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Kazimierz Dejmek Polish Actor , Director and Minister of Culture (April 17, 1924-December 31, 2002)
By Monika Mokrzycka

Born on April 17, 1924, in the town of Kowlo. Polish actor and highly renowned theatre director. Died on December 31, 2002, in Warsaw.

Before World War II, Kazimierz Dejmek attended middle school in Rzeszow. He joined the Peasants' Party during the war and in 1943 became a member of the Peasants' Party Special Units. As such, he was assigned to a guerilla outfit of the Home Army. Demobilized one year later, he re-enrolled in middle school. At around the same time he joined the Teatr Ziemi Rzeszowskiej (Rzeszow Region Theatre) where he debuted as an actor in the role of Jasiek (Johnny) in Stanislaw Wyspianski's WESELE ("The Wedding"). Between 1945 and 1949 he was an actor with theatres in Jelenia Gora and Lodz. In 1946 Leon Schiller invited him to join the company of the Lodz-based Polish Army Theatre. It was at this time that he passed the exams for the third-ever course organized by the State Higher School of Theatre in Lodz. He audited courses at the school and continued to perform. In 1949, working with Janusz Warminski and the GRUPA MLODYCH AKTOROW ("Young Actors' Group"), Dejmek organized a series of workshops during which those assembled worked on learning the Stanislavsky acting method. It was this group that went on to create the Teatr Nowy (New Theatre) in Lodz. The theatre was initially group-managed and in November of 1949 presented its first jointly directed premiere, a production of a Czech repertory play by Vasek Kana titled BRYGADA SZLIFIERZA KARHANA ("Grinder Karhan's Work Brigade"). At this time, beginning with the January 1949 convention of the Polish Association of Writers held in the city of Szczecin, Socialist Realism became the governing aesthetic doctrine.

In 1950 Dejmek assumed the position of managing and artistic director of the New Theatre in Lodz and abandoned acting as a profession. He remained the theatre's director until 1962. In 1951 he debuted as an independent stage director with a production of Anton Makarenko's POEMAT PEDAGOGICZNY ("Epic Pedagogical Poem"). At the time, Dejmek continued to assemble a troupe for the New Theatre in Lodz, simultaneously directing productions that possessed a political dimension and sought to shape social perceptions. He became the favored stage director those who held power in Poland. The New Theatre became a socially engaged institution with productions that drew on the reigning dogma and participated in the battle for a new Socialist Realist reality. As Dejmek once recalled, "We built our theatre and we fought for Socialism as we understood it, and this lasted for upwards of one year. Only after this time did we realize that the combat uniforms we had donned to battle the old world in favor of the new were not combat uniforms but servant's liveries" (W. Zwinogrodzka, "Dejmka cena wiernosci" / "The Price of Dejmek's Loyalty", "Gazeta Wyborcza", January 19, 1994).

In 1954 he mounted a production of Vladimir Mayakovsky's LAZNIA / THE BATHHOUSE, creating a staging in which the social didacticism of the play was strongly tainted by an undertone of the grotesque. With this project, he began a period of settling accounts, however, this "'settling of accounts' - (...) in Dejmek's case was, in spite of everything, calmer, less dramatic in tone: both in terms of self-evaluation and in the accusations he directed against society" (M. Fik, "Dejmek i losy pokolenia" / "Dejmek and the Fate of a Generation", "Dialog" /"Dialogue", no. 2, 1989). Following the end of the post-Stalinist thaw he directed SWIETO WINKELRIDA / WINKELRID'S DAY by Andrzejewski / Zagorski (1956). This production seemed born of pure anger: it offered ironic commentaries on reality and was replete with operetta-like gags that at times made the staging appear to be a lampoon. With his subsequent productions, Dejmek made breakthroughs in style. These included the ascetic CIEMNOSCI KRYJA ZIEMIE / DARKNESS COVERS THE EARTH by Jerzy Andrzejewski (1957), the sole contemporary text that the director took on around this time, and the morality play ZYWOT JOZEFA Z POKOLENIA ZYDOWSKIEGO / THE LIFE OF JOSEPH FROM THE JEWISH GENERATION by Mikolaj Rej (1958). The latter was the first production to restore early Polish drama to the contemporary Polish stage. The staging was replete with philosophical generalizations and experience drawn directly from everyday life. The production was working-class in tone; the acting was "aggressive, concise, at times imitative in its gestures to illustrations known from early editions of the works of Terence. The entirety was light and jocular though simultaneously free of mockery about the text or early theatre. On the contrary, it was apparent that the staging was the work of a director deeply rooted in. (...) The production included moments that were simply captivating. Dejmek's aesthetic remained recognizable and independent of the message he sought to convey. The feeling of cultural continuity in the production seemed instinctual, not at all drawn from books but deriving from the creator's own convictions. Dejmek visibly enjoyed the wisdom and charm of older dramatic works but succeeded in avoiding the affectation that this could have elicited" (Z. Raszewski, "Dejmek", "Pamietnik Teatralny" / "Dejmek", "A Theatrical Memoir", 1981, vols. 3-4).

