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Transfusing the Voice: Giving voice to surpass death in Tadeusz Kantor’s theatre


Tadeusz Kantor Cricot 2 Theatre of Death voice Julia Kristeva abject Wielopole, Wielopole Today is My Birthday The Return of Odysseus I Shall Never Return mannequins


Katarzyna Nocuń graduated in Theatre Studies at the Aleksander Zelwerowicz National Academy of Dramatic Art and from the Academy of Fine Arts in Warsaw, and she has also studied at the École nationale supérieure des Arts Décoratifs (EnsAD) in Paris. She has received a scholarship from the Polish Ministry of Culture and National Heritage. Her research interests combine visual arts with dance and forms of personal development, broadly understood, as well as translation and cross-cultural practice. She writes and publishes regularly and works as a guide and a translator between Polish, French, and English.

In the first scene of Tadeusz Kantor’s Wielopole, Wielopole (1980), Uncle Karol and Uncle Olek, played by identical twins Wacław and Lesław Janicki, shift around various objects and figures in front of the audience, putting in order Kantor’s room of childhood memory onstage as if from their own recollections.

They remember aloud where a particular object was ‘back then’ and return it to its ‘old’ place. They pause momentarily — hesitating, thinking twice, rectifying — before finally positioning a chair, stowing a suitcase on top of a wardrobe, or carrying away a misplaced table that ‘wasn’t here’. Their many musings and attempts establish the reality onstage. They break down all the elements in the space into constituent pieces. ‘When Uncle Karol was entering, he would come in facing the window, and the door was behind him’, says Olek, indicating himself and re-enacting the steps. Karol disagrees, but re-enacts the memory of his twin making the opposite movement: ‘No, no. When Uncle Olek was leaving, he had this particular habit and he would go out facing the door with the window behind him’. Gradually, through various moments of circular logic and discrepancies of perspective, it is apparent that the twins are often standing in for each other, with Karol speaking as if he were Olek, and Olek, Karol. They undermine each other’s memories and identities. One thing seems certain: ‘There was the window… because there was the door’. Everything else slips into doubt, including their own self-presence. Karol asserts: ‘Olek, you weren’t here!’ Olek stands in Karol’s place and asks, ‘I wasn’t here?’ Karol: ‘No!’ Olek: ‘Then Karol you weren’t here either…’ The rapid, repetitive shifts in naming, positioning, and rearranging build throughout the scene. Karol points to where Olek was just standing and agrees: ‘I wasn’t here’. Who precisely is speaking here? This seems the most perplexing question that lingers as the scene ends and the Uncles exit through the door still calling out: ‘Karol!’ ‘Olek!’ ‘Karol!’ ‘Olek!’ ‘Karol!’ ‘Olek!’.[1]

Uncle Karol and Uncle Olek (first and second from the left) remembering the layout of the room in Wielopole, Wielopole (1980). Photograph: Maciej Sochor, courtesy of Cricoteka.

Uncle Karol and Uncle Olek (first and second from the left) remembering the layout of the room in Wielopole, Wielopole (1980). Photograph: Maciej Sochor, courtesy of Cricoteka.

In the case of the Uncles, calling out to another self — or rather to a double, to a second ‘I’ — constitutes a kind of seeking-out, the projecting of a name in search of an identity. In Kantor’s production, the identical twin uncles are a metaphor for the splintering of a person into an ‘I’ and a ‘not-I’, a process that the director viewed as a formative journey essential to both art and life: ‘I am setting off in search of myself… I myself am creating my other self.’[2] Along this journey we are to become strangers to ourselves, to recognize our self as another. Entering the symbolic order of language, we lose cohesion and completeness, and a lack at the core of our subjecthood is exposed, which speech habitually glosses over by filling the void between the subject and the world.[3] Uncle Karol and Uncle Olek materialize this Lacanian problem. Unable to access their self-experience in an immediate or unitary way — to put their shared lifeworld out in front of themselves and grasp it with certainty — the temporally and sensorially fragmented figures onstage strive to bridge the irreducible gap between the kernel of their being and their various, remembered ‘symbolic or imaginary identifications’.[4] In Kantor’s ‘Theatre of Death’ cycle (from The Dead Class in 1975 onwards), such disorientation became manifest in numerous ways. While the voice usually remained somehow associated with the body from which it emerged, it was often inflected through varied, idiosyncratic physical and vocal articulations, displacements, transfusions, and desynchronizations. In Wielopole, Wielopole, each time Kantor’s father Marian attempts to speak, he gets abruptly stuck: his lower jaw snaps open and strains; mechanical sounds stutter out, alternating with profanities. He struggles to enunciate, his words become trapped in his throat and are eventually spewed out by force. His voice seems foreign to the mannequin-like figure, unfamiliar, as if it is finding its way, at the very moment of being born. It is something strange, no longer regulated by the subject but also not some external object. It positions itself in the space between ‘I’ and ‘not-I’. It simultaneously aligns with and undermines the unity of the figure before us. It asserts an identity, even as it decentres and fractures it. A kind of presence-to-self appears in the vocalization that the subject (which is ‘empty’ in Lacanian terms) both emits and hears as if from a stranger. The voice marks a complex and dynamic relationship of self-experiencing, between what Slavoj Žižek calls ‘the non-phenomenal subject and the phenomena that remain inaccessible to the subject’.[5]

The breakdown of self and other in the Kantorian treatment of the voice could also be likened to the human reaction to the breakdown in meaning contemplated in Julia Kristeva’s discussion of the ‘abject’. For Kristeva, the abject is neither subject nor object, and is pre-linguistic and pre-symbolic, marking a revulsion that arises from the traumatic interjection of the materiality of death into our lives.[6] Her analysis focuses on visceral elements often construed as ‘improper’ or ‘unclean’ — like excrement, sweat, vomit, and other bodily substances that ‘stand for the danger to identity that comes from without’ or the ‘defilement’ that ‘life withstands’ — and also on corpses, which induce the utmost abjection.[7] These are not phenomena that merely prompt distaste, but are linked to our very materiality, to a brush with death that would entail a complete negation of the subject. Abjection is a response to a threat that could ­reduce the subject to a jettisoned object. Kristeva does not explicitly dwell on this experience in terms of the voice, but I suggest her ideas could be extended to the Kantorian world, especially if we examine them in the context of temporality.

