"The good change"
by Anna R. Burzyńska
February 2016. When speaking about the new government in Poland, one has to admit: The members of PiS (Law and Justice) party have a very good memory. After they have become the main political force in Poland, they now pay their debts. That means rewarding supporters (giving the most prominent positions in government and national institutions as well as firms to followers, advocates, friends, family members and simply toadies, giving millions of zlotys to church officials who persuaded believers to vote for PiS, changing the law in favor of their supporters, releasing imprisoned criminals and football hooligans, calling violent nationalists "patriots" and encouraging them to organise anti-immigrant demonstrations) – and punishing enemies. Who are enemies? Non-Polish, non-catholics, non-heterosexuals, feminists, leftists, vegetarians, cyclists (it sounds like a joke, but recently one of the ministers said that vegetarianism and riding a bike are both examples of "EU-propaganda", destroying "traditional Polish values") and, of course, artists. "The Polish of the worse sort" – as Jarosław Kaczyński, the real leader behind his political puppets, said.
A favorite slogan of the PiS people is "the good change". Theatre is one of the institutions that "does not fit into the new concept of Polish culture" and needs "the good change". What is their new concept of Polish culture? It's nationalistic, xenophobic, patriarchal, homophobic, obsessed with history and inextricably linked to catholic religion. Main event in 2016: The 1050 anniversary of the Baptism of Poland. Most important person to be promoted abroad by Adam Mickiewicz Institute: Pope John Paul II (instead of alleged "promotion of gender-ideology and transvestites" – in the last few years, the Institute promoted mostly such artists as Tadeusz Kantor, Henryk Mikołaj Górecki or Andrzej Wajda). Furthermore, money will be given to kitsch pseudo folk dance groups (instead of "gay" and "pornographic" contemporary dance) and to pompous blockbusters picturing the glorious past of the Polish Monarchy (instead of "anti-Polish" films like Oscar-winning "Ida", showing the not-so-glorious face of Polish people killing their Jewish neighbors). No surprise: The new Minister of Culture, Piotr Gliński, is a council member of the Polish "Anti-Defamation League" that wants to make sure that everybody says only good things about Poland – or doesn't speak at all.
Examples of absurdity
Minister Gliński has chosen Wanda Zwinogrodzka – critic and journalist writing for a far-right newspaper – to be a deputy minister for theatres. She defined her mission clearly: "We have to silence the leftists’ screams". So the negative programme is ready – destroying the opposition. And the positive programme? Hard to say. Remarkable directors, namely Piotr Cieplak and Jan Klata, both declaring themselves to be deep believers and staging performances that express a strong longing for Christian values, are being treated like enemies. Cieplak because of his interest in Jewish culture and "pro-ecological activities", Klata because of his love for rock music, pop culture and eccentric looks, but primarily because he dares to criticize the government.
One could expect that Michał Zadara, who stages mostly Polish classics from 16th to 19th century in a very faithful and careful way, should become a model example of celebrating Polish tradition and history in theatre. No. President Andrzej Duda has just withdrawn patronage (established by the former president) from Zadara's production of Adam Mickiewiczs "The Forefathers’ Eve" – a masterpiece of Polish romanticism that was to be staged for the very first time in its entirety without any deletion (14 hours!). Well, Zadara writes for the left-wing portal "Krytyka Polityczna" and has recently organized some help for immigrants in Poland.
Few to no "leftist" ambitions
Far-right critics do not appreciate Teatr Witkacego in Zakopane either (it stages texts by catholic mystics and authors like Graham Greene, but keeps away from organized religion) nor the few interesting theatre projects led by priests, like Teatr Logos in Łódź, staging texts by Dostoyevsky or Wilde. They're too complicated, hence suspicious. It's no surprise: Poland is a country where Catholics do not read the Bible, but where pensioners send all their pension to Reverend Tadeusz Rydzyk (so called "Father Director"), founder of a huge medial imperium of hate and collector of luxury cars. The new government just decided to give him 20 million zlotys from the budget formerly reserved for theatre and culture. Because? The conservative audience would only appreciate theatre staging farces featuring TV celebrities. They actually have plenty of possibilities: Out of 129 public theatres in Poland, "leftists' screams" can maybe be heard in ten – at most. All the others do not have any such ambitions. Well, they do not have ambitions at all.
