Counterpublics Cause so Much Trouble: Oliver Frljić, Protest & Collectivity

Bryce Lease*


Using Oliver Frljić’s highly controversial production of Klątwa (The Curse) at Warsaw’s Teatr Powszechny in 2017 as a starting point, this paper addresses the challenges of collectivity in theatre institutions and the forms of political participation they produce, both deliberately and unintentionally. Moving across performance sites (ensemble, protest, audience) the paper problematises easy assumptions around collectivity as an uncontested public good. Drawing on Michael Warner’s concept of “counterpublics,” Lease unpacks the ways in which publics need to be understood as plural rather than singular. The assertion of a singular public constitutes culture as autonomous in time and space, rather than porous, open to change and multivalent. This article argues that the emergence of rival publics and counterpublics challenge the assertion of a singular public and invites readers to interpret theatre performances and public protests collectively. 
Keywords: Protest, Polish theatre, political theatre, Oliver Frljić, counterpublics

In 2017, I came across a picture of protestors setting off smoke bombs in front of a theatre in the Praga district of Warsaw.[1] The image had been circulating around social media for several days. This was the reaction to Oliver Frljić’s controversial production of Klątwa (The Curse) at Warsaw’s Teatr Powszechny. What was happening in Poland? As images of public protests travel easily around the internet, I would like to argue that the response to Frljić’s production needs to be understood in a much wider context of political censorship and moral panic, at the intersection between two publics that collectively assemble each evening for opposing purposes.

Photo: Magda Hueckel

Since the Law and Justice Party (PiS) came to power in 2013, five Polish artistic directors of major public theatres have not had their contracts renewed. In public “competitions,” local authorities have replaced critical directors with artists they see as more amenable. Polish critic Mike Urbaniak claims that PiS’ victory responded to the Polish right’s sense that theatres in Poland are ruled by the left and have insulted the nation, the Church, the flag, the cross, and have promoted sodomy. Such factions feel the theatres should be silenced.[2]

Frljić already had a reputation in Poland. After Jan Klata canceled Frljić’s production of Nie-boska komedia (Un-divine Comedy)—which was intended to address anti-Semitism in Poland—at the Stary Teatr, a political storm blew to Teatr Polski Bydgoszcz (TPB). The TPB had a robust political programme after Paweł Lysak took over as manager, who was then succeeded by Paweł Wodziński and his deputy director Bartosz Frąckowiak. The latter pair invited Our Violence and Your Violence to the theatre in 2016. The extraction of the Polish flag from a woman’s vagina caused outrage and resulted in legal battles and impacted the city’s decision not to renew the artistic directors’ contracts in 2017.

Photo: Jakub Szafranski

And so, why were there smoke bombs being set off in front of a theatre in the Praga district of Warsaw? Paweł Łysak proposed a controversial play for Frljić to stage at Powszechny. Klątwa (The Curse), written by neo-Romantic Stanisław Wyspiański in 1899, is based upon the real-life events of a local priest impregnating a young woman and abandoning her and the child to the judgment of their local community. Given its brutal depiction of the Catholic Church, the play has proved unpopular and was rarely staged in the twentieth century. Frljić accepted, explaining that Wyspiański’s text was radical in its contemporaneous moment. The director was particularly interested in examining the position of a woman in a strongly clerical, religious society, the political power of the Catholic Church and the boundaries of freedom of artistic expression in a public theatre.[3]

According to director and dramaturg Weronika Szczawińska, Frljić’s production is the first to deal with the Church in the history of Polish theatre in such an open and direct manner. The theatre has been accused of blasphemous anti-Catholicism and has received vocal criticism from PiS, nationalists, conservative Catholics and the neo-right group the ONR. The organizers of the demonstrations wrote, “Passivity is enough for evil to win.”[4] The theatre, in turn, issued a response that indicated the performance only reflected an artistic vision and that buying a ticket was a conscious choice. The freedom of artistic expression itself cannot be questioned.

