The Curse, Theatre Against Church Hegemony
Investigation by Agata Adamiecka-Sitek
There’s no other show like it – definitely not in the post-transition, maybe not even in the post-war history of Polish theatre – that has divided the Poles with equal force, while at the same time creating a special sort of “communal closed ranks”. It has shown us ourselves in a lethal grip, without holding up a mirror for us to look into, but simply by sparking genuine emotional affects that have been mobilized and made accessible to us through direct, palpable experience – both during the performance and within the social process that it triggered. By making affect the play’s basic field of action, the creators have heeded – as Mieke Bal expressed it – Brecht’s “lessons against identification [of the spectator with the actor] and for commitment”1.
So it’s hard to think of a statement as inappropriate to this show as the one that’s so ostentatiously presented within it: “Everything we say and do in the theatre is fiction”. The authors are aware that quite the opposite is true, including when they issue a challenge to juridical categories by dropping the fictional scene in which funds are collected to pay for an attempt on the life of Jarosław Kaczyński in fear of genuine criminal sanctions for inciting crime, while at the same time acting this scene out in its entirety according to their own rules. They know that fiction on stage can have real consequences in the public sphere – not least in the form of a prosecutor’s inquiry – but first and foremost in the sphere of emotional affects. I would like to examine the show’s affective action, partly because I personally felt its effect very deeply. So this is going to be a narrative conducted from within that experience.
Karolina Adamczyk comes to centre stage…
Karolina Adamczyk comes to centre stage and unhurriedly puts on protective clothing: boots, trousers, gloves and helmet. Suitably attired, she picks up a chainsaw and in a professional, methodical way sets about the task of cutting down a large wooden cross, which has been dominating the empty stage from the start. We should add that the shape of this cross makes very obvious reference to the one that was erected on Warsaw’s Piłsudski Square as a monument to commemorate the pilgrimage of John Paul II in 1979, during which the classic words were spoken: “Let Your spirit descend and renew the face of the earth! The face of this land!” This cross symbolizes the fundamental role played by John Paul II in mobilizing Polish society to put up resistance against the communist authorities, which brought about the transition to democracy. So it may also be seen as representing the special alliance that the ruling powers in free Poland have formed with the Catholic Church, thus repaying a symbolic debt. The task that the actor performs takes quite a long time, confronting the audience with the inevitable result: she cuts out a wedge, makes a counter-cut on the other side, then stands behind the cross, and by pushing slowly, makes it fall towards the audience.
This image, such a radically disturbing cultural taboo…
This image, such a radically disturbing cultural taboo as to be virtually a “critical exception” in the Polish symbolic sphere, violently demands a reaction from the audience that I would define as “affective cooperation” of a decidedly relational character. The aim of the image is to divide the audience into those who feel satisfaction or relief on seeing that an act of this kind is possible within our public sphere, so thoroughly dominated by the political influences and symbolic hegemony of the Catholic Church, and those who perceive the act of cutting down a cross as threatening, outrageous, or disgusting (these are the definitions, especially outrageous and disgusting, that appear most often in the negative commentaries on the show). The affects felt are mutually conditional – a sense of disgust at the image on stage is prompted by awareness that for others it is a source of pleasure; a sense of satisfaction is reinforced by the feeling that the cultural trespass being committed here is received by others as violence. This mechanism was described well by a reviewer for the daily newspaper Nasz Dziennik who wrote: “And what about the rest of the audience? Several people sat with their heads drooping, not looking at the stage. But… after the pseudo-spectacle was over, amid shouts of approval, most of them gave it a standing ovation. And that, for me, was the hardest blow”2.
