Christopher Vened Szwaja
AN INTERVIEW WITH MYSELF
A theatrical Memoir
Christopher Vened Szwaja
Table of Contents
Part I : My Theatrical Beginnings 1
Part II : Getting Into the Wroclaw Pantomime Theatre 23
Part III : Becoming an Actor-Mime 69
Part IV : Playing Dionysus 95
Part V : Defection 125
Part VI : Immigrating to West Berlin 138
PART I: MY THEATRICAL BEGINNINGS
INTERVIEWER: You began your career in mime theater. Is that correct?
ME: No. I began in musical theater.
I: Musical theater?
I: Ha, ha, ha, I can’t imagine you in a musical.
I: It’s not true, is it?
M: Yes, it is. I started as a dancer and worked about two years in the ballet of the Wroclaw Operetta. Afterward, I joined the Wroclaw Pantomime Theater of Henryk Tomaszewski and became a mime.
I: That’s curious.
I: I suppose you had to go to ballet school prior to working in the Wroclaw Operetta?
M: No, I didn’t. When I started working there, I was entirely raw material and already twenty years old.
I: That’s incredible.
M: I was a late bloomer.
I: Does one often become a dancer without ballet school at such an old age?
M: No. In fact, it’s very rare. One is supposed to start at a young age. But there are some exceptional cases, as was mine.
I: How did it happen?
M: By chance.
I: Tell me.
M: It’s little bit convoluted.
I: Tell me anyway.
M: I was twenty years old at the time. I had just moved to Wroclaw, rented a room, and enrolled in college.
I: What kind of college?
M: The Business College of Foreign Trades.
I: You went to a business college?
M: Yes, I did.
I: I thought you hated business people.
M: Yeah, I know.
I: Did you want to become a businessman?
M: No, I did not.
I: So why did you go to business school?
M: It was just a temporary solution. I had no interest in business but enrolled in the school to avoid being drafted into the army.
I: Yes, it’s a little bit convoluted.
M: I need to explain something about the reality of socialist Poland in the seventies to make it clear.
I: Please, do.
M: You see, at that time the army was obligatory and lasted between two to three years. But it could be postponed or exempted or shortened to one year if you were a student in a college or university.
I: I understand that. But I still don’t understand why you chose a business school. Did you have other options?
M: I did, but under the circumstance, this one seemed the best.
I: What was the circumstance?
M: I wasn’t certain what I wanted to study and couldn’t make up my mind. My parents always wanted me to study at a polytechnic school to become an engineer. I wanted it too, so I had been focusing on science and technology. But with time, I lost interest in it, not because I stopped liking those subjects, but because I realized that those fields were backwater in socialist Poland. There was no exciting future in them but instead fraudulent stagnation, which meant compromised ambitions for the price of a mediocre career and small comfort. That was not good enough for me. So, I grew disheartened and my interests shifted to the humanities, such as literature and the arts.
I: That’s quite a shift, totally to the opposite pole.
M: Yes, it is. I was tempted to study literature but the problem was that I wasn’t ready for it yet. I always thought to become an engineer not a humanist. So, you see, I was in a period of transition, not to say confusion, and that is why I temporarily landed in the Business College of Foreign Trades. Of course, it was easier for me to get into it than to the University for literature. Besides, I had interest in foreign languages and that college offered three of them, English, German, and Russian. So my plan was to attend the business college for a year and in the mean time to make up my mind about what I really wanted to study -- science or literature.
I: Did you finally decide?
M: No, never. I kept and studied both kinds of books. Common sense was telling me to stick with science, but my desires were tempting me toward the humanities. I kept hesitating, swaying as a pendulum: the more I leaned toward science, the more I desired literature and vice versa. It was an inversely proportional dynamic. Finally, I became exhausted from swaying in hesitation and my pendulum came to a dead stop in the middle. I was going nowhere, my fate hung in suspension, and I was stuck in the psychologically unbearable predicament of being paralyzed by indecision. In that moment, when my pendulum of fate had entirely stopped and it felt like the end of the world, blind chance knocked on my door and said, “There is a third option for you: the theater.”
I: And you went for it.
M: Without thinking twice!
I: How come?
M: The theater beckoned to me seductively and called, “Come and play! Come and play!”
I: Ha, ha, ha, ha.
M: Ha, ha, ha, ha.
I: And that was all you wanted, just to play?
M: Yes, I just wanted to have fun.
I: Nothing more?
M: Like what?
I: Like a serious motive or calling to do theater!
M: Come on, what’s a better motive to do theater than a desire to play and have fun.
I: There are many more profound ones than that. You, yourself, in your book on acting, In Character: An Actor's Workbook for Character Development, said that a purpose of acting is to figure out human identity.
M: That’s right, I said that, but I said that as a mature man. I arrived at that after doing theater for twenty or more years. But in the beginning, when I was starting, I had no other agenda or calling than to play. It was my initial impulse in theater, and I’d better not forget it because there is something inspiring in it, something that still gives me a thrill.
I: What is it?
M: It is the homo ludens in us.
I: For clarity sake, what does it mean?
M: “Homo ludens” means in Latin “the playing human”.
I: Now, less in abstract and more in facts, can you tell me what was the “chance” that brought you to theater?
M: Yes, I can.
M: One evening my roommate, Richard Gizowski, came home and said, “I am going to audition for the ballet of the Wroclaw Operetta tomorrow morning.” I thought it was a crazy idea (and totally unrealistic) and yet I got interested and decided to go with him.
M: For fun, no other reason – I was deadly bored with my studies at the Business College of Foreign Trades although I had been there for only two or three weeks. I was particularly bored the day Richard told me about the audition. I had spent long hours that day listening to very boring lectures. This was not only my impression; I looked around my classrooms and saw that almost all, if not all, students were falling into a morbid stupor. In addition, it was an oppressively stuffy day: fog and drizzle stood still. It got into me. When I came back to the rented room in the evening and tried to study, I could not make myself. I was not able to focus. That evening I was seriously in doubt if I would be able to stand that college for long. And when I was in such a foul mood, Richard showed up and told me about his plan. Hey, this idea sounded like a salvation, if only for a few hours. I wanted to go there just to break the monotony. Based on that experience, I may say that my motive to go into theater, if I had any, was generated out of boredom. I later found out that this is typical for many artists.
I: How was the audition?
M: It was quick and easy.
I: Tell my about it.
M: We had an audition at eleven in the morning in the Operetta’s Ballet Auditorium. Richard and I rode there by trolley. On the way, we passed the theater, which was in one of those grand, nineteenth century buildings on Swierczewski’s Street. Richard pointed at the windows on the second floor and said, “It’s there.” I didn’t see much but the upper bodies of two or three dancers exercising at the bar next to the large neoclassical windows, and yet it was enough to immediately impress me.
I: What was your first impression?
M: That the dancers were beings without earthly gravity, as if they were from another much lighter world than ours and by that happier.
I: You thought that then?
M: I don’t remember exactly what I thought then, but I think that now. Then I was just looking and taking in. I saw something extraordinary up there, something that appeared particularly vivid in contrast to the mundaneness of the ordinary life on the street below, which wasn’t so appealing at that time in socialist Poland. But it was just a short moment that pricked my imagination. The trolley stop was a hundred yards or so in the distance. We got off there and walked back to the theater. At the gate, which was inside of the viaduct leading to the inner court of the building, Richard’s friend, Wojtek, was already waiting. He was surprised to see me. Richard laconically explained to him that I was going to the audition too. “Oh,” he reacted really surprised. “Is it okay?” Richard asked him. He took a moment to ponder and said directly to me, “I set the appointment for Richard and me, but I think that there should be no problem if you come along with us.”
I: Who was Wojtek?
M: Wojtek was Richard’s friend. They both were involved together with student theaters, and later on, they worked with Jerzy Grotowski. (They were in his second company that focused on paratheatrical research.)
I: What happened next?
M: We had a few minutes to spare, so we hung at the gate and then around eleven we went upstairs. The rehearsal spaces and offices for the Wroclaw Operetta were located on the second floor of the building. When we got there, we had trouble finding the ballet auditorium, so we dispersed in the empty hallway and began checking the signs on the many doors. A moment later, a blond- haired woman with a coffee pot in her hand burst out from one of the offices. She noticed us and became very suspicious about our presence there.
She stopped and asked with barely hidden hostility, “What are you looking for here, gentlemen?”
“We are looking for the ballet auditorium,” Wojtek answered.
“The ballet auditorium?!” the woman repeated with growing alarm. “What for?”
“We have an appointment with Professor Clara Kmitto,” Wojtek calmly said.
“You, you are here for an audition? Is that right?”
“Yes, that’s right,” Wojtek confirmed.
“That’s great,” she said suddenly becoming very friendly. “It’s there,” she indicated down the hall.
We followed here as she led us to a waiting room that was adjacent to the auditorium. As we entered the room, the woman pointed to some chairs and told us to take a seat. “Wait for Clara here, she is still in class – it’s running over,” she explained, “which is typical.” She slightly opened the door to the auditorium and took a short peek inside. “I believe it will be over soon,” she said. Then she wished us good luck and left.
So, we waited there listening to the music that came through the door from the auditorium. Then the music stopped, the door flung wide open, and the dancers started pouring out of the auditorium. They were dressed in leotards, tights, and ballet slippers, clothes so tightly fitted to their bodies that they looked almost naked. Seeing them stirred me up, I couldn’t stop staring at their shamelessly exposed bodies. There was something unnatural about it, something narcissistic. I wasn’t sure how to look at them, to look at them as sexual or aesthetic objects.
I: So how did you?
M: Both, and that was what was confusing.
I: Ha, ha, ha. It was all in your mind.
M: Partly, yes, but partly, it was out there.
I: I hope you didn’t shout, “The king is naked!”
M: No, I didn’t, but I was tempted to shout, “The dancers are naked!”
I: Ha, ha, ha. They are, or rather semi-naked, and that’s the whole point, isn’t it?
M: Yes, it is. And that’s what I realized only then, while gaping on the dancers leaving the auditorium. The whole company paraded in front of our eyes. What a display it was!
I: And then?
M: Clara Kmitto, the ballet master, appeared in the doorway and invited us in for our audition. She was a short-statured, slightly-getting-plump, middle-aged woman with dark, short hair and enormously high energy – very enthusiastic and driven.
“Do you have exercise clothes with you, gentlemen?” she asked.
“No, we don’t,” Wojtek responded.
“It doesn’t matter,” she assured us. “In this case, please, take off your shoes. It will be enough. I just want to check your anatomical predispositions,” she explained.
After we took off our shoes, she asked us to approach the bar and stand in the first ballet position facing the bar and to make a few battements tendus simples to the side. We, of course, had no idea what the first position was and didn’t understand what battement tendus simple meant. So, Clara showed us, and we repeated after her. Next, she demonstrated how to stand in all five basic ballet positions and do both plies and grand-plies without holding the bar. It looked easy when she did it but was hard to do when we tried. You can’t imagine how grotesquely clumsy we looked doing those exercises.
I: Actually, I can.
M: Ha, ha, ha, ha, ha,
M: I recall the faces of my friends: Richard looked embarrassed; Wojtek, terrified. Both of them were stiff, inhibited, distorted, and wobbly, trying desperately to stay on balance.
I: And you?
M: I don’t know how I looked but I felt as to laugh.
I: Did you?
M: No, I did not. It would have been unbecoming.
I: How so?
M: Clara didn’t laugh at us.
I: She probably did later.
M: I don’t doubt it.
I: How was she?
M: Gracious. She didn’t let us know in any way how inadequate we were to the task but encouraged us when we became shy and consoled us when we were falling off balance. “Don’t worry, you are doing great, keep going, keep going!” she rushed us on. Before we knew it, we were done with the exercises. Then in the end, she tested if we had a sense of rhythm. She took a stick and tapped two rhythm combinations on the floor. Then she handed the stick to each of us, one after another, and asked us to tap the same rhythms. We did that and it was over. Directly after the audition, Clara Kmitto took me aside and offered me a part-time job as a ballet apprentice, starting immediately.
M: Not really. I wasn’t that enthusiastic about it.
I: Why not?
M: I didn’t expect to be offered a job. It seemed unrealistic. So, when it came down to it, I wasn’t ready for it.
I: What did you expect then?
I: That’s absurd!
M: Seemingly so, but not really.
I: What do you mean?
M: When I went to the audition, I didn’t mean to take it seriously. I just went for fun, for the company sake, just to entertain myself for a moment, not for the whole life. So when Clara Kmitto offered me a job, I thought, what have I done? It’s a mistake! I didn’t really mean it. But I didn’t tell her that. How could I? Instead, I told her that I would be happy to take the job but on the condition that it didn’t interfere with my studies at college.
I: What did she say to that?
M: First, she frowned and said that it might be a problem. But after reviewing my academic schedule, she decided that she could get around it. So, I took the job.
I: Why was Clara Kmitto so eager to hire you?
M: I really don’t know, but it was nice to be wanted for nothing.
I: On which base did she hire you?
M: Clara said that I had very good natural predispositions to ballet.
I: What were those “natural predispositions”?
M: I was naturally athletic and a good mover.
I: But you had no dancing skills.
M: That’s not quite true. I had no ballet skills but I was a good ballroom dancer.
M: Yes, really.
I: How did you learn ballroom dancing?
M: I grew in a tourist town. Ballroom dancing was a way of life. Every evening, except Mondays, there was dancing in the local cafes and nightclubs in Międzygórze. If a boy wanted to get a girl, he had to first dance with her. It was the habitual way of getting to know each other.
I: So you learned ballroom dancing picking up tourist girls?
M: Yes, I did.
I: Did you do a lot of ballroom dancing then?
M: Yes. The tourist tours changed every two weeks.
I: And you had to pick up a new girl from each tour?
M: That was the routine.
I: I see.
M: Ha, ha, ha.
I: So you were a gigolo?
M: No, I wasn’t a gigolo, not at all.
I: Just having fun with girls.
M: That’s right.
I: You were just a natural dancer.
M: That’s right.
I: Was ballroom dancing useful or helpful for ballet?
M: On one hand it was because it gave me confidence to go for it, but on the other hand, it was more of an obstacle because I had acquired certain habits in ballroom dancing that were considered bad in ballet.
I: Like what? What were they?
M: Mostly my inclination to improvise. In ballroom dancing, improvisation is expected, but in ballet, it is forbidden. And that’s a major difference. Ballroom dancing is an art that is partly free in form. Although there are particular patterns of steps to follow, such as a waltz or a tango, the dancer can execute them freely in space, improvising. So, I was used to doing that. I could take a girl for a dance on a parquet floor and lead her wherever I wanted, and she would follow. At least many girls would (at that time, people still knew how to dance.) But in ballet, forget it, there is no room for improvisation. The dances are precisely choreographed, and the dancers are not supposed to change it.
I: It’s called professionalism.
M: Yes, it is. But I was an amateur dancer then, although a good one, the transition from being an amateur to a professional is a tricky one. It doesn’t necessary go in a straight line of progress from one to the other. Some say that it is like two different things, you are either one or the other.
I: How did you manage?
M: I had to restrict my natural impulses, my spontaneity, and learn how to submit to the rigor of form. Classical ballet is a theatrical convention that is entirely formalized. It’s a system of positions and movements that are precisely defined. Nothing is natural about it in a realistic sense. To dance in classical ballet one has to first master its technique, there is no way around it.
I: And that was a challenge.
M: Yes, it was, but I was not aware of it. It was not my but Clara Kmitto’s idea to make a ballet dancer out of me. I was just her guinea pig.
I: How did she imagine or plan to make a dancer out of a novice like you?
M: She created an additional ballet class only for the novices and the beginner dancers that she instructed every day for an hour between nine and ten in the morning. For a month, I attended only this class. It was great! I started everyday with a ballet class then went to college, which was conveniently located in the building next to the Operetta. But gradually I was getting more and more responsibilities in the theater. Clara introduced me to the company and let me exercise in the class with them that was held between ten and eleven in the morning. So, then I was doing two ballet classes per day. A few days later, Clara also started to work with me and three other novices on our first dance number. First, we rehearsed separately from the company in the afternoons, only with Clara, and then, when she thought we were good enough, we were allowed to rehearse in the presence of the company. From that point, I was introduced to more dance numbers and rehearsed longer hours. It was getting more and more difficult to do both college and theater. While scheduling the rehearsal times, there was often an issue about how to get around it.
I: Did it work out?
M: It did, but not for long.
I: How so?
M: After my probation passed, Clara Kmitto offered me a full-time job with a year contract. However, she was urging me to drop college and to make a full commitment to dancing. She said that getting around my academic schedule would be hard, if not impossible. Anyway, she couldn’t understand why I needed that college. “You are an artist now, not a businessman,” she would say half jokingly. So, I told her that I needed to be enrolled in college to be exempted from the draft. Then she enlightened me that I didn’t need to worry about that because I would be exempted from the draft as a stage artist as long as I worked in the Operetta (or any other state theater). Wow, I had no more reason to stay in that college that I found so boring.
I: When exactly did you work at the Wroclaw Operetta?
M: From October 1, 1972 until May 31, 1974.
I: So it was about two years.
M: It was twenty months, to be exact.
I: What was you work like in the Operetta?
M: In the first three months, I was introduced to all of the shows in the repertory – it was between four and six productions, I don’t remember exactly. Pretty soon, I performed basically every evening with the exception of Mondays. Twenty shows per month were obligatory for me. I never performed less, but usually more, something like twenty-four or five shows on average. My record was twenty-nine shows per month (it included weekend matinees.) The shows had four to eight dance numbers on average. I often was in all or almost all of them, plus some stage activities and movement in the ensemble.
I: What was your first dance?
M: A Snake Charmer.
I: What kind of dance was that?
M: It was, let’s say, a semi-Arabic dance, a sort of steamy, erotic fantasy transmuted aesthetically into a dance and allegorically disguised as a fairytale about a snake charmer and his beloved snake.
I: You don’t have to explain; it would be better if you described it.
M: Babula, who was a very charismatic dancer of Gypsy origin, dark, square in build, very masculine, performed the snake charmer. He looked like a pirate. In addition, he had acne scars on his face that were so deep that make-up could barely cover them. Lala Kołodziejczyk, a principal dancer, who was, in contrast to him, a blond and blue-eyed beauty, performed the snake. In the beginning of the number, she was hidden in a wicker basket, and he, as a magician, charmed her to come out. She emerged very slowly, first the hand and arm and then the whole body, in a sensual, sinusoidal, snake-like motion. Then he picked her up and rose into a ballet pose while looking at her with admiration. After that, he pulled her down toward his body and embraced her with passion and desire. And then they danced together in a duo that involved many beautiful poses and sensual embraces. One thing I particularly liked that he did was that he threw her around his neck several times, madly rotating her as a snake. It was spectacular.
I: And you? What did you do in that dance?
M: I was the assistant to the snake charmer. In fact, I was one of four assistants who were all, like me, novices hired by Clara at the same time, and for all four of us it was our first dance. Our task was to bring out the wicker basket with the snake in it, that was Lala Kołodziejczyk, and to place it in the middle of the stage. Then we were to withdraw, each of us to a different corner of the stage, in a choreographed motion that involved a long glide and a high jump while throwing our legs into arabesque. The point was to make the moves at the same time, heights, and distances – we never managed to do it right and it was a source of unending frustration. After the dance was done, our task was to take the empty basket off the stage. This part was easy because it didn’t involve any formal choreography.
I: What was your last dance in the Wroclaw Operetta?
M: My last dance was the Moonlight Serenade, a lyrical duo in the operetta L’Affaire Édouard (Opiekun Mojej Żony) by Georges Fedeau. This dance was to be my first serious dance as a soloist in duet with a principal female dancer. But it never happened because I left the Wroclaw Operetta and went to the Wroclaw Pantomime Theater. Nevertheless, I was already in rehearsal for that dance, my costume was made, and my name was already printed in the program.
I: What did it look like?
I: Your costume.
M: It was made of a semi-translucent material in a bluish-violet color.
I: How did you look in this costume?
M: I don’t really know.
I: Did you try it on?
M: Yes, I did but only once. A tailor brought the costumes (that were almost finished but not quite) to the rehearsal room while my partner and I were working on the Moonlight Serenade. He asked us to put the costumes on and to rehearse the number, so they could see how they fit while in motion. So we did. When we put the costumes on and danced our duet, we got good reactions from the dancers in the company. We could tell that they liked our costumes. Their faces flushed with excitement, they made big eyes, and they applauded the tailor. Then the tailor marked the costumes with a piece of chalk for eventual alterations and took them away. It all happened so fast and there was so much fuss around that I never had a chance to really look at myself in the mirror and see how I looked in the costume. Oh well, it wasn’t meant to be.
I: What was the last moment you remember in the Operetta?
M: That was the moment. That was it.
I: What was the most valid thing you got from working in the Operetta?
M: The most valid thing I got was professional training and stage experience. Besides, I have very pleasant memories from that time. I liked those people and they treated me very well. I can’t complain. In fact, I am amazed how great it was.
PART II: GETTING INTO THE WROCLAW PANTOMIME THEATRE
I: How did you get into the Wroclaw Pantomime Theater?
M: By chance.
I: As with the Wroclaw Operetta?
M: No, it’s a whole new story.
I: Tell me about it.
M: This story begins about one year before I actually got into the Wroclaw Pantomime Theater.
I: Oh yeah?
I: How so?
M: In the summer of 1973 I took my new girlfriend, Gertruda, who was a singer in the Wroclaw Operetta, for a two-week vacation to Leba, a fishing village on the Baltic Sea. It’s a place famous for its vast dunes that are regarded as one of the natural wonders in Poland. But my girlfriend didn’t like it there. On the first day, I took her for a walk through the dunes hoping she would admire them as I do, but she wasn’t taken by their beauty. In fact, she was bored to death and was glad when the walk was over.