Scene from Stanisław Wyspiański’s Klątwa (The Curse), directed by Oliver Frljic. Photo: Magda Hueckel

Interestingly, on both sides of the argument we see how political performance (directly in a theatrical frame or in the performative frame of public protest) is reliant on the activation of voluntary members. It is the opposite of what is perceived to be “passivity” and requires intentional participation. This argument breaks down, however, when such forms of participation are jeopardized. The National-Radical Camp (Obóz Narodowo-Radykalny, ONR) is a far-right nationalist non-political movement in Poland associated with the Polish National Movement. Tomasz Kalinowski, a spokesman for ONR, claimed that “Catholics have to take matters into their own hands,” after the Ministry of Culture “failed” to take action against the production.[5]

In April and May 2017, this group attempted to block the entrance to the theatre in order to prevent spectators from attending the performance. Blocking access is confusing the right to freedom of speech with the exercise of power. In the pages of Krytyka Polityczna, journalist and film critic Jakub Majmurek refracts the arguments through the lens of the Polish constitution. Citing a number of constitutional articles, he demonstrates the complexity of the legal arguments that at times stand in potential conflict with one another, including the right to inherent dignity, principle of equality, prohibition of discrimination, the freedom of conscience and religion.

So, two opposing collectives, two opposing constitutional rights. Majnurek recommends an independent body who can analyse the case and asks when the “highest values of the Catholic Church became constitutional values.” Ultimately, he concludes, the task of a Minister of Culture in a liberal democracy is not to uphold religious values or to attribute these to the constitution but rather to ensure that artists have the necessary conditions to discuss cultural values as such. 

As interested as I was in seeing the performance, it was only after the dramaturg and curator Marta Keil posted this image on Facebook of protestors setting off smoke bombs outside of the theatre that I booked my ticket to Warsaw. It is not only that I wanted to be present as a witness, to know firsthand that these protests were occurring, a personal and political reminder that the theatre does really matter. It was also that I had a desire to place my body in close proximity to these protestors. I wanted to mingle among them, walk through them. I wanted to gaze at them and allow them to gaze back at me. I wanted to defy them. So, it was not that I traveled to Warsaw to get through the demonstrators to see the performance, but that I wanted to see the performance in order to get through the demonstration. This also resituates the actors themselves as agents of protest. By continuing to perform, they were themselves performing a protest that was not simply the inverse of the outside demonstration. The question of the collective here, for me, is the way in which the demonstrators opened up this possibility, to materialise and physicalise the discourse, to make us all active agents. Was this then a cooperative exercise between inside and outside?

And I was not the only one who wanted this. Critics arrived in droves. From London, from Madrid, from Budapest, from Berlin and Amsterdam and The Hague. The deputy artistic director of Powszechny, Paweł Sztarbowski, welcomed each of us, apologising to those who arrived on the evenings that the protesters had taken a break and were not around. I could see the look of disappointment on their faces. They were still excited to see the show that had caused so much furor, so much public outrage, but in the absence of the protesters their pleasure was diminished. Their own activity in the collective reduced, less visible, perhaps even unseen. I saw the performance twice. On the first occasion, the protestors were present, on the second, they were absent.

Stanisław Wyspiański’s Klątwa (The Curse), directed by Oliver Frljic. Photo: Magda Hueckel

In 2017, the first time I attended the performance, I crossed the bridge to the Praga district where the theatre is located and, as I drew closer, I grew more and more anxious. By the time I saw the haze of the smoke and the sounds of their chanting, I was downright terrified. I no longer wanted to defy them. I wanted to slip in through the backdoor. I wanted desperately to be undetected. When I returned a year later with fresh courage, they were gone. And I do not think that is a coincidence. Something had changed for both of us. What was infuriating the ONR in this performance? Without going into detailed performance analysis—indeed, performance analysis here would not reveal the roots of the ONR’s fury but obscure it—there are a few key moments in the production that the media had described with relish that fanned the flames. Two of the most controversial staging choices frame the beginning and end.

