TSQ Library T 34, 2010TSQ 34

Toronto Slavic Annual 2003Toronto Slavic Annual 2003

Steinberg-coverArkadii Shteinvberg. The second way

Anna Akhmatova in 60sRoman Timenchik. Anna Akhmatova in 60s

Le Studio Franco-RusseLe Studio Franco-Russe

 Skorina's emblem

University of Toronto · Academic Electronic Journal in Slavic Studies

Toronto Slavic Quarterly


Milija Gluhovic

The Mnemonics of Kantor’s Wielopole, Wielopole

“To say of Kantor that he is among Poland’s most outstanding artists of the second half of the twentieth century is to say very little,” states Jarosław Suchan, curator of the exhibition “Tadeusz Kantor – Impossible” (quoted in Kitowska-Lysiak 2002, n. pag.). “Kantor is to Polish art what Joseph Beuys was to German art, what Andy Warhol was to American art,” continues Suchan. “He created a unique strain of theatre, was an active participant in the revolutions of the neo-avant-garde, a highly original theoretician, an innovator strongly grounded in tradition, an anti-painterly, a happener-heretic, and an ironic conceptualist. These are only a few of his many incarnations” (n. pag.).[1] In the mid-seventies, however, Kantor realised that all this was insufficient, and moved into a new territory that had nothing to do with the avant-garde obsession with tabula rasa and sudden breaks with the past. With the cycle of performances that he entitled the “Theatre of Death” (1975-1990), Kantor staged yet another revolt – a revolt of memory against an onslaught of forgetting. While this change in his conception of art may be indicative of his disillusionment with the utopia and delusions of avant-garde, the reasons for it go much deeper. They can be found in the concrete social and political circumstances in Poland of the time, especially in the repression of disturbing memories of the Holocaust, which the official culture occluded for so many years.[2] If Kantor preserved anything vanguard in his art during this period, it will have been a sense of urgency that permeates all his “Theatre of Death” productions. A number of agendas, both personal and collective, radiate through the memory images on his stage. Most importantly, Kantor’s memory-theatre invokes conflicted, repressed, or erased memories common to the audience for whom they are intended, thus forcing on them the task of remembrance.[3]

In this essay I will focus my attention on Kantor’s Wielopole, Wielopole (1980), a second production from his “Theatre of Death,” which followed The Dead Class (1975). The “Wielopole” of the title invokes the author’s birthplace, a small town near Kraków where he was born in 1915. “On the square,” remembers Kantor, “stood a chapel with some saints for the Catholic faithful and a well where, usually at the full moon, Jewish weddings were held. On one side there was a church with a presbytery and a cemetery; on the other side, a synagogue, a few crowded Jewish lanes, and a different cemetery. Both sides lived in an agreeable symbiosis” (quoted in Pleśniarowicz 1994, 9). As Kantor further relates on another occasion, “During the last war half of the town was destroyed, many houses were burnt down and the Jews deported” (quoted in Thibaudat 1990, 184). Today, no trace exists of the eighty-seven Jewish families that lived here. Jean-Pierre Thibaudat, who visited the town in 1989, notes that even “the Jewish cemetery on the outskirts of Wielopole does not exist any more, its ruins lost, buried under clods of earth, where grass grows lush” (184). In his “Theatre of Death” Kantor both bemoans the forgotten past and combats this amnesia by “exhuming” the forgotten past and people, theatrically. As in times past, both Jews and Catholics populate the stage at Kantor’s performances. This is not solely an issue of memory, as is often said, but also of hospitality, which includes hospitality to memory. For this past is not strictly speaking unknown to his audience, but unacknowledged, relegated to the very “edge” of consciousness – the position of that which has to be both known, and at the same time unrecognised – because traumatic.

In the following discussion, I will focus on the ways in which Wielopole, Wielopole “remembers,” taking into consideration both its theatrical strategies, and the ethical implications of recall.  In other words, I will examine some of the ways in which memory functions within this performance, as well as the means by which this performance and the theoretical texts which he produced while working on it function within memory, by which I mean the ways that they reflect and respond to different “versions” or modes of memory within the Western tradition.[4] While the space here does not allow me to engage comprehensively the public discourse of national remembrance in Poland nor the history of Jewish-Polish relations in the aftermath of the Holocaust (1945 to the present), it is this historical background that informs my discussion of both the stakes of the mnemonic in Wielopole, Wielopole, and of the depth of difficulties involved in attempts at a direct confrontation with the dilemma of witnessing the destruction of Jews in Poland.[5]     

The invention of mnemotechnics (the ars memoriae) is credited to the Greek poet Simonides of Keos (sixth century B.C.E.). In Quintilian’s version of the legend:

[Simonides] had written an ode of the kind usually composed in honour of victorious athletes, to celebrate the achievement of one who had gained the crown for boxing. Part of the sum for which he had contracted was refused him on the ground that, following the common practice of poets, he had introduced a digression in praise of Castor and Pollux, and he was told that, in view of what he had done, he had best ask for the rest of the sum due from those whose deeds he had extolled. And according to the story they paid their debt. For when a great banquet was given in honour of the boxer’s success, Simonides was summoned forth from the feast, to which he had been invited, by a message to the effect that two youths who had ridden to the door urgently desired his presence. He found no trace of them, but what followed proved to him that the gods have shown their gratitude. For he had scarcely crossed the threshold on his way out, when the banqueting hall fell in upon the heads of the guests and wrought such havoc among them that the relatives of the dead who came to seek the bodies for burial were unable to distinguish not merely the faces but even the limbs of the dead. Then it is said, Simonides, who remembered the order in which the guests had been sitting, succeeded in restoring to each man his own dead. (Quintilian, Institutio oratoria, XI, 2.11-13)

According to the Simonides legend, the first memory theatre consists of mutilated corpses. The finding of absent images heals what has been destroyed: the art of memoria restores shape to the mutilated victims and makes them recognisable by establishing their place and seat in life. A survivor – the poet as a bearer of cultural memory – is necessary to inscribe the representatives of the unrecognisable, absent primary signs in the syntax of place (Lachmann 1997, 8). Only after they have been linked with the place where they sat do they become identifiable and regain their names, through a second act of naming, an act of memory. Quintilian’s narrative suggests that this process of identifying through naming should be understood as a vicarious supplying of images.

