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    Acting in the Night

    What can the performance of a single play on one specific night tell us about the world this event inhabited so briefly? Alexander Nemerov takes a performance of Macbeth in Washington, DC on October 17, 1863--with Abraham Lincoln in attendance--to explore this question and illuminate American art, politics, technology, and life as it was being lived. Nemerov's inspiration is Wallace Stevens and his poem "Anecdote of the Jar," in which a single object organizes the wilderness around it in the consciousness of the poet. For Nemerov, that evening's performance of Macbeth reached across the tragedy of  civil war to acknowledge the horrors and emptiness of a world it  tried and ultimately failed to change.

     

     

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    Out of Silence

    This collection of essays on the subject of theatre and various forms of censorship gathers in an original and stimulating manner the voices of academics, practitioners and artist-scholars, among them Chantal Bilodeau, Stephen Bottoms, Marvin Carlson, Tim Crouch, Stephen J. Duncombe, Rinde Eckert, Randy Gener, Matthew Goulish, Baz Kershaw, Joanna Laurens, Carl Lavery, Christopher Shinn, and Aleks Sierz. Edited by playwright, scholar and activist Caridad Svich, Out of Silence is an impassioned volume that focuses not only on governmental censorship, but also on the self-censorship of theatre artists in the process of theatre-making and performance.

  • WEB EXCLUSIVE:

    Post-Dramatic Theater and the Bleeding Heart of the Seventies

    Translated by Lucy Renner Jones.

    Published by permission.

    This essay-provocation originally appeared in a special 50th anniversary issue of the German theater magazine Theater heute.—Eds.

    Photographs: The Living Theater. 

     

     

    I. 

    On June 2nd 1967, a police officer fatally shot Benno Ohnesorg in the streets of Berlin, fuelling the German left-wing terrorism of the ‘70s. Journalist Ernst Wendt—soon to become an eminent German dramaturg—was reporting from the Experimenta festival in Frankfurt am Main when the killing took place. His article for Theater heute reads:

    "The shot that hit student Benno Ohnesorg in the back of the head was fired during the beginning of Experimenta II: at the Theater am Turm, the Scala Theatre Stockholm was performing the “Song of the Lusitanian Bogey” by Peter Weiss. At the same time as a frustrated city was enacting a drama of its own hysteria and repression, the helplessness of a theatre dubbing itself ‘political’ was revealed. Nothing supports this theatre except its own dogmatic conviction that it is right. While Benno Ohnesorg was dying in Berlin, the actors in Frankfurt were protesting against colonial exploitation, making their manifesto palatable via an eclectic music revue, blues and folklore, in other words, forms of entertainment that had long since become bourgeois. The protest was starring itself. Three days later, the Six-Day War began in the Middle East and was over before the Experimenta had finished trying to prove the existence of a new form of theatre. (…) While the battle raged in the Sinai Desert, and students on Kurfürstendamm debated for nights on end with the people the tabloid press had incited against them, and while in Frankfurt, thousands marched in silent protest to Römerberg and many more thousands drove on the highway to Hanover – while all this was going on (…), youth was playing itself on stage, advertising its attitudes with grating emphasis as the one and only dramatic subject. At the end of Ann Jellicoe’s “The Sport of My Mad Mother”, directed by Claus Peymann, young people stepped to the front of the stage and sprayed the audience with water pistols.

    Bang, bang, bang... On those very days, real gunfire was being fired on the Gaza Strip and in Berlin. The overwhelmingness of events, the impotence of artists, the irrelevance of pure drama, the shamelessness of every kind of blind self-promotion – all these things were revealed, unintentionally, to the Experimenta II audience. Those who’d heard the tape recordings of the Berlin police ‘performance’ the day before couldn’t fail to regard Peymann’s child’s play with water pistols, and his invincible, self-flaunting youths, as infantile, naïve and exhibitionistic."

    Reality has bigger guns than theater. It imposes itself in dramatic ways. You have to respond to reality, even if the only viable response is accusing the theatre of failing it. Both stances can be moving: the unconditional willingness to be rocked by reality, and the equally unconditional willingness to demand from the theater that it prove it can withstand stand the shock, that it be generous enough to get over its own narcissism.