At this time Dejmek outright ignored contemporary drama, both that hailing from the West and that written in Poland. The theatre's repertoire drew heavily on Polish theatre tradition and included the first post-war premieres of Zygmunt Krasinski's NIE-BOSKA KOMEDIA /UN-DIVINE COMEDY, directed by Bogdan Korzeniewski (1959), and AKROPOLIS / ACROPOLIS (1959) and NOC LISTOPADOWA / NOVEMBER NIGHT (1956), both by Stanislaw Wyspianski and both directed by Dejmek. November Night was clearly another reckoning; though a period piece, the production spoke to contemporary issues. This was also Dejmek's approach to BARBARA RADZIWILLOWNA by Alojzy Felinski (1958), a new version of which he produced later at the National Theatre (1962). Between 1954 and 1961 the New Theatre in Lodz mounted 46 premieres and acquired the reputation of being "the theatre of a generation."

In 1962 Dejmek became the managing director of the National Theatre in Warsaw. He sought to create a national theatre in the full sense of the term, based on the grand Polish repertoire. He was no stranger to Schiller's ideas of a popular, socially engaged, monumental theatre. Dejmek also assigned tremendous significance to the honesty of theatre craft. Many years later, when asked about the Schillerian tradition in the theatre, Dejmek would answer: "Directing and acting razzmatazz will never replace literature, which is the source and foundation of European theatre. (...) Although I feel uneasy and am not entirely free of catastrophic visions of the future, I nevertheless believe that once we extract ourselves from this oppression, once Man has defeated computers and put them in their place, we will revert to the ideas of Leon Schiller. The concept of transcendence, understanding for both the poverty and grandness of humankind, the dream of social equality, chivalrous and sensitive service to Beauty, Good, and Truth - these essential ingredients of his theatrical philosophy are boring to us today and amuse us because they seem old-fashioned" (A. Wanat, "O Leonie Schillerze. Rozmowa z K. Dejmkiem" / "On Leon Schiller - An Interview with K. Dejmek", "Teatr" / "Theatre" magazine, 1994, no. 3).

At the National Theatre, Dejmek created variations on his Lodz productions. These included HISTORYJA O CHWALEBNYM ZMARTWYCHWSTANIU PANSKIM / THE STORY OF THE GLORIOUS RISING OF THE LORD by Mikolaj of Wilkowiecko (Lodz variation, 1961; Warsaw variation, 1962) and ZYWOT JOZEFA / THE LIFE OF JOSEPH (1965). Andrzej Stopka designed the scenery for both productions. THE STORY... was "a special production, well-disposed to Christian beliefs, expressing them in about the same way they are expressed in the Highlander carol. This way is acceptable to all, it offends no one, initiates no debates; it is a way that is wonderfully indifferent to all that occurs outside the theatre. If, in spite of this, the 'Historyja' was viewed as a protest, this was not as a function of the story it told, but rather of the mood the production evoked, a mood clearly contradictory to the mood of the times" (Z. Raszewski, "Dejmek", "Pamietnik Teatralny" / "Dejmek", "A Theatrical Memoir", 1981, vols. 3-4).

In the 1960s Dejmek shifted his focus to the great Romantic repertoire. He first directed Juliusz Slowacki's KORDIAN (1965) and followed this up with a production of DZIADY / FOREFATHER'S EVE by Adam Mickiewicz (1967), casting renowned Polish actor Gustaw Holoubek in the role of Gustav-Konrad. "His staging of 'Forefather's Eve' was loyal to Mickiewicz's original. Dejmek dutifully followed the author's sociological and metaphysical philosophies, though he embellished these with a highly personal interpretation" (Z. Raszewski, "Dejmek", Pamietnik Teatralny / Dejmek - A Theatrical Diary, 1981, vol. 3-4).

