Pantomime: The History and Metamorphosis of a Theatrical Ideology: Table of Contents
Unlike in East Germany, which distributed pantomime culture across numerous individuals, none of whom was able to claim “control” of the culture, in Poland, pantomime became identified almost entirely with a single person, Henryk Tomaszewski (1919-2001), whose approach to pantomime, dramatic and grandiose, departed significantly from the French model. Tomaszewski’s work attracted many actors, many admirers, many workshop students, many international invitations, and many who regarded him as a great “influence.” For over forty years, the international pantomime world regarded him as one of the greatest and most imaginative practitioners of the art, even if most of the vast number of people who knew of Marcel Marceau never heard of Tomaszewski. Yet very few, perhaps even none, of his many admirers modeled their own work after his, and he remained utterly unique in the history of Cold War pantomime in his ability to produce large-scale, dramatic pantomimes for so many years. Unlike so many pantomimes in both the East and the West, he enjoyed consistent access to extensive theatrical resources. But he obtained these resources because he persuasively articulated ambitious ideas for pantomime. Perhaps the postwar mime culture in other countries simply lacked persons with ambitions for pantomime as large as Tomaszewski’s, but clearly theater institutions elsewhere did not encourage such ambitions. When supporting speechless performance, they chose instead to support ballet or modern dance, as if it was necessary to choose between dance and pantomime or between pantomime and spoken drama, when in reality, the postwar theater culture simply produced (or closed off) hardly any awareness of the artistic potential for large-scale, dramatic pantomime. In Poland, the national ballet in Warsaw, resurrected in 1950, never attracted, for reasons that are by no means evident, the international attention that the Wroclaw Pantomime Theater provoked during the Cold War nor the international attention inspired by ballet in New York, London, Paris, Copenhagen, The Netherlands, Stockholm, and Russia or by Tanztheater in West Germany, to name the most obvious contrasts in Cold War priorities for speechless performance between Poland and other countries. Yet Poland had its national ballet (as well as ballet companies in Lodz, Wroclaw, Cracow), and it had its Wroclaw Pantomime Theater.
Tomaszewski was himself, between 1945 and 1947, a student of ballet in Cracow under Feliks Parnell (1898-1980), an adventurous and innovative dancer and choreographer during the interwar years and even during the Nazi occupation. Parnell had danced and choreographed for Warsaw cabarets (1921-1934) and for opera ballets (1927-1930), before forming his own ballet company, Ballet Polonais (1934-1939), which traveled with much acclaim throughout Europe. His aesthetic blurred distinctions between ballet and modern dance, introducing acrobatic, folkloric, and dramatic effects that placed his work “on the border between ballet and circus” (Mościcki 2016: Paragraph 11). During the same years (1945-1947), Tomaszewski also studied acting in Cracow under the strongly modernist director and designer Iwo Gall (1890-1959), who “thought little of the dance and considered Tomaszewski’s attraction to the ballet almost as treason to the theater,” although Gall later agreed to collaborate with Tomaszewski on the formation of a movement theater (Hausbrandt 1975: n.p). Tomaszewski left Parnell’s company in 1949 to accept a position as a dancer in the Wroclaw opera ballet. With other dancers in the ballet company, he began experimenting with dramatic pieces involving pantomime. When in 1955 Warsaw hosted a World Festival of Student and Youth, officials discovered that Poland had no representative for a mime competition. They called on Tomaszewski to represent the country, and he won a medal for a solo piece, The Pianist (Hausbrandt 1975: n.p.). Inspired by the performances at the Youth Festival, he brought together a group of actors, dancers, students, and athletes to form a mime studio the following year. By the end of the year, the Pantomime Studio produced at the Wroclaw Drama Theater a program of four scenes: Sentenced to Live, The Hunchback of Notre Dame, The Overcoat, and The Tale of the Little Negro and the Golden Princess. Theater critic Andrzej Hausbrandt (1923-2004), author of the first (1974) monograph on Tomaszewski, contended that the larger Polish theater and cultural journalism communities, with their prejudice against ballet, initially displayed a hostile attitude toward Tomaszewski’s project. But Tomaszewski persisted. A second program of pantomimes occurred in December 1957; this contained The Hunchback of Notre Dame and The Overcoat plus four new scenes: En Passant, Nativity Play, Fortune Telling, and Orpheus in Search of Euridice. In 1958, the state and the municipality of Wroclaw established the ensemble as a state-sponsored theater, presumably because Tomaszewski enlisted the support of the numerous actors, scenic artists, and technicians with whom he worked, an amazing accomplishment within such a short time. The Wroclaw Pantomime Theater continued with programs of short pieces, as many as eight, such as: Harlequin’s Masks (1959), The Sorcerer’s Apprentice (1960), The Cabinet of Curiosities (1961), and The Labyrinth (1963). The second phase of the Pantomime Theater’s evolution, according to Hausbrandt, was the introduction of long programs with fewer scenes: The Minatour (1964), and The Garden of Love (1968). No matter how serious the pieces within a program, the cultural commentators of the time evidently regarded the programs as a form of cabaret, which lacked the level of seriousness expected of mainstream drama. Thus, the third phase in the evolution of Tomaszewski’s aesthetic was the production of evening-length pantomimic dramas, and he (and the Theater) remained dedicated to this concept until the end of his life, although he remained busy as a stage director and choreographer for other theaters, an aspect of his career that still seems obscure (cf. Hera 1983).
