distinction between Abstract and Real Objects was an important one for Kantor, he was nevertheless sensitive to the possibility of cheapening the political import of his Real Object by elevating it to the status of an aestheticized art object; a fate similar, in Kantor’s estimation, to that which later befell Marcel Duchamp’s ready-mades. In an effort to describe an alternative trajectory for the Real Object, Kantor added poverty to its defining characteristics. The objects found in, or brought into, the performance space for The Return of Odysseus – a gun barrel, an old ladder, an abandoned loudspeaker – existed ‘on the margin of the life’s practice’, ‘at the threshold […] between eternity and garbage’.[17] In this impoverished state, these objects could disclose their hidden objectness or ‘essence’, without recourse to the ‘false-pretense’ of theatrical illusionism.[18] This negotiation of object formulations underpinned Kantor’s developing strategy of Annexed Reality, through which the Poor, Real Objects of The Return of Odysseus would evolve into Object-Actors.[19]

A reflection of Kantor’s emergent anti-dramatism, Annexed Reality denied the authorizing aspect of a dramatic logos that was removed from the concrete reality of the stage, but to which the organization of bodies and objects in stage space was nonetheless beholden. For Kantor, theatrical representation had been debased through its association with an order that had given rise to genocide.[20] In Annexed Reality, an object was situated in stage space with the intention of momentarily disassociating it from the ‘life function’ assigned to it by this order.[21] No longer dependent upon the legitimation of a corrupted set of conventions, the object had only ‘to justify its being to itself’, a procedure through which it would ‘reveal […] its own existence’.[22] When the object was finally assigned a function by a human act in performance, this act would be seen ‘as if happening for the first time since the moment of creation’.[23]

These were the terms in which Kantor described his first Object-Actor, the chair upon which Penelope sat in The Return of Odysseus. Here, a mundane gesture – sitting – was transformed into a powerful act of inauguration in which ‘the object ceased to be a prop, used by the actor in his act. Simply [the object] WAS, EXISTED – on an equal footing with the actor. [The object] WAS THE ACTOR! The Object-Actor’.[24] This first instance of the Object-Actor marked the object in Kantor’s theatre as concrete, non-illusionistic matter for stage space; as significant to its proceedings and as endowed with expressive agency as the human actor. It is important to emphasize, however, that the expressivity of the object in the Object-Actor configuration remained dependent upon the activity of a human performer. In this relation, each of the Object-Actor’s constituent terms activated the expressive properties of the other. An early example of the expressive reciprocity of the Object-Actor can be found in the bizarre assemblages of Dainty Shapes and Hairy Apes (1973), whose anthropomorphized prostheses anticipated the anti-mimetic waxworks of Kantor’s Theatre of Death.

Among the ‘unusual case[s] of absurd anatomy’ introduced in Dainty Shapes and Hairy Apes, there appeared a figure with bicycle wheels protruding from his calves.[25] Kantor called the special bicycle wheel boots worn by the actor The Millionaire’s Shoes (see Fig. 2). Zipping about the performance space, the figure of the Millionaire was:

completely separated from
reality of a different  k i n d
and enclosed in
an inhuman,
but at least for him natural,
feeling for  s p e e d
and  m o t i o n...[26]
Figure 2: Scene from Dainty Shapes and Hairy Apes. In the foreground: the Millionaire’s Shoes (left) and the Man With Two Heads (right). Courtesy of the Cricoteka Archives.

Figure 2: Scene from Dainty Shapes and Hairy Apes. In the foreground: the Millionaire’s Shoes (left) and the Man With Two Heads (right). Courtesy of the Cricoteka Archives.

Alongside such mechanized figures, the production introduced a group of more explicitly anthropomorphized assemblages. A man with an additional set of legs (see Fig. 3, below) unfolded:

in front of the dumbfounded crowd
the whole spectrum
of completely new and unknown
benefits, advantages, privileges, and possibilities of
nature’s whimsical generosity...[27]

In a similar case of absurd anatomy, the production featured a man with an additional head between his legs, like a royal in a deck of playing cards. This figure (see Fig. 2), Kantor wrote, was:

constantly trying to resolve for himself
two ‘impossible’ consequences of
nature’s excess:
two consciousnesses,
two systems of
response and
two apparatuses controlling
one body.[28]

Figure 3: Scene from Dainty Shapes and Hairy Apes. An ‘unusual case of absurd anatomy’. Photograph: Jacek Szmuc, courtesy of the Cricoteka Archives.