    In June 1970, nearly three years later, a long article by Ivan Nagel was published in Theater heute on Emilia Galotti, the last work of Fritz Kortner, the great director of West German post-war theater, performed at the Vienna Josefstadt Theatre. In Lessing’s drama, the bourgeois struggle for liberation from the aristocracy rages and the battlefield is Emilia’s body: 

    "A traditional performance of this play has to be questionable for Kortner for artistic reasons. After all, an attack on the court surely no longer mobilizes a director’s or actor’s experience and strength. (…) Ethical sensibilities also warn against such an attack, since the point is not to have the established bourgeois audience of today identify with the revolutionary bourgeois public of yesterday – or to clear its conscience about its own compulsive habits by damning a despot who no longer exists. The demand, therefore, to “play the German classics as they were written” cuts off German theatre from its artistic and ethical truth. Additionally, it binds it tighter to National Socialist theatre, whose hollow practice of remaining “true to the classics” – a construct of highly polished words and fictitious feelings – focused all aggression towards foreign evildoers in an attempt to prevent any reflection on national repression. … The prudish, inflexible compulsions are revealed, which have always buoyed up the bourgeoisie’s self-confidence (and the vitality of its drama)."

    According to this plea for Regietheater – the director-driven paradigm that dominated postwar German theater— theatre should reveal something. Theater should provide a mirror for the bourgeois audience in which it most likely doesn’t want to recognize itself. Nagel defends an ethos of reflective self-criticism for theatre artists: honesty and intellectual sincerity must be their highest artistic values. He takes for granted that the audience has to be challenged. Nagel drives his manifesto, cloaked in the guise of a review, right into the center of a new revolution: the revolution of the young bourgeoisie pretending to be anti-bourgeois. When Nagel's essay went to print, Kortner was already old hat. One month later, in July 1970, he died at the age of 78. The Jewish-German director was driven by the urge to free Germany from the stupidity Hitler bestowed on the world—which explains his wrestling matches with classical dramatic literature, and his belief that things sublime and noble have to be ferociously protected from the taint of fascism. This kind of self-reflexive theater fights such heated battles with itself that its potential narcissism is consumed by the flames.

    Young directors were driven by a different kind of compulsion in those days: a far hotter, far more unconditional, and irresistibly sexier one. In April 1965, Ernst Wendt experienced a shock at a performance of Genet in Berlin by the Living Theatre, starring “the gentle yet tremendously energetic Judith Malina and the ascetically “aglow” Julian Beck”; the show left him “spiritually contaminated” and unable to endure any kind of conventional theatre ever again. In the February 1970 issue of Theater heute, Botho Strauss is less shocked—but still fascinated—by the Living Theatre's Paradise Now at the Sportpalast. Making reference to Walter Benjamin's essay on surrealism, he fires off a great volley of heavy European theory at the show's American naïveté. For him, the term “experience”, as coined by British anti-psychiatrist R.D. Laing, plays

    "…a central role (for the Living Theatre), not only for individual psychotherapeutic training but also in the sensibility of interaction. What Laing describes as “interexperience”, was captured by Benjamin in the highly political image of a nervous system of revolutionary communication: “only when (…) all revolutionary tension becomes bodily collective innervation, and all bodily innervations of the collective become revolutionary discharge, has reality transcended itself to the extent demanded by the Communist manifesto.” In the few exercises practiced with great self-exertion by the group that evening, I witnessed an intense intersubjective pressure that appeared to be stable enough to strengthen the weaknesses of the individual, yet flexible enough to bring out and withstand its strengths (e.g. in a sudden improvisation). The moment the collective experience was destroyed, however, an actor broke away from the community and with uncontrolled excess, mimicking an act of masturbation while yelling barbarically with lust, quite clearly committed a symbolic act of aggression against the others."