Literary works were largely the inspiration for Tomaszewski’s evening-length productions, of which he created many over a period of thirty years, although only Janina Hera has described the narrative content of these works (up to 1978) in any detail, while Andrzej Hausbrandt provides more impressionistic descriptions for some works up to 1974 (cf. Hera 1983: 13-52; cf. Smużniak 1991: 18-80). The Dress (1966) derived from “traditional Japanese legends”; Gilgamesh (1968), from the 1200 BCE Sumerian epic poem; The Departure of Faust (1970), from Goethe; November Night’s Dream (1971), from a 1904 play by Stanislaw Wyspiański (1869-1907); The Menagerie of the Empress Phylissa (1972), from Wedekind’s pantomime, Die Kaiserin von Neufundland (1897); Arriving Tomorrow (1974), from Euripides’ The Bacchae (406 BCE) and the film Teorema (1968) by Pier Paolo Pasolini (1922-1975); Fantastic Scenes and Legends of Pan Twardowski (1976), a variation on the Faust tale dating from the sixteenth century about a Cracow sorcerer that numerous Polish poets, novelists, dramatists, composers, and filmmakers have adapted; The Dispute (1978), from a 1744 play by Pierre Marivaux (1688-1763); Hamlet—Irony and Mourning (1979), from Shakespeare; Knights of King Arthur (1981), from the 1485 book by Thomas Malory (1415-1471); The Prodigal Son (1983), from The Bible; A Midsummer Night’s Dream (1986), from Shakespeare; Cardenio and Celina (1990), from a verbose 1649 tragic play by the German author Andreas Gryphius (1616-1664); Caprice (1995), from the 1900 play Schluck und Jau, by Gerhart Hauptmann; Tragic Games (1999), from two plays by Austrian dramatist Ferdinand Bruckner (1891-1958), Te Deum (1919) and Death of a Doll (1956), the latter evidently a rewrite of the former, which has disappeared. Clearly, Tomaszewski drew upon a wide range of literary works, but, except for Pasolini’s Teorema, he avoided texts produced during the time in which he worked. He did not “translate” the texts into a pantomimic vocabulary. Rather, he extracted from literary sources images and narrative tropes that he used to construct a symbolic-allegorical collage of pantomimic actions embodying his attitude toward the characters—a kind of morality pantomime. He was less of a pantomime storyteller than a pantomime architect; his relation to literary texts was similar to that of a stained glass window artist’s or a muralist’s relation to Biblical stories or historical events. The audience’s appreciation of the performance depended on actions that referred to ideas or images outside of the narrative frame; more precisely, the performance narrative or collage referred to a larger “text” or historical situation with which the Pantomime Theater assumed the spectator was already (incompletely) familiar. For example, the published program for Knights of King Arthur (1981) included a two-page synopsis of the scenes in the piece, a brief description of the characters, a philological discussion of Malory’s King Arthur by Polish literary historian Zygmunt Czerny (1888-1975), a commentary on the book by Norwegian novelist Sigrid Undset (1882-1949), an essay from a 1981 book on the The Grail by John Matthews (b. 1948), and another comment on the Grail theme from a 1913 book by the medievalist Jesse Weston (1850-1928) (Rycerze Króla Artura 1982). This sort of intellectual apparatus for the spectator, commonplace for ballet and opera, was new for pantomime and perhaps necessary to establish pantomime as an art as serious as ballet or opera. Tomaszewski wrote out his scenarios in very rough fashion, but the only one ever published, posthumously, was the 2000 screenplay for the stage filming of his last work, Tragiczne gry, the loose adaptation of the two Bruckner plays (1999) (cf. Smużniak 2006). Unlike the Austrian and German pantomime writers earlier in the century, Tomaszewski was not an innovator in using pantomimic action to construct narratives. Even if his pantomimes depended on respectable literary sources, he treated these sources as raw material for a larger project: to show that the stories, the structural relations between actions, were less important than the kinetic, corporeal images they inspired, which is why some critics complained that he was an “illustrator” of literary works. He wanted to show that the story or plot “lives” outside of the text and does not need all the words that compose the text. This approach was somewhat similar to the actor-centered Roman pantomime recycling of mythic material, but for the Romans, the pantomime “story” was not in the mythic material, but in the metamorphosis of the actor from one mythic identity to another—the narrative, the “plot,” was the sequencing of the actor’s metamorphosis. The imperial Romans did not encourage original stories, because they believed originality (of metamorphosis) lay with the actor, not with imaginary characters or dramatic situations. In the modernist era, however, originality of plot became a fundamental sign of modernity, especially if modernity entailed repudiating the ideology of metamorphosis. In this respect, Tomaszewski’s unwillingness to construct original plots through pantomimic action is perhaps the greatest limitation of his aesthetic.
