Obituary: Piotr Skrzynecki

Piotr Skrzynecki, the larger-than-life figure who ran the Cellar of the Rams in Krakow from its creation in 1956, was revered, even adored, in Poland. For his funeral last month, crowds filled the Rynek, the huge central square in Krakow, to pay an emotional last farewell to the cabaret impresario. It was, to quote one Polish magazine headline, the End of an Epoch. The accompanying cover photograph did not need identification. Piotr Skrzynecki, after all, was unmistakable.

With his signature plumed hat (nobody ever saw Skrzynecki without his hat), he was a well-known face in the city's cafes and bars. ("The only people who are really afraid of alcohol are the people who have something bad to hide," he once said.) Piwnica pod Baranami - "The Cellar of the Rams", or simply Piwnica (piv-neetsa) - became a national symbol of all that was most cheering about Poland's resistance to the imposed one-party regime. One speaker at Skrzynecki's graveside summed up Piwnica's role. "It was much more than a cabaret. It was a breath of freedom and of ironic distance to the reality which surrounded us."

Humour, imagination and flamboyance were rolled together in Skrzynecki's bulky frame. Skrzynecki (skshin-etski, if you're feeling brave with phonetic experiments) was always Piwnica's central figure; now that he is gone, the performers wonder whether it is worth continuing.

Skrzynecki was born in Warsaw in 1930. His parents wanted him to study economics. But he was having none of it. Instead, he studied history of art for five years before starting Piwnica, with a group of friends, at the age of 26. After riots "for bread and freedom" in June 1956, enormous changes took place. The Hungarians' uprising was crushed with tanks; the Poles were luckier. A taste of freedom stayed. Skrzynecki and his friends cleared the cellar - and began to perform.

Part of the Piwnica performance was pure nostalgia: plangent violins and gallons of irony, woven together by Skrzynecki as master of ceremonies. The words came from some of Poland's best-known poets, the music came from some of the most popular composers. Nothing in metropolitan Warsaw could quite match it. Nor did the casually self-confident mood have an equivalent elsewhere in Eastern Europe. In that cramped cellar, everything seemed for the best.

The satire was sometimes gentle, sometimes sharp. Above all, nobody on the Piwnica stage sought to hide that the Communist regime was madness made real. Beauty and rebellion were always intertwined. One favourite Piwnica song - performed during the relatively liberal period of 1980 and 1981, when Solidarity was first legal - was based on a popular song of the 1930s. "Love explains things away so beautifully . . . Betrayal and lies and sin. Love will forgive you everything. For love, my darling, is me." The hauntingly schmaltzy music, originally performed by a pre- war Polish Piaf, was unchanged by Skrzynecki. Of the lyrics, only one word was changed. Throughout the song, the word "love" was replaced by "Party": "The Party explains things away so beautifully. Betrayal and lies and sin . . .", sang the husky beauty. In cabaret veritas. Sitting in the smoky cellar, you could scarcely hear the words and music for the laughter. In the words of Przekrj magazine: "For 41 years [Skrzynecki] and his cabaret persuaded us that, despite the system, we had come into this world for happiness and joy."

To say that Skrzynecki did not give a fig for the authorities would be to put it mildly. During the martial law years after 1981, he was prosecuted for allegedly inciting an opposition demonstration just by his presence in the market square. His response: he set the bureaucratic gobbledygook to music (combined with an equally bureaucratic document, in which he was notified that the charges had now been lifted). The authorities were made to look doubly ludicrous.

All theatrical performances had to be approved by the censor, but at Piwnica the official "text" of a performance was often ignored. Skrzynecki liked to taunt the authorities' hidden representative: "For the gentleman sitting here to report back on tonight's performance - we hope you like the next song. It is specially for you."

But part of Skrzynecki's strength was his awareness that not all of life is about politics, even when living under a mad and bad government. Skrzynecki's Piwnica revelled in beauty - music, theatre, painting - for its own sake. Keeping the flame of independent thought burning was, for him, another way of keeping beauty alive. Conversely, respect for beauty was itself a form of resistance to a mindless regime.

Skrzynecki's Piwnica was as much an artistic family as a professional troupe. Its performers - actors, singers, painters, writers - worked mostly for love. For love of Piwnica, which really meant the love of Piotr. Skrzynecki himself cared nothing for material things. In the words of one colleague, "He hated money. I don't know anybody who had such a casual attitude to his own and others' possessions. Unless it was a book, or flowers."

After the final collapse of Communism in 1989, Piwnica found itself partly without a role. It still sought to retain its old irony. During the chaotic period after the Communists had rolled up their tents and vanished, one Piwnica performance was entitled: "Commies, Come Back!" But life had moved on. Skrzynecki became an honorary citizen of Krakow, in 1994. But by that time he was already ill, with cancer. And the best days seemed to be over for Piwnica, too. In the Communist era, nostalgia had enjoyed a kind of piquancy. It harked back to a half-forbidden era, when Poland had been Different. When Communism itself began to be just a memory, nostalgia for the old Bohemian traditions of Krakow was in danger of becoming just that: soapy nostalgia.

A few days before his death, Skrzynecki told an interviewer: "I love Piwnica as I love life." His hat was buried with him.

Piotr Skrzynecki, cabaret impresario: born Warsaw 12 September 1930; died Krakow 27 April 1997.

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