The new Ministry of Culture wants to fill most positions in media and culture with their supporters: Directors of national institutions of culture, editors-in-chief as well as independent experts that have been chosen by the previous Minister to evaluate projects. They declare that it's time to let the talented artists that were previously discriminated because of their religious and political beliefs finally spread their wings. The problem is, nobody knows any allegedly talented artists who wanted to create religious and patriotic art of high quality but were not allowed to.
How it works
The biggest danger, however, is censorship. It started very early. Piotr Gliński became Minister of Culture on 16th November 2015, and one of the first actions he took was the attempt to prohibit the premiere of "Death and the Maiden" by Elfriede Jelinek staged by the young director Ewelina Marciniak in Teatr Polski in Wrocław (scheduled for 21st November). The reason for Glińskis attempt were protests by a group of extreme catholics (linked to the Confraternity of the Rosary that was also responsible for protests against Rodrigo Garcías "Gólgota Picnic"), who were thrilled by gossip about porno actors performing in the production (who indeed take part in the performance, but aren't doing anything sexually explicit on stage). This gossip was backed by cynical far-right journalists, claiming that Jelinek as feminist, communist, "anti-Catholic" "poor writer of no importance" should be banned in Poland. The problem for Gliński was that Teatr Polski is an institution belonging to the Voivodship, not his Ministry (it just gets some financial support from the Ministry). Thus, Gliński wrote a letter to the province governor ordering him to forbid the premiere, but luckily, the governor refused to use preventive censorship.
Glińskis next step was an order to evaluate the activity of Polish theatres. They have been asked to send DVDs of all their shows to Ministry for supervision one of the new "experts" (who actually calls himself "reactionary"). His opinion is going to influence future financial support of these theatres.
Censorship creates Self-Censorship
The main object of hatred is National Stary Theatre in Krakow under the guidance of Jan Klata. Already in November, a group of far-right activists signed a letter to Minister Gliński demanding he dissolve Klata's contract (they say Klata is not worthy of managing a national institution). The Minister even visited National Stary Theatre himself, but there is no possibility for him to dismiss Klata unless he breaks the law. Thus, at the moment Klata is safe. Nobody knows for how long, though.
There's still another side of the problem: Many artistic directors have become so scared of external censorship that they have introduced self-censorship in their theatres. That means for example deleting the most controversial performances from the repertoire (all the – very successful – productions by Wiktor Rubin suddenly disappeared from the repertoire of Stary Theatre; nakedness, feminist manifestos and insulting the most prominent figures of Polish culture would be too much to handle for conservative "experts"); changing plans for the future, cancelling a production if gets too risky during rehearsals (example: the anti-clerical "Mother Joan of the Angels" in the theatre of Bielsko-Biała). In order to avoid censorship, many artists and managers have become censors themselves. This is the most terrifying thing about the current "good change".
All English texts on nachtkritik.de are listed here.
Anna R. Burzyńska, geboren 1979, Redakteurin der Theatermonatsschrift "Didaskalia". Dozentin am Lehrstuhl für Drama und Theater an der Krakauer Jagiellonen-Universität. Buchpublikationen: "Mechanika cudu" (Die Mechanik des Wunders, 2005 – über metatheatralische Konstruktionen im polnischen Avantgardedrama), "The Classics and the Troublemakers" (2008 – Porträts zeitgenössischer polnischer Regisseure), "Maska twarzy" (2011 – Maske des Gesichts) und "Małe dramaty" (2012 – Kleine Dramen; die zwei letzten Bände des literarischen Werks von Stanisław Grochowiak).