Wieńczysław Gliński. More than a hundred roles in front of the camera – history

Portrait of Leon Schiller (second from left) with Karol Szymanowski, Ryszard Boleslavsky and Wincenti Drabeck during a rehearsal at the Polish Theatre, 1920.Photo: Bologna

Leon Schiller was a man of contradiction, but, paradoxically, this was perhaps his most important value. Paradox is a feature often found in artists who, by their above-average sensitivity in their work (but also in life), bring out the tensions that accompany every human destiny. Only by being honest with himself, Leon Schiller was able to achieve value by combining very different features and opinions.


25:38 Schiller 98. mp3 Leon Schiller. Broadcast by Anna Ritmanak from the series “Biography by Voice”. (PR, April 13, 1998).

Krakow beginnings

Like most theater directors of his day, Schiller began with theatrical productions (including in Krakow’s “Green Balloon”), but quickly – somewhat during the birth of the Polish state in 1918 – began directing. He was then a man of about 30 years old, so he already had a path behind him, which wasn’t particularly harmonious, but allowed him to make sure what his calling was.

He was born on March 14, 1887 in the city of Krakow. He came from an Austrian family that settled in Galicia in the 19th century. He studied Philosophy and Polish Studies at Jagiellonian University and at the Sorbonne in Paris. Due to the pressures of his family, he was on the verge of becoming a writer. He also made a suicide attempt due to an unhappy love and a lot of travelling. He was clearly a man of enormous energy, very mobile but also prone to emotions.


During his youthful travels around Europe, he met many famous people, but the most important meeting was his acquaintance with Edward Gordon Craig – the great theater theorist, one of the fathers of the great theatrical reform, which began in Europe at the beginning of the 20th century.

In addition, Schiller had the opportunity to communicate with the theater of the most creative artists of that time. One of them was, for example, Max Reinhart, who created under the influence of the concept of Craig’s monumental theater. The theater of the Great Reformation was, above all, a rebellion against the naturalistic theater of the nineteenth century and demanded an intensification of artistic expertise at the expense of bourgeois stories “as is”. The monumental theater was looking for new forms that would make it possible to distinguish theater from other fields of art once and for all and refute the concept that it is nothing but a synthesis of other arts.

So when Leon Schiller began his directing career in 1917, he was aware of the most important trends of the era. He also became familiar with theatrical expression or constructivism practiced in Russia. He also closely followed the left-wing German theater of Erwin Pescatore, better known as Oil Theatre – Theater of the Age.

Polish theater before Schiller

On the other hand, Polish theater was in its infancy at that time. It was deeply rooted in 19th century traditions and was used primarily for entertainment. Of course, there were exceptions, such as the brilliant character of Stanislaw Wisbyansky for the Polish theater, but with his death a void arose that no one could fill.

Stanisław Wyspiański – Fourth National Poet

In connection with the above, Schiller felt that his actions should serve the purpose of creating a contemporary Polish theater from scratch. As usual for him, he went around in two ways. On the one hand, he decided to use the experience gained during his trips abroad, and on the other hand, he searched for what already existed and his native Poland. Each of these activities only made it possible to achieve the desired goal. In the interwar period, thanks mainly to Leon Schiller, a true contemporary Polish theater was born.

Romantic Legacy

Schiller considered the dramatic output of Polish Romanticism to be the most important basis for future Polish theatre. Contrary to appearances, it was not so obvious, because the Polish literary fashion of the 1920s and 1930s was far from romantic. Secondly, Schiller recognized the greatness of Wyspiański as a continuation of the ideas of Polish poets, including Norwid, and as a great theater artist – playwright and producer. In addition to all this, he decided to engage the dramatist Tadeusz Miciński, whom he considered a continuation of the mystical drama of the Romantic era.

Polish Grand Theatre

After making the above assumptions, Schiller decided to adopt the concept of Edward Gordon Craig in Poland. At the same time, monumental theater in this case was to replace naturalism (sometimes called realism in theater) with the direction Schiller called neorealism. In fact, it was about separating theater from craft and pushing it toward great universal themes, subordinating the higher vision of performance to all its components, such as stage design, music, dance, drama, and actors.

At the same time, Schiller decided that Polish theater should quickly make up for lost time and “work through” the achievements of contemporary European theater. Therefore, while presenting the great classics of Polish literature, he at the same time intertwined the methods used by the trends he learned in the West in his successive performances. So once it is used by appropriate means for Expressionist theatre, design and fashion at other times refer to Cubism or other modern artistic trends.

Perhaps the most important performance of Schiller in the direction of the monumental theater was the performance of Lviv by Dziadi from 1932, which was then repeated by the director in Vilnius, Warsaw and even Sofia.

oil theater

However, Schiller was sensitive to social and political issues – he openly admitted the views of the left. In addition to performances in the direction of monumental theater – which focus on the timeless – he produced interactive performances, strongly inspired by German oil theater and the achievements of Soviet artists such as Vsevolod Meyerhold or Alexander Tyro.

The most significant scene in this genre was the extremely left-wing work “China Shout” shown in 1932 in Lviv. In connection with this performance, Schiller was asked to leave town.

musical theater

Many argue, however, that Schiller achieved the best results in his search for another species. From childhood, he was very sensitive to music, so performances with a light theatrical character were preferable to him. However, here too, Schiller has generally relied on materials that have resulted from Polish traditions and are derived from old Polish drama. The most important performances of this kind include “Pastorałka” (in 1922) and “Easter” (1923), which was shown at the Reduta Theater in Warsaw several times, and, for example, the show “Kulig” in 1929 in Pozna.


During the war, Schiller tried to operate under conditions of occupation. In 1941, in connection with the murder of his collaborator, actor Igo Sim, by the Polish metro, he spent several months in Auschwitz, where he left thanks to the intercession of his family. At that time, he was in Henryków near Warsaw, where he was about to become a monk as a result of a profound transformation he had undergone. At the same time, in a shelter run by nuns, he held performances for falling girls. A large part of the elite in Warsaw came to see these performances.

Igo Sym.jpg

Igo Sym – Collaborating Artist

after the war

Schiller also directed during the Warsaw Uprising, giving performances to rebels and residents of the capital. After the war, she found herself in Germany, which was controlled by the Americans, and there also – under the auspices of the YMCA (Young Christian Association) – gave traveling performances.

Religious conversion, working in a center run by nuns or sponsored by the YMCA – as it turns out – did not prevent Schiller from continuing to support communism. When he returned to Poland in 1946, he immediately joined the activities of the new Polish rulers.

– said the professor – the last time in Schiller’s life raised and controversial. Barbara Osterloff, theater expert on Polish Radio. It is high time that he entered politics. She said he distanced himself from many people and even made socialist realism difficult for them.

At that time, Schiller was a director of several theaters, and also became a consultant to the Polish Institute of Theater Arts and was heavily involved in the party’s governing bodies.

Leon Schiller died in 1954 in Warsaw. And although the last period of his life casts a shadow over his entire biography, it should not be forgotten that he belonged to the ideological communists and in the past was subjected to some harassment for his views on numerous occasions.

Above all, it is worth remembering that it was he who allowed Polish theater to catch the wind in its sails and sail into the future with a baggage of experiences without which Tadeusz Kantor, Jerzy Grotowski, Erwin Axer, Konrad Swinarski or Zygmunt Hubner would not have existed.


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