How the theater became a weapon against the communist regime in Poland
Updated: Mar 8
If life writes the best scenarios, then politics undeniably leads the way in creating the most expressive scenes that move all recipients of its acts. Once again, a politically controversial masterwork caused turmoil among official censors in an authoritarian state. To be forced to adapt to the directives coming from Moscow, was a part of everyday life for any artist living in communist Poland. Society could admire art only if it was not hostile to socialist ideals and, above all, did not damage the good name of the Soviet Union. Accordingly, it would seem reasonable that the Party would not have any objections to the theatrical adaptation of the Polish national drama from the 19th century. But aren't the best scenarios the ones where an actor’s next move is the least expected one?
“Dziady” (eng. “Forefathers’ Eve”) is probably one of the most acclaimed literary works in the Polish cultural heritage. Its author, Adam Mickiewicz, occupies a special place among national poets. The main theme of his pieces is the struggle for independence as he lived and created during the seizure of Poland by Austria, Prussia, and the Russian Empire. Reflecting on that time of history, the plot of "Dziady" relates the resistance of young students to the tsarist invaders from that time.
Poland had never been at the forefront of countries aspiring to implement a socialist system of governance. The fact that such a regime was exercised in this Eastern European state for over 40 years resulted from the critical internal situation right after the war and the incredible dependence on the Kremlin. The percentage of actual supporters of both communism and socialism remained low for almost the entirety of the Cold War. For this reason, Moscow was extremely sensitive to any form of criticism or incentive to disobedience among Polish citizens. The staging of a theater play in 1967, with a plot based on the notion of the national struggles for liberation, consequently, resulted in an immediate reaction from the authorities. It was decided to instantly prohibit “Dziady” from being performed. In January 1968, the story created by Adam Mickiewicz was to see the spotlight for the last time.
Yet, forbidden fruit tastes the best. The number of people in the audience during the last staging exceeded the amount of sold tickets. People desired to see the materialized object of societal adoration, especially the one that also kept the authorities awake at night. That night, the public consisted mainly of students and professors from the University of Warsaw. And while the sublime moments were accompanied by a deep silence, with every scene of the tsarist practiced tortures, the slogan “Freedom without censorship” emerged boldly from the crowd.
The last act of the performance, however, did not take place on the stage, but on one of the main avenues of Warsaw. After the curtain came down, the audience ran out into the street to spontaneously protest against the actions of the regime. A group of several hundred people marched from the theater up to the monument of Adam Mickiewicz in the very center of Warsaw. There, one of the participants of the uprising hung a plaque "We demand more “Dziady” on the sculpture. The militia reacted with batons and handcuffs, for those they managed to catch. Some of the applauding spectators were arrested already during the performance. The fight for self-rule, which was only a thread in the theatrical acts, became a reality for the residents of the Polish capital.
The protests lasted from January to April. About 2,000 people are said to have been arrested. Of course, these statistics are official merely along the Party lines. It is probable that at some point the demonstrations were no longer about Mickiewicz. Back then, Poland was a country completely dependent on Moscow. The lack of self-determination began a causal chain of adverse occurrences for the Polish state such as slowed economic development or the absence of free elections. Embittered by their authorities being Kremlin’s puppets, many Polish citizens emigrated abroad, thereby initiating a process that made the country lose its human potential. The relationship between the authorities and society was thus already extremely tense. The censor's ban on playing "Dziady" was just a cherry on top of this troublesome cake.
Civil uprising could therefore only be a matter of time. Nevertheless, it was the theater that turned the spark into a fire. Until now, the theatrical adaptation of “Dziady” remains a symbol of resistance against the oppressive system. The communist authorities remembered the show with shivers down their spines for yet a long time.
A lot is to be said about the relationship between politics and art. However, the context always places the former as the one that directs certain creative visions. Picasso painted "Guernica" after German planes raided a small Spanish town and Charlie Chaplin's "Dictator" was produced in response to the events of World War II. But if it is only politics that alters art, then why are all the authoritarian rulers of this world so afraid of the chaos one masterpiece could cause in the permanence of their power? Totalitarian regimes want full control over artists as they treat them like silent soldiers whose weapons are works of double meaning. Governmental bureaucrats, having no access to society from the inside, will not recognize the references or camouflaged allusions. Citizens’ strong emotions, however, might be evoked by them so strongly that it will result in societal resistance. “Dziady” proved so by being a gem of national rebellion and a fight for rights. Thus, does politics only influence art, or is this process occurring the other way around as well? Or maybe, to put it simply, politics just enjoys being theatrical.