Both the mechanized and organic assemblages of Dainty Shapes and Hairy Apes endowed the human performer with some enhancement, whether a double consciousness, proliferating limbs, or speed. In doing so, these cases of absurd anatomy contested the actor’s capacity to ‘perform’, by calling attention to the set of inadequacies that their enhancements were designed to overcome. Additionally, these Object-Actor configurations challenged the typical locomotion of the performer, forcing the actor to abandon conventional representational tricks in order to negotiate a new set of appendages. The performers in these Object-Actor arrangements nevertheless served the important function of animating their prostheses, disclosing the innate expressivity of the objects to which they were fused by activating their spectacular properties onstage. Of this relationship, Kantor wrote, ‘[w]ithout the actors, [the] object was a hollow façade, unable to perform any action. │ On the other hand, the actors were conditioned by it; their functions and activities were generated by it’.[29] The significance of these early Object-Actors for Kantor’s anti-mimetic arsenal was strikingly illustrated by the eruption of their prostheses into the autonomous wax figures of The Dead Class (1975) and Wielopole, Wielopole (1980).

The Doubling of the Cricot 2 Ensemble

Kantor rejected the idea of Craig’s über-marionette at the very moment that his own stage began to teem with anthropomorphized objects. Of the role of the wax figure in his Theatre of Death, Kantor wrote, ‘[i]ts appearance complies with my ever-deepening conviction that it is possible to express life in art only through the absence of life, through an appeal to DEATH, through APPEARANCES, through EMPTINESS and the lack of a message’.[30] In this phase, the discourse on the recuperation of the human body’s primeval force became intertwined with the notion of the death of the actor as representational material. If the earliest objects in the Object-Actor assemblage conditioned and inhibited the actor’s movements, the Theatre of Death made explicit the role of the object as an instructor for the human performer. The wax figure, Kantor wrote, was to ‘become a MODEL through which pass[es] a strong sense of DEATH and the conditions of the DEAD. A model for the live actor’.[31] The production with which the tutelage of the human performer by the anthropomorphized object began in earnest was the appropriately titled The Dead Class.

Inspired by texts by Stanisław Witkiewicz, Witold Gombrowicz, and Bruno Schulz, Kantor’s The Dead Class presented a group of elderly, infirm characters, forced to return to their childhood classroom in order to revisit the lessons of their youth. Throughout the production, each of these characters was eerily shadowed by the wax figure of a child. In the evolution of the anthropomorphized object in Kantor’s theatre, the fully formed children of The Dead Class can be seen as having clambered out of the bodies of the Cricot 2 ensemble members, from which they had protruded as miraculous prostheses in Dainty Shapes and Hairy Apes. No longer simply contributing to a proliferation of limbs, however, the children of The Dead Class were distinguished from their predecessors by a newly found autonomy; though much of the time clinging to the actors’ bodies, the production included sequences during which the mannequins strikingly filled the seats of the dead classroom in the absence of their human hosts. Such moments introduced a macabre dramatic irony into Kantor’s waxworks. The exits of the human ensemble, leaving the mannequins alone onstage, evoked the moment a child exits their playroom under the fantastical logic that promises her toys will come to life in their absence, filling the space with activity, only to fall inert in their proper places the moment they return. But rather than a lively display of anthropomorphic agency, what transpired before the spectator of The Dead Class in the absence of the Cricot 2 ensemble was an unsettling performance of uncannily ‘human’ stage matter that was ‘empty, deprived of expression, connections, references, characteristics of programmed communication, its “message”; directed “nowhere”’.[32] A stage temporarily emptied of its organic contents in this way established the children of the dead class as a kind of rival ensemble, conspiratorially disclosing before the spectator the representational emptiness in which it would implicate the human actors upon their return. 