    Enter the shamans of revolution (and masturbation).. Artists wanted to prove they could stand the erotic – and autoerotic – demands of the revolution. Radicalization permits the revolutionaries of theatre and life to do something great: in a self-induced fever, they equate the struggle for liberation with the struggle for satisfaction. The un-erogenous body is a victim of structural violence – and, conversely, the erogenous body is a weapon in the revolutionary battle. Being totally into yourself suddenly passes as a political act. For a short, historical moment, politics and therapy are united under the vague slogan of “liberation”. For the duration of a batted eyelid, theater’s narcissism and its political aims converge.

    And that’s how theater’s great minds banged their heads together until they were sore. That’s how mistakes were made and some great deeds were done that nowadays cause shudders (and rightly so). The battle for liberation often ended in a cramp that carried on hurting for decades. But at least they tried. They rose to reality’s challenges. They could put their hands on their hearts because they still had hearts.

     

    II. 

    On Theater heute’s 50th birthday, it’s as though someone has stopped the music: all the excess tension has drained away.

    Reality no longer has bigger guns. It just hangs around in the company of discourse, its amusing governess. Drama has fallen asleep. In the theatrical  installations of Rimini Protokoll, we can encounter “reality” onstage, and it will no longer kill us or get to us. To record protocol is a bureaucratic procedure, with no ecstasy involved. Rimini Protokoll has become the model for a whole generation of theater artists—yet, the company's artistic production can only climax in a never-ending loop of Sesame Street for the eternal student.

    What we’re dealing with here is post-dramatic theater. Its proponents have prescribed a kind of high-tech medicine for the stage: there is a beeping machine producing discourse, which will be live-streamed onto the stage, and a beeping machine for theory that prohibits all forms of immediacy. Each beeping machine proves that we are in the now. Invariably, post-dramatic theatre can be spotted squatting on stage behind a mess of Macbooks and tangled cables. In this world, the artist is the epitome of the tragic, hyper-networked but lonely monad, flung into a world of technology. And on his hard-drive, there is the musty smell of a thousand seminars.

    Bernd Stegemann describes with precision the horrors of post-dramatic theatre in a great essay from Theater heute’s October, 2008 issue [see Theater 39:3 for an English translation of Stegemann’s essay—Eds]. He cleverly contrasts it with those values of the traditional theater that are no longer held in high regard—such as mimesis and dramatic conflict: “Conflict is… the best form of expression we have because … it shows nature as contradictory, an “existence that is simply not as it should be.”” But post-dramatists create consensus for a world that wants to believe everything is just fine the way it is.

    Stegemann describes post-drama as the product of an academic cartel: “Theory makes itself an aesthetic principle of art that can be better and more appropriately reflected by theory itself”.  In other words, students from the famous Institute for Applied Theatre Studies in Giessen deliver Giessen’s lessons to the world, making Giessen famous, and thereby strengthening Giessen—which then produces more students to deliver Giessen’s lessons to the world, thus making Giessen even more famous, and so on ad infinitum, thereby eternally securing the institute’s importance in the field. As Stegemann concludes:

    "And a whole generation is therefore faced with a jargon that is meant to be recited like a mantra. This is a fatal situation for the upcoming generation who needs support and has nothing to work with but the solutions of a past postmodernism, and at the same time is faced with a present in which any harmless simulation of conflicts is merely a dream."

      

    III.

    In the street outside my apartment, power-dressed über-moms manoeuvre lightweight aluminium prams into parking position in view of unshaven bums drinking at kiosks. Everyone can be shaped into a cliché by his or her level of anxiety (Financial crisis! End of the Euro! Unshaven bums!). What’s being celebrated here is the end of the caring society and the resurrection of ancient hierarchies. But no one is allowed to say this out loud, of course. The myth of the modern, socially pacified Germany of yore must be held up at all costs.

    The Berlin street scene of today is pure nineteenth century, with a few accessories from the 1950s (length of skirts and prudish-conservative elitist morals). Next, we will introduce a kind of Dickensian London with iPhones and iPads for the privileged, and pay-per-view TV for the dropouts. The power struggles being fought here are ancient, and they seal us into the walls of this nineteenth century setting until we can’t move anything but the hand on the mouse that gives us relief in the virtual world. Only then do we feel truly modern. We no longer recognize the dramatic conflicts of our world or how they come to a head at breakneck speed—even when they are dangled in front of our noses. And we don't think our denial of conflict is such a big drama.

