Review: (A)pollonia: Twenty-First-Century Polish Drama and Texts for the Stage. Edited by Krystyna Duniec, Joana Klass, and Joanna Krakowska

Volume 6, Issue 1 (Spring 2016)

(A)pollonia: Twenty-First-Century Polish Drama and Texts for the Stage (Seagull Books, 2014) attempts to accomplish a great deal. In Joanna Klass’ Preface the anthology is given a grand mission statement to work as a series of texts that “would resonate with a global readership.” English was chosen as the language of translation because of its role as the “most international language we have now.” Poland, in this anthology, becomes the international everyman. Alongside this universal ambition is another goal—also articulated in the preface—that “the plays collected in this anthology aim to break stereotypes about Polish people, history, culture, and expose the contradictions of the national psyche.” This second goal is perhaps smaller in many ways than an attempt to appeal to Universal Human Experience, but it is also more difficult. Asking the question What is Poland? also demands asking corollaries: What was Poland? Where is Poland going? Who is Polish? While the trials and truths of the universal can be complicated, the questions and many answers are still familiar. For many Westerners, Poland has been frequently as alien as the surface of Mars. Today, twenty-five years after the fall of communism, Poland has changed so much so quickly and answering these questions becomes an even less stable enterprise.

In its quest to describe Polish identity, the book is organized into four groups of plays. “Polin” is the pair of plays about the Holocaust. “Transpolonia” are plays thematically linked around post-World War II German-Polish relationships. The importance of this section can be partially gleaned from the knowledge that post-war refers singularly to post-WWII—it is the war. “Postpolonia” are works reflecting and coping with the post-1989 transition from communism to capitalism and democracy through the complicated use of the politics of the body and physical identity. And lastly, “Lack-of-Polonia” are three plays depicting the move to free-market capitalism and globalization and the social and domestic stresses effecting change unto national identity, historiography, and other facets of culture. With eleven plays in total, the works are separated only loosely into these groups; there are no section headers or chapters. The works appear one by one, speaking for themselves. Every script was written and premiered in the last decade, the earliest in 2005 and most between 2009-11. They are at the vanguard of what Poland is and is creating right now.

What the plays investigate, however, is quite a bit more than just the four aforementioned themes. There seems to me to be a fifth, underlying theme of the Polish diaspora, framed by a historical and global, post-colonial context. This anthology is also in translation and is thus an anthology aimed not at a Polish-speaking audience, but for English-speakers abroad. “Polonia,” a word historically designating Polish diaspora, appears in the headings of the sections, but never alone. In Krystyna Duniec and Joanna Krakowska’s introduction, there is reference to Polonia as “the established historical narrative about Poland, a conceptualization of the Polish national identity that was born and nurtured in subjugation.” Yet there is no reference in the introduction to the diaspora Polonia. They appropriate the term to refer to historic Polish narratives about national identity and culture. In this new usage, Polonia is the classical culture of myths of uprisings, anti-colonial struggle, and Catholicism. While attention must be paid to what the plays have to say about Poles in Poland, Poles abroad who are not Polish have a vast influence. Both America’s wars abroad are fought in part by Polonia heritage communities, and the English supermarket chain Tesco—serving a nation populated perhaps by as many a million members of Polonia—makes functional and symbolic appearances in the texts of (A)pollonia. All these works are by Poles, and so representation of those who have returned in the post-communist era or the foreign cultures Polonia has embraced become of special interest. The two questions a non-Polish reader should ask before reading this anthology are: What does Poland think of itself? and, What does Poland think of the rest of the world?

The first two plays, (A)pollonia by Krzystof Warlikowski, Piotr Gruszczyński, and Jacek Poniesyałek and The Mayor by Małgorzata Sikorska-Miszczuk are collected as representative of “Polin,” the Yiddish word for Poland. Taking vastly different approaches to the topic, they both sensitively approach themes of guilt and denial, grief, and the almost total destruction of an entire way of life. The first play, (A)pollonia toys with the ghosts of the past, mixing Jewish memory with the mythology of ancient Greece, blending narratives across cultural and historical boundaries. The second play, The Mayor takes an alternative route of exploration; it is solidly grounded in fact and research. It is the theatrical extension of Professor Gross’ 2001 book Neighbors: The Destruction of the Jewish Community in Jedwabne. These two plays yield vastly different explorations of what the Holocaust means to Poland.