Kantor described the wax figures of The Dead Class as ‘looking like dead bodies or TUMOURS of [the actors’] CHILDHOOD’.[33] Oddly evocative of Duse’s call for a plague upon stage actors, this comparison between the children and malignant growths can help to shed some light upon the sequences during which the diminutive figures appeared fused to the actors of the Cricot 2 ensemble. Dangling from their necks and shoulders, clinging to their waists, the wax figures of The Dead Class inhibited the movement of the human performers in a manner similar to that of the Dainty Shapes and Hairy Apes assemblages (Fig. 4, below). Rather than compensating by endowing their human hosts with new and extraordinary faculties, however, these growths worked to stultify the performers’ gestures and speech, sapping them of their theatrical vitality.


Figure 4: The pupils of The Dead Class, supervised by the wax-figure Beadle (seated) and Tadeusz Kantor (standing). Photograph: Jan Dalman, courtesy of the Cricoteka Archives.

By thus referring the modernist anti-theatre’s autonomous anthropomorphized object to the notion of productive tension between organic and inorganic materials, Kantor’s Dead Class staged the confrontation precluded by Craig’s exclusionary charge seventy years earlier. Though Kantor intended the production’s wax figures to recall the youthful image of each of the Cricot 2 ensemble members, such an association was not immediately intelligible from the spectator’s perspective, as a result of the differences in age and appearance between the ensembles. One exception – the ‘adult’ double of the actor playing the Beadle in the production – suggested the final and most compelling manifestation of the Object-Actor in Kantor’s theatre (Fig. 4). Just as the appendages of Dainty Shapes, Hairy Apes announced the children of The Dead Class, the wax figure of the Beadle, silently supervising the pupils from the side of the stage, anticipated the introduction in Wielopole, Wielopole of life-size, uncannily precise doubles of the Cricot 2 actors.

Wielopole, Wielopole (1980) followed the various ends met by members of Kantor’s family during the Great War. Through a series of repetitions of scenes and sequences, the spectator witnessed the marriage of Kantor’s parents, the multiple murders and crucifixion of the Priest (Kantor’s uncle Józef), and the rape of Helka (his mother). These recollections were punctuated by the periodic entrance of a platoon of Polish soldiers, bringing with them, in comic chorus fashion, the horrors of the battlefield.

This production developed the curriculum of the dead classroom by staging a stark confrontation between particular performers of the Cricot 2 ensemble and scrupulously sculpted wax-figure doubles, corresponding in age and appearance. While these doubles would occasionally replace the human actors onstage when one of their characters was crucified or raped, more often the wax figures were simply placed beside the performers, silently shadowing them in effigy (Fig. 5). The operation of this final evolution of the anthropomorphized object in Kantor’s theatre is forcefully captured in the production’s treatment of the conviction and multiple deaths of the Priest.


Figure 5: The Priest in Wielopole, Wielopole. Photograph: Maciej Sochor, courtesy of the Cricoteka Archives.

In the sequence, the Priest was seized by Kantor’s Uncles Karol and Olek and dragged to the center of the stage. There, the Uncles raised wooden Holy Week rattles and fired an ear-shattering salvo of ‘shots’ into the Priest’s body, which slumped to the ground. Not sufficiently satisfied, however, the Uncles lifted the Priest to his feet, summoning the platoon of soldiers.[34] Marching in single file, one-by-one the troops buried their bayonets in the Priest’s body, which once again crumbled to the stage floor.

The significance of this simple and disturbing sequence for Kantor’s anti-mimetic Theatre of Death can be understood by examining the staging of the trial and conviction that preceded the Priest’s executions. When the Uncles entered to apprehend the Priest, he was seated quietly onstage, immediately beside his mannequin double. Even before the pair’s discovery by the Uncles, there is an important sense in which what had been transpiring between the actor playing the Priest, his effigy, and the spectator was – like the static sitting of the dead class – profoundly active. In this apparently inconsequential arrangement, both performer and spectator were confronted with the dead image of the human actor’s own reproducibility. In the vertigo of a protracted double-take, reinforced by the observation of the actor’s apparent awareness of his own doubling, the spectator of Wielopole, Wielopole was implicated in the workings of a theatrical machine that derailed the functioning of personalized mimesis by continually re-submitting its procedures for his or her scrutiny.