“Okay,” she said, “we’re done with that, we did it, and it’s done. Now let’s go to town and find some entertainment.”
So, in the evening, we went to the center of Leba, which is a village rather than a town, and looked for cafes and nightclubs, but there weren’t any. The best that we could find was a homey diner that had a terrace where they served fresh fish. We ate there (by the way the fish was excellent) and then we went back to our pension when the night was still young. Gertruda was disappointed and unhappy. When we came back to our room, she threw a temper-tantrum and screamed for an hour or two about how much she hates dunes, natural retreats, and, of course, me because I brought her there. It didn’t look as if we were going to stay long in Leba.
However, the next morning while on the way to breakfast, we met a couple, Andrzej and Kristina Szczużewski, whom Gertruda knew from Wroclaw. Wow, what a coincidence. The women were happy to see each other, all of us were introduced, and we found out that Andrzej and Kristina were staying in the same pension that we were. They were in the room next to ours. In fact, there was a door that connected our two rooms, but it was locked. I wondered if they had heard Gertruda screaming the night before –- they had to –- but they, of course, didn’t mention it, and we, of course, didn’t ask about it, although it was on our minds. Instead, we chatted about Andrzej’s impressive, golden suntan; it came out that he had gotten it on the Greek island Corfu, where he was at a theater festival with the Wroclaw Pantomime Theater. That is how I found out that Andrzej was an actor in the WPT. Then we said things like, “Great that we met, so long, see you later,” and we went our separate ways.
Over breakfast I said to Gertruda, “You could ask Andrzej and Kristina if they want to go with us to the beach.”
“No,” Gertruda said suddenly coy. “It would be unbecoming to ask them that.”
“They probably want to have their privacy.”
“How do you know that if you don’t ask them?” I pressured her.
“I don’t, but I won’t ask them. No, no way."
“But why not?” I wasn’t letting her off the hook.
“I’m shy to ask them, okay?”
“Shy of what?”
“Ah, you know, Andrzej is such a huge star; I hardly know him personally,” she said turning away from me.
“But you know Kristina personally, don’t you?”
“Yes I do, but from the night bar. I’ve just talked with her a few times, and we were always drunk out of our minds.”
“Okay,” I said and finally let it go.
However, after breakfast Kristina knocked on our door and asked us if we would like to go with them to the beach. “Sure,” we said and went with them that day, and then we went with them to the beach every single day until the end of our vacation.
Andrzej liked to sport and found in me a willing companion. We ran, jumped, did acrobatic stunts, and even practiced some ballet exercises together. Seeing that, Gertruda advised me to ask Andrzej to recommend me to Henryk Tomaszewski, the director of the WPT. But I didn’t have the nerve to ask him.
I: Why not?
M: I was intimidated by the fame of the WPT.
I: Had you had a chance to see their performances at that point?
M: Yes, but only once.
I: How was it?
M: It was extraordinary.
I: What was it?
M: It was a show that had two pantomimes in the program. One was The Seed and the Crust, the other The Departure of Dr. Faust. They were formally two quite different pieces, as if they were done by two different theaters.
I: How so?
M: The Seed and the Crust was a pure-in-form type of mime, whereas The Departure of Dr. Faust was an eclectic type of pantomime.
I: Before we go any further, can you explain the difference between the terms mime and pantomime?
M: There is no significant difference between the terms; the latter is synonymous to the former. Etymologically the word mime is derived from the Greek word mimos or the Latin mimus meaning “imitator” as a noun and “to imitate” as a verb. The word pantomime has the same derivation plus the prefix panto, which is generic of pan and means “all.” So it can be translated as “all imitating” or “imitating-all” or “imitator of all or everything.”
I: Whatever, it appears that essentially there is no difference.
M: No, there is not.
I: Unless you want to find something significant in the difference between imitating and imitating all.
M: Not really.
I: Why not?
M: Because it will become too philosophical and no one, or almost no one, will have the patience to listen to it.
I: Then how shall I know when to use the term mime and when pantomime?
M: There are particular traditions of using those terms but unfortunately not consistently. The usage differs in different times and places. For example, in ancient times, the Greeks would prefer the term mime but the Romans pantomime. In modern times, the French and the Americans prefer the term mime but the British and the Poles pantomime.
I: So you can figure it out only due to the given tradition?
M: Basically, yes.
I: What if I don’t want to bother to study those mime or pantomime traditions; can I find the universal definitions of those terms in dictionaries or encyclopedias?
M: You can but I am afraid you will encounter plenty of contradictory answers.
I: Why do you think that is?
M: Beats me.
I: Take a guess.
M: I bet it is the linguists (who write the dictionaries and encyclopedias) revenge against mimes for claiming that they can do entirely without language because it is confusing.
I: Well, in this instance it is confusing. I still don’t know when I am supposed to use the term mime and when pantomime.
M: Use them interchangeably - in a general sense, they are basically the same.
I: How do you make discrimination?
M: I use the term mime for all types of mime-artists. However, when describing a mime-performance, I call it a mime if it is small in scope, such as a solo mime performance or a mimodrama performed by no more than a few actors, but I call it a pantomime if it is large in scope, such as a big show or spectacle, performed by a large ensemble.
I: What is the logic in that?
M: It follows both etymology and tradition.
I: Good enough.
M: I hope so.
I: Could you now explain what is a pure-in-form type of mime?
M: A pure–in-form type of mime or, simply, pure mime is an expressive art of the body as distinguished from imitative mime that, as its name indicates, is an imitative art of the body.
I: Isn’t it redundant to say “imitative mime” since the etymological origin of the word mime means “to imitate” or “an imitator?”
M: A mime being merely an imitator is an old-fashion idea that doesn’t hold up anymore.
I: Since when?
M: Since the beginning of the twentieth century when all revolutions in art took place, including mime, and it was realized that the mime is not only an imitative but also an expressive artist.
I: What is the difference?
M: Pure mime is the art of expressing the inner world of man and woman, whereas imitative mime is, as its name indicates, the art of imitating the external world.
I: How does it work in practice?
M: The difference is essential in approach. Pure mime and imitative mime are two different schools of acting and performing. The pure mime artist expresses ideas and emotions from inside out through the body; but the imitative mime works in the opposite way: he or she imitates objects and persons from the external world with his body. The former begins with the internal, the latter from the external image of things. Both strive to embody the image or phenomenon of things in form, movement, and gestures of the body.
I: So, the difference between pure and imitative mimes is like the difference between abstract and representative art in painting and sculpture, isn’t it?
M: Yes, you may draw this analogy with fine art.
I: Who was the originator of the concept of pure mime?
M: The French mime and teacher Etienne Decroux, who originally called it “corporal mime. “
I: Because the ideas come from the body?
M: Yes, from and/or through the body.
I: How did he explain it?
M: He also, as you, used the analogy of fine art, of sculpting to be exact, to explain how the corporeal mime works.
I: What did he say?
M: He said, “Our thought pushes our gestures in the same way that the thumb of the sculptor pushes forms; and our body, sculpted from the inside, stretches. Our thought, between its thumb and index-finger, pinches us along the reverse flap of our envelope and our body, sculpted from the inside, folds.”
I: Inspiring words.
M: He also simply said, “Mime is, at the same time, both sculptor and statue.”
I: It is being at the same time both the creator and the creation, isn’t it?
I: Or a puppeteer and a puppet.
M: Yes, you can say it that way if you prefer. Though I, myself, was neither my own puppeteer nor puppet, but usually someone else’s.
M: Just kidding.
I: Which school of acting, pure mime or imitative mime, was preferred in the WPT when you saw them for the first time?
M: At that time both pure and imitative mime were practiced and cultivated successfully in the WPT, and the shows The Seed and the Crust and The Departure of Dr. Faust were each considered one of the best, if not the best, realizations of those two different schools of mime.
I: How were they done?
M: The Seed and the Crust lasted something like twenty minutes and was performed by only two actors, Jerzy Kozłowski and Paweł Rouba. What was particular about the show was that the actors’ faces were covered, so they showed everything through the movement and forms of their bodies, but their facial expressions, their psychology, were excluded.
I: What was the reason for this?
M: The technique of covering faces was typical for the corporal mime of the Etienne Decroux’s school. Supposedly, Decroux was covering the faces of mimes because he was a communist and thought that in the body, in nature, we are all equal, but the class inequality is the result of consciousness, so to speak, human psychology. So he wanted to rid of it.
I: Are you serious?
M: Not quite, not really, though I didn’t make it up. The leftist sentiment of Decroux is well known. Nevertheless, I mention it only for curiosity’s sake because, speaking seriously, something different matters here.
I: What is it?
M: Mimes cover their faces to take away their individual selves, to depersonalize their bodies and by that to objectify them. A mime without a face stops to be him or herself and becomes only a body that can be used to represent and express something other than one’s own self. In corporeal mime, the actor instrumentally uses his body as material to shape it into various forms of existence.
I: Like what?
M: There is a bold assumption among mimes that through the human body you can show everything that exists.
I: Can you?
M: If you are a mime, you better believe that you can. It is an exciting concept. It is worthy to try and see what you can or cannot do with your body. There are a multitude of forms to be discovered in and through it, but there are also limits.
I: Did the actors of the WPT often perform with covered faces?
M: Not so often, and if so, only in particular scenes but not in the entire show. The Seed and the Crust was an exception. And it made sense, because the actors were performing abstracted forces of nature, not human characters.
I: What was the subject matter or theme of The Seed and the Crust?
M: The course of life.
I: A whole life?
M: Yes, from the beginning to the end.
I: How was it done?
M: It was done symbolically. One actor represented the seed, the other the crust. So, in other words, you could say one represented animate and the other inanimate matter. And the whole piece was about the struggle between those two opposing forces in the natural cycle of life, from birth until death. In just a twenty-minute pantomime, they showed it all. While watching that piece, I had the impression that the mystery of life and death had been revealed to me.
I: What is it?
I: The mystery of life.
M: Ha, ha, ha.
I: You don't know?
M: It wasn’t explained to me but shown through artistic means. So, I don’t understand it, but instead I feel as though I saw it.
I: Can you describe the performance?
M: I can describe it, but it won’t adequately reflect that performance.
I: Why not?
M: The Seed and the Crust was a highly abstracted pantomime and that is hard to describe in words, as with all abstract art.
I: Describe it the way you remember it.
M: It was performed on a bare stage in silence (there was no music) and with minimal lights. It began in total darkness, and then a spot of light appeared in the middle of the stage, first dim then gradually it grew brighter to light something that was low on the floor, but it was hard to figure out what it was because it was metamorphic in shape. Initially it looked like a mass of matter that was partly liquid and partly solid, slightly moving and transforming in shape, as if it were a chemical soup giving birth to primordial forms of life –- that was my impression. It was boiling inside, spouting, and undulating. Then something sprouted out here and there and then disappeared again. Then the whole thing swelled and rose higher above the ground. There was a struggle inside, and then suddenly it partially divided in the middle, forming a hole. Then it kept dividing in other places creating openings here and there until it separated into two bodies that, though distinct now, were still bound together with some invisible force that was both pushing them apart in one spot and pulling them toward each other in another. So, they kept separating and joining in turns, forming various figurative but abstracted compositions that looked like Henry Moore's sculptures, though in motion, transforming in shapes. (The similarity was not coincidental, the pantomime The Seed and the Crust was inspired by Henry Moore's sculptures in the first place.) Then in the next stage of the performance, they arrived into a static composition with one body coiled up inside the other. It evoked an association with a fetus in the womb, or in an egg, or an egg in a nest, or a seed in the soil –- whatever, it was symbolic. Then the seed germinated into a plant. You clearly saw the roots shooting deep into the soil, then the sprout broke the crust of the soil and came forth to the surface, and then you saw the plant grow up, blossom, reach its maturity and then in turn wilt, wither, and dry. And finally, the plant fell back to the soil where it decayed and disappeared in the deadly embrace of the soil's crust. At the end, the light first dimmed and then suddenly went black. It all was very dramatic.
I: I wish I could have seen it.
I: Can I still see it somehow?
M: I am afraid, you cannot.
I: Was it filmed by any chance?
M: Probably it was, since most of the shows of the WPT were, but I didn’t see it.
I: Hmm. Is The Seed and the Crust performed some place, or will it be, perhaps?
M: No, it isn’t performed anywhere, and it’s unlikely that it ever will be.
I: Why not?
M: It was a one-time thing, in a way, because in fact it was performed for twelve years. It had the longest run in the history of the WPT, from 1961 until 1973. I saw it sometime in 1973. It probably would have even run longer, but Pawel Rouba left the company, and it was hard to replace him. No one else was as good in corporeal mime as he was.
I: I see.
M: Henryk Tomaszewski thought about a replacement. I remember there was talk about it many times. And there were even some rehearsals with another actor but it was never finalized. The Seed and the Crust was a mime masterpiece, but it was also technically very demanding, very difficult to perform. So, it couldn’t be easily revived, and it won’t be revived in the future unless there are performers with the commitment and skills of Pawel Rouba and Jerzy Kozlowski.
I: What was the other piece like, The Departure of Dr. Faust?
M: The Departure of Dr. Faust was a grandiose pantomime spectacle. It was performed by the whole company, which had about twenty-five players at that time. And it ran two hours in the shortened version that I saw.
I: How long was the opening evening version?
M: I believe it was two and a half hours.
I: It was a very long show, particularly for a pantomime.
M: Yes it was, but it didn’t seem so. Quite opposite, while watching it I felt that time flew by very quickly because so much was happening on the stage that there wasn’t enough time to fully appreciate the wealth and riches in this show.
I: What was the appeal of this pantomime?
M: The variety of means of expression, theatricality, and the scope of production were impressive. However, the main appeal was the magical power of the theatrical illusion. There were some devilish tricks in it that cast a spell upon the audience and charmed them.
I: Did you fall for it?
M: Yes, absolutely.
I: How so?
M: I was tricked and bewitched by many things in the show. In fact, each scene had something in it that surprised me. Nothing was boring in it, nothing at all.
I: What was the literary source of Henryk Tomaszewski’s pantomime The Departure of Dr. Faust?
M: It was Tomaszewski’s creative adaptation of Johann Wolfgang von Goethe’s Faust.
I: How accurate was his adaptation?
M: I must admit that when I watched The Departure of Dr. Faust the first time, I hadn’t yet read Goethe’s Faust or any other literary version of this legendary myth, which are many.
I: You were an ignorant then.
M: I would put it differently.
M: At that point in time, I was a perfect spectator for this pantomime because my interpretation of the Faustian myth was not preconditioned by literature.
I: Probably this was the case with most of the spectators in the audience.
M: Yes, it was. One doesn’t even need to know how to read and write to watch pantomime. It is a pre-language art.
I: But it doesn’t hurt.
M: No, it doesn’t.
I: Did you feel the lack of words as a limitation while watching The Departure of Dr. Faust?
M: No, I didn’t. Nevertheless, inspired by this pantomime, I later read Goethe’s Faust (as well as many other versions of this myth) and realized that Tomaszewski’s pantomime version of Dr. Faust’s story could stand alone as an autonomous work. What is interesting is that even the dramatic plot with all of its turns and machinations was easy to follow, which is not always the case in pantomime; in fact, it is rare. In this respect, The Departure of Dr. Faust was one of if not the most successful pantomime adaptation of literature in the Wroclaw Pantomime Theater. And this is not only my opinion.
I: What was the formal concept of The Departure of Dr. Faust?
M: The Departure of Dr. Faust was a gigantic hybrid of many styles and theatrical conventions.
I: A postmodern hodgepodge.
M: Seemingly so, now it could probably be labeled like that, but no, it wasn’t that. We didn’t even know the term postmodern then, in the seventies.
I: What did you call it?
M: We called it “the total theater.” And it was the type of theater Henryk Tomaszewski was doing, as he declared himself.
I: What is the difference?
M: Both total and postmodern theaters are eclectic in styles and multiple in means of expression. The difference is that the total theater is made of an integral mixture of formal elements that holds together well as a whole (or at least is supposed to); but postmodern theater is a random mixture that does not hold together as a whole.
I: How so?
M: The postmodernists do not believe that the comprehension of the totality of things is attainable for human beings, so they don’t bother to strive for it in art. They mix everything indiscriminately and whether it holds together as a whole or not does not make any difference to them.
I: Why not?
M: Everything degenerates, that’s why.
I: Give me a better explanation than that.
M: Okay, I’ll try again.
I: Please, do.
M: The postmodernists do not believe that an absolute hierarchy and order of things exist in the universe. Therefore, they don’t believe that it is possible to fully comprehend human fate in the world or the world itself. The postmodernists are relativists for whom the world is a chance cluster of unrelated, or not well related, parts and fragments, so, likewise, their art is fragmented. Oppositely, the proponents of the total theater cultivate an art of integrating parts into wholeness. (They strive to totally comprehend human fate in the world.)
I: Who is right, the postmodernists or the totalists?
M: In a realistic sense, the postmodernists are right because the actual comprehension of the world fully as a whole is impossible. However, the totalists don’t merely depict the actual world but strive to create a fictional world. The total theater is a fictional art, not realistic, not actual. Its subject is the myth of man and woman in an imagined world, but not the fate of man and woman in the real life. The total theater is a theater of imagination, in which the artist sees the world the way he wants to see it, the way he imagines it, but not as the world actually is. A total image of the world can only be conceived in our mind, in our imagination – and it can be only expressed metaphorically, symbolically, and as an illusion.
I: How did you come up with this idea?
M: It is nothing new. The word theater is a transliteration from the Greek word theatron (JeaJron), which means “the seeing place” (also translated as the “place for watching”). Greeks also called the theater “the house of vision,” which implies that the total theater concept of theater as a vision (not actuality) goes back to the source of theater in general.
I: What was Henryk Tomaszewski’s concept of total theater?
M: He never directly formed it. Nevertheless, once he said, “I build my theater on three elements: vision, movement, and change.” I like to consider this simple and yet to-the-point statement as Tomaszewski’s artistic credo and the fundamental creative principle of his theater, which was, as I shall define it, a total movement theater.
I: Vision, movement, and change. How am I supposed to understand it?
I: How so?
M: On this base you can imagine how Henryk Tomaszewski worked and created in the theater. First, he imagined it, creating a vision; next, he stirred it into motion; and when he exhausted it, he introduced a change, transforming the scene to something else, into a different scene. Simple, isn’t it?
I: Yes, it is.
M: I always wanted to discover, not to say to steal, the secret of Henryk Tomaszewski’s creativity, and now I managed.
I: How so?
M: It comes out that there never was any creative secret of Henryk Tomaszewski . The master was always saying how he did it.
I: Can you describe how The Departure of Dr. Faust was done?
M: I can.
M: The Departure of Dr. Faust began and ended in modern times, which was at that time the end of the sixties, beginning of the seventies. But every thing else, which was practically ninety percent of the show, was set in various historical and mythological periods.
I: What was the justification for the modern framework?
M: To involve the audience with the show through familiarity. To start and end with something they already knew, so they could find links between their lives with what was going on in the story on the stage.
M: The modern prologue introduced and led the audience into, what to say, not a well-known world, or worlds rather, of the Faustian myth from their own perspective.
I: So that it mattered to them personally?
M: Yes. And it transported them smoothly into the remote and unfamiliar territory of other worlds (that they maybe already sensed existed but didn’t know it yet).
I: So it was just a theatrical trick to bridge the audience to what was happening on the stage. To immediately involve them.
M: It was that and much more.
I: What else?
M: It was also a commentary on modernity and how the old Faustian myth matters and is manifested in the present.
I: Describe how was it done so I can better understand what you are talking about.
M: In the modern prologue, a group of young hippies were hanging out together. Out of boredom, they started to play theatrical games on the Faustian themes.
I: Which themes?
M: According to the program, they played theatrical games on the subject of good and evil.
M: They pulled theatrical costumes, props, and masks out of black boxes, and then they dressed up in them and seemed to be just messing around. At the same time, they were arranging those black boxes, which were of different sizes, into a theatrical set. It wasn’t clear what they were up to, but their spontaneous games were engaging. Then, before we knew it, before we figured out how it had happened, the stage was set anew in the theatrical convention of a late nineteenth century opera. The hippies inconspicuously disappeared, and there, alone on the stage, was Dr. Faust as an old man. The transformation was striking. Before he was one of those young playful hippies and now he was a gray-haired, long-bearded old man tired with life.
I: Just a theatrical trick of dressing up in front of the audience.
M: Yes, it was. And yet, again, it was something more. I was a young man then, and this sudden transformation from youth to old age frightened me, as if it were happening for real, even though I saw how the actor was putting on, or rather how the other actors were putting on him, the gray wig and beard. Despite this, I fell for it; I was besieged by the power of the theatrical illusion and believed in it as a child, even more so because Pawel Rouba, the actor who played Faust, got into a role of the old Faust very convincingly, as if suddenly he (and his youth) were imprisoned in the costume and mask of old age forever. Old age appeared to me then as something terrifying, a nightmare, even though it was only an external image of it and not my experience yet. I was so shaken by this illusion that I decided, promised myself, never to get old.
I: Ha, ha, ha.
M: I regret now that I was not able to keep my word.
I: What was the idea behind this trick of dressing a young hippy into the disguise of an old man in front of the audience?
M: By the sudden transformation in the prologue of the protagonist from a young to an old man, Tomaszewski at once introduced the audience to the core of the problem, only inversely, and prepared the miraculous, or if you prefer, the devilish, metamorphosis of an old man into a young one, which was about to happen as written in the original story.
I: What was the message in it?
M: That man, when he is young, wants to become old because he desires the maturity and knowledge that comes with it. But when he is old, he wants to become young and enjoy life again.
