Erwin Axer (1917–2012)

Theatre Institute in Warsaw

Theatre director, pedagogue, writer, general manager of the Contemporary Theatre in Warsaw (1949–1981) and the National Theatre (1954–1957).

1. Vienna (1917–1920)
The ancestors of the Axer family came from Latvia to Galicia in the early nineteenth century. Polish science, cultural and political life developed freely at that time in the liberal Austrian partition. Maurycy Axer (1886-1942) – Erwin’s father, prominent lawyer was born in Przemyśl. During the World War I he was an officer in the Austro-Hungarian army and for four years he fought on the Russian, Italian and Albanian front. Erwin’s mother, Fryderyka Ernesytna née Schuster (1894-1982) was born in Kołomyja, in a rich bourgeoisie family. She spent her childhood in Drohobych and Lvov. In 1014 she moved to Vienna. Maurycy and Fryderyka met in Lvov but they got married in Vienna on February 20th, 1916. Their first son, Erwin Axer was born on January 1st, 1917 in Vienna, as a subject of the Austro-Hungarian Empire. His brother Henryk, the second son of the Axer family was born on November 28th, 1918. The boys were brought up by the governess. Their first language was German. The Axer family used to spend the summer months in Baden, a resort near Vienna. This place was particularly associated with Erwin’s first theatrical memories, because there he used to visit a puppet theatre, Kasperletheater – an Austrian folk theatre. 
2. Lvov (1920–1935)
The Axer family returned to Poland in mid 1920. The father rented an apartment in the centre of Lvov and he opened there a law office. In a short time became one of the most famous lawyers, a defender in criminal cases, among others in a famous Gorgonowa case, who was accused of the murder of the daughter of her cohabitant. Erwin Axer spent his childhood and youth in Lvov, one of the largest cities of the Second Polish Republic. The multi-ethnic city, situated between the West and the Orient, where the representatives of many nations and religions lived together in full symbiosis promoted the climate of tolerance and respect for cultural differences. The atmosphere of Lvov would remain a constant point of reference in a future life of Erwin Axer. Maurycy Axer was a legal advisor to the municipal theatre in Lvov. Wilam Horzyca (1889-1959) and Leon Schiller (1887-1954), the prominent theatre directors, precursors of the Polish Monumental Theatre, often frequented his house. Erwin Axer met them personally; in the first half of the thirties he was regularly attending the Lvov stagings of Horzyca and Schiller. Thanks to this fascination he finally made the decision about the choice of his future profession. 
3. Studies at the State Institute of Theatre Arts (1935–1939). Leon Schiller’s student
Leon Schiller was also "the king" at the Directing Department of the State Institute of Theatre Arts in Warsaw. In October 1935 Erwin Axer became the youngest student ever at the Directing Department. It happened thanks to the favouritism of Schiller, who repealed a regulation, according to which only the graduate students were allowed to study at the Institute. Erwin Axer became his student and he graduated from the Institute in 1939. While studying at the Institute, he was Schiller’s assistant during the production of "Coriolanus" by William Shakespeare (1936) and "Fiesco" by Friedrich Schiller (1937) at the Grand Theatre in Lvov (1936), as well as "Our Town" by Thornton Wilder (1939) at the National Theatre in Warsaw. Under the supervision of Schiller he also directed his workshop performances at the Institute, among others the fragments of "The Tidings Brought to Mary by Paul Claudel" (1938) and "Miss Julie" by August Strindberg (1939) at the New Theatre (the scene of the National Theatre). The influence of Schiller eventually formed Axer, although the theatre practiced by a young director differed from the Schiller’s theatre. Axer was not interested in great stagings of the romantic and neo-romantic works, on which his professor based his idea of the monumental theatre. Schiller, however, practiced various genres of theatre. During the period of his work at the Institute he also dealt with the style called neo-realism or structural realism, which was based on a chamber formula and quite similar to the idea of Axer’s theatrical search. In 1948 Erwin Axer published on the pages of “Kuźnica” (a socio-literary weekly) "The conversation about theatre" – a polemic with Leon Schiller, in which he supported the idea of chamber theatre, in contrast to the Schiller’s idea of monumental theatre. He rejected the staging and pageantry, preferring unobtrusive directing, focused on deep interpretation of the text, on the extraction of its meaning and on the psychological analysis of characters of a drama. In 1956 Axer undertook a polemic in practice. In 1930 he watched the monumental vision of "Kordian" by Juliusz Słowacki, staged by Schiller in the theatre in Lvov. After many years he decided to stage the same drama in the spirit of chamberism, at the National Theatre. Whereas In 1957, he directed Our Town by Wilder at the Contemporary Theatre, clearly paying homage to Schiller and indicating the sources of his artistic inspiration.