    The greatest achievement of our time is a freedom we perceive as all-encompassing, although it has no liberating qualities. The cultural techniques of the great emancipation movements have turned themselves against us. If we radicalize the theories of the Israeli sociologist Eva Illouz just a little, we can describe therapy as a means of repression – once, it was meant to help us, but now it no longer liberates. Instead, it cements social conventions. Happiness is an economic product and we believe it can be manufactured. Each individual is responsible for its production and maintenance, everyone in isolation, too scared to let artists show us that we might be able to change the world or even contribute to its state – each of us immobilized, unable to act.

    In mantra-like fashion, ever-more cranky and conservative theater critics thrust their “to go forwards, we have to go back” motto onto the artists. But to expect our culture of repression to produce a theatre which finds its way back to mimesis and catharsis is absurd: it is the last thing we want. We don’t want to be disturbed. We live according to the slogan of the advertising industry: “Avoid cognitive dissonance!” Things have become too complicated—too much for us. We are mesmerized by emotional dullness, and even the re-introduction of torture by the leading democracy of the West produces nothing but a radical shrug of our collective shoulders. 

    We have no ideals. We see the world as a place not deserving of criticism or change, a place that manipulates us and that we have to manipulate back to our own advantage. Simply being allowed to play this game is considered “freedom”. We cannot win it so we shut ourselves off. We think of both the world and our very selves as elaborate subterfuges, and these perspectives are manifested in the subterfuges of postmodern and post-postmodern discourse. We are caught in an epistemological system that we can’t think ourselves out of any more. In everything and everyone, we see only ourselves and know no other enemy. This entanglement means we also have no material for tragedies. Our time operates with hierarchies so deftly hidden and so aggressively denied, that a clear hierarchy of author, text, director, character and actor on the stage would be anachronistic. And there can be no anachronistic theatre.

    We are torn between overtaxing ourselves--through self-imposed responsibility, lacking a protective (or punishing) God); lacking the kind of visible structural violence whose institutions and representatives we could protest against on the streets; lacking clear-cut perpetrators and victims—and running away into playful irresponsibility. This very old-fashioned drama cannot be brought to the stage using the theatrical methods that are hip today because these techniques don’t allow for a critique of the status quo. We’re scared, but we don’t want to put a name on our fear any more. One can call for a Theatre of Cruelty or Revolt—but a Theatre of Fear can’t exist for the simple reason that creating theatre requires a downright insane level of courage, a recklessness we can't seem to find the 'on' switch for right now.

    Post-dramatic theater, with its emotional anaemia and its absence of euphoria, is precisely the theatre we deserve. This kind of theatre is highly modern and irrefutably smart—but it no longer gets to us. The theatre of the 1970s was still able to play with a bourgeois body wanting ecstatic de-bourgeoisification, and able to romanticize the act of ecstasy as a political act of liberation, a revolutionary deed. Post-dramatic theatre is bodiless: if we prick it, it doesn’t bleed. Its narcissism is all in its concept, in the desire to prove its own modernity—which is all too easily done. It simulates just enough dissidence for us not to run away in fear. But above all, post-dramatic theatre hums the tune we want to hear – the great song of compliance.

    A critique of post-dramatic theatre would have to start off in a really old-fashioned critique of society: whoever wants a better theatre shouldn’t demand a more traditional theatre but better times. Or worse ones.

    ----------

    Robin Detje was a theatre critic for major German newspapers for many years. He is the biographer of director Frank Castorf. Today he is a member of bösediva, a Berlin collective for post-post-dramatic performance art. An earlier version of this text appeared in Theater heute Jahrbuch 2010, Berlin 2010, in celebration of the 50th anniversary of this journal.

  • EXCLUSIVE ONLINE CONTENT:

    The Ghosts of Memory


    Photos by Alexander Iziliaev.

