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Kantor’s New Wood


Tadeusz Kantor Cricot 2 Theatre of Death Polish theatre The Dead Class Walt Whitman Ezra Pound artistic legacy


Ruggero Bianchi was a professor at the University of Turin, where he specialized in American literature, theatre, and avant-garde performance. He was author of many articles on contemporary experimental theatre and on American theatre history in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, and was translator and editor of the works of Herman Melville in Italian.


Georges Duhamel and Charles Vildrac                                               
Notes sur la technique poétique (1910)[1]

For many years, scholars and practitioners have conceived of theatre principally in terms of the live event: a form of performance that, whether improvised or structured down to the last detail, lives not so much on the page as on the stage (or else within its own specific environment). On this understanding, theatre appears as inherently ephemeral; it depends on the primacy of a particular ‘here and now’. Certain debates have also focused on the theatrical event in terms of its potential as a kind of vehicle: for example, as a way to explore the spectrum between not acting, performance persona, and role; or to interrogate the encounter between person/performer and spectator/participant/witness. This perspective is rich in implications; for many contemporary artists, a performance’s meaning is not an objective or atemporal datum, but unfolds through the subjective and the particular for each participant in the event. Robert Wilson’s narratives, for instance, prompt the spectators to ‘interact’ with everything they perceive throughout the theatre space, and to superimpose upon these elements their own associations and recollections – that is, to draw from their personal, cultural, and social experiences.

This singular dimension of the encounter can also be found in the work of Cricot 2, due in particular to Tadeusz Kantor’s manifold, distinctive ways of being onstage – his physical, psychological, and spectral ‘presence’ as director, performer, conjuror, stage manager, and more; albeit that Kantor’s work probes above all his own ‘inner world’ of memories and fractured recollections, and the complex impact they have had within his life.

Given the anchoring role that Kantor played, what, therefore, can we say remains of his theatrical masterpieces, now that he is no longer with us, physically present onstage, using his eyes and pointing fingers to manipulate the actors and spectators? His projects and drawings, sketches and manifestos, private notes, and theoretical essays – however significant they may be from theatre-historical and other perspectives – cannot restore the aura, the affective dimension, or even the sheer thrill that many spectators experienced in those striking ‘frozen moments’ when they realised that a work of art was taking form there and then, before their eyes; that they were the witnesses to elements of Kantor’s creative process in the making. For many of us, it was like watching the ‘breaking-away’ of the theatre from the community, as described by Kantor in his text ‘The Theatre of Death’: the mythical ‘first appearance of the Actor’, their unconceived and inconceivable decision to stand apart as ‘other’ in front of the community, as an outsider who, while being ‘deceptively similar’ to the onlookers, is nonetheless perceived by them as cut off by an ‘invisible barrier’, as a circus-like, subversive, and tragic presence (‘shockingly FOREIGN, as if DEAD’).[2] Kantor’s evocation in this text of the ‘metaphysical shock’ of this particular image of the human describes accurately the powerful sensation that I myself experienced whenever I had the opportunity to witness his production of The Dead Class.[3] No matter the occasion or the site, this piece always struck and shocked me as an original event; never as a repeat or a rerun, despite the structural similarities in each enactment of the performance.

Full as they are of conceptual, perceptual, and technical limitations, the surviving videos and DVDs that document this and other works by Kantor can only offer a vague impression of what live audiences saw and experienced. They are, in a way, like the old black-and-white prints of memory shown by Kantor in Wielopole, Wielopole, which required his personal presence and reactions, his minute interactions and modulations, his gestures and glances, his nodding and hushing, in order to seem ‘really real’ and to reveal hidden meanings or shocking secrets.

How, then, can today’s artists – I have in mind mainly those young people who, because of their age, did not have this chance to witness firsthand – hope to access the frisson of the ephemeral ‘there and then’ that for us, in those days, was seemingly able to bring forth a unique ‘here and now’? The question, of course, extends beyond Kantor himself and involves the particularly ‘liquid’ nature of experimental theatre – and, more generally, the whole spectrum of contemporary performing arts – in which the very idea of repetition or reproduction is, within certain major traditions, considered an aesthetic paradox if not some kind of conceptual crime. Few contemporary practitioners, for example, seriously envisage restaging or reworking major opuses of Kantor or of other creative artists (actors or directors-on-stage) whose practice was rooted in that same revolutionary period in the theatre: either of those who have left us (Carmelo Bene, Leo de Berardinis, Joseph Chaikin, Spalding Gray, Jerzy Grotowski, and many others) or of those who are still with us (Eugenio Barba, Dario Fo, Judith Malina, and so on). An artist willing to venture into such a complex enterprise should perhaps rather follow Grotowski’s path in choosing to quit his role as an ‘expert spectator’ in the Teatr Laboratorium (Laboratory Theatre), and move decidedly ‘beyond the theatre’, into a physical and conceptual space where a meaningful event of some kind is intended only for a closed group of actor-witnesses. Such an encounter takes place among and between individuals who are simultaneously doers and spectators. It may be that the only possible – though somewhat formalised – alternative is the route taken by Elizabeth LeCompte and the Wooster Group in ‘citing’, at a mainly technical level, the Laboratorium’s production of Akropolis (1962) in the Wooster Group’s own production of Poor Theater: A series of simulacra (2004).

