Issue Date: November 2, 2007
New York's Storm Theatre presents two plays written by a young Karol Wojtyla
By KATHY GILSINAN
Warsaw, 1944. A priest strides through the ruins of a church and proclaims, before God and whoever else is listening, an unusual offering: a play as a prayer and a protest. It is the story of Job, dramatized from scripture by the young Karol Wojtyla, who was only 20 when he wrote the play in 1940, a day laborer in the quarries of Nazi-occupied Poland, not yet a priest.
So begins Storm Theatres second Karol Wojtyla festival, dedicated to performing the early work of the young actor and playwright who became Pope John Paul II. This years festival will also include Jeremiah, which, like Job, Wojtyla wrote before he was a priest.
In Jeremiah, which opens Oct. 26, Wojtylas protagonist is a Polish priest whose warnings to a recalcitrant nation mimic those of the biblical prophet. But where the biblical Jeremiah vainly admonished an unheeding Israel about Gods impending judgment, Wojtylas Father Peter is concerned with Poland. Culminating in the Cercora defeat, a 17th-century battle that ended Polands centuries-long reign as one of Europes most powerful nations, the play reflects Wojtylas fascination with Polands martyrdom to the later great powers of Europe.
The not-for-profit Storm Theatre is housed in a church off Broadway near New Yorks Times Square. Peter Dobbins, the director of Jeremiah and Storm Theatres principal founder, explains that when he founded the company in 1997, his intention was to have a theater that would in some way lead people to God ... [and] be a more visceral emotional experience. The theater has produced works by Shakespeare, Chesterton and Pirandello, and though its productions are not exclusively Catholic or even religious, Mr. Dobbins remarks that the Catholic way of seeing things has deeply affected my life and informs his theaters outlook.
The germs of the Wojtyla festival were planted in Mr. Dobbins mind in 1987, 10 years before Storm Theatres founding, when Mr. Dobbins found a collection of Wojtylas plays in a Christian bookshop in Texas. At the time, he says, he thought they were unstageable. It wasnt until two years ago, when he had a group of actors read the plays aloud, that he realized what he could do with them.
Theyre the kind of plays that if you read them in your room, theyre not the same, he says. Theyre interesting and intellectual, but its not at all what they are on the stage. In a way, theyre only understood on the stage.
This is certainly true of Job, the Old Testament story of the unfathomable -- and seemingly inexcusable -- suffering allowed by God on a man righteous before God and men. Most Catholics are familiar with the story as read by an even voice from a church lectern. But the humanity of Jobs plight never comes through such a delivery the way it does in Storms production. Director John Regis chose to set the play during the Warsaw Uprising to emphasize both Wojtylas vantage of Nazi-occupied Poland and the humanity of the characters in the story.
Wojtyla was one of the founders of Polands Rhapsodic Theater, or Theater of the Word. This school of acting and playwriting embraced a sparse aesthetic, partly out of necessity, as the conditions of often-clandestine productions in Nazi-occupied Poland prohibited the use of sophisticated sets and costumes. But the plays themselves were written to avoid elaborate plot devices or detailed character development. Wojtyla wrote of Rhapsodic plays: We do not find in them the usual dramatic plot, comic or tragic situations, complications, solutions ... However, we always find a problem ... The problem itself acts, rouses interest, disturbs, evokes the audiences participation, demands understanding and a solution. The plays were meant, above all, to communicate with the intellect, the sphere of abstraction. As Wojtyla explained, there are those who read a novel for the plot, characters and description -- and those who grasp the ideas underlying the writing, which indeed made the writing necessary in the first place.
In Job, for example, the problem that the play enacts is about as straightforward as it gets. Theres not a lot of subtext, remarks Mr. Dobbins. The challenge for director John Regis was to extract depth from a clutch of one-dimensional biblical characters. To do so, he uses a play-within-a-play device; the actors play members of Polands Home Army putting on a production of Job in a bombed-out church in 1944 Warsaw. The script hews faithfully to Wojtylas original, which in turn hews faithfully to the Old Testaments Book of Job. Storm Theatres addition to the script is the character of a priest, who explains, in parallel to the progressive dismantlement of Jobs fortune, the events through which Poland similarly loses everything.
The specificity of the context does not subtract from the strength of Jobs general themes, however. On the plays title page, Wojtyla notes of the story that follows: The action took place in the Old Testament before Christs coming. The action takes place in our days in Jobs time for Poland and the world. The action takes place in the time of expectation, of imploring judgment, in the time of longing for Christs testament, worked out in Polands and the worlds suffering. Jobs struggle with his faith, and doubt in the face of bad things happening to good people, is a version of one of humanitys eternal puzzles, brought to an excruciating extreme.
The plays setting in the Warsaw Uprising, meanwhile, adds a political dimension to Jobs catastrophe. Particularly striking is the scene where three of Jobs friends visit him, professing their pity for him while at the same time insisting that he must suffer deservedly, reflecting their belief that God would allow no ill to come to the righteous. The three friends -- Eliphaz the Temanite, Bildad the Shuhite, and Zaphar the Naamathite -- are portrayed as generals from the three Allied nations, Britain, France and Russia. Their insistence on their own good intentions, their self-interested inaction, and their impatience at Jobs (or Polands) inability to subdue pain cant help evoking the similar scenarios that have played themselves out again and again on the world stage.
Though strongly rooted in World War II Poland, Storm Theatres Job, like any good homily, is widely applicable. The play itself is less about the characters than the broad idea of the struggle with faith, the temptation to believe, as Eliphaz insists to the destitute and now-childless Job, that no one suffers who is innocent. Its hard to believe that when we ourselves suffer, but seems to absolve us from the work of charity if we apply that logic to the suffering of others. Job testifies to the eternal asymmetry between what we get, what weve lost, and what we think we deserve.
Kathy Gilsinan is a New York writer.
On the Web
National Catholic Reporter, November 2, 2007
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