Assembling on stage, the actors tell us that they have decided that they will work with Frljić, though with some reluctance. They then move into the world of Wyspianski’s text, if not directly into his language. As a representation of the priest’s seduction of the young woman, a large statue of John Paul II is dragged onto stage. The former pope gazes down at the girl kneeling before him, his hands delicately clasped in prayer. Attached to his body is a long white dildo, onto which the girl first rolls a condom before performing fellatio for several agonising minutes. This is not an erotic encounter, but one that feels forced and unequal. Her choice to use a condom is also a direct attack against the Polish pope’s strict stance against contraception. Through an overhead recording, we hear the voice of John Paul II. This disarticulation of his religious speech from his body foregrounds another departure between public (faith, good manners, decorum, sanctity) and personal (desire, power, manipulation, abuse) life that Wyspiański explores in his play. No small part of the shock of this stage image is the revelation that JPII has a penis at all, which is another consequence of the exposure of the private life and thoughts of a Catholic priest. Around the pope’s neck a sign is placed that reads “Obrońca Pedofili” (Defender of Pedophiles) and a noose. By positioning these images at the outset of the performance, Frljić allows more room to interrogate questions around xenophobia, public perception of Muslims, sexual abuse of the clergy and women’s rights later on.

Photo: Jakub Szafranski

What interests me is the way in which the performance anticipated and indeed relied upon the protestors, not only in their publicist function—and indeed they were fabulous publicity for the production—but also in terms of their public aim. Without the protestors the audience is disappointed, the evening is a letdown. When they fail to show up, they are in fact behaving badly—as opposed to when they block entrance and set off smoke bombs. Paradoxically, that is when they are performing well. When they are participating in the collective effort of producing the performance. My question is how we understand the limitations, the borders, the make-up of a collective in circumstances such as this. And to what extent does the theatre disavow its reliance on the protestors?

The word collective occurred to me almost straight away. This is perhaps because I have never felt so visible as an audience member. I was submitted to four forms of inspection:

  • The first were the protesters, through the demonstrations against the performance that have been organized by the ONR. Walking through their picket line, which was intended to block or at least disrupt access to the theatre, my body was inspected as something unholy, unpatriotic, disloyal, anathema, offensive.
  • The second was the institution, through police barriers where both my ticket and my person were carefully scrutinized, and my bag was searched. Guards stood next to ticket checkers outside of the building. I could only be allowed access if I had a ticket for that evening’s performance and if I looked sufficiently progressive. They did not want protesters to sneak in and cause havoc inside the theatre, as they had done in Split, Croatia with Our Violence and Your Violence. My body was inspected for signs of progressive good will, compliance, complicity.
  • The third was the actors. In the opening moments of Frljić’s production, the cast gathers together in a tight configuration to telephone Bertolt Brecht, who explains that they cannot do this play. He reminds the actors where they are. In Poland. They admit that they are uncertain how the audience will receive this work as a light shines over the auditorium. Anxiously, the actors look us over, deciding if it is safe to continue. In a monologue, Barbara Wysocka highlights the way in which Frljić moderated his claim to authority as director. She, who is eight months pregnant, has to walk through the protestors and suffer death threats, while the director is in Germany already working on his next show. It is the actors who have to endure the very serious and very real consequences of Frljić’s provocation. They peer at us, wondering what kind of people might come to see this show and wondering out loud if they can trust us. Our bodies were inspected for their trustworthiness.
  • The fourth was the audience itself. An actor raises her shirt to show us 1000zł (ca. 230 Euros) written on her belly. This is the price a woman is paid by the government if she does not have maternity leave pay. As Agnieszka Jakimiak, a dramaturg on the production, pointed out, this is the symbolic price of giving birth in Poland. The actress asks the audience who has been pregnant—many women raise their hands—and then she asks who like herself has also had an abortion. It is not a confrontation but a genuine question, again meant to break the silence and expose the lack of visibility over this cultural taboo. No one raises their hands at first, but the actor waits patiently. Heads turn to gaze around, to see whose hands are raised. Eventually, a woman who appears to be in her sixties raises her hand in the row in front of me, and she is thanked for her courage. Given her age, it occurs to me that it is likely she had an abortion under communism. After 1989, the most obvious signifier in the erosion of women’s rights was the devastating change in 1991 to the laws governing abortion, which had been both legal and freely available, along with contraceptives, to Polish women since 1956. It also marked the growth of patriarchal nationalism and Catholicism and the exclusion of women in leadership roles in the opposition movements that led the political transformations. After a fervent diatribe about the rights that she had, or should have, over her own body, I noticed a number of women (but, excluding myself, no men) applauding the actor. Our bodies were inspected for solidarity, for honesty, for exposure, perhaps for judgment and criticism. As a male audience member my visibility is entirely different from the women around me. It occurs to me in this moment that in the first two instances of inspection (the protestors, the institution) gender might have also determined the experience. I feel guilty for only realising this now.
Photo: Jakub Szafranski