Personally, I am among those who felt euphoria on seeing the cross being felled – a feeling that was all the stronger for coming along with the awareness that, thanks to the institutional context of the repertory theatre, this act would be repeated many times over, with the full sanction of the convention of theatre in a cultural city. To me it is important that the cross is cut down by the actor who also delivers a monologue about a woman’s right to make her own decisions about her body and her life – a right taken away from Polish women as a result of the post-transformation alliance of “altar and throne”; it is important that her action on stage emanates strength and confidence, which I interpret as a manifestation of the resistance put up by Polish women to successive attacks on their civic rights, safety and dignity. And so this image steers me towards “jouissance to iconoclasm”3 – to use W.J.T. Mitchell’s term – towards taking pleasure in the destruction of an idol. Repeated on the stage of a public theatre, the act of cutting down a cross is performed, in my interpretation, as a substitute for all those acts of removing crosses from the public sphere that I cannot perform, even though the presence of these Christian symbols infringes my freedom of world outlook, as for instance in the case of the cross secretly hung up in the Sejm’s Meeting Hall in 1997 by deputies from AWS (Solidarity Electoral Action), which so far no representative of any political party sitting in the Polish parliament has had the courage to remove. So I perceive the image of a cross being cut down as an act of rightful vengeance, and it also gives me deep satisfaction because at the theatre I can feel how very much I am not alone at this moment.
At the same time, in an unavoidable way, in the eyes of those whom the image has defined as “Others”, showing a cross being toppled enters the zone of radically “offensive images” and defiantly demands its own destruction or prohibition. The aim of the image is to trigger the greatest possible mobilization in favour of its own annihilation. Thus it pointedly becomes the object of iconoclasm, as Mitchell writes, “the pictorial counterpart to the death drive”4 – by this token representing a challenge to the democratic public sphere that takes upon itself the duty of guaranteeing such images the right to exist.
Undoubtedly this is one of the tasks that Frljić’s show consciously undertakes, setting off the long-term process of testing the conditions for freedom of artistic expression and free speech in Poland5. Thanks to its profound understanding of the mission of a public institution, as well as its determination and courage, on the day of the premiere of The Curse the Teatr Powszechny launched a social laboratory, whose work provides us with knowledge about the state of our democracy, as tested on a live public body, involving in the experiment the top organs of state – the judiciary, the police, the local and central authorities, the media – and all sides in Poland’s on-going cultural war. Thanks to this idea, we have been receiving daily, updated reports on the sort of place we are in, what sort of changes our political system is undergoing, how individual institutions and organs understand their role, how they define the conditions for civic liberty, and what sort of ideological alliances they are making with which social forces. Despite violent attacks, The Curse remains in repertory – the process is still going on, keeping us on the alert, requiring our vigilance, demanding our commitment and understanding of every gesture made by the authorities. In the present situation it’s hard for me to imagine any more important tasks for art.
Like the entire show, the image of the cross being cut down…
Like the entire show, the image of the cross being cut down simultaneously mobilizes the community affectively and severely antagonizes it internally, in which – as the philosopher Sarah Ahmed proves in The Cultural Politics of Emotions – there is no contradiction at all. For the stronger the disgust felt by Others, the deeper the bond connecting us, and the stronger the affects will be.
Pulling back, bodies that are disgusted are also bodies that feel a certain rage, a rage that the object [or other body] has got close enough to sicken, and to be taken over or taken in. To be disgusted is after all to be affected by what one has rejected6.
The show causes us to be acutely aware of Others and their deeply unsettling involvement in our lives. “…it is through emotions… that surfaces or boundaries are made: the “I” and the “we” are shaped by, and even take the shape of, contact with others”7, writes Ahmed, pointing out in this context the common root of the words “passion” and “passivity” – the Latin passio, meaning “suffering” – which Ahmed associates with the loss of an active, subjective position: “To be emotional is to have one’s judgment affected: it is to be reactive rather than active, dependent rather than autonomous”8. The audience at the show at the Teatr Powszechny is likely to experience this state with particular intensity.
With time I have realized that this is exactly how the euphoria I have been feeling works. The ambivalence of this experience is tied in with the discovery of its deeply ressentiment-related nature. Its reactive character betrays a patent kinship with the Nietzschean concept of a “slaves’ revolt”, […] “who, denied the proper response of action, compensate for it only with imaginary revenge…”9.