4. World War II (1939–1945)
In September 1939 Erwin Axer was about to become the assistant director at the National Theatre, but the outbreak of World War II thwarted his plans. He returned to Lvov, which was occupied by the Soviet troops and where the Polish theatre operated until 1941. He worked on organizing the library and assisted Bronisław Dąbrowski at the preparations for the premiere of "The Morality of Mrs Dulska" by Gabriela Zapolska. He got also employed on a third category position as an actor and he was playing some minor roles. In 1940 he was the assistant of Władysław Krasnowiecki, who directed "The Revenge" by Aleksander Fredro. On May 28th, 1941 Erwin Axer debuted as a theatre director with "Miss Maliczewska" by Gabriela Zapolska. In June 1941 Germany declared war on the Soviet Union and in July the Germans announced a forced labour decree for the residents of the city. Therefore, at the end of the 1940/1941 season Axer left the theatre in Lvov and started working in local automobile repair shops as an automotive refinisher. At the same time he moonlighted as a locksmith. On September 1st, 1942 the Germans arrested Maurycy Axer. He never came back home. The persecution of Jews intensified. At the end of the year Erwin Axer escaped to Warsaw, where he previously had sent his mother. Henryk Axer stayed in Lvov and he was killed there in late autumn of 1943. Between 1942 and 1944 Erwin Axer was hiding in Warsaw, under the false name Walery Gomulski. He joined the army, got assigned to the Military-Sapper Technical Assistance and took part in the Warsaw Uprising. He took part in the attack on the Gdańsk Station. After the capitulation of Warsaw he was taken to the Stalag No 11A near Magdeburg, where he stayed until the liberation of the camp by the Americans. In July 1945 he came back to Łódź, which became a temporary capital because Warsaw was completely destroyed.
5. Łódź, the Studio Theatre (1945–1949)
Life started to thrive again in Łódź. Old palaces, formerly owned by industrialists, were transformed into state offices and institutions, various schools were opened, fresh newspapers were published, and a film production company was established. Łódź was also a centre for the contemporary intelligentsia. Theatres sprung to life, one after another. In mid 1945 Michał Melina (1890-1956), with a group of actors, took over a small scene, which previously hosted artistic groups performing under the patronage of the Polish Army and he established there the Studio Theatre of the Soldier’s House. Since the artistic season 1945/1956 Erwin Axer was appointed one of the deputy directors. In the second year of its operation the theatre formulated the ideological program: “The most important goal of the theatre is finding the artistic expression for the currently changing reality […] The directors of this theatre believe that redesigning and rethinking the contemporary dramas, as well as on those created within the last 50 years should contribute to the development of theatre arts […]. Further attempts to formulate the realistic style, different from the psychological naturalism […] will be continued.” This style was noticeable mostly as far as the acting was concerned. The exceptional feature of the artistic team of the Studio Theatre was the natural manner of speech, free from any pathos, similar to the style of Italian neo-realistic films from that period. It was no coincidence that the leading actors of the Studio Theatre, first of all Danuta Szaflarska, were at the same time very successful in the film industry. The repertoire consisted mostly of the contemporary English-language literature. Among the greatest successes of the young theatre were the following performances: "The Glass Menagerie" by Tennessee Williams (1947), "Joan of Lorraine" by Maxwell Anderson and "The Winslow Boy" by Terence Rattigan (1948), as well as one French drama, i.e. "Amphitryon 38" by Jean Giraudoux (1947). Erwin Axer directed all the above-mentioned dramas. “When I worked in the theatre in Łódź, chamberism was both the choice and the necessity. Chamberism was my passion then. I was interested in the theatre, which was based on literature. The theatre, in which the history and political, philosophical, religious or social issues were reflected in the interpersonal conflicts” – said Erwin Axer many years later. The theatre quickly became renowned and recognized as one of the most interesting Polish theatres. In autumn 1949 Włodzimierz Sokorski, Minister of Culture and Art decided to relocate the whole artistic team of the Studio Theatre to Warsaw.