The production, poorly received by the Central Committee of the Polish Communist Party, was finally shut down following its fourteenth performance, on January 30, 1968. A series of accusations were leveled against it; these included its "anti-Russian" and "anti-Soviet" coloring and its sympathetic stance towards religion. Public protests ensued. "Our actions," recalls Malgorzata Dziewulska, a participant of those events, "were nothing out of the ordinary, were simply the reaction of young people subjected to the tremendous pressure of the historical moment, to yet another instance of censorship in the theatre world" ("O 'Dziadach' Dejmka" / "On Dejmek's 'Forefather's Eve'", "Teatr" / "Theatre monthly", 1999, no. 5).

Contrary to the artist's intentions, the staging became a political fact, only slightly preceding the political turmoil of March 1968. Dejmek was thrown out of the Polish Communist Party and subsequently stripped of his position at the National Theatre.

Prior to leaving Poland, he was able to direct two plays at the Teatr Ateneum (Athenaeum Theatre) in Warsaw: Anton Chekhov's Uncle Vanya (1968) and Dialogus de passione, a production compiled from early 17th century Polish texts. The latter production did not pass inspection by censors and was not seen by an audience at this time.

Between 1969 and 1973, Dejmek he directed productions at, among others, the Burghtheater in Vienna, the Piccolo Teatro in Milan, and the Serbsko Narodno Pozorište in Novy Sad.

Once again in Poland, during the 1973/74 season, he directed at the Teatr Dramatyczny (Dramatic Theatre) in Warsaw. In 1975 he was once again appointed artistic director of the New Theatre in Lodz. "Dejmek's return to Lodz was not a return to the past. It opened an entirely new stage in his career, the beginnings of which probably dated back to the work he did immediately after the events of March 1968. The first and most noticeable difference lay in the repertoire: a dominance of contemporary drama, and those classics that did make it into the program - the exceptional success of Dialogus (1977) exempt - were primarily 20th century plays" (M. Fik, "Dejmek i losy pokolenia" / "Dejmek and the Fate of a Generation", "Dialog" / "Dialogue" monthly, 1989, no. 2).

In 1975 Dejmek directed Witold Gombrowicz's OPERETKA / OPERETTA, creating a precise and visionary production in which "Europe came alive before our eyes," wrote Zbigniew Raszewski. "Ever glorious, Europe seems to be fraying at the edges. Arias and ensemble pieces, consistently staged in the style of Viennese operetta, evoked a mood of naive cheer. The string of events and dialogues emanated something slippery, loathsome, and these elements were combined into a perfect harmony" (Z. Raszewski, "Dejmek", "Pamietnik Teatralny" / "Dejmek", "A Theatrical Diary", 1981, vols. 3-4).

Dejmek pursued his interest in early Polish drama and biblical themes in a production of a 17th century French liturgical drama titled GRA O HERODZIE / A PLAY ON HEROD (1974), created with the ensemble of the Warsaw Chamber Opera. He also mounted a third staging of DIALOGUS DE PASSIONE albo ZALOSNEJ TRAGEDYI O MECE JEZUSA / DIALOGUES DE PASSIONE OR THE TERRIBLE TRAGEDY OF THE SUFFERING OF JESUS (1975, 2nd version - 1977). Following the premiere at Warsaw's Athenaeum Theatre that did not pass muster with censors, Dejmek had staged the work at the Piccolo Teatro in Milan (1971). On the stage in Lodz, "we observed the entirety being performed by a troupe of actors in a far-away time, who dare not re-enact the suffering of the Savior, so they use a figure, or rather a sequence of wooden sculptures carved to suit the situations in which they appear. (...) The dramatic factor is Man, or more specifically people, as characters range from manifesting extreme goodness to performing acts of extreme evil" (Z. Raszewski, "Dejmek", "Pamietnik Teatralny" / "Dejmek", "A Theatrical Diary", 1981, vols. 3-4).