At the beginning of memoriaas art, therefore, stands the effort to technologise the work of mourning. The recollection of order mobilises a work of reconstruction to counter the destruction, even as this destruction marks the beginning of re-membering. In addition, as Jody Enders points out in her study The Medieval Theater of Cruelty, the Simonides legend problematises some key dramatic features of mnemotechnics: “that the object of remembrance must first die in order to be brought back to life; that the metaphorically encrypted and subsequently resurrected dead are moving, talking images or simulacra; that mnemotechnics renders present those who are absent or dead; and that it does so by repainting their picture and by giving them voice” (1999, 72). As we shall see, the authentic act of remembering, which closes the drama of the catastrophe and opens that of the burial, “inaugurates a commemorative model that establishes fascinating parallels between theatre and birth, death, and resurrection” (Enders 1997, 72) – a model echoed by Kantor’s “Theatre of Death.” 

The performance text of Wielopole, Wielopole also starts with an act of naming, through which Kantor introduces his dead relatives, the protagonists of this memory séance: 

Here is my Grandmother, my
mother’s mother, Katarzyna.
And that’s her brother, the
Priest.  Some
used to call him uncle.
He will die shortly.
My father sits over there.
The first from the left.
On the reverse of this
photograph he sends his
Date: 12th September 1914.
Mother Helka will be here any
The rest are Uncles and Aunts.
They went the way of all flesh,
somewhere in the world.
Now they are in the room,
imprinted as memories:
Uncle Karol, Uncle Olek,
Auntie Mańka, Auntie Józka.
>From this moment on, their
fortunes begin to change
passing through a series of
radical alterations,
often quite embarrassing, such
as they would have been unable
to face, had they been among
the living. (1990,

This act of naming the dead was absent from the beginning of this memory séance.[6]  Instead, the audience saw Kantor’s solitary figure walking around the performance space as if in search for the remnants of his life. His were the first gestures of summoning up the memory of his childhood, gestures strongly reminiscent of the underlying principles of the ancient mnemonics. According to the ancients, the would-be memory artist remembered (or imagined) an organised space – houses or theatres were commonly suggested. Within this space he distributed at regular intervals images that would serve as prompts to the memory. Later, when the user wished to remember something, he would, in an act of literal re-collection, mentally retrieve the images in any order he desired. In a similar vein, at the beginning of the séance, Kantor moved around the performance space, a simple wooden platform, empty except for a few pieces of furniture. He opened and closed the wardrobe, arranged the chairs, moved the bed with the mannequin of the priest on it out of the way. After this initial procedure of “furnishing” the room of memory, a signal was given, and the sliding doors at the back of the room were opened. From this anteroom area of history, memory, and loss, two groups of actors appeared on stage: Kantor’s family, whose bodies were scattered around, and a group of soldiers who positioned themselves in a corner, as if posing for a camera.  

The process of furnishing the room of memory was then continued by two identically looking stage figures, Kantor’s uncles Karol and Olek, played by the Janicki twins. Through the stage presence of the twins, Kantor explicitly evoked the figure of doubling, which is the basic figure of the work of memory. As Renate Lachmann reminds us, the Simonides legend assigns a central role to the Dioscuri in the development of mnemotechnics:

The twins who, as thanks for his song of praise, call Simonides outside across the threshold of the door and of time without revealing themselves to him, thereby saving him from catastrophe, appear as the personification of doubling. Personification in absentia is already in itself a kind of doubling: those absent are represented by the meaning ascribed to them in the context of the legend. The twin gods present a Doppelgänger pair, each of whom undergoes a further doubling process: the boxer with his opponent (as in a duel), the horse tamer with his animal (suggesting the symbiosis of horse and rider). This prototypical duo, in acting out the Doppelgänger relations between mortal body and immortal soul, death and life, portrays synchronically the metamorphosis from life to death, a metamorphosis that takes place in the conclave following a temporal linearity, and in the course of which the corpses become the Doppelgänger of the banqueters. (Lachmann 1997, 8)  

Immediately the twins in Kantor’s performance recognised that everything on the stage was out of place. Since memories could not be induced or brought forth until things had been put in order, the uncles – following a lot of double talk - set to work. After moving things about in a slapstick manner, they finally agreed on the rightful places in which the body of the dead priest, the chairs, the window, and other pieces of furniture should be set. The performance got underway only after everything was satisfactorily put in place; a hymn played over the loudspeakers, and Grandma, who up until then has been lying on the floor in silence, got up to speak.

The process of physically imaging memory and memory process on stage as presented in Wielopole, Wielopole is well encapsulated in Kantor’s prose piece  “The Room. Maybe a New Phase” (1980):

It is difficult to define the spatial dimension of memory.
Here, this is a room of my childhood,
with all its inhabitants.
This is the room that I keep reconstructing again and again
and that keeps dying again and again.
Its inhabitants are the members of my family.
They continuously repeat all their movements and activities
as if they were imprinted on a film negative shown interminably.
They will keep repeating those banal,
elementary, and aimless activities
with the same expression on their faces,
concentrating on the same gesture,
until boredom strikes. Those trivial activities
that stubbornly and oppressively preoccupy us
fill up our lives. . . .
come to life, become real and important
through this stubborn REPETITION OF ACTION.
Maybe this stubborn repetition of action,
this pulsating rhythm
that lasts for life,
that ends in n o t h i n g n e s s ,
which is futile,
is an inherent part of MEMORY.
(1993, 142-3)  

In Wielopole, Wielopole, memory is imaged as a room, which means memory is localised within a concrete, material form. Here memory seems self-contained, redeemable and very present, rather than diffuse and elusive; it depends for its “use” on a proper configuration of the mnemonic field that would in turn induce memories. The choice of metaphor presupposes and shapes the way we view memory function, and thus the “self,” in Wielopole, Wielopole.[7]  It underscores the dualism of rememberer and memory, where memory is imaged as an objectified “other” that can be completely controlled. The past that Kantor seeks – at least early on in the performance – is elicited at will. Kantor presents us not only with the act of remembering a life, but with a dialogue between living and remembrance, present and past: Man and his Memory.  

