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Teatr 21 and Biennale Warszawa, A Revolution That Was Not There
  • Political Theatre
  • New Choreography
  • The Body and the Archive
Read more English Issue 2020

How to Lift the Curse? Oliver Frljić and the Poles

Agata Adamiecka’s article is devoted to Oliver Frljić’s affective The Curse, a play of unprecedented social impact in the post-transformation history of theater in Poland. Adamiecka chiefly focuses on the closing scene, where a wooden cross is cut down and a noose is hung around a plaster figure of John Paul II, as the clearest acts of symbolic violence, through which the artists affectively work on the audience, simultaneously showing themes that are most powerful taboos in the public sphere. Turning her attention to the wave of violence that actress Julia Wyszyńska experienced after the premiere, as well as statements by the Minister of Culture and other representatives of the political right, the author demonstrates how The Curse reveals the structure of symbolic power in Poland, with the inextricable alliance between state and church powers, and the permanent marginalization of women in the public sphere and the restriction of their rights, particularly when it comes to deciding about their own bodies.

Keywords: political theatre; Catholic Church; democracy; Oliver Frljić; John Paul II

Powszechny Theatre in Warszawa, The Curse: Karolina Adamczyk

Powszechny Theatre in Warszawa, The Curse: Karolina Adamczyk; photo: Magda Hueckel

There is no other production (Klątwa [The Curse], Powszechny Theatre, Warszawa, premiere 18 February 2017) – certainly not in the post-transformation era, probably even in the post-war history of Polish theatre – that has divided Poles with equal force and at the same time create a particular kind of “community clash”. It reveals us to ourselves, grappling to the death – yet not by providing a mirror in which we'd see our reflection, but rather by activating real, extreme affects, mobilized and made accessible to us in the form of direct, tangible experience during the performance and in the social process it has triggered. By making affect the fundamental field in which art operates, the creative team took seriously Brechtian “lessons against identification and for commitment” (Bal, 2007, p. 6), as theorist Mieke Bal has termed it.

It’s therefore difficult to indicate a claim as inadequate to this production as the one brazenly presented in it: “Everything we say and do in theatre is fiction”. The creative team know the case is quite the opposite, for instance when they challenge juridical categories by discarding one fictitious scene of fundraising for the assassination of Jarosław Kaczyński (leader of Poland's ruling Law and Justice party) for fear of real penal sanctions for incitement to crime, at the same time staging the scene in its entirety, on their own terms. They know theatrical fiction causes real effects in the social sphere, including in the form of prosecutorial investigation – but above all in the sphere of powerful affects. I’d like to examine the production’s affective mechanisms, as I have also felt its impact deeply. What follows will therefore be a narration from within that experience.

In the finale of The Curse, a particular density of “world pictures” occurs, to borrow a phrase from WJT Mitchell: representations superseding one another that could be understood as “synecdoches of social totalities ranging from bodies to families to tribes to nations to monotheistic notions of metaphysical universality” (Mitchell, 2005, p. 196). The theatrical element, fuelled by eruptions of subsequent monologues addressed directly at the audience, slows here and gives way to imagery that definitely – to continue using Mitchell’s terminology – “wants something”.

The actress Karolina Adamczyk walks to centre stage and unhurriedly puts on protective gear: boots, trousers, gloves and helmet. Properly safeguarded, she picks up a power saw and proceeds to skilfully, methodically cut down a huge wood cross, which from the opening of the performance has dominated the empty stage. In addition, the cross clearly refers in its form to the monument erected on Piłsudski Square in Warsaw to commemorate John Paul II’s 1979 pilgrimage, when these significant words were uttered: “Let your Spirit descend and renew the face of the earth, the face of this land!” The cross in question is a symbol of the fundamental role John Paul II played in mobilizing Polish society to resist the Communist authorities, thus contributing to democratic transformations. Therefore it can also be viewed as a symbol of the special alliance subsequent governments of liberated Poland have concluded with the Catholic Church, paying off a symbolic debt in this way. The action performed by the actress lasts a long while, extended in time, which confronts the audience with the inevitability of the action’s result. She cuts an initial wedge, proceeds to make an incision on the opposite side, stands behind the cross and slowly pushes it in the direction of the audience.

