Becoming an actor-intellectual. Gustaw Holoubek’s strategy

He persistently built up the myth of a sophisticated philosopher on the theatre scene. However, when necessary – because rehearsing actors or football players on the pitch weren’t doing their best – he would swear like a trooper.

Gustaw Holoubek was born a century ago, on April 21, 1923. TVP will be showing two Television Theatre plays directed by him: “Staś” written by Jerzy Jarocki – on Sunday at 6 pm on TVP Kultura, and “Pokój 108” (“Room 108”) by Gerald Aubert – on Monday at 9 pm on TVP1.

On Sunday, December 13, 1981, when the authorities quite literally locked (down) the Dramatic Theatre of Warsaw where the Independent Congress of Polish Culture had been held for two days, Gustaw Holubek, the director of this institution made a courageous and original decision. He decided to put on the play “in exile”. Since it is impossible to do it on stage – one has to take advantage o the hospitality of the Catholic Church – one of the last institutions that were legal and not subjugated to the communists. And so, in March 1982 the premiere took place in Warsaw’s St. John’s Cathedral.

It was “Murder in the Cathedral” by T.S. Eliot, directed by Jerzy Jarocki, an adaptation that was interpreted as a story about of those hard times. Even the primate of Poland, Józef Glemp, who was present at the premiere, saw himself in the character of Thomas Beckett, played by Gustaw Holoubek. He confessed this quietly, whispering into Gustaw Holoubek’s ear just after the performance. In spite of unabated interest and a public reaching two thousand, the show was taken off – by the decision of the authorities – after six performances. But Gustaw Holubek was victorious, because already in the first days of the martial law he demonstrated his determination and the power of independent culture.

The Palace of Culture

This “Murder in the Cathedral” cost Gustaw Holubek his post. For it was the first of a series of conflicts with the authorities that led to his dismissal as director of the Dramatic Theatre. And it is worth remembering that it was un exceptional theatre in those days, full of actor personalities. There played with Holubek: Halina Mikołajska, Wanda Łuczycka, Ryszarda Hanin, Zofia Rysiówna, Danuta Szaflarska, Jan Świderski, Andrzej Szczepkowski, Marek Walczewski or Zbigniew Zapasiewicz. As well the then young Marek Kondrat, Janusz Gajos or Piotr Fronczewski.

The director never cast actors according to their physical conditions. He acted against stereotypes and habits. Everyone cared about the shape of the performances. Members of the acting team who were absent from the cast watched the performance prepared by their colleagues and submitted their comments. And every vote counted, although of course the director’s opinion mattered the most.

It is worth remembering that for actors, directors and theatre staff it was much more than a workplace. They played bridge at the Dramatic Theatre and sunbathed on the terraces of the Palace of Culture. Despite this relaxed atmosphere, or perhaps because of it, outstanding performances by artists such as Jerzy Jarocki, Jerzy Grzegorzewski, Kazimierz Dejmek, Maciej Prus and Ludwik René were created. “Gucio” [diminutive from Gustaw] – as his friends called him – created a unique place where you could reach the heights of your creative abilities, and maybe even exceed them.

”Fun for boys”

Holoubek was not an artist locked in a golden cage. He cultivated passions that today are not very associated with people dealing with high culture. He was a passionate sports fan. And he was not necessarily passionate about those more intellectually demanding disciplines. For example, he said about chess, quoting Edgar Alan Poe, that it is a game for idiots, because it consists of so many combinations that it smacks of eccentricity.
He valued tennis games more, although he was most fascinated by football, which he called “great fun for boys”. He didn’t avoid public statements about football, comparing the role of a footballer to that of an actor in interviews and press comments. As a Cracovian by birth, he was a sworn supporter of Cracovia, he could name the composition of this team (as well as its competitors from near Wawel) from several decades ago. In Warsaw, he could be seen at the Legia stadium (often in the company of writers Stanisław Dygat and Tadeusz Konwicki or tennis coach Janusz Hellich), and when something happened on the pitch that annoyed him, he did not regret obscene exclamations (apparently also during theatre rehearsals he would spit an expletive at an actor who wasn’t trying hard enough).


It is difficult to say, however, that politics was a similar passion for him. Rather, circumstances got him into it. Thanks to “Dziady” by Kazimierz Dejmek from 1968, in which he played Gustaw-Konrad, his name is associated with the March’68 protests, and his 22-minute Great Improvisation was interpreted as an anti-Russian manifesto by the viewers (and by the authorities, who soon took “Dziady” off, causing student demonstrations).

