A Greek Tragedy of World War II

A Polish adaptation of ‘Antigone’ highlights universal themes in the country’s tortured experience under Nazi and Soviet rule.

Bartek Warzecha

WARSAW, POLAND — Classical theater does not make life easy for contemporary directors. These are plays — mainly by that Greek triumvirate, Aeschylus, Sophocles and Euripides — whose place in the classical hierarchy is assured. The place of directors with the hubris to approach them is determined according to their success in “confronting” the task and the greatness.

Some directors wisely don’t try to compete with the Greeks. Instead, they use classical plays as raw material for new theatrical works that demand to be related to on their own terms. They try to link universal values taken from the Greek texts with local realities, here and now, that speak to contemporary audiences. Such a play was recently featured at the Warsaw Theater Meetings Festival, which every year brings some of Poland’s best plays to the capital.

The play is a version of Sophocles’ “Antigone,” originally staged by the Bialystok Dramatic Theater and directed by theater manager Agnieska Korytkowska-Mazur. Bialystok is a city in northeast Poland, not far from the border of Belarus, and its location and history during World War II and the years following are significant for this version of the play, which is entitled “Antyhona,” as the Belarusian inhabitants of the region used to pronounce the name of the heroine of the Greek tragedy.

The play was prepared and presented for the first time as a street production in the Market Square of Krynki, a town on the Polish-Belarusian border, whose population until World War II was 90 percent Jewish. Like all of eastern Poland, Krynki and Bialystok were captured by the Soviet Union in 1939 as part of the Molotov-Ribbentrop Pact.

With the outbreak of war between the Soviet Union and Germany in 1941, the area was occupied by the Nazis, who largely exterminated the Jewish population with active participation by Poles and Belarusians. (This is also the historical background for the play “Our Class,” which is now being performed in Israel at the Cameri and Habima theaters.)

A tale of two cities

Director Korytkowska-Mazur and adapter Dana Lukasinka place the events of the play in two parallel locations: ancient Thebes, after Oedipus went into exile and his two sons, Eteocles and Polynices, killed one another in a fight over control of the city; and 1947 eastern Poland, when border adjustments agreed on by Poland and Russia separated families, which in any case were split due to political, ethnic and religious loyalties.

In the play, a Provoslav (Serbian-Orthodox) Belarusian father and Catholic Polish mother and their children must decide after the war who among them is Polish, who is Russian or Polish communist and who is fighting communism.

Like the Greek version, the play is about Antigone and Ismene, but the same actresses also play sisters Teresa (who is Polish) and Xenia (who is Belarusian). At the beginning of the play, they are interrogated separately on two occasions. In the first set of set of interrogations, a Polish teacher asks Xenia who she is, and she replies “a local.” He accuses her of not being Polish because she attends a Provoslav church and cannot pronounce some letters of the polish alphabet. At the same time, a Soviet soldier interrogates Teresa, claiming she is Belarusian. She insists she is Polish.

Later, a Gestapo officer interrogates Xenia, accusing her of being a Russian spy. She also insists she is Polish. At the same time, a member of the Polish communist security services interrogates Teresa about her relationship with her brother — who after the war hid in the forests and tried to fight the Soviets and communists and whose corpse is now hanging in the city square where it can’t be buried — and accuses her of ideological perversion. It turns out the brother was shot by his brother in service of the Popular Polish Army.

As we know, a very similar plot unfolds in Thebes.

The government in 1947 Krynki is in the hands of a local Jew named Simon Nishkind, whose office is visited by two fortune tellers, both of them political hacks: One of them comes on behalf of Moscow; The other, Teiresias on behalf of the communist government of Warsaw. The fortune tellers manipulate the local ruler — as they do Creon, the ruler of Thebes. They don’t talk about the Jews who were destroyed in the recent past; they existed and they disappeared.

Nishkind loses his son, Moshka, who is in love with Teresa, the Antigone equivalent who is determined to bury her brother, whose corpse is hanging in the city square for all to see and fear.

Irreconcilable differences

In a meeting with Korytkowska-Mazur, Lukasinka and the actors after the play, Lukasinka, the adapter, said the region where the theater operates is presented in the official propaganda as a bastion of multiculturalism, where Poles, Belarusians and many others live in harmony.

But in fact, she said, the reality is one of xenophobia (including against Jews), and during work on the play, she came across innumerable family stories from the recent past that were reminiscent of the familial-political-ideological struggle that tears apart Oedipus’ family, with the gods of Olympus in the Greek drama replaced by the political-ideological-ethnic vicissitudes of the mid-20th century in this part of the world.

For the Jewish spectator from Israel, who is convinced there is nothing like the bloody complexity of the Jewish-Palestinian conflict against the backdrop of international anti-Semitism (and Polish anti-Semitism, of course), it was fascinating and refreshing to see a play about a contemporary conflict that, like the Greek tragedy, also lacks a reasonable solution and tends to empty the idea of “localism” of content.

Here, for example, is a short monologue by Xenia, recited to Simon, who orders her executed together with her sister Teresa:

“Recently, there is always someone liberating us. The renewed Polish state liberated us from illusions about a Poland that belongs to everyone. The Russians liberated us from the Sanatzia [the authoritarian party that ruled pre-war Poland]. The Nazis liberated us from the Russians, the Russians from the Nazi occupation, the Home Army [the anti-Nazi underground that became anti-communist] from the Russians, the Russian partisans from the Home Army. The Pole informed on the Belarusian, the Belarusian on the Pole, the Provoslav on the Catholic, the Catholic on the Provoslav. I’m a local. I understand there are boundaries, but the boundary doesn’t pass through my heart.”

On the other hand, in response to Moshka’s attempts to entice her with talk of a shared future, Teresa, who is determined to go bravely to her death, says, “To live with a Jew wasn’t easy. With a communist it’s impossible.”

At the end of the play Teresa is executed, Haemon, Moshka’s Greek equivalent, commits suicide, the body of Eurydice, Creon’s wife, is found in the river with a knife in her back and all the local residents are exiled across the border. Some farmers, though, move the border posts at night to preserve the integrity of their properties.

Fatigues and togas

In Warsaw, the chorus of the production, which combines Greek tragedy with the Polish-Belarusian-familial human tragedy, was composed of singers from local choirs, who stood in the background on a 20-foot-high skeletal structure, dressed in white robes. They clapped rhythmically to confirm the party-hack prophets’ words of prophecy-incitement and recited the texts of Sophocles, which repeatedly warn that people are doomed to repeat history as long as they don’t have the sense to learn from it. Among the spectators at the production in the Krynki market, designed by local artist Leon Tarasewicz, were members of families whose histories are similar to the stories performed on the stage.

Clearly, in adapting the production for the Warsaw stage, it was impossible to recreate the quasi-documentary power of the production as performed in the Krynki market. (There are plans to perform there again, and this time to film the production for television). But the performance of the actors and actresses carried the weight of the time of place to which they belong, even when concepts such as “place” are constantly being recharged, as the events in Ukraine and Crimea prove.

The men performed in dark green uniforms, as befits soldiers, political officers or partisans, the women in white dresses and the chorus in white robes. The men’s military coats served as toga-like robes in parts of the Greek tragedy. In Polish and Belarusian, Sophocles was both universal and contemporary.

Bartek Warzecha