The image, violating cultural taboo to an extent that it almost constitutes a “critical exception” in Polish symbolic space, aggressively demands an audience reaction – a reaction I’d describe as “affective cooperation” of a decisively relational nature. The image strives to divide the audience into those who feel satisfaction or relief, seeing that such an act is possible in our public sphere so deeply dominated by political influence and symbolic hegemony of the Catholic Church, and those who experience terror, outrage or revulsion at the act of cutting down a cross (those terms – especially revulsion and disgust – recur most in negative comments about the production). The experienced affects condition one another: revulsion at the theatrical image is stimulated by awareness that for others it's a source of pleasure. Satisfaction is enhanced by the feeling that the cultural transgression here is experienced as violence by others. The reviewer of Nasz Dziennik (Our Daily), a conservative Catholic publication, describes this mechanism well:

And the rest of the audience? Several people sat down with their heads bowed, not looking at the stage. The majority, however […], welcomed the end of this pseudo-show with cries of approval, giving it a standing ovation. And that was the biggest blow to me (Stankiewicz-Podhorecka, 2017).

I belong to those who experienced euphoria at seeing the image of the falling cross – all the greater for being accompanied by an awareness that, thanks to the institutional context of repertory theatre, this act will be repeated many times by the power of the theatre convention in a cultural city. I find it important that the cross is felled by the actress who in the production delivers a monologue about a woman’s right to decide about her body and life: the right that Polish women are deprived of today, as an effect of that same post-transitional alliance mentioned above, between “the altar and the throne”. It is significant that power and confidence emanate from her actions on stage, which I view as a manifestation of the resistance on the part of Polish women to subsequent attacks on their civic rights, safety and dignity. The image, therefore, leads me to “iconoclastic jouissance” (Mitchell, 2005, p. 162), to quote Mitchell again, to delight at the destruction of idolatry. In my opinion, the act of cutting down the cross, repeated on the stage of a public theatre, occurs as a replacement for all the acts of cross removal from public space that can't take place – though the presence of a Christian symbol violates my freedom of worldview. Such is the case with the cross surreptitiously hung in the plenary hall of the Polish Parliament in 1997 by deputies of the Solidarity Electoral Action Party (AWS), which no representative of any political party in parliament has had the courage to remove to date. Therefore, I experience the image of the falling cross as an act of righteous revenge, and it’s deeply satisfying – also because being in the audience I feel how much I’m not alone at that moment.

At the same time, inevitably, in the eyes of those whom the image defines as the other, the representation of a falling cross enters the realm of radically “offensive imagery” and defiant calls are made for its own destruction or banning. The image desires to provoke the biggest mobilization possible in favour of its annihilation. It affectedly becomes an object of iconoclasm, “the pictorial counterpart to the death drive” (Mitchell, 2005, p. 75), as Mitchell terms it – thus posing a challenge to the democratic public sphere, with the duty of guaranteeing the right of such imagery to exist.

This is undoubtedly one of the tasks that Frljić’s production consciously undertakes, triggering a long-term process of testing conditions of freedom of artistic expression and freedom of speech in Poland1. Thanks to deep understanding of the mission of a public institution and to those consequences and its courage, on the day The Curse premiered Warsaw's Powszechny Theatre launched a social laboratory the work of which provides knowledge regarding the state of democracy tested on the living social organism through involving key public authorities in the experiment – judicial authorities, the police force, local and central government, the media – and all sides in the culture war that currently rages in Poland. Thanks to this initiative, we can receive daily updates on where we are, transformations our political system is going through, how individual institutions and authorities understand their role, how they define conditions of civic freedom and what ideological alliances they enter with which social forces. Despite violent attacks, The Curse remains in the repertoire – the process goes on, keeps us highly alerted, requires vigilance, demands commitment and understanding of each gesture by the authorities. It’s hard in the present situation to find more important tasks for art to perform.

The image of the falling cross, like the entire production, at once affectively mobilizes the community and drastically antagonizes it internally, in which lies by no means any contradiction, according to what Sarah Ahmed proposes in her Cultural Politics of Emotions. The stronger the disgust with the other is, the deeper the bond connecting us with them proves, and the stronger are the affects.

