Week of The Festival: European Poet of Freedom, Poland

Militant Theatre

/ by Piotr Morawski

It’s been a long time since there’s been so much discussion about theatre in Poland. On major TV stations, in the mainstream media. Suddenly it turns out that theatre is important and is on the frontline in a culture war that has overwhelmed Poland since the parliamentary elections in 2015, and that continues today. A war, as the authorities put it, with gender ideology and women’s rights; a war about history, which in the government’s viewpoint should be an apotheosis of the good name of Poland and of Poles.

Soon to come is the premiere of Sprawiedliwość (Justice) by director Michał Zadara at the Powszechny Theatre in Warsaw, focusing on responsibility for the anti-Semitic propaganda campaign in March 1968, which ended with the exodus from Poland of citizens with Jewish origins. The director also announces, as part of the theatre project, the preparation of a lawsuit against the Polish state for crimes against humanity, for that is how the forced exit of those thousands of people must be understood.

This year is the fiftieth anniversary of March 1968 and the anti-Semitic campaign, and there will be more theatre productions on this topic. The premiere by director Anna Smolar is being prepared by the Polski and the Jewish Theatres in Warsaw. Another production referencing the events of half a century ago will be presented on the stage of the company TR Warszawa.

These are productions prepared specifically for the anniversary of March 1968. Yet the director, Maja Kleczewska, had somehow already anticipated discussions of the mounting wave of anti-Semitism in Poland by staging The Painted Bird by novelist Jerzy Kosiński with the Polski Theatre in Poznań and the Jewish Theatre in Warsaw (premiered 26 March 2017). While the powers that be spoke of a pedagogy of shame, shifting responsibility for crimes committed by Poles against Jews, in the theatre, Kleczewska recalled the book by Kosiński, entwining in its space a public commentary about anti-Semitism. That production polarised society again. The right-wing media wrote about a religion of the Holocaust in which the ‘main source of popularity and power is a leftist ideology which in Holocaustism located an almost ideal instrument for accusing, subverting and destroying the heritage of Europe, its Christian tradition’. By talking about anti-Semitism, The Painted Bird raised anti-Semitic reactions that only drew forth further evidence of the thesis it posed.

A similar situation transpired with 1946 by director Remigiusz Brzyk, a production about the post-war pogrom against Jews in Kielce (Żeromski Theatre in Kielce, premiered 16 December 2017). The premiere coincided with a new law making it illegal to defame Poland, which aims to make precisely such public statements impossible. The narrative in the play is directly about the responsibility of Poles, residents of Kielce, for killing their Jewish neighbours after the war.

All this is occurring at a moment when the Polish authorities are avoiding responsibility for crimes committed by Poles during the war and after it, and for government-led anti-Semitic persecution in 1968. Theatre in Poland continues to raise these crucial issues, setting itself in opposition to the narrative generated by the rightist-conservative powers. For it is in the field of culture that the ruling party, Prawo i Sprawiedliwość (Law and Justice), has recognized an opportunity to wage a conservative revolution.

As a vice minister of culture, Wanda Zwinogrodzka, who is responsible for theatre, declared in spring 2016 that the powers that be saw in theatre a realm where ‘memory in the form of the classics is nurtured, actualized in new stage versions, completing by and sometimes commenting on contemporary dramaturgy. Where different voices and whispers from our times and from the past are heard…’ In practice, this means a theatre nurturing conservative values and opposing the critical vision of reality cultivated in theatre by directors including Jan Klata, Monika Strzępka, Michał Zadara, Maja Kleczewska and Wiktor Rubin. Yet before coming to power, Zwinogrodzka, in replying to Jan Klata, had said that in order to speak out, first ‘the leftist bellow’ needed to be tuned out.

This began with the attempt to censor the production directed by Ewelina Marciniak of Death and the Maiden at the Polski Theatre in Wrocław. Just a few days after Piotr Gliński took the position of Minister of Culture, on 20 November 2015, a letter was sent from the ministry to the organizer of that theatre, the Marshal of the Lower Silesia Voivodeship, in which the ministry demanded the halt of ‘preparations for the premiere in the announced form’. Because several porn actors from the Czech Republic were supposed to perform a sex act on stage. This extrajudicial move didn’t achieve the intended result and the premiere was held. But it was a clear political declaration on the part of the ministry about what sort of theatre the authorities would be fighting against. Having learned from that failed attempt to censor the production, the authorities would act with more caution, without direct calls for cancelling premieres, but instead by changing the managing directors of companies according to the regulations and – in contravention to existing ministerial agreements – by withdrawing funding.