The scene featuring a plaster figure of John Paul II…
The scene featuring a plaster figure of John Paul II is in a similar affective register, as the crowd hangs a sign around its neck that says: “Defender of paedophiles”, and then a noose. The explicit nature of this image undermines the option of drawing from it rational criticism of the institution of the Catholic Church, even though the problem of paedophilia is for the church – as proved by the trials under way in most countries where Catholicism is the main religion – one that can result in a loss of hegemony (in Ireland, as a result of government inquiries that have revealed the gigantic scale of paedophilia among the clergy and also the institutional protection that the Church, including the Vatican, has provided for the offenders, almost half the country’s believers have turned away from the Catholic Church). But the authors are aiming to produce a shock that’s impossible to rationalize. Here, Poland’s most important totem, a figure revered as a tribal divinity, the embodiment of his great forebears and founder of the unity of the nation as a family, has been disgraced and lynched, in a manner that prompts the worst historical associations. This symbolic act of violence, with which it is impossible to identify, is hard to interpret any other way than as an ostentatious display of ressentiment. In Poland, under conditions of such extreme ideological domination and structural censorship that limits the field of public debate from the start, no serious criticism of John Paul II and his nonfeasance will ever be heard in the public sphere. The only thing we can do is to perform an act of “vengeance of the weak” – the authors seem to be saying – to give vent to our own impotence, which finds consolation in the disgust and rage felt by others.
Like this, The Curse brings us face to face us with the true nature of the public body, forces us to feel for ourselves how emotions are passed around between individual bodies and groups, and how those who seem to be most forcefully pushed apart by mutual disgust are actually stuck together by it. The show allows us, within the conditions of art, to experience the nature of the increasing deadlock in our society; it exposes the affective base underlying the impossibility of holding a rational public debate about the position of the Church and the secularity of the state – a debate that does in fact require acknowledgement of the autonomous and legitimate positions of others. The show brutally dismisses not just the Habermasian utopia of the consensual public sphere, but also the hopes placed in the agonistic nature of democracy and its institutions, which should have the ability to sublimate the passions lying at “the source of collective identities”. Nor does it leave many illusions that art, as one of those democratic institutions, can indeed contribute – as Chantal Mouffe, author of the concept of agonistics would have it – to “the disarming of the libidinal forces leading towards hostility that are always present in human societies” and ultimately “the renunciation of death as an instrument of decision”10.
Here, exposing the affective mechanisms…
Here, exposing the affective mechanisms is performed not in the laboratory conditions of observation, but in a real-life process that involves all sides and excludes the position of the objective observer. At no point do the authors reserve it for themselves. From the start, the show presents an unambiguous, extremely sharpened thesis: the conditions for liberal democracy in Poland are fundamentally infringed by the power of the Catholic Church and the politically-backed position of Catholicism as the national religion, within which the phantasmal homogeneity of the nation is affirmed. And so the image of the cut-down cross, which gave me an intense feeling of euphoria, almost immediately changes into another “worldview”, the significance of which I would rather avoid, in order to preserve my delight. When the cross falls, on the back wall of the bare stage, dominating the entire scene, the emblem of a crowned eagle is illuminated. Maria Robaszkiewicz performs a shocking song with no words, which changes into a scream, embodying the threat of symbolic violence. One idol replaces another, but the act of iconoclasm won’t be repeated again – more than that, it will be shown to be impossible. Three actors bring in ladders, climb them and try to switch off the emblem by awkwardly unscrewing the lightbulbs that form the eagle shape. But from the top of the ladders they can only reach the lowest few. They climb down, and with all the other actors, they kneel before the national emblem. Mute, in solidarity, unified in a gesture of submission, now they represent the image of the ideal People produced by ideology – the People, which Slavoj Žižek writes with a capital P, to show that he means the phantasmally constructed body of the nation, which exists as a Whole that’s not split by antagonistic divisions. How can such a whole be maintained? Not by stifling the differences, but by applying a normative definition. So this is the People from the slogan “the whole People supports the Party”, where supporting the power of the Party – as the philosopher explains – is a constituent feature of the People, because those who oppose this power, “are automatically excluded from the People” and become “enemies of the People”11. We can be intoxicated by the thrill of “imaginary vengeance”, the authors seem to be saying, but ultimately it is the vengeance of the powerless, within a society where being a Pole means being a Catholic, or at any rate a child of God.