I: And here is a Faustian paradox!
M: Yes, it is.
I: And Henryk Tomaszewski delivered this message without words.
M: Yes, he did. He showed it.
I: How did you receive it then?
M: I admit that as a spectator I wished for nothing more than for Pawel Rouba to become young again and regain his joy of life.
I: Did he?
M: Yes, as it is written. But for that we had to wait a bit.
I: What happened next?
M: Hector Berlioz’s music from the opera La damnation de Faust came up and the next scene began. It was a nocturnal scene, full of pathos. In it, Dr. Faust created an artificial man, Homunculus, in his workshop. At the same time, Faust was haunted by his inner demons; he suffered because he was torn between good and evil. Then the demons materialized.
M: The devil, Mephistopheles (played masterfully by Janusz Pieczuro), appeared upstage with his entourage. He was magnificently demonic, stylized in the mode of Romantic Satanism. He was all in red, outlined in black. He had a long cloak flowing behind him that he could spread with his arms and hands. He manipulated it as if it were a curtain, and then from behind it he, like a magician or wizard, pulled out three grotesque characters in the Luna Park style. They were a harlequin-like clown, a woman with six breasts, and a naked devil that had only a devil mask on his groins and small horns on his forehead. Mephistopheles and his grotesque helpers cornered Dr. Faust, surrounding him from all sides, and tempted him to sell his soul to the devil in exchange for a second chance at life, to live it again but this time to get the best of it with the help of the devil, who promised to serve him as part of the bargain.
I: And as the premise of the story states: Dr. Faust signs the pact with the devil with his own blood.
M: Yes, that is the scene.
M: I will not go into analyzing the content of the play now. I only want to demonstrate how various styles were used. In only one scene, Henryk Tomaszewski mixed a few styles, namely, the pathos of a nineteenth century opera, romantic demonism, and the grotesque in the Luna Park style. And it went that way, more or less, throughout the course of the entire play.
I: How can you mix various styles and achieve unity of a whole piece?
M: It is a matter of how you mix them. Mixing styles in The Departure of Dr. Faust was justified by the content of the story. First, Dr. Faust is an alchemist, who knows how to mix various substances and to invoke various worlds. He then travels in time and space into various real and imaginary worlds. All that is magic, an art of transformation and/or metamorphosing from one world to another. Henryk Tomaszewski showed it by staging each world that Dr. Faust travels to or merely imagines in a different style. It was the formal concept of the production of The Departure of Dr. Faust and it worked pretty well in mime.
I: What is “style?”
M: In my understanding, style is a character manifested in form.
I: How does the actor create a style in mime?
M: By imitating it.
I: From what?
M: With period styles you imitate from images: paintings and sculptures that are preserved in the museums and illustrated art books; with modern styles you imitate from life, by imitating people.
I: Can everybody do it? Acquire it?
M: No, not everybody can. It is not as easy as it sounds.
I: What does it involve?
M: An actor has to train his or her body to become plastic to be able to acquire different characters of forms other than one’s own. Besides that, an actor needs to know techniques to know how to acquire external forms and to embody them. It involves many skills. The actors of the Wroclaw Pantomime Theater were very well trained and they knew how to act in different styles. The Departure of Dr. Faust was their best showcase for it. It was delightful to watch how they mastered various styles.
I: Which styles were the most conspicuous? Can you give me a few more examples?
M: For example, later in the first act, the seduction and tragic death of Margaret was stylized as a semi commedia dell'arte and was staged as a satire.
I: A satire?
I: Those are tragic scenes.
M: They aren’t, not really.
I: Poisoning the girl’s mother by mistake (by an overdose of sleeping potion); Faust killing Margaret’s brother in a duel; Margaret killing her own (and Faust’s) child out of remorse for her dead mother and brother; and finally, Margaret going to prison for murder and getting the death sentence isn’t tragic?
M: Don’t you see that it’s funny?
I: How so?
M: It’s absurd.
I: Still death is death.
M: Yet it’s not a real death.
I: Not a real death?
M: In the sense that those kind of horrific events are hardly probable in real life; they are too exaggerated to take seriously, but they are excellent material for the macabresque –- a type of horror-theater that makes fun of death. A realistic interpretation of these scenes is a dramatic mistake, and if done so, the scenes come out fake.
I: Usually those scenes are played on the tragic note. But Tomaszewski made parody out of tragedy.
M: And it was the funniest part of the show.
I: Did you laugh?
M: I was laughing almost out loud, I say “almost” because as is often the case in tragicomedy one never knows for sure whether to laugh or to cry.
I: How were the scenes of Walpurgis Night done?
M: They were done in a futuristic style and performed to music by Santana at the end of act one. The actors performed it in modern clothes, in t-shirts and jeans, and what was most conspicuous is that they held motorcycle handlebars that had headlights on them and the headlights were blinding the audience as they strained their eyes to see the sabbatical orgies that were performed on the stage at the same time.
M: It was a highly dynamic scene – very exciting, in particular, for young people.
I: How was the second act done?
M: The beginning of the second act was made in baroque style. It had a splendor and richness that the reviewers very much admired. It was impressive, I admit, but for me it was a bit overdone, a bit too mannerisitc in style for my taste. I didn’t understand why Faust suddenly appeared half-naked but draped in garlands and wearing a long wig with golden curls.
I: Just a theatrical extravaganza?
M: Not quite, there was a hidden or implied meaning in it that I only understood when I read Goethe’s Faust.
I: What was it?
M: The following dialogue explains how Henryk Tomaszewski got the idea for the scene.
What am I, if I am not able
To reach the crown of mankind
For which I crave with all my senses?
In the end, you are exactly – what you are!
Put on a golden wig with a million curls,
Put the highest heeled boots on your feet,
Yet you always remain forever what you are.
M: We are used to baroque costumes and wigs being worn on the not-well-made and/or sickly bodies to cover up their inefficiencies and defects and instead to create the splendor of an artificial identity or disguise. But here, in Tomaszeski’s Faust, the refined, long wig and the golden garland loosely hanging over the shoulder were worn on a half-naked body that was healthy and athletic. This juxtaposition had quite a different significance.
I: What was it?
M: It showed the contradiction between nature and culture, or rather showed their mutual incongruity. It was a theme that Henryk Tomaszewski was often exploring not only in The Departure of Dr. Faust but also in other shows.
I: In what style did Henryk Tomaszewski stage the Homeric world of antiquity?
M: In the classical Greek style.
I: How was it?
Me: It was the most beautiful part of The Departure of Dr. Faust.
I: How so?
M: Those scenes had the charm and power of a hypnotic vision where the illusory spirits of the past, namely, mythological creatures, gods and half-gods, fantastic monsters, and half-animals and half-humans appeared. That kind of unrealistic world, the world of fantasy and myth, is great material for pantomime.
M: Because it is an art that specializes in showing nonexistent things – I’m sorry, I shall say, existent things, but which are not visible everyday.
I: How was the rest of the show done?
M: The resolution in The Departure of Dr. Faust differs from Goethe’s Faust. In Goethe’s tragedy, Faust, in the moment of his death, does not give his soul to the devil as he promised. The angels take mercy on Faust and steal his soul before Mephistopheles manages to take it.
In The Departure of Dr. Faust, this was not the case. Tomaszewski sent Faust to hell together with Mephistopheles for everlasting damnation. Shortly before his death, Faust tried to free himself from Mephistopheles, so they fought with each other. It was a very expressive mime scene, staged as a nightmare, in which the protagonist fought with the powers that cornered him from all sides. Fighting with each other, locked in a mutual embrace, Faust and Mephistopheles fell into the abyss of hell.
I: So this is why the title of Henryk Tomaszewski’s pantomime is The Departure of Dr. Faust.
M: Yes, Dr. Faust departed to hell and will stay there forever, for everlasting
I: No angels’ mercy for Faust in this version?
I: What is the message?
M: Faust belongs to the devil. He is forever bound together with Mephistopheles by myth. The angels cannot just snatch his soul in the last moment of his life, since they were not around during his whole life.
I: Very tragic.
M: Despite that, the show ended on a positive note.
M: Henryk Tomaszewski added his own apotheosis to the Faustian myth in which Homunculus, an artificial man from an incubator, is born and is showed as a symbol of hope.
This character is already in Goethe’s Faust but his story is executed differently. There, Wagner, a scientist and a friend of Dr. Faust, creates Homunculus and Dr. Faust is not directly involved in it. The subplot of Homunculus is secondary and, as a matter of fact, does not adhere to or crisscross with the main story. Goethe portrays Homunculus as a miniature man, who already exists as a spectrum but without a material body yet. He still lives in an incubator and appears merely as a flame or light.
I: Was it Goethe’s concept of a soul that is without an assigned body yet?
M: Yes, apparently it was the idea.
I: Quite a science fiction concept.
M: Who knows, maybe it is quite real.
I: Never mind.
I: Go on.
M: Homunculus, still merely as a spectrum and still in an incubator, travels, hovering above the earth, in search of a suitable place and form in which to be physically born.
I: Where does he travel?
M: First, into the world of classical Greece where he meets the philosophers of nature, Anaxagoras and Thales. They take him further into the past, into the mythological world of ancient Greece. There he meets the mythological semi-gods, Nerus and Proteus (who have the ability to metamorphose their bodies, in other words, to reincarnate, and by that to change the forms of creation in the cosmos, consequently, to manipulate destiny.) From the mythological creatures, Homunculus learns about the beginning and evolution of life, and it seems that he has a free choice about what kind of form and where he wants to be born. But when this theme is intellectually exhausted, the subplot of Homunculus ends without him being physically born. It is as if Goethe forgot about him and became focused on other themes. But Henryk Tomaszewski developed the subplot of Homunculus quite differently than Goethe.
M: First, he got rid of the character of Wagner and instead made Dr. Faust the creator and, consequently, the father of Homunculus. It changed a lot, because the creation of Homunculus became the main creative objective of Dr. Faust’s life that he successfully achieved.
Second, in Tomaszeski’s pantomime, Homunculus was born, in the last scene of the show, in the concrete bodily form of a man. He was a young man dressed in a white leotard tightly fitted to the body, which obviously implied the innocence of youth.
I: The concept of “tabula rasa.”
I: How was it done?
M: In the scene of his birth, Homunculus (performed by Stefan Niedzalkowski) emerged from a bowl, which was shaped like half of a pterodactyl’s egg from a Salvador Dali painting.
I: We are back in modernity again.
M: Yes, but this time with a surrealistic accent.
M: The half-egg was placed on top of a black box that was more than five feet high. In the beginning of the scene this half-egg began to slowly swing on its own. It was magical, and became even more so when something began to emerge from the swaying egg and then disappeared only to appear again in a different place. It was the waving or rather meandering hand of the mime who began to perform the birth of Homunculus as a bird coming out of an egg. Then other parts of his body emerged in succession and we saw a whole mime etude on the subject. In the culminating moment, Homunculus stood up high on the inner shell of the half-egg and spread his arms and hands sideways, making flying motions that imitated a flying bird. At the same time, the half-egg swayed to its maximum inclination until it seemed it was going to cross beyond the point of equilibrium at any moment; if the egg swayed only an inch further, it would inevitably fall off the box and crash onto the floor. It was suspenseful.
Notwithstanding, Homunculus stepped out of the egg, stood on the side of the box, and then jumped down pretending to fly away. He safely landed on the floor and now began to dance to Hindu flute music. It was a dance similar to the dance of Shiva, but modernized in the hippy style of that time. This dance led to the finale of the whole show.
Flower children, the same ones we saw in the beginning of the show, appeared on the stage. They joined Homunculus in the dance, following him in a joyous procession.
I: What was the message of this uplifting dance?
M: Homunculus is an artificial man created by man, not by a god-creator. In literature, we have many versions of this creature: beginning with Golem to the monster created by Frankenstein. Usually, the artificially created man is portrayed as a monster, as a failed or incomplete creation, who is a beast with a human body but without a soul. Goethe’s Homunculus is not a monster but a creature not fully realized. He is merely a nonmaterial figure of the mind.
In contrast, Tomaszewski’s Homunculus was a fully embodied and perfectly well made human creature.
I: What was the message of this last scene?
M: In my interpretation, Henryk Tomaszewski probably wanted to say to the audience that if a human being, man or woman, had the power to create another human being, it would be a perfect creation.
I: Which is?
M: It would be without any natural blemish, innocent, without primary sin, and fully happy, without the pain of slowly getting old and dying. A human being created by another human being would most probably be immortal, as, anyway, were the flower children in the sixties.
I: Wow, what innocent times they were.
M: The times were not innocent, but there was desire for it. And still some hope that it was possible.
I: Did you like The Departure of Dr. Faust as much as The Seed and the Crust?
M: I liked them both for different reasons. The Seed and the Crust astonished me; The Departure of Dr. Faust delighted me with stylish games of transformations. However, The Seed and the Crust had a stronger, more direct impact on me. Seeing it was a personal revelation, in the way that art can touch the unknown and reveal it to the audience. At that moment, I became really hooked on the art of theater -- probably for good reasons because the impression of that pantomime lasts in me until now.
I: What about The Departure of Dr. Faust?
M: The Departure of Dr. Faust was like a rich, lavish feast. It was impossible to refuse. It was hard not to enjoy it.
I: Did you think to join the WPT then, after seeing them the first time?
M: I don’t remember that, so if I did, it was subconscious. There is no doubt that once I became a dancer I thought it would be great to be an actor in the WPT. But I thought my aspirations were unrealistic. I was just a beginning dancer in operetta, but the WPT was one of the best movement theaters in the world, if not the best.
I: Did you think your aspirations were unrealistic for the same reason that you didn’t have the nerve to ask Andrzej Szczuzewski for a recommendation?
I: Were you afraid of rejection?
M: More so of ridicule and disregard. I imagined that Andrzej would think or say, “Who are you that you dare to aspire to join the WPT?”
I: Did you finally dare to ask him for the recommendation?
M: No, I never did. But since I kept asking him questions about the company he probably realized that I was interested, it was hard not to, and he asked me.
M: It was on the last day of our vacation while we were walking on the promenade, returning from the beach to the pension. I remember that it was a very beautiful and pleasant late afternoon, and we didn’t feel as to go back yet. So, we were slowly strolling on the promenade, our women, Kristina and Gertruda, a few steps in front of us, and Andrzej and I were walking together and talking about the theater. At a certain moment, Andrzej asked me if I would be interested in joining the WPT. When I said that I would be, he also offered to recommend me to Henryk Tomaszewski. However, he strongly advised me to first improve my ballet and movement skills and then, when ready, to contact him to set up an audition.
I: He thought you weren’t well trained enough?
M: Apparently so. Although he pointed out that I had a very good movement predisposition and already some skills, he was concerned whether it would be enough to get into the WPT or, even if it were, that I’d get stuck waiting as a backup before I could get cast in a performance. He said, “Nowadays, it is better to come to the WPT already with good skills and experience.”
I: What did he mean by that? How was it different than in the past?
M: Andrzej told me that in the past there was a mime-school at the theater where students of mime trained for three to five years before being admitted into the company and cast in performances. He said this with a tone of nostalgia. “But now,” he continued with slight disapproval in his voice, “Tomaszewski likes to hire dancers with virtuoso-like ballet skills and cast them almost at once in new productions”.
I: So what did you do?
M: I took Andrzej’s advice to heart and committed myself to intensive training for half a year. Then when I felt I was ready to go for the audition, I called Andrzej to set it up. But it proved to be difficult because the WPT was often out of town touring either abroad or around Poland or, even if they were in town, Andrzej was telling me that it was not a good time because of this or that. I was trying to set up the audition for three and a half months but Andrzej kept putting me off.
Finally, the WPT was performing in town for a few days. I went to see the performance and also took this opportunity to set up the audition. So, before the performance started I went backstage and asked for Andrzej. He came out, his face already half in make-up, and seeing me he said at once, “Good that you came, Tomaszewski is someplace around here. Wait a moment, I’ll go find him.”
He soon came back with Henryk Tomaszewski. Tomaszewski chatted with me a bit; he was very open, friendly and interested but also in a hurry. So, without much ado, he asked me to come for an audition the following week. I believe we set it on Tuesday. He asked me to come to the eleven o’clock ballet class explaining, “Because you’re a dancer, it’s best for your audition to be in the ballet class.”
Then he went away but quickly came back and said, “I didn’t think about it in the first place, but Clara Kmitto now teaches our ballet classes. So, if you come at that time to audition, she’ll find out that you want to leave Wroclaw Operetta. If you prefer, we can keep your audition a secret and schedule it at a different time.”
I said, “Thank you very much, but that won’t be necessary because I already told Professor Kmitto that I was going to audition for the WPT.”
“Did you?” He was surprised to hear that. “If so, there is no problem,” he said and went away.
I: How did Clara react when you told her that you were going to audition for the WPT?
M: First she said that she was disappointed to hear that. “I put a lot of work into your training and now when you become a good dancer, you want to go away,” she said and added angrily, “It is unfair on your part!”
I told her that I was sorry that it happened this way, that I was grateful for her training and appreciated working with her, but still I wanted to try my chances with the WPT.
My words softened her a bit and she said in a more conciliatory manner, “I understand, who wouldn’t? After all, it’s a famous theater, highly acclaimed around the world. If you want to leave, I have no right to stop you. Still, I ask you to reconsider. I had my own plans for you. If you stay, I will make you a soloist. You can go far and have a good career in operetta.” She tried to sway me but seeing that I was unyielding, she concluded, “But that’s up to you. If you want to go to the WPT, I wish you good luck.” That was our conversation, more or less.
A few days before the audition, I found out that Henryk Tomaszewski had been inquiring about me from Stephan Keiser, a dancer in operetta who knew Tomaszewski personally. Stephan said that Tomaszewski asked him what kind of person I was and that he, Stephan, answered, “He is the kind of person who if he cannot get in through the door, he will get in through the window, and if he cannot get in through the window, he will get in through the keyhole.”
Tomaszewski responded, “That’s good; that’s the kind of people we need.”
I: Wow. That was quite a recommendation.
M: Yeah, that was.
I: Was it true about you?
M: I wondered myself. But whether it was true or not it flattered me, and I decided to keep up with my reputation.
I: How was the audition?
M: It was challenging. I was auditioning in a class with a group of the most advanced dancers, and I was tense as hell to do my best. Ten minutes into the class, Henryk Tomaszewski entered the room. He sat on a chair and observed me for a few minutes. I don’t know exactly how long he sat there but it seemed very short. Then he stood up, approached Clara, whispered something to her ear, and quickly left the room. I didn’t know what to think about that, but he didn’t seem very interested in what I had to show. Clara said nothing and kept me exercising until the end of the class. Only then did she call me over and say, “Henryk Tomaszewski would like to talk with you; go to the director’s office, he’s waiting for you there.”
So, I went to the office. Besides Tomaszewski, the administrative director, Gerard Nowak, was there.
The first thing Tomaszewski said to me was, “What have you being doing so long in operetta? Why didn’t you come to us sooner?”
I answered, “I didn’t feel ready yet.”
I: What did Tomaszewski say to that?
M: Nothing, he only laughed in recognition. Then I believe he said, “If you had come one or two months earlier, I could have cast you in our new production, “Arriving Tomorrow.”
Next, we talked about my contract. Tomaszewski proposed a 600zl raise on top of what I was making at Wroclaw Operetta, which was 2100zl.
But Gerard Nowak protested, “We can’t do that. It’s against regulations to give a double raise to a new hire.”
“So how much can we do?” asked Tomaszewski.
“We can go up one group, 300zl. Altogether it will come to 2400zl.”
Tomaszewski apologized, “Sorry we can’t pay you more right now.”
I: Was it a good offer?
M: For me it was a very good offer, considering how short my experience was in theater. Anyway, I didn’t think about money but was happy to be hired.
I: I bet. It was a big deal to get into the WPT, wasn’t it?
M: Yes it was.
I: Did you start right away?
M: No, not right away, six or seven weeks later, on June 1, 1974. Tomaszewski wanted me to start immediately, but Clara wouldn’t let me.
I: Why not?
M: She argued that she was short of male dancers and didn’t have a replacement for me. I was bound by contract until the end of the season. I couldn’t just leave without her permission.
I: Did you mind?
M: No, not at all. I didn’t mind but…
M: My stay in operetta had two unfortunate events.
I: Why? What happened?
I: Tell me!
M: First my girlfriend, Gertruda, left me.
I: Ouch. What was the reason, if I may ask?
M: Because I got into the WPT.
M: When I told her that I’d been hired, she said, “Now you’re going to become a playboy from the WPT and women will eat you alive. I’m not going to wait for you to dump me later; I’m going to dump you right now. It’s over between us. I’m leaving you.” She said it and she meant it.
I: She had to be an insecure person.
M: She was a little bit insecure about fame, but she was more concerned with the fact that she was seven years older than I was. She didn’t think our relationship had a future.
I: Was she right?
M: I think it was a real issue.
I: What was the second unfortunate event?
M: A guy broke my jaw in a nightclub.
I: Oh my God!
I: How did it happen?
M: In the evening of the same day that Gertruda dumped me, I went after the performance to the nightclub Dreptak, which was a popular hangout for artists, snobs, and, occasionally, gangsters. When I entered the café, I spotted Genek, an old friend from high school, who, completely drunk, had fallen under a table and was trying to stand up. I approached him and tried to help. At the same moment, someone put his hand on the nape of my neck. I thought it was a drunkard who had reeled and put his hand on me involuntarily for support, so I brushed his hand away and continued to help my drunken friend get to his feet. Once again, the stranger put his hand on the nape of my neck, but this time he firmly grabbed my neck and when I turned to look at him, he pulled me toward himself and head-butted me in the jaw.