     

    Our Class

    by Tadeusz Słobodzianek

    Wilma Theater, Philadelphia (October 12-November 13, 2011)

    Photos by Alexander Iziliaev


    There is a large, rectangular structure with a pointed roof and transparent walls onstage. People are milling around inside it. As the auditorium lights go down, those inside slowly, tentatively, come out two-by-two, as if surprised to be released. When they have all emerged, they face the audience, and one actress sings a song in a soft, childish voice. The lights fade to black, then quickly come back up brightly. The same actors who’ve just left the upstage structure are now schoolchildren who raise their hands and introduce themselves by saying their names, their fathers’ professions, and what they want to be when they grow up: shoemaker, fireman, doctor, teacher, wagon driver, soldier, seamstress, film star, pilot. Thus the U.S. premiere of Tadeusz Słobodzianek’s play Our Class, directed by Blanka Zizka at the Wilma Theater in Philadelphia, begins.

    Our Class is based on Neighbors: The Destruction of the Jewish Community in Jedwabne, Poland, by Jan Tomasz Gross (Polish edition, 2000; English edition, 2001), which describes the massacre, on July 10, 1941, of nearly all the Jews—who constituted a majority of the inhabitants—of Jedwabne, a small town in the nation’s northeast. When Neighbors was first published in Poland, it caused a firestorm with its challenge to cherished assumptions about Polish national character and conduct during World War II. Prior to the book’s publication, Poles had generally believed themselves to be victims of Hitler and Stalin who were by-and-large innocent of any collaboration or perpetration. Neighbors shattered that illusion: its central revelation, that Poles in Jedwabne, and in some other villages in the area—not Germans—had killed their Jewish neighbors, came as great shock, causing much soul-searching in some Poles and much denial in others.[i] Though other Polish theater artists (most notably director Krzysztof Warlikowski in his versions of The Tempest and The Dybbuk) have responded indirectly to the historical events discussed in Gross’s book, Słobodzianek’s drama is the first to deal directly with Jedwabne.

    Our Class is not, however, a straightforward adaptation of Neighbors for the stage. This would be impossible, in any case, as Neighbors is, as New York Times reviewer Steven Erlanger writes, “more an essay than a history.” Słobodzianek’s play is a work of fiction which draws on several other sources, including the book My z Jedwabnego (We of Jedwabne, 2004) by journalist Anna Bikont, and the documentary Sąsiedzi (Neighbors, 2001) directed by Agnieszka Arnold.  The play combines and conflates real-life characters and incidents from Jedwabne and Radziłów, a neighboring village that experienced a similar massacre a few days before the Jedwabne pogrom. It tries to explore not only the event of the slaughter and the motivations of the perpetrators, but also the aftermath: the suppression of the memory of what transpired on that day, a horrible recollection that refuses to go away and lingers in the town, poisoning the lives both of the perpetrators and the survivors.

    Director Blanka Zizka has seized on one of the images that appears in the second half of the play, that of ghosts who haunt the perpetrators and the survivors of the massacre, and used it to inform her whole production. In the Wilma’s press materials, she quotes a story by Polish-Jewish writer Hanna Krall, in which a Jewish émigré returning to Poland describes his hometown as “uglier and older. Maybe because specters are wandering about. They don’t want to leave, since no one mourns for them, since no one weeps for them. From unlamented specters there is such a grayness.”  Zizka explains, “This idea of specters, seeking an opportunity to tell their story, to be lamented, has become a key idea for developing my concept of staging for Our Class.” The always present transparent building, rendered by set designer Marsha Ginsberg, suggests the barn where Jews were burned alive by their neighbors, but it is also used more symbolically to represent a kind of limbo, where the dead souls of the murdered, as well as those who die of natural causes, go.  Thus when characters die in this production, they get up and walk into the barn. When, at the beginning, the performers come out of the building hesitantly, they are walking out of a no man’s land of the dead to enter the living world of events narrated in the play. The spectral opening scene, not present in the printed text of the script,[ii] elegantly ties the whole production together.