Clearly there are vestiges of ancient mnemotechnics at work in Kantor’s Wielopole, Wielopole. We are reminded of the rhetorical origins of Kantor’s “room of memory” even though Kantor does not explicitly acknowledge this.[8] Ancient and medieval writers on memory recognised, as we do now, the dual aspects of storage and recollection involved in remembering. Their most common model for human memory likened it to a tablet or a parchment page upon which a person writes. Re-collection was essentially a task of composition, literally bringing together matters found in their various storage places, and reassembling them in a new place. Furthermore, one of two major metaphors used in ancient and medieval times for the educated memory was that of thesaurus, “storage-room,” and later “strong-box.” Whereas the metaphor of the seal-in-wax or written tablets was a model for the process of making the memorial phantasm and storing it in a place in memory, the storage-room metaphor refers both to the contents of such a memory and to its internal organisation. A version of the storage room metaphor occurs in Plato’s Theaetetus, when Socrates, explaining how one is able to recall particular pieces of information, likens things stored in memory to pigeons housed in a pigeon-coop. This occurrence attests to the antiquity of the idea; indeed, both metaphors, equally visual, equally spatial, seem to be equally ancient as well.[9]

The childhood room, this living heart of memory, situated at the core of Wielopole, Wielopole (like the nursery in Chekhov’s Cherry Orchard), is a system of backgrounds, a support, or a scene that induces images.Around it, as though summoned, induced by it, is established and radiates all the imagery, the entire thematics of Wielopole, Wielopole: the return, the sorrowful experience, age, lost time, and absence. In the course of the performance, the audience witnessed the death of Uncle Józef-Priest; Grandmother-Katarzyna’s carrying out the last rites for him; the three “dead photographs” of the Priest, the Family, and a group of soldiers – including Kantor’s father Marian – before they went to battle; Father Marian and Mother-Helka’s wedding ceremony; Aunt Mańka’s apocalyptic prophecies; the rape of Helka by the soldiers; Adaś’s mobilisation and his departure/funeral in a cattle wagon with a group of conscripts; the funeral of the Priest; the Rabbi’s multiple execution by the soldiers; the last gathering of the family interrupted by yet another invasion of the soldiers; and the last group photograph. A constant repetition of the music themes employed in the performance, further amplified the theme of memory: Chopin’s “Scherzo” would emerge every now and then from Uncle Stasio’s violin case; a Psalm was sung at the Priest’s deathbed; a Polish military march, “The Grey Infantry” constantly accompanied the soldiers’ presence on stage; the Rabbi sang an old Yiddish song. 

From the everyday perspective, what once existed but exists no longer (or at least not in the same way) belongs to the past, a past that is irrecoverable, unchangeable. Events from the past cannot be lived in the manner of firstness, but only as grey replicas of what they once were. At best they can be relived in memory. Conventional wisdom suggests that one may remember and restore the past, or forget and deny it, but one concedes that what was has passed away. That which has gone by cannot be brought back materially. I have suggested that the past, the “not” expressed as the irrecoverability of what has gone by, is experienced by Kantor as retained, as imprinted or stored, kept as image and word. Memory is not something apart from the ongoing experience of retrieval, but the process of bringing back that which was previously encoded.  

Kantor expresses this idea well in a performance text for his “cricotage” Silent Night (1990), in a section entitled “Imprints:”

From the dim recesses,
as if from the abyss of Hell,
there started to emerge
people who had died long time ago
and memories of events
that, as in a dream,
had no explanation,
no beginning, no end,
no cause or effect.
They would emerge
and keep returning stubbornly,
as if waiting for my permission to let them enter.
I gave them my consent.
I understood their nature.
I understood where they were coming from.
The i m p r i n t s
impressed deeply
in the immemorial past.
           (1993, 180)

This idea can be traced back to the early stages of his “Theatre of Death” – including Wielopole, Wielopole – and, indeed, to the classical practice of mnemotechnics, as we shall see now.     

In the second book of Cicero’s De oratore, the work of memory requires the sketching of an inner image, an effigies. This inner image must designate (notare) the res that is to be remembered, which is invisible and no longer present. In the process, the image becomes a visible sign that inscribes itself in the memory place. The images are registered in the memory tablet – just as letters are incised into a writing tablet. If the simulacra function like letters (De oratore, II, 354), it is because they belong to a different order of signs from the objects they are supposed to fix; they note these objects as marks and abbreviations.[10] The mnemotechnical animation and personification of the memory images (imagines agentes) thus mean that the images, as personae, are masks – masks of those things that are deposited in the memory theatre. The conception of persona or mask also has the connotation of dissimulation, or of a phantom. The translation of that which is to be remembered into a mnemonic image is already a disfiguring, beginning with the representation of one sign by another, given that the representing sign does not participate in the primary sign but merely takes possession of it through a relation of similarity (similitudo). This similitudo does not guarantee a faithful copy of the primal image; rather, it is itself simulatio

As the Rhetorica ad Herennium author in his own lengthy treatment of the artificial memory writes, “an image is, as it were, a figure, mark, or portrait (simulacrum) of the object we wish to remember” (Rhetorica ad Herennium, iii, 29). Similarly, in his discussion of personification, this author clarifies that simulacra are created dramatically through voicing and imaginary behaviours. “Personification (conformatio),” he writes, “consists in representing an absent person as present, or in making a mute thing or one lacking form articulate, and attributing to it a definite form and a language or a certain behaviour appropriate to its character” (Rhetorica ad Herennium, IV, 66). The presence of memory thus depends on the absence of things past, and on the resurrected presence of the dead who may be brought back to life so that they might speak again.