Here Frljić makes very good use of the technique of simplification, a practice he has mastered, and which, to cite Alan Badiou, should be defined as the ability to recognize and reveal basic ideological coordinates. The point is to rid oneself of any kind of psychologism, and convey the crux of the tensions and designs of a social situation within a structure where not all the elements are represented; as a result, things that within the system remain outside our field of vision become visible. In our reality it is not hard to find confirmation of the concluding thesis. Here I shall refer to one of the first sharply critical reactions to Frljić’s show. In the daily newspaper Rzeczpospolita Liliana Sonik argues that the director has “insidiously and hideously” declared all-out war on Polish society, anticipating and forestalling every reaction of opposition to his work, and incorporating that response into a public performance, which was his aim. Following this otherwise correct diagnosis, Sonik argues that art in Poland is free and has full rights to raise taboo topics, on condition of course that it is “genuine art”. There’s no point in asking about the criteria for making this verification, and if one of them might happen to be conceptual quality and effective realization of the avantgarde dream of doing away with the differences between art and social process. On the other hand, it’s worth noticing that in proving how very harmful Frljić’s provocation is to Polish society, Sonik unconsciously makes a judgement that confirms both the concluding diagnosis of the show and also the necessity of using radical language:
Poland is a large enough country for there to be room for everyone. Some are ardent Catholics, others are habitual Catholics, Jews or agnostics, yet others profess Orthodoxy or Islam (such as the Tatars who have been loyal to the Republic for centuries)12.
Among the “everyone” inhabiting Poland…
Among the “everyone” inhabiting Poland and enjoying full rights here, there are only children of God. No subject exists outside of religion, because those who are the People – or better, the Nation – are defined as “believers”, which is an identity category, in no essential way connected with their spiritual position. Atheists have been annihilated, and the factual antagonism has been removed. I’m giving this quote because it’s a good illustration of the way in which the field of political debate is blocked, the response to which is the language of affects and Frljić and company’s deliberate breach of the critical frame, of rational debate, in an ostentatious gesture of lack of faith in its effectiveness within Polish conditions.
The structure of the production, which has been written about extensively, is like a variety show, featuring a series of turns in the form of monologues delivered by actors appearing under their own names, speaking directly to the audience; most of them discuss power relations within the institution of the theatre, stressing in particular its ineradicable misogyny, which also involves its contract with the audience. “Don’t you like it? Too primitive?” asks Klara Bielawka, as she mentions one of the features of the language of The Curse, which is sexualization and blatant obscenity. Like this, Frljić strikes at the convention of theatre within a cultural city, and its intellectual and aesthetic obligations, which hinder the potential for political debate. On the other hand, he also attacks and ridicules the compulsive, post-political nature of the theatre of “constant transgression”. But sexualization also plays a crucial role in the affective work of the show, because it sits within the field of tensions prompted by disgust. The actors deliberately and provocatively play up their status as “vile bodies” to be used for pleasure, dividing the audience into those in whom obscenity prompts laughter and those who are revolted by it. These two affects produce communities of those who are amused and those who are disgusted, groups that are once again reactively dependent on each other. But there can no doubt that the theatre sides with the former group, and also – maybe above all – exposes to ridicule those who “are bound together through the shared condemnation of a disgusting object or event”13. Like this, Frljić intensifies the antagonism, but also undermines the mechanism by the force of which – as Ahmed shows – disgust supports a position of “aboveness” towards the disgusting bodies. “Given the fact that the one who is disgusted is the one who feels disgust, then the position of ‘aboveness’ is maintained only at the cost of a certain vulnerability, as an openness to being affected by those who are felt to be below”14. This defencelessness of the disgusted is ruthlessly exploited in the show, becoming another sphere for retaliation.