6. In the shadow of socialist realism. The Contemporary Theatre (1949–1956)
In the capital, the artistic team of the Studio Theatre moved into the previously adapted parish hall of the Church of the Holiest Saviour, at 13 Mokotowska Street. The newcomers changed their original name to the Contemporary Theatre, because there already was one Studio Theatre in Warsaw. The general manager of the theatre was Michał Melina; Erwin Axer became the artistic director. Unfortunately, this was not a good period for Western literature, favoured by Erwin Axer. At the writers convention in Szczecin the communist government announced that socialist realism would henceforth be the obligatory style in art. Any deviation from the doctrine was called formalism, severely criticised and condemned by the authorities. Step by step Stalinism started to interfere in all spheres of life. Therefore the artist director decided to reach for the contemporary Polish repertoire. He was trying to remain neutral. He avoided, as much as he could, staging obligatory performances, yet from time to time he had to pay political tribute. For the inauguration of the theatre Axer chose "The Germans" by Leon Kruczkowski, one of the most famous contemporary dramas, in which the author analysed the phenomenon of Nazism and tried to set the record straight. He also introduced classical dramas, for example, he directed "Twelfth Night" by William Shakespeare, "The Philistines" by Maxim Gorky, and "Mrs Latter’s guesthouse" (Pensja pani Latter) based on "The Suffragists" by Bolesław Prus. The highlight of this period was the premiere of "Mrs Warren's Profession" by George B. Shaw, starring Irena Eichlerówna, directed by Wilam Horzyca, who was constantly persecuted by the Stalinist authorities. These early performances of the Contemporary Theatre were extremely popular among the Warsaw audience; they were played several hundred times. The Contemporary Theatre soon became a recognized place on the cultural map of Warsaw.
7. Bertolt Brecht
In the same year in which in Poland socialist realism was proclaimed, Erwin Axer had the opportunity to watch in Berlin the famous performances of the Berliner Ensemble, directed by Bertolt Brecht  (1898-1956), one of the reformers of twentieth-century theatre. The epic theatre, practiced by Brecht was breaking the illusion, which were characteristic for the realistic and naturalistic drama, although it was not refraining from presenting real life on stage. The effect of alienation, practiced by Brecht's actors helped the audience in keeping the distance towards the life on stage. Brecht had a significant influence on the development of Axer's style as the theatre director. The basis of this style was the ability to comprehend a drama as a structure, which required logical interpretation. In the aesthetics of Brecht, who promoted his communist worldview, Axer sought for a chance of escaping from socialist realism. After the guest performances of the Berliner Ensemble in Poland, in 1952 the controversy between the ideologists and the artists began. Eventually the artists won and soon the Polish theatres became flooded with various interpretations of Brecht’s plays. In 1962, Erwin Axer presented on the stage at Mokotowska Street The "Resistible Rise of Arturo Ui" by Bertolt Brecht. The performance turned out to be a breakthrough in the history of this theatre, as well as a polemic with the original performance previously staged by the Berliner Ensemble. "The gangster story" took the form of a grotesque, with some elements of seriousness and went far beyond the story about Hitler's rise to power. However, this performance would not have been so successful without the leading actor, Tadeusz Łomnicki. “Łomnicki […] proved that even a flaccid clown, if he learns to hop, might become Hitler. The only dignity of a contemporary art lies in demystification. Erwin Axer understood that. And that is why his interpretation of The Resistible Rise of Arturo Ui is not only theatrically faultless. It discloses contemporary acrimony, mostly through the art of acting. That seems to be the biggest achievement of the theatre and the director. And of the artistic team” – wrote Jan Kott, after the premiere of "The Resistible Rise of Arturo Ui". The co-authors of stage design for this performance were Ewa Starowieyska and Konrad Swinarski - Erwin Axer's student.