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 rejected (Ahmed, 2004, p. 86).

The production makes us experience others acutely, and their deeply disturbing involvement in ourselves. “[Social boundaries and surfaces]: the “I” and the “we” are shaped by, or even take the shape of, contact with others” (Ahmed, 2004, p. 10), argues Ahmed, pointing in this context to the common root of “passion” and “passivity” – the Latin passio, “to suffer”. The philosopher associates that root with a loss of active, subjective position: “To be emotional is to have one’s judgement affected: it is to be reactive, rather than active, dependent rather than autonomous” (Ahmed, 2004, p. 3). The Powszechny Theatre audience can experience that state with particular intensity.

With time, I realize these are effects of the euphoria I felt. The ambivalence of this experience is connected with discovery of its nature of deep resentment. Its reactive character betrays a clear affinity with the Nietzschean concept of “slave revolt”, which in the field of morals:

begins in the very principle of resentment becoming creative and giving birth to values: a resentment experienced by creatures who, deprived as they are of the proper outlet of action, are forced to find their compensation in an imaginary revenge (Nietzsche, 2003, p. 19).

The scene with a plaster figure of John Paul II situates into a similar affective register: the crowd of actors hangs a plaque around his neck that says “Defender of Paedophiles” then proceeds to add a noose. The drastic nature of that image undermines the possibility of deriving from it rational criticism of the Catholic Church institution, though the issue of paedophilia is one that may result in that institution’s loss of hegemony, as demonstrated by processes taking place in most countries in which Catholicism predominates – in Ireland, government investigative committees” work has revealed the enormous scale of paedophilia among the clergy along with institutional protection that the church, including the Vatican, grants to perpetrators, has caused more than half of its followers to turn away from the Catholic Church. Yet the production’s creative team chose a shock effect that’s impossible to rationalise. There the highest Polish totem stands, a figure worshipped as tribal deity, embodying great ancestors, founding the unity of the nation as a family, which is then dishonoured and lynched in ways that bring to mind the worst historical associations. This act of symbolic violence, with which it’s hard to identify oneself, is hard to interpret in other terms than those of brazen manifestation of resentment. In Poland, under conditions of such extreme ideological domination and structural censorship preventively restricting the field of public debate, no serious criticism will be permitted in the public sphere of John Paul II and his negligence. All that’s left is to perform an act of the “revenge of the weak”, the creative team seems to say, to vent one’s powerlessness, and find solace in the repulsion and rage felt by others.

In precisely this way, The Curse confronts us with the essence of the social body, makes us experience how emotions circulate between individual bodies and groups, how they bind those whose mutual repudiation would most seem to repel one another. The production lets us experience through artistic conditions the nature of our intensifying social deadlock: it reveals the affective basis of the inability to conduct any rational public debate regarding the position of the church and secularism of the state: a debate which, after all, requires recognition of others” autonomous and legitimate positions. The production brutally dismisses not only the Habermasian utopia of a consensual public sphere but also hopes placed in the agonism of democracy and its institutions, able to sublimate passions “at the origin of collective forms of identifications”. It also leaves no illusion that art can truly contribute, as argued by Chantal Mouffe, author of the concept of agonism, in “disarming of the libidinal forces leading towards hostility which are always present in human societies” and ultimately to the “renunciation of death as an instrument of decision” (Mouffe, 2005, pp. 22, 26).

Revealing of active mechanisms occurs here not in lab conditions of observation but in a real process engaging all sides and excluding the position of the objective observer. The creative team doesn't claim that role at any moment. From the beginning, the production makes an unequivocal, extremely keen point: conditions of liberal democracy in Poland are fundamentally disturbed by the power of the Catholic Church and the politically upheld position of Catholicism as the national religion, in the framework of which the nation’s phantasmal homogeneity is affirmed. This is why the image of a felled cross that caused me to experience sudden euphoria almost instantly transforms into another “world picture”, the significance of which I’d rather had escaped me so as to preserve my previous sense of delight. When the cross falls, on the rear wall of the bare stage, the emblem of a crowned eagle becomes illuminated: the national emblem of Poland2. Maria Robaszkiewicz performs a shocking, wordless song that turns into a scream expressing the terror of symbolic violence. One idol is replaced by another, yet the act of iconoclasm won’t be repeated – what’s more, it will reveal itself as impossible.

