Fascism is not just a historical period. It is happening here and now – Przemek Bollin interview with Marta Górnicka ( ONET.PL)
Marta Górnicka is a theatre director and re-discoverer of choral theatre. In her performances, she explores conflicts in twenty-first-century societies, and works on repressed memories. “I believe that the chorus is like the Gorgon from Athena’s shield. The image is shown to the audience right in the face, violently, harshly. The chorus reworks and demonstrates social fantasies and myths on its own body, piles them up, leads to their explosion,” she said to Przemysław Bollin in her interview for Onet.pl in Krakowskie Przedmieście Street in Warsaw.
Przemysław Bollin: What does Poland sound like today?
Marta Górnicka: Like drums. Screams. A synthetic sample. A march-scream. But also silence…? This is how I answered this question in 2017, when I wrote HYMN TO LOVE. Today, we are in a different place, although leaving these conflicted, frightening Polish narratives is still immeasurably difficult. I keep hearing Poland in total contradiction. Dissonance, scream, euphoria. But I don’t know if I can still listen to it. We cannot remain stuck in the gibberish that hurts our ears, deafened by Ave Maria and patriotic rap. These synthetic national samples have deafened us.
When I think about sources for the chorus, I think about shared presence and about ritual. I hear voices which imitate an animal being slaughtered, screaming and crying. The chorus and the actor are born from this ritual. “To Europe, but with our dead,” said the literary scientist Professor Maria Janion. To put on an animal mask, to be together and to imitate sounds of pain or weeping is the origin of theatre. Poles and all of Europe still need a ritual of being-together, and a space to express conflict. I think about the chorus as a workshop for a new society. I want to find a new language for it, and new artistic form, new theatrical practice, understood as social practice.
Do Poles want the truth?
“This country wants the truth, the whole truth and nothing but the truth. It does not need any other. And any other truth DOES NOT EXIST…” says the chorus in HYMN, like a computer Cassandra.
In the libretto to the HYMN TO LOVE, I show how the community is formed around certain slogans, like “the truth,” “love,” “fatherland,” that each of us would be ready to follow. Around these “common values,” the community’s identity is formed. By affirming itself, the community excludes all strangers, all who think differently, believe differently and love differently, all who could spoil the purity of its truth. Building a national identity on excluding Others has become the narrative of most populist politicians in Europe. The HYMN is about the Motherland, about Mother Europe, who awakens its hateful language to exclude all strangers.
There, I show how easily people gather around this violent, neofascist narrative. How seductive this language is. What a relief it brings! Language is always immersed in some ideology; it is never transparent. Politics appropriates it, and therefore it is always very important to me to dismantle it by showing its entanglements. But this is only part of the success. At the same time, we need to defuse what is behind the need for that language: our anxiety, frustrations, fear. We are paralyzed by fear.
Can the theatre defuse that?
I believe that the chorus is like the Gorgon from Athena’s shield. The image is shown to the audience right in the face, violently, harshly. The chorus reworks and demonstrates social fantasies and myths on its own body, piles them up, leads to their explosion. This is fucking painful. Because in order to expose these mechanisms in all of their complexity, the chorus must have great theatrical power. And exceptional technique. For me, this is still about reaching unconscious social conflicts and contradictions. About reaching a society which has a gag in its mouth.
Poles – in a way which never ceases to frighten me – have forgotten about their future perfectly. About what was happening “on the fringes of the Holocaust.” What our society’s attitude was. About the fact that we had also been also given shelter once, and welcomed as refugees. The repression of facts is monstrously dangerous. On it, nationalist fantasies about heroic victimhood and a nation chosen by God are built. We have a big heart, and we like to think of ourselves as a nation of hospitable people… so we won’t welcome anyone! Love them, yes, but not here, there! Here, we will keep clean from all that is Other. Due to this religious rhetoric, people can’t hear that Others become treated as the dirt that threatens our racial purity.
This is how the monstrous community is created. Its representatives emerge instantly: the Purifiers, the Breiviks. They speak in the name of that community, they speak so loudly, so dangerously. They speak murderously! And we are deaf to that, we cannot hear the danger in their language anymore, we breathe it like air.