„The Resistible Rise of Arturo Ui” by Bertolt Brecht, directed by Erwin Axer, cast: Tadeusz Łomnicki, Edward Dziewoński
8. Erwin Axer - the pedagogue (1949–1979)
According to Erwin Axer: “A theatre director is not a profession necessary in the theatre. A theatre director, in fact, is not a profession at all. It is a capability of arranging theatre performance, in which other people often play the creative roles: an author, a stage designer and first of all an actor. If we divide a theatre performance into pieces, what will remain is the art of acting, the stage design, and sometimes a new text. A theatre director will disappear into nothingness.” Axer taught at the Directing Department of the State Higher School of Theatre (with several intermissions) for three decades (1949-1979), influencing the education of several generations of Polish artists. Among his students were: Zygmunt Hübner, Izabella Cywińska, Maciej Prus, Jerzy Grzegorzewski, Helmut Kajzar, Maciej Englert, Ryszard Peryt, Krzysztof Zaleski, Marek Grzesiński and Janusz Wiśniewski. He did not gather around himself followers or imitators however, he repeatedly stressed out that the theatre directing was something impossible to teach. "He did what he thought was possible: he tried to sensitize our eyes and ears to the theatre art, leaving the rest in God's hands, if he ever believed in Him at all" - recalls Krystyna Meissner, his student. Erwin Axer considered Konrad Swinarski (1929-1975) to be the most outstanding graduate of the Directing Department of the post-war State Higher School of Theatre. This one of the most original and most courageous Polish artists went down in history as a creator of the theatre of great passions – collective and individual. Swinarski dealt with Polish Romanticism, Wyspiański and Shakespeare, as well as, in the first phase of his career with Brecht, under the clear influence of his teacher. At the third year of his studies at the Directing Department He staged (together with Przemysław Zieliński), as a workshop, "Señora Carrar's Rifles" by Bertolt Brecht (1954). A year later, thanks to the Axer’s support Swinarski went on the internship to the Berliner Ensemble. After returning, he directed in the Contemporary Theatre (1958). It was his first artistic success.
9. The Thaw in the National Theatre (1954–1957).
After the death of Stalin the period of the Thaw began. In autumn 1954 the Ministry of Culture and Art came up with a strange idea of combining the Contemporary Theatre in Warsaw and the National Theatre into one body. Erwin Axer became the general manager of this new institution. However, after three years he resigned refusing to fulfil the requested political tasks. During these years he directed the most important four premieres of this period. For the inauguration of the new theatre, he chose "Germans" by Leon Kruczkowski (1955), referring to the performance, the premiere of which commenced the history of the Contemporary Theatre in 1949. The leading theme of the performance was the dispute about the moral rights and responsibility of an individual for the history. The stage design was under the clear influence of the aesthetics of Bertolt Brecht. The real shock for the audience turned out to be the premiere of "The Emergency Ward" by Jerzy Lutowski (1955), which touched upon the subject of the Home Army, forbidden and falsely interpreted by the authorities. Ten years after the war and after a long period of Stalinist propaganda Axer undertook the task of rehabilitation of the soldiers of the Polish Underground State. On March 12th, 1956 Bolesław Bierut died in Moscow. The party apparatus began to fight for power and cultural policy was liberalized. Under such circumstances Axer staged "Kordian" by Juliusz Słowacki (the premiere took place on April 21st, 1956) as an apology for the romantic nonconformism. The main character, played by Tadeusz Łomnicki (who was at the age of the Warsaw insurgents) represented the generation of WW II and its sacrifice in the name of liberty. Grand Duke Constantine, played by Jan Kurnakowicz, went down in history as a legend. Along with The Flies by Jean-Paul Sartre the National Theatre started staging contemporary foreign dramas, which represented existentialism. Reinterpretation of the Greek myth of "Orestes" and "Electra" touched upon the subjects of freedom and human loneliness, metaphysical emptiness and the necessity of choice. The French drama, in this interpretation also touched upon the issue of Polish disputes and dilemmas, which the director could now freely discuss on the wave of political changes.
10. The Contemporary Theatre (1956–1968) as a window to the world
After 1956 the Contemporary Theatre became some sort of an unofficial political salon, a meeting place for intelligentsia, a space for a serious discourse with the audience. Leon Schiller often repeated, even before the war, “that we should do our best to maintain a close relationship of Poland and Europe”. This was also the motto of the theatre managed by Erwin Axer, who was very sensitive about new trends in the world drama literature. His taste was the main determinant for while choosing the theatre repertoire. His culture awareness and sensitivity imposed on him some kind of restraint towards a dramatic text, a desire to keep a distance towards presented persons and events and a subordinate role towards an author, a text and an actor, which however did not preclude the possibility of combining styles within the frames of one performance. On January 25th, 1957 the premiere of "Waiting for Godot", directed by Jerzy Kreczmar, took place in the Contemporary Theatre. This avant-garde play, written by Samuel Beckett, an author unknown in Poland at this time, surprised the Warsaw audience with its language and form. Afterwards Axer included into the theatre repertoire also other performances, which he directed; each premiere at Mokotowska Street was regarded as a real event. "Biedermann and the Arsonists" by Max Frisch (1959), "Tango" by Sławomir Mrożek (1965), "The Investigation" by Peter Weiss (1966) represented trends in contemporary drama. Beside contemporary drama Axer was increasingly willing to reach for the classics. He staged "Iphigenia in Tauris" by Johann W. Goethe (1961) and "Three Sisters" by Anton Chekhov (1963). 