    Zizka seems to have grasped something about this play that other directors (or at least reviewers) of previous English-language productions, have not: the play’s second half, which takes place after the barn massacre, is just as crucial as the first half. For example, in his review for the Guardian, Michael Billington  complained about the London production that “if the second half of this three-hour-play were as riveting as the first, it would be masterly rather than very good.” Richard Ouzounian writes of the North American premiere in Toronto, “The first act of Our Class . . . is such a harrowing piece of drama that you’re likely to find yourself stunned as you find your way into the lobby at intermission. ‘How are they ever going to follow this?’ is the question you’ll ask and the only disappointing thing about this otherwise excellent production is that the answer is, ‘They don’t.’” But for Poles, such as playwright Tadeusz Słobodzianek, the drama of the Jedwabne story occurs not only in the tragedy and brutality of the Jews’ murder, which occurs at the end of the first act, but also in the suppression of the knowledge of the massacre and the battle for memory, which occurs in the second act.

    Indeed, it is the differing memories of Polish Catholics and Jews about World War II that ignited the debate about Neighbors. Zizka and her production team have recognized this. Dramaturg Walter Bilderback has written an essay for the program entitled “The Politics of Memory,” in which he states, “The important question . . . becomes one of memory. Polish memory, Jewish memory.” In the debate about Jedwabne, Catholics often focus on the approximately twenty months that the Soviets occupied Eastern Poland, a time of arrests, shortages, and deportations to Siberia. Critics of Gross’s book contend that the Jews were active collaborators with the Soviets in the persecution of the Polish Catholic population, and that Gross minimizes the effect of such collaboration.  Polish Jews, on the other hand, tend to recall prewar incidents of anti-Semitism, which increased in number after the death of Marshal Józef Piłsudski, the Polish dictator who had pursued a policy of “state assimilation” toward the Jewish population. They also concentrate on the horror itself of the atrocities in Jedwabne and Radziłów.

    Słobodzianek represents both these points of view in Our Class, which follows the lives of a mixed group of Polish Catholic and Jewish grade-school classmates, some of whom later become adult perpetrators of the massacre, some victims, some survivors, and some rescuers. The early scenes cover the prewar period, including the 1935 death of Piłsudski, who is commemorated by an amusingly staged choral recitation of a poem in his memory. After Piłsudski’s death, things immediately become worse for the Jewish classmates, who now must sit at the back of the class during Catholic prayers and get beaten up by their Catholic classmates.  Then the war starts and the characters describe the arrival of the Soviet army. The town, especially the Jews, welcomes the Soviets. Two of the Jewish classmates, Jakub Katz (Matteo Scammell) and Menachem (Ross Beschler), are put in charge of a new cinema created by the Soviets (from the former Catholic club). Everyone, including local Jews, quickly becomes disillusioned with Communism, however, and four Polish Catholic classmates form an “underground resistance movement” to fight against the Soviets. One of them is arrested and severely beaten by the NKVD (the Soviet secret police, forerunners to the KGB).

    The even-handedness with which Słobodzianek treats the Polish and Jewish points of view on Jedwabne is a problem, according to Agnieszka Arnold, the filmmaker whose documentary Sąsiedzi (Neighbors) inspired Jan Gross to write his book. When Zizka interviewed Arnold during her research trip to Poland last summer, Arnold said that the play focuses too much on the Soviet occupation and uses Jewish collaboration with the Soviets to justify the Catholic Poles’ need for revenge. She told Zizka, “In the play, they are all equal in their behavior. . . . The play tries to explain Evil through psychology. But the reason for the pogrom was pure and simple Polish anti-Semitism.” Arnold’s point of view—that Poles were anti-Semitic and should just face up to their crime—represents one of the perspectives in the Jedwabne debate. Others, however, want detailed answers to the question posed by Dariusz Stola in the title of his essay, “Jedwabne: How Was It Possible?” Many historians and journalists in Poland, prompted by Neighbors, have attempted since 2000 to answer that question; Słobodzianek, as a theater artist, is attempting to answer it imaginatively.