At the last moment, I managed to turn my head to the side so that the guy didn’t hit me front-on but on the right side of my jaw. Unfortunately, I wasn’t able to block the blow with my hands because I was pulling my friend up at the same time, which pinned my hands under the table. After the head-butt, the perpetrator ran out of the cafe. It all happened so fast, and the place was so packed and swarming with drunkards that no one paid attention to what had happened. So, I forced my way through the crowd to the bathroom and checked my jaw in the mirror. It looked strangely deformed. And although there was no blood and I felt no pain, I had no doubt that my jaw was broken. I went to the bar, borrowed their phone, and called emergency for an ambulance. Shortly after, it arrived and I was taken to the hospital. The doctor’s diagnosis was that my jaw was badly broken in three places.
I: Oh my god, that’s terrible.
M: It was. I had surgery and stayed in the hospital for a few weeks. The one good thing about it was that Gertruda came back. She visited me a few times per week in the hospital bringing treats, such as broth and chocolate, and having sex with me in the bathroom.
I: Ha, ha, ha, ha. So nevertheless, she was a good woman.
M: Yes she was.
I: So how did it all end?
M: I left the hospital in the middle of May, just two weeks before starting to work at the WPT. The problem was that I was wearing these braces that tightly wired my upper and lower jaw together. I wasn’t able to open my mouth and had to eat through a thin straw.
I: That had to be a drag.
M: It was. I could only eat liquid food. But I would have managed that. The real problem was that I was supposed to wear those braces for six weeks, but I was to begin working at the WPT in two weeks. I didn’t want to start there with braces on my mouth.
I: Why not?
M: It would be bad luck.
I: What could you do?
M: A few days before starting, I took the braces off.
I: Oh my god. Wasn’t it dangerous?
M: It was, particularly since I did it myself.
I: How did you do it?
M: I unwired my jaw.
M: With small pliers.
I: Was it easy?
M: No, it wasn’t. I had to unwire each tooth separately. It took a lot of patience and time.
I: But was it all right?
M: Not quite, until now my jaw is a little bit crooked. You can see it if you look closely. Do you see?
I: I’m not sure.
M: You see, the occlusion is a little bit off. The lower jaw is narrower than the upper and doesn’t fit exactly on both sides.
I: Aha, I think I see it now.
M: The lower jaw is confused which side to match, the right or the left.
I: Does it bother you?
M: A little bit.
PART III: BECAMING AN ACTOR-MIME
I: How was your first day of work in the Wroclaw Pantomime Theater?
M: When I arrived, there was an emergency situation in the theater. The whole company was called in. I remember them arriving and gathering around.
I: What was your impression?
M: It was the most beautiful group of people I’d ever seen in my whole life. They were stars. You could see that at once.
I: How so?
M: Each of them had something strikingly attractive or intriguing in their appearance.
I: What was it?
I: That something “strikingly attractive or intriguing” in them that made them look like stars.
M: You had to see them to really understand it.
I: Oh. Come on!
M: It’s something extraordinary in a person that you see immediately and it grabs you. Maybe it’s a glow, charisma, or unusual features. You know, the stars shine and so did they. They were like gods who had stepped out of Olympus to earth.
I: Wow! You were really impressed by them.
M: Yes, I was. Besides, they were young, physically well shaped, and sexy. And they had cool-looking clothes bought in the West that were very rare but very hip in Poland at that time.
I: Ha, ha, ha.
M: All that was appealing to me.
I: Being a young man as you were at that time.
M: That’s right!
I: How did they behave?
M: The first thing each of them did was to check for a rehearsal schedule on the bulletin board, but it wasn’t there. “Where’s the rehearsal schedule?” “Why isn’t it here?” “Do you know what we’re doing?” they were asking each other.
But no one knew for sure, so some of them were getting frustrated. “What’s going on? How can it be? We are wasting time! Where is Tolek? Tolek! Tolek!” They were calling for Tolek Krupa, who was an actor and also the stage manager. But Tolek was in the office working on the schedule with Henryk Tomaszewski and his assistant, Jerzy Kozłowski. So we were waiting, I among them, hanging there. But no one was paying attention to me, as if I were invisible.
They were wrapped up in their own discontentment, which I sensed but didn’t know what it was really about. For sure, it wasn’t just about the lack of a rehearsal schedule. But I was soon to find out.
A little bit later Tolek came out of the office, and announced a partial rehearsal plan and promised to post the schedule for the whole week, as soon as he knew the plan. Going through the scenes to be worked on that day, he and the actors decided who had to stay and who could go.
Then Tolek approached me, “You are Mr. Krzysztof Szwaja, I guess,” he said.
“Yes, I am.”
He introduced himself formally and apologized, “Sorry that you had to wait so long. I have had no chance to take care of you yet because we have an emergency situation here in the theater.” Then he explained, “The company just returned from Paris yesterday after a month of touring in France. We were supposed to have a few days off to rest after it, but unfortunately, one actor had to leave the company immediately. So we urgently need to recast his parts in the production of The Menagerie of the Empress Phylissa because the company goes with this show to the International Theater Festival in Greece in ten days.”
I: Was that the same festival that Andrzej Szczuzewski was telling you about in Leba?
M: Yes it was. The WPT went to this festival almost every year.
I: I see. So?
M: So Tolek continued, “Henryk Tomaszewski cast you to substitute the departed actor in some of his parts. The assistant of the director, Jerzy Kozlowski, shall come out of the office any moment, and he’ll tell you exactly which parts you are going to work on.”
Then Tolek took me to the men’s dressing room, assigned a locker, and told me to change quickly because my rehearsal would start in five or ten minutes. He also told me to come to the office after the rehearsal and to take care of the paper work for my passport because I was going to go with them to Greece, to the International Theater Festival in Corfu. Wow, could I imagine a better start in the Wroclaw Pantomime Theater?
I: No, you could not.
M: By the way, Tolek looked neither like a god nor a star. In fact, he looked extremely ordinary: a small balding man in his early forties, which was very old for the WPT.
I: What was the average age in the company?
M: I would say, thirty or less.
I: You were a very young company.
M: Mime is the art of the body, good for young people, even more so in the WPT where mime was reinforced with dance and acrobatics.
I: How was your first rehearsal?
M: I was working on the group scenes with the supervision of the assistant of the director, Jerzy Kozlowski.
I: How did you work?
M: First, he told me a bit about the scenes, then we were recreating the choreography and blocking, and then we were working on the physical routines of my parts with the company.
I: How it went?
M: It went great.
I: How so?
M: I got the physical routines rather quickly and tuned well with the company.
I: Good for you.
M: I was very happy because from the first moment, I found myself at home there. It was like, well, perfect.
M: Yes, it was perfect. But then suddenly, bam, an accident happened that almost ended in another catastrophe – ha, ha, ha, ha. Things can’t just be perfect, can they?
I: What happened?
M: Jerzy Stępniak, one of my scene partners, kicked me in the jaw during one of my first rehearsals at the WPT.
I: Did he break it again?
M: No, no. Luckily, his kick only brushed my jaw. It wasn’t strong enough to break it again but strong enough to give me a jolt and make it numb for several hours.
I: How did he kick you?
M: My take on it is that he was dozing during rehearsal, woke up confused and thought it was his cue, so he entered onto the stage and did his acrobatic stunt at the wrong moment. Later on, I learned that it was like him to do that kind of unpredictable move. He would space out and then suddenly, boom, do something quite off.
I: Was that kind of behavior tolerated?
M: You mean falling asleep during rehearsals?
M: No, not really. But that day it could be tolerated, I presume, because they had traveled from Paris the day before and were tired. Besides, Jerzy Stepniak was a big star, so he got away with it.
I: What was his talent?
M: He had many talents. He was good in all three movement-disciplines required in the WPT: mime, dance, and acrobatics. Yet, primarily he was trained as a dancer, and when he came to the WPT, which was only about a year before me, he already had a huge career as a dancer in different theaters and operas. He was technically very good, in particular, in jumps and turns. Some things that he could do were very spectacular. I always admired him. He was the best dancer I’ve ever worked with and, in some respects, the best dancer I’ve ever seen.
I: Better than Baryshnikov?
M: You bet.
M: Yes, in some respects, if we can really compare.
I: And he was the guy who kicked you in the jaw?
M: That’s right! Ha, ha, ha.
I: It’s funny what actors remember.
M: After all it was my jaw.
I: Had you seen The Menagerie of the Empress Phylissa performed on the stage before you joined the company?
M: Yes, I had.
I: So you knew what you were stepping into?
M: Oh, yes, I did. At that point, I had seen The Menagerie at least twice, maybe even more.
I: You don’t remember exactly how many times you saw that show?
M: No, I don’t.
I: Isn’t that peculiar?
M: Not really. I’d seen many WPT shows prior to joining the company, so I’ve lost count. But I remember the details of The Menagerie of the Empress Phylissa from the point of view of the audience pretty well. It indicates that I must have seen it many times. I remember seeing it at least twice, as I already said. Maybe that was all.
I: Some shows stay with you better than others.
M: That’s right.
I: What is the point of seeing the same show many times?
M: In the case of The Menagerie of the Empress Phylissa, I could watch it many times just for the sake of pleasure.
M: It was a very entertaining show.
I: Many shows are entertaining and yet people watch them only once.
M: It’s enough to see some shows only once (even the good ones). You watch them for the novelty sake. But when you get their contents and their message, that’s it, often there is no need to see them again.
I: That’s right.
M: But there are shows that you can see many times and never get bored with them. The Menagerie of the Empress Phylissa was that kind of show. The second time, I watched it to get what I had missed the first time because there were plenty of activities going on in the background, parallel to the main action, that weren’t less interesting than the main action. And then I could have watched it again and again for the sake of the virtuosity of the performances. The Menagerie of the Empress Phylissa was a masterfully staged and performed pantomime. It was always delightful to watch.
I: What kind of drama was The Menagerie of the Empress Phylissa?
M: It was a libidinal comedy.
I: A libidinal comedy?
M: Yes, a libidinal comedy.
I: I’ve never heard this term used as a dramatic genre.
M: Nether have I. But I can’t come up with a more suitable label for the show than this one.
I: What was the show about?
M: It was about the sexual awakening of the Empress Phylissa and her quest to find a suitable lover who would satisfy her.
I: Did she find one?
M: No, she never did but her search was incessant, so it made for a good libidinal pantomime.
I: How was the show done?
M: The show ran one and a half hours with no intermission, and there were eight scenes, a prologue, and an epilogue.
I: What was the set up?
M: The basic set up of the story was like a fairytale (for the adults, of course.) In the prologue, the curtain slowly went up, and we saw a beautiful young girl–princess, still a nymphet, playing childishly innocently with her doll while sitting on the edge of her royal bed. The bed was the only, but very elaborately designed piece of furniture on the stage, placed upstage center.
At a certain moment, the girl abruptly stops playing and freezes, stunned by a flash of unfamiliar emotions in her body. We guess that she is sexually aroused and doesn’t know how to handle it. First, her face becomes distorted in an expression of blissful imbecility, but then she becomes disturbed by the weirdness of her imagination and tries to disregard it. Terrified, she goes back to playing with her doll as if nothing has happened. But it did happen and she is not able to shake it off. Her playing with the doll becomes erratic, growing frantic, and then she loses it --raging hormones overpower her and mess her up -- she throws her doll away with anger and explodes violently in a mad fury. Then she falls into a catatonic stupor.
The royal court pronounces her sick and calls for the court doctor. He examines her carefully and finds no signs of physical illness. But he is more than a medical doctor; he is a wise man. So, he realizes that the Empress Phylissa is experiencing a sexual awakening and that her case is extreme. Urgently he writes her a prescription on a long roll of paper with only one word – MARRY.
I: What does Phylissa do?
M: Phylissa rejects his prescription with a gesture of indignation. (Who would get married unless one had to?) But the doctor flips the roll to the other side and reveals an almost full size skeleton drawn there.
I: Ha, ha, ha, ha. It is funny.
M: She has a choice either to marry or to die.
I: What her choice?
M: Facing that ominous predicament, she decides to marry. The question is only whom?
I: What are her options?
M: Her options are unlimited.
I: How so?
M: We are in the theater of illusion watching a surrealistic play. Anything she imagines will come to life. So, she can have any man she can fancy. Besides, she is the empress; her desires become royal orders. So, as she wishes, the choicest suitors arrive to the palace, one by one they come.
I: Who were the suitors?
M: They were the famous male personages of the eighteenth, nineteenth, and twentieth centuries that were idolized in different time-periods as iconic lovers. Each of them represented a different type of manhood and/or offered a different recipe for happiness in love.
I: Why didn’t the empress choose any of them to be her husband?
M: Because none of them was able to fully satisfy her as a lover.
I: And she would not settle for less than ultimate fulfillment in love?
M: No, she would not. She was uncompromising in her quest for the perfect lover.
I: What were her criteria?
M: Who knows?
I: She had to have some.
M: At the least, she didn’t want to be disappointed, I guess.
I: And at the most?
M: I guess she wanted to be “mastered” by a man.
M: Isn’t it what all women want?
I: Wow, wow, wow! Now you have feminists screaming their lungs out in protest.
M: Let them scream. It is in vain.
I: How so?
M: What do feminists know about what a real woman wants?
I: Come on, what about her famous suitors?
M: What about them?
I: Did they know what a real woman wants? Did they figure out what Empress Phylissa wanted?
M: They all claimed that they knew how to please a woman, not to say, to master her.
M: Each of them had a reputable theory. Each of them had his ways.
I: Did any of them make her happy?
M: No, none of them did, and it was a problem looked at in the play.
I: What was the message?
M: That there is no fixed recipe for love.
I: Don’t people fall in love?
M: Yes, they do but it happens without recipes, without theories, without love potions. It just happens for mysterious reasons and in mysterious ways and when it does, we know it.
I: What was wrong with Empress Phylissa’s suitors?
M: They were all narcissistic.
I: How so?
M: They were men in love with the fame, power, and beauty of their own superman-like egos that they created, but when there were stripped naked, metaphorically speaking, they appeared as insignificant as dwarfs.
I: What was the literary source of The Menagerie of the Empress Phylissa?
M: It was based on the mime play The Empress of Newfoundland (Kaiserin von NeuFundland) written in 1892-4 by the German playwright Frank Wedekind.
I: A mime play?
I: Written mime plays are very rare, are they not?
M: Yes, they are almost nonexistent. The Menagerie of Empress Phylissa was the only mime show in the history of the WPT (that I know about) that was based on a written mime play. Most of the shows were based or inspired by verbal drama or literature, but also by the visual arts, such as painting and sculpture.
I: Have you read Wedekind’s mime play?
M: Yes, I have. But I read it for the first time just a few years ago in English. (For the record, it was translated from German by Anthony Vivis.)
I: Why didn’t you read it earlier, when you were working on it?
M: Because there was no Polish translation of The Empress of Newfoundland at that time.
I: So how did you work on the play without reading it?
M: Henryk Tomaszewski read it in German; he knew German as well as he did Polish, if not better. Then he adapted it for his production. We worked on Henryk Tomaszewski’s adaptation of the Frank Wedekind’s mime play. At that time, I only knew Tomaszewski’s version, but now I also know the original, so I can compare.
I: How faithful was Henryk Tomaszewski’s adaptation to the original?
M: It was a creative adaption.
I: What does that mean in this case?
M: Henryk Tomaszewski took almost everything from the original but then he deconstructed it.
I: How did he do it?
M: He took the initial set-up of Wedekind’s The Empress of Newfoundland, the same existential predicament of the girl’s sexual awakening, but then he slightly and yet essentially remade the character of the heroin and by that changed the course of the whole drama arriving at a different resolution.
In Frank Wedekind’s play, the Empress Phylissa is a lunatic who is going mad with delusional love and commits suicide at the end of the play while still being a virgin. It’s a tragic case of a virgin suicide. Something went wrong: Is it a defect in Phylissa’s nature or her mental derangement? This is the question that Wedekind’s play poses, but there is not an easy, ready-made answer; the audience can only speculate about it. The play doesn’t resolve this puzzle but presents its case. And it is a horrifying story that may terrify young girls as the worst possible nightmare, as the worst possible scenario of delusional love. I guess there is a didactic message in this play that warns young girls not to indulge in this kind of love -- an inclination many of them have. (I am not saying a girl should sacrifice her dream, but please, don’t turn it into a nightmare.)
I:How different is Henryk Tomaszewski’s Empress Phylissa?
M: In Henryk Tomaszewski’s pantomime she had no vulnerability and didn’t commit suicide. Quite opposite, she was perfectly healthy, both physically and mentally, and had an enormous appetite for life. But she had a mercurial temperament, very moody, inconstant, and quickly bored. Henryk Tomaszewski staged the Empress Phylissa as a female version of Don Juan who searches for absolute fulfillment in love. But is there a lover who could fully satisfy her? Henryk Tomaszewski’s version of the play went on this quest.
I: What is the answer?
M: The answer is: no, there is no such thing as a perfect lover, at least not for Empress Phylissa.
I: How come?
M: In the course of the play, she had many lovers, chosen among the greatest men in history during the last three centuries, but none of them was able to fully satisfy her.
I: How many lovers did she have?
M: She had nine lovers chosen from about a dozen suitors, which is different than in the original play where Phylissa had only four suitors and fell in love with one of them, though only idealistically -- there was no sex. Whereas the original Phylissa was a puritan, Tomaszewski’s Phylissa was a hedonistic libertine.
I: What was your role in The Menagerie of the Empress Phylissa?
M: I performed Hidalla’s Medium who becomes one of the Empress Phylissa’s lovers.
I: Who was Hidalla?
M: Hidalla was a famous racial supremacist, nevertheless, only a fictional character that Henryk Tomaszewski presumably borrowed from another Frank Wedekind’s play Hidalla, oder Sein und Haben (1905).
I: Did you read this play?
M: No, I didn’t read that play, but I know it is a satire about the breeding of races by matching people based on their physical beauty.
I: What an outrageous concept!
M: Yes, it is.
I: Who was Hidalla in your pantomime?
M: In our pantomime, Hidalla was a mad hypnotist who conjured up an apparition of a superman imagined as a German fascist dressed in the military uniform of an SS officer and played by me.
I: How did you get this part?
M: It was a fluke, a total fluke.
I: How did it happen?
M: Oh, it was stupid.
I: Tell me about it.
M: During the first few days in the WPT, I rehearsed two supporting parts, Napoleon’s Companion and Ludovico’s Companion, with the supervision of Jerzy Kozłowski, the director’s assistant. Henryk Tomaszewski came to the rehearsal for the first time at the end of the third day. He came to see what we had done, and then he took over for the last half-hour. Afterward he addressed the whole company, “We still haven’t cast the part of Medium.” Then he giggled mischievously and asked, “Which one of you knows how to do the wavy, snake-like motion with your stomach muscles that this part requires?”
But no one answered, so I said, “I know how to do that.”
“You do?” Tomaszewski asked visibly both surprised and amused with my audacity.
“Yes, I do.”
“Show me,” he said.
So I did.
“Yes, you know how to do it,” he agreed and then added after a short pause, “Okay, you will work on the part.”
Then he thanked everybody for the rehearsal and quickly left the room.
M: That’s what I thought, but a moment later, I realized what I’d done.
I: What do you mean?
M: There was a silence, an icy-cold silence in the room. No one said a word. Then the actors left the room without the usual chatter.
M: Obviously they weren’t happy that I got a solo part.
M: There were many young actor-mimes waiting for years to get one. And then someone like me, an unknown dancer who came from, alas, operetta, immediately gets a large role.
I: Were they envious?
M: Maybe a few of them were, the younger ones who wanted that part. But the others were, let’ say, reserved, and some of them were maybe resentful.
M: They didn’t know me yet and were reluctant to accept me fully to the company until I proved myself at work. They assumed a “let’s wait and see” attitude, and the question was, “Is he going to handle the solo part or not?”
I: They didn’t trust you yet, did they?
M: No, they didn’t. But it was not personal. They didn’t trust my abilities and were very judgmental.
I: Do you blame them for that?
M: No, I don’t blame them for that. The reputation of the company was at stake. They had very high standards and it mattered.
I: So it was a challenge for you.
M: Yes, it was a challenge, but it was also a chance to prove myself.
I: Did they let you know that they didn’t trust your ability to handle the solo part?
M: Oh, yes, they did.
M: For example, at a certain moment during a rehearsal I was supposed to raise Danuta Kisiel-Drzewinska, who played the Empress Phylissa, high above my head in a way that she could lie horizontally, straight as a board, on my extended hands. Then I was supposed to carry her, maintaining that position, to the bed, which was upstage center. However, the first time I tried that bit in rehearsal Danuta was afraid that I was going to drop her. She asked me, “You aren’t going to drop me, are you?”
“No, I’m not going to drop you,” I reassured her.
“Are you sure?”
“Yes, I’m sure.”
But just a split second before I was supposed to pick her up, she ran away, exaggeratedly acting scared. “Oh, oh, he’s going to drop me. He’s going to drop me!” she shouted and hid behind the other actors.
“Come on, Danusia, he’s not going to drop you,” said Jerzy Kozłowski.
“I’m not going to do that with him. I’m afraid.”
To appease her, Kozłowski asked a few guys to stand around and spot her in case I dropped her.
So she came back and took her position but ran away again right before I was supposed to pick her up.
“He’s going to drop me. He’s going to drop me,” she cried again.
“Danusiu, please, come back,” Kozłowski was begging her, “Give him a chance.”
“Okay,” she said, “I’m going to do it this time.” And she came back and behaved as if she were going to do it, but when it came to it, she ran away again.
I: How did you take it?
M: She stretched the limits of my patience.
I: No wonder.
M: I realized that she was like a child and wasn’t going to quit the game.
I: So, how did you handle a naughty girl?
