Born in a small town in Southern Poland, Tadeusz Kantor, as (Romanska, Magda 2012: 186) argues, grew up in in a space that was dominated by Jewish and Christian mysticism, fact that will determine and inspire Kantor in writing future plays and create artworks capitalizing certain symbols, themes and motifs. As he reminisces ‘beyond its everyday life, the little town was turned towards eternity’ as Kantor quotes in (Plesniarewicz, Krzysztof 1994:9)
Ante mentioned, being inspired by the life in this town, later on in his life, Kantor uses his memory as a machine that evokes the events of the past, investigating ‘over years of theatrical experiments’ his plays are based on ‘oppositions between life and death, form and matter, illusion and reality, consciousness and object’ thus on stage he creates ‘a universe of neither form nor matter, in which characters are neither dead nor alive, neither people nor objects’ (Romanska, Magda 2012: 186).
Known for his ideas of radicalism in the all fields of arts, Kantor believed in the permanent development of the ideas transmitted through theatre, he wanted to bring back the primitive overpower of action (Bablet, D. 2006) so he had to go back to the origins, to the rudimental way of expressivity so the audience will be able to contemplate upon the meaning of the basic concepts presented by him (Romanska, Magda 2012: 187).
The viewer, in this case, contemplates in an objective point of view, not being emotionally involved in the sequence of the actions, a subjective action, saw throughout Kantor’s eyes. As (Romanska, Magda 2012: 188) puts it, the viewer stays emotionally protected from the tragedy presented on stage, but Kantor’s goal is ‘to bring the theatrical production to a point of tension at which only one step separates drama from life, the actor from the spectator’ (Kantor Tadeusz 1963).
Kantor: the theatre-maker experiences periods of theatrical activity, in which he is experimenting with specific concepts for each one. He is developing, changing and explores new concepts throughout. For example, in the first period, the Informel Theatre ‘He began to experiment with the notion of chance and unpredictability, staging situations in which actors and viewers had to respond spontaneously. Put in a cage, tied up or left alone, the actors were provoked to create their own stage directions. Asked to interact with machines they did not know how to operate.’ (Romanska, Magda 2012: 189). Throughout the stages of theatrical activities, he also began to experiment with the space, considering it a key factor in the stage action, and different machines, objects, machine-objects and bio-objects. In his vision, every component present on the stage was perceived as an object. (Kantor, T. & Kobialka, Michal 1993: 282).
In the next period, Zero Theatre he stated experimenting with the idea of space and stage composition in depth, considering that space itself was alive, positioning actors and objects in certain spots as a form of expressivity. As he explored this concept in depth, in a certain moment in time, in a production of Madman and the Nun the action was reduced to a minimum but also reduced the role of the dramatic text just for objects and space to take the expressive role in this certain situation. (Gerould 1980:33)
During the period that marks the Theatre of The Dead, Kantor started perceiving the actors as instruments (or bio-objects) covering the deepest human mysteries. In his perspective, the body (physicality) was an embellage that separated the true spirit, the true living from the physical, objective reality. With this in mind, as (Romanska, Magda 2012: 191) puts it, Kantor started to explore with the idea of bio-objects, describing them as ‘a theatrical form in which an actor is connected with an object’ later on, he created works as the ‘Human Nature Preserve’, ‘The Man with a suitcase’, ‘The Man with a Sack and Its Unknown Contents’. The purpose of this combination of man and objects is that, eventually, the man to start working with the object and merge together through repeated movements. The bio-object becomes an essential element of Kantor’s theatre ‘evolving to signify questions of life and death, reality and illusion’ (Romanska, Magda 2012: 191).
During these experiments, before the Dead Class, Kantor and its theatre challenged the relationship between man, object, and history. To bring up (Theodor W. Adorno’s 1993:31-41) piece of work ‘the form was always a function of history. The concept of the bio-object was developed as a metaphorical representation of a man displaced, sentenced to eternal homelessness, modelled on a century-old image, and reinforced by recent history’. He also speaks about the strong relationship between the Dead Class and history and the connection between the images presented in this piece and the terrible tableaux of Auschwitz. He claims that the movements derived from the usage of the objects by men are ‘formal gestures […] too difficult, too abstract, too incomprehensible or too artificial to understand.’ And he also speaks about the viewer’s ability to understand either the superficial or deep level of it (movement) ‘They understood- so it seems – without knowing or understanding what it was that they understood’ (Adorno, Theodor W. and Max Horkheimer 1993: 38)
The controversial subject of the given work as referring to Auschwitz is also discussed by (Karren T. 1976:7) in her work Kantor’s Dead Class, sustaining that there is no real relation between the images of Auschwitz presented, but it embodies the ‘anguish of the Holocaust, which returns as flashes and bits of haunting memory’. In her perspective, Kantor contemplates upon the physical presence and the present, getting to the conclusion that the thought and the action of remembrance is important. She speaks about the embodiment of the whole experience in one’s thoughts and memory, as a plague that annihilates everything but that experience, a disease that kills everything inside and leaves the individual just like an empty vessel. The motif of the affected individual is very meticulous presented as it is the main point of start for this work. For the traumatised individual, ‘Memory is important because, after a traumatic event, one lives only in memory, dwelling in the moment of trauma, reliving it over and over again. (Romanska, Magda 2012: 252).
