In Kraków, Poland, the centuries live together like neighbors. Walking the city center’s warren of medieval alleyways and avenues, a traveler finds temporal juxtapositions ranging from the enticing to the astounding. Around the market square, candle-lit cafés nestle alongside global brands like Sephora and the Holiday Inn. Israeli restaurants compete with taco trucks and breweries within sight of the Old Synagogue in Kazimierz, a district once home to a Jewish population of 64,000. Behind the steel door of a Soviet-era munitions plant, Donna Summers blasts in a smoke-filled speakeasy. Auschwitz is a forty-five minute drive from Pope John Paul II International airport.

At the Divine Comedy International Theatre Festival, held every December in Kraków, the host city plays a starring role. In venues around the city, the festival presents a curated selection of performances from across Poland in a weeklong competition called “Inferno.” Like Vergil in the festival’s namesake, Divine Comedy is an obliging tour guide: even a modest itinerary creates ideal opportunities to meander and explore, lingering between shows at Krakow’s world-class collection of museums, historical sites, and contemporary culture.

One of the festival’s chief attractions is abundance. This year’s “Inferno” featured thirty-one productions. As in Dante’s epic, ghosts abounded in these shows, which incarnated onstage the echoes in time which make Kraków such a striking city. Productions by Jan Klata, Marta Górnicka, Maja Kleczewska, and Cezary Tomaszewski, in particular, summon a chorus of figures from distant and recent history to comment—in anxiety and amusement, rage and fear—on the uneasy global present. Works by these artists engaged a theme incarnated by Krakow itself: the past’s insistence on participating in the present—and the peril of forgetting its warnings.

a crowd taking pictures of actors onstage
The Wedding. Photo by Robert Duffley.

“With noise, confusion, whirl, and fuss / the dead are coming back to us,” observes The Poet, protagonist of Stanisław Wyspiański’s verse drama The Wedding (as translated by Noel Clark in 1998). This classic takes place at a drunken marriage feast; at the stroke of midnight, a parade of otherworldly guests join the festivities. Ghosts of Poland’s national past and the country’s legacy of occupation—long already in 1901—these visitors include a traitorous count, a nineteenth-century peasant revolutionary, and a legendary prophet.

Wading through the dregs of the party, the specters conjure dreams of rebellion and self-determination which have continued to resonate powerfully in the century since the play’s composition. Through partition, independence, and occupation, Polish theatre artists of every generation since Wyspiański have found an incarnation for their age and a test for their artistic powers in The Wedding’s ghosts. A searing new production at the Stary Teatr, a flagship national institution, by preeminent director Jan Klata has become a vessel for contemporary political anxieties.

In Wyspiański’s text, music serves to pacify: the play ends when a rebellion brewing against the ruling Austrian powers is calmed by a sleepy folk song—“an expression of pain and delight, rooted in the soil of Poland.” In Klata’s production, on the other hand, the “whirl and fuss” of the dead become the deafening fury of a death-metal concert. On graveyard-gray cement pillars high above the action, one at each corner of the stage, Klata sets a four-part metal ensemble, shirtless and tattooed, their faces painted like skulls. Their deafening arrangements make hoarse, defiant mantras of Wyspiański’s verse; when they play, the walls of the Stary Teatr shake. Klata’s production leaves lingering, like a live wire, the rage which fizzles in Wyspiański’s original text. As the lights fade, the ensemble tremble, scythes in hand, at the lip of the proscenium stage: the living, roused to revolt by the kick-drum of the dead.

The show, which debuted at the Stary on 12 May 2017, has been a flash-point in culture wars surrounding changes implemented by Poland’s ruling right-wing nationalist Law and Justice Party (PiS). Through 2017, PiS floated an initiative which would lower the mandatory age of retirement for the country’s Constitutional Court, effectively forcing 40 percent of the Court's justices into retirement. The measure prompted massive protests across the country, in which marchers held posters reading “Constitution.”

Ignoring warnings from the EU and the US, PiS passed the judicial reforms on 8 December 2017. The next day, The Wedding’s single Divine Comedy Performance played to a packed house, with audience members filling even the aisles. The company—including some of Poland’s most venerable living actors—brandished their posters to overwhelming response. Audience members leapt to their feet, weeping, shouting, and chanting “Constitution” in union. In September 2017, Klata’s contract as Artistic Director of the Stary Teatr was pointedly not renewed, although The Wedding remains in the theater’s repertory.

Divine Comedy 2017 opened at a moment when political tensions continue to run high in Poland (and beyond). Following July’s “Constitution” protests, November’s annual independence day march in Warsaw attracted 60,000 participants. Among that number was a vocal far-right nationalist constituency; chants and slogans from the march included “Pure Poland, white Poland,” “Refugees get out,” and “We want God” (a lyric from a religious song quoted by Donald Trump during a visit to Poland earlier in 2017). The issue of refugees is particularly contentious, as Poland’s government has defied EU resettlement quotas and refused to accept any migrants.

large group of actors standing onstage
Hymn to Love. Photo via the Divine Comedy Festival.

