The Pope as Playwright

March 1989By Lucy Mazareski

Lucy Mazareski is a New Jersey writer, and translator of books from the Polish language for Crossroad Publishing Co. She has done graduate research in Polish literature and history at Cra­cow’s Jagiellonian University.

The Collected Plays and Writings on Theater.  By Karol Wojtyla. University of California Press. 395 pages. $35.



At age 19, while working days as a quarry laborer and studying nights in Cracow’s clan­destinely operated university dur­ing the wartime occupation of Poland, Karol Wojtyla wrote his first dramatic work. Two more plays followed shortly after. He referred to these works as “dra­ma of word.” Two years later, with his friend Mieczyslaw Kotlarczyk, he cofounded the under­ground Rhapsodic Theater in Cracow. Shaped in part by the stark realities of German occupa­tion, it was looked on as highly experimental theater: scenery, costumes, makeup, technical and visual effects, even acting, were kept to a minimum. It was, in the words of its cofounders, “the­ater of the word.”

Forty-six years later, during his September 1987 visit to the United States, Pope John Paul II addressed a gathering of commun­ications and entertainment poli­cymakers in Los Angeles with these words: “I am sure…that all of you…will permit me to allude to the great fascination that surrounds the mystery of the communicating word. For Christians, the communicating word is the explanation of all re­ality as expressed by St. John: ‘In the beginning was the Word; the Word was in God’s presence, and the Word was God’ (John 1:1). And for all those who hold the Judeo-Christian tradition, the nobility of communication is linked to the wisdom of God and expressed in his loving revela­tion…. Ladies and gentlemen: as communicators of the human word, you are the stewards and administrators of an immense spiritual power that belongs to the patrimony of mankind and is meant to enrich the whole of the human community.”

Clearly, Wojtyla’s own fas­cination with the mystery and spiritual power of the communi­cating word has been lifelong. It kept alive his interest and involve­ment in dramatic arts long past the time of his ordination to the priesthood. It was as Fr. Wojtyla that he wrote the play Our God’s Brother; as Bishop Wojtyla that he wrote what is perhaps his best known play, The Jeweler’s Shop; as Archbishop Wojtyla that he published a variant of his play, Radiation of Fatherhood; and as Cardinal Wojtyla that he wrote the preface to his friend Kotlarczyk’s book about the Rhapsod­ic Theater.

In his Los Angeles speech, the pontiff also quoted his pred­ecessor Paul VI, when the latter addressed a similar group in Rome: “It is a fact that when, as writers and artists, you are able to reveal in the human condition, however lowly or sad it may be, a spark of goodness, at that very instant a glow of beauty pervades your whole work. We are not asking that you should play the part of moralists, but we are ex­pressing confidence in your mys­terious power of opening up the glorious regions of light that lie behind the mystery of human life.”

In this potential for opening up the glorious regions of light behind human existence lies the immense spiritual power of the communicating word and its noble link to the wisdom of God. It is a power that is especially concentrated and potently exert­ed in the unique structure and style of the Rhapsodic Theater which Wojtyla helped found, and in his own plays, which consti­tute a fundamental contributionto that type of dramatic art.

Wojtyla’s involvement with the Rhapsodic Theater was a two-way street: his own ideas of “theater of the word” influenced the development of the rhapsod­ic style, while his experience with that theater influenced his later playwriting. Uncluttered by visual effects and activism, Rhapsodic Theater gave the word ascendancy over action, and the room in which to express certain truths and ideas. The spoken word was not so much accompaniment to conventional dramatic plot as a kind of independent song, in which the storyline was periph­eral to the problem or idea. It was not a train of events that en­gaged the audience’s interest, thought, and emotions, but the intellectual vision presented in more abstract form.

But Wojtyla’s plays go well beyond the confines of the Rhap­sodic Theater structure. They constitute “inner theater” pos­sessed of its own dramatic reality. Suggestive of medieval mystery plays with their timeless cosmic dimensions, they are “inner plays” in which the action appears to take place in external reality but actually occurs in the mind and soul of the protagonist.