In her piece of writing, Magda R. also speaks about the importance of the circular structure of Dead Class and the importance of the marionettes and actors parading round and round, returning to the same point in time and space, this action being perceived like an automated one, Magda R. considers the whole space (filled with actors and objects) as functioning like a whole machine. The actors are moving in the same way, merging with their own marionette, this grotesque image also proves and sustains the ante mentioned motif of the traumatised individual. The person is trapped in the same spot in time and space, and all he is able to do is reflect upon the past traumatic events.
The atmosphere presented in The Dead Class is created by the repetitions, the patterns, rhythms and mechanical evocations as (Romanska, Magda 2012: 253) sustains. The used space is closed, filled with actors and objects constantly moving, expressing emotions and thoughts in a repetitive manner. As a lot of psychiatrists have studied and observed, this compulsive repetition is a symptom of post-traumatic stress syndrome – ‘unbidden memories of the trauma may return as physical sensations, horrific images or nightmares, behavioural re-enactments or a combination of these […] Individuals become fixated on the trauma […] as if their personality development has stopped at a certain point’ (Van der Kolk, Bessel A. 1989: 386). In The Dead Class, the compulsive repetitions have a special quality as they are linked to the objects or machine-objects used by the actors to express a deeper level of trauma. For example, when one of the actors (the cleaner) is using a broom-shaped stick, he starts to adjust to its rhythmic movements until they become a single ‘machine-object’ (defined by Kantor in one of his interviews ‘death in action’). In this scene, Richard Eder considers that this merge between the actor and object (that creates some sort of machine-object) creates a strange sense of beauty ‘What we see is certainly hermetic; frequently repetitious […] but it is not pretentious, there are power and beauty into its images and sharpness’ (Eder, Richard 1979). From another point of view, these repetitions are voiding the action of meaning, reducing the role of the actor, becoming a mechanized puppet, for example, the exposure of the breast ‘the effects are rather different […] the compulsive, even mechanical repetition of the exposure of the breast makes its own comment on lust and desire, stunned, killed by endless, meaningless, joyless encounters’ (Loney Glenn 1979:11). The meaning of the action, in these situations is drastically changed due to the socio-political context exposed by Kantor in its piece.
As Cathy Caruth argues in (Lanzmann Claude 1995:200) ‘the traumatised, we might say, carry an impossible history within them, or they become themselves the symptom of a history that they cannot entirely possess’ In the given work, the individuals carry corpses of themselves as children, unable to process them, get away of them or assimilate into themselves. The usage of the marionettes (especially in the beginning) will make the viewer, in her opinion, emphasise on the idea of a locked, isolated time. The individuals won’t be able to escape that loop, this image resonates in a manner that will make the viewer experience the visual essence of death, just in front of their eyes.
Another dominant motif in The Dead Class, as (Gussow Mel. 1970) argues in an interview for New York Times is ‘besides the return to childhood, is that of raising the dead; the Old Men and Women of Dead Class are like living dead, ghosts returning to their childhood schoolroom where they pose for a post-mortem reunion photograph’. Kantor is not just presenting actions from the past on stage, he is raising the dead to give the audience a moral lesson, just like in Shakespeare or Elizabethan theatre, the dead are coming back as ghosts or hallucinations. But the special element Kantor is presenting through objects facilitating the memory is evoking characters ‘that are not of the other world […] they live and dwell in memory.’ (Romanska, Magda 2012: 255)
Another key element in Kantor’s vision for expressivity is the Bio-Object, (Romanska, Magda 2012: 267) defines them as forms of theatrical expressivity that are brought into existence by joining the physicality of the actor and an object, ‘forcing the actor into a symbiotic relationship with the object, Kantor […] demanded that the actor reinvent the role assigned to him’ thus sustaining through another figure of expressivity the motifs ante presented. The changing of the situation by placing one object, the change in rhythm, the redefining of the death is redefined by the actor compelled to ‘redefine himself in the new physical situation.
In conclusion, Kantor creates a theatre in which the classical theatrical motifs (i.e. death perceived in the Elizabethan era) are changed, redefined, given another meaning. These forms of expressivity are facilitated by the tactical use of the objects, machine-objects, bio-objects and stage composition; thus, his theatre is capable of explore and discuss unexplored matters or matters with another value than the original one.
In my opinion, Kantor is not just evoking events from the past. The viewer is not just capable of observing the ghosts of his memory but analyse characters that are alive but stuck in that time, space, memory.
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