Polish Theater Does What Theater Can and Should Do

The 36th festival of the best of Polish theater, taking place in Warsaw, has some overlapping points with Israel.

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A scene from 'The French,' Warsaw Theater.
A scene from 'The French,' Warsaw Theater. Credit: Tal Biton
Michael Handelzalts
Michael Handelzalts

WARSAW – Poles marked the 73rd anniversary of the Warsaw Ghetto Uprising on April 19. Many people were milling around the streets of the Polish capital with a yellow paper lily on their lapel. Marek Edelman, a Polish Jewish commander of the uprising, had made it one of the symbols of remembering the revolt.

I find this date significant, although I see my visit to Warsaw as professional and theater-oriented rather than historical and Jewish. I came here for the 36th Warsaw Theater Meetings, which present the best of Polish theater of the past year. At the center is Teatr Dramatyczny (The Dramatic Theater), whose director is Tadeusz Sobodzianek (whose play “Our Class” tells of the fate of the members of one school class over the course of 75 years).

A new play by Krystian Lupa, one of the best known and most prominent directors on the European stage, opened the festival. It brought together part of the works of Austrian author Thomas Bernhard. In the early ‘90s, almost at the beginning of his career, Lupa directed Bernhard’s “The Lime Works” at the Be’er Sheva Theater.

This time he put up “Heldenplatz” (“Hero’s Square”), Bernhard’s most renowned play, which was written and takes place in 1988. Its name is that of the Vienna square in which Hitler declared the Anschluss in 1938. All Bernhard’s works are soaked in hatred of his homeland, Austria, which in his evaluation allowed what happened to it in World War II, and did not learn a single lesson from history.

The play itself, in which little happens but much is said of what has happened and will happen, is potentially incredibly boring. Moreover, it is a production that Lupa directed with actors from the Lithuanian National Drama Theater in Lithuanian. In addition, they play slowly. And despite it all, the three acts and five hours were totally gripping.

The play takes place in the apartment of an Austrian Jewish professor next to Heldenplatz on the day of his funeral after he committed suicide by jumping out of his window into the square. The deceased’s wife, who is in the apartment, hears imaginary voices of an incited mob from the square, voices that indeed were heard there in 1938.

However, most of the play is a long monologue by the deceased’s brother, in which he settles his score with the Austrian government and society of 1988: The stupid president, the wretched prime minister and his cabinet and the rotten and corrupt establishment are all cynics and opportunists, and at the head are the church on the one hand and the neo-Nazi factions on the other.

Much of the rage of the speaker, who serves as Bernhard’s mouthpiece, is turned toward the public that goes to be entertained in the national theater and lets it all happen. Everything prophesizes galloping fascism, which in the end will lead again to persecution of Jews (the professor and his family are Jewish) and their dispatch to the gas chambers.

The Polish audience, which filled one of the exhibition halls in the suburbs of Warsaw, received the play as if it were talking about the current situation in Poland, which is controlled by a right-wing government that has been repeatedly accused of galloping fascism. Cries of support and applause that interrupted the play were unequivocal.

And that is the power and uniqueness of this play – beyond the aesthetic, accurate and impressive adaptation in shades of gray, with its changing projection of the background. It constitutes defiance of the situation in contemporary Europe. Bernhard’s subversive text is localized. It is true for a certain time and place, but it will sound topical in almost any country in the world today, including Israel. All that is needed is an audience capable of and willing to think about the world, not only about itself.

Two days later, I had the honor of seeing another theatrical settling of the score by one of Poland’s most renowned theater directors, Krzysztof Warlikowski. He belongs to the generation after Lupa. He also did a stint in Israel. At the beginning of his career, he directed “Hamlet” with Beit Zvi students, and over a decade ago he directed a production of Hanoch Levin’s “Krum” – which to a great degree cleared a path for a flood of Levin productions on the Polish stage. The lighting technician in all his plays, including this one (and lighting is a very significant part of these plays) is Israeli-American Felice Ross.

The debut of Warlikowski’s play “The French” – five hours with two breaks – was held last year in one of Europe’s theater festivals. The play is – don’t fall off your chair – a theatrical version of the Marcel Proust’s book “Remembrance of Things Past.” The declared goal, according to Warlikowski as he explained in the playbill, is to evaluate Europe’s current situation by taking a look at the recent past.

Here, too, the climax of the play is a monologue that is divided between three actors about the final days of Pompeii on the eve of the First World War. The monologue speaks of the corrupted ways of the church, anti-Semitism, nationalism, the first signs of fascism and the terrible violence growing out of social decay, in the shadow of the historic mountain that was about to explode.

Warlikowski’s audience, which was younger, more dolled-up, trendier and more beautiful than the festival crowd, welcomed this retrospective prophecy, which scorns the destruction of personalities of the peoples of Europe, as if the script were about Poland here and now. It is performed by Proust’s characters who are already shabby, sick and on the verge of death, and still they continue to play social games. On a wall in Pompeii, one of the characters on the stage says, it is written “Sodom and Gomorrah,” and the speaker calls on the audience, and on all Europe, to cry out “Mea culpa” (“I am guilty”).

Two apocalyptic prophecies about Europe marching to destruction include persecution and the destruction of Jews. They are the work of two Polish theater directors who do not depend on subscribers and box receipts. They are doing what theater can and should do – tell a story, reflect and warn.

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