A recurrent theme of his pantomimes was corruption, the limitations of love in thwarting or redeeming corruption and history as the image of human struggle against corruption. He saw corruption as a succumbing to appetites and desires, libidinous or sensuous, that are excessive insofar as a class or society shares this indulgence and fails to see it as a manifestation of delusion, decadence, or oppression. Tomaszewski said that, in the theater, he liked dealing with “extreme situations […] without a distinct end” (Hausbrandt 1975: n.p.). For him, theater functions as a purification of the spectator’s relation to history, and this moral-allegorical aspect of Tomaszewski’s productions cast a somewhat medieval aura. His sensibility was basically tragic or “dark,” if sometimes sardonic and “baroque,” and he developed a distinctive performance style to articulate his sensibility. He set his pantomimes in a distorted historical environment. He avoided complex scenery requiring spectacular effects, detailed décor, or interfaces with visual technologies such as film, video, or photography. Nor did he situate actions in a very specifically imagined milieu. One of his more complex sets, for the 1981 King Arthur production, consisted mostly of a rather crudely constructed wooden fence in the background. Mostly action occurred before a dark cyclorama or background that sometimes changed color, but his productions consistently gave the impression of taking place at night in an eerie, symbolic space where light seems to fall on the actors as if from street lamps. While he kept the scenic environment spare, Tomaszewski delighted in using furniture: tables, chairs, beds, couches, and steps. In King Arthur, the assembling of a giant round table is part of the choreographed action. A long banquet table appears in Kaprys (1995), at which the aristocratic guests watch two homeless men entertain them. In The Menagerie of Empress Philissa (1972), actors occasionally ascend a little stairway to a platform that functions as a bed, a throne, or a stage. In Gilgamesh (1968), priests on decorative stools bathe a young man poised within a shell-like bowl, and in another scene, a chariot, pulled by two men with horse/unicorn heads, carries a driver and an embracing couple. Tragic Games (1999) involves elaborate use of a woman in a wheelchair. Costuming assumed a more audacious role in Tomaszewski’s productions. He constantly worked with large casts; for example, the King Arthur production contained forty-five roles performed by forty actors. Much of the visual effect of his productions thus derived from the complex, dynamic tableaux that he created out of different groupings of bodies and the semiotic relations between movements, bodies, and costumes. Some costumes, flamboyant and luxurious, placed the performers who wore them in a particular historical period. In The Departure of Faust, Mephistopheles wears a late medieval waistcoat with red stockings and a huge red cape; in The Menagerie of Empress Philissa, several characters, male and female, wear costumes of the eighteenth and the late nineteenth century; in Hamlet, performers wear costumes that belong more to seventeenth century Eastern Europe than to the late Scandinavian Middle Ages of Shakespeare’s text; in King Arthur, some characters wear costumes associated with the Dark Ages, but one character (Sir Ither) wears a suit of armor belonging to a much later era, and another character (Mordred) wears a black latex outfit that resembles the fetish couture of a particular strand of twentieth century sadomasochistic sexuality. Even in his last production, Tragic Games, perhaps the most “modern” setting for any of his pantomimes, the costumes all seem to date from the 1930s. In a couple of productions (Gilgamesh, Arriving Tomorrow), some robe-like costumes signify “ancientness” without being historically specific, while in November Night’s Dream, the old soldier on nocturnal guard duty wears a military uniform from the early nineteenth century, but in his dream, the revolutionary warriors wear ancient Greek helmets and military caps from the early nineteenth century but not uniforms. Only occasionally did Tomaszewski employ masks, but he did so with impressive dramatic effect, as in the Death masks for Embrasure (1961) and The Departure of Faust, and the horse heads for Gilgamesh and Faust and the shrouded Inquisitional Figure in Philissa.