The Kantorian voice is discharged from the body precisely on the principle of expulsion — of what Kristeva calls the ‘spasms and ­vomiting that protect me’ from harm.[8] As with the abject, this is not simply a question of experiencing disgust, but of an opening suspended between the ‘I’ and the ‘not-I’ that brings the subject into proximity with death, with the complete absence of self-identity. Kristeva writes: ‘I expel myself, I spit myself out, I abject myself within the same motion through which “I” claim to establish myself’.[9] Hence the struggles of many of Kantor’s characters to name people and things, to reconstruct, to establish themselves both in memory and in the present situation onstage. Their confusion, most noticeable in their inability to decide who is who, and in their self-multiplying, which fragments any notion of a singular identity or agency, undermines their possibility of creating a stable self over time.

The vomiting or abject voice in Kantor’s theatre can be understood in several ways, but it almost always involves an attempt to speak on someone’s behalf: on behalf of a mannequin, another character, another actor, a figure from memory. The singular identity of the speaker is eroded and called into question, as is their attendant (in)ability to fully recreate or revisit the past — a fundamental trope of the Theatre of Death, since Kantor’s productions were everywhere concerned with the returns of memory in the present. Kantor likens the condition of his actors to that of death, at least in part because they incarnate a lost past that borders on the world of the living. The actor doubles for the dead. I suggest that the dissonance between the living body of the actor and the deathly body of the figure onstage (and within the director’s imagination) is perhaps most visibly expressed in how the voice is articulated. An organism speaking as a fragmentary, irrecoverable, discontinuously animated persona opens up the possibility of powerful alienating effects between actor and spectator, between the worlds of death and life.

Since it is rooted in remembering, in order to examine the voice and its workings in Kantor’s theatre we need to look more closely at how he conceived of memory. In Wielopole, Wielopole, several figures recalled from Kantor’s childhood appear onstage: Mother-Helka, Father Marian, Aunt Mańka, Aunt Józka, Uncles Karol and Olek, Grandmother Katarzyna, and Great Uncle Józef (a Priest, also referred to as ‘Grandfather’ in the production). These characters derive from the director’s memories of their specific patterns of behaviour, of gesture, and speech. The Uncles interact incessantly, often through wordplay; Aunt Mańka experiences manic moments in which she quotes frantically from the Gospels; voiceless Grandmother stands over Józef’s bed with a bedpan in her hand. Ambiguous figures are summoned to reconstruct the past on the stage, actors engaged for their potential resemblance to real individuals. As Kantor put it, ‘It is nothing more than a process of renting memories. Recollection of the past makes use of “hired” people. These are shady, mediocre, suspicious characters, who are waiting to be ‘hired’ like seasonal help’. ‘Unfresh’, ‘poorly dressed’, ‘badly made up for the people who are often close to us’, they come back from the past in order to imitate memories.[10] They cannot successfully reconstruct what has gone by, but they create a new reality formed of memory shards and remains, piecemeal sequences that have come to mind. They carry sentimental value associated with the nostalgia of recollection, as well as symbolic and spatial significance in the context of the performance. They are a projection of the imagined past, a redefining of the past in the present. These fragments of memory provide a readymade reality — something found in various forms throughout Kantor’s work, from the materiality of the Poor Object to the musical or mnemonic realities he derived from various quotidian and historical contexts.[11] We should also note that these realities included lesser-known vocal readymades, which — rather than a poor, material leftover, as with his objects ‘of the lowest rank’ — were borrowed remnants of acoustic and phonetic articulations from life.

In a sequence from his final, semi-posthumous production Today Is My Birthday (1990–91), Kantor’s voice sounds onstage from a loudspeaker. The performance opens with the following lines, alternating in Polish and in French:

I znowu jestem „na scenie”.
Voila. Mais voila, de nouveau sur scène.
Chyba nigdy tego zwyczaju do końca jasno nie wytłumaczę ani Państwu, ani sobie…
Je crois que je n’expliquerai jamais cela jusqu’au bout ni à vous ni à moi-même…
Ale właściwie to nie „na scenie” proszę Państwa, a na granicy.
Pour dire vrai je ne me trouve pas sur scène, oh non! jamais! mais à la frontière.

These interspersed phrases are roughly equivalent in translation: ‘Again, I am on stage. I will probably never fully explain this phenomenon either to you or to myself. To be precise, I am not on stage, but at the threshold.’[12] After a few sentences, the voice continues bilingually, but now with minor variants and interjections, the languages complementing and carrying on the train of thought of the other and reinforcing the foreignness of the disembodied voice. Upstage right, the actor playing Kantor’s ‘Self-Portrait’ (Andrzej Wełmiński) leaps up from his seat within and behind a picture frame and silently reacts to the recorded words — reorienting himself, placing and re-placing his chair. Framed as a painting, he belongs to the world of Illusion spoken about in Kantor’s projected monologue, but appears more ‘real’ and materially present than the detached, posthumous voice of Kantor himself, whose words self-reflexively waver between leaning towards Illusion or Reality. Speaker and figure are similarly ambiguous. The Self-Portrait gesticulates, pointing his finger in various directions. He appears lost, uncertain of where to go. He resembles a changing road sign, placed on a given spot but signalling different possible trajectories ahead and behind. His indecision persists, but at a certain moment the recording fades and the live actor gradually takes over speaking (‘A splendid résumé of my theory…’), likewise oscillating between Polish and French. Suddenly the Self-Portrait falls backwards out of the frame, seemingly disorientated. The action establishes a new theatrical reality in which fiction finds its way into life — and life also lends itself to fiction. He steps cautiously, tentatively across the stage to a table, on which there are several objects including a large family photograph and a lamp. He strikes a match to light the lamp, before noticing a piece of paper covered with writing and pondering whether to read it. Eventually he picks it up and reads aloud: ‘Again, I am on stage…’ His monologue continues until he returns to his seat in the frame, while saying ‘Let me tell you about the event that has happened to me. It happened one Saturday.’ Now, Kantor’s recorded voice intercedes and repeats, almost in dialogue with his other ‘self’, before continuing the story.[13]