(A)pollonia is the title work of the collection and the one that deals most directly with Old Polonia, the historical narrative mentioned by Duniec and Krakowska. Agamemnon, legendary leader of the Greeks in the Trojan War, is transformed into a philosopher of war, decrying the evils of war and conflict seemingly so glorified in the romantic myth of Polish Messianism. He becomes a spokesperson for the inhumanity of conflict and the Holocaust in particular. Using one estimation of the number killed in the “Final Solution” Agamemnon performs a set of cruel arithmetic, possibly one of the darkest moments in all of contemporary theatre,

Agamemnon: […] The conflict with the USSR lasted from June 22, 1941, at 3:00, until May 8, 1945, at 23:01, which adds up to 3 years, 10 months, 16 days, 20 hours and 1 minute, or 46.5 months, or 202 weeks, or 1,417 days, or 34,000 hours, or 2,040,241 minutes. For the program known as the Final Solution, we’ll use the same dates. That results in 572,043 people killed per month, 131,410 people killed per week, 18,772 people killed per day, 782 people killed per hour and 13.04 people killed per minute.

Adding to this, upon further reflection of his own role in war, “Like most people I never asked to become a murderer. I would have liked to play the piano.” Drawing on the mythology of an additional historic war accomplishes a freedom to blur the lines: Agamemnon appears as a neutral observer. Uninvolved in the Second World War, his reflection on it gives him the ability to see all sides. He is able to take his experience and expertise and objectively observe WWII with no cultural bias. For him, a death is a death, “the only difference between the Jewish child gassed or shot and the German child burned alive in an air raid is one of method; both deaths were equally vain.” This walks a fine in the Western mind. My immediate reaction is one of lip-biting—although the bombing of civilian targets was controversial, it seems yet another step to compare anything to the Holocaust. And it is this feeling that makes the play a success; it’s been 70 years, can we start humanizing the Nazis? It forces a serious level of reflection and even if one concludes that we can’t or shouldn’t rethink the people of Hitler’s Germany, it reminds us to remember why we believe that.

Perhaps it is this complicated penance and guilt that is at the heart of the so-called Nova Polska, the new, post-communist, democratic and capitalist Poland. The Mayor approaches the problem of guilt in Poland even more directly than the preceding (A)pollonia. The source material, Neighbors, chronicled the extermination of the Jewish population of a town by its non-Jewish populace, and was met by controversy and denial. Its non-fiction roots ground The Mayor in a more personal layer than the mythology of (A)pollonia. By grabbing onto the murder by all sides, Allied and Fascist, the role of Poland is normalized, pooled with that of others. As the Mayor Before asks, “Do you want the guilty to perish alongside the innocent?” In war, there are killers and the killed, and in peace there are the killers retired and their children. By accepting the death of Nazi Germany’s children in the bombing of Dresden alongside the murder of the Jewish population of Europe, Poland is able to absolve itself of special responsibility. A shift has occurred from the Lamb of God to the priest in confessional box—hearing all sins instead of dying for them.

It is also in The Mayor that the first serious mention is made of the world abroad. The Jews who were not killed by the Germans “scattered all over the place. They’re happily settled in America, mostly. That’s what we heard from those of us who’ve been abroad.” Here the opposition appears: the townsperson. The Poles of the village whose forefathers were guilty in the town’s murder of its Jewish population become the “us.” The Jews are the “they,” and America is “abroad.” In this first mention of the world beyond Poland it is cast as an oppositional force—it is home to the Jewish population, the memory of which is now causing so much trouble back in Poland for this small town. Perhaps America, across its ocean is Heaven, or maybe Hell? The Mayor of NYC appears after the rising of the Jewish dead in Poland, to declare that in his city “the buildings scrape the sky so hard that it’s full of holes! In the clearings you can see God blessing America.” The Mayor also matters to a Western audience because it deals with the West. It seems to offer the possibility that Poland is no longer the mythological Polonia of old—the eyes of God have turned West to follow the movement of people to America. The two plays of the Polin section are powerful in their exploration of not only the death and destruction of old Poland and the transformation of the whole world, they also fit as a good introduction because they display the opening of Poland’s eyes to the wider world, beyond Russia and Germany.

The next three works, grouped under the heading of “Transpolonia,” succeed in continuing this artistic inquest into Poland in the wider world. The first of the three plays is Transfer! by Dunja Funke and Sebastian Majewski and is almost untransferable to another stage. The difficulty of a cast performing this work stems from the fact that the monologues that make up most of the play were spoken by narrators who had lived the events. They were presented in native languages by the survivors of tumultuous moments who spoke their hearts out and would “often forget lines or even change stories from one night to the next.” The authenticity would be almost impossible to replicate. They are also joined by a Stalin-Churchill-Roosevelt rock band, playing Joy Division covers, which accompanies the monologues of “displaced Germans and Poles who told their life stories”. The shift East of Poland’s borders becomes a decision played out between sets by the Big Three rock band at Yalta (a 1945 conference in which the post-war fate of Europe and the control of small nations by the larger powers was discussed) becomes a horror for the neighbors. If The Mayor absolved Poland by reminding the audience of the whole world’s guilt, Transfer! reminds the globe of the worldwide suffering of the innocent. Everybody became both a killer and a victim.