M: When she came back again and stood in the initial position, I grasped her a split second before I was supposed to. She intuitively bent her knee to help me catapult her and I raised her high above my head, placing her flat on my hands, and carried her to the bed.
I: And it was fine, wasn’t it?
M: Of course, it was. If anything, I knew how to raise a girl into a pose. I had done that many times in operetta. Besides, Danuta was very light, very easy to pick up.
I: Why do you think she was doing that?
M: To amuse her colleagues.
I: She was just playing with you, huh?
M: Maybe she was just playing. Maybe she was fucking with me, it’s hard to say, but I think it was both.
I: How so?
M: My take on it is that she channeled the resentment against me that was in the company and acted on it. It wasn’t personal; it was testing the novice who got a large part too quickly.
I: Did she keep fucking with you?
M: No, not really, at least not in this production. But we had some friction in another production later on.
I: What was it?
M: It was one year later. I was substituting for another large part, this time for Stephan Niedzialkowski, who left the company with a few other actors to start their own theater. I was taking over two parts from him in the production of The Departure of Dr. Faust: Paris and Homunculus. Homunculus was entirely a solo part, but as Paris, I was again paired with Danka (one of Danuta’s nickname) who of course played Helen. There was a scene in which Dr. Faust visits the ancient world in his metaphysical search for the most beautiful woman of all times, Helen of Troy, whom Mephistopheles has promised to deliver to Faust. However, Helen is bound in eternal harmony with Paris. We cannot imagine Helen of Troy without Paris and Paris without Helen; they belong to each other forever. They cannot be separated. Alas, and herein lies the rub, Faust could not have Helen without Paris -- a compromising triangle that Faust didn’t care for. So he let Helen go with Paris back to the ancient world where they belong -- as apparitions, they disappeared as they had appeared.
So, that was the scene.
I: What was the problem?
M: The problem was that Danka and I couldn’t synchronize well for a while. She complained that I threw her off balance and rhythm. And she wanted me to do the part exactly as Stephan had done it. I tried, after all I was replacing him, but to a limit. I could imitate the forms of his body, movement, and gestures but not the sensibility of his soul. That is something one cannot imitate. It’s a matter of individual interpretation.
I: Couldn’t she understand that?
M: I think she could.
M: She had done that part with Stephan for five years before I took it over, so she was used to him in that part, not me, and her routine was fixed. Maybe it was also psychological. She didn’t want to accept that I had replaced Stephan Niedzialkowski.
I: Why not?
M: He really was a mega star, one of the WPT legends. And there was a notion that some of them were so good and so unique that no one would be able to replace them. Stephan was one of them. After he left, I heard many times that he was irreplaceable.
I: But you did replace him successfully, didn’t you?
M: Yes, I did. I was there to prove that no one is irreplaceable (including me.) Ha, ha, ha.
I: Ha, ha, ha.
M: But it took me some time to convince them.
I: Did you hate Danka for being difficult?
M: No, I didn’t hate Danka. How could I? How could anyone hate Danka? She was so beautiful and talented. Quite the opposite, I loved her. She was my muse -- on the sly, of course. She inspired me.
I: How did she inspire you?
M: You see when she played Helen, the most beautiful woman of all times, I didn’t have to use any acting devices to make-believe, such as parallel actions or images. No, Danka was for me the most beautiful woman I’d ever seen. She had no problem convincing me that she was Helen; the problem was how to convince her that I was Paris.
I: Ha, ha, ha. Were you in love with her?
M: That’s what it was?
I: It looks like it.
M: If so, it was only platonic.
I: What was that you loved about her the most?
M: Everything she was doing in movement had utter grace. It was alluring and enticing.
I: What is grace?
M: Grace is a good sense or feel for form.
I: And she had it.
M: Yes, she had it.
I: Did you two work out your differences and click as Paris and Helen?
M: I think so, if not entirely it was only getting better. After one performance, Danka said to me, “The part of Homunculus you now do even better than Stephan but in the part of Paris you are still worse than he was.” Or maybe it was opposite; maybe she said that I was better in Paris but worse in Homunculus. I didn’t quite get it. She said it so suddenly and, without waiting for my reaction, left to the dressing room. I was so flabbergasted that I failed to respond. But in that moment, it occurred to me that I had been compared to Stephan Niedzialkowski in regards to my mime talent.
I: What did you expect?
M: I don’t know what I expected but not that. At the time, I was still humble. I was just happy to be in that famous company and had no higher expectations. But Henryk Tomaszewski kept casting me in one part after another. In the first two years in the company, I became an actor-mime specializing in replacing other actors. I was taking over many parts, small and large, from actors who either left the company or got injured. However, each time Tomaszewski cast me again, particularly in a large part, I was surprised. I really didn’t expect it.
I: Why were actors leaving the company?
M: It was a temporary phenomenon. Tomaszewski had a falling-out with some of the primary members of the company.
I: What was the reason for that?
M: It seems that they were done with each other and it was time to separate.
I: Do you know why Stephan Niedzialkowski left the company?
M: Yes, I know. Stephan Niedzialkowski and Andrzej Szczuzewski prepared their own pantomime (it was titled The Mirror) and wanted to perform it as a WPT production, but Henryk Tomaszewski didn’t agree to it. There was a big fight. All the members of the company were called for a meeting. The Department of Culture in Wroclaw was the mediator in the conflict but to no avail. Tomaszewski said that if Stephan and Andrzej want to do their own performances they should leave the WPT and start their own theater, as he, Tomaszewski, did when he founded the WPT. So they did. They left with three other actors and started a pantomime theater in Warsaw called The Warsaw Mime Theater.
I: So it was a schism in the company.
M: Yes, it was. Regretfully, a few great mimes left the company.
I: How did you feel about it?
M: I was disturbed. Nevertheless, I didn’t mind taking over their parts when they left.
I: In which way were you disturbed?
M: There is always something wrong when the best people are leaving.
PART IV: PLAYING DIONYSUS
Interviewer: What was your most significant role in the Wroclaw Pantomime Theater of Henryk Tomaszewski?
Me: The dual role of the Guest and Dionysus in the production of Arriving Tomorrow.
I: What was the character of the Guest?
M: He was a mysterious stranger who visits a bourgeois family and seduces all of its members, driving them into a Dionysian frenzy.
I: How seventies.
M: You bet.
I: What was the Guest’s power? Why did all of them fall for him?
M: He had the irresistible divine presence of a god. They couldn’t help but adore him and fall madly in love with him.
I: How did you pull off that trick?
M: It’s a secret.
I: Come on. There are no secrets anymore in art. Tell me.
M: If I were to reveal to you my Dionysian secret, you would burn alive in a heat of mad passions and desires.
I: Ha, ha, ha, ha. That’s what it was about?
M: Yeah. It was about the Dionysian frenzy that drives people mad.
I: What was the payoff for the characters who were seduced?
M: A moment of divine happiness with the Guest. But then he abandoned all of them, and they suffered terribly from being unable to find happiness again.
I: Like abandoned lovers.
I: How did you get the dual-role of the Guest and Dionysus?
M: Originally they were two separate parts performed by two different actors, not a dual role. First I took over the part of the Guest from Wieslaw Starczynowski. It was in August 1975.
I: Why did he leave the company?
M: Gee, I don’t know for sure.
I: What do you know?
M: I know that he married a girl from Vancouver, Canada, and emigrated there.
I: And what about Dionysus? When were you cast in that role?
M: One year later.
M: It was the result of the misfortune of my predecessor, Zbyszek Papis, who injured his spine and wasn’t able to perform Dionysus anymore.
I: How did that happen?
M: An actor jumped on his back at the wrong moment, much earlier than his cue, and Zbyszek didn’t expect it, he wasn’t ready, and it happened. It was an accident.
I: How serious was the injury?
M: It was very serious. Zbyszek was in a cast for a few months but never entirely recovered from that injury, became partly disabled, and never fully returned to the mime profession. He still acted, but in-so-called, walking parts that didn’t require difficult physical skill or effort. That was a pity because Zbyszek had a rare talent for reinforcing his mime-acting with acrobatic elements – after that accident, no more. Later on he became a choreographer-director.
I: How long were you playing the roles of the Guest and Dionysus, and how long did your predecessors do so?
M: Arriving Tomorrow was in the WPT repertory for four years. Wieslaw Starczynowski performed the Guest for one year, I performed it for three; Zbigniew Papis performed Dionysus for two years, I performed it for two years as well.
I: Why did you play both the Guest and Dionysus when two different actors played them before?
M: I don’t really know.
I: Was there a connection between those two roles?
M: The Guest was a modern version or manifestation of the mythological god Dionysus.
I: But were they two separate parts?
M: Yes, they were. Arriving Tomorrow had a mythological prologue about the myth of Dionysus set in ancient times. Otherwise the play was set in modern times.
I: What was the literary source of Henryk Tomaszewski’s pantomime Arriving Tomorrow?
M: There were two sources: The Baccae (The Bacchantes), a play by Euripides, and Teorema, a novel and film by Pier Paolo Pasolini.
I: Wow! How did it translate into mime?
M: It didn’t really translate, in the sense that mime doesn’t illustrate words, but it showed what is beyond words.
I: What is beyond words? If I may ask such an unsophisticated, direct question.
M: A primary vision of human imagination, which is dream-like or a nightmare. If literature describes or at least insinuates this kind of vision, it’s good material for pantomime.
I: That’s interesting. But I’m not sure that I understand it.
M: No one really does unless you see it.
I: Oh great, that explains everything.
M: If it were possible to easily explain in words there would be no justification for making pantomimes. Henryk Tomaszewski’s pantomimes, in particular the best ones, showed what words couldn’t explain. That’s the whole point.
I: As in fine art?
M: Yes, you can find an analogy between pantomime and fine art, the difference is that the former is a vision in motion, the latter is still.
I: But why not to use words, if you can?
M: You cannot.
M: Some things happen only in dreams. And a mime performance is a simulated dream. To use words in a mime performance would destroy the illusion of that dream for the audience, which receives it through the senses not the intellect.
I: I see.
M: Mime does not like words. It is an art of silence. I am talking in particular about the mime art of the Wroclaw Pantomime Theater. Because, of course, there is mime that is used in verbal drama quite successfully, for example, in commedia dell’arte, but it is a different type of mime and a different subject.
I: Coming back to Arriving Tomorrow, which part did you prefer to perform, the Guest or Dionysus?
M: I liked to perform them both, each for different reasons. The Guest was more of an acting-mime type of role while Dionysus was more of a dancing-mime type, but both were spectacular roles. I found fulfillment in both. But I can tell you that the part of the Guest was much more difficult for me both to acquire and to perform than the part of Dionysus. At least that was the case in the beginning. But later on I handled it.
I: I wonder why?
M: Maybe because I was less experienced when I started to work on the part of the Guest, but also because they were different types of parts.
I: o you had problems with mime?
M: No, no, with acting.
I: With acting?
I: How so? One would think that acting is much easier than mime.
M: In some respects it is, in others it is not.
I: So what was your acting problem?
M: In the beginning, when I was still in rehearsals, I had a problem with expressiveness. It‘s a common problem for the beginning actor. I internally experienced the role of the character but barely made it visible because I didn’t know how to sufficiently externalize it. After about one week of rehearsals, Tomaszewski began to worry about whether I was going to get it, so he double-cast the role. He cast Jerzy, a more experienced actor than I was who had no problem whatsoever with expressiveness. In fact he was inclined to overact, to over-express. Nevertheless, seeing how he did it helped me. I got it. I understood what was lacking in my performance.
I: Nothing is more motivating than a little competition.
M: No doubt. I almost lost the part. Jerzy already had a costume made. But I began to make quick progress and Tomaszewski saw it. So he dropped Jerzy and went only with me.
I: Ha, ha, ha. That had to be a trial for you.
M: It was. But that wasn’t all of it.
I: What else?
M: I also had a problem with consistency. Throughout the first few months of performing, almost every other performance sucked. I had drastic ups and downs: one day I was very good, the next day very bad.
I: And you knew it?
M: Oh, yeah.
M: I could feel when I was on or not. Besides, Tomaszewski never failed to tell me how bad I was.
M: In this respect he was brutally frank. But not with everyone. With some actors he was more roundabout and diplomatic when they weren’t doing well. But with me? He would burst into my dressing room after the performance and scream, “What the fuck have you being doing out there? It was terrible!”
I: How rude!
M: The worst thing about it was that he was right.
I: How did you take it?
M: I didn’t mind. In fact I appreciated it because it was an honest response, even if it wasn’t flattering. Besides when I did well, Tomaszewski never failed to tell me how good I was. And when he really liked it, he would show it.
M: He was euphoric…as if he’d seen a miracle. I tell you, he knew how to admire the actor.
I: You felt appreciated.
M: I did.
I: How did you finally overcome your inconsistency?
M: I realized that one of my mistakes was that when I had a good performance one day, I tried to repeat it exactly the next day. But it doesn’t work that way.
I: Why not?
M: Acting is a live process; even though each performance is formally a replica of the others, emotionally and/or spiritually each performance needs to be performed as if anew, as if for the first time.
I: How do you do that?
M: By re-experiencing, not merely repeating.
I: Why did you have problems doing this in the part of the Guest but not in other parts that you had performed earlier, when you were even less experienced?
M: The Guest was basically built on the presence of the character in the moment, without clearly, if at all, defined drives, and that was different from the other characters I had played. The Guest is a mysterious stranger who appears from nowhere. He has neither past history nor future objectives. He just is, here and now. And that was the most difficult thing for me to figure out – how to just be in the moment, on a moment-to-moment basis, with seemingly no other purpose but being.
I: It seems simple.
M: That’s what I thought.
I: But it wasn’t?
M: No, it wasn’t.
I: What was the problem?
M: I was becoming self-conscious and stiff.
I: How were you supposed to behave?
M: I was supposed to... well, first, I was supposed to be relaxed and yet enticing. But, also, Tomaszewski wanted me to play the Guest as innocent.
M: Nothing is more seductive than innocence.
I: That’s right.
M: But you see it was tricky because the “innocence” was only on the surface; it was like bait, but underneath there was supposed to be a hook. The Guest had Dionysian duality. He was seemingly innocent, but actually he was seductive and dangerous.
I: He was like forbidden fruit? Whoever fell for him had to fall?
M: That’s right. It was a game.
I: So how did you fix your problem with presence?
M: Henryk Tomaszewski wanted me to have personal but neutral presence. In order to achieve presence he once advised me to simply say to myself, “I, Krzysztof Szwaja, am here and now, and everything that surrounds me affects me on a certain level.” He also said to me, “Imagine that you are the focal point on which or, rather, in which everything focuses and then begins anew, transformed.” It was his magical formula about what presence is. I didn’t know how exactly to understand it but for sure it acted on my imagination. It helped me to put myself in the center of things and events and to experience them on my own. Yet it wasn’t enough to achieve a powerful presence. It was too vague to really intrigue the audience. I sensed that something more was needed, something specific but not revealed, something mysterious. So I started to play that I had a secret and it worked. The audience became intrigued. Then I learned how to radiate my presence on a strictly technical basis and achieve a hypnotic effect on the audience.
I: How do you radiate presence?
M: By sending energy into the entire theater. It’s a tangible process; you can feel that the entire audience focuses on you and you have a hold of them, as if you had hypnotized them.
I: By mere radiation of presence you can hypnotize the audience?
M: In the seventies you could.
M: Well, Arriving Tomorrow was a big hit. And the Guest was an iconic figure that had an enticing power over the audience.
I: Iconic of what?
M: Iconic of the seventies’ spirit.
I: What was it?
M: It was the spirit of liberation.
I: Liberation from what?
M: Jesus, from everything, from all these restrictions that oppressed men and women throughout the centuries.
I: And that was Dionysian?
M: Yes, the spirit of liberation in the seventies was Dionysian.
I: Doesn’t it mean orgiastic?
M: According to some dictionaries, yes.
I: Was it?
M: I prefer the term “liberating.”
I: Was it both perhaps?
M: Yes it was. And that was one of the dilemmas in Arriving Tomorrow. The Dionysian spirit is liberating and/or orgiastic.
I: Why “and/or”?
M: Because it’s not clear, the Dionysian spirit is deceptive; it’s hard to draw a clear line between what’s liberating and what’s orgiastic.
I: But is there such a line?
M: I hope so.
I: What is it?
M: It’s a taboo.
I: So what was the moral message of Arriving Tomorrow?
M: The message was: if you cross the line you are doomed. But, you know, it was a message that no one heard, no one received: neither the characters in the play nor the audience. The appeal of Arriving Tomorrow was crossing the line of taboo. That’s why the audience came. That’s why the show was so popular.
I: Was it so popular because you performed naked on the stage?
M: Come on, let’s not exaggerate with that nakedness. Altogether I was on the stage for one-and-a-half hours and stark naked for only one-and-a-half minutes – twice, once as Dionysus and once as the Guest.
I: Still it was new for people. They had never seen entirely naked people on the stage before.
M: That’s right; Arriving Tomorrow was the first play in Poland that had naked actors in it.
I: Who else was naked in Arriving Tomorrow besides you?
M: The two actors playing the characters of the father and the mother. The mother, who was played by Danka, was naked in a scene with me. She let herself go with the Guest. It was an erotic act.
I: Liberating, of course.
M: When we performed the scene the audience was so transfixed that no one even dared to breathe.
I: So it had a strong impact on them?
M: Yes, it did.
I: How was it for you personally to perform the dual role of the Guest and Dionysus?
M: It was an extraordinary experience… as if not from this world.
I: How so?
M: People identified me with the roles of the Guest and Dionysus and idolized me. It was great. Suddenly I was so famous and had many admirers. But it was also strange because some of my admirers were so infatuated with me, or rather with my stage persona, that they lost their heads and did a variety of crazy things to be near me.
I: Like what?
M: For example, one day when I was leaving the theater after a morning rehearsal, this girl approached me. She introduced herself as a student of literature and theater, told me that she was working on an essay about our production of Arriving Tomorrow, and asked if she could talk with me about the roles of the Guest and Dionysus.
“Sure you can,” I said, “but not now because I’m in a hurry and have to go.”
“Oh, no!” the girl exclaimed.
“Come another time,” I said and walked away.
But the girl followed me and said, “I live in Opole [that’s another town] and don’t know when I’ll have another opportunity to come to Wroclaw.”
“What can I do about it?”
“Can I at least walk with you to wherever you’re going and talk?”
I thought, ‘why not’ and said, “Okay, you can walk with me for a little bit, but we have to walk quickly because I’m really in a hurry.”
“Okay,” the girl said and we walked and talked. It came out that she had a train to Opole departing soon and intended to take it. So, since the railway station was on my way, we decided to walk together up to that point and then depart.
Soon we came to the station, so I told her goodbye and wanted to go on my way, but she figured she still had some time to spare and decided to walk with me another block or two. So we continued. We passed one block and then another and she still kept walking with me.
I prompted her, “You should go back. You’ll miss your train.”
“So what?” she said. “There is another one in an hour or two”
At that moment I became slightly alarmed and thought, “How am I going to get rid of this girl?” But she kept walking with me up to the gate of my apartment building, which wasn’t far, just a few more blocks. There I decisively said goodbye, but it was clear to me that she wanted to be invited into my home. I won’t pretend that I didn’t consider it, but I was really in a hurry and gave up that option for a date.
Then I forgot about the girl. But five days later her mother called the WPT and inquired about her daughter, who had been missing all that time. First she talked with the people in the administrative office, but they, of course, knew nothing about the girl. Then the mother asked to talk with me because she had found out that her daughter was infatuated with me and had gone to Wroclaw to specifically see me. But it was only nine in the morning, and I wasn’t in the theater yet. The moment I arrived, the people from the office came out to tell me all about it and to say that the mother was going to call soon to talk with me. All of them were so stirred up. They smelled a scandal and possibly a criminal case because it came out that the girl was not, as I had assumed, a college student but only in high school, sixteen years old. “Do you know the girl? Do you know where she is?” they asked me. But their emotionally flushed faces were asking, “Have you slept with that girl? Is she still in your apartment? Do you know that she is under age?”
I: What did you tell them?
M: I told them what I knew and that wasn’t much. Then her mother called again, and I talked with her on the phone. I told her that I briefly met her daughter five days ago and that she was planning to train back to Opole that day. Her mother, of course, was worried. I asked her if she had notified the police. She said that she hadn’t because she didn’t want to ruin her daughter’s reputation. She thought that the police would investigate or notify the girl’s school. I was surprised to hear that her daughter’s reputation was more important to her than her daughter’s safety. So I urged her to notify the police right away. She told me that she was going to wait until the next day to notify them.
I: Did you finally find out what happened to the girl?
M: Yes I did. When I came back to my apartment that evening, I found out that the missing girl had been living in my apartment for five days. During that time, I had been out of town performing for a few days, and then when I returned to Wroclaw I had been staying with my girlfriend, Malgosia.
I: How did the girl get into your apartment?
M: She somehow convinced my landlady that she was my girlfriend and madly in love with me. My landlady, moved by the girl’s story, let her stay in my apartment to wait until I returned. It so happened that I was not to return for five days, and the girl kept waiting.
I: That’s creepy.
M: It was.
I: Didn’t your landlady know better?
M: I wondered myself. She told me that she felt for the girl because she seemed to be so genuine and so desperately in love with me that she didn’t have the heart to kick her out. But when she found out the truth, she couldn’t believe that she had been so stupid as to fall for it.
I: What did the girl say to you when you found her there?
M: When I entered my apartment, I saw someone dart through the door into the next room. I knew it was a girl because I caught a glimpse of her dress trailing behind. I followed her into the room and found her cowering and hiding from me.
“What the hell are you doing here?” I confronted her.
“I am waiting for you.”