In HYMN, the chorus sings with pride: “Us Poles, we have the only Saviour behind us, the Saviour of the World, what should we be afraid of?!” And as the chorus repeats this supposedly soothing phrase, it becomes more and more frightened, more and more aggressive.
What is the source of these divides? Was it the controversy surrounding the 2010 airplane crash in Smoleńsk, Russia, where dozens of high-ranking Polish government officials were killed?
The far-right ruling party Law and Justice deliberately and cynically built a tribal myth around that event. Later, the migrant crisis in Europe started. In Germany, PEGIDA was created. This anti-Islamic movement was the first to say: “We don’t want you here!” They were the ones who pointed to “people” and “non-people” in language, reaching directly for Nazi themes. We heard that language gain momentum in Poland, we heard it explode right before Law and Justice’s 2015 victory in parliamentary elections. I was hearing that divide. I was feeling the disintegration and a need to react. I started gathering a fifty-person chorus in order to articulate the Polish Constitution together.
It was the first project in which both sides of the political conflict were to stand on the stage, side by side with those who were exploited in that conflict. In CONSTITUTION FOR THE CHORUS OF POLES, they were Chechen refugees, various migrants, representatives of minorities. This was not about sounding in unison, but precisely about expanding the representation of society as far as possible, about gathering people whose opinions cannot be reconciled in any way. This was already very difficult then. Poles, Jews, refugees, actors from the CHORUS OF WOMEN, LGBT people, and representatives of organizations: Campaign Against Homophobia on one side of the spectrum, and the paramilitary organization “Strzelec” on the other side. In rehearsals, they all stood on stage. And then, people from Campaign Against Homophobia said no.
They were citing the “no platform” rule. They did not want their presence to be seen as legitimizing opinions which are unacceptable to them.
Meanwhile, in my thinking about theatre, I want to reveal contradictions and social conflicts. The chorus transcends the principle of political correctness. In this sense, the function of my theatre is to meet the impossible. To dismantle and expose the conflict.
In the end, the members of Campaign Against Homophobia did not participate in the performance. However, we did have representatives of the LGBT community with us on stage: the actor Jacek Poniedziałek and the drag queen Kim Lee. I referred to that issue in one of the scenes of HYMN TO LOVE. Part of the chorus repeated the words: “Only our nation will reproduce here / To all unnecessary nations, we say bye / We’ll throw them into the furnace, we’ll make things hot for them. / Ladies and Gentlemen, you can go now, too…”. The other part of the chorus answers: “We have nothing to talk about / We have nothing to do with this. / It’s not the right community of values. No platform.” In some situations, both sides are dramatically similar to each other. Today, the discourse on both sides sounds equally radical.
Why did people from the far right decide to perform with you?
They wanted to manifest their openness. I admired it. But this was three years ago. When in autumn 2018, as a reaction to the take-over of the Constitutional Tribunal by the ruling party, we were planning to perform the CONSTITUTION FOR THE CHORUS OF POLES again, in a public space, on the steps leading up to Warsaw’s central and symbolic Palace of Culture, their participation was not possible anymore. They refused.
Unfortunately, gestures repeat in history. We could have foreseen what was going to happen. Social divides were at a stage where we could have worked on them. This is why today katharsis in the theatre is not enough. We must provoke the audience to think, let them go with it further, outside the theatre.
Around the time of your HYMN’s premiere, in the first months of 2017, a scandal erupted in Poland over Oliver Frljić’s production Klątwa (The Curse). Condemnations of Frljić’s controversial use of religious imagery rolled through mainstream media, including state-owned television. The Curse successfully ventured outside the theatre. What were your thoughts?
Oliver was straightforward: he wanted to shock his audience violently. He wanted to provoke a real conflict in the social sphere. In some sense, he and I think alike, but it is definitely not my goal to work on such conflict and such provocation directly.
How do you understand the role of choral theatre?