Although he worked with different prominent designers, including Wladislaw Wigura (b. 1940), Kazimierz Wiśniak (b. 1931), and Zofia de Ines-Lewczuk (b. 1948), his productions maintained a remarkable stylistic, visual unity across the decades to produce the distinctive Tomaszewski performance image, regardless of the historical era or literary source. The anachronistic scenic historical details symbolized the embedding of different historical eras in the performance of an action. Tomaszewski did not invent this practice; it had precedent elsewhere in the vibrant, symbolist-oriented postwar Polish theater, perhaps even in the extravagant expressionist dramas of the 1920s by the artist-writer Stanislaw Witkiewicz (1885-1939). He was actually much more innovative in his minimal use of costume—that is, in his display of performer bodies. Characters in body stockings appear regardless of the historical era represented, and these appeared very early, with the abstract-symbolic male duo (dark versus light), The Grain and the Shell (1961). In The Labyrinth (1963), with costumes by Krzysztof Pankiewicz (1933-2001), the entire ensemble wears body stockings covered with vaguely reptilian or protozoac designs as part of an abstract ambition to show how human society, “like the calyx of an opening tulip,” forms a “labyrinth of obstacles, of barriers set up by man against people, by people against man” (Hausbrandt 1975: n.p.). In subsequent productions, bodystockings became simpler; in November Night’s Dream, for example, the Athena/Minerva figure leading the revolutionaries wears a black body stocking and a Greek helmet while wielding a spear and shield. Philissa wears a corset and Helen of Troy appears in a bikini in Faust. More daring was his presentation of male bodies. In nearly all of his pantomimes from 1963 to 1990, men appear bare-chested or entirely nude except for tiny briefs, loincloths, or thongs. These semi-nude men, always handsome, with athletic physiques, are sometimes individuals or protagonists (such as Faust) or they form choral ensembles, like the dream soldiers in November Night’s Dream or the Sumerian worshippers in Gilgamesz. All this baring of male flesh signifies underlying libidinal energies within society, within history, but they also precipitate devouring, destructive appetites, acts of sacrifice. This display of male beauty exudes a homoerotic aura that, except for Kharitonov’s severely marginalized production of The Enchanted Island (1971), seems peculiarly permissive within East bloc theater culture, even if commentary at the time acknowledged it, if at all, as simply a metaphor for the excessive pleasures or voluptuous vulnerabilities that lead a society to decadence or, as in November Night’s Dream, failed revolution—whereas Kharitonov presented male nudity as an entirely positive element of performance, of a new idea of utopia. Yet it is doubtful that Tomaszewski could have built such a large pantomime ensemble with so many men in it without these opportunities for display of glamorously athletic male bodies (rather than glamorously athletic female bodies). In 2007, according to a newspaper article by Wojciech Szymański and Tomasz Wysocki, Polish radio in Wroclaw reported that Sebastian Ligarski (b. 1975), a researcher on the state security apparatus during the Communist era, discovered documents that revealed Tomaszewski had “confidential contact” with state security agents from 1960 until at least 1967: his job was to report on actors in the ensemble and their relations with “foreign contacts” when the company went on any of its many tours to countries in the West bloc. Ligarski contended that “the services knew about the artist’s homosexual inclinations,” and they may have blackmailed him into informing by threatening either to charge him with homosexual behavior or to forbid his company from touring abroad. He appears not to have provided the security services with any useful information (Wyborcza May 9, 2007). It’s not clear if the security services shifted their attention to other members of the company in their effort to establish, through homosexual contacts, counter intelligence operations in foreign countries. The homoerotic aura of male display continued in Tomaszewski’s pantomime productions until the end of the Communist state and disappears in his productions of the 1990s [Figures 105, 106].
