This year at Wolności Square, we would like to restore your faith in the power of humour: humour beyond politics and opinion journalism. We will present humour that is absurd, and sometimes sentimental or reflective, to revive the forgotten art of literary cabaret, featuring sketches, songs and live music.
These days, the word “cabaret” evokes associations with popular entertainment on television and the atmosphere of a funfair. Nonetheless, for the past few years, a number of younger artists in Poland have been attempting to reclaim cabaret for the more discerning audience by revisiting the interwar and the socialist period, when cabaret was a seditious and formally sophisticated art combining poetry with carnival-like features and reflections on the current situation. This goes further back to 1905, when students of the Academy of Fine Arts in Kraków, following lengthy negotiations with Jan Apolinary Michalik, the owner of Cukiernia Lwowska (Lviv Confectionery, better known as Jama Michalikowa, one of Kraków’s most renowned and still existing cafés), decorated the establishment’s dark interiors with murals and cartoons, and founded within its walls Zielony Balonik (Green Balloon), the first literary cabaret in Poland. This lively bohemian club witnessed the early careers of Juliusz Osterwa, the future director of Warsaw’s Reduta Theatre, and Leon Schiller, the originator of the monumental theatre concept, who at the time, was still at secondary school. One of the cofounders and active members of the Balloon was Tadeusz Boy-Żeleński whose famous work Słówka (A Word or Two) is, to a great extent, a collection of the scripts used by cabaret. Boy-Żeleński and the other Balloon authors did not support the mythos of the artist as the high priest of art, promoted at the time by members of the Young Poland movement, but instead, saw artists as jesters and satirists. The performances at Jama Michalikowa featured songs and poems, as well as parodies of paintings and plays, which ridiculed the conservative upper classes of Kraków and Galicia, and the pompousness of Young Polish literature. Very often, puppets were used to make fun of prominent Cracovians, and to personify literary trends or social phenomena. In Warsaw, a new page in the history of Polish cabaret was written at café Pod Picadorem (1918–1919). Decorated by Polish avantgarde painters, the Formists, Pod Picadorem was the meeting place of Futurist poets, as well as Julian Tuwim, Antoni Słonimski and Jan Lechoń, who would go on to form the Skamander group. The artists would read their poetry, in addition to political and anti middleclass satires. Regular patrons included the writers Stefan Żeromski, Bolesław Leśmian and Leopold Staff. The venue was short-lived, but Tuwim, Słonimski and Lechoń continued to write for the new cabarets which began proliferating in Warsaw. Their satirical texts determined the status of the particular venues, among which the most famous was Qui pro Quo (1919–1932). Whilst providing entertainment to the urban intelligentsia, the poets contributed to the emerging popular culture.
Literary cabaret traditions were continued after World War II under the soviet rule. A famous satirist was the poet Konstanty Ildefons Gałczyński. Critics and readers were often shocked by his writings, accusing him of disrespecting what the nation held sacred or of simply producing nonsense. Published initially in instalments by the weekly magazine Przekrój, his texts were soon successfully adapted to the stage by the comedienne Irena Kwiatkowska. In 1958, Polish national television aired the first episode of Kabaret Starszych Panów (Elderly Gentlemen’s Cabaret) created by Jeremi Przybora and Jerzy Wasowski. It featured several famous Polish actors, inLiterary cabaret traditions were continued after World War II under the soviet rule. A famous satirist was the poet Konstanty Ildefons Gałczyński. Critics and readers were often shocked by his writings, accusing him of disrespecting what the nation held sacred or of simply producing nonsense. Published initially in instalments by the weekly magazine Przekrój, his texts were soon successfully adapted to the stage by the comedienne Irena Kwiatkowska. In 1958, Polish national television aired the first episode of Kabaret Starszych Panów (Elderly Gentlemen’s Cabaret) created by Jeremi Przybora and Jerzy Wasowski. It featured several famous Polish actors, including the aforementioned Irena Kwiatkowska, as well as Barbara Krafftówna, Bohdan Łazuka and the seductive Kalina Jędrusik. Apparently, the poet Stanisław Barańczak was of the opinion that the refined and witty Elderly Gentlemen helped millions of people survive the several dark decades of the pure nonsense that was communist reality. Other renowned cabarets of the time included Edward Dziewoński’s Dudek in Warsaw, Piwnica pod Baranami in Krakow or Gdańsk’s Bim-Bom, a famous student theatre founded by Zbigniew Cybulski, Bogumił Kobiela, Jacek Fedorowicz and Jerzy Afansajew. Another famous cabaret from Warsaw was STS, whose contributor was the young poet Agnieszka Osiecka.