In one of his programme notes for Wielopole, Wielopole, entitled “Agency for the hiring the dear departed,” Kantor acknowledges this paradox:

In memories
truthful and magnanimous people do not exist.
Let’s say it quite openly: the process of evoking memories
is suspect and none too clean.
It is simply a hiring agency.
The memory makes use of “hired” characters.
They are sinister individuals, mediocre and suspect creatures
waiting to be “hired” like home helps “by the hour.”
Almost crumpled, dirty, badly dressed, sickly,
bastardised, acting out badly the parts of people often
near and dear to us.
This ambiguous character is disguised as a recruit, pretending to be
my father.
Mother is evidently played by a street walker,
my uncles are mere ragamuffins.
The daringly widow of our town’s esteemed photographer,
who keeps up the name of the photography shop,
“The Memory,” is usually a foul cleaning woman
in the parish morgue.
As for the priest, better not mention him.
His sister is a simple scullery maid.
And again Uncle Stasio, the lugubrious figure of a Deportee,
Wandering beggar with a barrel-organ.    
         (Kantor n.d., n. pag.)

In Wielopole, Wielopole, anamnesic activity does not lead to a presence grasped on stage.Kantor, who no longer resides in the childhood house, must resort to the artifice of memory in order to reanimate fantasy and reactivate images, topiece together the simulacrum of a place haunted by absence. This dwelling is not the Edenic microcosm, a welcoming cavity of images. The sort of invention it induces is not as euphoric as it might first seem: abundance is eaten away and neutralised by an irreparable loss. As Ugo Volli observed:

By watching Kantor, we were witnessing rather than penetrating, the appearance of memory. The representation of memory is not memory, but a new fact, affected by weaknesses and perversion of memory and not by its authenticity. To witness is to betray. Presented to others, interiority becomes exteriority and necessarily false. But the artist must witness. The artist is obliged to betray. Expression is desired because it is the means toward exteriority. The stage is the site of this necessary betrayal. (1995, 247).

Remembrance is, in a sense, inherently dualistic activity. The one part of the mind recalls, brings up the past, while the other watches, listens, is reminded, reacts, sometimes refuses the memory brought up and rejects it. The process of memory retrieval, writes St. Augustine:

. . . brings me out onto the lawns and spacious structures of memory, where treasure is stored, all the representations conveyed there by any of my senses . . . Some things, summoned, are instantly delivered up, though others require a longer search, to be drawn from recesses less penetrable. And all the while, jumbled memories flirt out on their own, interrupting the search for what I want, pestering: Wasn’t it us you were seeking? My heart’s hand strenuously waves these things away from my memory’s gaze, until the dim thing sought arrives at last, fresh from depths. Yet other things are brought up easily, in proper sequence from beginning to end, and laid back in the same order, recallable at will – which happens whenever I recite a literary passage by heart. (1999, 49)  

The passage offers us a glimpse into the process of gathering of memories perfected in medieval monastic meditation, but it also illustrates an instant of mnemotechnical distraction, when the mnemonic pathways leak from one associational network to another. “The great vice of memoria is not forgetting but disorder,” writes Mary Carruthers in The Craft of Thought, a study of memory in medieval culture (2000, 82). “Image ‘crowding’” or curiositas was considered “a mnemotechnical vice, because crowding images together blurs them, blocks them, and thus dissipates their effectiveness” (82). As Carruthers further tells us, John Cassian, a medieval mnemonist, categorised this phenomenon as “a form of mental fornication,” “wandering against having a way or a route” (83, her emphasis). Although Kantor, like Augustine, can (after “a longer search”) retrieve his buried past, as the performance progresses, it become clear that the room of his memory could never be organised. For Augustine, the will (“I”) is lord, its ability to “wave away” and presumably dis-place, with an effort, mnemonic intrusions into an unfrequented corridor of memory is no longer the working assumption. The performance sequences in Wielopole, Wielopole, were constantly disrupted by the intrusions of phantasmata from behind the doors – the anteroom of history –  where “a storm and inferno rage, / and the waters of the flood rise” (Kantor 1993, 142).Kantor begins by wanting to recollect the past; but memory flooding the stage will prove stronger than his own will. This merging of past and present creates a sense of simultaneity, as in traumatised recall. The insufficiency of voluntary memory – the illusion that the “storehouse” of images can be locked, unlocked, and used at will – becomes obvious in the following scene.

In the last section of the performance, Kantor stages the Priest’s funeral cortege. He describes the scene as follows:

The Celebrations are marred by an unexpected occurrence. The Little Rabbi, his music-hall ‘funeral’ song and his subsequent, much later, fate.

From behind the scenes, the little Rabbi darts out unexpectedly, a marionette-like figure in synagogue garment. Running up to this weird procession, he catches up with the Priest who follows the Coffin-Cross. Wringing his hands in despair he sings his music-hall ‘funeral’ song.