In all, Wojtyla wrote six plays; the manuscript of the first, however, a play called David, has not survived. Philosophical, intel­lectual, ideological, and religious, played out at once in the secre­tive “inner self” and in the other-dimensional Christian cosmos, his plays are difficult, especially for today’s audiences and readers, for whom the byword “action-packed” is often the measure of value.

Shortly after Poland’s de­feat and occupation by German and Soviet forces in September 1939, Wojtyla wrote to Kotlarczyk: “I have lately given much thought to the liberating force of suffering. It is on suffering that Christ’s system rests, beginning with the Cross and ending with the smallest human torment. This is the true Messiah.” A few months later Job, Wojtyla’s ear­liest surviving drama, was com­pleted. While it is essentially a poetic dramatization of the bib­lical story, it was intended to serve as an analogy to the suffer­ing Polish nation, seen as a col­lective Job. This is made clear at the outset — the inscription fol­lowing the title reads: “The ac­tion took place in the Old Tes­tament / Before Christ’s coming / The action takes place in our days / In Job’s time / For Poland and the World….” And it is evi­dent in the drama, where a few modern substitutions are made, as in the lines, “Behold, my peo­ple…. / You who are downtrod­den / you who are flogged / sent to the camps, you — / Jobs — Jobs.” When a servant brings Job news of the first of his misfor­tunes, the attack by the Sabeans, who historically came from the south of Arabia, Wojtyla makes a subtle directional change, which suggests the thundering Red Ar­my that had only a few months earlier overrun the eastern half of Poland: “Suddenly a cloud of dust / went up in the east. We had no time / to run away or to hide / the beasts in barns and stables. / I recognized them: the Sabeans.”

In a remarkably compact work, utilizing dialogue in place of the long narrative biblical speeches, Wojtyla’s Job encapsu­lates, while closely adhering to, the biblical story. But with one significant departure: Wojtyla’s character transcends the incom­plete understanding of the bibli­cal Job. In the play the young prophet Elihu relates a prophetic vision of Christ’s passion and death. In an earlier letter summar­izing Job, Wojtyla had written: “In the end…on the example of Christ’s Passion, Elihu shows the positive meaning of suffering….” This meaning, which is one of transcendent hope, is clearly set forth in the play’s last lines: “And God’s Son founded / a New Covenant / on his sacrifice, passion, and suffering. / This suffer­ing transforms us, / puts the New Covenant in men’s hearts, / like a new day of creation.”

Here is the echo of young Wojtyla’s words about the liberat­ing force of suffering and the true Messiah. While the message of hope is a universal one, there is in this perhaps more than a lit­tle 19th-century Polish messianism, a view espoused by Poland’s romantic poets and writers, whose works Wojtyla had helped to pre­pare and perform in the Rhap­sodic Theater. During the period in which Poland had been swal­lowed up by partitioning powers, Poles came to view their country as the “Christ of Nations,” whose suffering helps expiate the sins of humanity.

In his informed and insight­ful preliminary remarks, transla­tor Boleslaw Taborski introduces the play Our God’s Brother with a singular observation: “On 22 June 1983 an event, religious in character but also unique in the history of world drama, took place in the Meadows of Krakow. In a ceremony witnessed by over one million people, a playwright proclaimed the beatification of his play’s protagonist. The play­wright was Karol Wojtyla — Pope John Paul II; the protagonist was Adam Chmielowski, better known by his monastic name, Brother Albert.”

At age 17 Adam took part in the 1863 Polish uprising against the Russian authorities. Later he gained repute as a talented artist, a career he ultimately gave up in order to devote himself to Cra­cow’s poor and homeless. Freedom fighter, artist, advocate for the homeless — he is a figure who captures the modern imagination.