Having discovered the Priest and his double, the Uncles – played, significantly, by the Cricot 2 ensemble’s identical twins – had first to determine which of the two was the guilty party. Of their sudden function as judges, Kantor wrote that the Uncles ‘serve a writ on DUPLICATION, the duplication of the original created by God and nature. […] The one who is found alive will be pronounced guilty’.[35] In the ensuing sequence, one of the twins knelt down and raised the wax-figure Priest’s leg. The cunning human actor mirrored this movement, simultaneously raising his own. After deliberating with his twin for a moment, the same Uncle placed his hands on either side of the mannequin’s head, slowly rotating it to the right. Once again, the actor cleverly doubled the movement. Then, as a test, the Uncle suddenly snapped the dummy’s head back into place. The actor playing the Priest yet again mirrored the movement. After conferring for a moment, the Uncles arrived at a new strategy. Creeping up behind the wax figure, one of them suddenly removed its cap. When the human actor’s cap remained in its place, the conviction was clear. In the production’s stage directions, Kantor wrote, ‘So the other [the wax figure] is the LIVING ORIGINAL… Thus the LIVE ONE [the human actor] is guilty. […] The two idiots [the Uncles] appear to be a tool of some higher power or faculty. The two are unable to comprehend the GUILT of creating a sacrilegious verisimilitude in MAN’s image. […] The two Uncles, turning from judges into EXECUTIONERS, grab the Priest’.[36]

The conviction sequence in Wielopole, Wielopole exemplified the stakes of Kantor’s general strategy of doubling by effigy. By the grotesque logic of the Theatre of Death, priority was granted the inanimate double of the actor playing the Priest – which had done nothing but persist in its ‘originary’ objectness – whereas the judgement came down upon the living actor, who as a consequence of his ‘liveness’ was maintained in the guilt of a blasphemous mimetism. What distinguished this inversion from Craig’s fantasy of the über-marionette was precisely the fact of its realization on stage. At the heart of the ‘creative destruction’ at play in Kantor’s waxworks was its refusal to ‘resolve’ the deadlock arising from the obstinate mimetism of the human performer by his or her ejection. On the contrary, Kantor’s interrogation of the figure of the stage actor proceeded by staging this very impasse, by binding the organic and inorganic elements of his mise-en-scène in a performed agonistics whose aim was to continually derail, and, consequently, to expose, the workings of personalized mimesis. The Theatre of Death refused to allow the spectator or actor to lose sight for even a moment of the fact that, the conventions of the illusionistic theatre notwithstanding, the latter was no more endowed with expressive agency than any other object in stage space. Rather, in Kantor’s theatre they were all of them figured as ‘dead’ stage matter. Kantor wrote, ‘The Doubles – Reduplicated beings. An ambiguous hierarchy: Dummies which are almost alive and Actors who are alive only in retrospect. The audience alone are truly living’.[37] Having established the wax-figure effigy as a crucial element of his stagecraft, Kantor advanced his critique of the personnel of the theatre in an entirely unexpected direction by proceeding to turn its anti-mimetic operations against his own person in I Shall Never Return (1988).

Conclusion: Doubling Kantor

In Timothy Murray’s discussion of the optics of Cardinal Richelieu’s private Salle de la Comédie in Theatrical Legitimation, the author refers to the theatre’s two stages: the actual playing space of the court auditorium, and the échafaud (scaffold)situated in the center of the hall, where Richelieu and his most prized guests sat in an allegorical arrangement of the ‘spectacle of sovereign genius’.[38] Occupying the only position of perfect perspective vis-à-vis the stage, Richelieu dominated the optics of the theatre in an arrangement whereby the spectator’s attention was ‘directed away from the stage toward the one point in the playhouse from which perspective achieved its greatest effect’.[39] This procedure of identification thus engaged the spectator in the work of legitimating Richelieu’s sovereignty, and the particular genius of his patronage.