The chorus is some form of coexistence. It is a social body and a political practice of language, voice, body. From human to human. From the actor to the audience member. It touches the most difficult topics, it walks onto the toughest ground, while at the same time trying to create the impossible shared voice. Especially now, in the face of the end of the world as we know it, of a world of clear divisions, stable structures and values.
Each person performing in the chorus is separate, distinct, with their own talent, sensibility, their own life story. Therefore, work in such a team is always a challenge and a crisis. At the casting in Poznań, I was purposefully looking for a group of actors who were as diverse as possible. That is what I have a child in the chorus who can be a figure of Breivik and of the new generation. On the stage, there is a black actress, a girl with Down syndrome, amateurs, professional actors, seniors… Literally, the chorus encounters voices and bodies of OTHERS. Performers filter through themselves our monstrous national songbook, our homogeneous language. This is what the clash is about. About murderous phrases from our patriotic songs “’Tis the day of blood and glory!” (La Varsovienne) or the national anthem being articulated by a community which is radically diverse.
In today’s Poland, our chorus is a challenge to the new nationalism which finds support in official cultural and historical policy. Our diverse community sings, whispers and screams a Hymn for Orchestra, a Chorus of Plush Toys and Others, juxtaposed with phrases from patriotic songs, which build one collective body, eliminating any diversity and finding unity in hatred. This creates a great tension.
The chorus shows these mechanisms on its own body. It is a laboratory of social fantasies. It desecrates myths, it demonstrates its own ambivalence – its horror and its beauty.
HYMN is more often played abroad than in Poland. In Germany, France, Greece, Austria… But the audience reacted differently in Russia. Your actors were puzzled after they left the stage. What was behind the audience’s reaction?
In Russia, the reception of the performance was very particular. Afterwards, there was a very long stretch of silence. Long and heavy. I talked to Russians, and they experienced every sentence twice as intensely. The statement “Memory is like videotape; you can edit it” was especially poignant for them. They had flashbacks to Stalinism and images from the GULAG. They have never worked through that, never held themselves accountable for their history – unlike Germans. On the Red Square, we saw fresh flowers on Stalin’s grave. This is a society which has never worked through that trauma. Their reception was bottomless.
There were supposed to be more performances, but you stopped at one due to your use of profanity, which is forbidden in Russian theatre.
Putin introduced a legal regulation which penalizes the use of profanity in the theatre. We, the actors, the production team, would not have faced much trouble, but the audience could have been summoned to the police and forced to pay fines.
But this story starts somewhere else. Because I give much attention to translations of my librettos, it was important to me who was going to translate that text into Russian. A Russian translator from the University of Vienna was recommended to us. She had translated dramas by Dorota Masłowska and other renowned Polish playwrights. The translator censored the text. She replaced profanity with other words.
For your own good?
Yes. I only discovered this right before the trip. I don’t know Russian well, but I know certain words and phrases. (Górnicka chuckles.) The translator explained that theatres use substitute words due to Putin’s law. However, I didn’t want my text to be censored. We contacted the organizers of the festival immediately and asked them directly if they would agree for the original version to be played. This was our condition. They said that since this was going to be one show, they would deal with the police.
How do Poles usually react to your performance? From what I have seen at the premiere and two other times in Warsaw, the audience is somewhat reserved.
There is a cursed dimension of the audience’s reception. Almost none of the reviews written since January 2017 in Poland have gotten to the core meaning of the performance. One great theme in HYMN is Poles’ reaction to the migrant crisis and to rising ethnonationalism. At the same time, I explore the theme of the Holocaust and the concentration camp orchestra playing at the ramp. We ask fundamental questions about accountability, indifference, memory. That layer is almost always missing from reviews.
Recently, I watched Franco Zeffirelli’s 1999 Tea with Mussolini. The story is set in World War Two Italy, the protagonist is growing up without his parents, and yet the film is vibrant with color. Zeffirelli allows himself to do that because the film is autobiographical. Poland is missing a real conversation about accountability like that – through art and history. Including the most recent history.