In this scene, the voice is mediated in various ways: via the loudspeaker, via the interplay between languages, and via the pre-written script on the sheet of paper. The words operate in three different variants, each initiating a succession of new images onstage. The disembodied voice prompts the movement of the Self-Portrait behind the frame, then the found note becomes a pretext for reiterating Kantor’s phrases once more. The actor playing the Self-Portrait, reading aloud, seems to reintegrate for a moment the disparate parts of ‘Kantor’ that had been torn between the loudspeaker, portrait frame, and table. But residual awareness of their division remains, and then they split once more. These multiple vocal ‘versions’ hint at the lack of an originary source, suggesting the figure before us is being constituted and reconstituted by repetitions and is in a highly contingent relationship with the various utterances we hear. As a result, the stage reality is also being established for the spectator by the vocal enactments, while the identity of the character spans a plurality of forms that at times negate each other. This is a recurring situation in the Theatre of Death. The time of the voice and the time of the words diverge in unusual ways. The voice that emerges ‘in the present’ is never definite, always deferred. At the same time, as a mnemonic reality, it belongs to the past. This reinforces the sense that the voice in Kantor’s theatre is always in a process of becoming, while the repetitive words and phrases are somehow already part of the fabric of the constructed reality on the stage.

This temporal fracturing of the voice binds it to Kantor’s use of memory. With the advent of his Theatre of Death, he broadened his enactments of memory to encompass references to the work of other artists and to recurring roles in his own past work (the ‘apparitions of the past’). The motif of a wandering troupe of actors, which featured in a number of Cricot 2 productions — perhaps most notably in Let the Artists Die (1985) and I Shall Never Return (1988) — provided a pretext for the company members to take on multiple layers of roles within a single performance. With minimal changes in appearance and behaviour, these figures could be projected abruptly into new circumstances and a new stage image, while referencing sequences in Kantor’s previous productions like The Return of Odysseus (1944), The Water-Hen (1967), and Dainty Shapes and Hairy Apes (1973). Such self-reflexive playing with roles and personas formed a basis for rapid shifts of identity and vocalization in his theatre.

In I Shall Never Return, Odysseus — a figure already dating back more than forty years to Kantor’s production of Stanisław Wyspiański’s The Return of Odysseus during the wartime occupation of Kraków, but here played by Andrzej Wełmiński — is returning from war. Wrapped up tightly in a thick overcoat and scarf, he is largely concealed by his clothing. In a scene adapted from Wyspiański’s drama, he encounters and interacts with one of the wandering actors playing a Shepherd (Bogdan Renczyński), whose words and actions are orchestrated by the figure of the Priest from Wielopole, Wielopole (now played by Zbigniew Gostomski). Growing angry at their exchange, Odysseus brandishes a club and strikes the ground, felling the Shepherd from a distance, in a series of consciously theatrical freeze-frames accompanied by tinkling piano chords, as if from a silent film. Others from among the travelling troupe now come forward amidst the confusion. The Priest drags downstage the Local Photographer’s Widow from Wielopole, Wielopole (Mira Rychlicka), who pleads with him ‘Please Father, not me…’ as she is forced to stand in for the Shepherd.[14] She speaks words prompted by the Priest, delivering the news of Odysseus’s return: ‘I saw a shadow, the ghost of my master…’ Another wandering actor (Ewa Janicka), taking on the part of Odysseus’s son Telemachus, responds, ‘Our father has returned. Has our father returned…?’ Rychlicka interjects, now speaking the words of the Servant in Wyspiański’s play, to relate the chaos that has erupted at home, but Telemachus is no longer listening. Seemingly lost in thought, the son muses, ‘And if I could… all of it… with my own hands…’. This provokes a mocking cackle from the Servant, who is then felled by Telemachus in the same manner as Odysseus felled the Shepherd, as Rychlicka/the Widow/the Servant appeals again to the Priest for some respite (‘Father, please…’) and the scene shifts once more.[15]

Here the Cricot 2 actors are playing itinerant actors playing adaptations of past and current roles played by themselves and their colleagues. They lend their voices to the parts they take on — often casually and indifferently — for a mere instant, before dropping them a moment later. The Priest feeds the words from The Return of Odysseus to the Shepherd and the Servant, methodically, line-by-line, like a prompter. This performed orchestration is echoed in other Cricot 2 productions, such as Today Is My Birthday — in which the Cleaning Woman whispers words from the Gospel into the Priest’s ear, which he then speaks aloud — and is always based on a pre-existing text. The Shepherd and the Servant repeat words from Wyspiański’s play, and the Priest repeats fragments from the Bible. These arrangements push the prompter’s role out into the open and theatricalize it, demystifying the process between prompting, listening, and speaking, and revealing a series of shifts at the level of the voice. The dramaturgy of this repetition thus also seems to be linked to the wider dramaturgy and processes of remembering and forgetting in Kantor’s theatre. Words are repeated mechanically or by rote, as if buying time for the personas onstage to comb through memories to recall something lost.