Three actors carry ladders on stage and climb them in an attempt to extinguish the emblem, clumsily unscrewing light bulbs with which the shape of the eagle is built. But from the height of their ladders, they can only reach the lowest bulbs. They descend and, with the rest of the cast, kneel before the national emblem. Silent, frozen, unified in the gesture of subordination, they’re now the image of ideal people created by ideology: the People that Slavoj Žižek spells with a capital letter to signify that it’s a phantasmatically constructed body of the nation that exists as a totality, indivisible by antagonistic ruptures. How can such a totality be maintained? Not by suppressing differences, but by means of a normative definition. This is the People, from the motto “the whole People supports the Party”, in which this support for the Party’s authority, argues Žižek, is a constitutive characteristic of the People, because anyone who opposes the authority “is automatically excluded from the People” and becomes “the enemy of the People” (Žižek, 1989, p. 147). We may enjoy the delight of “imaginary revenge”, the production’s creative team seems to say, but ultimately it’s the revenge of the powerless in a society in which a Pole means a Catholic or, at the very least, a child of God.

Here, Frljić uses the well-mastered technique of simplification, which according to Alain Badiou should be named the ability to recognize and reveal basic ideological coordinates.3 This means getting rid of all psychologism and depicting the essence of tensions and social-situation plans in a structure where all elements aren’t represented, so what’s left out of sight within the system becomes visible. It’s not hard to confirm the final thesis within our reality. I spotlight one initial, sharp critical reaction to Frljić’s production. where Liliana Sonik writes in the newspaper Rzeczpospolita, arguing that the director “insidiously and disgustingly” declares total war on Polish society, foreseeing and anticipating any reaction of opposition to his work then incorporating it in the social spectacle that was his goal. After this otherwise correct diagnosis, Sonik argues that art in Poland is free and that it has full right to touch on taboo subjects, provided of course that it is “true art”. It doesn’t even make sense to ask about criteria for verifying “true art” and whether they shouldn’t by chance include conceptual quality and an effectiveness of execution in an avant-garde dream of abolishing differences between art and social process. However, it’s worth pointing out that by proving how unfair Frljić’s provocation is for Polish society, in passing her judgement Sonik unconsciously confirms both the final conclusion of the production and the necessity of using radical language:

Poland is a country big enough for all kinds to find their place. Some are devout Catholics, others Catholics by custom, Jews or agnostics, still others are Orthodox or they practice Islam (like the Tatars faithful to Poland for centuries) (Sonik, 2017).

In this ecumenical fantasy among the “all kinds” inhabiting Poland, enjoying the fullness of their rights, are God’s exclusive children. No subject can exist outside religion because those who belong to the People, or better yet, the Nation, are defined as “believers”, a category of identity related in no essential way to spiritual condition. Atheists have been annihilated, the actual antagonism abolished. I include this quote as it describes what blocking the political field consists of, the response to which is the language of affects and deliberate transgression of The Curse’s creative team, stepping past critical framework and rational debate in an ostentatious gesture denoting lack of faith in their effectiveness under Polish conditions.

The structure of the production, as noted in reviews, is reminiscent of a revue with numbers that follow in the form of monologues spoken by actors in their own names addressed directly to the audience, in large part problematizing power relations within a theatre institution and particularly accentuating irremediable misogyny that also encroaches on contact with the audience. “You don’t like it? Is it too primitive?” asks Klara Bielawka, while naming one of the characteristics of The Curse’s language, which is to say sexualisation and overt obscenity. In this way, Frljić attacks theatre convention in a cultural city, along with its intellectual and aesthetic obligations inhibiting political potential. On the other hand, the director also attacks and ridicules compulsiveness and the post-politicality of the theatre of eternal transgression. But sexualisation remains a vital part of the show’s affective work as well, as it is located in a field of tension caused by disgust. Actors deliberately and provocatively act out their status of “vile bodies” to be used, dividing the audience into those who laugh at the obscene and those who feel disgusted. These affects create communities of the amused and the disgusted, reactively dependent on one another, once again. There’s no doubt, however, that theatre allies itself with the former and ridicules also – perhaps primarily – those who “became united in the shared condemnation of the disgusting object or event” (Ahmed, 2004, p.94) In this way. the director intensifies antagonism but also undermines the mechanism by which disgust, as shown by Ahmed, upholds the position of superiority over 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” (Ahmed, 2004, p. 89).