But the authors are mainly interested in sexuality…
But the authors are mainly interested in sexuality, as a sphere of life over which the Church tries to exert particular power, but over which it has no control within its own ranks. This is a motif derived from Stanisław Wyspiański’s play, The Curse, in which a woman is branded with blame for her sexuality, defined by the Church as sinful, and is collectively murdered as a scapegoat in a ritual that’s supposed to restore order to a community plunged into crisis. In this ambivalent space occupied by power and weakness the show’s most “offensive image” appears – the scene in which Julia Wyszyńska performs fellatio on a figure of John Paul II fitted with an erect penis. This is definitely the most ambiguous image in the whole production. The figure’s erect penis represents the male power structure of this ultra-patriarchal institution – a shockingly literal representation of the obvious fact that only those who possess a penis are granted access to its hierarchical structure. The scene could be interpreted as a metaphor for the power of the Church over women’s bodies, the literal and symbolic abuse that they experience on the part of this institution and those who serve it, but it could also be an image of the endless adoration and longing for love that, by way of compensation, Polish women aim at the figure of the Polish pope. Here we might see a radical critique of idolatrous practices, or we might opt for a feminist, psychoanalytical interpretation, and seek in it a depiction of a daughter’s relationship with her symbolic father, whom she wants to seduce to be sure of her own value15.
Whichever interpretation we choose, it won’t change the fact that within the social process sparked off by the show this image resulted in a structural repetition of what happens in The Curse, because the actor was subjected – as she in fact predicted on stage – to a professional lynching, including being harassed by the head of Polish public television, who cancelled the first showing of a production in which she was appearing. The wave of hate that came crashing down on Julia Wyszyńska is quite unprecedented in the world of art. It has shown how easy it is in Poland to typecast a woman as a victim, and set off the mechanism of collective abuse aimed at her. It has also shown that even a theatre company that’s so well aware of the mechanisms of abuse aimed at women was unable to anticipate and avoid this situation, or perhaps it didn’t choose not to take advantage of it.
In one scene the show reins in the radical expression and entirely drops the explicit language. This is a scene in which the actors sit in a row on the proscenium and recall their childhood experiences of being molested by priests. They talk calmly, though with evident difficulty, they avoid graphic detail and they don’t make any accusations – they just tell their story. Each of them introduces him or herself by stating their own real names and saying which role they play in the show. So here we have a demonstration of creating the “effect of reality”, though that doesn’t diminish the power of this scene, in which the theatre bears witness to the harm done to innocent victims. Victims who are forced to keep silent: by the actions of the actual perpetrators, and by the institution that protects those people, but also by the barrier of social taboo and fear of the real and symbolic power of the Church. But at the same time, this multiple confession made by all the actors takes the scene beyond the psychological dimension, and also beyond the act of removing the taboo from an extremely severe social problem, and aims it at a highly significant cultural mechanism. For it shows that the experience of a molested child is in a certain sense one that we all share, when we consider that corporeality and sexuality are the objects of avid interest and very early colonization on the part of the Catholic Church. Sexuality, defined as being sinful, is used by the Church to prompt a sense of guilt and to give us a severe sense of alienation towards our own bodies; this message is so widespread within our culture that it is virtually impossible to avoid. Before we can build stable foundations for our identity and acquire critical tools, we’re subjected to ruthless interpellation – a demand that orders us to identify with a place from which we are observed as sinners, as unclean bodies. And so being a molested child is a common experience, a basic mechanism of infantilization, trapping us into being dependent on the perpetrators of symbolic and real abuse. Hence the outburst of aggression in another scene, in which the actors first assemble models of guns out of cross-shaped parts, and then in a frenzied dance fire them at the audience, can be interpreted not just as an irreverent parody of the violence committed by the “administrators of faith”, but also as a wild outburst of the destructive emotions of children who are interpellated, en route to being abused by an omnipotent, symbolic authority.