Following Transfer! is Trash Story by Magda Fertacz. Set in a house once occupied by a Wehrmacht Stalingrad veteran but now home to the descendants of an Auschwitz survivor and a PTSD-afflicted son who served in Iraq, the family is haunted by the ghost of the daughter of the Wehrmacht soldier, hung by her own mother in the face of the advancing Red Army to spare her the violence and rape they brought with them. America’s War, Iraq, becomes a modern vessel to connect with the suffering of past generations on all sides. As the people suffered under the thundering armies of the East, so they must have suffered as the Polish sons do in Iraq. It would be simplistic to say as America’s General Sherman did that “War is Hell” because Hell is a distant world. Here, America, once so distant in The Mayor, is brought home with the veteran as are the sufferings of those who conduct it. They are joined by the ghost of the civilians, not in Hell where the dead may be, but still here on earth. One side may be victorious, but no person wins a scenario begot of violence.

Rounding out “Transpolonia” is right left with heels by pilgrim/majewski, the entire postwar transformation of Poland and Germany told by the right and left heels of a pair once owned by Magda Goebbels, spouse to the Nazi propaganda minister. Through repetition and subtle transformation the shoes tell their story of travel eastwards and their place in the transforming society across 60 years before their end with Krystian, the transvestite owner who is brutally beaten and lies “there fucked-up/on the square/john paul ii square.” The pair of shoes is a constant in its xenophobia and general bigotry. It is an anchor by speaking of the opinion of the “old” against the transformations that have been seen across Polish struggles for progress against fascism, communism (Solidarność), and homophobia.

The next group of plays, “Postpolonia” is particularly difficult and sensitive because of the topics they address. Like the previous right left with heels, Foreign Bodies by Julia Holewińska also approaches the acceptance (or lack thereof) of transgender identity in Poland. In Desert and Wilderness After Sienkiewicz and Others by Bartosz Frąckowiak and Weronika Sczczawińska dreams of a Polish-African empire in the vein of England, France, and Portugal. Finally, Small Narrative by Wojtek Ziemilski addresses psychic disembodiment in the face of memory of national struggle.

It is difficult for any writer to fairly address as taboo a topic as transgender identity, and especially so in as socially conservative a nation as Poland. However, Foreign Bodies is one of the great honesties of the collection because of its unforgiving depiction of Poland today and how in some ways it has not changed. The play flirts occasionally with what appears to be a dangerously clichéd depiction of the process of discovery and hiding and denial in the transgender community. In a non-linear telling the scenes in the play that happen under communism depict how the transgender protagonist, an anti-communist pamphleteer, is discovered and outed to his circle of activists. The communist government does not invent transphobia in the community but simply uses its existence in the current power structure to its own ends—intra-alienation of enemies. The other scenes of the play, set some twenty years later in capitalist Poland are no better; the woman’s grandchild-to-be is illegally aborted for fear that transgenderism could be genetically inheritable. The fear of a transgendered child is enough to overwhelm any equally conservative prohibition against abortion. Even though she is surgically transitioned and open in her daily routine, she is as equally ostracized by the wider world. Poland may be modern, but some things never change.

Equally challenging is Desert and Wilderness and its treatment of race and historicity. In some remote dream world, a young Pole longs for an empire—but one based on co-operation between Poles and Africans. This work attempts to play with the notion of solidarity between white Poland and black Africa because aside from racial barriers, “You were colonized? We, Poles, were also!” Khartoum and the rebellion against the English is akin, in this telling, to Poland’s uprising against its partitioners. Muhammad Ahmad is Tadeusz Kościuszko. As Kościuszko rebelled against Russia and Prussia, Muhammad briefly liberated Sudan from British colonial rule in the 1880s. It is a careful tightrope to walk, and while the work does it, it slips at times. Colonialism is about more than just borders and occupation—but race too. While it is something Poland dealt with as a largely Slavic nation, it confronted the issue in a different way than did black Africa during European empire building. When the play calls for several “not-quite-genuine African” men and women and a member of a “not-entirely real tribe,” it may unintentionally cross a line of comfort for race-sensitive audiences in America. The freedom of white writers, regardless of their own history, to so openly blur race and its role should not go unchallenged. Translation is cultural as well as linguistic, and to an audience unfamiliar with Poland’s history of oppression the text may not be successful.