Figure 105: Top: Scene from Gilgamesz (1968), directed by Henryk Tomaszewski, Wroclaw, Poland. Bottom: Urszula Hasiej in Hamlet ironia i zaloba (1979), directed by Henryk Tomaszewski. Photo: Joanna Drankowska, from encyclopediateatru.pl.
Figure 106: Scenes from Krol Artur (King Arthur), directed by Henryk Tomaszewski, Wroclaw, Poland, 1981. Photos: Marek Grotowski, from encyclopediateatru.pl.
Tomaszewski also introduced innovative music soundtracks (always recorded) for his pantomimes insofar as he wanted a range of musical styles to accompany the action, even if these styles lacked historical authenticity. For example, King Arthur used music by Johann Nepomuk Hummel (1778-1837), Gordon Giltrap (b. 1948), and Richard Wagner. The Departure of Faust had music by Hector Berlioz (1803-1869) and jazz and pop tunes. On the other hand, The Menagerie of Empress Philissa used only the pop-oriented music of Zbigniew Karnecki (b. 1947), as did Arriving Tomorrow, while only the modernist instrumental music of Juliusz Luciak (b. 1927) accompanied The Dress. Luciak’s music also accompanied November Night’s Dream, as did Frederic Chopin’s. Hamlet had music by Gustav Holst (1874-1934), Gabriel Fauré (1845-1924), and Bogdan Dominik, a prolific composer of theater music. But Tragic Games used music by thirteen different artists ranging from Benjamin Britten (1913-1976) to The Alan Parsons Project (1975-1990), Duke Ellington (1899-1974), Jean Francais (1912-1997), and jazz composer Boguslaw Klimsa (1945-2000). Unlike in ballet, music in Tomaszewski’s pantomimes provided a “modern” emotional texture to a scene or moment rather than to suffuse the moment with historical credibility or to shape the movements of the performers. It is soundtrack music that carries with it emotional values that are independent of the action on stage but which cause the historicized action to “intersect” with the presumed greater sonic emotional power achieved by invariably later eras.
Tomaszewski choreographed the action in his pantomimes, and unlike most pantomime programs elsewhere in the East bloc, he did not function as a facilitator of a “collective” creative process; all production elements were subordinate to his distinctive “vision” for a production. His training in ballet predisposed him to think action in speechless theater achieved value to the extent that someone choreographed it, and printed programs of the Wroclaw Pantomime Theater listed him as “director and choreographer” of the productions. But his pieces were not ballets, because he did not build pieces around movements; he did not apply movements because they were beautiful in themselves; he did not introduce movements to show the skill or virtuosity of his performers; and he avoided acrobatic effects. He choreographed pantomimic action: each action advanced the narrative or revealed something about the character performing it. But the action was not “naturalistic” in the manner of verisimilar silent film pantomime or the naturalism of Hermann Bahr’s pantomimes. His approach to gesture was expressionistic, relying on exaggerated or distorted movements to construct a symbolic value for the gesture. His way of thinking about gestural exaggeration and distortion resembled Decroux’s insofar as he built physical actions around a set of movement concepts, which he called a “spherical theater,” from which he could attach various symbolic values, such as inward and outward “current,” including rotation (usually of the torso), “flexion” or the bending of limbs, “shifts” or “the principle of counterpoint,” wherein one part of the body moves in tension with another part, and “subjectivization,” whereby the actor mobilizes these concepts through physical movements to achieve an “identification,” not with “an object, but with a state, a time, an