At the level of blatant acts performed in reaction to the show…
At the level of blatant acts performed in reaction to the show, the Polish Catholic Church – perhaps having learned from incidents relating to the censorship of a production of Golgotha Picnic, a play by the Argentine playwright Rodrigo García – showed remarkable restraint. An episcopal statement was issued to say that the show bore the hallmarks of blasphemy, and called on believers to say “compensatory prayers” along the lines of “Conquer evil with good!”16 But the real response that we can see from the actions taken by the hierarchs reveals a level of hypocrisy that provides a very clear illustration of the distorted state of the Polish public sphere and the paralysis of normal critical practice. The first Friday of Lent, falling on 3 March – two weeks after the premiere of The Curse – was designated within the Catholic Church by Pope Francis as the “day of prayer and atonement for the sin of sexual abuse of minors committed by members of the clergy”. Meanwhile, in many Polish dioceses this day was not included in the calendar at all, and in others it was announced as a “day of prayer and atonement for the sin of sexual abuse of minors”. Leaving out the culprits identified by the pope is tantamount to a blatant betrayal of his intentions. A few weeks later, on 13 April, during a mass celebrated at Poznań Cathedral, Archbishop Stanisław Gądecki mentioned the actions taken by culture minister Piotr Gliński, who had announced that, despite having signed contracts, he would withdraw funding for the Malta Festival (an annual international theatre festival held in Poznań), if Oliver Frljić was to be its curator, in keeping with plans announced by the organizers more than two years earlier. The mass was also being celebrated by Archbishop Juliusz Paetz, the figure at the centre of the most notorious sex scandal within the Polish Church, who has never had to answer for the abuse of seminarians that has been proved against him.
“We believe in Christ, we don’t want democracy here,” chanted members of the ONR (the extreme right-wing National Radical Camp) and All-Polish Youth (another ultra-nationalist organization) on 21 April at a demonstration outside the Teatr Powszechny, in which they behaved aggressively and tried to block the entrance to the theatre. A few days later the culture minister gave them his support in a curious statement in which he declared that the question of the production’s legality should be investigated by the judiciary, and he also called on the Warsaw city authorities to interfere with immediate censorship17. Surely neither the demonstrators nor the minister supporting them realized how meticulously they were cooperating with the show by exposing through their actions the special structure of symbolic power that exists in Poland. The basic “feature of the democratic order”, as Claude Lefort claims, “is that the place of Power is, by the necessity of its structure, an empty place”, only temporarily occupied as “a substitute for the real-impossible sovereign”18. This is the basis for the “invention of democracy”, negated by the people demonstrating outside the theatre. The show’s final image presents us with something that in our reality is too obvious to be noticed. We don’t think on a daily basis about the fact that in Poland the symbolic empty place of Power is occupied by an enthroned ruling couple whom no political force is capable of replacing or removing. The Virgin Mary has been the Queen of Poland for three-and-a-half centuries, and in 2007 Pope Benedict XVI appointed the Tribunal Mother of God as the patron saint of the Polish parliament, at the request of members of parliament, sent to the Vatican via the Polish episcopate. In 2016 the Polish president, Andrzej Duda, and a large number of representatives of the country’s most senior authorities officially attended the enthronement of Jesus Christ as King of Poland. Legitimized by the secular authorities, the Church’s symbolic gestures are of genuine significance, because they create a climate for social practice and political decisions that are now ever more forcefully interfering in civic liberties. They also provide symbolic fuel for the most dangerous nationalist mechanisms that absolutize the Poles as a chosen nation. The final scene of the production is in terms of meanings a display of powerlessness to deal with this situation, but as long as Anathema continues to be performed within the normal institutional practice of the repertory theatre, the show will actually be working in defiance of these meanings.
Translated by Antonia Lloyd-Jones
Previously published in Poland in Didaskalia, N°139/140, June-July 2017.
Cover: The Curse, performance by Oliver Frlijć at the Powszechny Theatre, photography © Magda Hueckel.