The dusty building of the Jewish Theatre in Warsaw closed down in 2016 just two years after it had begun to undergo an artistic revival and it was unclear if it would ever reopen its doors. Prior to that, Polish society had been witness to a strange public row between two Jewish organizations confined to a tight space in one building. The conflict revealed many unpleasant truths about the relationship between these organizations, in particular the lack of will on either side to communicate or to even find common grounds for cooperation.
In September 2016, Cezary Morawski was chosen as the new director of the Polski Theatre in Wrocław. Morawski, an actor, had the blessing of the current right-wing government which assigned him to curb the theatre’s artistic force. Over the years, the Polski Theatre had become one of the most successful stages in the country. It had developed an uncompromising and artistically mature voice which, however, was not in line with the ruling party’s ideology. Morawski’s job was to dumb the theatre down to a politically acceptable level of mediocrity. The choice was met with a wave of protests across the country that is still gaining in momentum. The ill-considered decision let loose a theatre war in Poland: the war for and against Polish culture.
On June 15, 2016, the Ester Rachel Kamińska and Ida Kamińska State Jewish Theatre, one of only two European Jewish scenes that stage plays in Yiddish, performed “Fiddler on the Roof” in the middle of Grzybowski Square, right next to its building.
The play was held outdoors not intentionally but because the Ghelamco company, the new owner of the building where the theatre is located, decided to close the building because it allegedly did not meet health and safety standards.
So old Tevye the Dairyman has two things to worry about now. Not only whether to marry his daughters off according to tradition or to let them choose their own husbands, but also – according to another, less pleasant tradition – whether he should leave the place he has known all his life. Unsurprisingly, he had nowhere to go. He couldn’t leave Anatevka for Warsaw because Warsaw didn’t want him.
He was left standing helplessly in the middle of the city, desperately trying to convey something important about his traditions, and meanwhile the city was subjected to a confusing public fight between two Jewish organizations.
On one side of the issue was the Social and Cultural Association of Jews in Poland (Towarzystwo Społeczno-Kulturalne Żydów w Polsce, TSKŻ). One of the arguments they were keen to use in the dispute was that it is the oldest and longest-functioning Jewish organization in post-war Poland. Not that this is much of an achievement. The communists only allowed one Jewish organization to exist and that was the TSKŻ, an institution meant to replace all the Jewish organizations in Poland. TSKŻ was rarely in the public eye, therefore not many people (outside Jewish circle) recognize it or know the difference between the Association and the various Jewish communities that are considerably more visible in the media.
On the other side we have the Jewish Theatre. This space, hidden in plain view in central Warsaw, functioned in a void for years. After the phenomenal Ida Kamińska left Warsaw in 1968, no outstanding play was ever staged there again. Nobody took the theatre seriously, not many people even knew it existed. The actors were regarded as amateurs (they usually studied at the Actors School at the Theatre, not in the “real” public acting schools), and the plays were regarded as being nothing more than cheap, stereotypical folklore. It was said that no-one else but good old Tevye the Dairyman was the Theatre’s artistic and cultural patron. Take Tevye out of his shtetl and the consequences are easy to imagine.
And as far as most people were concerned, poor Tevye could have been left standing and lamenting forever in the middle of Grzybowski square, forgotten and forlorn. However, it just so happened that Szymon Szurmiej, the long-time director of the Jewish Theatre, passed away two years before the scandal erupted. Soon after, the theatre was taken over by his widow, Gołda Tencer who brought Tevye back to the public debate. Many thought that a competition should have been held for the position. Not many saw any future for a theatre run by the director’s widow, a theatre without any successful plays, a theatre that refused to engage in deeper dialogue with Jewish tradition.
So Gołda Tencer had to promise that changes would be made. She hired some talented non-Jewish directors to refresh the cultural discourse (an achievement in its own right). The theatre started receiving invitations to festivals and people began attending on a regular basis. “Dybbuk,” one of its recent plays, even received an award. After over 40 years of exile in a theatrical desert, the Jewish Theatre finally joined other theatres in Warsaw as their equal.
And then, in the midst of all these positive developments, the theatre building was closed. It doesn’t matter who was to blame: the theatre ground to a halt.