„Biedermann and the Arsonists” by Max Frisch, directed by Erwin Axer, cast: Andrzej Łapicki, Barbara Wrzesińska, Stanisław Daczyński
11. The team of the Contemporary Theatre
The Contemporary Theatre, in its golden age, had one of the best artistic teams in Poland. The first actors were employed still in Łódź. The merger of two theatres – the Contemporary Theatre and the National Theatre (1954-1957) after their re-separation enabled Axer to invite next stars to further cooperation. During the subsequent years the other experienced artists and graduates of the theatre academy systematically joined the team. “The actors […] of various provenance, coming from different places and schools, were relatively quickly finding a common language. They used to rehearse long and work hard, they did not want to premiere until they felt completely ready to perform in front of the audience. Most of them were able to play both episodes as well as great roles.” Erwin Axer wrote about his team. The closest adviser to Erwin Axer was, since the days of Łódź Jerzy Kreczmar (1902-1985), a literary manager and director, co-responsible for the artistic aspects of the theatre at Mokotowska Street, the creator of many outstanding stagings of contemporary performances and new interpretations of classic comedies by Aleksander Fredro. Since 1962 Ewa Starowieyska (1930-2012) was responsible for the stage design in all performances directed by Erwin Axer.
12. Tadeusz Łomnicki
Tadeusz Łomnicki (1927-1992), who is considered one of the greatest Polish actors of the twentieth century, worked at the Contemporary Theatre from 1949 till 1974. He played over twenty roles in the theatres run by Erwin Axer. In the National Theatre he played a title role in "Kordian" by Juliusz Słowacki (1956) and "Orestes" in The Flies by Jean-Paul Sartre (1957). At the Contemporary Theatre, during his cooperation with Erwin Axer he played, among others, George Gibbs in "Our Town" by Thornton Wilder (1957), Orestes in "Iphigenia in Tauris" by Johann W. Goethe (1961) and Solyony in "Three Sisters" by Anton Chekhov (1963). The culmination, and the crowning achievement of his career was the title role in "The Resistible Rise of Arturo Ui" by Bertolt Brecht (1962). “Łomnicki proved that he is an actor with unlimited technical abilities. His art of acting is of the highest quality and he is able to fulfil the most difficult tasks.” Jan Kott wrote after the premiere. “The actor, who is eventually responsible for everything, at the same time depends on the director, who pulls out of a bag whatever he wants. The director makes decisions, the director either accepts or rejects. Hardly anything can be spoiled when it comes to a bad actor, but when it comes to the exuberant personality the director may spoil a lot. Tadeusz Łomnicki should send Erwin Axer flowers every day”, said the writer, Adolf Rudnicki. Łomnicki described his relationship with Axer with these words: “The relationship between us was as follows: I represented the stubbornness and uncontrollable limitless courage to risk; Axer had an extraordinary knowledge, personal charm, patience and curiosity, which – sometimes against his will – did not let him appreciate the scale of success until the premiere. That is why I was so stubborn.  […] I was waiting till Axer would start to love my way of solving his thoughts. He was the director but the interpretation belonged to me.” In 1990, after many years, they both – the director and his actor – met again in the Contemporary Theatre, to stage "The Histrionic" by Thomas Bernhard. 
