Artists’ Safety and Freedom of Expression at Risk in Poland, or How Nationalists Stopped a Theatre Production

The facts. A few weeks into the rehearsal period – and three weeks before the opening, scheduled on December 7th –, a new production of the renowned Narodowy (National) Stary Teatr (NST) in Krakow was attacked by Polish nationalists. The show, called the Undivine Comedy. Remains, explicitly addressed the anti-Semitism of a piece by Zygmunt Krasiński, a Romantic writer considered one of the Three National Bards of Poland.

The nationalists’ intervention began on November 14th, with members of the audience interrupting a performance of Road to Damascus (directed by Jan Klata, the general manager of NST), continued with threatening messages sent to the actors, and culminated with “expose” articles published by the local Dziennik Polski, one of which offered a detailed description of the show not yet open to the public and another one about the National Stary Teatre failing its mission to serve the national Polish culture. Despite the support of national newspapers such as Gazeta Wyborcza and the portal dwutygodnik.com, on November 27th, the managing team of NST announced that the theatre had suspended the show and the premiere would not take place. It is the first time an important theatre in Poland gives up under the attack of the nationalists. Even if it appears to be just another episode in the ‘cultural wars’ over symbolic values, this act shows how much the post-1989 Poland was build on a national spirit that limits the rights of others, from Jews to progressive artists.

The context. The production of the Undivine Comedy was marked by the association with national cultural landmarks: it was part of a yearly programme celebrating Konrad Swinarski (who himself had staged Krasinski’s drama in 1965), a Brechtian director famous, among other things, for fighting the stereotypes around Romantic drama literature. And Krasinski… well, beside the fact that the Undivine Comedy (1835) is part of the Polish school curriculum, the Three National Bards (Krasinski, Adam Mickiewicz and Juliusz Slowacki) should be truly called The Three Untouchables: questioning the nationalist ideology of the Partitions Era (the 123 years during which Poland didn’t exist as a sovereign state) is just something you don’t do in Poland. The opposition to communism during the ‘80s was not gathered only around the Solidarity trade unions but also around the Catholic Church, and the national cultural identity, with intellectuals that, sometimes, were not far from hoping they would play the role the Three Bards had played in the 19th century.

In addition, Undivine Comedy (the title in Polish is both a reference to Dante and a hint to ‘godlessness’) is retroactively interpreted as a rejection of the Bolshevik revolution of 1917. It stages an early form of a class war, a confrontation between the aristocrats and the ‘common people’ – the aristocrat loses but later the common man (the proletarian revolutionary) is punished by… Christ the Avenger. Krasinski’s overall vision, of history determined by God, of Poles being a sort of chosen people because of their tradition, their faith and their martyrdom, leads to anti-Semitic statements, and not too subtle ones at that:

You, fair dame, had sons;

Why did you not make warriors of them, men,

That they might aid you now in your distress?

No, you have all preferred your pleasure, ease.

Dealings with Jews and lawyers to get gold

To spend in luxury:—go call on them for aid!“

Despite the dispute around the Jedwabne case (a village where in 1941 the Poles killed their Jewish neighbors without any help from Nazi soldiers) and the number of books, films and theatre shows about the interwar anti-Semitism in Poland, admitting how far in time this anti-Semitism goes is not something at hand for the hard core of Polish society. The entire identity of the conservative Poland (and this is the Poland that gave a Pope, overthrew communism, etc.) is based on the primate of victimhood and heroism – and the idea of having persecuted others, the Jews, doesn’t fit into it.

It’s not only this narrative that prohibits the show’s critical exploration of Polish anti-semitism. Actually, there were other attempts to iconoclastically discuss the Romantic national plays – director Paweł Wodziński made a trilogy in Bydgoszcz that included the Undivine Comedy, another deconstructing show in this trilogy, on Mickiewicz’s Forefathers’ Eve, being presented in Krakow in the framework of the biggest Polish theatre showcase – but here there was another stake: Undivine Comedy. Remains was not produced in a small city far away in the East; it was about to be staged in Krakow, the cradle of Polish culture, in a national institution in the city where the kings of Poland are buried.

To top it all, the director was not even Polish; it was Oliver Frljic, a Croatian born in Bosnia and an artist with an established reputation of shaking the political status quo, whose performance about the assassination of Serbian prime-minister, Zoran Dindic, had already caused a scandal the previous year. The fact that he constantly tackles social taboos was not unknown to Jan Klata when he invited him to work. Klata assumed this risk, but apparently he was not aware of how far the nationalism has gone in the past few years in Poland – after the fall of the presidential plane in Smolensk. Because the ‘protests’ were not about how anti-Semitic the Undivine Comedy really is; they were about how ‘national’ a National Theatre should be and what artists are and are not ‘allow’ to do. Questions that have arisen recently in other places in Europe, too: in Hungary, partly in Romania, even in France (not to mention Russia, Ukraine and Belarus). But, again, it’s the first time in recent Polish history when nationalism has managed to stop a theater production for good.

But why? Why did Jan Klata – himself not a very accommodating director – decide to stop Frljic’s show? In fact, it appears rather clearly that the actors were scared: Klata has been the general manager of Stary Teatr for less than a year but the actors live and work in Krakow on a regular basis, the city is their community. The mere idea that a dozen actors feel overwhelmed by a handful of people and one not very popular newspaper outraged because they are part of an artistic endeavor of questioning the contemporary society is an appalling thought. Klata’s choice was, basically, between the safety (including physical) and the principle of the freedom of expression – but apparently, the actors were already going for safety.

„This resolution cannot be interpreted but as an act of censorship and yielding to the right-wing extremists’ arguments. It legitimizes and perpetuates the violent attack on artistic freedom that has already happened through media, as well as its alarming aftermath. It reveals the acceptance of situation in which particular media and related interest groups can dictate what is proper or not to be shown on the national theatre stage“, write members of the Undivine comedy. Remains creative team (the ones that are not actually employed at Stary Teatr). They were the only one to take a position – nobody else in the theatre was allowed to make statements. Pretty much everybody in the national Polish press has read Klata’s decision as being unfortunate. Grzegorz Niziolek, an influent theatre theoretician, puts it in a very strong note in dwutyodnik.com: by emphasizing the need for safety, Jan Klata placed himself in the logic of institutionalized power.

 

 

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