The TSKŻ owned the building thanks to funding the Association received in the 1970’s from the American Joint Distribution Committee. Its sale was now a simple and sensible maneuver: the old building in the city center would be replaced by a new one, and the Jewish Theatre would still have a home there. The investment would be financed by a developer who planned to build a modern office tower in the place of the old building. Everyone would be satisfied: the oldest functioning Jewish organization in Poland would have a great new home, and the theatre would have a new stage in a modern building without having to spend a penny. Any right-thinking manager would have done the same if they were unable to pay for such an investment themselves. Gołda Tencer had gone through a similar situation regarding the sale of the site where the Cosmopolitan tower now stands in Warsaw and where her Shalom Foundation had originally hoped to put up a building.
There was just one problem: according to the theater, the owner of the building had a responsibility to provide a space for the theatre while its new stage was being built. It failed to do so.
There is no need to describe the long public row between the theatre and TSKŻ in the months that followed. TSKŻ blamed the management of the theatre, accusing it of ignoring requests for necessary renovations in the building. The theatre, on the other hand, insisted that the building was fit for use and renovation was not necessary. The developer wanted to close the building down due to health and safety reasons and produced official decisions and opinions to that effect from city building inspectors. The theatre protested, appealed, provided other opinions from other inspectors. In the end, however, the building was closed. TSKŻ had to defend itself against accusations of destroying Jewish culture, and the theatre went dark.
And even though the Jewish Theatre had just returned from the cultural desert two years earlier, it was abandoned again and it had to fend for itself, with no support from Polish theatre scene. However, many Varsovians did voice their disapproval of the forced closing of the theatre.
After a few months, the situation was somewhat clarified and plays were being staged in a few different places in Warsaw, mainly in the Warsaw Garrison Command Club. A few premieres have even appeared in the program since the beginning of December, 2016 after a few months break.
The actors are appearing on stage again – on various stages, to be precise.
When preparing for Shabbat dinner on stage, the actors are tense. They share challah and wine with the audience, they light candles, someone hesitantly puts on his kippah (but removes it quickly when told off). The actors try to say the blessing over the bread. The situation is absurdly artificial. Any audience member who has ever attended a Shabbat dinner before is squirming in their seat. But that’s the point.
There is a huge Shabbat table in the middle of the room, covered with sand. In a few minutes, it will become the stage. This is the opening of “The Jewish Actors” (“Aktorzy żydowscy”), the second most important play to premiere after Gołda Tencer took over the Jewish Theatre. It’s a self-reflective observation on the state of the Jewish Theatre today. According to the play, the Jewish Theatre had become a place where an unexacting audience expected a thoughtless repetition of rituals or classics written by the fathers (not even mothers) of Yiddish literature. The Jewish Theatre was lost in the desert, surrounded by nothing but sand.
But then the ritual is interrupted and the actors start talking about themselves. Some are Jewish Poles, some are Poles, or Jews by dint of habit.
What is Jewish culture in the Jewish Theatre? The actors insist, ironically, that it’s neither the Torah, nor Talmud, nor the stereotypical Jewish dance moves in iconic plays such as “Fiddler on the Roof,” that are both a means and an end for this theatrical group. The dance moves are performed mostly by non-Jews, “a group from within the majority trying to help the minority become a little bigger.”
Being Jewish in contemporary Poland is very cool, but being a Jewish actor still means professional exile. Or at least it did before “The Jewish Actors” was performed, and it suddenly turned out that these actors, by many considered semi-professional, could actually put on a good play and that being a Jewish actor can be as cool as being Jewish. This play about a group of actors from the Jewish Theatre was a milestone for the group.
It was also a turning point for the theatre itself. For the first time in its history, the Jewish Theatre looked at itself critically. It considered its situation honestly: it admitted that the repertoire was redundant and disconnected from reality; it admitted to perpetuating stereotypes; it examined the roles of minorities and majorities within the theatre company. It admitted that staging plays in Yiddish, a language nobody speaks in Poland, should finally at least be reconsidered. The play also asked questions about the Theatre’s Jewishness: should the repertoire offer more than just the classics of Jewish literature? Should it include “non-Jewish” plays? Non-Jewish directors? What about non-Jewish actors? These are fundamental questions, but no one ever dared asked them for the decades when Szymon Szurmiej was in charge. And this despite the fact that our local Anatevka was nearly a ghost town after the communist government forced the majority of Polish Jews to leave Poland for Israel and other points in the West during the political purges of 1968.
Gołda Tencer, the new director of the Jewish Theatre, has for years been responsible for organizing Singer’s Warsaw, an annual Jewish culture festival. The 2016 edition was quite unique due to the atmosphere of scandal surrounding the Jewish Theatre. For the duration of the festival the Jewish Theatre was invited to stage its plays in two other theatres in Warsaw. The festival also hosted a debate on the condition of Jewish theatre in Poland in general but it didn’t lead to any significant conclusions. One of the panelists was surprised that the Jewish Theatre was abandoned by the theatre community in Poland and that no nationwide protests were organized.