There is a twofold conflict: first, Adam’s intense interior struggle between his love for art and the impulse to abandon all and give himself wholly to the poor; and second, deciding the best means of helping the poor. The first is a tug-of-war between reason and the love of Christ, whom he sees in the beggars. In confession, Adam confides to the priest: “My greatest temptation is the thought that one can love with the intelligence, with the in­telligence only, and that this will suffice.” How simply and concise­ly this sums up the modern dis­pensing of charity — a charity which gives with the mind while the heart remains closed. But Adam is pulled by a force beyond himself. Finally, to his alter ego, which repeatedly appeals to his logic and intelligence, his decisive reply is: “You will not be able to reduce everything to the limits of intelligence…because I am let­ting myself be molded by love.”

In the struggle to decide the best means of helping the poor, Adam is repeatedly urged by an­other character — called simply “the Stranger” — to join with revolutionary forces to liberate the oppressed. He ultimately re­jects revolution, dissatisfied with its limited final objective of pure­ly material and political libera­tion — for he is possessed of a transcendent understanding of a higher freedom of the whole per­son, through liberating Christ-centered love, compassion, and sacrifice. Thirty years later this would form the nucleus of Pope John Paul II’s response to those versions of liberation theology emphasizing violence in social ac­tivism.

Adam’s understanding and way of liberating the poor fly in the face of much of modern so­cial activism; today his way would be seen as reinforcing poverty. But it is the way of saints. Like Francis of Assisi, he embraces holy poverty. He establishes a re­ligious community whose breth­ren come mostly from the ranks of the homeless, and who are vowed to poverty. He brings them closer to Christ and teaches them the meaning of the Cross. Before, they were street beggars who hated begging. “…And now you are pledged to be beg­gars. That has changed every­thing. The vows have changed it all. You have come to love pover­ty, that’s all.” He tells the breth­ren: “Ever since you have come closer to Him, your fall has changed into the cross, and your slavery into freedom.”

In the final act, however, when Adam must deal with a dis­gruntled brother who has had “enough of begging” and must also reject an artist seeking ac­ceptance into the community, the reader is given to understand that Brother Albert knows that his is a personal solution to which not everyone is called. In the play’s final moments, revolution has broken out in the city, which comes as no surprise to Brother Albert: “Ah well. You know that anger has to erupt, especially if it is great. And it will last, because it is just.” Then, as if to himself: “I know for certain, though, that I have chosen a greater freedom.”

Marital love is the theme of The Jeweler’s Shop, the most captivating of Wojtyla’s plays, treating as it does that most basic and intense aspect of human life. It dispenses with conventional dialogue and consists instead of a series of monologues in mostly free verse, spoken by individuals seemingly together, but not ad­dressing each other. In this it closely approximates the recita­tive, static, abstract Rhapsodic style. Yet The Jeweler’s Shop is freighted with drama.

Concerned with eternal veri­ties, mystery plays render time relative. So it is in Wojtyla’s works: past, present, and future co-exist; they are seen from God’s perspective, that of the “eternal present.” In its three acts the marriages of three couples are in­terwoven: Teresa and Andrew are betrothed and marry, but in the shifts of time, Teresa is also widowed and has brought up their son Christopher; Anna and Stefan are estranged, their marriage on the brink of collapse; Monica and Christopher, the children of these two marriages, are in love and marry.

Two other characters are connected with the couples’ lives. One is an enigmatic Adam, who, like a conscience, stops the lone­ly and embittered Anna during one of her attempts to attract other men, and who has helped Teresa raise Christopher after her husband’s death. The other char­acter, never seen or heard, but frequently quoted by the others, is the Jeweler, before whose shop the interior and exterior dramas take place. It is not difficult to read in the figure of the Jeweler God the Father, before whom all human dramas are enacted.

The Jeweler dispenses not only gold wedding rings but wis­dom on the human condition — and moral judgment. When Anna tries to sell her wedding ring, re­minder of her failed marriage, the Jeweler will not buy it back. In a simple yet poetically beauti­ful allegorical passage, Wojtyla conveys the indissolubility of sa­cramental marriage. Anna is speaking: “The jeweler examined the workmanship, weighed the ring / for a longtime in his fingers, and looked / into my eyes. For a while he was reading the date of our wedding / engraved inside the ring. / Again he looked into my eyes, put the ring on the scales… / then said, ‘This ring does not weigh anything; / the needle does not move from zero, / and I cannot make it show / even a mil­ligram. / Your husband must be alive, / in which case neither of your rings, taken separately, / will weigh anything — only both to­gether will register. / My jeweler’s scales / have this peculiarity, / that they weigh not the metal / but man’s entire being and fate.’”