emotion…” (Hausbrandt 1975: n.p.). Even if movements existed only to advance the narrative, they did not necessarily create narrative clarity, for Tomaszewski acknowledged that spectators appreciated explanations of what actions “meant.” The “spherical theater” idea was simply a way to prepare actors to make decisions about gestures embodying the actions constructing a particular narrative. Different actors might choose different movements or gestures to realize an action, unlike in ballet, where choreography means that a dancer performs the same movement as another dancer, even if the dancers perform these movements differently. In this respect, Tomaszewski’s pantomimes are closer to literary “interpretations” of action than ballet. For example, Hausbrandt describes the “Dionysia” scene in Arriving Tomorrow entirely as a series of intended actions or performance outcomes without describing how the actors performed these actions:
The Great Dionysia in honour of the Factory. Emblems, tires, models, toasts, drinks, pageants, total stress. And just when everything is in full swing, in top gear—the fun dies down. The revelers grow listless, like pricked balloons, everything comes to a standstill and is covered with a skin of boredom […] Ordinary family dinner at home: Father, Mother, Daughter, Son and Maid. A mawkish, nauseating Come to Sorrento. Everything in perfect trim, fully predictable—no dreams, no hope […] A party—perhaps a continuation of the Grand Entertainment? Ladies, gentleman, His Eminence, hippies, second class “Dolce Vita.” Everybody is cool, indifferent, cynical, bored. And then the Maid ushers in the Guest [Dionysias] (Hausbrandt 1975: n.p.).
Like so many other commentators on Tomaszewski’s work, he never describes how the actors “interpret” these actions, presumably because such description is a matter of “technique” that is irrelevant to the meaning of the work, even though the “counterpoint” revealed by the actor (rather than the scenario) is the “struggle with the environment” that informs all human action. In his scenarios, however, Tomaszewski may have indicated more precisely the physicality of the actions, judging from his one transcribed (from handwritten) scenario, for the tele-film of Tragic Games, of which an excerpt:
Becoming a human means to Adrianna: subordinating (pushed to the dressing table) – before that she was detached from herself (doll) – suffering – fate – and humiliation – and Fear –
Adrianna – Solo in front of a mirror = lifted from a broken pose – upright and with a compressed body – she smiles no
you can see that inside she is completely broken – she stands and goes to the mirror – she adopts the pose where everyone is jealous of her – she goes – she stops, the face accepts a smile – just like you – you – you – shows finger on her reflection
– and suddenly she falls on her knees – a gesture as if blameworthy – so that this reflection will release her from herself – what stands in the mirror, it is not a human – it’s a Vision – an illusion of an ideal – but it’s not human, she is hitting her head in the mirror – her head is at the mirror, and the human is looking at the mirror, if she is still in the mirror – and there is no human there
– you hear the wedding music – away, (light) how the ghosts appear to the bridesmaid and friends – somewhere they set themselves up –
– Adrianna bends with the mirror – she’s kissing herself in the mirror – now she only has tears – now she polishes the pills – this scene ends, – at the dresser, now the dress-up brings dresses – Kreator is following her – Adrianna dresses behind the screen – when she comes out from behind the screen in a wedding gown – Kreator – takes her by the hand – (he teaches how to proceed during the ceremony with the gown – how to clink – before clapping[…] (Smużniak 2006: 120-121).