There is a striking resonance between the arrangement of the Salle de la Comédie and that of Tadeusz Kantor’s theatre, in which Kantor himself was a constant and prominent presence, sitting or standing to the side of the stage, adjusting set pieces and properties in the midst of performances, nodding disapprovingly if some bit of action went awry, and filling the space with the clouds of conductor’s gestures for which he became famous. Rosette Lamont was one of many critics to compare Kantor to ‘a master puppeteer pulling invisible strings, arranging and rearranging props, regulating the flow of action and the intensity of the musical accompaniment’.[40] For I Shall Never Return Kantor abandoned his position of auto-legitimation at the side of the stage, entering the action as a member of the Cricot 2 performance ensemble for the first time. Just as he had with the actors in Wielopole, Wielopole, Kantor doubled his own entrance with that of an identical wax figure.

In I Shall Never Return, a wedding in an old tavern provided the occasion for a reunion of characters and Object-Actors from Kantor’s earlier productions. Awaiting the arrival of a special guest, these figures filled the stage, re-performing the gestures and sequences of their previous stage lives. Suddenly, Kantor entered accompanied by a bride: a human actor whose rigid and jerky movements, evocative of the platoon in Wielopole, Wielopole, resembled those of an automaton. A flurry of activity animated the stage as the actors recognized Kantor. He and the bride took a seat at one of the tavern tables. From a loudspeaker suspended above the stage, Kantor’s disembodied voice was heard: ‘Dear Actors, Colleagues…’, the recording began, ‘Yes, in order to create something, create this world in which you will soundly rise to applause, I have to fall down – and – I am falling. Our paths are reversed. […] I have virtually nothing else to say. […] Stay with me at the bottom for a while’.[41] These comments inspired what appeared to be an insurrection among the figures from the earlier productions, as some mourned Kantor’s loss, while others offered only derisive comments celebrating his demise. At one point, a machine gun-camera used in Wielopole, Wielopole was wheeled onstage and fired at Kantor, who, unfazed, dismissed the attempt on his life with a wave of his hand. In a subsequent scene, it became clear that Kantor was to be the groom. Once again taking a seat at one of the tavern tables, Kantor lit a cigarette as a door opened at the rear of the stage and a pedestal bearing the ‘automaton’ bride and a wax figure of Kantor himself was rolled into the playing space. The spectators and actors of I Shall Never Return observed Kantor watching his union in effigy with the ‘automaton’ bride (Fig. 6). 


Figure 6: Kantor and his wax figure double in I Shall Never Return. Photograph: Jacquie Bablet, courtesy of Cricoteka.

Of Kantor’s abdication of the position of stage-side legitimator of his own work as director, designer, dramatist, and theorist, Michal Kobialka has written that the stage in I Shall Never Return ‘was not a space that could have been controlled by Kantor, as he had done in all prior productions. […] Kantor could never return to playing the part of himself controlling, erasing, and correcting the execution of his memories on stage’.[42] Kantor’s decision to double his own appearance along the lines of the Theatre of Death forcefully underscores this observation. Through this doubling, Kantor hurled himself into the workings of the anti-mimetic apparatus he had painstakingly developed over the course of his career, thus referring the legitimating presumptions of the theatrical auteur to the same procedures of performed critique to which he had submitted the actors of the Cricot 2 ensemble.

Kantor’s stagecraft worked to detonate two tropes of the modernist anti-theatre: the rhetorical opposition of human performer and anthropomorphized object, and the genius of the modernist visionary qua puppet-master. In so doing, it constructed an anti-mimetic apparatus without precedent. Neither through a mimetic act that referred the spectator to a dramatic logos outside the concrete reality of the stage, nor through its exclusive dominance by an abstract object – which, though abstracted, nevertheless retained an external point of reference – was the spectator of the Theatre of Death permitted to take solace in a nostalgia for absent forms.[43] Rather, Kantor’s waxworks implicated its audience in an examination of the mediality of the theatre through a relentless and embodied interrogation of its terms.