It is safe to say that one of the reasons why there were no protests was that most of the wider theatre community had no inkling as to what all the fuss was about. It was a case of in-fighting between two Jewish institutions and therefore taking a side could result in accusations of anti-Semitism. Some people only saw the desert sand still clinging to the actors’ cloaks, but they could not see the effort put into opening the Jewish Theatre up, symbolized by such plays as “The Jewish Actors.”
The bitterness about the lack of support for the Jewish Theatre was multi-layered. The situation was compared to the controversy surrounding the Polski Theatre in Wrocław (the hometown of CHIDUSZ). The authorities decided to choose a new director of the Polski Theatre last summer in rather suspicious circumstances. This decision led to nationwide protests which, half a year later, are still going strong both in Poland and abroad, where the Polski Theatre’s plays are met with standing ovations during festivals and guest visits. The comparison between the two theatres is not entirely accurate as the Polski Theatre is a world-class cultural institution whereas the Jewish Theatre is still more of a provincial curiosity.
The new director of the Polski Theatre was appointed in order to run the institution in line with the new vision of Polish culture as conceived by the right-wing government. He is an actor who has never been in charge of any theatre, best known for his role in a television soap opera where he played a mediocre guy who cheated on his beloved wife (which didn’t make him a very endearing character). His job was to take over the theatre, a theatre that had become one of the best stages in Poland, lauded for its bold and intellectually independent plays. All of this was not, however, appreciated by the current government.
Choosing Cezary Morawski as the new director of the Polski Theatre was a direct political assault on the artistic level and creative freedom of theatre in Poland. Since the beginning of the new theatre season, the actors have been covering their mouths with black tape when taking a bow at the end of every performance. The gesture is copied by audience members and the Polski Theatre’s audience has proven to be the most vociferous and best organized in Poland. Most of the theatre community in the country has joined the protest. The change of management was widely criticized by theatres in Warsaw and Cracow. The Jewish Theatre also voiced its disapproval during the last performances of “The Jewish Actors” during the Drama Festival in Wrocław.
The previous director, Krzysztof Mieszkowski, led the Polski Theatre to unparalleled success. Under his management, the Polski had a reputation for staging world-class performances. Krystian Lupa, the world-famous theatre director, chose it as the venue for his masterpiece “Woodcutters,” based on a novel by the Austrian writer Thomas Bernhard, which turned out to be the best Polish play in recent years. Lupa chose the Polski for the premiere of his next play, “The Trial” by Franz Kafka, and it was scheduled to be staged during the 2016 Theatre Olympics Festival in Wrocław. After the new director of the Polski was installed, however, Lupa decided that going forward with “The Trial” would lend the new management his stamp of approval, and that was simply unthinkable. Morawski thought the genius could be persuaded. The genius, however, decided that he valued his moral integrity more than the staging of a new play.
It’s also worth noting that during a performance in May 2016, artists from the Polski Theatre made a statement regarding the scandalous incident of the burning an effigy of a Jew in Wrocław (more about the incident on page 33).
The protests against the change of director are not very surprising, considering Morawski’s actions so far. One of his first orders of business was to invite the Catholic theatre Nie Teraz from Tarnów for guest performances. Nie Teraz is a theatre that, according to the statement on their website, upholds European values, and “the white man’s art,” with references to God at its very core. “Our Europe was shaped by Catholicism and the belief in the passion, death and resurrection of Jesus Christ. The only holy book is the Bible, that is, the Old and New Testament. The only law is that of the Decalogue. Our theatre’s mission is to change the world.” By “changing the world” Nie Teraz means molding everyone to conform to the Catholic God and tradition and not the other way around. The theatre is remarkably comfortable with its radicalism, adding that “ecumenical experiments are murdering our civilization.” These references to murder, devastation and war are the go-to rhetoric in the discourse upheld by many right-wing politicians and sympathizers in Poland today. The theatre reiterates that “genuine prayer goes hand in hand with theatrical art, including avant-garde and alternative theatre.”
It doesn’t seem to go hand in hand terribly well, though. The first guest performance at the Polski sold poorly, so the second one was cancelled. Theatergoers in Wrocław don’t seem very interested in what the new director has to offer; they’re too busy chasing down the last tickets available for the “old,” “improper” performances, supposedly full of nudity and offensive to the Polish Nation, or at least to Polish Culture. The house only seats a few hundred people and tickets are not easy to come by.