To that I got pissed off and coldly asked her, “How did you get into my apartment?”
“I knew it, I knew you were going to be angry,” she said and started to cry.
I: So you were moved and consoled the girl.
M: Not so quickly. But I didn’t see any reason to be cruel to her. I saw that she was emotionally lost.
I: What did you do with her?
M: I walked her to the railway station, bought her a train ticket to Opole, because she had spent all her money while staying in Wroclaw, and then I put her on the train. I also waited until the train departed to make sure she was really going home.
I: Did you call her mother?
M: I wanted to, but the girl begged me to spare her the humiliation. So I didn’t.
I: Did she harass you again?
M: No. That was the last time I ever saw her.
I: Have you had other stalkers?
M: No, at least not another one who succeeded in getting into my personal life. But I had many admirers.
I: What is the difference?
M: Stalkers harass you; admirers adore you; but both want to go to bed with you.
I: Ha, ha, ha. Really?
M: Really. Ha, ha. Ha.
I: Aren’t admirers potential stalkers?
M: No. I wouldn’t say so. But you can never know for sure who is the stranger waiting for you after the performance at the back door of the theater with a bouquet of flowers.
M: Ah, there was a girl who used to regularly send me flowers backstage with perfumed love letters attached to them.
I: How sweet.
M: She wanted to meet with me.
I: Did you?
I: Why not?
M: She was too much for me.
I: What do you mean?
M: Her letters were passionate yet very exalted; it was unreal for me.
I: She was in love with you.
M: She was in love with Dionysus, not with me.
I: Was that a problem?
M: No, it was not a problem that she was in love with Dionysus – falling in love with the character is what the audience does. But she didn’t see the difference between Dionysus and me, the actor who performed it, and that was a problem. She mistook me for the role I was playing on the stage and wanted to have a date with me. But I was not into performing Dionysus and the Guest in real life for my exalted admirers.
I: Did she harass you?
M: No, not by any means. Although she was very persistent in pursuing me, she never imposed herself but only made herself available.
M: After sending me flowers with letters, in which she entreated me to meet her after the show, she would wait for me near the back door of the theater, standing at a distance of fifty to a hundred yards in some dark spot in the alley. Curiously, she would never approach me or cross my path when I was coming out of the theater but instead she waited for me to approach her.
I: Could you see what she looked like?
M: I could see her shadowy figure, but not her face. She used to wear strange, stylish hats with brims that cast an additional shadow on her face. And, once or twice, I saw a veil on her face when I passed by her at a closer distance.
I: How mysterious.
M: It was her style.
I: Was it intriguing?
M: Theatrical rather.
I: So you never found out who she was?
M: Yes, I found out, but not until twenty-seven or twenty-eight years later.
I: How did it happen?
M: It happened during a visit to Poland while I was attending the opening of the Salvador Dali drawing exhibition at the City Hall Museum in Wroclaw. Suddenly a stylishly dressed, middle-aged woman approached me and said, “It was me who was sending you flowers during Arriving Tomorrow.”
To that I answered, “There were many girls and women who sent me flowers at that time, which one were you?”
I: Ha, ha, ha. What did she say to that?
M: She playfully made a face and said, “I was the one who, altogether, sent you twelve bouquets of flowers with perfumed letters. Do you remember now?”
“I think that I remember now,” I said.
“I also sent you a cactus to the headquarters of the WPT. Do you remember the cactus?” she asked.
“The cactus was supposed to be for goodbye,” she explained.” “I sent it in anger because you didn’t want to meet with me. But then I couldn’t help myself and sent you some more flowers.”
“I know,” I said.
Then she formally introduced herself, “My name is Malgorzata. I am a glass artist” and so on. She invited me to her exhibition that was being held at the same museum but on a different floor.
I: Did you attend it?
I: Her exhibition.
M: Yes I did.
I: How was it?
M: Her glass was very beautiful. She is a very talented artist.
I: Do you keep in touch with her?
M: Yes, I do. We became friendly and wrote letters via email to each other.
I: Did you ask her why she wanted to meet with you during Arriving Tomorrow?
M: Yes, I did.
I: What did she say?
M: She wrote me a passionate letter about it and told me everything.
I: Can you read her letter for me?
M: Certainly, I can. I already asked Malgosia for permission to print her letter with an English translation in this interview and she agreed.
I: How so?
M: She said, “I am little bit ashamed of my youthful raptures, but what the heck – I agree. After all it was such a beautiful thing.”
I: Please, read her letter.
M: Here it is:
Malgosia’s Letter Translated into English
How are you coping with your flu? I hope you feel better because you will need a lot of strength to take what you asked for. But you want it, so you deserve to get it.
This letter is a present that I lay under your Christmas tree. It is my honest recollection, though it may not be quite accurate because a lot of time has passed, but it is certainly sincere. It will, doubtlessly, feed your vanity.
In 1977, I enrolled in the Academy of Fine Art in Wroclaw to study glass. At that time I was a so-called girl from a good home, who was well mannered and diligently educated. I was knowledgeable and felt I had enormous potential. I received the highest score of all incoming students on my entry exam into the Academy, and I did it without any stress because I was confident that I would do well. At that time I knew that a new chapter in my life was opening and I intended to only fill it up with revelations.
After the summer vacation, I arrived to Wroclaw a month before my first academic semester started and was working in a factory doing the obligatory “working class practice for students” [A Communist invention for future intelligentsia to teach them a lesson about working-class hardships.—Transl.]. Immediately—without wasting time—I decided to take advantage of what the city had to offer and went to see the Wroclaw Pantomime Theater’s production of Arriving Tomorrow.
What a spectacle it was! The strange spell of this production disturbed the peace of my soul for a long time. Mystery, dark eroticism, and the tragedy of the heroes emanated from the performance. There was an enchanting prologue. Even the program was great: it had concise descriptions that grasped but never over-explained the essence of the show (for example, the first line started: ²The Harlequin, a symbol and animator of the theater opens the show with participation of …² and so on.) All that impressed me enormously. On top of it all there was this charismatic actor who was cast in the leading dual-role; he first appeared in the prologue as Dionysus and then in the modern part of the show as the mysterious Guest who was the perpetrator of all that is wonderful to experience in the present but proves devastating in its consequences later on. The entanglements and infatuations of the characters were already demonic, but, in addition, there was this incredible man with distinct, slightly sharp and rapacious facial features. He had an insanely beautiful, proportional body, a warm complexion of the skin, and supremely well-chiseled muscles. This man was you. Apparently for me, you were a living, perfect canon of male beauty. Besides this, what was affecting my senses strongly was your similarity in facial features to the figures of the Pre-Raphaelites’ paintings and the shameless secession graphics of Aubrey Beardsley. All these impressions affected me at once during the performance. Afterward, I went home in shock and total astonishment.
I described my impressions of the show to my two girlfriends, and I told them about this stunningly extraordinary-looking actor with whom I had become completely possessed.
One of my friends, Malgoska, advised me to send you flowers (behind the wings) and to wait for you at the back entrance of the theater after the performance. So I did as she advised me. In fact, she delivered my first bouquet of flowers to you. And I attached a perfumed letter to the bouquet. (Had you noticed that the letter was fragrant? Anyway, so were all the others that I sent later on.)
After the show I was waiting for you, ready to approach. But you came out in the company of a beautiful brunette with long hair who was holding a bouquet of sweet peas – o my god! How awful – it was the bouquet I had sent you.
All hope to win you over left me, but I couldn’t resist the pleasure of seeing Arriving Tomorrow again. Of course I sent you flowers once more, but this time I sent it through an usher, and after that it became my permanent habit.
The show was really a masterpiece, and I liked to watch it more each time I went. YOU TOO. It was hard for me to restrain a growing wild passion and desire to be with you. I went to see many shows and the compulsion to see it over and over again became something like a narcotic addiction.
I was hooked! I wanted you so intensely but did not dare to speak to you because I was shy and had low esteem. However, I was not able to quit this strange ritual of offering flowers to my chosen man. You were supposed to be my first man; I had chosen you. Of course I loved you and how much! I loved you wildly, passionately and hopelessly. I was mad at you because of your lack of intuition in figuring out that this eccentrically dressed woman, whom everyone else noticed because of her shocking and creative dresses, standing at the back door of the theater, was waiting for you. But you we were passing by me, not stopping. Sometimes you would glance over at me and a slight smile flickered across your face. I was observing you, receptive to even your slightest gestures. I remembered that you have green eyes – is it true? I did not verify all those recollections when we suddenly met in September in the museum, and I simply started talking to you. It was so nice to talk with you that I forgot that you have any physicality. But then, in the past, your physicality was terribly important to me, as well as your acting, which had a very strong impact on me. And yet I didn’t even know how to try to reach you, and my unfulfilled desire became only an utter torment for me.
At that time there was a boy who used to pursue me. He was a fifth year student in the Fine Art Academy. He rode a Harley, which gave him an expressive pose. While I was waiting for you after the show, he, in turn, was waiting for me. One day, it was winter, I remember it exactly, he was also waiting. Of course, that evening I had again sent you a bouquet of flowers and was waiting for you at the back door of the theater, thinking that maybe by some miracle you would happen to notice me, but it did not happen. So, I went with that boy to his dormitory, got drunk…. and in that way you lost irreversibly the chance to become my first lover. When he fell asleep, I ran away from him, losing an earring made from a peacock feather in his bed. Later he hung that earring above his writing desk. I didn’t want to see him anymore. However, many years later we met and got drunk together, just for fun. He married one of my girlfriends who, to this da,y doesn’t know anything about my affair with him.
But coming back to the story, after that episode, I still continued to go see the show and nothing changed in my feelings toward you. But I began to realize that this love could not be fulfilled the way I saw it in my dreams and it was burning me up. I decided to fight it in myself, so I sent you a cactus with a letter attached in which I informed you that I would no longer be waiting for you. Nevertheless, the moment I left this cactus with Irena, the secretary in the office of the Pantomime Theater, I still felt unbridled passion for you. If I had touched you then I would have burned up with the flame of passion that could overtake me at the mere thought of you.
This story has subplots: although you are not aware of the influences you had on my life, there are many both beautiful and terrible things that have happened because of you. My life has been full of wild passions and emotions, uplifting moments and falls, happy moments, and even, unfortunately, moments of cynical cruelty. But probably you don’t want me to write a book for you now, though I certainly would be able to.
Instead I have written about the hub and the source of my, already-long-enough, life story in which you appeared without my will and left an everlasting mark on it. Until today the recollection of that love is not indifferent to me and certainly never will be. Knowing you is only joyous for me.
And what do you think about this story? Were you ready for it? Had you expected it? I know, I know, you were expecting it and were wondering to what extent I would have the courage to confess it. I have enough courage for everything.
Have you decorated your Christmas tree yet? Take my burning confession and put it gently under your Christmas tree. Let it warm up your holidays while you think warmly about me during this occasion.
Keep well – I wish you always to stay strong as a superman.
Malgorzata (I am wearing a newly bought perfume that is suitable to this
confession called “Madness”)
I: What do you think about Malgosia’s letter?
M: I think that it's a wonderful letter to receive from a spectator. It’s very flattering.
I: Does it feed your vanity as Malgosia suspected?
Me: When I think of it, it does, but only a little bit. Malgosia’s letter reminds me that I had a magnetic power over the audience, and I can't help but enjoy it. I take that as vanity on my part.
I: Certainly, it is.
M: And yet I'm also disturbed by this letter.
I: How come?
M: It’s the story of a teenage girl who falls madly in love with an actor who refuses to meet her in person. And then she's not able to get over it throughout her entire life. It stays with her as an obsession, although she knows she will never be able to fulfill it.
I: It's a paradox.
M: It's also tragic.
M: Because unfulfilled dreams and desires produce disappointments in life.
I: What's the remedy?
M: Not to cross the line between the audience and the stage. It's a taboo. This line is a symbolic barrier that distinguishes fiction from reality. And those are two different worlds that should not be mixed.
I: Tell her that.
M: It's too late. She crossed the line a long time ago and now has to suffer the insatiability of desires for perfect love that can never be fulfilled.
I: It's cruel.
M: She knows that.
I: So why does she do it?
M: She can't help herself. She is an artist.
I: Why do you think she wrote this letter?
M: To get it off her chest. She was in love, not with me as a real person but with a theatrical image of me, a phantom that had dwelled in her imagination for more than twenty-five years by the time she wrote that letter. It is a case of both obsession and possession. So she probably had a need to confront this phantom with the real person and by that to rid herself of it. You know, when you confront your illusions with reality, the former must give way to the latter.
I: Was Arriving Tomorrow the biggest hit of the WPT?
M: It was, for sure during my time in the company there was no bigger hit with the audience, in the sense that none of the other shows made such a stir as Arriving Tomorrow. It had the power to affect the audience directly to the core of their existence. It seemed that everyone related to what was happening on the stage. The reactions, the responses were always hot. This show had the power to wake up passion in people, to stir their desires. It was also disturbing. I never met anyone who was indifferent after seeing this show. It apparently changed them, some of them probably forever.
I: As Malgosia?
M: Yes. They felt personally affected and had to reckon with themselves.
I: About what?
M: About their own happiness, or rather lack of it. Arriving Tomorrow provoked people to go on the quest for their own happiness with no compromise.
PART V: DEFECTION
I: How long were you working in the WPT?
M: For seven years and seven months.
I: When was that exactly?
M: From June 1, 1974 until the end of December 1981.
I: What was the last production you were in?
M: King Arthur and the Knights of the Round Table. Our production was more about the knights and less about King Arthur. So, the title was slightly different to reflect that; the literal translation was The Knights of King Arthur’s Round Table. But in English, it doesn’t seem to sound very good.
I: How does it sound in Polish?
M: Rycerze Okrągłego Stołu Króla Artura. It sounds good.
I: Which knight did you perform?
M: Sir Galahad. He is the one who “achieves the quest of the Holy Grail” and the only one who sits in the Siege Perilous.
I: What is the Siege Perilous?
M: It is a vacant seat at the Round Table reserved (by God or Merlin, depending on the version of the story) for the perfect knight who would find the Holy Grail and become its bearer. For anyone else who sits in it, the Siege Perilous proves immediately fatal. So, it is a special but very dangerous place.
I: Does anyone other than Sir Galahad dare to sit in the Siege Perilous?
M: I don’t think so, not to my knowledge. But I did some solid reading on the subject and am pretty sure that no one does except Sir Galahad in the classical Arthurian legends.
I: Why is Sir Galahad perfect?
M: He is perfect because he’s pure, without moral flaw, and that, in turn, makes him spiritually strong and fearless.
I: How did you do that?
M: Do what?
I: Show perfection.
M: I showed it through movement metaphors and games of mimic illusion. In this world, perfection is unreal, we merely know longings and desires for it, but they are never really fulfilled. However, at the time when I was working on the part of Sir Galahad, I didn’t know that. I believed that perfection existed and that it was possible to find.
I: Did you find it?
M: In dreams and imagination, in the same places Sir Galahad does, and those places are not of this world.
I: But what is it?
M: How can I explain it to you?
I: How does Sir Galahad explain it?
M: He doesn’t. Or, rather, he tries to explain it to the other Knights of the Round Table but no one understands him, and that is Galahad’s tragedy.
I: What is the moral of it?
M: According to scholars, the knight who achieves the quest of the Holy Grail is or becomes perfect and because of this is “no longer suitable to live in an imperfect world. “
I: Why did you leave the company?
M: I defected to the West because of political reasons.
I: Which were?
M: The declaration of Martial Law in Poland and the crushing of the Solidarity Movement by the communist military regime, led by General Wojciech Jaruzelski.
I: How did you defect?
M: It so happened that when Martial Law was declared in Poland, it was on December 13, 1981, I was with the WPT on a tour in Western Europe. We were performing in Germany, Holland, Belgium, and Switzerland for six weeks. The last show we performed was just before Christmas in Titisee-Neustadt, a town in southern Germany. When the tour was over, I defected.
I: How did you arrive to the decision to defect?
M: I began to think about it as an option from the moment I found out that Martial Law had been declared in Poland. But I finally arrived to the decision to defect ten days later. It was during a meeting with the company at the end of the tour. Gerard Nowak, the administrative director, announced that our company had received an offer from Landgraf, our German impresario, to prolong the tour and perform in Italy for four more weeks and possibly longer. Gerard Nowak asked the members of the company if we would like to prolong the tour. Everyone enthusiastically agreed but me.
I said, “I will gladly continue the tour but only on the condition that the WPT makes a political statement condemning the declaration of Martial Law in Poland.”
To that Gerard Nowak said, “We cannot do that.” And then there was a heated discussion. The management was categorically against making any political statements, arguing that we were not a political theater but simply on a commercial tour.
I was arguing that in times like those, of Martial Law, everything became political and we should feel obligated to protest against Martial Law in solidarity with people detained and imprisoned back in Poland.
But they, both the management and the members of the company, were afraid to protest. They just wanted to go for a tour, make some extra money, stay safely out of trouble, and wait and see how the situation in Poland would play itself out.
I told them that we couldn’t pretend that nothing was happening in Poland. What would we tell the journalists? They would ask us questions about what we thought about Martial Law in Poland, if we were for or against it, if we knew what is going on there, if we had contact with Poland, and so on. “What are you going to tell them?” I asked. In fact, the journalists were already cruising around us in Titisee-Neustadt trying to find out the scoop. You know, it was an unusual situation; no one knew what was going on in Poland. And we were a Polish theater abroad. Obviously, we became the center of attention not only because of our great mime talents but also due to the political situation in Poland. I was telling them all of this but to no avail; they argued back trying to convince me to give up my stand and to go with them on the tour.
But I held my ground and finally said to them, “If you make a political statement condemning Marital Law, I will go with you for an extended tour and then back to Poland whenever we choose. But if not, I advise you to go back to Poland immediately to spare yourself from dubious political implications, and in which case, I will not go back with you but defect to the West.”
I: What did Henryk Tomaszewski say to all of that?
M: During the meeting he played possum, not saying much, if anything, yet his intent was clear, he was against any political statements. After the meeting, we coincidently met in the restroom. He turned to me while we were washing hands and said, “Mr. Christopher, I think similar as you do but what can I do?” Then he answered himself, “I have a whole theater to run. I cannot protest now. It would destroy the theater and ruin me. I cannot do that.” He said it somehow sadly. Then he turned to the dryer and was drying his hands.
I: What did you say?
M: At this point I said nothing. I didn’t know in particular what to say, how to respond. What could I say? But I was wondering why he was telling me that. I also remember noticing that he seemed to be looking tired and despondent. It was a strange moment that somehow stuck in my head. Then he turned toward me again and said, “I could have moved the Pantomime Theater from Poland to Germany a long time ago, but now it is already too late for that.”
I was surprised to hear that. So, I asked him with disbelief, “Have you seriously considered moving the Pantomime Theater to Germany?”
“Yes,” he confirmed, “a few times, whenever there was a political upheaval in Poland such as now, I doubted it all made sense, making theater in Poland, and thought to run away. But I didn’t.”
“Why not now then?” I asked.
“I am too old to begin everything anew,” he said.
“I understand that,” I said.
I: Did he say anything else?
M: No, he did not. That was it. After it, a few hours later, the management of the theater met behind closed door and decided to relinquish the prolonged tour and to go back to Poland the next day. We all were notified with no further discussion.
I: How did you take the news?
M: As a final verdict. In that situation, I had no other choice but to defect to the West.
I: Couldn’t you go back to Poland with them?
M: I could but it would have been a compromise on the expense of my integrity.
I: What integrity?
M: That I just newly asserted by making a political statement and standing up to the authority of the regime.
I: Were you afraid to go back?
M: Yes, I was.
I: What would have happened if you went back with them to Poland then?
M: At that time I had no way of knowing it, but for sure, I would have had to eat my words, and that I was not inclined to do.
I: o you stayed in the West.
M: That’s right.
I: What did you do then?
M: First, I called my friend, Andrzej Więckowski in West Berlin, who moved there with his wife and a child a few months before Martial Law was proclaimed in Poland. They already were settled there and had obtained the legal status of political refugees. So I thought he would advise me how to go about it. But when I told him that I had defected, but before I managed to tell or asked him anything else, he cut me short and said, “Come to West Berlin and stay with us.” So on the spot I started to consider that option, but I was hesitating and wondering how it would work out, if at all. I was not sure it was a good idea to go to West Berlin, an isolated city in East Germany at that time. I had bad associations with the wall and wires surrounding the city. And I was not sure I could even travel there on my Polish passport. I was afraid that the East German border patrol would stop me and send me back to Poland. But Andrzej was knowledgeable in legal matters and told me that I could travel safely both via air and by transit trains.
I: Was it so?
M: Yes, it was.
M: So going to Berlin became a real option but I still hesitated. I needed to find out more about the legal conditions for political refugees like me in West Berlin before I could make my mind to go there. So, I kept asking Andrzej questions about this or that. He was assuring me that everything is going to be okay. He told me not to worry about anything. He promised to arrange everything for me in a few days: my own apartment paid for by the state, furnished, of course, and welfare money to pay all my expenses: food, clothes, furniture and even entertainment. It sounded so good that I was afraid it was not entirely true. Knowing my friend’s inclination to exaggerate, which he liked to do for literary purposes, I doubted him a little bit and asked, though jokingly, “Are you telling the whole truth and nothing but the truth or exaggerating a little bit because you want to see me?”
He laughed at that and then said, “Believe me, I don’t exaggerate a bit this time. Germans are very generous now to the refugees from Poland because of Marital Law. You have chosen no better time to emigrate. You will get everything that you need.”
In that way Andrzej dissipated my doubts, so I said, “I will arrive in Berlin tomorrow by the first available train.”
“We will wait for you and pick you up at the railway station,” he said. “Call me again when you know which train you will take and what time you will arrive in Berlin. “
“Alright, I will” I said and then we hung up. It was set.