Man’s entire being and fate: as in Our God’s Brother, it is the whole person, created for a pur­pose, with a destiny, that must be converted by love. “Love is not an adventure,” Adam tells Anna, as he tries to open her up to that wider view of being and fate, beyond self-enclosed, ego­tistical love. Wojtyla superbly captures in only a few lines the delirium and disappointment of human love: “The surface of love has its current…. This current is sometimes so stunning that it carries people away — women and men. They get carried away by the thought that they have absorbed the whole secret of love, but in fact they have not yet ev­en touched it. They are happy for a while, thinking they have reached the limits of existence and wrested all its secrets from it, so that nothing remains. That’s how it is: on the other side of that rapture nothing remains, there is nothing left behind it. But…man is a continuum, a totality and a continuity — so it challenges today’s perception of leadership and takes the reader back to the lessons of the cannot be that nothing remains!”

In the street Adam points out to Anna the wise and the foolish virgins. He tells her that the Bridegroom is about to walk down the street. The foolish vir­gins are “walking in their sleep,” like herself, unable to live with­out those different human loves. “Ah, Anna, how am I to prove to you that on the other side of all those loves that fill our lives there is Love! The Bridegroom is com­ing down this street and walks every street! How am I to prove to you that you are the bride? One would now have to pierce a layer of your soul…. You would then hear him speak: Beloved, you do not know how deeply you are mine, how much you be­long to my love and my suffering — because to love means to give life through death….”

But when Anna moves for­ward to meet the Bridegroom, she finds that he has Stefan’s face. “I have seen the face I hate, and the face I ought to love.” Adam answers: “In the Bride­groom’s face each of us finds a similarity to the faces of those with whom love has entangled us on this side of life, of existence. They are all in him.” For Brother Albert the beg­gars wear the face of Christ, for Anna the Bridegroom wears the face of her husband. All love is part of the One Love. In his final monologue, Adam remarks on how people fail to make the con­nection: “The thing is that love carries people away like an abso­lute, although it lacks absolute dimensions. But acting under an illusion, they do not try to con­nect that love with the Love that has such a dimension…. They lack humility toward what love must be in its true essence….” In its true essence, marital love, sworn and sacramental, is self-giv­ing, sacrificial, unconditional, like the One Love it must reflect.

These last two of Wojtyla’s plays, plus his Radiation of Fath­erhood, can be said to represent a trilogy on love, the various di­mensions of which complement and complete each other to re­flect and illumine the Highest Love: love of neighbor, marital love, and in Radiation of Father­hood, the love of the father, mother, and child.

Outwardly Radiation of Fatherhood seems to be concern­ed with an adoptive father’s birth into self-giving love. But a clue to its deeper theological sense lies in Wojtyla’s epigraph from the first epistle of St. John, which refers to the mystery of the Trinity. For assistance in a deeper under­standing of the play, the transla­tor relies on an analysis by Polish theologian Fr. Jozef Tischner, for whom the underlying theme is the creative interaction of per­sons, modeled on the highest in­teraction of God in Trinity. While it is by far the most recondite of Wojtyla’s plays, it is also the most poetically stunning. In it, as in all the other works, none of Wojtyla’s strangely moving lyri­cism is lost in Taborski’s transla­tion, on which much love was clearly lavished.

There is another quality that has not been lost in the translation — a quality by which one is somehow cut loose from all earthbound time frames and concerns, and lifted up to a glimpse of life from the Divine Perspective. It is just such a glimpse that allows one to appre­ciate fully Wojtyla’s meaning when he spoke in Los Angeles of the immense spiritual power of the communicating word.



DOSSIER: Pope St. John Paul II



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