As a result of these four points of scrutiny, this is the most publicly visible I have felt at any theatre performance I have attended in my life. I think this vehemently until I remember the first time I walked in to a gay club as a teenager, and I change my mind. I have walked through a hostile street before, through security and a bag check, to be scrutinized by my fellow audience members and to come to certain conclusions about myself.

I think about the actors, who must cross through this collective of demonstrators and deal with the various threats they continue to receive on a daily basis. Needless to say, both actors and audience are anxious. The police and the actors want to know what we look like. Are we threatening, or are we coalitional? Are we only curious, or are we suspect? And, ultimately, are we dangerous? There are two forms of intimate binding happening, a kind of binding that happens through collective critique and which is not only the purview of the progressives. It happens on both sides of this political divide. Both make a claim: the other suffers from aural bloat—their voices take up too much public space. The other is deemed a threat. Their noise calls out the police, our noise calls out for solidarity.

Photo: Jakub Szafranski

What I wanted to suggest is that it is the overlapping of these four bodies that make up the collective of this circumstance: the protestors, the institution, the actors and the audience. Each one unsure of the other. All eyes open and searching. No assumed communitas here. This is collective as a form of auto-surveillance. Then, I realised that I could not make this argument. And here is why.

In this interaction, I do not pretend that I am not taking sides. I take sides. What this experience made me struggle with is the distinction between solidarity as a form of intimate bonding and solidarity as manifestation of majority will, mass-general solidarity. Is this experience of different collectives a form of collectivity itself? 

Part of what prompted this thinking was my research into counterpublics. In “Political Fictions and Fictionalisations: History as Material for Postdramatic Theatre,” Mateusz Borowski and Małgorzata Sugiera consider the political potential of Hans-Thies Lehmann’s Postdramatic Theater. One of the primary concerns for the establishment of political theatre practice today, they observe vis-à-vis Lehmann, is that the diffusion of authority, power and governance in the contemporary globalised world results in both the obscuring of social and economic processes and their expansion across national borders that makes it impossible to grasp motivations for crises and conflicts in their entirety. Consequently, it is no longer reasonable to assume that Brechtian forms of epic theatre will lay bare the underlying structures of oppression engendered through capitalist production and social relations in a transparent and straightforward manner. Borowski and Sugiera are particularly sensitive to Lehmann’s argument that political theatre today must subvert the very foundational categories of the political in order to probe the assumptions underwriting popular political discourse and to make room for spectators to reflect on the ethics, efficacy and the limitations of current forms of political involvement, many of which are deeply complicit with the dynamics of late capitalism. Equally, audiences engage with theatres as institutions in particular historical moments in relation to their “current interests, frame of mind, cognitive capacities and dominant convictions.”[6] Actively shaping audiences and producing particular, and I would argue temporally bound, counterpublics to hegemonic discourses is therefore one of the primary political tasks of the theatre. I will return to the term counterpublic in a moment.

