Because most philosophies that frown on reproduction don't survive.

Tuesday, November 01, 2005

The Rhapsodic Theater

Let us now praise one of the world's most famous actors and playwrights: Karol Wojtyla, popularly known as the late Pope John Paul II.

Most Catholics, and anyone who watched the funeral coverage of the Pope, know that in his youth Karol Wojtyla was drawn to the theater and "considered the spoken word and the theater to by my calling...." From an early age he showed great potential on the stage: directing plays; stepping in at the last minute to fill roles; studying elocution and theory under his mentor Mieczyslaw Kotlarczyk. Archbishop Adam Saphieha of Krakow was sufficiently impressed by hearing young Karol deliver a speech that he inquired about making a priest out of him. On being told that Karol intended to pursue theatrical studies, he is reported to have replied, "A pity."

In 1941, at the age of 21, Karol Wojtyla founded the Rhapsodic Theater with Kotlarczyk. The Rhapsodic Theater was part of the Polish Cultural Resistance under the German Occupation. In Gift and Mystery, Pope John Paul wrote that "it was essential to keep these theatrical get-togethers secret; otherwise we risked serious punishment from the occupying forces, even deportation to the concentration camps" (11). It is impressive, therefore, to reflect on the prolific activity of the group: over one hundred rehearsals and twenty-two performances of seven plays (Witness to Hope, 65).

The severe conditions under which the group performed made simplicity necessary. Props and set decor were reduced to a few symbolic elements; in such cramped conditions the minimal gestures and movements were crafted so as to underscore the themes and ideas of the play. The Rhapsodists focused not on a traditional performance style but on the underlying "problem" addressed by the author of the play. Since grappling with the main problem took precedence over plot resolution or character development, this new style was ideal for adapting works of literature not originally crafted for the stage. (In 1964, the group even adapted The Divine Comedy, a performance which impressed then-Cardinal Wojtyla.)

However, Karol Wojtyla came to realize that although he and Kotlarczyk considered "the spoken word and the theater to be my calling, ...Our Lord Jesus thought it was the priesthood, and somehow we came to accept this." In Gift and Mystery he reminisced, "I must admit that that whole experience of the theatre left a deep impression on me, even though at a certain point I came to realize that this was not my real vocation" (11). In 1942, after the death of his father, Wojtyla joined the underground seminary of the diocese of Krakow and was ordained in 1946. During his years as a parish priest he continued writing plays in the Rhapsodic style -- his most famous play, The Jeweler's Shop, was written in 1960 while he was the Bishop of Krakow.

His election to the Papacy in 1978 brought him to a larger stage. The results of his early theatrical training influenced his philosophical and theological writings as well as his frequent public appearances. (In Witness to Hope, George Weigel reflected that "a young man who could calmly continue a clandestine appearance of Pan Tadeusz while Nazi megaphones blasted their propaganda through the streets below was likely to be able to handle himself publicly in virtually any dramatic situation.")

To be continued...

My sources include George Weigel's Witness to Hope; Gift and Mystery by Pope John Paul II; Boleslaw Taborski's forward to The Jeweler's Shop; and The Collected Plays and Writings on Theatre by Karol Wojtyla (sadly, out of print; if you have a copy please sell it to me!). Most of the information above is summarized from my senior thesis Toward a New Theatre: A Comparison of the Ideas of Jerzy Grotowski and Karol Wojtyla.

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