With an eye on the echoes between recent protests and some of the darkest episodes from Poland’s past, Marta Górnicka’s Hymn to Love locates a disturbing ambiguity in mass political action. Since her 2010 debut, This is the Chorus Speaking, Górnicka has received international acclaim for her choral productions. Working with choirs of amateur singers from across Poland, the director has explored issues including contemporary feminism (Magnicat) and modern labor rights (Requiemachine). Her compositions weave fragments of classic texts, quotations from contemporary culture, and documentary-theatre-style interviews into complex a cappella arrangements.

Especially in her early works, Górnicka found the choir, as an artistic device, to reflect the emancipatory potential of collective mobilization. “I believe in the power of the choir. I believe that the choir brings about change, challenges taboos, that the voice of the choir moves the audience, speaks to him or her,” she said in 2013. Now, however, when massive protests mark both calls for progress and frighteningly explicit revanchism, Górnicka’s feelings about the inherent goodness of the choir have changed. After Hymn to Love’s festival opening, we spoke (in another Kraków echo, at the Wyspiański Hotel). There, Górnicka reflected on music’s role in historical atrocities. “When I look at the history of my country and of Europe,” she told me, “so many events took the idea of community and transformed it in a very different way. The community loving itself can be the beginning of fascism.”

Hymn to Love (with music by Teoniki Rożynek and choreography by Anna Godowska—honored with the Festival’s prize for Best Music and Choreography) locates the seeds of a new generation’s ethnic narcissism in contemporary right-wing chatter. A diverse choir of twenty-five performers—conducted by Górnicka herself, standing in a spotlight at the center of the house—sings a libretto fusing protest slogans, excerpts from recent interviews, and Anders Breivik’s published manifestoes. In a particularly powerful section, Górnicka highlights the bitter contradictions within recent discourse around Poles’ agency in, and contemporary Poland’s responsibility to atone for, historical atrocities:

Poles have learned their lesson from history
and they have learned it well
Because they want to be happy

But what of the victims?
They always want something
Even when they are yesterday’s victims,
And there are none of them left.

Treated as artistic material, and exhibited in a context where liberal perspectives are more traditionally expressed, these words are a reminder that not all art (and not all public protest) moves society inevitably toward the good. In another section, the choir sings Poland’s national anthem arranged in the style of a Nazi march. The show’s poster, used for productions within Poland as well as its tours to Germany and Greece, features a historical photo of a holocaust orchestra, in which concentration camp inmates were coerced to play music to amuse officers while soothing and synchronizing prisoners. “Music,” Górnicka told me, “is also involved in the nightmare.”

It’s a sobering realization, especially from an artist so recently convinced of her form’s innate positivity. Rather than disavowing this potential entirely, however, Hymn to Love offers a more nuanced perspective. The piece chastises unqualified optimism—a resonant theme for American viewers still stung by the 2016 election—and offers hard, simple truths as antidote to the xenophobia deconstructed within its score. “We Poles are people,” the choir sing at one point. “We are ordinary people / … And the truth is, we let it happen.”

performers in costume onstage with balloons
Rage. Photo via Teatr Powszechny.

Rage, directed by Maja Kleczewska in a new staging of Elfriede Jelinek’s 2014 work for the Zygmunt Hübner Theater in Warsaw, accuses modern audiences of mirroring the passivity of their predecessors. In past productions including Macbeth (2004) and Winter Journey (2012), Kleczewska has established herself as an auteur of outrage, and Rage endeavors to locate the very limits of provocation. Focused particularly on the refugee crisis, Kleczewska’s staging channels Jelinek’s free-form text into a torrent of (almost) unbearable images. A blonde woman in high heels and a leotard performs a sun salutation and orgasmically rubs a Big Mac all over her body while a refugee begs for aid. Overhead, giant screens display live footage from Poland’s parliament followed by YouTube videos of real terrorist murders in the Middle East. An entire raw side of beef descends from a chain; a soprano in silk and diamonds rouges her lips with hunks of bloody meat. “This,” the soprano purrs, “is Europe.”

Kleczewska’s cruel portrait seeks to provoke. The production, she told me in an interview, attempts to find a limit to spectators’ willingness to consume horror. “I thought I could not use YouTube footage of real death, that it would be too much, that people would protest,” she said. “I was ready to take it back.” Evidently, however, neither Kleczewska’s cruel stage images, nor the real ones which they accompany, are outrageous enough to disrupt passive spectatorship. While some audience members did leave the theatre during Rage’s performance at Divine Comedy, a majority stayed. The production was also awarded the Silver Lion at Venice’s Biennale Teatro 2017, an honor re-emphasizing Kleczewska’s point that while western artists work to “raise awareness” about the victims of war, they should also take an honest look at their audiences’ appetite for atrocity.   