While I agree with Borowski and Sugiera that art does not need to take up the concerns of politics to be political, I differ from their choice of terminology when they assert that “politics lies at the core of establishing communities based on a set of shared values, beliefs and principles of conduct.” Far from producing harmonious collectives organised around common belief systems or shared values, I side with gender and economic theorist Miranda Joseph, who suggested the abandonment of the notion of “community” altogether in her seminal study Against the Romance of Community (2002). Joseph is suspicious of the connotations of “community” and particularly attentive to the modes in which it can shut down rather than mobilise collective action. While community might suggest “cherished ideals of cooperation, equality and communion,” Joseph demonstrates how communities can also be “disciplining and exclusionary.”[7]

Of necessity is the way in which racism, sexism and violence have been central to the establishment of nations and liberal states as communities, and critics’ fetishisation of community as a predetermined good obscures “the enactment of domination and exploitation” predicated on the constitution and organisation of society as community. Benedict Anderson has also focused on the narrative function of conceiving of nationhood through the evocation of a mythic trauma that is continuously recirculated and repurposed in the construction of nation as an organic community.[8]

Seeking the organic over the constructed element of community seems to me to be particularly treacherous in the post-89 political universe. While it was crucial to signify dissonance through the particular assertion of “Polishness” against the communist regime, which was framed as a foreign invader, the next step was to create counternarratives for those excluded from this particularity. Supposed Polish homogeneity, which was already mythical and largely inaccurate, functioned not only as a category for the exclusion of minority identities, it also was a category that disguised the social desire for homogeneity that reemerged in the 1990s.

The point is that one has to move away from an essentialised notion of community and nationality across the political spectrum, from a socialist-oriented conception of the social body to the ultraconservative Catholic-inflected national body. In eras of political upheaval and stratification, it is one thing to situate history and traditions within a pluralistic society to find an anchor for cultural identity; it is quite another to attempt to constitute a nation around a homogenous set of cultural values that absolutely excludes others based on race, ethnicity, gender or sexual orientation, or progressive political beliefs.

Photo: Jakub Szafranski

In conceiving of a counterpublic produced through political theatre, I side with Nancy Fraser’s critique of Habermas’ conception of the public sphere, which the German philosopher confines to a singular conception of the public that is dependent upon the normative limitations of the white, male bourgeoisie. Distancing herself from Fukuyama’s premature proclamation of the demise of Soviet communism as synonymous with capitalism’s world domination that signified the “end of history,” and which Derrida critiqued in Specters of Marx (1993) as a fundamental misunderstanding of liberal democracy as a contemporary process of exploitation and subjugation, Fraser is invested in theorising the limits of late-capitalist societies and the ongoing discursive and ethical work involved in the development of liberal democracies.

It is well known that communist regimes failed to fully appreciate the necessary critical distance required between the state and civil society, which requires unrestricted public arenas for the circulation of discourse and analysis and the formation and articulation of public opinions, which, in the long run, support the preservation of a stable society. Fraser uses Soviet-style communism as an example to reinforce the value of Habermas’ championing of the public sphere and its political significance and impact, arguing that the conflation of state apparatuses with the public sphere in East and Central Europe resulted not in a participatory form of socialism but rather in the authoritarian repression of the socialist citizenry. The public sphere for Habermas, Fraser maintains, “designates a theater in modern societies in which political participation is enacted through the medium of talk” that produces a “space in which citizens deliberate about their common affairs, and hence an institutionalized arena for public discursive interaction.”[9]

The public sphere and the state must therefore be separated in order to nurture and ensure a site for the production and circulation of discourses that are capable of criticising that state. Fraser is particularly critical, however, of Habermas’ assertion that the public sphere requires a bracketing of social inequalities between citizens for the unrestrained and democratic interaction of competing discourses. The problem is that Habermas presumes that the systemic exercise of power can be temporarily neutralized in order for social inequalities to be temporally bracketed to enable the free circulation of democratic discourse. I argue that political theatre, as a site of public debate, does not propose to bracket inequalities, but rather to emphasise them, thus challenging the very social prejudices that are disavowed, and thus confirmed, by their ostensible neutralization or temporary banishment.