The next morning I went to the bus to say goodbye. I stood at the base of the steps, and as the company was getting on the bus, I shook each member’s hand farewell. It was my final moment with them.
A few years ago, I met Ella Svoboda, who was in the company at that time, and she vividly remembered that moment. She said that I was like the godfather shaking their hands.
I: The godfather?
M: Yes, that’s what she said. But it was her impression, not mine.
I: How did you remember that moment?
M: I mostly remember that people were very cordial to me.
I: All of them?
M: Well, yes, all of them with an exception of Henryk Tomaszewski.
I: How was he?
M: He, let’s say, was reserved, if not to say, hostile, but for sure, he was unfriendly.
I: How so?
M: When I was saying goodbye to him, he was reluctant to shake hands with me.
I: But he did shake hands with you, didn’t he?
M: Yes, he did, sort of. He gave me his hand but somehow inertly (it felt like a noodle) and then pulled it quickly back, before I really managed to grip and shake it. At the same time, he turned his head away to avoid looking at me. Then he scarcely said goodbye and hurriedly climbed the stairs and disappeared into the bus.
I: It’s all in your head.
M: I don’t think so, I knew him well enough to understand his pantomime language, not only on the stage but also in life.
I: How did you read his gesture?
M: That it was over between us. He gave me a clear sign that he had turned away from me for good.
I: What did you expect? It was you who left the company.
M: Still we could have departed in civil manners, as friends.
I: How did you take it?
M: I was taken aback because Henryk Tomaszewski never was unfriendly to me before. And yet, I was not so surprised, when I think of it, after all he never blessed the departing ones.
I: How did the others say goodbye to you?
M: Friendly, sincerely, or at least properly. They humanly rose to the occasion. I was positively surprised, even touched with some of them.
I: For example?
M: My good friend in the company, Czesław Bilski, took me aside and gave me 150 marks. I hesitated to take it but he insisted. He said, “Take it for the road.” Then he apologized that he was not able to give me more money because he spent it all for Christmas shopping.
M: Have you had much money on you when you left?
Me: No, I had not. I also spent most of my per diem on Christmas shopping. I did not know that I would not go back to Poland until the last moment. So I made the usual Christmas shopping in the West, you know, some attractive presents for my friends and family.
I: What did you do with those presents?
M: I gave them to Zygmunt Rozlach, one of my colleagues, to take to Poland and to deliver them to my girlfriend, Malgosia. Unfortunately, those presents got lost on the way. He later said that he put them on the shelf in the bus, but when they arrived to Wroclaw, he could not find them there.
I: You would have been wiser to entrust those presents to Czeslaw Bilski.
Me: I know.
I: Why did only you make a political stand and nobody else in the company?
M: I don’t know for sure. However, I know that most members of the company felt as I did but failed to make a political stand because they were afraid of eventual persecution when they returned to Poland; or, if they chose not to return but defect, they were afraid of repercussions against their families in Poland.
I: And you were not afraid of the same?
M: You know, I was asked the same question by an official in the United States’ Embassy during an interview I had when I was applying for emigration there as a political refuge.
I: What was your answer?
M: I said that I was also afraid. But when I made a political stand, I stopped to be afraid anymore.
I: Do you think that you were seen as a hero in your colleagues’ eyes?
M: As a black sheep rather.
I: When did you go to West Berlin?
M: I took a train to West Berlin in the late afternoon, the same day (or one day later) that the company went back to Poland.
I: And so?
M: And so my self-imposed emigration had begun. But that’s another chapter of my life.
PART VI: IMMIGRATING TO WEST BERLIN
I: What is the first thing you remember after separating with the WPT and defecting to the West?
M: The first thing I remember was also the last.
I: What was it?
M: It was an image of the bus, with the members of the company on it, departing back to Poland.
I: What was so memorable about it?
M: The impression it left in me.
I: The impression?
I: Tell me about it.
M: After seeing the company members to the bus and shaking their hands goodbye, I was still standing there on the side of the road, waiting until the bus drove away. After the door closed behind the last passenger, the bus immediately took off. It was as if they were in a hurry. I waved to them and some people waved back through the windows. The waving lasted only a short moment because the bus accelerated very quickly and drove away. After two or three hundred yards, it went around a curve in the road and disappeared from my view. They were gone! I was looking at an empty road but was seeing the absence of the bus. It was my last impression of them. It was like an apparition or phantasm -- I saw what was not there anymore. The emptiness that was left after them got stuck in me and haunted me as an unwanted secret. I couldn’t shake it off.
I: How did you deal with it?
M: The next thing I remember, I was already on the train traveling to West Berlin.
I: When was that?
M: In the late afternoon…
I: Which day?
M: I am not entirely sure. It had to be the same day the company returned to Poland, or the day after.
I: You don’t remember exactly?
M: No, I don’t.
I: That’s curious.
M: Yes, it is. But I don’t. I had a memory lapse for a day or two.
I: Do you have any idea why?
M: I wonder myself why I didn’t remember anything. But I have no idea.
I: Were you in shock, perhaps?
M: Perhaps, ha, ha, ha, but I don’t remember that either.
I: Ha, ha, ha. Come on!
I: Are you hiding something?
M: No, I am not hiding anything. And even if I am, I don’t remember what it is.
I: You suppressed it?
M: I doubt so. Nothing really dramatic was happening, I was just waiting for the train.
I: How did you get to the railway station?
M: Oh you see?
M: I remember something.
M: I remember driving in a car to the railway station.
I: What kind of car was it?
M: It was a regular four-door car.
I: Which railway station was it?
M: I don’t remember. It had to be either Titisee-Neustadt or Frankfurt.
I: Who drove you?
M: I guess it was a taxi, or, wait, there were two other people in the car: besides the driver, there was someone seated in the front passenger seat. It could have been Joachim Landgraf, our German impresario. I think it was he.
M: He was arranging my trip to Berlin and provided transportation to the railway station. He also paid for my train ticket.
I: How did that come about?
M: When he found out that I had defected, he came to my hotel room – it was late at night, before the company left (they left the next morning) – and he talked with me about what I was up to. He asked me, “Christopher, I heard that you are not going back to Poland because of the proclamation of the martial law there. Is it true?”
“Yes, it is,” I answered.
“What is your plan now then?” he asked me somehow very seriously.
I shrugged and said, “I don’t have a plan yet.”
“You don’t have a plan?” he repeated the question with no hidden astonishment. It sounded as an accusation (after all, he was a German; he couldn’t imagine anything without a plan.)
“No, I don’t,” I answered sparsely but was thinking, how can I have a plan? I didn’t plan it. The communist regime in Poland that proclaimed martial law planned it for me. I only reacted. It was not a planned but a spontaneous defection.
“What are you going to do now?” Mr. Landgraf kept pressing. “Do you have any idea?”
“I’ll manage,” I said reluctantly, putting him off because I didn’t quite trust him.
I: Why not?
M: There was a rumor, probably spread by the management of the company, that our German impresario, Landgraf, was against any political protests by the members because he had a lot of business with East Europe bringing theater companies on commercial tours to West Europe. He was afraid that any political upheaval could ruin his business relationship with the East. At least, that was the notion circulating in the company. So, I was suspicious that Landgraf had come to my room to sway me to go back to Poland with the company. This suspiciousness was in my mind while I talked with him, and I think it showed. I think he noticed it. He suddenly realized that he was cornering me too much and that I was putting him off. So, he stepped back and quieted his voice.
“I just worry about you,” he said.
“Thank you. I appreciate it,” I said hoping that he was going to get lost. But he didn’t.
“Christopher, do you have a place to stay?”
“Yes, I do.”
“Where are you going to stay?”
“I am going to go to West Berlin and will stay with my friend who lives there,” I answered reluctantly.
“O, I see,” he reacted with surprise. “Because, you know, if you need any help, I’ll do what I can.”
I thanked him but told him that I didn’t need anything.
“In case you change your mind,” he continued shortly, “and choose to stay here, in West Germany, I want to you to know that you can stay in this hotel as long as it takes, until you settle on your own. I will cover all the expenses. Or, if you prefer, you can stay in my house in Munich (I think he said, Munich) with me and my wife. She will like that,” he added, ‘be my guest.”
“Oh, thank you very much to offer your hospitality. It is really very nice of you. I did not expect that. But I think that I’ve already made up my mind to go to West Berlin and will stick with it,” I refused as politely as possible.
“Okay,” he paused as if disappointed.
Then he asked me how I was going to get to West Berlin and I told him I was going by train. He asked me if I already had a ticket and when I told him no, he immediately offered to arrange my trip to West Berlin and to pay for my ticket. That was more or less my conversation with the German Impresario.
I: So, after all, he had not come to sway you to return to Poland.
M: No, he hadn’t. My suspicions were unjust. He just felt obligated to take care of me.
I: Why didn’t you take him up on his offer to stay with him?
M: I didn’t even consider it. I had already made my decision and was more comfortable to go to West Berlin.
M: It was an independent choice. And that was what I needed at that juncture in my life.
I: What happened on the train to West Berlin?
M: I had an ominous vision that made me shudder.
I: Are you serious?
M: Yes, I am.
M: Yes. Why do you doubt me?
I: I don’t. Tell me about it.
M: I was traveling to West Berlin in an almost empty train. For a few hours, I didn’t see a living soul. I was entirely on my own, sitting alone in the compartment. I thought it was great because I needed a moment or two of solitude to collect my thoughts after the previous two weeks of political upheaval with the company that had drained me. After all, politics were not my thing; I was not in my element. So, I felt relief that it was over, and I didn’t have to deal with it anymore. Even the German impresario, the last link with the company, was gone. There were no more strings attached. I was totally detached. I was free as a bird. What a liberating feeling it was! But it didn’t last long. Man is not supposed to be entirely free.
I: What happened?
M: At a certain point I stepped out of the compartment into the train corridor, stood near the open window, and smoked a cigarette. Suddenly I had a vision. I saw my past in an instance. The most peculiar thing about this vision was that it appeared not in my mind, but on the sky.
I: On the sky?
M: Yes, on the sky. I mean it literally. Suddenly the dark, gray sky opened with light and in it appeared my past life as if painted in an old medieval painting.
M: At first it was a grandiose vision, all in light and rich colors, and then the vision began to disappear, quickly going away and diminishing. Finally, it vanished entirely from my view and the sky closed behind it. It was gone. I felt that my past was gone forever and that I had lost everything I had. I realized in that moment that I would never return to Poland and the life I had there. It was an awful feeling. What have I done? I thought. I looked again to the sky just above the horizon behind where the vision had vanished. There were only gray, heavy clouds, as if it were going to rain. There was no sign of any vision anymore. So, I let it go.
I: It was horrible.
M: A nightmare.
I: You hallucinated.
M: Certainly I did.
I: How did it make you feel?
M: It made me feel deprived of my past, cut off.
I: What was the realization at that moment?
M: I became a man without my own country.
I: What were the implications of that?
M: I was an émigré, a refugee, an outcast.
I: That was what were you thinking then?
M: No, I was not thinking in those terms. I was just disturbed by the vision I had. Then I felt terribly alienated. When I looked outside the window, the landscape looked dark and gloomy, which is typical for that time of the year. It was the last week of December, a wet winter that is usually without snow in that part of the country. I had seen it many times before while on tours with the WPT and didn’t give a damn about it. But this time it got to me. The landscape looked unappealing. I kept looking at it trying to find something inviting out there. That was what I badly needed – a sign. But nothing was inviting; everything in the landscape felt hostile. I am sure it was a subjective impression, but it was what I felt. It scared me and I almost panicked.
But then, in the moment that I was about to fly or run or jump out the window, a familiar young man emerged from one of the compartments. He was an actor from the WPT who had also defected. I don’t remember his name now. Anyway, I hardly knew him – he had only been in the company a few months. I had no chance to talk with him before. We were almost strangers. Nevertheless, he approached me and started to chat. “How are you?” “Fine,” “Where are you going?” and so on. Bizarrely, I suddenly felt responsible to take care of this young man as an older colleague. I became very friendly, asking questions with concern about whether he had place to stay. Of course he had, not only that, he had family in West Berlin. So he was set. When we exhausted the factual conversation about our survival, I didn’t know what to talk about with him further. That’s right, we did not know each other. For some reason I felt guilty about it, but had nothing more to say. There came this uncomfortable silence between us.
“I better get back to my compartment,” he said. And added to justify, “The train is getting close to West Berlin. We are getting off soon.” “Sure,” I said. “Take care and so on.” Before we departed, I gave him the phone number where he could reach me in West Berlin and encouraged him to call me to keep in touch or, even more so, if he needed anything. In return, he gave me his phone number. When in Berlin, I called him once. That was it. I never saw him again.
I: How many members of the company had defected at that time?
M: There were three of us. I didn’t particularly know the third one either because he had also been a short time in the company.
I: So you were the only one who defected among the permanent actors of the company?
M: Yes, I was the only one at that time.
I: How was your arrival in West Berlin?
M: Yes, I couldn’t imagine a better welcome.
I: How so?
M: When I arrived, Andrzej Wieckowski, my friend, was waiting for me at the railway station with a bunch of people, something like about ten or twelve of them. They had all come to welcome me. It was terribly nice of them to do that. I didn’t know those people and they came to welcome me. When I was getting off the train, they were already standing on the platform and enthusiastically waving their hands. When I came down the platform, they surrounded me and greeted me as if I were an especially awaited guest. It was incredible. I was not expecting that. They were treating me like a star.
I: Why were you surprised? You were a star, were you not?
M: Stardom is something illusive. You are surprised when you are treated like one and you are surprised when you are not.
I: Who were those people?
M: They were all Polish refugees; they were Andrzej’s friends and acquaintances. He gathered them for the occasion of my arrival. They made an event of it. Welcoming me at the railway station was only the prelude. Later that evening, there was a banquet on my behalf in Andrzej’s house. We all drove there in two cars. And that ride was something most memorable.
I: Please, tell me about it.
M: On the way we stopped in some place and picked up a few more people, and then we continued to Andrzej’s house in the two cars. It was a long drive, half an hour to forty minutes. Suddenly the other car caught up with us and hit our car on the side while passing. I felt a big jolt, and our car was knocked off its path a bit, but the driver managed to stay on the road and to regain full control.
“What the fuck is that?” I shouted. But the passengers in the car were only laughing.
“That’s nothing, that’s nothing,” Andrzej said disregarding it. In that moment, the other car hit us again, this time even stronger.
“Nothing?” I shouted.
They all laughed including Andrzej. “Don’t worry,” he said, “They always do that.”
Okay, I got it. It was sort of a game, a strange game of bumping into each other. They kept doing it during the entire ride. Next, it was our car hitting theirs, and so on. It went on and on, hitting from the sides, hitting from behind, blocking the way of the other car, pushing to the side. It was crazy.
“Why are they doing it?” I asked Andrzej.
“Aren’t they concerned to wreck their cars?” I asked him but really was concerned with my own safety.
“They’ll fix it.”
“Can they afford it?” I could not help but press the issue.
“They will fix it themselves,” Andrzej explained. “Michal is a mechanic, and the other one is a professional racecar driver. They have their own repair shop.”
“Damn it, they could kill us,” I thought but said nothing. It would be totally unbecoming. I sensed that. They all were into this reckless game of bumping and smashing each other. There was something anarchic about it. They were getting nihilistic excitement out of it, out of those acts of destruction. I sensed it was an act of liberation for them, or a strange form of therapy, or both.
I: But why? Of what?
M: They were all refugees from Poland. They were wrecks. The cars bumping and smashing were reflecting their state of mind. It was symbolic. What it was exactly, that anarchic or nihilistic impulse in them, I don’t know how to fully explain it, but it made sense to me. It is why I was not protesting more firmly while they were doing it. The thrill was in taking risk. The liberation, in breaking things, as if saying, it doesn’t matter, my life is wrecked anyway. Our lives were wrecked because the communist military regime had crushed the society, what did it matter to crash a few cars?
I: How did the game end?
M: When we arrived at the parking lot on the front of Andrzej’s apartment building, they parked the cars next to each other and we got out. The drivers checked the damage and calmly discussed what would be the best way to fix it. One car needed an urgent repair because its back fender was falling off, so one of the drivers took that car immediately to the garage. The rest of us went to Andrzej’s apartment, which was on a very high floor; I don’t remember exactly which floor it was. It was quite a nice and spacious three-bedroom apartment with a large living and dining room. “How did he get it?” I wondered. He is only a few months in the West and already has an apartment four times bigger than the one he had in Poland. And it was already fully furnished. Andrzej lived there with his family: Wanda, his wife, and Milek, his son. When we arrived, there were already some people waiting for us, and some more were coming. It was a great party. People were open, friendly, and somehow euphoric.
I: Why were they euphoric?
M: They were euphoric because they were free. Almost all of them were more or less recent refugees from Poland who had been lucky to be out of the country when martial law was proclaimed on December 13th 1981, which was just two weeks before we gathered in Andrzej’s house. It was all fresh. We didn’t even know much about what was going on in Poland because both communication and transportation were cut off by the regime. There was some news via unofficial channels that stated that almost all the leaders and activist of the solidarity movement were arrested and detained and/or imprisoned somewhere. But where and what was going to happen with them, we didn’t know. This unknown created a suspense of anticipated horrors and an atmosphere of suspicion. We did know that the military had taken control over the country and were imposing marital law: there were military patrols and tanks on the streets. We also heard there were some fights but didn’t know any details. Though we knew that the opposition was crushed, there was still hope that the opposition would stand up to the regime and overthrow the monster. That was our wish. People were acting as if they still had faith and the fight was not over yet, though I don’t remember exactly how much in it was the political evaluation of the situation and how much was just the attitude of unbroken spirits, which we still were then. We were free and on the loose, the euphoria was the result of getting drunk with newly gained freedom. People felt lucky not to be in Poland at that time.
I: What was the other side of the coin?
M: Euphoria was an antidote to anxiety. The louder we laughed and screamed, the less we heard our worries. We did not want to hear them. We did not want to have fear.
I: How did the party go?
M: Wanda prepared some food for supper. Then we sat around with drinks and talked.
I: What were you talking about?
We were talking a bit about politics, about the situation in Poland –
people were saying what they knew and wondering about what they didn’t. Those
conversations were a matter of facts and when the facts were exhausted, there
was nothing more to say. People also talked about how they left or escaped or
defected from Poland and how long they were already in the West. They wanted to
hear my story, so I told them. In fact, I told my story a few times because
people were coming and going. Later on came a group of three men who were
Polish Solidarity activists in West Berlin. They were very interested in my
defection story and the situation in the WPT and suggested that I should go
public with it in the German mass media -- radio, TV, newspapers. They offered
to arrange the interviews. I declined telling them that I was not into
politics. They said, “It doesn’t matter; that’s even better! You would be a
more credible voice!”
I: Credible voice?
M: Yes, I wondered myself how I was more credible than they were.
“We need someone like you and your defection story right now. It will make big news. Can you imagine the headline: the leading actor of the WPT has defected while on tour in Germany in protest against the proclamation of martial law in Poland?” one of them asked me.
“Well, I do imagine it,” I said. “But it is precisely what I want to avoid.”
“Why, why, why?” they asked overlapping each other. “Are you planning to go back to Poland? Is that why?”
“No,” I said, “I am not planning to go back. At least not now in this political situation.”
“What are you afraid off then?” one of them asked.
“I am not afraid of anything.”
“Leave him alone,” Andrzej said, “he just arrived, let him rest, let him think about it.”
“Okay. Just asking.”
“We will talk about it later,” another activist said. And we dropped the subject for the time being. The party went on and I had a tremendously good time.
M: Just talking and playing with people. Not about politics anymore but all other things. A lot of joking – I relaxed and was having fun performing on the spot. It was hilarious. At midnight someone reminded us that it was late, that it was time to end the party because, as Andrzej justified, it was only a prelude to the New Year’s Eve party that was coming in two days. So, with that notion, namely, to save our energy for the New Year’s Eve celebration, we dispersed. The guests went home and Andrzej, his family and I went to bed. I slept in the living room on a foldout couch.
The next day I got a phone call from a radio station. They wanted to conduct an interview with me about my defection. I turned them down. Throughout the next two weeks or so I received a few more propositions to give interviews about my defection. They were from some newspapers, another radio station, and a TV station. Each time I declined.
I: Why didn’t you want to give an interview?
M: I didn’t want to implicate the WPT by showing them in a politically unfavorable light.
I: Would it be?
M: Yes, I already realized that while telling my story during the party. It stirred suspicion about why the WPT didn’t make a political statement in face of the proclamation of martial law. People were speculating on which side was the management of the WPT: the communist regime or the Solidarity movement.
I: On which side did you think they were?
M: I didn’t know. They didn’t declare their political position at all. It seemed to me at that time that they were on neither side. At least, that was their official policy.
I: Why were you protecting them?
M: Why wouldn’t I? I was a member of that company for many years. The least I owed them was loyalty.
I: How was the New Year’s Eve party?
M: It was excessive.
I: How so?
M: During the party, which took place in the Andrzej’s apartment, a young couple that was entirely naked entered the dance floor, which was arranged in the dining room, and danced the tango. They danced spectacularly. Notwithstanding, some of the guests, in particular, the Germans, were supposedly offended by the stark nakedness of the dancers and left the party outraged by the Poles’ scandalous behavior. At least that’s what I heard; I didn’t see the Germans leaving the house. Anyway, they could have left because it was already late, something like two in the morning.
I: How did the Poles react to the dancers?