Not all productions at the festival struck so grim a pose. Rather than disgust and outrage, Cezary Tomaszewski’s Cezary Goes to War (which premiered in July at Komuna Warszawa) finds a queer humor in contemporary conflicts’ echoes of the past. The show revolves around an episode from Tomaszewski’s youth. Like all Polish teenagers, he was required to register for military service: at mandatory assessments, boys are sorted into one of five categories of fitness. To his mortification, Tomaszewski—healthy but fey—was deemed Class E: a damning designation usually reserved for victims of debilitating diseases. Despite appeals, Tomaszewski was never able to reverse the designation. He was, however, fit enough to sing for fifteen years with the Polish national opera and study choreography at the Brucknerkonservatorium in Linz, Austria.

With the perspective gained through a career bridging opera, classical music, and theatre, Tomaszewski here recalls this humiliating episode with the finesse of a master composer, refracting the story into a series of visual and aural motifs. An ensemble of four young men, each billed as “Cezary,” prepare for the assessment, performing a string of synchronized push-ups, jumps, claps, and laps. The effort is authentic, but onstage, in multicolored track-suits (and, at other points, just underwear), the boys’ moves seem more camp than commando. The allegro piano melodies of nineteenth-century Polish composer Stanisław Moniuszko, played by a fifth, female ensemble member (also billed as Cezary and wearing a track suit) underscore these lilting overtones.

In other sequences, too, the mature artist finds, in classical music and dance, concrete forms for the impulses unspeakable to a confused, queer teen. A moment of locker-room arousal morphs briefly into a Nijinsky tableau. Sung with twisted ebullience of a Gilbert & Sullivan operetta, Moniuszko melodies about the exploits of medieval knights shimmer with homoeroticism. In a particularly effective section, an actor recites the criteria for different draft categories; the law’s painstaking itinerary of arms, legs, necks, knees, lungs becomes a state-sanctioned anatomy of displaced arousal.

For Tomaszewski, it is crucial that the work’s queerness be an integral tool of form, rather than a preoccupation of content. “It never makes the statement that this is queer theatre,” he told me in an interview. “A ‘queer show’ would immediately close most viewers off. But if you don’t use the label, and you just play around, the audience can be tempted by energy, or fun, or music. So it’s something more than a ‘gay show.’”

four actors in matching outfits jumping
Cezary Goes to War. Photo via the Divine Comedy Festival.

In the queer devices of implication, humor, and pathos—shattered into an array of glittering fragments—Tomaszewski models a politics of invitation, rather than outrage. “Queerness is a fantastic tool to talk about politics. It has a huge power, and it’s not really used in Poland at all. Because it doesn’t exist,” he told me. “What I like about it is its ability to be playful and fun with dangerous or lethal powers.” It is in sequences of play, he finds, that audiences can find themselves open to experiences or ideas which they might not have accepted in other contexts. “Everybody can have their own opinion, but theatre is about games and play… It’s music politics. The music starts to play, and you are totally transformed. You can have a moment of… let’s call it anonymous penetration. You don’t know what happened to you, but you are vibrated.”

Especially now, Tomaszewski’s invitation to find a poignant, queer humor in blustery military rhetoric is a timely opportunity. Responding to Russian aggression in Ukraine, Poland’s Defense Minister in 2016 announced plans to increase the size of Poland’s armed forces by 50 percent. It’s difficult to find humor, heart, or even arousing ambiguity in the specter of conflict, but Tomaszewski’s show serves as a reminder that, if these qualities have withered, the warmongers have already begun to win. The rarity and necessity of this work were recognized officially by the Festival, which honored Cezary Goes to War with the Best Ensemble Award.

In its insistence on courageous play, Tomaszewski’s show represents a quality embodied by the festival itself. As in the defiance of Klata’s Wedding and the brazen fury of Kleczewska’s Rage, the festival showcases the insistence of Polish theatre artists—despite a very genuine threat of reprisals—on preserving the theatre as a site of embodied public memory. For one week of astoundingly abundant theatre, the festival transforms stages throughout Krakow into cultural spaces where difficult truths find contemporary forms.

Amid the alarming contexts of contemporary world news, this re-engagement with stories and figures from history preserves the potential of belief. By acknowledging that the ghosts of the past continue to walk among us, the theatre testifies that, though evil wears a different mask in various eras, its patterns are recognizable, and its bodies can be, ultimately, ours. Each historical chapter of horror, Krakow’s ghosts remind us, begins with an echo ignored. As audiences gather to share space with the specters of history, Divine Comedy becomes a collective public ritual of bearing witness—an affirmation that, in theatres across the country, Poland is paying attention.