Requiem for the Twentieth Century

In a moment I will enter with my ”luggage” a shabby and suspicious inn.
  I have traveled to it for a long time. At nights.  Sleepless nights.
  I have traveled here to meet, I am not sure what, with apparitions or people…”

– Tadeusz Kantor, I Shall Not Return

Every week, it seems we lose another great artist, writer, composer of the last half of the twentieth century. The list of those in the art world who have departed in recent years is long. Pina Bausch, Trisha Brown, Merce Cunningham, Donald McKayle, Rachel Rosenthal, David Antin, Robert Ashley, Art Jarvinen, Ornette Coleman, Lou Reed, Glenn Branca, Nancy Holt, Helen Mayer Harrison, Vito Acconci, Geoff Hendricks, to name just a few.

Their mortality is inevitable. But hopefully, the works they created and left behind live on quite independent of their creators to enrich and inspire the next generation. Sometimes they disappear in revisionist histories, only to re-emerge decades or even centuries later. Dance, music, and theatrical works are the most vulnerable as they depend on the living to perform, restage, and animate them for a new audience. So it seems fitting that some of our well-seasoned artists with deep roots in the twentieth century have recently chosen to pay tribute to the creative giants who have so inspired them and us.

Founded in 1975 as a collaborative ensemble of artists, the theatrically experimental Wooster Group has a long history of deconstructing and staging their own postmodern multimedia interpretations of the works of notable playwrights. Arthur Miller’s The Crucible (L.S.D. (…Just The High Points…) 1985-85, Racine’s Phedre (To You, The Birdie!) 2001, Francesco Cavalli’s 1641 opera La Didone 2007, Tennesses Wiliams’ Vieux Carre, 2011, amongst many others. At their best Wooster Group has brought whole new perspectives to these works infusing them with contemporary significance. Thus taking on the work and legacy of the late visionary Polish theater director Tadeusz Kantor (1915-1990) and his Cricot 2 collective seems a natural fit.

Their most recent work, A Pink Chair (In Place of a Fake Antique) was a direct tribute to Kantor and his creative process. It was an elliptical memorial, more transcription than appropriated remaking, bearing witness to Kantor’s iconic imagery, philosophy and politics through video conversations between Dorota Krakowska the departed artist’s daughter, Wooster director Elizabeth LaCompte, performer Kate Valk and others. This unrehearsed backstage view was a consistent thread running throughout the work. The recorded series of discussions, reminiscences and evocations of the lost father and his art was intercut with archival footage of his theatrical rehearsals and productions. It was paired with a simultaneous live staging of Kantor’s I Shall Never Return that precisely mirrored the original, which premiered in 1988 two years before his death. The Pink Chair was filled with a peculiar sense of loss generated by Krakowska’s longing to find her father by connecting with his spirit through his works. But memory is subjective. Krakowska fast forwards tapes, skipping images she doesn’t like. (She liked him only in black suits.) Kantor is a shadowy ghost, a phantom presence, a simulation, the mortality of which is made all the more palpable by this effort at resurrection. It was at times a disconcerting illusion. Kantor, the director, often appeared on stage with his actors. In Part Three of The Pink Chair Zbigniew “Z” Bzymek cast as The Man in the Place of Kantor, narrated while taped to a chair. He is both an old man in a black suit and an effigy. It was hard to tell whether the other actors’ voices were coming from the ones in the video or the ones on stage. Are they speaking or lip-syncing or both?

Photo By Steven Gunther

Kantor’s work has been referred to as “the theatre of death”, a theater whose repeated themes have been concerned with the persistence of memory, the relationship between the living and the dead, as well as the contradictory nature of repression and the roles of state, military, and church within Polish society. In his most famous work The Dead Class (1975) Kantor presided over a class of dead characters confronting their younger living selves represented by wax mannequins. In Wooster’s The Pink Chair the relationship between the living and dead is reiterated by the relationship between the video and live performance in which the live performers appear at times as replicas of their former selves as seen in the video. Who is watching whom?

Kantor’s imagery was drawn from the specters of death witnessed in his youth and much of his adult life from Hitler’s invasion of Poland and the holocaust that followed, to the post WWII Soviet occupation of Poland. The old men in black clothes, the goose-stepping soldiers, the tattered children, the huddled refugees, the priest, the informer, the machinery of terror, memories lodged in the sub-conscious reoccur over and over, to be relived again and again on the stage. There are the old suitcases, the violins, the cabaret songs, the interrogations. The dreams (or nightmares) of mortality were brought into the present moment in his final work I Shall Never Return. The result is a last will and testament in which Kantor the visionary director is a character confronting his apparitions, a man and his ghost simultaneously present and absent.

Photos By Steven Gunther

I had the privilege of seeing Kantor’s Cricot 2 production of Wielopole, Wielopole! at the 1984 Los Angeles Olympic Arts Festival when the images and the context were still alive in the historical memory of much of the audience. For many, myself included it was a profound experience. Although the Wooster Group’s re-enactment of I Shall Never Return was a reverent requiem, I am left wondering if it has any resonance with the generation born in the last twenty years for whom the twentieth century is little more than an old movie they have never seen. The content of Kantor’s story needs to be reborn in a new context so that the young can recognize in the imagery today’s waves of migrants and refugees fleeing zones of war and oppression with nothing but what they can carry; so that today’s generation can perceive what the dismantling of our democratic institutions means and what it leads to. The phantoms of history do not go away, they merely change costumes. In the consciousness of artists and their audiences in the last half of the twenty-first century, will the hauntings of Hitler, Mussolini and Stalin’s years of domination and totalitarian oppression, be replaced in memory by those of Trump, Kim Jong-Un and Putin.

Just as Kantor’s The Dead Class was a fascinating and mysterious revelation for a young Elizabeth LeCompte in 1979, let us hope that their works and others, will survive and live on to inform and inspire those who follow them.


The Wooster Group
The Pink Chair (In Place of a Fake Antique)
April 5-8, 10-15, 2018
631 W. 2nd Street, Downtown Los Angeles

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