These are the most painful deposits of history. In Germany, long after the war, people had to reconstruct basic historical facts, because no one believed in what had happened. Since you’ve mentioned colours: there is a phrase from Art Spiegelman’s comic Maus still ringing in my ears. The protagonist says something to the effect of “I don’t remember an orchestra! There was no orchestra there!” It’s so striking that a victim of the Holocaust cannot remember that detail. What does that mean?! How should we as a society work with that? I talked about this with my actors at the Münchner Kammerspiele, where I worked on JEDEM DAS SEINE. EIN MANIFEST. They explained how they were educated about the Germans’ faults and how monstrous it had been. As children in the 1970s, they had learnt in detail what their country’s history looked like. They had had to visit former Nazi camps and touch objects made from human skin, and almost gag with vomit… The education was almost sadistic, but it did happen.
Meanwhile, Poles still live among symbols, patriotic gestures and songs. We look at tragic images and nothing is moved within us. We are witnessing processes of normalizing the abnormal, normalizing fascism, normalizing divides. Our indifference is shocking. How do we stop this? This is still a subject for the new theatre. For the new theatrical practice.
In one scene of HYMN TO LOVE, Anders Breivik appears. Two years after the premiere, reality played your libretto. The mayor of Gdańsk was stabbed to death by one Stefan W. on the stage of a nation-wide charity event.
My chorus proved to be a cyborg Cassandra. In some way, Stefan W. repeated Breivik’s words. He said: “I am the victim of the system.”
That’s right. The theatre and reality can meet. There was something monstrous in that adherence. In that we talk about how language, how a word can lead to murder, and suddenly the word was made flesh. It becomes murder, in the street, in Poland! At that moment, you begin to fear your own theatre. We all started being afraid.
In the same scene Breivik’s mother speaks up: “I believe in the one and only son, that’s what mothers do…” In your theatre, you have talked about the mother a lot.
That’s right. MAGNIFICAT, M(OTHER) COURAGE in Brunswig, and MOTHER COURAGE WON’T REMAIN SILENT. A CHORUS FOR THE WARTIME in Israel. And then, the HYMN TO LOVE, the conclusion of my triptych. Mother Europe, Mother Poland, Mother-Nation… For me, MUTTER is a vehicle through which I try to talk about the brutality of today’s world, about how inhuman humans can be, about how history comes full circle. In MOTHER COURAGE in Israel, Arab mothers stood side by side with Israeli soldiers. At the performance in Brunswig, I wanted the mothers to express their opposition against the rising PEGIDA and against hate speech directed at refugees. I wanted them to ask: “Why does my only son want to kill again?” On the other hand, the Polish mother asks about nothing, she just believes in her one and only son! Blind and deaf faith! There is something much more frightening in that. I show it clearly in HYMN. The mother repeats, first stubbornly, then machine-like: “I believe in my one and only son, that’s what mothers do: they believe in their son, their Saviour!” At the end, the mother speaks as Breivik, she says in English: “My name is Anders Breivik.” The nightmare becomes reality.
Would you like to meet Stefan W.?
I know him very well. I have read dozens of internet posts and comments written by a variety of Stefan W.’s. When I was doing research for HYMN, I knew that I will begin the performance with the Polish anthem. I was looking for its modern versions and I discovered a myriad of ultra-patriotic remixes of the Polishś anthem, written by our patriotic rappers. They get millions of views on YouTube.
In HYMN, there is a symbol of hope. It is the vocalise from John Lennon’s Oh My Love on his record Imagine.
Yes, that wonderful song is very important to me in the entire structure of the performance. First, we hear: “Only our nation will reproduce here / to all unnecessary nations, we say bye.” And suddenly, another voice can be heard, as if from a different island, from the great beyond. These two languages clash: the internet hatred and the pop song. Even when we show the violence of language and its terrible consequences for the community, we include the voice of the community’s beauty. I don’t know if we can believe it, but it’s somewhere there. It has a different dimension.
I show the world in monstrous concentration, because that’s how it feels to me. Anti-human thinking has become mainstream. This comes somewhere from Trump. We are beyond the limits of what could be said. Now we breathe it. Nevertheless, there are spaces where voice sounds in tune. We are at a point where two worlds meet. That song, that singing continues until the last act. It also accompanies a love dance.