We can see this too in the figures of the aged school pupils in The Dead Class, who get confused and become ‘stuck’ as they mix up their words. Kantor writes that ‘they take up certain roles from a certain play […], but they do so somewhat automatically, out of a widespread habit; we get the impression that they are trying ostentatiously to cut themselves off from these roles, as if merely repeating the sentences and actions of someone else’. As he observes, these ‘roles, poorly imposed, constantly fall apart…’[16] The kinds of sentence analysis used in creating the performance, as detailed in the director’s notes from rehearsals, served to break down habitual connections and meanings from everyday life, shattering any sense of illusionism or naturalism. Kantor reflects on the origins of this process as follows:

For a long time, in my artistic practice, I have been interested in exploring the language used by children; the forms they use when they begin to talk, at the time when a very limited vocabulary can no longer satisfy the newly born and quickly developing consciousness, the expanding emotional sphere or the realm of inner feelings and perceptions, which is still in the subconscious but already demanding a way of verbalizing its presence.[17]

Transposing his fascination to work with the actors, Kantor explored the idea of reducing the spoken lines associated with given roles to their component parts and to a series of directions for the actors:

The imperative is to bring sentences, statements, actor’s parts to
different tenses,
modes of declension,
ways of conjugation,
to obliterate their life-affirming meanings and functionality,
to reduce them to etymology,
to phonemes,
in a linguistic orgy
in a gibberish sing-song
until they become one long groan!
Expose stage actions
to similar procedures.[18]

The breaking up of words and sentences into morphemes — fragmented vocalizations dressed up and reconstituted as continuously emitting voices — thus forms the basis for not only the acoustic but the visual, behavioural, and semantic realities of the performance. The voice surges in spasms like vomit, in a painstaking, failing birth of a world onstage — what Krzysztof Pleśniarowicz terms the dead class’s continual ‘inability to resurrect the past’.[19] In this process, the mnemonic mechanisms of each role become visible and audible to the spectator, and repetitious sequences are projected into the gaps of a past immemorial.

In the context of the feeding of words and the decomposition of pre-existing language, it is worth noting Kantor’s attitude towards fiction and use of readymade texts in his productions. He remarks that, ‘The stage, like a cemetery, was full of abandoned “stage pieces” — pitiful ruins […]. The Dead kept repeating interminably, as if “for eternity” (time does not exist here), the words, the parts, the plot’s events, which did take place sometime ago in real time.’ He makes explicit the differing temporalities of dramatic and fictional realities, which contain their own particular pasts, noting that he has ‘always perceived a drama-fiction as the DEAD WORLD AND THE WORLD OF THE DEAD’.[20] Thus, re-enacting and giving voice to a role is already an ambiguous procedure of impersonation that undermines the unity of the speaker and points towards the lack at the core of the process of vocalization. In the perpetually shifting orbit of roles and recurring phrases, there are also constant shifts in the processes of signifying and what is signified. The voice eludes the speaker. The moment it is articulated, it detaches and no longer defers to an originary source but rather is deferred and dispersed among errant impersonators, in a world of iterations and imitations that is consonant with Kantor’s multiplying of figures between roles and actors, and actors and mannequins.

Here we arrive at the figure of the mannequin-double, which is central to Kantor’s theatre. It is not possible to examine actor and mannequin separately from one another, since they are connected both by Kantor’s interlinking of their work and by the invisible tie of the voice. Acting tasks in a traditional dramatic sense do not exist in this practice. Kantor tells us that in the Theatre of Death, ‘memory lives on an equal footing with the real events of our everyday lives’, and so the figures onstage are tasked with making memory present.[21] But a certain otherness and displacement of presence are key to this vision. In his discussion of staging the historical figure Veit Stoss (Wit Stwosz) in Let the Artists Die, the director calls him un personnage trouvé (a found character), alluding to the concept of objets trouvés (found objects) after Marcel Duchamp.[22] Kantor’s notes observe that ‘The found object in folk beliefs and ancient cultures is related to the world of the DEAD’, and ‘Seen as a guest from the other world, Veit Stoss must possess the traits of a FOUND CHARACTER. Aimless, without purpose, without “belonging”, terrifyingly ALIEN!’[23] This characterization can be extended to include the many other figures who return to the stage in his productions as incarnations of ‘the dead’. Indeed, Kantor himself links the condition of the actor in his theatre both to the condition of death and to the condition of the mannequin. As he comments, ‘The mannequin in my theatre will be a medium through which passes a strong feeling of death and the condition of the Dead. A model for the Live actor.’[24]

During their reordering of the space in the opening scene from Wielopole, Wielopole, the Uncles come across Grandmother, who has been lying on the floor with her legs positioned haphazardly like a collapsed marionette. They pick her up and stand her by the bed, since they remember ‘Grandfather was not sitting! He was lying down! […] His head was at the bedhead [and] Grandfather was standing next to the Grandmother’. The spatial and figural mechanisms of memory continue to operate. The Uncles also rearrange the bodies of Aunt Józka, who is lying on the floor too, and Aunt Mańka, who is sitting immobile in a chair. ‘Aunt Józka was not here’, says Uncle Olek. ‘No, it was not here. Aunt Józka was not here’, replies Uncle Karol. ‘And Aunt Mańka? She was not here either.’ The Uncles agree, and together carry out both bodies one-by-one.[25] These family characters are simply treated like mannequins, objects to be reordered and positioned. Having been removed, the Aunts soon return, shaking off their apparent inanimateness. The figures often occupy an animate or inanimate status only momentarily, depending on the particular materialization of memory. But this ambiguous process does not simply echo the various practices that ‘objectified’ the actor and preceded Kantor’s own theatre. As he comments, ‘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’. Rather, the mannequin is a ‘kind of additional organ of an actor, who was their “proprietor”’.[26] It plays the role of a medium, materializing a fragment of what is ‘beyond’, ‘on the other side’. While it is related to the object, it simultaneously imitates what is alive, since it bears the image of human physiognomy and activity, and reminds us of death. Opposite the spectator, there appears ‘a human deceptively similar to them, yet […] infinitely distant, shockingly foreign, as if dead’.[27] This unsettling creation harnesses an otherness out of the interlacing of opposing polarities, in order to redefine the actor-spectator relationship.