The Polski Theatre in Wrocław was the first company to lose its directorship. The local ruling coalition of Platforma Obywatelska (Civic Platform) and Polskie Stronnictwo Ludowe (Polish People’s Party), in an agreement with the ministry, selected Cezary Morawski as the company’s new director, after a competition; to date, Morawski had been known as a TV series actor, not for theatre work. In this fashion, one of the top ensembles of Polish actors was destroyed, with the company directed by Krystian Lupa, Michał Zadara, Jan Klata and Monika Strzępka becoming, in a single season, the home of a provincial repertoire. Loud public protest by actresses and actors fighting for their company was for naught.

After Wrocław came Kraków. The National Stary Theatre, with Jan Klata at its head, a company with an excellent team and an important repertoire, is directly under the Ministry of Culture and National Heritage. And here also – in May 2017 – in a competition procedure, a candidate was selected who lacked support from both the theatre’s team and from the theatre community, and who could not assure maintenance of the company’s artistic level. His sole asset and trump card was, however, that he was not Jan Klata. From the perspective of half a year – and after two new productions have been premiered – it is evident that the ‘leftist bellow’ has been tuned out. And that Polish theatre has lost two essential companies.

It is beyond doubt that both companies have endured the consequences of creating courageous productions that have questioned conservative values, sometimes painfully. Which poses difficult questions and critical diagnoses. Theatre, it would seem, has unexpectedly found itself at the forefront of the politics of the new rulers. This began with the weakening of the relevant institutions. It has turned out that there are no buffer zones to protect theatre from the anger of those in power. For the political in Polish theatre is marked not only by productions, but by the struggle for institutions, as well.

On 18 February 2017, the most significant premiere of recent seasons occurred, the one with the broadest social resonance. The Powszechny Theatre in Warsaw invited the Croatian director, Olivier Frljić, to stage Klątwa (The Curse), inspired by the 1899 play by Stanisław Wyspiański. The storm broke immediately: In one scene, an actress simulated fellatio on a statue of Pope John Paul II, while accusing him of defending paedophiles in the church. In another scene, an actress spoke of an abortion she considered having done abroad (in Poland, one of the hottest present topics is more radical restrictions proposed on abortion laws). In another, a cast member discussed why is it impossible to collect funds for killing the leader of the Law and Justice party, Jarosław Kaczyński – though in the media, this was then presented as a scene in which funds are collected to pay a contract killer.

The production erupted the already exacerbated atmosphere. Outside the theatre, religious organizations picketed along with the neo-fascists of the ONR (National Radical Camp). Street frays and scuffles with police took place. Reports from the theatre ran in the mainstream media for weeks. Somebody wielded a corrosive substance. Without a doubt, Frljić had managed to unveil the conflict existing in Polish society. Not simply his production, but the reactions to it display the degree of polarisation and the appalling growth of nationalism and xenophobia. No stage production in recent years has unleashed such a tidal wave of hatred. It was the strongest political statement of the past several years.

The Ministry of Culture and National Heritage couldn’t react directly because the Powszechny Theatre as an institution is under the Warsaw City Hall. However, Minister Gliński condemned the production and supported the picketing nationalists. The ministry took up retaliatory actions on a different front. Olivier Frljić, the director, was curating the annual Malta Festival in Poznań, which is co-financed by the Ministry of Culture. Minister Gliński – breaking the contract that had been valid for years – withdrew funding. Consequences were also paid by the Dialog theatre festival in Wrocław for programming The Curse.

The political in Polish theatre, as I have said, is present in productions and in the struggle over institutions. Process [The Trial] by director Krystian Lupa, which is both a critical diagnosis of the situation in Poland and a gesture of solidarity by four Warsaw theatres, should be placed on both of these fronts. The Nowy and Powszechny Theatres, TR Warszawa and the Studio Theatre raised funding for the production, performed by actresses and actors who had been fired by or quit the Polski Theatre in Wrocław.

Though Polish theatre has an increasingly limited field of activities, its political message is not losing strength. For the time being.

March 7th 2018

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Piotr Morawski

is an assistant professor in the Institute of Polish Culture at the University of Warsaw, a member of the editorial board of the theatre journal Dialog, and a cultural researcher and cultural historian.