In the Polish context, the problem is the mode in which the political transformation resulted in a particular claim to the role of the public by the groups that were suppressed under communism. After 1989, the very same repressed and marginalized public returns in its obverse form, as the exclusive community (ethnically Polish, heterosexual, Catholic, male-dominated) that legitimates its own interests and articulations of nationhood and nationality, thus naturalising such national formations. What’s more, the assertion of a singular public constitutes culture as autonomous in time and space, rather than porous, open to change and multivalent. What we see at the Teatr Powszechny is the emergence of rival publics and counterpublics that challenge the assertion of a singular Polish public and the understanding of Polish culture as predetermined and intransigent.

A public is a “space of discourse organized by nothing other than discourse itself” that exists “by virtue of being addressed.” In other words, “an addressable object is conjured into being in order to enable the very discourse that gives it existence.”[10] A public is self-organised and independent from the state and is addressed to strangers as public discourse, and not only reserved for known members of a group or community. Given that a public is formed through the medium of its address, it can be differentiated from a nation not only because membership is free and voluntary but precisely for the reason that its members must be active and attentive. Indeed, attentiveness is precisely the “sorting category” of a public, rather than national or communal identity.[11] Although a counterpublic is generated by the same features it is distinguishable from a public in a number of ways.

Photo: Jakub Szafranski

Firstly, it remains conscious of its status as subordinate to dominant publics and a “hierarchy of stigma is the assumed background of practice.”[12] This impacts its modes of address, its use of speech and its discursive articulation of bodies and identities, placing emphasis on transformative rather than replicative discourse. Crucially for political theatre and the circulation of discourse that produces publics and counterpublics, address must be extended impersonally and be available for co-membership based on attention and not on bounded or restricted and exclusive notions of identity.  

I would like highlight one point here that I have not mentioned. If I side with Fraser against Habermas and claim that the public sphere has to make social inequalities visible—rather than attempting to bracket them off—then the visibility of those inequalities has to also be attributed to the protestors themselves. The neo-right is largely made up of lower working-class groups, who tend to have less education and less financial privilege. And this was strikingly indicated when, leaving the theatre, I overheard some members of the audience wondering out loud if a particular group of people loitering on the street were part of the demonstration. “They do not look like theatre spectators,” they concluded. In other words, they did not look progressive, bourgeois, sophisticated . . . read here the trappings of class privilege. 

In the final moments of Klątwa, an actor slowly pulls on safety goggles, gloves and protective overalls, before she starts up a chainsaw and cutting in half a large crucifix that has dominated the stage for the entire performance. The notion of collectivity as community was—both literally and figuratively—cut down at the end of the performance.

Klątwa, final scene. Photo: Magda Hueckel

When she pushes the sacred object to the floor, which it greets with a tremendous noise, the lights of the Polish eagle glow across the back wall of the stage. All of the actors calmly enter the stage, erect simple wooden ladders and begin the work of slowly extinguishing the individual white light bulbs that form this national symbol. It is a simple and deeply moving gesture. The work against nationalism. The action of coming to work every day through the line of protestors. Us against them. The reminder outside the theatre that society is a disunified collective is not the problem. Nor, perhaps, is the fact that far more people will see this public performance of protest rather than the production that is being opposed. The problem is that the terms of the public debate have remained within a religious framework. The critics who have seen Frljić’s production and do not like it are resorting to critical terms that take a religious understanding of the world as their starting point. Temida Stankiewicz-Podhorecka, for instance, in the Catholic journal Nasz Dziennik, not only accuses the production of humiliating Poles, stifling their spirituality, patriotic feelings and human dignity, but also argues that this is both pseudosztuka (pseudo-art) and pseudospektakl (pseudo-performance), claiming it is not an artistic work, that it has nothing to do with artistry, nor the term theatrical art.[13] (Again, I am reminded of Trump, who in castigating both the actors and producers of Hamilton for their “bad behavior” also managed a swipe at the production itself, which he hears is “overrated”[14]). The pseudospektakl, she argues, does not “contain even the least truth about our reality” and has been made by an incompetent amateur who has no idea about directing. Ultimately, it works against her concept of culture. And here is the crux of her position, I believe.

