The Pope as Playwright
The Collected Plays and Writings on Theater
By Karol Wojtyla
Publisher: University of California Press
Pages: 395 pages
Review Author: Lucy Mazareski
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.
Enjoyed reading this?
READ MORE! GET A FREE 7 DAY TRIALSUBSCRIBE TODAY
You May Also Enjoy
The papacy brought John Paul II to worldwide attention, but the qualities of the man and his thought have impressed many even outside the faith.
Newspapers, confined to messages in black and white, often think in black and white and do not perceive true, profound traditionalism.
The bishop must announce to the rich and poor, to the powerful and weak the fullness of truth, which sometimes irritates and offends, even if it always liberates.