13. Sławomir Mrożek
Polish contemporary drama was not often included in the repertoire of the Contemporary Theatre. The only exception was one author – Sławomir Mrożek (1930 – 2013).  Mrożek, as a playwright, was causing a lot of problems for the theatres since the very beginning. His works, although very well written, were difficult to classify. The question “how to stage Mrożek” was often repeated like a refrain. The premiere of "Tango" (1965), directed by Erwin Axer at the Contemporary Theatre took place in a period of the greatest interest of the audience and the critics in Mrożek. However, it was not the main factor that contributed the success. Axer broke up with the tradition of staging Mrożek’s plays as a pure grotesque. The absurd behaviour of the characters gained also psychological motivations, what also allowed to emphasize a serious side of the drama, avoiding unambiguous interpretation. Stage characters gained human features; they no longer were “logical machines, working so fanatically, that almost preposterously” (Ludwik Flaszen). No one staged Mrożek in this manner ever before. The Warsaw staging of Tango was enthusiastically received. It connected the author and the director even more than before. The next success of "Tango", in Düsseldorf a year later, further cemented bonds of a tandem Mrożek – Axer, opening at the same time the doors to the career in the West. Over the next three decades Axer directed at the Contemporary Theatre the following plays: "The fortunate event" (1972), "The Tailor" (1979), "Widows" (1992), "Love in the Crimea" (1994) and "The Ambassador" (1995). In 2011 WL publishing house (Wydawnictwo Literackie) published" Letters 1965-1996" - the correspondence between Erwin Axer and Sławomir Mrożek – documentation of their common work and the history of their friendship.
„Tango” by Sławomir Mrożek, directed by Erwin Axer, cast: Wiesław Michnikowski, Halina Kossobudzka, Mieczysław Pawlikowski, Barbara Sołtysik, Tadeusz Fijewski, Mieczysław Czechowicz
14. The writer
Erwin Axer was writing almost all his life. As a junior high school, student he was publishing his poems in a Warsaw magazine "Kuźnia Młodych" ("Youth’s forge") and in a Lvov magazine "Sygnały" ("Signals"). During his study at the State Institute of Theatre Arts he translated from German to Polish "Miss Julie" by August Strindberg, for the purposes of his thesis. During the Nazi occupation he was writing radio plays, adaptations, poetry, as well as he was trying to describe his own experiences in the form of short stories. At the beginning of the fifties Edward Csató, the chief-editor of a biweekly “Theatre”, talked Axer into writing on a regular basis. Axer’s first feuilletons (1952-1965) were published in three volumes: "The Letters from the Stage" (1955), "The Letters from the Stage – part two" (1957) and the "Theatre Issues" (1966). The fourth volume, the Problems of Youth, the Problems of Old Age (2006) include texts written from 1965 till 1970. The Letters summarize various Axer experiences, as a director and a theatre manager, in changing conditions of his life, and reflect a coherent program, which the author was introducing in practice over the years. From 1978 till 2003 Axer was publishing in "Dialogue" (a monthly) A page from a diary, a collection of short stories. They were published in four volumes - "Memory Exercises" (1984, 1991, 1998, 2003). Axer was describing in these stories people, things and events from his life story, with a mix of self-irony and distance. He created a non-chronological record of his own life and his era, in which the theatre was only a part of a bigger picture. From 2003 till 2005 he was also publishing in "Dialogue" a series of short impressions called "Snapshots" ("Migawki"). In 2007, on the occasion of Axer’s ninetieth birthday, Iskry publishing house published "From memory", the author’s choice of short stories from Memory Exercises.
„The Ambassador” by Sławomir Mrożek, directed by Erwin Axer, cast: Zbigniew Zapasiewicz, Krzysztof Kowalewski
15. Career Abroad
Since 1962, Erwin Axer, as one of the first Polish theatre directors, worked abroad on a regular basis. He directed in West Germany, Switzerland, the USSR, USA, Austria and the Netherlands. “My foreign career was somehow connected with the good condition of the theatre in Poland. At the turn of the fifties and the sixties, thanks to the common efforts of actors, directors and stage designers (Polish stage design was outstanding) Polish theatre achieved a recognizable level. When we went to Germany for the first time, together with Ewa Starowiejska, the German theatre was in a blind alley. Mrożek and I, we were able to suggest something completely new” Erwin Axer recalled. From 1972 he was a permanent guest-director at the Burgtheater in Vienna, where (in 1980) he achieved one of his greatest professional successes, with the premiere of "The Dreamers" by Robert Musil. Until then the drama was perceived as impossible to stage and therefore no one ever tried to stage it. Werner Thuswaldner, a critic wrote: “it was one of the best performances ever created in the Austrian theatre.” Sometimes Axer was reaching again for the dramas, which he successfully had directed in Poland. He directed, among others, "The Resistible Rise of Arturo Ui" at the Gorky Bolshoi Drama Theatre in Leningrad (1963), "Tango" by Mrożek (1966) and "The Mother" by Stanisław I. Witkiewicz (1972) at the Schauspielhaus in Düsseldorf and Mary Stuart by Friedrich Schiller at the Burgtheater in Vienna (1974). On the other hand, he introduced to the Polish theatre dramas, which he originally had staged abroad. That was the case of the works of Thomas Bernhard. 
