The tricks of the theatre despised and slighted

Encounters with Tadeusz Kantor

November 9, 2006

There is an irony in reading a book about someone as distrustful of the written word as Tadeusz Kantor; indeed, one suspects that it may have deterred its author, Krysztof Miklaszewski, from writing it. All the same, no one could be better qualified for the task. Miklaszewski was one of the most important actors of the repertory company with which Kantor devised his various productions and understood his work from the inside.

Not only that, but from 1972 until Kantor's death in 1990, he had the foresight to conduct periodic interviews with him, dealing with his theatrical projects, his philosophical and theoretical opinions, and his techniques.

Transcriptions of these interviews provide the central sections of Encounters with Tadeusz Kantor , translated by George Hyde. The remainder of the book consists of descriptive accounts of the best known of the works, including a commentary on Lovelies and Dowdies (1973), a summary of the critical reception of Dead Class (1975), an account of Wielopole, Wielopole (1980) and notes on a documentary about Let the Artists Die! (1985).

As a whole, this book contains a wealth of information on an eccentric, brilliant (and, one senses, reluctant) man of the theatre. Having begun his career as an artist, Kantor experienced the revolution brought about by surrealism at first hand. After the war, he became director of the painting department at the Stary Theatre in Krak"w and appears to have remained a set designer for many years, becoming known for his use of mobile sets, puppets and grotesque forms.

Kantor took over the Cricot 2 Theatre as early as 1958, but his first mature work as originator and director seems to date from 1973, when Lovelies and Dowdies was first performed as a "manifestation of the Impossible Theatre". Dead Class , performed all over the world, marked a turning point in his reputation; Wielopole, Wielopole and Where are the Snows of Yesteryear? followed. He died in December 1990, shortly after a rehearsal of his last work, Today is My Birthday .

For Kantor, the literary text was only a starting point. "Writing a play for the theatre is just nonsense," he once said; he wanted to "break" with literature. His was a "painter's theatre", opposed to the "imitation and mimicry, falsity and bad taste, pretentiousness and artifice" of conventional drama.

He would appear among the actors during performances of his work, "conducting his work in an offhand yet firm way". The techniques he used were those of "travelling theatre, peripheral theatre, theatre despised and slighted". As he observed,"All our procedures go back to the fairground sideshow."

For all its thoroughness, this book leaves me wondering what a performance of one of Kantor's works was really like. And it is not always easy to understand what Kantor means when, in the interviews, he speaks in theoretical terms.

Some explanatory footnotes might have helped, not to mention an explanation of Kantor's method, which remains shadowy and mysterious to the end, besides the observation that it was "very clear-cut and precise. A method which he never disclosed, expostulating at press conferences that his 'school' had no interest for him. He was the 'Kantor school', he said; his imagination, his unconscious, his performance, and... chance".

Duncan Wu is professor of English, Oxford University.

Encounters with Tadeusz Kantor

Author - Krzysztof Miklaszewski
Publisher - Routledge
Pages - 172
Price - £19.99
ISBN - 0 415 37263 1

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