Photo: Jakub Szafranski

Just as Polish and Catholic are seen as a singularity, art and culture are being conflated. Given that the actors reveal very personal stories outside of the frame of character, it is rather astonishing that Stankiewicz-Podhorecka should claim that this offers no truth about “our” reality. It is not surprising that she resorts to a tired nationalist comparison that foregrounds victimhood, when she suggests that like Polish patriots in Prussian prisons, she felt her dignity, humanity and identity being stripped away. These are not artists but rather “torturers” that tried to “break [her] at all costs.” Her status as a victim is also matched with her radical passivity, in which she was unable to “make this vicious, insane attack stop.” Interestingly, what Stankiewicz-Podhorecka fails to see is that the performance relies on Catholic forms of confession and therefore, in many ways, remains fully within the rituals of the Church. Against such passivity, she calls on the Olgierd Łukaszewicz, former president of ZASP, the Polish Union of Stage Actors, to publicly condemn Klątwa. (Interestingly, this confirms the sense that a conservative majority that once rejected or protested communism still experiences itself as a counterpublic despite its current claims to political power and dominance.)

Critics who support the production, whether or not they like it, return to this idea of formal criticism. Maciej Nowak, director of Teatr Polski in Poznań, refuses the premise for any criticism of Klątwa that resorts to questioning its status as theatre, which all too quickly descends to the reductive binary of good or bad art. Calling on the classic American art theorist Author Danto, Nowak argued that art—and therefore theatre—is everything that people who deal with art recognise as art. In other words, politicians and radical rightwing protestors are not in the position to decide if this is real theatre. While they retain the right to public, collective protest, the definition of theatricality should be left to theatre makers.[15] What Nowak forgot to mention is that the protestors were creating the theatre themselves.

Here, we must confront an important distinction today around the formation of public spheres. Unlike the theatre counterpublics that contested the official and appropriated civic society under communism in Poland, and which were determined by shared moral values, developing publics and counterpublics elaborate alternative norms, generate dissensus and conceive of the public sphere as constituted by difference rather than unity. Counterpublics are naughty, they meddle and they are difficult to discipline. They vex and they frustrate. They excite, and they arouse. They are crucial to understanding the shift in the nature of the public sphere in the 1990s, which denoted a move from a repressive mode of domination to a hegemonic one, that is “from rule based primarily on acquiescence to superior force to rule based primarily on consent supplemented with some measure of repression.”[16] The public sphere today then is no longer something one may simply resist or withstand; as the site of the construction of majority consent, it can therefore either directly be linked to hegemonic modes of domination, or it can act as a resistant site of antagonisation, provocation, contestation and conflict. The public sphere is both a stage for the formation of discursive opinion and an arena for the formation and enactment of social identities.

Not only does the theatre substantiate “interpublic relations,” provoking dialogue between publics with conflicting views or competing political agendas, it also enables “intrapublic relations,” safe spaces for the discursive interaction and strategizing of a marginalised public who are connected by a common history, political affiliation or identity. Lauren Berlant once said that “preaching to the choir is always undervalued.” What my experience of Klątwa revealed is that the site of an intrapublic dialogue, the choir speaking to itself, becomes reframed if it is literally encapsulated or, as in this case, surrounded by an interpublic conflict.

Photo: Jakub Szafranski

Finally, what I want to argue is a tension that places pressure on a binary conclusion. To not conceive of the four bodies I have mentioned as a collective forgets about their mutual reliance. When any of them fail to play their part, the performance is altered in a fundamental way. On the other hand, we cannot think of the circumstances of Klątwa—across these four bodies—as a collective. And that is not only because they produce different publics, but, ultimately, they produce different public spheres. 

What was relegated as an individual and personal matter (pedophilia, rape, abortion), and thereby not of interest to the public (which is interested in the official good name of the Church and State), is recuperated and enunciated as a public and political concern through the work of a counterpublic that widens the discursive space of cultural and national identity and the political. It also, of course, reveals that women’s bodies were not actually of private concern but were indeed always regulated by the Church and the State. This is the disavowal—hiding as private what was publicly regulated—that the protestors ultimately embody, rather than a constitutional right to freedom of religious belief.