In the end the soldiers have had enough. They take aim in a flash. The firing squad do their work. The wretched Little Rabbi falls down (the full significance of this image will only emerge later.) The Priest lifts the Little Rabbi. The Little Rabbi takes up his song again. Another volley, the Little Rabbi collapses, and so it goes on, a number of times, repeated as things are in my theatre. Than the Rabbi leaves for ever. (1990, 86-87; my emphasis)

The death of the rabbi is the central and the most obsessive image of remembering in Kantor’s Wielopole, Wielopole. In this scene, Kantor insists on the suddenness of perception, and describes the shock-image in evident analogy to the temporal structure of instantaneous photography: the scene underlines both the flashlike character of the visual impression, and the instantaneousness of the exposure. It recalls Simmel’s description of war-trauma: “the lightening flash of horror leaves a photographically exact impression” (quoted in Schäffner 1991, 34). The moment of the rabbi’s death, his dancing and singing of “Rebecca”against machine-guns, becomes a frozen image of shock that clings to the memory. If we read this image literally, along with other stagings of violence in Wielopole, Wielopole (Adasz’s death; the rape of Helka by the soldiers), then the scene can be read as an attempt to present the traumatic war-memory, as a fixation on the shock image – the image that forces itself upon the protagonist in its quasi-photographic nature again and again, as well as an endless retroactive attempt to master the shock. As Cathy Caruth elaborates, traumatic memory is a memory of an event which “is not assimilated or experienced fully at the time, but only belatedly, in its repeated possession of the one who experiences it. To be traumatised is precisely to be possessed by an image or an event.” The “enigmatic core” of the trauma consists, therefore, in the fact that an event that was not really experienced as such returns repeatedly as a literal memory, a memory that remains “absolutely true to the event.” Thus, “[t]he traumatised . . . carry an impossible history within them, or they become themselves the symptom of a history that they cannot entirely possess” but which instead possesses them (Caruth 1995, 4-5).

Others oppose this mimetic version of trauma, prevalent in the Anglo-American community of trauma discourse. In her essay “The Traumatic Paradox” (2003), Janet Walker examines the ways in which memory, and specifically traumatic memory, can operate in different registers of truth at the same time. The traumatic event, in her account, wounds the psyche; unable to engage with or represent the trauma, memory constructs an alternative story, which may at points coincide with the original, but at others will produce a different – sometimes falsifiable – narrative of what happened. She suggests, however, that memory makes these mistakes because of the wound. Thus the ways in which memory distorts and misrepresents events can actually be evidence for the truth of memory, rather than its error, if what we are dealing with is trauma. This for Walker is the “traumatic paradox” (2003, 107). It addresses the issue of how memory as a system of representation may fail: faced with a “world-shattering event,” the process of symbolisation is cut off, and proves incapable of dealing with the “breakage of the frame” in literal terms (111). Memories correspond to the experience, but not literally; amnesias, exaggerations, mistakes all bear witness to the enormity of the attempted resistance.

While Caruth’s account of trauma seems to correspond closer to the image presented on the stage, as we shall see Walker’s non-mimetic account of trauma is also relevant here. Namely, some biographical elements of this condensed historical image can be traced back to an event in Kantor’s early childhood. After his father went to the front of World War I, Kantor’s mother and her two children found a refuge in the house of the priest from Wielopole, Kantor’s uncle Józef Radoniewicz, who passed away in 1921. Kantor remembers: “Numerous priests from the whole neighbourhood came to the funeral. And suddenly, already not far from the cemetery, they all scattered, running across the field, like in Buñuel’s film. We were left alone: my mother, sister, me, Uncle Olek and the coffin. Mother said to me: ‘Look!” The whole Jewish commune of Wielopole was walking to meet us, carrying the tablets of the Decalogue – it was wonderful. This exactly was the reason for the priests’ dispersal. A huge scandal broke out” (quoted in Thibaudat 1990, 184). This anecdote suggests that in the scene of the rabbi’s death Kantor has collapsed and telescoped an early recollection from his childhood into another, informed by his memory of the events that transpired during World War II. Rather than a veridical memory of an event experienced first hand by Kantor, the scene seems to be a dynamic reconstruction and representation of a collective trauma. 

As we have seen, throughout the performance, Kantor reproduces two opposed routes of recall: the critical faculty that tries to control the “room of memory” by shaping the form of its enunciation, and the involuntary incursion of traumatic memory as repetitive text that, as Caruth put it, “possesses” the victim of loss (1995, 5). In the final scene of the performance, one more time the memories burst on stage without order, causality, direction, or coherence. The scene is entitled “The Last Supper,” after the famous work of Leonardo da Vinci, and it represents the last gathering of the family before their final “departure.” “You can feel that they are arriving for the last time,” writes Kantor in the stage directions (1990, 90). In the final tableau, an immaculately white, ceremonially starched cloth with sharp-ironed folds is laid over the muddy, sand-and-lime coated boards. Kantor’s family, seated at the table, “persist with their hoary arguments, resentments and retrospection, as if they have little time to lose” (94). Behind them are naked dummies standing like condemned men, behind the dummies a forest of crosses, still further off – the Army. Rifles point up, with fixed bayonets. “The massive sound of a Psalm imposes a religious dimension on it all” (94). But as the Psalm and “The Grey Infantry” begin to merge, the dummies – the naked corpses “of those killed in action” – start pushing everything forward (96). Finally, the Army, “deluded, frenzied, push everything to the edge of the stage, dangerously close to the audience – the wardrobe, the table, the chairs, the window, the bed – a monstrous pulp of wreckage” (96; original emphasis). Next, we hear a machine gun, “the soldiers fall, swearing, screaming, bodies and objects pile up, then freeze. The participants of The Last Supper have frozen as well, around the table, caught in their emotional gesticulations” (96).