16. Thomas Bernhard
Thomas Bernhard, an Austrian writer (1931 – 1989), considered one of the most eminent representatives of German literature of the twentieth century, created a very distinctive style of writing. His intimate, tragicomic dramas, usually filled with huge monologues of protagonists, draw attention to the musicality of language, the type of verse, equally composed from significant words and pauses, of repetitions and from the sophisticated and deliberately used monotony. The premiere of "A Party for Boris by Bernhard", at the Burgtheater in Vienna (1973), was considered an exceptional event and initiated Axer’s cooperation with the first German theatre in his career. Axer was awarded the Josef Kainz Medal for the most outstanding performance in the theatre season 1973/1974. The fact that the foreigner received this award reflected the scale of Axer’s success. When in 1976 Axer introduced Bernhard's works to the Polish theatre and staged "A Party for Boris" at the Contemporary theatre, he did not repeat his success from Vienna. The critics appreciated the team, but they considered Bernhardt to be an imitator of Beckett. “Heavy dramas by Bernhard are full of humour and satire. In Poland, I was hardly able to convince the actors that they can play them with a sense of humour. Bernhard is a master of words; for him the language is an essential element of the text. It is also impossible to translate his works in a satisfactory way” Axer stated after many years. Axer came back to Bernhard’s works twice, after many years. He directed "Destination" (at the Schlosspark Theater, West Berlin in 1987 and at the Contemporary Theatre in Warsaw in 1997) and the Polish premiere of "The Histrionic". The latter turned out to be the last great success of Tadeusz Łomnicki in the leading role, as well as his ultimate, painful and ridiculous discourse with the theatre, the audience and with himself. 
"The Histrionic” by Thomas Bernhard, directed by Erwin Axer, cast: Tadeusz Łomnicki
„Destination” by Thomas Bernhard, directed by Erwin Axer, cast: Maja Komorowska
17. Dusk
After 1968 the artistic team of the Contemporary Theatre began to slow down, in the following years some valuable members of the team left the theatre. Axer’s prestige and his position, as the general manager, was no longer so strong after March 1968 and a smear campaign against Jews in Poland. Therefore, in this period, he got more involved in working abroad. In Poland, he was not any more able to satisfy the tastes and expectations of the audience. Nevertheless the Contemporary Theatre continued to work on the basis of the once adopted program, which included modern Western European drama. Erwin Axer directed several performances, yet he was no longer able to meet the standards set by the avant-garde, e.g.: "Old Times" by Harold Pinter (1972), "Mackbett" by Eugene Ionesco (1972), "Lear" by Edward Bond (1974), as well as by the classics: "Mary Stuart" by Friedrich Schiller (1969), "The Power of Darkness" by Leo Tolstoy (1971) and "Kordian" by Juliusz Słowacki (1977). An interesting experienced was the premiere of "The Mother" by Stanisław I. Witkiewicz (1970), which was staged “by the book”, therefore with no changes and no “frills”, but according to the suggestions of the prominent critic Konstanty Puzyn. None of these performances was as remarkable and noteworthy as those from the previous decade. In the 70s the Contemporary Theatre became less attractive as a window to the world because of the political changes in the country and new relations with the Western Europe. In 1981, Erwin Axer resigned from managing the Contemporary Theatre in favour of Maciej Englert - his student and successor. After the collapse of communism, he returned to the theatre at Mokotowska Street as a director (1990-2001). For the last performance, which he directed in his career (2001) Axer chose "Easter", a symbolic religious drama by August Strindberg. Erwin Axer died on August 5th, 2012 in Warsaw. In his funeral speech Maciej Englert said: "Axer chose theatre deliberately. It was not the matter of coincidence or infatuation. Why theatre? Perhaps he thought that the theatre was a place of an important conversation. Perhaps it was about the ethos of collaborative creation. Anyway, this choice turned out to be a blessing for the theatre."
Theatre Institute in Warsaw
Credits: Story

Exhibition scenario: Michał Smolis

Translation: Agnieszka Mrowińska, Joanna Przedpelski

Coordination and collaboration: Klaudyna Desperat, The Zbigniew Raszewski Theatre Institute

Credits: All media
The story featured may in some cases have been created by an independent third party and may not always represent the views of the institutions, listed below, who have supplied the content.
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