Drawing from the traditions of the Interbellum and socialist era literary cabaret, the two most prominent present-day projects that preserve the spirit of this type of cabaret are Michał Walczk’s Pożar w Burdelu (Fire at the Brothel) and Fabularny przewodnik po… (A Fictionalised Guide to…) led by Michał Sufin and Błażej Staryszak. Performing at clubs, basements, theatres, museums and art galleries, in addition to various theatre and music festivals, they reprocess the past, paraphrase it and revive it in a new sociocultural context. Their premieres enjoy the status of major social and artistic events, and are attended by hundreds of viewers: from hipsters, to celebrities, to politicians. “When we were starting, the word ‘cabaret’ didn’t have a good undertone. That’s why we called ourselves a theatre. But cabaret hails from experimenting. It was a meeting place for avantgarde writers (especially poets), actors, musicians, journalists and painters. It was a bold, interesting and inspiring venue,” says Michał Sufin, the co-owner of Klub Komediowy (Comedy Club), cofounder of Teatr Improwizowany Klancyk (Klancyk Improvised Theatre) and coauthor of the cabaret script Fabularny przewodnik po...
The interwar cabaret concepts emerged in cafés like Jama Michalikowa, Pod Picadorem and Mała Ziemiańska, which at the time, fulfilled the role of social and intellectual (as well as gossip exchange) salons. Today, the renaissance of cabaret is also related to the coffeehouse boom. Pożar w Burdelu and Teatr Improwizowany Klancyk, for example, performed at the café Chłodna 25 in Warsaw, before Michał Sufin convinced several friends to open Klub Komediowy. The club has been operating for two years at Nowowiejska Street, and consists of two storeys. On the ground floor is a coffee house, and in the basement a bar and stage which presents various forms of alternative comedy acts. These are populated by Polish cabaret traditions, as well as by stand-up comedy hailing from the Englishspeaking world.
Stand-up is an apparently simple art. It does not require complex stage sets, precise scripts or meticulous direction. A stand-up comedian performs a seemingly improvised monologue which involves telling the audience some funny stories. Rather than theatrical perfectionism, this relies on the comedian’s personality, involvement and ability to hold the viewers’ attention. Consequently, nothing is sacred in the stand-up scene, and no one bothers with political correctness. Moreover, there are audiences who enjoy crazy improvisations in the spirit of the Theatre of the Absurd, and ones who prefer quick socio-political humour.
In Poland, stand-up is still in its infancy, but in the United States or the United Kingdom, this type of comedy has existed for many decis acceptance. Any actors who join in an improvisation have to accept what is already there. They cannot reject the previous proposals, so their job is to contribute their own ideas to enhance a scene. This is the basic operating principle and plot development device in improvisational theatre. The third rule is spontaneity or “immersion in a moment”, the clearing of the mind. Acting on an impro stage resembles a game of ping pong where failure to respond quickly makes a move ineffective. The last major principle which guides improvisational theatre is audience involvement: viewers often decide about the “who, what and when”. They are asked, for example, to provide background noise or to suggest the settings for the unfolding narrative. In Poland, there are several impro theatres. The most famous one is Teatr Improwizowany Klancyk. Its most distinctive feature is its members’ abstract sense of humour. Author and journalist Agnieszka Drotkiewicz gave the following account in the magazine Wysokie Obcasy of her first encounter with the company: “How would one describe their sense humour? It does not flatter, but it does sparkle with connotations. The words ‘still water’ and ‘watch out!’ seem quite fitting. The keywords are ‘labyrinths’ and ‘fireworks of wit’. There are also elements of melancholy; I remember the description of one of the characters: ‘Sometimes he thinks he is a derelict Orthodox church.’ … Klancyk achieves a fantastic effect using a minimum of external devices and remaining on the antipodes of spectacular aesthetics. They do not even have a hat, but manage to pull out much better things than rabbits – they can play anything: a person of any age, animals, root vegetables, the planet Saturn or a toaster.”
Teatr Improwizowany Klancyk, Klub Komediowy with their Przewodnik po ostatnich pożegnaniach (A Guide to Last Goodbyes), Teatr Dramatyczny w Wałbrzychu with Jacek Kozłowski’s stand-up act and Teatr Narodowy w Warszawie invite us to the Malta Stage in Wolności Square to experience a wild play on literary images. We will encounter Bahdaj’s Boy and the slightly rotten Atmosphere of Leśmian’s poetry; we will hear a digressive poem improvised live; the poetry, prose and sketches of Konstanty Ildefons Gałczyński performed to music; and finally the legendary words, “I love you, Mr Sułek,” a punch line that solves all the ills of the world.