M: They behaved as if dancing a tango naked was something quite ordinary. They pretended that they didn’t notice it. All of those Poles were so hip. To make an issue about it would be very unbecoming. It was obvious that the naked dance was a provocation, that the young couple tried to shock us. But we wouldn’t fall for it. We’d already seen it all. Nakedness? Who cared? We were the generation of the seventies in which every second avant-garde theater production or happening had nakedness in it. And yet, not noticing it was unnatural. I remember I was sitting around the table with a bunch of people in the living room talking. The naked dancers were well in our view because the living and the dining room were joined together with a half-open, half-split wall. Besides, the dancers kept making excursions into the living room, often bending provocatively above our table. But we didn’t pay any attention to them and kept talking, focused on the subject of our conversation.
I: How did the dance end?
M: At the end of the music, the dancers danced themselves out to the back rooms where they disappeared. Then, moments later, they came back to the party fully dressed as if nothing had happened.
I: Who were the dancers?
M: Zbyszek and Beata. I had met Zbyszek two or three days earlier, on the evening I arrived to West Berlin, and Beata I met for the first time during the New Year’s Eve party, though I had heard about her from Andrzej and Wanda. They told me she knew me from Wroclaw, but only from the stage, and was madly in love with me. I, of course, didn’t take that kind of talk seriously. Nevertheless, at the end of the New Year’s Eve party, when all the guests had already left, and those who were sleeping in the house had already disappeared into the back rooms, Beata sat next to me on the couch in the living room, the place of my temporary bedroom, and didn’t leave. I chatted with her politely, and then it was time to go to sleep. The day was breaking and no one else was awake but Beata and I.
“Where are you going to sleep?” I asked Beata.
“Here, on the couch,” she said.
“I don’t know if you know this, but I sleep here, on this couch,” I said.
“I will sleep with you.”
It made me pause. “I thought that you and Zbyszek were a couple and were going to sleep together in the back room.”
“No,” she laughed. “Zbyszek? No, no way. He’s just a friend.”
“What about the dance?”
“What about it?”
“You were dancing naked together, so I thought you were a couple.”
“Oh, no, don’t be such a prude, we were just doing a happening, that’s all.”
“I am not a prude. Just trying to figure out who sleeps with whom and where, that’s all,” I said trying to be funny but she didn’t laugh.
“I sleep here,” she said and turned slightly away, taken aback by my words.
I said nothing, just looked at her sitting motionlessly on the edge of the couch in silence. It was enough to reach for her and she would be mine. But I hesitated for a reason that she had not the slightest idea about. I knew her mother, Lena, personally, for years in the past. She was a good friend of my girlfriend Gertruda, the singer from the Musical Theater with whom I was going out when I was a dancer there, in the years 1972-3. Lena became my friend too and I liked her a lot. Beata knew her mother and I were friends. But she didn’t know that I had slept with her mother.
I: Wow, how did it happen?
M: It was not a big deal. Once her mother lured me to her apartment, on some pretext of a glass of wine or something else, and seduced me. In fact, I had seen Beata at that time but she did not see me.
I: How so?
M: She was already asleep when her mother and I arrived to the house. It was something like nine or ten p.m. After we arrived, Lena brought me to her room and said, “Let me first check on my child if she is already asleep and then we will have a drink.” As she said, she went to the Beata’s room to check on her. A moment later she came back and said, “Do you want to see my child?”
I said, “Yes.”
“Come with me,” she said. “But be quiet because she is already asleep.”
So we went to Beata’s room, and her mother showed me her sleeping in bed. I saw her in the light coming from the open door because Lena did not want to turn the bedroom light on and wake Beata. It was a bit dark, but I could see her. I clearly recognized that she was still a child and yet already becoming a woman.
I: How old was Beata then?
M: Beata was twelve or thirteen at that time.
I: What was her mother was thinking showing her to you?
M: I don’t know, it seemed as if it were spontaneous. She became affectionate with her daughter and wanted to share it with me. She was saying things like, “Look at her, isn’t she a darling?” “Yes, she is,” I answered (what else I could say.) Then she continued, “My most precious treasure, my Beata, Beatka, Beaciunia, Beaciunieczka.” She poured a litany of affectionate diminutive names that are only possible to derive in the Polish langue.
M: Yea, I saw Beata the night that her mother seduced me.
I: How did she seduce you?
M: We went back to Lena’s room and she threw herself on me.
I: Did she?
M: And you went for it.
M: I could not refuse a woman, could I?
I: No, you could not.
M: It would be rude.
I: Certainly, it would be.
M: It was only a one-night-stand. And yet, six or seven years later, I had scruples to sleep with her daughter, as if it were a taboo engrained in my mind. The memory of her mother haunted me. I could not help but compare those two. They were so different. Lena was a tall and slim blond woman with a long pair of stunning legs. She had the elegant carriage of a high-class model. But Beata was a rather short, dark-haired girl with beautiful, almond-shaped large eyes and a sensual curvy body. Her large but firm breasts were particularly sexy. I was always impressed with the stunning appearance and classy carriage of Beata’s mother, but I wasn’t attracted to her. Anyway, she was too old for me. When we had sex, she was thirty-five, which was an old cow for a twenty-two or three years old boy (as I was then). But Beata, she was just right for me, a 20-21 year old girl to whom I was attracted at once. She did stir my senses. And now she was sitting next to me, waiting, available. But I was hesitating while thinking about her mother. How absurd. I realized it and got over it. It was time. I sensed that Beata was getting impatient. So I reached for her and touched her. She turned toward me and we kissed.
“Let’s open the couch,” she said. And we did, and we had sex, and we slept together until noon the next day. It was New Year’s Day, 1982. When we woke up the house was empty and there was a note for us on the table, “We’ve gone for a walk at the lake in Tegel. Please, join us out there, if you wish.” There were also directions how to get there. So we drove to the lake and met with the others at the assigned place. The lake was frozen. We walked on the ice. Zbyszek, who was a very good acrobat, made a double aerial somersault on the ice to showoff. But slipped, fell on his back, and broke his arm.
I: How unfortunate.
M: For him yes, but for me, I hate to say it, but it was a blessing!
I: A blessing?
M: In some flippant work of fate, yes, it was.
I: How so?
M: He had to stay in the hospital for a week or two. Beata, knowing that I had no privacy in Andrzej’s house, asked Zbyszek if I could stay in his place during that time. Zbyszek gladly agreed. It was as if fate had ordained it so I could have better comfort.
I: Is that so?
M: I could not find a better reason why Zbyszek had broken his arm than that.
I: No kidding.
M: It made sense.
I: How so?
M: There was not enough space for me in Andrzej’s apartment. There was no extra room for me there. I slept on the couch in the living room, which was fine for a day or two. But after that I felt crowded and had a hard time enduring people around me all the time. I desperately needed to be alone, at least for a few hours a day. It’s the way I’m made: partly a loner and partly a social creature. You see? Zbyszek breaking his arm was not a coincidence.
I: Yes, I see it, if I look at it from your unique perspective that you are the center of the world.
M: Besides, having Zbyszek’s apartment was convenient for dating Beata who was coming to visit me.
I: Why didn’t you go to her place?
M: She had a roommate at that time.
I: I see.
I: How long did you stay in the Zbyszek’s apartment?
M: A week or so. Zbyszek came back from the hospital earlier than he was supposed to. His arm was in a cast. The first thing he did was to throw a big party. So, my privacy was over. However in the meantime, I had obtained the legal status of a refugee in the emigration office, which allowed me to temporarily stay in Germany. It entitled me to get welfare benefits, but it didn’t allow me to work.
I: Were those welfare benefits enough to survive on without working?
M: Yes, they were. The German social welfare was very generous at that time, in particular for political refugees from Poland.
I: How much was it?
M: It was enough to pay the bills: rent, utilities, groceries, clothes, transportation, and there was even some money for entertainment. Besides that, the social welfare covered the expenses for basic material goods, such as furniture, utensils, television, radio, and so on. Whatever was considered the basic standard of living, the recipient was entitled to obtain within certain limits. It was enough to sustain oneself without stress but without going overboard.
I: How did you settle?
M: I rented a studio apartment in the same building where Zbyszek lived. It was already furnished and had all necessary appliances. It was a simple but comfortable and esthetically pleasing place. It had a modern feel, a bit impersonal as if it were a hotel. I moved there sometime in the second week of January, and from that point, I was entirely on my own.
I: What did you do?
M: Well, I found myself often alone in my apartment. There wasn’t much intensive social life. Occasionally, yes, but somehow it died. The high spirit, the euphoria, had died among my Polish friends, and they weren’t into partying anymore. And if so it didn’t fly.
M: We all lost faith in the cause of the Solidarity movement – the news from the country wasn’t good. It was clear that the communist military regime had crushed the Solidarity movement – and lets face it, without much active resistance.
M: It was a drawback for a long time to come. Most of us thought it would be forever. It was all beginning to look hopeless and people were losing heart for the cause. So our gatherings stopped to make sense. There was no more common ground. For a while we tried to pretend that the cause was still alive, but it was forced. So, it died naturally. People realized that and gave up. Anyway, they had to face their own existential predicaments of survival, to think of their own future.
I: What did they do?
M: Some of them chose emigration as I did. The others went back to Poland.
I: Did you consider returning to Poland?
M: I did, everyone did, depending on the situation.
I: What was the decisive factor that made you choose to emigrate instead.
M: The decisive factor was a letter from my sister that I received from Poland. She wrote me that they were taking my apartment away from me.
I: Who were “They?”
M: I don’t know who they were. They were “they” because they had no personal but collective identity. “They” were the anonymous evil force of the totalitarian society. They were the faceless monster.
I: Don’t give me that crap!
I: There are no faceless monsters. It is just a cover up. There are always people behind it.
M: Sure there are, but it is hard to trace them.
I: Do you have any clues?
M: I do but never tracked them.
I: What was in the letter?
M: My sister wrote me that only a few weeks after I defected to the West, a man from the WPT showed up at my apartment and wanted to move in. He had the legitimate papers. It was a deed issued in his name as the new owner of my condo. Can you imagine that?
I: Wow, could they do that?
M: Apparently, they did it.
M: He opened the door with his own keys that he had to have gotten from the housing cooperative I belonged too.
I: So the housing cooperative took the apartment away from you?
M: They did but they couldn’t do it on their own. They didn’t even know I had left.
M: The directives had to come from the highest authority of the city representing the regime (whoever they were: the military council or the communist central committee.) Nevertheless, it had to be done through the department of culture and in this case in arrangement with the WPT.
I: It is convoluted.
M: Yes, it is.
I: Who was the man who came from the WPT to take over your apartment?
M: I am reluctant to say his name.
M: I don’t want to personally point the finger. He is the only one whose name I know for sure in this affair but maybe the least guilty one.
I: He was just the scavenger not the perpetrator.
M: Ha, ha, ha, though only a potential scavenger. When he found out that my sister was living in my apartment and that she had the status of the permanent resident there, he backed off.
M: Because it was very difficult to evict someone with the permanent resident status, as my sister had. It was almost impossible unless the state provided a substitute apartment for her. So, I suppose he realized that it was going to be messy and didn’t want to go through with it. I talked with him about it after something like twenty years, during a visit to Poland. He admitted that he got my apartment from the Department of Culture and was intending to move there. But when he opened the door and saw that my sister lived there, he had a change of heart. So he backed off and gave up this apartment. He said, that because he gave up my apartment, the Department of Culture never offered him another one.
I: Did you feel for him when he told you about his great sacrifice?
M: I am afraid that I almost did. He almost got me.
I: Did he apologize for trying to steal your apartment?
M: No, he did not, but I believe he was sorry that he got entangled into this affair.
I: Why would he be so unscrupulous to agree to take over your apartment in the first place?
M: I suppose he was desperate.
I: How so?
M: There were serious housing shortages in Poland at that time. In a large city like Wroclaw, a person could be on the waiting list for as long as fifteen years to get an apartment.
I: How did you get your apartment?
M: I got it from the City Pool for the prominent citizens of Wroclaw.
I: How long did you wait?
M: A month.
I: No wonder they wanted to take it away from you.
M: Don’t be the devil’s advocate. It was my apartment. I paid for it and had the deed.
I: What was the legal ground for taking your apartment away from you?
M: It was hardly legal. The communist military junta was confiscating the apartments form the people who left and stayed abroad.
I: On which basis?
M: They argued that those apartments were vacant while there was a housing shortage in Poland. But what they really wanted was to punish dissidents, such as me.
I: Did they?
I: Did they take your apartment?
M: No, they did not. But my family had to fight for it. My sister asked me to write a letter to the housing cooperative stating that I did not leave Poland permanently and was going to return soon. So I did. I don’t know if my letter ultimately helped or not, anyway it would have been a short-lived lie, but it would give my sister time to delay the eventual eviction. Fortunately, one year later or so, the regime abandoned the practice of taking away apartments from dissidents who lived abroad due to international pressure against the violation of human rights, and my sister never was evicted.
I: Does she still live there?
M: No, she doesn’t but she did until two years ago.
I: What was your initial reaction when you got the letter from your sister informing you that the WPT took away your condo?
M: I was stunned.
I: You did not expect it, did you?
M: No, I didn’t.
I: How did it make you feel?
M: Deeply ashamed.
I: Of what?
M: Of them.
I: How did you deal with it?
M: I didn’t tell anybody about it.
I: You are telling it now. Why?
M: I am not ashamed anymore; let them be ashamed.
I: Do I sense the writer’s revenge?
M: No, you don’t. I write about it not for the revenge sake but rather as a history lesson.
I: What is the message of this lesson?
M: Don’t take what is not yours because you will choke on it.
I: By leaving the WPT and defecting to the West you lost everything then, didn’t you?
M: Yes, I did.
I: Was the letter from your sister the final blow?
M: Yes, it was. It made me fully realize that I had irreversibly lost everything and there was no way back. This letter symbolizes for me a point of no return. I had nothing to come back for. I had to start my life anew.
I: How was it to be a political refugee in Germany? What kind of life was that?
M: It was like living in limbo.
I: What kind of limbo?
M: A social limbo where people were stuck on a sidetrack from their lives.
I: What was the worst about it?
M: Having no fixed purpose in life. It was hard for many people. They felt lost.
I: What was the best part about being a political refugee?
M: To have plenty of free time and no obligations.
I: How did you use that time?
M: I was doing all the things I always wanted to do but had no time for because I was always working.
L: Like what?
M: I don’t remember. It was just a fantasy.
I: How did you take being stuck in the political refugee’s limbo?
M: I was stuck only for two or three weeks, if that. Then I managed to avoid it altogether by getting a job in the theater and getting busy working again.
I: What kind of job was it?
M: I was a movement instructor in Transformtheater. I was teaching movement and mime classes in their acting school and choreographing their performances.
I: How did you get that job?
M: They found me and offered me a job.
I: How did it happen?
M: One day, when I was alone within the four walls of my apartment and was getting a bit, or rather a lot, lonely and was starting to get that emigrational anxiety about being stuck in limbo, which was rather new for me and, I must admit, hard to take, the phone rang. It was Andrzej Wieckowski. He said that someone from Transformtheater called for me at his house to inquire if I’d be interested to teach movement and mime classes for them. I said, “I would.”
Then I asked Andrzej what kind of theater it was and how they found out about me. But Andrzej didn’t know much. He said that someone recommended me and the theater was in Kreuzberg, an alternative arts district in town.
I was a bit uncertain, wondering if it was the right theater for me. But Andrzej told me not to worry in advance. “We’ll go there and see,” he said. So I agreed.
Andrzej set up an appointment for Friday night, which was two days later, and we went there.
When we arrived at the given address, we found a large, run-down building that looked like a warehouse or factory.
Andrzej checked the address and said, “It’s here.”
“”It can’t be here,” I doubted.
“It must be here. This is the address.”
“This building doesn’t look like a theater!” I said.
“Let’s go inside and see,” Andrzej concluded.
We went inside. According to the directions, we were to take an elevator to the fourth floor. There was only a freight elevator. So we guessed it might be it and took it. And yes, it was it.
When we got to the fourth floor the director of the theater was already waiting for us at the door. We didn’t know anything about him at this point and were surprised when he greeted us cordially in Polish, introduced himself as Henryk Baranowski and told us that he was originally from Poland. Afterward he led us to a very large room that evidently was once a warehouse or factory space but now was almost empty.
There was a group of twenty-five to thirty actors sitting in a few rows of chairs and benches far in the depth of the room. It was rather dark. Only when we approached them, could I see them more distinctly. They were young people, most of them were in their twenties, a few in their early thirties.
Henryk Baranowski brought us in front of the actors and quickly introduced us. From that point on Andrzej Wieckowski, who was serving as my translator, took over. He did the introductory talking. And he went on and on. Although I didn’t understand German, I understood enough to know that Andrzej was shamelessly complimenting the WPT and me. I heard those superlatives, such as the best avant-garde movement theater in the world, famous around the world, the tours and festivals, the accolades and honors, and me, the master in mime-acting, the exceptional star, and so on. I could feel myself turning red out of shame – I never took flattery well. Thank god that it was dark in there and no one could see it.
Anyway, on top of that I noticed unusual motion among the German actors. They were leaning toward each other in a chain reaction, whispering something to each other’s ears, and then pointing discreetly toward me. What is it all about? I wondered.
Then I saw that a few of them were debating together, figuring something out, and then one of them stood up, approached me, and pointed out that I was standing with one foot in an ash-pan. And I really was. There was a small, metal coal stove. It was a bit chilly in there, so I had stood close to the stove and stepped into the ash-pan, which was full of ashes, and had been standing in it the entire time Andrzej was talking. Curiously, when the German actor pointed out to me that I was standing in the ash-pan, Andrzej was so enwrapped in his brilliant speech that he didn’t notice anything and kept talking.
I pulled my foot out of that damn ash-pan, but realizing how ridiculous it was, I made a whole show of it, pulling my foot out and shaking the ash off it demonstratively. Then I played with that idea, making various comic mime bits behind Andrzej’s back while he was speaking.
The German actors were laughing; Andrzej didn’t know why. He thought maybe there was something funny in his speech. Then he suspected that something was going on behind his back, but whenever he looked at me I stopped fooling around, and whenever he turned back to the audience I made mimic and/or gestural comments regarding his exalted speech on my behalf. But I was only picking up on some selective words, not understanding the rest, which made it even funnier, I suspect, because at this point the German actors were rolling with laughter.
Andrzej finally figured out that it was I making fun of his speech and dropped it, allowing us to move on to some questions and answers about the class I was going to teach.
After the meeting, we figured out the date of my first class – I started in the beginning of the following week. And so that was how my teaching career started in West Berlin.
I: Had you taught before?
M: No, I never had. But I was taking movement and mime classes on a daily basis in the WPT for many years. Besides, I was an exercise freak, doing them often on my own. So, I was ready to do it. It was just a matter of putting myself in the role of the teacher: instead of following I had to lead. I prepared a plan for a class, a syllabus, and went for it.
I: How was your first class?
M: It was terribly rushed. I got so buzzed up that the program for the class, which should have been plenty for over an hour, I completed in forty minutes, maybe forty-five. I was doing everything very fast. The students were impressed with the class but they wanted more. I thought that it was enough for the first time. And really it was. If they had done those exercises as precisely as I did, they would have had plenty. But they didn’t. They were dilettantes in movement at that point. So they were faking it, even though they didn’t know it because they did not know the difference. In that way, of course, you can go three hours, and that was what they wanted. After the class, the director, Henryk Baranowski, told me, “You know, some teachers do the classes even for three hours.”
I: It was a clear suggestion.
M: Yes, it was.
I: Did you figure it out?
M: Yes, I did.
M: I stopped rushing and made the students to do the exercises properly, so they felt it in their whole bodies and had to work hard, not just to fake it.
I: It’s a big difference, isn’t it?
M: Yes, it is.
I: What kind of exercises were they?
M: They were plastic exercises.
I: What is that?
M: The plastic exercises are basic movement training, in particular for mime-actors, but they’re also profitable for dramatic actors and, in fact, all other stage performers who want to improve their movement skills.
I: What kind of skills?
M: The main purpose of plastic exercises is to train the body as an instrument of expression.
M: The actor exercises the body part-by-part (both in isolation and combination), exploring its functions and increasing or enhancing its plasticity.
I: Is that why they are called “plastic exercises”?
M: Yes, it is because the main benefit the actor gets is the plasticity of the body, which becomes impressionable and easily acquires forms of expression.
I: Were you teaching other types of movement than plastic exercises?
M: Yes, I was also teaching acrobatics and even some ballet classes. But those were supporting classes for general physical development. Whereas the plastic exercises were the formal base of the movement technique I was teaching. I taught them often along with mime and movement improvisations, so the actors had the benefit of learning how to utilize those exercises artistically.
I: How long were your classes?
M: I had one-and-a-half and three hour classes.
I: How often did you teach?
M: I could have a few classes per day, on average, I would say, I was teaching six hours per day.
I: How many students did you have?
M: On average, thirty students per class.
I: Who were your students?
M: First I was teaching only the actors from the Transformtheater. Then I was also teaching classes and workshops in the acting studio open to the public. There I had a variety of students.
I: Were they amateurs or professionals?
M: I had both beginning and advanced classes.
I: Did you become very popular?
M: Yes, I had a considerable following. The students were coming to attend my classes from all over Europe.
I: How long did you live in West Berlin?
M: For two years and four months.
I: And then you immigrated to the United States.
I: What else were you doing in West Berlin other than teaching?
M: I was doing theater. First I choreographed shows for other directors, and then I founded my own theater company.
I: Tell me about it.
M: Maybe another time.
I: In another chapter?
M: And in another volume.
I: Are we ending this one?
M: Yes, we are. I feel that we have reached the end of a certain period of my life marked by theatrical experiences that were shaped by Polish theater, in particular, The Wroclaw Pantomime Theater, and it is time to wrap it up into volume one.
-The End of Volume One-