But still a line that’s telling! Poland, post-1945, has very few minority populations. We first read the plays of Polin and Transpolonia to understand the homogenizing process that now defines modern Polish demographics. The book is well structured in the ordering of its plays because we are also reaffirmed of the world as Polish. While the themes of the plays may attempt to be universal, the plays are nonetheless still set in Poland and this book is a Polish undertaking. The last work of Postpolonia, Small Narrative, is a short work written by the relative of a famous performer outed after the fall of communism as a collaborating agent for the secret police. This personal monologue provides some situations of what out of Polish culture can rob one of security and certainty of body. The ex-informer suffers from uncertainty about the past and future feeling trapped in his mind and memory and not his body. Opposite him plays the narrator, telling of his cultural homelessness, raised abroad and with an uncertain name, his identity blurs from one culture to the next. He is “betwixt and between” with uncertain footing in multiple world. In America the narrator is called Tony and who “spoke English, [who] thought in American,” in Portugal Tony is not Tony, nor his first name Wojtek, but instead it “Vvoitek” (he inserts the second “v” to mimic the visual of the “w” while sacrificing the Polish orthography for that of Portuguese). The problem of Polish communist trauma does not translate abroad, and neither do the names of the protagonists. Poland situates itself abroad by situating itself separate from abroad. Anywhere else just seems to not be quite Poland.

The final group of plays, “Lack-of-Polonia,” ends, but does not conclude the work. No Matter How Hard We Tried by Dorota Małowska, Diamonds Are Coal That Got Down to Business by Paweł Demirski, and I Love You No Matter What by Przymysław Wojcieszek cannot possibly provide a conclusion because they are so immediate as to be lived on a daily basis. They are so prescient that they feel at times more like documentary than drama. Together, they present the contemporary cultural uncertainty of transformation in the overwhelming age of globalization. For instance, No Matter sarcastically questions the Polish interface with the wider world:

Gloomey Old Biddy: I remember the day the war broke out.

Little Metal Girl: The Cola war?

Poland has been expanded to include the terms and canon of the other culture, America’s war is Iraq and the Cola’s. Tesco and IKEA are now household names and Poles are “not Polish, just European.” The wild collage and confusion of the contemporary era continues in Diamonds are Coal with the possible end of Polish Catholicism—”prayer and the lottery have failed him”—and its replacement with the religion of free market capitalism “this new economic system” and money. By twisting its source text, Chekhov’s Uncle Vanya, questions of fate and repetition begin the end of the anthology by seeming to ask why humans keep so persistently at living if it is already known. If cycles of winning and losing are so repetitive, cannot the future simply been known by looking back over the shoulder? But of course not, because we are human and so we trust our agency and never lose hope.

This is exactly why I Love You No Matter What perfectly ends the anthology. There is memory of the trauma of war carried by and embodied in the protagonist’s (Magda) brother, a veteran of Iraq, who wraps his tears in the white and red flag. There is the Western world represented by Sugar Kowalcyzk, who is named after Marilyn Monroe’s character in Some Like it Hot. But most importantly there is love. It is a guiding force of continuity. Through each characters struggles, the question of what they love and how to enact their feelings becomes a potent force, guiding decisions and setting goals. And like this work, what brings everybody home in the preceding ten works is some love of life. It is much easier to take blind steps into the unknown future when your hand is being held by another, when the blindness is from the light of hope and not the darkness of uncertainty. Thus, because I Love You No Matter What is the play most clearly and openly about Love, it is the most hopeful play in the work and leaves a reader of the anthology with faith in the ability of art to connect humanity. If Diamonds are Coal that Got Down to Business asks the terrifying question Why do we act as if we are alive and special? I Love You No Matter What proposes to answer the question with the declaration that we do it because we have love and love is something which by itself is enough to keep going.

(A)pollonia succeeds in addressing and exploring the uncertainty of all eras; past, present, and future. It is a sprawling tribute befitting of the expanding meaning of what it is to be alive in the 21st century. Collected together under the general notion of “Poland”, these plays find their place on a global stage because we all, like Poland, are confused. National identities are not weakened today, but they are faced with challenges of plurality and foreignness that deeply complicate them. Many of the problems associated with being Polish in relation to other countries should not be out of place for those wondering what it means to be American, British, Australian, or any of the other English-speaking nations this fresh translation hopes to target.

Will Harrington

Harvard University

Will Harrington is a senior at Harvard University where he concentrates in Slavic Languages and Literatures, focusing on 20th-century Polish literature and poetry, and is currently writing on Żeromski’s Popioły. He also has a secondary in Folklore and Mythology where he works with online culture and communities. His other interests include theatre and forgotten American writers.

One thought on “Review: (A)pollonia: Twenty-First-Century Polish Drama and Texts for the Stage. Edited by Krystyna Duniec, Joana Klass, and Joanna Krakowska

  1. Pingback: Editor’s Note 6.1 | The Mercurian

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