“Memory does not possess a silent gallery of variable paintings,” writes Giovanni Ciampoli (1589-1643), poet and friend of Galileo. “They are not printed there; they are not fixed there. It is a population of living simulacra; they live there noisily, untamed, in constant uproar” (quoted in Bolzoni 2001, 258). This polemic is directed against an Aristotelian tradition that he sees still operating in the mentality of his contemporaries; the idea of memory as a wax upon which seals can be impressed has generated the image of the mind as a gallery of paintings. He prefers a distinction between a theatre and a prison-house of memory. In the prison-house perceptible images are amassed and deposited; but in the small space of the theatre of memory they are called forth by the mind to reanimate themselves:

On first entering, the watchful mind sees that they are peaceful; then new troops of foreign phantasmata arrive; the former ones, once they have had their audience, retire to the cells of memory in which they rest unseen, waiting for their turn to be led back to the operations of the theatre. (quoted in Bolzoni 2001, 259)

But the borders between the confused mass in the prison and the illuminated scene of the theatre are not always clear-cut and under control:

But during slumber, when the guards are sleeping, they boldly burst out. What commotion is made by these unguarded phantoms inside our head without our consent? They sing, they sigh, they dance, they war, they plunder the altars, they violate the gods, without distinction, without law, recklessly, unregulated, furiously, surprising the works of nature with the inventions of dreams; they show us a world gone mad with the impossibilities of disproportion. (quoted in Bolzoni 2001, 259)   

Ciampoli, like Kantor after him, distances himself from the Aristotelian tradition by placing its topical images (theatre, prison-house, gallery) in a new context. As we know now, psychoanalysis came to confirm this insight made by Ciampoli; the “possession” delivered by this figuration of memory is double edged, for the coherence and sovereignty of the subject balances only precariously upon its own “primitive” and/or infantile substratum – a substratum that could rise up and “possess” its possessor. Clearly, Ciampoli’s insight into the workings of memory, echoed by the final scene of Wielopole, Wielopole, also closely matches Freud’s description of the physiology of trauma from his Beyond the Pleasure Principle. According to Freud, psychic trauma, like physical trauma, breaks through the subject’s protective shield so that there is an influx of excitation which cannot be mastered or tolerated (1953-74, 29-30). In other words, shock tears the filter, influx is no longer regulated – and flooding results.

The nearly final image of the performance – the tableaux with the participants of the Last Supper – is of petrification and death, of silence, perhaps even closure. But this is not the end – or the closure – Kantor has in mind. In the final moments of the performance, Kantor disrupts this stasis by suddenly inserting a new gesture that radically shifts the performance’s imagery. As the actors slowly retreat from the stage accompanied by the tunes of a Christmas carol, one body remains – that of the Priest. “Then, from the hall the Little Rabbi in his synagogue garments approaches the priest, helps him up and leads him away” (98). Only then does Kantor go up to the table, folds the tablecloth, and leaves the stage.[11]      

Wielopole, Wielopole is clearly a performance of mourning, approximating Freud’s description of actively “working through” the trauma of loss by remembering, repeating, and “re-experiencing” that loss (1953-74, 244-45). This, however, does not imply a cathartic interpretation of the performance. Despite the mourning and “re-experiencing,” I find the performance, and especially the scene with the rabbi, far more political than such an interpretation would allow. If longing for the lost past is the performance’s overt theme, fighting forgetting and repression is its underlying impetus. This impetus is inscribed into the performance in the scene of rabbi’s death – a character/sign socially representative rather than narratively unique – through a structure of repetition. This self-reflective exhortation to tell and repeat, to hold onto the past and onto the death by “calling” it through cultural practice, is both a call to active intervention in the discourse of the national remembrance, and a mark of Kantor’s aesthetics. Every time Kantor replays this violent death on stage, he is doing more than merely returning to a traumatic moment. This procedure – repetitive and obsessive – might be also seen as a way of inducing anxiety, of forcing the spectator to re-experience the (traumatic) explosion of an irreparable past in a way that impedes emotional indifference. These insistent repetitions suggest a hope that, if often enough “rehearsed” and replayed, the death of the rabbi – this “memory” so integral to culture and yet only diffusively “present” within the culture – might also become a collective trauma to be remembered and mourned. As other performances from his “Theatre of Death,” Wielopole, Wielopole engages the work of mourning in order not to disavow the past, thus demanding of its audiences to work their lifelines into recent history, and so connect past with present, and future.   


1. For a good compilation of articles that deal with Kantor’s avant-garde experiments prior “The Theatre of Death” (1975-1990), see Suchan (2000).

2. In the late 1960s, a state-sponsored anti-Zionist campaign caused the emigration of some twenty thousand Jews, resulting in what was perceived as the end of the millennial Jewish presence in Poland. As Michael Steinlauf puts it, in the aftermath of these events “a profound and nearly universal silence descended on the ‘Jewish question’” (1997, 93). Since the late 1970s, however, there has been a revival of interest in the Polish-Jewish past in Poland. Several factors contributed to this phenomenon: nostalgia of the largely mono-ethnic and mono-religious Poland of today for the more diverse Poland of the past; the experience of the Solidarity years, which enabled Poles to begin to restore broken connections to tradition, and allowed for a reckoning with the less admirable aspects of the Polish past; new developments in Polish-Jewish scholarship, including a succession of international conferences on the subject, the appearance of new scholarly journals Ga-Ed (Tel Aviv) and Polin (Oxford), the foundation of four research centres for Polish-Jewish studies (in Jerusalem, Oxford, Kraków, and Warsaw); as well as a series of Polish public debates on wartime Polish-Jewish relations. See, for instance, Irwin-Zarecka (1989); Polonsky (1990; 1992); Polonsky and Michlic (2004); Steinlauf (1997); and Zimmerman (2003).

3. Of course, Kantor was not alone in raising the issues of Polish-Jewish relations in his work. He belonged to a broader movement in Polish culture that has tried to assimilate the experiences of the Holocaust, associated with the names such as Czesław Miłosz, Tadeusz Borowski, Miron Białoszewski, Henryk Grynberg, Hanna Krall, Tadeusz Różewicz, Stanisław Lem, Jan Błoński and others. With the following performance from his “Theatre of Death,” entitled Let the Artist Die (1986), Kantor brought onto the cultural scene the tragic stories of many thousand Poles who perished in the hands of the NKVD, when the truth about the Katyń massacre could not be openly told in Poland.   

