Cricoteca, the Centre for the Documentation of the Art of Tadeusz Kantor (1915-1990), a Polish avant-guarde artist, stage designer and, above all, a celebrated theatre director, is a striking addition to the unique architecture of Krakow, Poland. I found their permanent exhibition devoted to his art captivating. The section where I spent most time was dedicated to Kantor’s staging of The Return of Odysseus. Since The Odyssey is perhaps the central myth of my spiritual path, I was thrilled to find yet another proof that it is alive and pertinent to any historical reality. Let me quote from a lecture by Professor Mirosław Kocur, which you can find here:
“In 1944, in the town of Kraków, then occupied by the German military forces, Tadeusz Kantor … was planning to stage at the main Kraków Railway Station, crowded with Nazi soldiers and police, The Return of Odysseus – a drama by another Polish visionary Stanisław Wyspiański (1869-1907). At that time the Nazis were in full retreat and Kantor envisaged Odysseus as a German Soldier coming home by train after the German surrender at Stalingrad (02.02.1943). A war criminal and a traitor, Odysseus was also coming from the world of ancient fiction to the real world. At the dirty and ugly station nobody would notice him, nobody would care who he is and what he did. There was no Ithaca anymore. The station was an embodiment of a reality of a lower order.
Of course, this idea has never materialised. Kantor had to stage his play in a private apartment. But still people who let him do it were risking their lives, as was the artist himself. There was a Nazi police station on the other side of the street and at any moment the Germans could break in. Moreover, the performance itself referred to the war events directly. When Odysseus directed his bow towards the suitors, the audience could hear the rattle of a machine gun coming from the real loudspeaker stolen from the street. …
There was not a set design or props; the performance was staged in a room destroyed by the war. The spectators were not separated from the artists. There was no isolated space for illusion. Everything had to be real. But the reality of wartime was the reality of the lowest order. The objects used in the performance were the “poor objects” found on the street. “This everyday REALNESS – explained Kantor, who was the best commentator of his own works – which was firmly rooted in both place and time, immediately permitted the audience to perceive this mysterious current flowing from the depth of time when the soldier, whose presence could not have been questioned, called himself by the name of the man who had died centuries ago”. Only the huge canon was artificial: made of wood, it placed the war in the realm of fiction. Or more accurately: in the realm of death.”
Another scholar, Martin Paul Leach, quotes Kantor’s commentary on the appearance of Odysseus’ room:
“In the room where The Return of Odysseus took place I did not make any decorations and there was no division between the stage and the house, so practically there was no borderline which usually marks the area of the stage, the space of illusion … . I said to myself that the room had to be real. I created a room destroyed by the War; it was real, because there were thousands of such rooms in Poland at that time. The room in Stryjenska’s flat had to be made up so that it looked destroyed. We damaged the walls so that bricks and rubble were seen; we broke up some of the floor; we brought old cardboard boxes from the attic; they were covered with lime and dust, and the spectators sat on them.”
“Finally, I make a decision to accept the empty and colorless whitewashed walls of the room as part of [the] ‘artistic work’. The walls are bare, naked. They cordon off the room. An awfully e m p t y world. And in this emptiness—USELESS WRECKS. Under the wall-heaven, there lies a long and heavy gun barrel.
Odysseus sits on it. Somewhere on the other end of this world-room, there is a piece of poor, simple wooden plank— remains of a shipwreck. A Wreck. Maybe at the very end, ‘on the horizon,’ under the wall, the audience will be seated. But still the reality of this room— these walls—heaven produce imaginary illusion. I would like to paint them myself—using grays and whites— an empty canvas. Maybe this can never happen, that a real, living space of a room, a room in which we live, becomes part of the domain of imagination; that this real room becomes a site of events, situations, objects, and people, belonging to imagination; that life is mixed with illusion; reality with art.”
Returning to Kocur, his final remarks on Kantor’s take on Odysseus are quite insightful:
“But Kantor was an eternal pilgrim himself, he internalized the great Homeric myth by repeating the journey of Odysseus with his art and with his life. In 1955 he founded Cricot 2 Theatre, named after the theatre of painters, which existed in Kraków in the years 1933-1939. The French-sounding term “cricot” was an anagram from Polish “to cyrk”, “this is a circus”. Kantor’s theatre never had any legal status or any building for staging performances. It was a genuine travelling troupe. The world of performance was Kantor’s real home and his journey was a spiritual one, towards self-discovery.
Kantor’s travelling theatre was the twentieth century version of an old Greek myth. Like Odysseus he went into the realm of Death and then returned to discover himself in his own art.”
At the entrance to the exhibition, Kantor’s Little Manifesto is quoted, from which comes the following excerpt:
“It is not true that MODERN man is a spirit which has vanquished FEAR … It is not true! FEAR exists: fear before the outside world, fear before our destiny, before death, fear before the unknown, before nothingness, before the void … It is not true that the artist is a hero or an audacious and intrepid conqueror as a conventional legend would have it … Believe me! he is a POOR MAN without arms and without defence who has chosen his PLACE face to face with FEAR in full awareness! It is from awareness that fear is born.“
In this humble acceptance of humanity I see Kantor’s honesty of the highest rank.