In The Dead Class, the mannequins that appear onstage are mainly those of children. The Old People who populate the dead classroom each have ‘the carcasses of children grown into them’, as Kantor puts it, since they carry their childhood memories with them like a growth.[28] These attachments, which he likens to tumours or larvae, display the early stages of formation into the human body, with swollen, almost amorphous facial features, perhaps resembling each other more than their respective actors, who form with them hybrid creatures that share a common school ‘uniform’. In the scene in which the Old People enter and circle their school desks in a ‘Grand Parade of the Circus of Death’, the Wax Figures ‘are carried on their back, in their hands, across, dragged behind […] as if these were corpses of the children […] hanging over or trying to cling on to the Old People not to fall off […] as if they were heavy burdens, bad consciences’.[29] As noted above, the corpse is the ultimate embodiment of the abject in Kristeva, a jettisoned thing that is no longer living, but is also neither wholly subject nor object (what, in Kantorian terms, is ‘at the threshold between eternity and garbage’).[30] For Kristeva, it is precisely this ambiguous, borderline otherness that brings on revulsion:

…as in true theater, without makeup or masks, refuse and corpses show me what I permanently thrust aside in order to live. […] There, I am at the border of my condition as a living being. My body extricates itself, as being alive, from that border. […] [The] corpse, the most sickening of wastes, is a border that has encroached upon everything. […] The corpse, seen without God and outside of science, is the utmost of abjection. It is death infecting life. Abject. […] [What causes abjection is] what disturbs identity, system, order. What does not respect borders, positions, rules. The in-between, the ambiguous, the composite.[31]

Kantor’s composite figures settle at — or rather form — this border. They are undead, neither alive nor dead.[32] They are characterized by a frightening excess that is particularly visible in moments of doubling — moments that proliferate in Kantor’s transition from The Dead Class to Wielopole, Wielopole, resulting in the presence of several human-mannequin double-figures such as Mother-Helka, the Priest, and the ‘mannequinesque’ Soldiers within the latter production.

In Wielopole, Wielopole, the juxtaposition of the actors/family characters and their mannequin-doubles could be compared to the experience of encountering a familiar or familial figure made infinitely other and separate, as described by Kristeva, who writes of abjection being elaborated ‘through a failure to recognize kin […] nothing is familiar, not even the shadow of a memory’ and prompting traumatic reminders of our own mortality.[33] The doubles of Mother-Helka and the Priest are situated among the living actors, and various atrocities are inflicted upon them during the performance, underscoring their absence of life and corporeal status as signifiers of violence. This is the case, for example, in the scene in which Mother-Helka is raped. The Soldiers rush onto the stage, stretch out a white, hole-ridden sheet and hold it taut by its corners. They then take turns roughly shaking her mannequin and throwing it between them and onto the sheet, which is transformed into a bed. When the Soldiers have had enough, Mother-Helka’s double falls to the ground and they spread her legs with their rifle-butts as they leave. The living Helka remains physically untouched throughout this sequence, standing offstage, and returns in another scene shortly after.[34] The violence perpetuated on her already ‘dead’ avatar highlights, on one hand, the theatrical conventions of performing death, and on the other, the precarious mortality of the living person for whom the double stands as a representation. Deceptively similar, yet infinitely foreign to each other and spanning diverse temporalities, the actor and mannequin oscillate in the present, but there is a chasm between them. Mother-Helka’s objectness is projected into the future, heralding harm and her death.

In this distance between the figures — in Lacan’s and Kristeva’s terms, in response to the materiality of death — the voice emerges. The performance enacts a newly imagined life for memory and the dead, as the mannequin becomes a vessel (or in Kantor’s words, a ‘medium’, an ‘EMPTY object. A FAÇADE’) to be filled with sound.[35] This peculiar transfusion of the voice occurs from actor to mannequin — itself sometimes played by a live actor in Kantor’s productions — and back again. There is a flow between animate and inanimate bodies, and between the actor and the revivified memory, which returns onstage at least partly in the form of the voice.

In the wedding scene in I Shall Never Return the newlyweds are Kantor, here a mannequin standing in for a real person, and his dead bride (She-the Bride), played by a live actor impersonating a mannequin (Marie Vayssière). Both figures are marked by the condition of death, which deprives them of a voice. But the ceremony cannot be fulfilled without their sacramental words. Now it is the Innkeeper (Wełmiński) who speaks up on their behalf, following the promptings of the Priest, who twirls and dances off to one side. In this way, ‘Kantor’ is married to a corpse, and the Bride, still ‘alive’, is likewise married off to a dead replica.[36] In another sequence later in the performance, Kantor’s previously mute Bride transitions into Odysseus’s wife Penelope. However, she does not lose the mechanical features of her mannequin incarnation. One of the wandering actors (Renczyński), carries her onto the stage. Penelope remains stiff, like a doll. He holds her body in his arms and leans over her, repeating lines that are supposed to be Penelope’s but that she now whispers in his ear for him to speak: ‘Bow your heads down in valediction. I summoned the gods yesterday. Hearken to the words of the oracle: Let there be an end to the strife. He who vanquishes the others in my eyes shall rule. I give you until tomorrow morning. He who bends the bow shall be my husband. He who is eager to grasp the bow shall stand beside me’.[37] The wedding scene is reversed. Here the figure playing the mannequin prompts the actor. This interaction has two aspects. First is the fact of speaking on behalf of another: the performers enter into a ventriloquizing relationship, with the wandering actor emitting a voice that is not the mannequin-Penelope’s own but seems to express her perspective. Second is the ambiguous condition in-between the living and the dead, as the mannequin prompts another person to reanimate her by means of the voice. The cohesion and coincidence of speaker and self-identity are again called into question by this seemingly divisible corporeality, which takes diverse forms depending on the circumstances. In Kantor’s theatre, the voice makes manifest a breaking and reconnecting of the image onstage. It may form or reform a character, at times binding the figure closely to its dybbuk, but may also materially disperse itself and the agency that drives it. The use of the voice thereby becomes a key element in the bridging of actor and mannequin. It is like a distant echo of the past that activates memory in the body, an invisible thread connecting the living and the dead. (As Kantor puts it, ‘MEMORY QUESTIONS the COMPETENCE of the OCULAR’, it is at the very threshold of visibility.)[38]

