Iron Curtain

Article published on Dec. 7, 2006
Article published on Dec. 7, 2006

This article has not been vetted by an editor at Paris HQ

When politics wants to influence the arts, it is often second in line to suffer. Polish theatre is currently going through its own personal crisis

‘Observing with anxiety what is happening recently in Polish theatre, we cannot help feeling that it is being treated as a field of ideological battle. It should be treated as a space of freedom for creativity'

These words tripped off the beginning of a letter written by figures from the world of culture and science. Artists, intellectuals and writers cane together in defense of the dismissed direction of the Great Theatre and the National Opera in Warsaw. On September 4, the Polish ministry of culture appointed a new director for the most important Polish cultural institution. All cooperation had been cut with the previous artistic director - Mariusz Treliski.

The reason as to why is widely known, despite the discretion in proceedings. It is the point of innovation, the courage of content and the ways of presenting and dealing with the dark side of human nature and the promotion of artistic creators, such as Krzysztof Warlikowski. The latter for his part still arouses controversy among conservative politicians of the Ministry of Culture, despite various project invitations from the Paris Opera Bastille.

‘Opera can be open art. It can also be called cultural blackmail, urban banality, where magnificent chandeliers cover boredom and the emptiness of thought.’ This was Mariusz Treliski’s opinion in an interview with the illustrious title, ‘If not here, then there’, published in the weekly magazine ‘Polityka’.

Famous for his artistic work, which is displayed in Berlin, Los Angeles, St. Petersburg or Washington, he will certainly be valued as a precious recruit by many artistic groups all across Europe and the world. ‘And Poland, sir?’ was the famous question put to Napoleon by Polish patriot Countess Walewska, concerning his plans for the reestablishment of Polish country. ‘And Polish culture, sir?’ – this question is left with a resounding echo.

Fighting province

It is not only the ever increasingly cosmopolitan Warsaw that has to run an artistic revolution. In one of the least developed Polish regions, just next to the border with Belarus, Theatre Wierszalin is fighting for state funds. These are the only possible finance sources, which allows for the survival of truly low-budget theatre.

In a small, dark room, a small audience watch a performance which won the prestigious ‘Fringe First’ award three times at the Edinburgh festival. It also delighted New York audiences. Protests were made by local authorities concerning the homosexual content of some plays. There was also discontent with intensive dialogue onstage about religion, the lapse of time and life. One of the more absurd reproaches to Wierszalin is about the fact that in one of the shows, there is a wooden figure with an exposed breast.

‘Theatrical purity is what makes a Wierszalin piece outstanding: its total physical concentration and total emotional honesty', wrote the New York Times after Wierszalin’s show.

It is this ’uniqueness’ that inspired young Italian film director Francesco Carrozzini, who is based in New York, to create a documentary about the theatre. He raised eyebrows and interest when he talked to the city’s residents. The Poles, especially those from the provinces, still did not understand how interesting this could be for Western viewers. Not as a Skansen museum, nor in its role as the motherland of European catholicism. Rather, as a country in which the good old times interrelate with unheard-of modernity of ideas and originality of art.

All quiet on the Eastern front

These are only two examples which still truly illustrate some kind of mental state not only towards theatre, but towards art as a whole. At the same time, they are the reference point when we want to talk about the differences on both sides of the former iron curtain. The paradox arises here. Both Mariusz Treliski and Wierszalin’s director, Piotr Tomaszuk, do not resemble Epigonus in any one single way. They don’t try to build national identity and art on an eternal reminder of the past, or on copying the foreign patterns of presence. ‘For years we have mimicked the opinion that the pattern of art can be monitored or taken as a chewed bite for yourself. This is where the gene of inferiority and province proves complex,’ said Mariusz Treliski in one of his interviews.

Freedom, equality, and the multiplex

Maybe the whole problem is that the popular culture community creates an illusion of a community also on a higher level. Full-housed multiplexes in Poznan, Warsaw, Madrid, Paris or Berlin are not signs of a common, homogenous European audience. What shocks in Warsaw, ends up rippling mere yawns amongst Parisians.

We all share common roots, and European classics are continuously played on stages all across Polish theaters, although countless festivals are showing the real spectrum of European theatric art. But a would-be eccentric for us is just that; an eccentric, and nothing else. However, and in spite of how it is regarded abroad, our native production is rated in a different way. It is more rigorous. Negative censorship is practically treason. Well, this is the case in Poland at least. Is the reward abroad a camouflage, or is it the best occasion to remind oneself that in the field of sensitive culture, there will be no ‘community’?

Theatre in Europe, Europe in theatre

Polish opera will not become more European if it borrows original stenography from La Scala. This is precisely what the new opera house’s director, Janusz Pietkiewicz, has in his plans.

Many examples show that topics, issues and requisites are not the determinants that class one as European or not. It is the hampering of artists in how they choose those topics, issues and requisites that determines being non-European. The uniformity of artistic experience does not testify to the truth of the integration.

Let the French yawn in Polish theater. Let Berliners criticise Polish opera - these are the best examples of real dialogue. We are interested not only in ourselves, but also in others. Dialogue without the promotion of freedom, encouragement, and defence from the opinion of the majority is the determinant. This should characterise the actions of European states. In the end, freedom in art was, is and will always remain a standard of democracy and European identity.