The legend of the “Green Balloon” cabaret
The originator of the idea of creating an artistic cabaret was Jan August Kisielewski, after his return from Paris. Cukiernia Lwowska [Lviv Confectionery], run by Jan Michalik, was a meeting place for the Kraków bohemians to which belonged students and graduates of the Academy of Fine arts, who gathered at one of the tables.
The creation of the Zielony Balonik [Green Balloon] cabaret would not have been possible were it not for the favourable circumstances providing fertile ground for this initiative. One of the factors heralding the breath of fresh air was the transformation of the School of Fine Arts into the Academy of Fine Arts after the death of Jan Matejko, as well as the new cadre of professors, including Wyczółkowski, Axentowicz and Pankiewicz. Equally important for the Kraków bohemians was the previous emergence of Wyspiański and the activity of Przybyszewski. All these destroyed the image of a sleepy and venerable Kraków, seen through the conservatism represented by Stanisław Tarnowski, the then rector of the Jagiellonian University and president of the Polish Academy of Learning, who was frequently dubbed the pope of Kraków due to his conservative views.
The tradition of the Kraków nativity scenes, animated by bricklayers from Krowodrza who remained unemployed during the wintertime, inspired the Kraków bohemians, who saw in it the best inspiration for their cabaret. The building of the nativity scene, being a replica of the church in Modlnica, was made by young painters and artists: Kamocki, Frycz, Czajkowski brothers, Tadeusz Rychter, Szczygliński, Wojtkiewicz, Rzecki, Kuczborski.
The puppets were sculpted by Jan Szczepkowski together with the sculptor and ophthalmologist, Brudzewski, PhD. The costumes for the puppets were designed by their wives. The whole process of creation was supervised by the author of the texts – Witold Noskowski. When the work was finished, the artists brought the nativity scene to Michalik’s confectionery.
As Boy-Żeleński mentioned, “The view of the construction, grand in size and of beauty far exceeding all the nativity scenes made by bricklayers, caused a stir among Kraków «andrusy» (pranksters). One could also hear murmurs of discontent because of this unexpected «competition»“ (Boy o Krakowie [Boy about Kraków], Kraków 1968, p. 485).
The subjects of the nativity scene were current affairs, widely discussed in the press: the need for revitalisation of the Wawel, conflicts between Manggha Jasieński and Wilhelm Feldman, the voices of Bujdowa. Leo, the then mayor of Kraków, was portrayed in the nativity scene as Herod.
The task of animating the puppets was taken on by Józef Czajkowski and Alfons Karpiński (later replaced by Puszet).
The first nativity play — staged in 1906 — was met with a euphoric reception. Sharp comments and witty ripostes were a novelty in the sleepy atmosphere of Kraków. Although the public was small (the room of the confectionery could hold no more than 100–120 people), initially the performance was not repeated. Only the last two nativity plays (the fourth and the fifth one) were staged several times and appeared also in print.
Boy-Żeleński joined the cabaret upon the realisation of the second nativity play (he began to write texts together with Noskowski).
The gallery of characters, apart from Leo, included also the puppet of Feliks Manggha Jasieński, Wilhelm Feldman, Bujwidowa, Stanisławski and Miciński.
The third nativity play was staged in the “Hotel pod Różą“ [“Under the Rose Hotel“]; this was due to a conflict which arouse between the artists and the owner of the confectionery. It was also necessary to create new puppets, and this task was conferred on Henryk Kunzek. Previously, only folk tunes were used; this time motifs derived from opera arias were also employed.
After the third nativity play there came a two-year break. The change was sparked by the proposal from the owner of Jama Michalika who enlarged his confectionery, hence the venue could hold more guests.
The fourth nativity play to be staged and simultaneously the first one to be sponsored by Michalik (all the previous performances were organised spontaneously thanks to the engagement of the artists) was furnished with new lights and several new puppets of Szczepkowski, Kunzek, Litwin and Herbaczewski.
Admission fees were introduced for the first time and the nativity play was staged 13 times! Teofil Trzciński protested against a higher number of performances, as each time for three hours he had to sing and animate the nativity scene characters — this time the play had 30 puppets (and each time Trzciński, with real virtuosity, imitated both the male as well as female voices).
The last nativity play to be staged in Jama Michalika was presented in 1912; the activities of the Kraków artists, however, inspired others — nativity plays began to appear in other cities.
As Boy-Żeleński put it: “Zielony Balonik [the Green Balloon] cabaret was the first collective burst of laughter to be heard in Poland from time immemorial; it was then no surprise that the laughter turned out to be epidemic. The wave of imitation spread: in Warsaw «Momus», in Lviv various Wesołe Jamy [Jolly Dens], Ule [Beehives] etc. Different varieties of nativity plays were spreading: of a Poznań style, Tarnów style, Lviv style, Paris style, etc. There was virtually no town in Galicia in which a small group of young intelligentsia would not try to create their own «cabaret», which obviously usually led to conflicts, quarrels etc“. (p. 505).
“Cabaret in Jasło
Is singing rhythmically today
That schnitzels at collectors
Are not fried in butter;
Cabaret in Sędziszów
Shall tell you from the stage
What Lady Counsellor
Does with a younger judge (…) – this is how we ridiculed this epidemic of cabarets in Zielony Balonik.“ (p. 506).
The fact that the archbishop of Lviv in his Great Lent sermon preached against the “cabaretisation“ in which he saw the source of moral corruption of citizens shows how strong this cabaret epidemic was.
The youth even collected signatures under the open letter entitled “Down with Cabaret“, which, among others, included the following appeal: “Let us defend our hearts before the desecration, let us defend peace and honour of individuals, whipped to the wild delight of unruly crowds“ (p. 506).
In Kraków there were also numerous critical voices. Distinguished and devout matrons spread gossip about orgies and naked dances, indecent behaviours and situations with the participation of guests to the cabaret evenings.
Despite those unfavourable opinions circulating in the city, for many people the cabaret was a valve, creating a counter-balance for the stifling atmosphere of Kraków.
What did the cabaret evenings look like?
The meetings were usually held after the theatrical premieres, for the preparation of which there were only several weeks. The evening began at midnight and often lasted until three o’clock. The end of the artistic part, however, did not mean the end of the meeting. Initially the evenings of the Zielony Balonik cabaret were largely improvised: everybody could stand up and sing his or her favourite song or improvise a speech. The group of spectators was elitist, as only those who received invitations could attend the meetings. If someone showed dissatisfaction, he or she was not invited any more.
This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution 3.0 Poland License.
See the puppets from the Zielony Balonik [Green Balloon] nativity play:
Puppets from the Zielony Balonik [Green Balloon] nativity play — Juliusz Leo
Puppets from the Zielony Balonik [Green Balloon] nativity play — Jacek Malczewski, by Jan Szczepkowski
Puppets from the Zielony Balonik [Green Balloon] nativity play — Jacek Malczewski, by Juliusz Puget