Odysseus — a deathly figure returning from far away, as if from a past life — is a prototype for many of Kantor’s characters. His deferred return becomes a metaphor for the journey from beyond the grave and from a time and memory beyond reach. In I Shall Never Return, Odysseus is simultaneously embodied by the figure of Kantor’s father Marian (who returns from war as a mannequin), the Innkeeper (who incarnates the Odysseus scripted in Wyspiański’s drama), and the director himself (as he appears onstage during the performance). Individual and collective processes of remembering are thus concentrated in this character. These threads are continuously and complementarily interwoven, as can be seen in the sequence in which a group of soldiers seizes the Innkeeper and drags their stunned victim off to an overcoat suspended on a wooden frame, which they use to re-dress him. He cannot defend himself; he freezes like a mannequin with only his widened, surprised eyes betraying a trace of life. His assailants continue to wrap him in a large grey scarf that conceals his mouth, and toss away his old waiter’s hat, replacing it with one that seems burnished like a helmet and conceals most of the rest of his face. No one can be in any doubt: this is Odysseus, returned from the war. A moment later, a scene from The Return of Odysseus will play out, and he will meet the Shepherd. But for now, the figure stands stiff and immobile, like a mannequin. Wrapped as if in a thick canvas, his human features are barely visible.[39]

The Innkeeper is an unintended and unwilling impersonator of a character from the drama. His Odysseus is ‘in-between’ — of a temporary, uncertain status, imposed on him like an oversized outfit that masks his face, muffles his mouth, and reinforces the loss of his voice. Kantor reads out a text on his behalf, from Wyspiański’s play: ‘In my own homeland, I have uncovered hell. I walked into a graveyard. I killed everything. Everything — I pushed away. The past’s false happiness has fled. There is nothing before me… […] There — is my homeland. There the song of my life has ended. Nobody can return to the world of their youth.’[40] The director speaks the words with clarity, methodically, as if he really were delivering a message in another person’s name or repeating according to instruction, not wishing to omit or slip with a single word. The Innkeeper/Odysseus is sitting next to him, and leaves a short while after Kantor finishes reading. But he returns almost immediately as the Innkeeper, even before the solemn atmosphere of the scene has dissipated. Re-entering energetically, he clasps his hands together, offers a greeting, and hurries over to the table he only recently left, hoping to take an order. Over the course of the scene, Kantor has assimilated and projects Odysseus’s voice. He and the Innkeeper both sit at a table, with the director reading from a piece of paper as if in rehearsal. His voice seems like a prompt to the character, but we do not really know who takes on the role. The voice emerges between them, binding and dissociating them at the same time. They are both, partially and momentarily, Odysseus.

This sequence is not Kantor’s first direct onstage intervention in I Shall Never Return, however. Earlier, he entered the stage while the actors of Cricot 2’s wandering troupe reprised the roles of characters from his past productions. Unlike the restless, edgy figures who scurry or whirl around the stage to the accompanying tango music, Kantor sits calmly and collectedly at a table in the centre. He has come here to meet with them. Any moment now it seems that he will speak. But despite the anticipation of his words, none emerge from his mouth. His body is mute. Instead, a voice speaks for him from a loudspeaker. It is his own voice, pre-recorded. It addresses the others onstage with him, who react animatedly to his words. They remonstrate with him, threaten him, ask questions, complain. They listen to the voice from the loudspeaker but direct their attentions towards the figure before them. Kantor listens to them, at times interestedly, at times as if lost in thought. He also listens carefully to his own voice. It is suspended between ‘I’ and ‘not-I’, as if in a vacuum. Emitting from another place and time, the voice is a materialized memory par excellence. It fractures the subject’s agency, even as he — ‘I-the Prime Mover’, as he termed his onstage persona in his previous production Let the Artists Die — remains visible and present in front of the audience.

Kantor is not only addressing the ‘hired actors’, but by extension, the real actors of his Cricot 2 company as they reprise their past roles. The words he directs towards them are filled with grief and doubt, but also some semblance of hope:

Dear Actors, Colleagues... Yes, in order to create something, create this world in which you will soundly ascend to applause, I have to fall down — and — I am falling. Our paths are reversed. When one is very unhappy, then suddenly some hellish power is born in this trash called man. One should nourish it. First unhappiness, then this power. I have virtually nothing else to say. Ladies and Gentlemen forgive me my evil and be happy. One has to endure it somehow. Stay with me at the bottom for awhile — an artist must always be at the bottom, because only from the bottom can one shout in order to be heard. There, at the bottom, we can understand one another. But later, just do not go down into hell. Perhaps...[41]

These words emit from the loudspeaker, an intermediation that seems somehow apt given their grandiloquence. For both director and actors, playing these personas is a kind of camouflage that enables them simultaneously to speak in and not-in their own names. Here the othering of the voice is a prerequisite for potentially vulnerable (and disavowable) speech.[42]

In the end, every utterance these returning figures make has already been delivered before. Over time, the words lose their remembered, everyday, or given meanings, and it is the modulations and trajectories of the voice that remain, behind which there is nothing. Lacan suggests that the speaking subject organizes itself around a void, and that the feeling of this absence or lack is a fundamental experience that language serves to cover over. In Kantor’s work, this void is connected with the fluctuations of memory. The continuing recall of what someone, someplace, once said — enacted and re-enacted as groans, chatter, pronouncements, mumbling, repetitive stuttering, the breaking down of phonemes, the stripping bare of sounds — is a means of reckoning with this void, which is also death. Giving voice, speaking out loud, is here a form of reaching back to what has already been spoken, an attempt to recuperate the past and reincorporate memory into the present — to capture it in a word and counter its forgetting (what Kantor terms ‘the invisible, emptiness and death’). But as the director reminds us, this encounter with memory is a domain of ‘bitter ephemerality’, of the ‘pain of disappearance’, ‘beyond the reach of our gaze’, ‘born and [growing] in the regions of our feelings and affects’.[43] Giving voice in this way is thus also an obsessive longing that is condemned to failure.