He was interested in problems of contemporary morality and this interest was confirmed in his stagings of two contemporary Polish plays: GARBUS / THE HUNCHBACK (1975) and VATZLAV (1979), both by Slawomir Mrozek. His reflections on the essence of the historical process found expression in a staging of Adolf Nowaczynski's WIELKI FRYDERYK / THE GREAT FREDERICK (1977), while he explored his ideas on personal responsibility in PATNA, after LORD JIM by Joseph Conrad (1976). The director also took on social issues in a musical by Mlynarski and Malecki based on Szwarc's CIEN / THE SHADOW (1977). In the Small Auditorium of the theatre in Lodz, Dejmek directed an intimate production of Zbigniew Herbert's SIODMY ANIOL / SEVENTH ANGEL (1974) and Plato's OBRONA SOKRATESA / THE DEFENSE OF SOCRATES (1975). "My choice of repertoire," said the director, "is my attempt at speaking to the public about morality and moral order. It seems to me that in the face of savagery and boorish behavior, lack of respect for others and ourselves (...), in the face of double moral standards, issues of individual ethics, civic ethics, have become extremely important in political theatre today. (...) Actors must in essence learn to speak, and audiences must in essence learn to listen" ("Bezradność teatru" / "The Helplessness of Theatre", "Student", no. 21, 1978). At this time, Dejmek worked with a range of scenery designers, Zenobiusz Strzelecki and Andrzej Majewski chief among them.

In 1981 Dejmek became a member of the Solidarity Labor Union for a few days but left its ranks almost immediately. During Martial Law he defended those colleagues who faced discrimination, but at the same time openly condemned the actors' boycott of television and the new Union of Polish Stage Artists. Though he never himself broke the boycott, his conflict with the acting community strengthened with time. In 1981 he became the managing and artistic director of the Teatr Polski (Polish Theatre) in Warsaw. There, he focused on interpreting the plays of Slawomir Mrozek, above all highlighting their historical, philosophical and political dimensions. The Polish Theatre was the site of the world premieres of AMBASADOR / THE AMBASSADOR (1981), LETNI DOM / SUMMER HOME (1984), KONTRAKT / THE CONTRACT (1986) and PORTRET / THE PORTRAIT (1987). Dejmek also revisited the classics. In 1982 he staged Stanislaw Wyspianski's WYZWOLENIE / LIBERATION. "Through the power of extreme paradox, this production, which essentially questions the vast majority of the values held by audience members at the time, which is against the intelligentsia to a greater degree than any and all of his erstwhile Brigades, will be read by viewers as a radical expression of their own views and as openly encouraging of their feelings" (M. Fik, "Dejmek i losy pokolenia" / "Dejmek and the Fate of a Generation", "Dialog" / "Dialogue" monthly, 1989, no. 2)

In 1988 Kazimierz Dejmek was elected chairman of the Union of Polish Stage Artists. Between 1993 and 1996 he was Minister of Culture under Prime Minister Waldemar Pawlak.

After years of being away, he returned to the New Theatre in Lodz, where he directed Tadeusz Slobodzianek's contemporary piece SEN PLUSKWY / THE BEDBUG'S DREAM (2001). He passed away a handful of weeks before the premiere of his newest production, a staging of William Shakespeare's HAMLET.

Important awards and distinctions:

1952 - Banner of Labor Medal 2nd Class
1955 - Medal of the 10th Anniversary of the Polish People's Republic
1955 - Officer's Cross of the Order of the Restoration of Poland
1955 - State Award 2nd class for artistic activities at the New Theatre in Lodz
1959 - Commander's Cross of the Order of the Restoration of Poland
1967 - Millennium Badge
1976 - Award of the Department of Culture and Art of the City of Lodz for outstanding achievements in the realm of culture and art
1978 - Herder Prize for contributions to European culture
1981 - Cultural Activist of Merit
1981 - Award of the Minister of Culture and Art 1st class for lifetime artistic achievement as a stage director
1984 - Medal of the 40th Anniversary of the Polish People's Republic
1984 - State Award 1st class for outstanding achievements as a theatre director and stage artist in the production of contemporary Polish dramas
1984 - Honorary Diploma on the 35th anniversary of the International Theatre Institute (ITI) and the 25th anniversary of its Polish branch, in recognition of outstanding achievement in popularizing Polish theatre arts throughout the world
1987 - National Culture Award of Merit
1989 - Great Cross of the Order of the Restoration of Poland
1993 - Kowadlo / Anvil Award - award of the Krakow-based "Kuźnica" ("Smithery") for outstanding contributions to the development of the theatrical arts
1993 - Honorary Emblem of the Association of Stage Authors and Composers - ZaiKS (awarded in celebration of the organization's 75th anniversary)
2000 - Honorary Citizen of the City of Lodz
2002 - Honorary Doctorate of the University of Lodz


Source: © Copyright by Adam Mickiewicz Institute

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