    One journalist, Anna Bikont, devoted four years to investigating the claims in Neighbors. Her book, My z Jedwabnego, will appear in English translation next year, published by Yale University Press. In order to write it, Bikont traveled over and over to Jedwabne and Radziłów to interview witnesses and survivors of the massacres; she also traveled abroad to various countries where witnesses had emigrated. Bikont has a completely different attitude toward Our Class than Arnold. When Zizka interviewed Bikont in Warsaw, she said that she loved Our Class and thinks it’s desirable to explore historical events like the massacre in Jedwabne through theater:  “Maybe some of the events that are described in the play didn’t happen in Jedwabne, but they happened in other places, other little towns. Tadeusz is bringing into the debates of history, human stories, human fates, and above all human emotions. He opened a door into this world for people who might not have otherwise entered.”

    Some of the characters in Our Class, such as Zocha (played here by Krista Apple) and Władek (Ed Swidey), classmates who rescued Jews; Rachelka, later Marianna (Kate Czajkowski), a survivor; and Zygmunt (Allen Radway), a perpetrator, are directly based on people whom Bikont interviewed. In fact, if you had read Neighbors and then saw Our Class, you might think that the character of Zygmunt, one of the main perpetrators of the massacre, had been invented by the playwright to illustrate one of Gross’s more controversial points:  that Poles, rather than Jews, had been the chief collaborators with the Communists. But this character is directly based on a man named Zygmunt Laudański who was convicted of taking part in the murders. In the play Zygmunt says about the NKVD, “They gave me the codename Popov. And my first order.” The real Zygmunt Laudański testified that he had collaborated with the NKVD and told Bikont that they’d given him the codename Popov. Zygmunt Laudański now claims that he and his brother Jerzy were wrongly convicted and that their confessions were coerced. If anything, the play goes easy on Zygmunt, as the character seems to feel some remorse for his heinous deeds: “Something strange happened to him before he died. He started quivering and trying to fling himself out of bed. Tears were streaming down his cheeks.” The real Zygmunt Laudański answered Anna Bikont’s question, “Don’t you regret anything you have done?” with “Certainly not.”[iii]

    Słobodzianek’s purpose in writing this play is not to deliver a history lesson, although he has been criticized for not doing so (see, for example, an article in the British Daily Telegraph entitled “Is Our Class at the National Theatre Really Such a Reliable History Lesson?”). Rather, he is trying to demonstrate in dramatic fashion how intertwined the two communities, Catholic and Jewish, really were in Poland. One of the ways he shows this is in the way he treats love between the Catholic and Jewish characters in the play. There are three different couples who have interethnic love (or love/hate) relationships. One couple consists of Rachelka/Marianna and her husband and rescuer, Władek. Władek clearly loves Marianna even though she doesn’t really like him all that much; near the end of her life (and of the play), however, she says, with a twinkle in her eye, “Still, I never forget the sight of him charging like a maniac on horseback to save my life.” Another couple includes the Catholic Zocha and the Jewish Menachem; Zocha rescues Menachem and has an affair with him, but later is abandoned by him. And the last, and most controversial, couple is made up of the Catholic Rysiek (Kevin Meehan) and the Jewish Dora (Emilie Krause). Early in the play Rysiek writes a Valentine to Dora, and later in the play he rapes her; though Dora protests against her rape, she must still be attracted in some way to Rysiek because when he rapes her she says, “I felt a pleasure I’d never known.”  Still later when Rysiek is killed, Dora appears to him, and he asks, “Where are we going, Dora?” She replies lovingly, as she leads him to the barn, “Nowhere, Rysiek. We’re already here.” The Catholics in these couples—even the rescuers—all express anti-Semitic sentiments, yet they can’t help loving the Jews; similarly, the Jews express anti-Polish sentiments, but they still love the Catholics.

