Cieślewicz’s ‘Forefather’s Eve’ (occasional notes on posters)

Roman Cieślewicz's poster for Dziady, 1967

This poster produced by Roman Cieślewicz in 1967 has become an iconic image in the history of the People’s Republic of Poland. Designed to promote a new performance of Adam Mickiewicz’s nineteenth century poetic drama, Forefather’s Eve (Dziady), Cieślewicz’s design captures the simmering frustration with Soviet control over Poland. The central motif seems to be a desiccated landscape or a figure with a hole where a heart might be. In its mirrored composition, Raoul-Jean Moulin found a ‘hallucinatory symmetry.’

Performance of Dziady, National Theatre, Warsaw, November 1967 (photographed by Mariusz Szyperko).

Dziady opened in the National Theatre in November 1967. It had been programmed to mark the fiftieth anniversary of the October Revolution in Russia. The play’s references to dull-witted bureaucrats and Tsarist despotism were in tune with Lenin’s attack on imperial repression. But the Polish audience read the performance as allegory for the present. They jeered the imperial characters and applauded anti- Russian sentiment. The early closure of the play in late January 1968 – allegedly at the request of the Russian Embassy – was the trigger for loud calls for freedom of speech. The Writers’ Union drafted a motion criticizing this act of censorship and, ultimately, the legitimacy of the Sovietbacked authorities.

Attack on protestors on Krakowskie Przedmieście near Warsaw University, 3rd March 1968 (photograph by Tadeusz Zagoździński).

Warsaw University students marched through the city and strung banners across the city-centre campus objecting to Soviet interference in Polish life. ‘In fighting for Mickiewicz’s play’ they declared, ‘we are fighting for independence and freedom and the democratic traditions of our country’.

With the temperature high, the authorities repressed writers, students and university lecturers. Hundreds of helmeted militiamen were drafted in to subdue the university with truncheons and tear-gas. This period of high tension has come to be known as the ‘March events.’

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