Political Theater in Poland: An Overview

In 1989, theatrical directors were happy enough to toss aside political matters and allow the newly democratically ellected government and the media to deal with them. Political theater seemed to have died. Now, it's making a come back in a new form.

Political theater, these days, is above all, socially engaged theater. It is sensitive to the problem of alienation and unemployment. It asks questions about the meaning of patriotism in an era of globalization, and about the strength of national mythologies and our view of history.

"It speaks to what is grey and poor rather than the talk of the town," says Jacek Głomb, the director of the Legnica Theater, who was one of the first to introduce social themes to the stage. "I reached for issues that were out there, unconcerned that I would somehow dirty myself with reality as others feared. The now famous 'Ballad Zakaczawiu' gave voice to the citizens of the city. Their own stories were turned into a tale of roots, identity and hope," he says. Other theaters, notably from Wałbrzych and Nowa Huta are also taking similar routes.

Political Theater, with a leftist bent, has also been the occupation of Maciej Nowak, director general of the Wybrzeże Theater in Gdańsk for the past five years. Of note is his Fast Track City Theater project. This project is the basis of transposing the ground of experience and practice for Polish documentary theater "Verbatim" which is developing well in England (Royal Court Theater) and Russia (Teatr.doc). It is an attempt to bring drama and reality closer together. In order to understand this world and its' history, it is necessary to collect reliable documentary material and to get to know the people and realities that one is analyzing. It is not the intention of this kind of theater to create a falsification of reality, or to stereotype the world as the media often does.

"Yes, well, we set to work on this project as though we were professional journalists publishing a daily newspaper. First we discussed what news was 'fit to print,' what would be of importance these days. Then teams - consisting of a reporter, a director and a playwright were set up. We needed the reporter because these are people trained in collecting facts and data. We also threw actors into the mix. These groups took up the topics we agreed upon beforehand. I never suspected they would get along so marvelously and cooperate so well. We slowly come to conclusions based on our research and this becomes the foundation for some of our plays," says Nowak.

Others who have provided commentary on current events are Paweł Sala, with his "Gang Bang," which is styled as a tale of breaking the sexual record of Poland, "More Suicides happen on Sunday," by Anna Burzyńska, which is about the wave of layoffs taking place during the 1990s in the ranks of managers of international corporations, "Łucja and her child," by Marek Pruchniewsi is about the true story of a woman who was forced by her economic situation and by her family to murder her newly born child, "Tiramisu - the hit made by Tadeusz Słobodzianek's Laboratorium Dramatu - which is an illustration of the price that a woman must pay to find work, "Agata is Looking for a job," by Dana Lukasińska, about the suffering of graduates looking for their first job.

If you took a poll on the subject of the most positive character in Polish new theater, the winner would be the character of a homosexual - eventually a lesbian. Such is the hero of "Dotyk," performed at the Powszechny Theater, which is a play about coming out by Marek Modzelewski. Łukasz, the hero of the Teatr Polonia's 'Darkroom' is another example that comes to mind; he is unabashed about his gay life style, and an open advocate of the ethos of 'make love not war.' Finally, the two lesbians, Sugar and Magda, whose story is told by 'Whatever happens I love you,' at the Rozmaitości Theater, is a classical love story, albeit with a twist. "Lubiev" will soon join this pantheon of gay heroes - the book by Michał Witkowski is being made into a play at the Rozmaitości Theater.

Theater which takes up the problematic of sexual orientation is not something altogether new in Poland. Krzysztof Warlikowski has, since the begining of his work as a director, accustomed audiences to the subject matter. One of the main themes of 'Hamlet' as it was shown in the Rozmaitości Theater, was the notion of seeking out sexual identity. Wozzeck, Warlikowski's latest prmiere at the National Opera, describes a world wherein the roles of men and women are rigidly defined and where there is no room for the hybrid Frank Wozzeck.

Classicism was always a treasure trove of national myths and symbols, a school of patriotism. However, all of the contemporary discussions about how it ought to be put on these days have not brought much fruit. There is no idea for what might symbolize the hand cuffs on Gustaw Kondrad. Who are the "fiends from Moscow" supposed to be in Mickiewicz's work? What would the phrase "Poland: Winkelried of nations!" mean when shouted by Kordian at Mont Blanc.

Contemporary theater has two methods for answering these questions: either putting on classical texts word-for-word or reinterpreting them and opening them up to harsh criticism from taditionalists.

The most well known practitioner of this second method have been Jan Klata and Michał Zadara. Klata, in his "H," performed at the Gdańsk Shipyard, presented a cementary of the symbol of solidarity and in his "Daughter of Fizdejka" he questioned whether the German dominated European Union did not behave towards Poland like colonists of old. Klata also used unemployed persons from Wałbrzych as actors in the play.

It's no surprise then, that Klata's newest upcoming play, Transfer, which will deal with the problem of Germans who were forcefully removed from Poland following the war, has government party senators up in arms. Another of Klata's plays, "Fantasy," based on the play by Słowacki, also caused controversy because the director moved the action of the play to a ghetto in Gdańsk. On the other hand, Zadara's work on Słowacki's "Prince Marek" updates farmers and makes them into slummers with guns - suggesting that Polish patriotism is laden with anti-semitism and xenophobia and that there is a thin line between the fight for national and patriotic ideals and mere banditism.

Political Theater is not only making more and more advances in the world of theater, but it is also having an impact on the social and political discourse in Poland. As Paweł Mościcki wrote of Political Theater, "it must slowly move from being engaged in social affairs to engaging people in social affairs."


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