    Today, more than a decade after Neighbors was published, the controversy started by its publication still rages on in Poland. When Zizka traveled with Słobodzianek to Jedwabne, he told her that many Jedwabne inhabitants today still think that the Jews were the primary collaborators with the Soviets. A few days before rehearsals started for Our Class in Philadelphia, vandals defaced a monument erected in Jedwabne in 2001 to commemorate the massacre. Jan Gross’s latest book, coauthored with Irena Grudzińska Gross, entitled Golden Harvest (to be released in 2012 in English), also concerns the behavior of Catholic Poles toward their Jewish neighbors during World War II, and has also been provocative.[iv]  In the Polish diaspora too, Gross’s work remains extremely divisive. For example, Marek Jan Chodakiewicz, a Polish-American scholar who works at the Institute for World Politics in Washington, DC, in 2005 published a book entitled The Massacre in Jedwabne, July 10, 1941: Before, During, After, which disputes some of Gross’s findings in Neighbors, and coedited a recent book entitled Hearts of Gold, or a Golden Harvest? that takes issue with Golden Harvest.

    Despite disagreements about what really happened in Jedwabne, Our Class has been generally well received as a drama in Poland. It won the prestigious Nike award for literature, the first play to do so. The production at the Teatr na Woli in Warsaw received excellent reviews, such as the one by Edyta Błasczak in Metro, which begins, “Everyone should see Our Class at the Teatr na Woli” (my translation). However, Słobodzianek told Zizka that the play has proven controversial there too: “When the play doesn’t comply with their expectations, some of the audience members get angry and attack the production not necessarily for the content but for its form.” The play’s structure requires the actors to constantly switch between narration, where they are speaking directly to the audience in the third-person about events as they happen to their characters, and more traditional dramatic dialogue with other characters; this is perhaps what some in the Warsaw audience objected to, and in general, the use of so-called story theater conventions often bothers theater critics and audiences in this country as well. However, in this play, one could make an argument that it is particularly appropriate since it echoes the voices of actual witnesses to the Jedwabne and Radziłów massacres who were quoted by Bikont or Gross speaking in the third person. Moreover, the switches from narration to dialogue are handled very well by all the actors involved in the Philadelphia production. Particularly skillful in this regard is Michael Rubenfeld as Abram Piekarz, who leaves Jedwabne for America to become a rabbi there. His recital of the list of relatives he lost in the massacre and later in the play the even longer list of his descendants are both emotional high points in the production.

    To me, however, perhaps the biggest achievement is not so much the individual performances of the Wilma’s actors, although they are excellent; it is the fact that the play itself, as well as the production, is able to capture in a dramatic way the spirit of the complicated history of this town and of Polish-Jewish relations in general. Howard Shapiro, in the Philadelphia Inquirer writes, “Among Our Class’ strengths is the way it lays out an acceleration of hatred, showing the driving forces: loss of Polish sovereignty, the attraction of communism as an equal playing field, acceptable anti-Semitism opened wider by German occupation and a constant feeling of entrapment.” Besides the transparent barn, the set consists of a number of bare trees with their tops cut off, as if to symbolize the truncated lives of the Jewish residents of the town. These trees and Zizka’s concept of specters haunting the town subtly emphasize the fact that Jedwabne—and by extension, all of Poland—has lost an integral part of itself. The fact that a Polish playwright has written this play shows that a necessary process of mourning that loss and of healing from it has begun.

     

    Notes


    [i] For an overview of the Jedwabne controversy, as well as English versions of a sampling of the hundreds of articles published in Poland and elsewhere about it, see Antony Polonsky and Joanna B. Michlic, eds., The Neighbors Respond: The Controversy over the Jedwabne Massacre in Poland (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 2004).

    [ii] Tadeusz Słobodzianek, Our Class, adapted by Ryan Craig from a literal translation by Catherine Grosvenor (London: Oberon Books, 2009).

    [iii] Anna Bikont, “We of Jedwabne,” in Polonsky and Michlic, The Neighbors Respond, 302.

    [iv] For an interview with Jan Tomasz Gross and Irena Grudzińska Gross about Golden Harvest, see Katarzyna Zimmerer, “People Dealt This Fate to People,” Biweekly, April 29, 2011.

  • Miller2.jpg

    Mad Hope

    Using the Theatre du Soleil's 2010 production of Les Naufrages du Fol Espoir as her lens, Judith G. Miller investigates the liquidity of turning film into theater, the disconnect between time passing and time remembered, and the collaborative methods employed by Ariane Mnouchkine and her ensemble to generate works for the stage.