That vulnerability of the disgusted is utterly exploited in the production, becoming another space of retaliation. Sexuality, however, is interesting to the creative team primarily because it is a sphere of life over which the church attempts to extend particular authority yet which the church can’t control within its ranks. This is a theme derived from playwright Stanisław Wyspiański’s The Curse (1899), in which a woman is blamed for sexuality the church defines as sinful, then is collectively murdered in a scapegoat ritual enacted to return order to a community in crisis. It’s in this ambivalent space of power and weakness that the production’s most “offensive image” is situated – that is, the scene in which actress Julia Wyszyńska fellates the statue of John Paul II with its attached, erect penis. This is probably the most ambiguous image in the production. The figure’s erect penis represents the gender power structure of that ultra-patriarchal institution; it’s a shockingly literal visualization of the obvious fact that the possession of a penis alone grants access to that hierarchical structure. The scene can be interpreted as a metaphor for church power over women’s bodies, the literal and symbolic violence they experience from that institution and its servants. It may also be an image of the boundless adoration and need of love Polish women direct in a compensatory way to the figure of the Polish Pope. One may see in it radical criticism of idolatrous practices, or may opt for a feminist psychoanalytical interpretation and view it as an image of a daughter’s relationship with the symbolic father, whom the woman desires to seduce in order to ascertain her worth (See Gallop, 1997).

Regardless of which interpretation we choose, it will not change the fact that in the social process triggered by the production, the image in question has resulted in a structural repetition of the mechanism inherent in The Curse, as Wyszyńska, the actress, was subjected to professional lynching (which she predicts on stage), including repressions by Polish public television’s executive director, who cancelled the premiere of a TV production she was to appear in. The wave of hatred that has focused on Wyszyńska is unprecedented in the art world. This situation has shown how simple it is to single out a woman as victim then trigger a mechanism of collective violence against her. It has also shown that even an institution such as a theatre company, conscious of mechanisms of violence against women, didn’t foresee and circumvent a situation like this, then perhaps didn’t preclude itself from the opportunity of using it.

In one scene, the production slows its radical expression and abandons drastic language. It’s a scene in which the cast sits in a row at the front of the stage and talk about childhood experiences of having been molested by priests. They speak calmly, though with visible difficulty; they avoid drastic detail, refrain from accusation, relating an experience. Each introduces themselves by first name, family name and the role they perform in the production. We’re dealing here, therefore, with a demonstration of creating “a reality effect”, which doesn’t, however, diminish the power of the scene, in which theatre gives testimony about wrongs that befell innocent victims. They’re forced into silence: by actions of the direct perpetrators, by the institution that protects the latter, but also by the barrier of social taboo and fear of the real and symbolic power of the church.

At the same time, this multiple confession in which all actors participate takes the scene beyond the psychological dimension, and beyond the act of lifting the taboo on an exceptionally drastic social problem, and directs it toward an extremely significant cultural mechanism. It demonstrates that the experience of a molested child becomes in a sense the experience of all of us, because of the fact that carnality and sexuality are subjects of eager interest and of very early colonization on the part of the Catholic Church. Sexuality, defined as sinful, is a field for provoking a sense of guilt and drastic alienation toward one’s own body – a message so widespread in our culture that it’s almost impossible to avoid. Before we’ve built a stable foundation for our identity and acquired critical tools, we’re subjected to ruthless interpellation: an onslaught that forces us to identify with a place from which we’re observed as sinners, as impure bodies. Being a molested child therefore becomes a universal experience, a fundamental mechanism of infantilization, trapping us into dependency upon perpetrators of both symbolic and real violence.

The outbreak of aggression in the following scene, therefore, in which the actors first stick together models of rifles from mismatched parts into a cross shape, then subsequently in a frenetic dance fire them in the direction of the audience, can be interpreted both as a mocking, parodic image of violence on the part of “officials of the faith” and as an uncontrolled eruption of children’s destructive emotions interpellated via abuses inflicted by an all-powerful symbolic instance.