In my view, however, if a contemporary artist truly wishes to play at or with Kantor, they must somehow be as Kantor was. Or, more precisely, the artist would have to follow Kantor’s path in spending a lifetime focusing on what art is and why one wants or even feels compelled to practise it. But if this process were to be truly successful, one would not become a ‘Kantor Mark II’ but an original, independent artist, since – as Jorge Luis Borges memorably indicated in Pierre Menard – it is impossible to enter into those inaccessible personal links connecting artists to their work. In this particularism lies, arguably, an essential point of variance between the creative paths of Jerzy Grotowski and his inheritor Thomas Richards. And this is why, according to the nonrepresentational line I have evoked here – and to mention a lesser-known but equally emblematic example – the early performances created by Julian Beck with Judith Malina are largely unsuccessful when re-staged after many years and/or with a different creative team, as the recent revival of The Brig and other works of the Living Theatre by Judith Malina and Hanon Reznikov would seem to demonstrate. The new version of Kenneth Brown’s script is in this case little more than a formalised scenario developed from the old one, or at best a structural representation of it. Similarly, in Italy, when the decision was taken in 2007 to revive the seminal production of Sacco with a new cast of actors from the original artists’ theatre school, Rem&Cap – Claudio Remondi and Riccardo Caporossi, the founders and directors of the Club-Teatro in Roma – had to confront this same paradox. The production was made up of forms of self-quotation pulled from their historical and associational contexts, with diverse iterations of the ‘original’ performance serving as a script or a storyboard for the new one.

Despite the particular difficulties associated with imitation and repetition in all of these examples – which are too numerous to mention in full here – it remains the case that even among such company, Kantor’s work still appears to be unprecedented or almost unique. Through the exhaustive combined theoretical and practical activity associated with his Theatre of Death, in all its directions and variants, Kantor managed to discover a creative and critical terra incognita: a ‘land of (theatrical and performative) possibilities’ that he explored and mapped with an extraordinary and impassioned accuracy. No performer or director, including his close collaborators, has been able to pursue the tracks he left. Kantor’s speculative efforts and experimentations concerning his own stage presence – and the implications of his multiple role, which, it would seem, simply cannot be devolved onto others – are still to be thought through or embodied in original performances, even by the surviving members of Cricot 2. Indeed, the latter’s works often seem to aim at reproducing a generic ‘Kantorian’ atmosphere and/or at transforming their own, prior ‘presences’ within Kantor’s masterpieces into distinctive, enduring personas, acting roles, or characters. Too often the end result is a sort of ‘metatheatre’, or ‘theatre about a theatre’; at its best revealing certain of Kantor’s materials, compositions, and themes, but not his way of working with them: a staging of a formal apparatus at the visual and gestural level, devoid of its motivating force.

Even the most innovative and celebrated members of the new avant-garde who have engaged with Kantor’s work do not appear to have fully caught the originality and the complexity of many of his key aims and perspectives. This is so even where these artists deal broadly with similar problems to those explored at length by Kantor, such as the director as the figure uniquely capable of generating ‘total art’; the staging in ‘real time’ of the process of creation; working with/in front of an audience on an an event in progress; the ‘here and now’ as opposed to the ‘there and then’; and so on.

Looking back, perhaps, then, we can rightly say of Kantor what Ezra Pound said of Walt Whitman: ‘It was you that broke the new wood, | Now is a time for carving’.[4] This, however, is the real point: where and when shall we find a new generation of artists ready to carve Kantor’s new wood?


  1. ^ Georges Duhamel and Charles Vildrac, Notes sur la technique poétique (Paris: Champion, 1925), p. 50.
  2. ^ See Tadeusz Kantor, ‘The Theatre of Death’, trans. by Michal Kobialka, in Kobialka, Further On, Nothing... Tadeusz Kantor’s Theatre (Minneapolis & London: University of Minnesota Press, 2009), pp. 230-39 (especially pp. 236-37). I feel fortunate to have been able to translate and publish ‘The Theatre of Death’ for the first time in Italian, as part of a selection of Kantor’s writings printed in Quarta Parete: Quaderni di ricerca teatrale, 3-4 (1977).
  3. ^ I attended this production at London’s Riverside Studios in September 1976, at CRT in Milan in January 1978, and at the Annex Café La Mama in New York in February 1979. On these experiences, see my essay ‘L’essere in sè del passato: Kantor e l’avanguardia americana’ (The Being-in-itself of the Past: Kantor and the American Avant-Garde), reprinted in Kantor. Protagonismo registico e spazio memoriale (Kantor: The Director as Protagonist, and the Space of Memory), ed. by Lino Gedda (Pisa: Titivillus, 2007; 1984).
  4. ^ Ezra Pound, ‘A Pact’ (1916), in Selected Poems of Ezra Pound (New York: New Directions, 1957), p. 27.