The Dead Class - Tadeusz Kantor
The Dead Class / Umarła klasa is a story about the impossibility of returning to one’s past and childhood. It has been performed over 1,500 times in many countries around the world, and in 1976 it was deemed by Newsweek as the best theatrical play in the world.
The premiere of The Dead Class took place at the Krzytofory Gallery in Kraków on 15th November, 1975 (earlier, in September, fragments of the play had been shown to the guests of the International Association of Art Critics).
After the play Dainty Shapes and Hairy Apes / Nadobnisie i koczkodany (1973), in which the audience participated in the action in a planned and deliberate manner, Kantor created a closed work. In 1978 he stated the following in a conversation with Teresa Bętkowska:
I believe that an artwork has to be closed if it is to fascinate. A closed artwork forces the viewers to focus. They’re forced to feel like people in the shadow of a huge pyramid, which is inaccessible but has a colossal, not to say metaphysical, influence. However, this pyramid emanates certain vibes. The Dead Class is a closed work, because the idea of open theatre has long since passed.
The artist emphasized this closedness by cordoning off an area for the play: he separated the stage from the audience with a rope, he set up wooden “corners”. He himself stood on the same side as the actors.
Old, wooden school desks – one of the most recognizable scenographic elements of Kantor’s theatre – were among the first objects to appear at rehearsals. Andrzej Wełmiński reminisced that:
They determined the behaviour and the play of the actors and put the actors into a certain structure. The scenic space was virtually limited to them and to a small part of the floor around them, which was separated from the rest of the world by a rope suspended by poles. The rope was of the kind that is used in museums to cordon off valuable exhibits. The desks were placed in a corner so the play’s whole action was pushed to the side.
Kantor assigned a very important role to mannequins, which had already appeared earlier in his theatre – in The Water Hen / Kurka wodna (1967) and in two plays realized without the Cricot 2 theatre, The Shoemakers / Szewcy (1972) and Balladyna (1974). But it was in The Dead Class that the humanoid figures were to cause a real shock. The mannequins resembling figures from a wax museum and referring to Craig’s Ubermarionettes were, according to Kantor, a manifestation of “the trade of offence” and “the message of death”. Jan Kłossowicz wrote what follows:
Considering the components of the play, the mannequin is in a border position – situated between object and actor. A humanoid figure is an object, but it looks like an actor and evokes different associations than a piece of furniture or machine. (…) Mannequins embody the metaphysical side of theatre.
The main characters of the play are elderly men who return to their school desks after many years, carrying backpacks and mannequins – figures of the aged men’s childhoods. The grand entrée of the actors is accompanied by the sound of the annoyingly recurring Francois Waltz. A lesson takes place, the senior pupils make faces, cry out and shove one another. The images from the class blend with great history (a reference to the outbreak of World War I) and with fragments of Witkacy’s play Tumor Brainowicz / Tumor Mózgowicz.
Kantor included in the lesson from The Dead Class the tragic history of the Jewish nation which took place on Polish soil during the last war. (…) The mannequins thrown into a fire bring to mind the extermination of a nation. A metal ball rhythmically rattles in a cradle, from which a baby’s cry should be coming.
That is what Zygmunt Greń wrote in 1977. Apart from addressing historical issues The Dead Class also tells about the impossibility of returning to one’s childhood and past – maybe that’s why viewers the world over were moved by this universal work so strongly.
- T. Kantor, Writings. The Theatre of Death. Texts from the Years 1975-1984 / Pisma. Teatr Śmierci. Teksty z lat 1975-1984, selected and edited by K. Pleśniarowicz, pub. Ossolineum-Cricoteca, Wrocław-Kraków 2004
- J. Kłossowicz, Tadeusz Kantor. Teatr / Tadeusz Kantor. Theatre, pub. Państwowy Instytut Wydawniczy, Warsaw 1991
- K. Pleśniarowicz, Tadeusz Kantor’s Theatre of Death / Teatr Śmierci Tadeusza Kantora, pub. Verba, Chotomów 1990
- W. Sperl, Photographs from Tadeusz Kantor’s Séance The Dead Class 1975-1976 / Fotografie z seansu Tadeusza Kantora Umarła Klasa 1975-1976, edited by J. Chrobak, pub. Cricoteka, Kraków 2007
- The Dead Class. A Séance by Tadeusz Kantor 1975-1979, edited by J. Chrobak, J. Michalik, pub. Cricoteka, Kraków 2011