It’s not clear how this situation will be resolved, although some say the new director might have to face dismissal eventually. Let’s hope that at least some of the Polski’s impressive achievements of the past few years can be saved in the process.
When comparing the situation of the Jewish and Polski Theatres, the lack of nationwide demonstrations supporting the former should not come as a surprise. The scale and political context of these two theatres are simply not comparable.
The Jewish Theatre became successful thanks to the classic “Dybbuk,” directed by Maja Kleczewska, one of the best theatre directors in Poland, not because it was a masterpiece but because the Jews had finally managed to come in from the desert.
Yet “Dybbuk” turned out to be too much to handle for Kleczewska. Or perhaps it was everything surrounding the performance that was too much to handle. The play was created for the 65th anniversary of the Jewish Theatre, and performed on the eve of the 72nd anniversary of the Warsaw Ghetto uprising. Due to the uprising anniversary, Kleczewska could not ignore the great Jewish tradition, since the Jewish Theatre, located in the heart of the former Warsaw Ghetto, strives to serve as a guardian of Holocaust memory. Kleczewska didn’t want to stage a traditional “Dybbuk.” Her task was to bring a much-needed breath of fresh air to the theatre, and she clearly wanted to give Ansky’s play a bit of a facelift. As a result, the final theatrical outcome had little to do with the original play. The director attempted to lay various stereotypes to rest (even though the stereotypes she tackled don’t actually affect her own identity). And, as it happens sometimes, it ended up being stereotypical. Kleczewska is recognized for her not-so-subtle artistic solutions, and in that sense, she delivered. She threw together elements of Jewish “folklore,” blood-curdling Holocaust references, pop-culture frills, tracksuits, sneakers, and very confusingly, a bunch of rabbis wearing slippers. All this was set in the rehearsal room of the Jewish Theatre, supposedly in order to highlight the self-reflexive nature of the play, an effect she failed to fully achieve, despite all her efforts.
Every element of the play was exaggerated: the characters, the costumes, the music, the multitude of strange accessories (meant to symbolize overlapping times and places), and even the languages, because the play, in line with tradition, was performed partially in Polish and partially in Yiddish and Hebrew. The end result was overwhelming even for the most resilient and erudite reference hunters. A theatre play is supposed to engage the audience. “Dybbuk” failed to achieve this goal.
But that’s not really the problem. Every theatre (except for the Polski Theatre in Wrocław, which currently has no premieres showing), has better and worse plays in its repertoire, and not every piece of art has to be a masterpiece. Kleczewska’s “Dybbuk” is overelaborated, but it remains a good play that could stand its ground in any decent theatre. This is the most important change in the Jewish Theatre. This is why “Dybbuk” can be considered the symbolic re-opening of the Warsaw Jewish Theatre, even though the play failed to successfully juggle the whole bag of anniversaries, references and the “Jewish Tradition” it was supposed to balance.
We can only hope that the Jewish Theatre gets to move in to its new home soon, and that it will boast a repertoire of plays at least as good as “Dybbuk” or “The Jewish Actors.” Those performances served as proof that the Jewish Theatre had enough potential to be taken seriously in the theatre world and to compete with other stages in Warsaw both artistically and intellectually.
In November 2016, Michal Zadara staged a premiere of “Mother Courage and Her Children” in the National Theatre in Warsaw. There was a lot of buzz surrounding the play, but the outcome was quite disappointing. While the whole world’s eyes were set on Aleppo, the young director decided to set Brecht’s play in some absurd near-future Warsaw. The soldiers wore EU helmets, the capital’s skyscrapers were reduced to piles of rubble, and Catholics persecuted non-Catholics. Even a star-studded cast could not have salvaged the play. It was exhausting and cringeworthy, even though one may have been tempted to think that the topic was relevant to our own little Polish cultural war on Christian values.
When it became clear that Zadara’s vision was not relevant enough, the critics reminded us that the first and best staging of “Mother Courage” in Poland was held in the Jewish Theatre by Ida Kamińska in the 1950’s. Kamińska created a masterpiece, making Brecht’s play a story about the struggle of displaced Jews who were forced to wander across Europe during the war. She preserved the most crucial element: ensuring that the theatre was grounded in its surrounding reality. And that is something to wish to the Jewish Theatre on its new opening.
Translation: Aga Zano
Proofreading: Barbara Pendzich
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