Or maybe it was just misinterpreted? Holoubek both then and in later years – although he was friends with artists, such as Konwicki, who had long since said goodbye to communism – didn’t participate in the activities of the opposition himself. One may say: on the contrary. Together with his fellow actors (including Tadeusz Łomnicki, Wojciech Siemion and Daniel Olbrychski), he walked in May Day parades. After his role in “Dziady” the communists did not write him off and didn’t spare him positions and privileges, while he didn’t turn down. In 1972 he became the director of the Dramatic Theatre. In 1976 and 1980 he was “elected” to the Sejm of the Polish People’s Republic as a non-partisan representative of the Front of National Unity. – I thought that as an MP I would be able to solve many problems of the actor community. Soon, however, “MP-ing” became a threat to my freedom of conscience – he explained years later. He held the seat for six years, and in 1982, five weeks after the imposition of martial law, he decided to resign. Which didn’t affect his theatrical career; he continued to perform in theatres, on television and in films.

In 1989, he returned to the parliament, entered the Senate from the list of the opposition Solidarity Citizens’ Committee. But he also considered this meeting with politics a failure. – I became a senator and, together with my colleagues Szczepkowski and Łapicki, I fell into the clutches of parliamentarianism, obviously hoping to protect the interests of people working in the arts, especially in the theatre. Have my hopes come true? Feeling helpless, I withdrew – he commented.


There is no doubt, however, that theatre, acting and directing gave him full satisfaction. After graduating from the State Dramatic Studio in Kraków (later transformed into the State Higher School of Theatre), after a short engagement in the renowned Stary and Słowacki theatres in Kraków, he followed his former teacher Władysław Woźnik to the Wyspiański Theatre in Katowice. VISIT OUR WEBSITE AND GIVE US A LIKE After a decade, at the end of the 1950s, he was already in Warsaw. His debut role as Judge Cust in Ugo Betti’s “Corruption in the Palace of Justice” captured both the critics and the audience. To this day, this debut on the stage of the Chamber Stage of the capital’s Polish Theatre is referred to as one of his greatest achievements. “If an Oscar could be awarded for acting performances, I would give it to Holoubek for the role of Cust”, wrote professor Zbigniew Raszewski, a theatre historian.

It was after this staging that the term “clever actor” stuck to Gustaw Holoubek, and the artist zealously cultivated this image over the next years.

One can cite a well-known anecdote happening in Warsaw’ SPATIF. One day, the writer and actor Jan Himilsbach (who, in turn, presented himself as a simple man, and he had a good reason for that having once worked as a stonemason in Warsaw’s Powązki Cemetery) dropped into this bustling restaurant full of people. He looked around and shouted loudly: “Intelligentsia – get the f… outta here!”

Holoubek was then supposed to get up from the chair and say: – I don’t know about you, but I’m getting the f… outta here.

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He maintained the image of an actor-savant by carefully choosing theatrical roles, including film roles, but also on television, which gave him wide popularity. Particularly significant for the intellectual myth of Holoubek was the role of Professor Tutka in the once very popular, and today unjustly forgotten TV series by Andrzej Kondratiuk (based on a series of short stories by Jerzy Szaniawski). The protagonist of this film, a cultured and elegant man, sits in a cafe with his friends – a judge, barrister, doctor and notary – and in conversations with them he tells seemingly trivial stories with deep moral and philosophical overtones.


Many critics consider Gustaw Holoubek to be the greatest actor of the communist era, and perhaps of all time, his roles in theatrical performances are hard to count, there are probably several hundred of them in total. In the Television Theatre alone, he appeared over 100 times, for the first time with “Słowo Norwidowe” directed by Adam Hanuszkiewicz in 1958, and for the last time in “Wyzwolenie” by Stanisław Wyspiański directed by Maciej Prus in 2007, a year before his death.

Fortunately, much of Holoubek’s oeuvre has been preserved, primarily in the archives of TVP. But not only. Last year, a CD was released with a recording of the Passion oratorio “The Seven Last Words of Christ” by Joseph Haydn and excerpts from the Holy Bible read by Gustaw Holoubek in a church in Katowice in 1999. His long voice with a characteristic intonation still gives shivers.

– Monika Kolet
– Translated by Dominik Szczęsny-Kostanecki

TVP WEEKLY. Editorial team and jornalists

Main photo: Gustaw Holoubek. Photo: TVP
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