  1. ^ Citations from: Tadeusz Kantor, Wielopole, Wielopole: An Exercise in Theatre, trans. by Mariusz Tchorek and G.M. Hyde (London: Marion Boyars Publishers, 1990), p. 109; Tadeusz Kantor, ‘Theatrical Place (1970s-1980s)’, in Michal Kobialka, Further On, Nothing: Tadeusz Kantor's Theatre (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 2009), pp. 329-67 (p. 343). The present essay, which emerged out of my 2009 Master’s thesis in the Department of Performance Studies at New York University, could not have been written without the generous guidance of Michal Kobialka, whose general advice and clarification of Kantor’s terminology in Polish were instrumental. My thanks also to the late Anna Halczak at the Cricoteka Archives for her assistance with images of Kantor’s work, and to Dominika Laster and Joe Fletcher for their thoughtful comments on early drafts of this paper.
  2. ^ See Against Theatre: Creative Destructions on the Modernist Stage, ed. by Alan L. Ackerman and Martin Puchner (Basingstoke and New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2007).
  3. ^ Among other early models, Kantor was deeply influenced by the work of the Polish avant-garde, Russian constructivism, and Symbolist drama. See Tadeusz Kantor, A Journey Through Other Spaces: Essays and Manifestos, 1944-1990, ed. and trans. by Michal Kobialka (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1993), pp. 269-71. See also Krzysztof Pleśniarowicz, The Dead Memory Machine: Tadeusz Kantor’s Theatre of Death, trans. by William Brand (Aberystwyth: Black Mountain Press, 2004), pp. 23-29.
  4. ^ Of this shift, Michal Kobialka writes, ‘Kantor’s theatre was, on the one hand, a tactical maneuver within a stable field of recognized forms and practices […]. On the other hand, [it] ruptured the modernist discourse of which it was a part, in order to repoliticize its radical agenda at a time when radical metanarratives were turned into failing ideologies…’ See Kobialka, Further On, Nothing, pp. x-xi.
  5. ^ Martin Puchner has articulated this problem in the following way: ‘As a performing art like music or ballet, the theater depends on the artistry of live human performers on stage. As a mimetic art like painting or cinema, however, it must utilize these human performers as signifying material in the service of a mimetic project. Once the nature of mimesis is subject to scrutiny and attacks, as it is in modernism, this double affiliation of the theater becomes a problem because, unlike painting or cinema, the theater remains tied to human performers, no matter how estranged their acting might be. The theater thus comes to be fundamentally at odds with a more widespread critique, or complication, of mimesis because this critique requires that the material used in the artwork be capable of abstraction or estrangement’. See Puchner, Stage Fright: Modernism, Anti-Theatricality, and Drama (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 2002), p. 5.
  6. ^ Heinrich von Kleist, Selected Writings, ed. and trans. by David Constantine (London: J. M. Dent, 1997), pp. 27-48; Edward Gordon Craig, On the Art of the Theatre (New York: Routledge, 2009), pp. 27-48.
  7. ^ Antonin Artaud, Selected Writings, ed. and intro. by Susan Sontag, trans. by Helen Weaver (Berkeley and Los Angeles: University of California Press, 1988), p. 246.
  8. ^ For an extended account of the figures of the puppet and puppet-master in modernist drama, see Harold B. Segel, Pinocchio’s Progeny: Puppets, Marionettes, Automatons, and Robots in Modernist and Avant-Garde Drama (Baltimore and London: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1995).
  9. ^ Craig, On the Art of the Theatre, p. 39.
  10. ^ Oskar Schlemmer, ‘Man and Art Figure’, in The Theater of the Bauhaus, ed. by Walter Gropius, trans. by Arthur S. Wensinger (Middletown: Wesleyan University Press, 1961), pp. 17-48 (p. 28). Regarding the persistence of the human body as one of the principal materials of the Bauhaus theater, Schlemmer explains how, ‘in contradistinction to the rationalistically determined world of space, form, and color, man is the vessel of the subconscious, the unmediated experience, and the transcendental. He is the organism of flesh and blood, conditioned by measure and by time’ (p. 91).