4. While acknowledging the “work” memory has done and continues to do in the production of subjectivity, I agree with Katherine Hodgkin and Susannah Radstone, who have suggested that the “regimes of memory,” which they define as “the kinds of knowledge and power . . . carried, in specific times and places, by particular discourses of memory,” cannot be equated with regimes of subjectivity with which they are associated. Instead, they propose that “study of regimes of memory might complicate as well as deepen our understanding of related regimes – for instance, of subjectivity, of history, or of the mind” (2003, 2-3).  

5. For more than four decades after the Holocaust, Poles and Jews remained bitterly divided over the events that transpired during the German occupation. On the one hand, Jewish perceptions during this period were to a large extent shaped by survivor testimonies that often spoke of widespread Polish antisemitism and indifference to the fate of Jews during the Holocaust; on the other hand, Polish historiographical consensus reflected the views most common among the Polish public, which emphasised shared Polish-Jewish suffering and Polish aid extended to Jews. For some of the Jewish historiographical positions from this period see, for instance, Fein (1979); Dawidowicz (1981); Bauer (1982); and Gutman and Krakowski (1986). Examples of the Polish challenges to the basic assumptions underlying these views can be found in Bartoszewski and Lewin (1969; 1970); Iranek-Osmecki (1971); and Turowicz in Polonsky (1990). See Zimmerman (2003) for an excellent overview of changing Jewish-Polish relations after the Second World War. For a summary of recent Polish scholarship on Jewish topics, see Tomaszewski (2000).

6. This act of “naming” as well as Kantor’s stage presence throughout his performances of “The Theatre of Death” bears much resemblance to the figure of the Buddhist priest in Noh theatre. Etsuko Terasaki writes: “In order for a reincarnation or a ghost to make its presence known, a link to the human world is necessary – a need that is filled by the Buddhist priest. . . . If the priest’s presence signifies the living world, the natural world, and the continuum of empirical time, the figure of reincarnation represents the dead at the very threshold of the living, restlessly wandering and seeking a link with the living. Without the mediation of the priest, the dead cannot communicate its intentions. . . . By the gesture of apostrophe, the priest’s task is to ‘give a face to a ghost,’ that is, to enable it to speak out the grievances it harbours, so as to lead it to a personal confession of its transgression (2002, 19-20).

7. In The Poetics of Space Bachelard sees in the house “a tool for analysis of the human soul” (1994, xxxiii), and he asserts that “the things we have forgotten are ‘housed’” (xxxiii), that “the unconscious abides” (9).

8. “Even memory has a history,” writes Richard Terdiman in his Modernity and the Memory Crisis (1993, 3). Independently of a query concerning the relation of memory and history in recent scholarship focusing on the twentieth century, a number of studies have attempted to place the idea of memory in historical perspective during premodern periods. Yates (1966) traces transformations in ars memoria – the rhetorical art of memorising through spatial images – from Roman times through the Renaissance; Coleman (1992) as well offers a comprehensive history of theories of memory from antiquity through later medieval times, noting particular sophistication of medieval theories; Carruthers (1990; 1998) demonstrates the persistence of memory training even with the spread of texts, which resulted in the highly mixed oral-literate nature of medieval cultures; Bolzoni (2001) deals with the practices related to memory in sixteenth-century culture.

9. As Mary Carruthers also points out, “Zeno the Stoic (4th-3rd century B.C.) defines memory as ‘thesaurismos phantasion’ or ‘storehouse of mental images.’ Thesaurus is used metaphorically both in Romans (2:5) and the Gospel of Matthew, (6:19-20) in the sense of storing up intangible things for salvation. . . . The Rhetorica ad Herennium calls memory the treasure house of found-things, ‘thesauru[s] inventorum’ (iii, 16), referring particularly to a memory trained by the artificial scheme, which the author proceeds to recommend. Quintilian, also recommending a cultivated memory, calls it ‘thesaurus eloquentiae’ (xi, 2, 2)” (Carruthers 1990, 34-35).

10. According to Cicero, Simonides “inferred that persons desiring to train this faculty select localities and form mental images of the facts they wish to remember and store those images in the localities, with the result that the arrangement of the localities will preserve the order of the facts, and the images of the facts will designate the facts themselves, and we shall employ the localities and images respectively as a wax writing tablet and the letters written on it” (De oratore, II, 354).

11. Many critics have compared Kantor’s role on stage to that of a priest conducting a sermon. In a conversation with Jean-Pierre Thibaudat, Kantor tells the following anecdote from his childhood in Wielopole: “On Sunday, at Christmas and Easter, I watched superb ceremonies in church. I was four or five years old, I had no idea of the theatre whatsoever, but I used to re-enact the mass in the presbytery’s hall. I was playing the priest, in a white shirt, with my sister helping me. I always invited the priest, grandmother and mother; I treated the show very seriously and they were my audience. Each time I ended it with a sermon” (quoted in Thibaudat 1990, 183). 



Augustine, Saint, Bishop of Hippo. Saint Augustine’s Memory. Trans. and ed. Garry Wills. New York: Viking, 2002.

Bachelard, Gaston. The Poetics of Space. Boston: Beacon Press, 1994.

Bartoszewski, Władysław, and Zofia Lewin, eds. Righteous among Nations: How Poles Helped the Jews, 1939-1945. London: Earlscourt Publications, 1969. 

---. The Samaritans: Heroes of the Holocaust. New York: Twayne Publishers, 1970.

Bauer, Yehuda. A History of the Holocaust. Danbury, Conn.: Franklin Watts, 1982.