At the level of open action in reaction to the production, the Polish Catholic Church, taught a lesson by events surrounding censorship of the Golgota Picnic [Golgotha Picnic] production directed by Rodrigo Garcia cancelled in 2013 in Poznań (see Polish Theatre Journal, 2), exhibited considerable restraint. An Episcopal Declaration proclaimed that the production was blasphemous, and called on the faithful to perform an “amending prayer” along the lines of the words “Fight evil with good!”4

However, the real answer glimpsed from actions of establishment hierarchs reveals a level of hypocrisy that may most clearly depict the deformation of the Polish public sphere and the paralysis of standard critical procedures. The first Friday of Lent, falling on 3 March in 2017 – that is, two weeks after The Curse premiered – was declared by Pope Francis to be the “day of prayer and penance for the sin of child abuse perpetrated by the clergy” for the Catholic Church. In many Polish parishes, meanwhile, the day was not put on the calendar at all, while in others it was proclaimed the “day of prayer and penance for the sin of child abuse”5. The omission of words indicated by the pope is equivalent to the overt misrepresentation of his intention.

On 13 April 2017, during a mass celebrated at the Poznań Cathedral, Archbishop Stanisław Gądecki referred to actions taken by Minister of Culture Piotr Gliński. Gliński had recently announced that, despite previously signed contracts, he would withdraw funding for Poznań’s Malta Festival if it was curated by Oliver Frljić, as had been planned and made public by the festival organizers more than two years beforehand. That mass was co-celebrated by Archbishop Juliusz Paetz, the focus of the most prominent sex scandal for the Polish Catholic Church, who has yet to answer to accusations of sexual harassment of seminary students6.

“We believe in Christ, we want no democracy here”, chanted members of the organizations Obóz Narodowo-Radykalny [National Radical Camp] and Młodzież Wszechpolska [All-Polish Youth] during demonstrations in front of the Powszechny Theatre in Warsaw on 21 April 2017, in which they utilized aggression and efforts to block the theatre’s entrance. Several days later, Minister of Culture Gliński granted them his support in a bizarre statement in which he declared that the question of the production’s legality should be examined by the judicial branch, at the same time urging Warsaw municipal authorities to intervene with immediate censorship.7

Probably neither demonstrators nor the minister supporting them were aware of how meticulously they cooperated with the production, revealing at once a particular structure of symbolic power in Poland. The basic “feature of the democratic order”, argues Claude Lefort, “is that the place of Power is, by the necessity of its structure, an empty space” and is occupied only momentarily, merely as a “substitute for the real-impossible sovereign” (Žižek, 1989, p.147. See Lefort, 1981). Therein consists the “invention of democracy”, negated by protesters massed in front of the theatre.

The last image of the production places before us what in our reality is too obvious to be perceived. In everyday life, we usually don’t think about the fact that in Poland the empty space of power is occupied by several enthroned rulers, who no political power is able to replace or remove. The Virgin Mary has been Queen of Poland for three and a half centuries; in 2007, the Virgin Mary of the Tribunal was appointed by Pope Benedict XVI as patron of the Polish Parliament, per the request sent to the Vatican by the Polish Episcopate on behalf of the MPs. In 2016, president of Poland Andrzej Duda, and numerous high-state authorities officially attended the enthronement of Jesus Christ as King of Poland. These symbolic gestures of the church, validated by secular authorities, are of real importance, as they create the climate for social practice and political decisions, which increasingly interfere nowadays with civic liberties. These gestures also offer symbolic fuel for the most dangerous nationalistic mechanisms, which absolutize Poles as the chosen Nation. The finale of The Curse is, at the level of meaning, a manifestation of powerlessness within this situation, yet as long as it is performed within the framework of normal institutional procedures of repertory theatre, the production operates incessantly against those meanings.


Translated by Karolina Sofulak


This article was first published on Didaskalia, 139-140 (2017). The article was translated into English by Polish Theatre Journal. The translation was first published on Polish Theatre Journal, 1-2 (2017) (