Kantor’s actor, as we have seen, stands before the spectator ‘deceptively similar’ yet ‘infinitely foreign’ to them. The voice enters into this threshold in-between. Like the punctum that Roland Barthes elaborates in the context of photography — the incidental and unnameable quality in an image that ‘pricks’, ‘bruises’, ‘attracts’, ‘distresses’, ‘triggers’, or ‘disturbs’ the viewer — it pierces the barrier and at the same time engages an affective response, since it carries with it a visceral association with death.[44] (It is perhaps not a coincidence that in Camera Lucida Barthes also likens this aspect of photography to a performance, with specific reference — as in Kantor’s discussion of the actor-spectator relationship — to enactments of death in early theatre and the actors who ‘separated themselves from the community’ as bodies that are ‘simultaneously living and dead’.)[45] Barthes writes that the punctum is ‘a kind of subtle beyond — as if the image launched desire beyond what it permits us to see’.[46] The idea is introduced in relation to an image taken by the Dutch photographer Koen Wessing in 1979, in which parents have discovered the body of their child in the street during the Nicaraguan Revolution. The boy’s corpse is circled by family members and friends and covered over with a white sheet. For Barthes, the small details that ‘pierce’ through and draw attention in this photo are the boy’s bare foot protruding out from underneath the sheet and a second sheet clasped by the grieving mother. These are the unpredictably poignant elements that cause the image to function as something more than the familiar testimony of many thousands of similar photographs to a certain historical, political, and social tragedy. The punctum animates the viewer, displaces their ‘sovereign consciousness’, and unsettles their ordinary way of seeing and experiencing — often in a way that unfolds over time.[47]

It is apt to recall the significance of photography to Kantor’s theatre, not only in his theoretical writings but overtly in his practice.[48] In several of the productions in his Theatre of Death cycle, we hear the sound of firing from a photographic machine gun, styled after a daguerreotype camera. In The Dead Class, it is shaped like a folding bellows and fires at the moment of taking the picture, ‘fixing’ the onstage image momentarily. In Wielopole, Wielopole, it appears in a more elaborate version, as a wheeled tin machine with a zoom barrel and rounds of ammunition on the side. On this occasion there is no doubt from its appearance that this camera is also a weapon. The same object makes an appearance in I Shall Never Return, when the Local Photographer’s Widow from Wielopole, Wielopole brings it onto the stage. The release of the shutter fires like a shot, but it retains both its photographic and lethal functions. It immobilizes and objectifies its subjects instantaneously. The death of the victims merges with the death in the image, ‘a figuration of the motionless and made-up face beneath which we see the dead’.[49] There is a doubling — a dynamic process in which the figures came to be ‘arranged’ and then the eternal stillness of the ready photograph. Kantor’s photographic memory plates onstage are activated only for a moment, and may fall apart at any time, but they bear the constant menace and separation of death.

Barthes’s discussion of Wessing’s photograph here has an additional resonance. His view of the imaging of the boy and how it ‘pricks’ the viewer extends into a metacommentary on photography and this dual functioning. As with Kantor’s mannequin-doubles, and other aspects of his productions that attest to loss or wartime atrocities perpetrated against human bodies, there is a latency and figuration in the performance of memory and death, putting in sharp relief the life that is no longer present. This is also the case for the voice in Kantor’s theatre, which like the punctum occupies a space beyond human agency and intentionality, pointing towards the void. Its mnemonic echo resounds hollowly throughout the room of imagination onstage, hinting at figures, objects, and situations in relief but never fully actualizing them in the present. It emits from the bodies, which briefly and clumsily try to enact or evoke other people’s memories. A vocalization, previously uttered, sounds again in an ambiguous, incidental detail of an impersonation. This spasming regurgitation of the voice makes manifest the fracturing of memory and the subject, bringing us closer to the abject. As Kristeva remarks: ‘Abjection is a resurrection that has gone through death (of the ego). It is an alchemy that transforms death drive into a start of life, of new significance.’[50] Her comment reflects the entire essence of Kantor’s theatre, which searches for life in death and loss. Reckoning with memory is a continuous process of confrontation: ‘fear having been bracketed, discourse will seem tenable only if it ceaselessly confront that otherness, a burden both repellent and repelled, a deep well of memory that is unapproachable and intimate: the abject.’[51] In Kantor’s practice, the voice is a tool that carves out a space for the subject to be in a constant process of becoming with memory, to enact new theatrical forms from out of the abject. It projects into the emptiness of a past immemorial. But it also pierces like a punctum, like an unnameable force and recollection that continues to work within the actor and spectator, in the face of death.

Translated from Polish by Maja Łatyńska, Duncan Jamieson, and Adela Karsznia. English version edited by Duncan Jamieson.


