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

Monday, May 03, 2021

Pope St. John Paul II, Modernist (theatrically speaking)

 I had the great good fortune this weekend to see a production of The Jeweler's Shop by Karol Wojtyła, Bishop of Krakow (best known, of course, for his later career as the Bishop of Rome, Pope St. John Paul II). A group of Catholic young adults in Columbus decided, in best theatrical tradition, that they wanted to put on a show, and tackled Wojtyła's dense text creditably, with several fine performances and original music. The Jeweler's Shop is a show that's rarely performed, so I was delighted to have the chance to see it so close to home.

It's not that The Jeweler's Shop is a difficult show to stage -- no large cast extravaganza, no big sets, no special effects tour-de-force. It is, in fact, deceptively simple. Most of the action is interior. Most of the script consists of monologues to the audience, with lyrical passages of "rhapsodic" mediations on love. Those rhapsodic passages are key to understanding Wojtyla's approach to theater.

When people hear that a Catholic pope was formerly an actor and a playwright, their understandable assumption would be that he was a classically trained, old-school showman, standing in the solid theatrical traditions of Shakespeare and well-crafted plays and big proscenium-arch acting. And so, it is perhaps a shock to encounter the actual work of the man. Karol Wojtyła was no traditionalist. He didn't act in the kitchen-sink realism style of Stanislavski, or write standard five-act dramas replete with old-fashioned stuff like dialogue and scenes and story-telling structure. As a man of the stage, he was an experimental modernist.

For Wojtyła, theater was a ritual, as stylized as a liturgy, a vehicle for the Word. The actor is on stage to convey not a character, but an idea, which takes root in the minds of the audience who hear the spoken word and grapple internally with the problem the play propounds. This style, in which the word becomes, in effect, a vehicle of the internal movement of the soul, is called Rhapsodic. As he himself explains:

The Rhapsodic company has accustomed us to a theater of the word. What does this mean? Is not every theater a theater of the word? Does not the word constitute an essential, primary element of every theater? Undoubtedly it does. Nonetheless, the position of the word in a theater is no always the same. As in life, the word can appear as an integral part of action, movement, and gesture, inseparable from all human practical activity; or it can appear as "song" -- separate, independent, intended only to contain and express thought, to embrace and transmit a vision of the mind. In the latter aspect, or position, the word becomes "rhapsodic", and a theater based on such a concept of the word becomes a rhapsodic theater. (Wojytła, The Collected Plays and Writings on Theater, 372)

This rhapsodic vision is best realized in small-scale, experimental productions, with minimal set and a few significant props, and it was well-suited to the kind of underground resistance theater that Wojtyła spearheaded under the Nazi occupation of Poland. The rhapsodic group proclaimed the great patriotic Polish dramas and epics, stripped down to their essential ideas and staged not as dramatic scenes between characters but as ideas and themes presented directly to the audience:

[The Rhapsodic Theater] made of them not traditional 'adaptations for the stage', but always specific and authentic uncoverings of the very essence of the works, their thought and ideas, their authors' intellectual vision. This is a novel and revealing approach. (The Collected Plays and Writings on Theater, 373)

The religious, intellectual Rhapsodic Theater troupe forged on after WWII, under the challenging conditions of the Communist regime, which favored experimental theater, but of the atheistic, psychologically intrusive style pioneered by Jerzy Grotowski. (Fans of cult cinema will recognize his name from My Dinner with Andre, in which Andre tells Wally Shawn [later of Princess Bride fame] about his time with Grotowski's theater troup in Poland.) Grotowski also saw theater as liturgy, but unlike the Rhapsodists, he wanted theater to be literally liturgical, embued with the power to evoke in reality what it proclaimed through the word. Wojytła's rhapsodism was confined to an intellectual experience, in which the audience members would grapple internally with an idea and let it come to fruition in them through personal conversion and then practical action. Grotowski wanted his actors to literally experience the suffering or the ecstasy they were performing on stage -- an emotional transformation rather than an intellectual one. Many of his actors went on to have mental breakdowns through the abusive theatrical workshop training Grotowski subjected them to. 

However, Grotowski was a card-carrying communist, and the Rhapsodists were practicing Catholics championed by Bishop Wojtyła, a thorn in the side of the Communist regime. In 1960, the year that Wojtyła wrote The Jeweler's Shop based on his years of pastoral experience with married couples, Grotowski's Laboratory Theater was just getting off the ground, with funding from the government. By 1967, the Communist government of Krakow had suppressed the Rhapsodic Theater, in large part because of its association with Wojtyła, newly appointed a Cardinal. Grotowski went on to great acclaim in theatrical circles, and Wojytła went on to become Pope, and we shall see who is remembered as more influential.