Bolzoni, Lina. The Gallery of Memory: Literary and Iconographic Models in the Age of the Printing Press. Toronto, Buffalo, and London: >University of Toronto Press, 2001.

Caruth, Cathy. “Introduction.” Trauma: Explorations in Memory. Ed. Cathy Caruth. Baltimore and London: The Johns Hopkins University Press, 1995. 3-12.

Carruthers, Mary. The Book of Memory: A Study of Memory in Medieval Culture. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1990. 

---. The Craft of Thought: Meditation, Rhetoric, and the Making of Images, 400-1200. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1998.  

Cicero. De oratore and De partitione oratoria. Ed. and trans. H. Rackham. 2 vols. Loeb Classical Library. 1942; Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1976. 

Coleman, Janet. Ancient and Medieval Memories: Studies in the Reconstruction of the Past. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1992.  

Dawidowicz, Lucy. The Holocaust and the Historians. Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 1981.

Enders, Jody. The Medieval Theater of Cruelty: Rhetoric, Memory, Violence. Ithaca and London: Cornell University Press, 1999.

Fein, Helen. Accounting for Genocide: National Responses and Jewish Victimisation during the Holocaust. New York: Free Press, 1979.

Freud, Sigmund. Beyond the Pleasure Principle. The Standard Edition of the Complete Psychological Works of Sigmund Freud. Vol 18. Ed. James Strachey. London: Hogarth Press, 1953-74.

Gutman, Israel and Shmuel Krakowski, Unequal Victims: Poles and Jews during the Second World War. New York: Holocaust Publications, 1986.

Hodgkin, Katherine and Susannah Radstone. Regimes of Memory. London and New York: Routledge, 2003.

Iranek-Osmecki, Kazimierz. He Who Saves One Life. New York: Crown Publishers, 1971.

Irwin-Zarecka, Iwona. Neutralizing Memory: The Jew in Contemporary Poland. New Brunswick, N.J.: Transaction Publishers, 1989.

Kantor, Tadeusz. Wielopole, Wielopole. Trans. Mariusz Tchorek and G. M. Hyde. London; New York: Marion Boyars, 1990.

---.  A Journey Through Other Spaces: Essays and Manifestos, 1944-1990. Ed. and trans. Michal Kobialka. Berkley: University of California Press, 1993.

---. Wielopole, Wielopole [program for the performance]. Kraków: Cricoteka, n.d.  

Kitowska-Lysiak. Malgorzata. “Tadeusz Kantor (1915-1990)All About Jewish Theatre. 2002. http://www.jewish-theatre.com/visitor/article_display.aspx?articleID=478

Lachmann, Renate. Memory and Literature: Intertextuality in Russian Modernism. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1997.

Pleśniarowicz, Krzysztof. The Dead Memory Machine. Kraków: Cricoteka, 1994.

Polonsky, Antony, ed. “My Brother’s Keeper?”: Recent Polish Debates on the Holocaust. London and New York: Routledge, 1990.

---. “‘Loving and Hating the Dead’: Present-Day Polish Attitudes to the Jews.” Religion, State and Society 20.1 (1992): 69-79. 

Polonsky, Antony, and Joann B. Michlic, eds. The Neighbours Respond: The Controversy over the Jedwabne Massacre in Poland. Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2004.  

Quintilian. Institutio oratoria. Ed. and trans. H. E. Butler. 4 vols. Loeb Classical Library.1920; Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1980. 

Rhethorica Ad Herennium. Ed. and trans. Harry Caplan. Loeb Classical Library. 1954; Cambridge, Massachusetts: Harvard University Press, 1977. 

Schäffner, Wolfgang. “Der Krieg als Trauma. Zur Psychoanalyse der Kriegsneurose in Alfred Döblins Hamlet.” Hard-War/Soft War. Krieg und Medien 1914 bis 1945. Eds. M. Stingelin and W. Scherer. München, 1991. 31-46.

Steinlauf, Michael C. Bondage to the Dead: Poland and the Memory of the Holocaust. Syracuse, New York: Syracuse University Press, 1997.

Suchan, Jarosław. Tadeusz Kantor: Impossible. Kraków: Bunkier Sztuki, 2000.

Terasaki, Etsuko. Figures of Desire: Wordplay, Spirit Possession, Fantasy, Madness, and Mourning in Japanese Noh Plays. Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press, 2002.

Terdiman, Richard. Present Past: Modernity and the Memory Crisis. Ithaca and London: Cornell University Press, 1993.

Thibaudat, Jean-Pierre. “Kantor Will Never Return to Wielopole.” Cricot 2 Theatre – Information Guide, 1989-1990. Kraków: Cricoteca, 1990.183-184.

Tomaszewski, Jerzy. “Historiografia polska o zagładzie.” Biuletyn Żydowskiego Instytutu Historycznego 2 (2000): 155-169.

Turowicz, Jerzy. “Polish Reasons and Jewish Reasons.” “My Brother’s Keeper?”: Recent Polish Debates on the Holocaust. Ed. Antony Polonsky. London; New York: Routledge, 1990.

Volli, Ugo. “Kantor’s Theatre of Exteriority: A Philosophical Approach.” Journal of Dramatic Theory and Criticism 10.1 (1995): 245-49.

Walker, Janet. “The Traumatic Paradox: Autobiographical Documentary and the Psychology of Memory.” Regimes of Memory. Eds. Susannah Radstone and Katherine Hodgkin. London; New York: Routledge, 2003. 104-119.

Yates, Frances A. The Art of Memory. London: Routledge and Kegan Paul, 1966.

Zimmerman, Joshua D. Contested Memories: Poles and Jews during the Holocaust and Its Aftermath. Ed. Joshua Zimmerman. New Brunswick, New Jersey, and London: Rutgers University Press, 2003.  


step back back   top Top
University of Toronto University of Toronto