  1. ^ For an audiovisual record of this scene in the performance, see the two filmed versions of Wielopole, Wielopole, dir. by Andrzej Sapija (Łódź: Wytwórnia Filmów Oświatowych, 1984; Kraków: Cricoteka, 2006 [on DVD]) and dir. by Stanisław Zajączkowski (Kraków: Telewizja Polska, 1983; Cricoteka, 2008 [on DVD]). Timings from the DVD editions are given throughout this essay, for ease of reference. Note that translations of fragments from Kantor’s productions have been modified according to the published English-language versions of Kantor’s texts where appropriate, and thus may differ slightly from the translations found in the subtitles of the films. The scene discussed here can be found at 3m:30s–8m:07s (Sapija) and 3:55–9:02 (Zajączkowski) of the respective DVDs. Ed.
  2. ^ Niech sczezną artyści. Rewia’ (Let the Artists Die: A Revue), in Tadeusz Kantor, Pisma (Writings), 3 vols, ed. by Krzysztof Pleśniarowicz (Kraków and Wrocław: Ossolineum and Cricoteka, 2004–2005), III (2005), pp. 9–27 (p. 19).
  3. ^ See Slavoj Žižek, How to Read Lacan (London: Granta Books, 2006).
  4. ^ See ibid., pp. 8 and 55.
  5. ^ Ibid., p. 55.
  6. ^ See Julia Kristeva, Powers of Horror: An Essay on Abjection, trans. by Leon S. Roudiez (New York: Columbia University Press, 1982).
  7. ^ Ibid., pp. 3 and 71.
  8. ^ Ibid., p. 2.
  9. ^ Ibid., p. 3. Emphases in original.
  10. ^ Kantor, ‘Wielopole, Wielopole — Partytura’, fragment trans. and cited in Michal Kobialka, Further On, Nothing: Tadeusz Kantor’s Theatre (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 2009), p. 284. All translations of texts by Kantor included in Further On, Nothing were made by Kobialka. Ed.
  11. ^ For more on readymades, see the chapters by Anna R. Burzyńska and Mischa Twitchin elsewhere in this volume.
  12. ^ Fragment from the performance trans. and cited in Kobialka, Further On, Nothing, p. 465.
  13. ^ For this sequence on film, see Today Is My Birthday, dir. by Stanisław Zajączko­wski (Kraków: Telewizja Polska, 1991; Cricoteka, 2008 [on DVD]), 1:26–8:00.
  14. ^ Rychlicka, in particular, participates in a multiple superposition of roles in I Shall Never Return, playing a travelling actor in the Cricot 2 ensemble (her actual profession), who reprises the part of the Local Photographer’s Widow from eight years before (her own role in Wielopole, Wielopole) and takes on several brief characters (such as the Shepherd and the Servant), while her costume (a distinctively shaped grey raincoat) also evokes her past performance of the title role in The Water-Hen and the figure of the Eternal Wanderer in the period of Kantor’s Happenings during the 1960s.
  15. ^ See I Shall Never Return, dir. by Andrzej Sapija (Telewizja Polska, 1990; Kraków: Cricoteka, 2008 [on DVD]). This sequence can be viewed at 56:48–59:19 in the film.
  16. ^ ‘Ostrzeżenia’ (Warnings), in Kantor, Pisma, II (2004), p. 32.
  17. ^ Kantor, ‘The Dead Class: Selections from the Partytura (1974)’, in Further On, Nothing, pp. 240–76 (p. 254).
  18. ^ Ibid., pp. 244–45.
  19. ^ Krzysztof Pleśniarowicz, The Dead Memory Machine: Tadeusz Kantor’s Theatre of Death, trans. by William Brand (Aberystwyth: Black Mountain Press, 2000), p. 205.
  20. ^ Kantor, ‘Theatrical Place (1970s–1980s)’, in Further On, Nothing, pp. 329–67 (p. 354).
  21. ^ Kantor, ‘A Classroom (1971 or 1972)’, in Further On, Nothing, pp. 226–29 (p. 227).
  22. ^ For more on found objects, see Twitchin’s essay elsewhere in this volume.
  23. ^ Kantor, ‘Niech sczezną artyści. Rewia’, p. 15.
  24. ^ Kantor, ‘The Theatre of Death (1975)’, in Further On, Nothing, pp. 230–39 (p. 236).
  25. ^ See the fragment from Kantor’s ‘Wielopole, Wielopole — Partytura’, trans. and cited in Further On, Nothing, pp. 284–87. For this sequence in the films, see Wielopole, Wielopole, 5:05–5:50 (Sapija) and 4:45–6:36 (Zajączkowski).
  26. ^ See Kantor, ‘The Theatre of Death’, pp. 234–35.
  27. ^ Ibid., p. 237.
  28. ^ Kantor, ‘The Dead Class: Selections from the Partytura’, pp. 242–43.
  29. ^ Ibid., p. 242.
  30. ^ Kantor, ‘My Work — My Journey (1988)’, in Further On, Nothing, pp. 1–25 (p. 11).
  31. ^ See Kristeva, Powers of Horror, pp. 3–4.
  32. ^ For more on the undead from a Lacanian perspective, see Žižek, How to Read Lacan, p. 47.
  33. ^ Kristeva, Powers of Horror, p. 5.
  34. ^ See Wielopole, Wielopole, 28:01–29:24 (Sapija) and 32:32–33:46 (Zajączkowski).
  35. ^ Kantor, ‘The Theatre of Death’, pp. 236 and 234.
  36. ^ See I Shall Never Return, dir. by Sapija, 34:28–36:57
  37. ^ Ibid., 59:30–1:01:58.
  38. ^ Kantor, ‘A Classroom’, p. 227.
  39. ^ See I Shall Never Return, dir. by Sapija, 52:00–53:38.
  40. ^ Ibid., 1:04:20–1:08:30. Fragment trans. and cited in Kobialka, Further On, Nothing, p. 322.
  41. ^ Fragment from the performance trans. and cited in Kobialka, Further On, Nothing, p. 319.
  42. ^ For this extended sequence, see I Shall Never Return, dir. by Sapija, 17:00–28:15.
  43. ^ Kantor, ‘A Classroom’, pp. 227–28.
  44. ^ See Roland Barthes, Camera Lucida: Reflections on Photography, trans. by Richard Howard (New York: Hill and Wang, 1982), pp. 27, 40, 49, and 51, respectively.
  45. ^ Ibid., pp. 31–32. See also Kantor, ‘The Theatre of Death’, p. 237.
  46. ^ Barthes, Camera Lucida, p. 59. Emphasis in original.
  47. ^ See ibid., pp. 23–26 and 53–59.
  48. ^ For examples of Kantor’s reflections on photography and memory, see ‘Klisze’ (Memory Plates), in Kantor, Pisma, III, pp. 24–26; and Wielopole, Wielopole: An exercise in theatre by Tadeusz Kantor, trans. by Mariusz Tchorek and G.M. Hyde, intro. by G. M. Hyde (London and New York: Marion Boyars, 1990).
  49. ^ Ibid., p. 32.
  50. ^ Kristeva, Powers of Horror, p. 15.
  51. ^ Ibid., p. 16.