The point is that such understandings of counterpublics, which have both a contestatory and a publicist function, present one possible solution to the kind of seperatism that the communist usurpation of the public sphere produced, and which is being restaged now by the neo-right. Whereas subversive political performance intended to undermine communist society, the counterpublic I experienced on this very memorable evening at the theatre was an enactment of a democratic participatory parity and a performance of contestation. I have failed to tell you whom I think this counterpublic is. Instead, I will say this: through an experience of a counterpublic, audiences may come to understand the modes in which their subjectivity has profound and immediate resonance with others. In the end, this may not produce a collective, but it is produced collectively.


[1]This is an edited version of a keynote delivered at Collective Works: Questioning Collectivity in Contemporary Theatre, IATC (International Association of Theatre Critics) Conference, Sterijino Pozorje Festival, Serbia in June 2018.

[2]“Polska prawica uważa, że teatrami rządzą lewacy, których trzeba w końcu uciszyć,” Mike Urbaniak, Gazeta Wyborcza, Weekend online, 20 May 2017.

[3]Cited in Aneta Kyzioł, “Fałszywa moralność,” Polityka, 28 Feb. 2017.

[4]Cited in Michał Wojtczuk, “Warszawa. Narodowcy zapowiadają oblężenie Teatru Powszechnego,” Gazeta Wyborcza, 20 May 2017.

[5]Cited in Jakub Majmurek, “Ministerstwo po stronie przemocy,” Krytyka Polityczna, 28 Apr. 2017.

[6]Mateusz Borowski and Małgorzata Sugiera, “Political Fictions and Fictionalisations: History as Material for Postdramatic Theatre,” Postdramatic and the Political, edited by Karen Jürs-Munby, Jerome Carroll and Steve Giles, Bloomsbury Methuen Drama, 2013, p. 72.

[7]Miranda Joseph, Against the Romance of the Community, U of Minnesota P, 2002, pp. vi-vii.

[8]Benedict Anderson, Imagined Communities: Reflections on the Origin and Spread of Nationalism, Verso Books. 2006.

[9]Nancy Fraser, “Rethinking the Public Sphere: A Contribution to the Critique of Actually Existing Democracy,” Habermas and the Public Sphere, edited by Craig Calhoun, MIT Press,1992,  p. 110.

[10]Michael Warner, Publics and Counterpublics, Zone, 2002, p. 67.

[11]Ibid., p. 87.

[12]Ibid., p. 121.

[13]Temida Stankiewicz-Podhorecka, “Wynajęta miernota przeciwko Polakom,” Nasz Dziennik, 11 Mar. 2017.

[14]Donald J. Trump, “The cast and producers of Hamilton, which I hear is highly overrated, should immediately apologize to Mike Pence for their terrible behavior,” 20 Nov. 2016. 3:22 a.m.

[15]Maciej Nowak, “Czy Klątwa to jeszcze teatr?” Gazeta Wyborcza, 8 Mar. 2017.

[16]Fraser, 1992, p. 117. 

*Bryce Lease is a Reader in Theatre and Performance Studies at Royal Holloway, London. His writings on contemporary international performance have been published in numerous journals, including The Drama Review (TDR), Contemporary Theatre Review (CTR), Theatre Research International (TRI), Theatre Journal, European Stages and New Theatre Quarterly (NTQ). His research has been funded by the Arts and Humanities Research Council (AHRC), the Newton Fund, the British Academy, the Standing Conference of University Drama Departments (SCUDD) and the Brown International Advanced Research Institute (BIARI). Bryce is Co-Editor of Contemporary Theatre Review and a Subject Editor for European Theatre/Performance for the Routledge Performance Archive, a member of the Executive Committee for EASTAP (European Association for the Study of Theatre and Performance), an advisory board member for European Stages and a member of the Arts and Humanities Research Council Peer Review College. At RHUL, he developed the MA Theatre Directing with Katie Mitchell. He is currently Head of Department for the Department of Drama, Theatre & Dance.

Copyright © 2019 Bryce Lease
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