The Rhapsodic Theater did tackle more traditional styles of drama, but Wojytła himself realized that this style wasn't really suited to dramas built on standard theatrical elements such as characterization and plot. As bishop, he wrote a review of Actors in Elsinore, the Rhapsodic take on Hamlet using various scenes from Shakespeare:

This Shakespearian production has been a great effort for the rhapsodists, because Shakespeare, as I have said, is not at all rhapsodic but theatrical, dramatic, comic, and tragic in his own way. He re-creates life and does not evade its concrete events; on the contrary, he enriches his plays with them. It is not easy to isolate in Shakespeare a pure construction of ideas or to stylize the action in a rhapsodic fashion to give sway to the word. For this reason, while agreeing that this production... had its origins in the rhapsodists' profound need for self-definition and undoubtedly expresses that need, one must also state that it is a new confirmation and experience of the proper direction of this particular theater. (The Collected Plays and Writings on Theater, 378)

 So! Wojytła's plays are not well-crafted theater pieces in which the dialogue and plot does most of the work, independent of the skill of the actor (which is why A Mid-Summer Night's Dream can be performed by middle-schoolers and still be basically intelligible). And this is why you generally won't see the pope's play performed by your parish drama club, and why I was so excited to see any performance of it. It was written both as a Catholic meditation on marriage, to be contemplated individually by readers, and as an experimental piece of theater for a troupe trained in the particular and demanding style of Rhapsodic theater.  

(For all drama clubs: Wojtyła's most traditionally-crafted and accessible play is an earlier, more obscure work, Our God's Brother [1949], based on the life of Polish patriot, artist, and religious brother Albert Chmielowski.)


Bernard Franklin Brandt said...

I find that the value of having highly intelligent friends is that they make connexions between subjects and things that I had not seen before. I had, of course, known of both Karol Wojtila and his later avatar, Pope St. John Paul II (whom I consider to deserve the title magnus). I had also read of Grotowski many years ago, when the world was still cooling, and dinosaurs roamed the earth. I had not known of the connexion between the two until now. Thank you, Darwin.

In hopes that I might return the favor, I have found a link to a pdf of Grotowski's Towards a Poor Theatre. My recollection of it at the time I read it (long, long ago), was that it looked like both arduous work, and something like a cauldron or forge from which really great actors could be wrought. While I see that it is still in print (from Messrs. Google and Amazon), you might want to take a glance or three at the pdf, to determine whether it would be worth buying.

Bernard Franklin Brandt said...

My apologies: thank you, MrsDarwin. All that I said regarding him applies to you as well, of course. I would be very interested in reading your senior thesis, as well.

MrsDarwin said...


Thanks for your kind words!

I did slog through Towards a Poor Theater lo, these twenty years ago writing my thesis. Grotowski's thrust, which I do agree with, is that acting had come to rely on a certain theatrical bag of tricks, if you will -- stock gestures, emotional telegraphing, attitudes. He wanted his actors to strip themselves of all artifice -- to become "poor". So far, so good.

However, he contended that there was a Nietschean Apollonian/Dionysian divide in theater. The Apollonian element was too intellectual, too focused on conveying emotion on stage through mental tricks and head games. There may be something in that, but it's true that an intelligent (and healthy actor prepares for a role by studying the script, by analyzing a scene, by trying to get inside the character's head and then working to convey that emotion. Through this process, the actor can get into the character's skin, and feel enough of his motivation to successfully portray it on stage, while still maintaining control.

Grotowski wanted to push his actors into the Dionysian world of spontaneous emotion, to make them delve into themselves to really feel what their characters felt. If the character was in pain, the actor had to be in pain. If it were aroused, the actor had to be aroused. You can see how this lead to a lot of abusive, unhealthy training and relationships among the Laboratory Theater actors, and how destabilizing this form of training was.

I've also seen video of some of Grotowski's productions, and frankly, they're just as oddly stylized as the Apollonian theater he decries, and less accessible because the craft is not solid. Grotowski wanted to make the audience uncomfortable, of course -- one of his goals was to afflict the comfortable, as the saying goes. In that way he hoped to provoke the same effects as the Rhapsodic Theater desired -- an social change brought about by a convicted audience -- but I think that the Rhapsodic Theater had a more stable and sustainable way of bringing about that change because it relied on conversion of mind and heart, not brute emotional trauma.

I'd be glad to send you my thesis! Let me dig it out of whatever deep file it resides in. (All the quotes in this post were typed up from the hardcopy, because I know where that lives.)