A dance of the excluded?
A dance by people whose love would not be possible in our society. We overcome the impossibility of what society allows. This is constant ambivalence. That beautiful voice which rises from the chorus in J. S. Bach’s St. Matthew Passion in the final scene of the Holocaust orchestra is the highest level of musical, aesthetic artistry. And at the same time, this voice is also smoke. I believe that the theatre is there to bear such meanings.
When I was walking in the nationalist Independence March in November, I remembered my friends from high school, who used to read Adolf Hitler’s manifestos. One of them grew up without a father, because that man had committed suicide. Radical ideas gave my friend power in a larger group. On 11 November, I saw many people like him. People who felt like they belonged in a nationalist community.
The German sociologist Heinz Bude writes: “The fear of the incompleteness of the collective entity awakens the monster of cleansing.” These mechanisms are analyzed on their deepest level by Klaus Theweleit in Male Fantasies and The Laughter of Killers. He showed fascism considered as a psychological possibility grounded in male fear and “mutilated” corporeality and sexuality. It is shocking that we can see textbook examples of these mechanisms in the streets of our cities today. I analyze this on the stage. I demonstrate these processes in monstrous enlargement and concentration. The chorus is paradoxical. It rises in order to indicate how threatening it is when the community adores itself and sees nothing but itself, and at the same time how necessary the community is for individuals who see nothing but themselves.
What I show in my recent choruses are communities created at the intersection of an individual’s loneliness and the horror of a society which loves itself too much. My work never leaves that intersection. This is chorus.
Theweleit writes that all young murderers, no matter if they were Nazis or militants in the Congo, had one trait in common. These young people had never loved – in the physical sense. In killing, they were looking for a substitute for love. In addition, they had a need to belong to a community. The Holocaust as a monstrous bond. This is true horror. This gives them ideological form. Fascism is born in the body and present there.
Today, the words “woman” and “coercion” are once again used in a political game.
Unfortunately, the woman is still the greatest ideological weapon. A Radical Other, used in a political game. The fascist discourse used women in its political war. That way of thinking is still present in politics today. Fascism is not just a historical period. Fascism is happening here and now. New right-wing political formations in Europe are being built around slogans of “defending women.” “Let’s protect them from the Islamic hordes who will come here and rape them.”
The title of my performance JEDEM DAS SEINE literally means “to each his own” or “may all get their due.” This is a very old philosophical and legal maxim taken from Plato. A formula for justice, which was demoralized and used by the Nazis. They ostentatiously hung it on the gate to the camp in Buchenwald. In Poland, we associated the slogan “Arbeit macht frei” with Auschwitz, while in Germany “Jedem das seine” played a similar role. At the same time, it is a title of a Bach cantata, the one that we sing in the finale of the Münchner Kammerspiele performance. This is my most cruel performance. Few people in Poland know about it, and there aren’t many visual materials produced. This is because the actress who plays Donald Trump is naked in one scene, which excludes many photographs from public use.
I also refer to the system of exploiting female bodies by Nazi Germany in labour camps and concentration camps. There, sex with workers from camp brothels was the most elaborate form of motivating prisoners to greater productivity. Female sexual slaves were prizes for those who worked the most efficiently. This used to happen in Dachau, too, which is five kilometres away from Munich. On the stage, we say that “Dachau is Europe’s largest brothel.” Not much is known about these women, although their labour was forced, being perhaps the worst form of slavery. For me, it is the most repressed form of wartime violence. Not only that. They were also refused redress after the war, because they were branded with a stigma of collaboration. Such absurdities are only possible in the patriarchy, where the objectification of women has no end, it replicates over and over again! For me, it is also a monstrous metaphor for what the female body is to capitalism. How it serves to multiply capital, increase wealth and aid in the production of resources which will allow greater accumulation and infinite conquest. This is the core of that performance.
While working on JEDEM DAS SEINE, we did encounter various difficulties… It turned out that some things still cannot be said directly even in a society which has been working on its history so deeply. And especially in Munich.
The material has been edited for international audience