  11. ^ Ibid. p. 29. Elsewhere, Schlemmer writes, ‘The actor is now so susceptible to being altered, transformed, or “entranced” by the addition of some applied object – mask, costume, prop – that his habitual behavior and his physical and psychic structure are either upset or else put into a new and altogether different balance. (The nature of the actor, and of the potential actor, is best revealed in the depth of the transformation of his behavior as effected by these inanimate attributes – a cigarette, hat, cane, suit, or whatever it might be.)’ (p. 95).
  12. ^ Ibid., p. 32.
  13. ^ Kantor, ‘The Theatre of Death’, in Further On, Nothing, pp. 230-39 (p. 235).
  15. ^ Kantor, ‘The Zero Theatre’, in Further On, Nothing, pp. 144-53 (p. 148). ‘I wish for a situation │in which one could discard so-called ‘acting’ │(supposedly the only way for an actor to behave ‘on stage’), │which is nothing more than │naïve pretence, │exulted mannerism, │irresponsible illusion!’
  16. ^ Tadeusz Kantor, ‘Milano Lessons 1’, in A Journey Through Other Spaces, pp. 208-12 (p. 211).
  17. ^ Kantor, ‘Cricot 2 Theatre (about 1963)’ and ‘The Emballage (1957-1965)’, in Further On, Nothing, pp. 110-15 (p. 114) and pp. 154-59 (p. 156), respectively.
  18. ^ Kantor, ‘Cricot 2 Theatre’, p. 111.
  19. ^ Later, Kantor would come to view his Poor, Real Objects as some of the earliest manifestations of his Reality of the Lowest Rank, a concept closely related to Annexed Reality. See ibid. (passim.).
  20. ^ Michal Kobialka writes that Kantor’s Poor Objects, like the bombed out, abandoned apartment in which The Return of Odysseus was staged, were ‘functionless, discarded, and useless. They were wrenched from the war reality and placed in a space wherein the object’s objectness could only be established in its relationship to other objects and people in space. Thus, the object’s function was not assigned by a convention that had been compromised by the bestiality of the war…’ See Kobialka, Further On, Nothing, p. 45.
  21. ^ Kantor, ‘Milano Lessons 1’, in A Journey Through Other Spaces, p. 211.
  22. ^ Ibid.
  23. ^ Ibid.
  24. ^ Kantor, ‘Cricot 2 Theatre’, p. 112.
  25. ^ Kantor, ‘The Impossible Theatre’, in Further On, Nothing, pp. 174-92 (p. 187).
  26. ^ Ibid., p. 188.
  27. ^ Ibid.
  28. ^ Ibid., p. 189.
  29. ^ Tadeusz Kantor, ‘Theatrical Place’, in Further On, Nothing, by Kobialka, pp. 329-67 (p. 359).
  30. ^ Kantor, ‘The Theatre of Death’, in A Journey Through Other Spaces, pp. 106-16 (p. 112).
  31. ^ Ibid., p. 112.
  32. ^ Ibid., p. 109.
  33. ^ Kantor, ‘Space Memory’, in A Journey Through Other Spaces, pp. 311-64 (p. 318).
  34. ^ Of the platoon, elsewhere described as a chorus of puppets, Kantor writes, ‘Their similarity to objects is overwhelming. │You could walk past and not notice them, bump into them easily, knock them over or rearrange them like furniture – like dead things. │They in turn advance towards the ‘civilians’ [spectators] with unseeing eyes, │Two alien species that can never make contact, │so remote are they from each other, so tragically and evidently estranged’. Kantor, Wielopole, Wielopole, p. 105.
  35. ^ Ibid., p. 64.
  36. ^ Ibid., p. 65.
  37. ^ Ibid., p. 43.
  38. ^ Timothy Murray, Theatrical Legitimation: Allegories of Genius in Seventeenth-Century England and France (New York and Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1987), p. 119.
  39. ^ Ibid., p. 120.
  40. ^ Rosette C. Lamont, ‘Builder of Bridges Between the Living and the Dead’, The New York Times, 6 October 1985; available at: <> [accessed 28 July 2014].
  41. ^ Trans. by and cited in Kobialka, Further On, Nothing, p. 319.
  42. ^ Ibid., p. 324.
  43. ^ Jean-François Lyotard, The Postmodern Condition: A Report on Knowledge, trans. by Geoffrey Bennington and Brian Massumi (Minneapolis: University Of Minnesota Press, 1984), p. 81.