Tomaszewski saw the pantomimic action in fragments, phrases, incomplete sentences, as if each individual action disrupted another—that was how he physicalized a woman’s ambivalent relation to her image, her distrust of the mirror, her obsession with it, and her intense doubt about her ability to see herself in a “good” yet truthful way. The scenario seems even more remarkable when compared with Ferdinand Bruckner’s play, Der Tod einer Puppe (1956), which consists almost entirely of dialogue, in blank verse, with very few stage directions. The plot, which Tomaszewski follows in rudimentary fashion, revolves around an immensely wealthy widow, Adrienne, who is inhumanly beautiful because, as a result of her mother’s protectiveness, she has never endured the slightest suffering, has never once wept, for tears would destroy her beauty; she inspires love without feeling it. When she falls in love with Paul, an unambitious but charming dilettante, she fears her beauty is not enough to keep him, and she finally sheds tears for all the happiness she has lost. These tears bring about her death. The first part of the play (and the pantomime) occurs at a glamorous fashion show, where Paul and Adrienne discuss her inhuman obsession with beauty and clothes while the models (“mannequins”) confide their anxieties about modeling; the second part takes place in Adrienne’s salon with Adrienne interacting with Paul, the models, fashion executives, aristocratic ladies, Paul, and the ghosts of her mother and former husband. Unlike in ballet and indeed most theater, where people in an ensemble who are not the focus of a scene stand or sit still while the foreground action unfolds, here, as elsewhere in Tomaszewski’s work, characters in the background or at the edge of the stage are as busy as characters in the foreground, because in his mind a foreground action does not somehow cause a background action to cease its indifference to the foreground action or cause a background action to become transformed into rapt fixation on the foreground action. Bruckner’s mirror scene is complex insofar as he has Adrienne give a lengthy monologic commentary on what she sees in the mirror (“What is sorrow against the miracle/of a well-trained body?”) and then has the four models appear, striking poses while commenting satirically on their poses (Bruckner 1956: 98-102). But Tomaszewski’s version of the mirror scene is equally complex in that he expects the ideas Bruckner inscribes through speech to achieve equivalence entirely through gesture, with the result, however, of communicating something that is not in the play: that one’s response to one’s mirror image is viscerally fragmented, a kind of disintegration of language, as the language of the scenario suggests (amplified even further by the very messy handwritten autograph copy of the scenario), rather than a poetic distillation of language. It is an excellent, postwar example of pantomimic thinking, of thinking out a sequence of actions that narrate a character’s dynamic relation to an “environment,” not, as in dance, as a sequence of regulating steps and movements to prevent visceral fragmentation, and not, as in so much mime, as a sequence of gestures designed to display the performer’s skill at evoking what is not visible.
Henryk Tomaszewski was the most ambitious creator of pantomimes in the Cold War era. He produced pantomimes on a larger scale than any one else, he produced more large-scale pantomimes than anyone else, he produced them over a longer period, thirty years, than anyone else, and, in relation to the content of his pantomimes over the decades, he probably invested pantomime with a greater seriousness than anyone else. He established the Wroclaw Pantomime Theater, possibly the longest living professional pantomime ensemble, which continues to thrive well after his death. The ensemble regularly toured throughout Europe and occasionally in North America, so a considerable international audience witnessed the magnitude and seriousness of his achievement in pantomime (Smużniak 1985: 70-81). His work and teachings provoked intense admiration and inspiration, not only within the international pantomime world, but within the general European theater culture, for many prominent actors and stage directors were his students. Yet his achievement was utterly unique; no other country created such a large professional pantomime company with such a consistently serious agenda. It is true that Tomaszewski had access to theatrical resources that were unimaginable to pantomime artists anywhere else. But the Polish government chose to invest in his pantomime aesthetic as an art that could achieve superior expression in a socialist society, just as the government subsidized the famous “avant-garde” Theater Laboratory, also in Wroclaw, established by Jerzy Grotowski and the experimental Cricot 2 Theater formed by Tadeusz Kantor (1915-1990) in Cracow. Pantomime was a useful instrument in the government’s Cold War cultural program for demonstrating the power of artists under socialism. It was, indeed, a matter of supporting the artist rather than the art. In relation to speechless performance, the rest of the East bloc preferred to invest in ballet and folk dance ensembles, relegating pantomime to the circus. Similarly, in the West, cultural policy almost entirely favored investment in ballet and modern dance, with pantomime relegated to the marginalized, individualistic, therapeutic studios of the mime culture or, as in The Netherlands, transformed into a technocratic “movement theater.” Tomaszewski may have influenced late twentieth century ballet to become less rigid in its use of movement, and he certainly contributed to the greater physicalization of spoken drama performance, especially of “classic” plays, as did Grotowski. But his success was unable to create a strong institutional base for pantomime anywhere else, and it was not the Cold War that prevented pantomime from finding secure “homes” within national cultures. As an art, pantomime was too messy, too “undisciplined,” too unreliable to have a home capable of sustaining at least a mediocre level of entertainment worthy of a complex theater apparatus with an expensive payroll of performers and staff. Public investment in pantomime attached itself to powerful, charismatic “visionaries” like Tomaszewski. But in the Cold War he was alone in possessing a pantomimic imagination strong enough to mobilize a state to encourage and protect his grandiose ambitions.