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We Are All Queer

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Krzysztof Warlikowski Polish theatre TR Warszawa Tony Kushner Angels in America LGBT culture Małgorzata Szczęśniak minority identities

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Marcin Kościelniak is a theatre researcher and critic, and an assistant in the Department of Theatre and Drama at the Jagiellonian University in Kraków. He is Deputy Editor of the journal Didaskalia and a reviewer for Tygodnik Powszechny. He is author of the monograph Prawie ludzkie, prawie moje. Teatr Helmuta Kajzara (‘Almost human, almost mine’: The theatre of Helmut Kajzar, 2012), editor of Koniec półświni. Wybrane utwory i teksty o teatrze (‘The End of the Half-Pig’: Selected works and texts on theatre, 2012), and co-editor of 20-lecie. Teatr polski po 1989 (Twentieth Anniversary: Polish theatre after 1989, 2010). His articles have been published in Dialog, Didaskalia, Notatnik Teatralny, Svĕt a Divadlo, and Theater der Zeit.

Angels in America By Tony Kushner | translated by Jacek Poniedziałek | TR Warszawa | Premiere: 17 February 2007 | Director: Krzysztof Warlikowski | Set and costume design: Małgorzata Szczęśniak | Music: Paweł Mykietyn | Lighting design: Felice Ross | Film materials: Paweł Łoziński | Songs: Adam Falkiewicz


Krzysztof Warlikowski’s production of Angels in America aspires to be a total work, encompassing multiple perspectives.[1]

Here, the political jostles with the existential, the everyday blends with the fantastical. It is about society, the individual, and humanity. It is about the unique and particular, the general and universal. It is about God, revelation, and illumination, where the spiritual domain is closely tied to the physical. It is about the present and the eternal. We are in New York, in Warsaw, on Earth – and our eyes are drawn upwards, to the sky. And yet we are also in the theatre.

Warlikowski’s staging therefore adopts a multi-layered structure. Its distinctiveness lies in the fact that these levels closely converge without negating their particularity: each perspective remains constantly ‘activated’. The result is a tangle of plot lines, themes, and artistic devices. In this five-hour performance, there are several peaks, though none marks a decisive shift: over time, everything becomes tangled up once more. Warlikowski seeks to be all-encompassing; the premise of his production seems to be the desire for a great synthesis. However, nothing is resolved here: any decisions are continually deferred.

Many sequences from the play are paired together and performed simultaneously. In this way – discretely and without obvious intent – they are fitted together and arranged into a polyphony, at times highlighting certain underlying traits. Simultaneity also has a further, important function: by undermining the naturalistic dimension, it prepares the ground for the ‘visionary’ scenes, so that the border between ‘reality’ and ‘fiction’ dissolves and eventually becomes unimportant. If we add a sprinkling of subtle meta-theatricality – which places the entire work as if between ironic quotation marks – we are left with a reality without contours, in suspension, in which an encounter between humans and angels, dreams and reality, becomes possible.

This encounter is legitimised by the discursive nature of the performance: the dialogical element is crucial here, and serves to invoke the most diverse, remote, and fantastical arguments. Within this discourse, both the living and the dead are given a voice. At the same time, even during the most routine exchanges, we have the impression that everyone ‘raises a question’ when they take the floor – not only their own, but one that is more universal. In this sense, the performance resembles a treatise. But behind this, there is also something quite different: a rather vague belief in a spiritual, more profound – in a way ‘divine’ – dimension of human life. A treatise then, and a ‘poem’ at the same time.

Małgorzata Szczęśniak’s set design consists of a vast space enclosed on three sides, with the flanks supported by pillars, as if beginning in mid-air. The actors draw out a hospital bed from under one wall, a coffin from another. Armchairs are placed facing the front row of the audience, a table and chairs to the left, several other chairs to the right, and in certain scenes, a rostrum and several more armchairs are brought on and offstage as required. There are no privileged objects: everything is interchangeable, seemingly provisional, and entirely functional. There are doors on both sides, a hatch in the back wall, a dancing pole, and a coffee machine. The space is somehow open – it is ready to submit, to receive, imposing nothing. This reflects the nature of the staging: without a distinctive dramaturgy, drawn out as if in a slow, ‘drip-drip’ rhythm. An undefined space such as this can only hint at something – the closest association is perhaps that of a funeral parlour (a black carpet with a red-rose pattern, wooden panelling on the back wall, a cool atmosphere).

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Ethel Rosenberg (Danuta Stenka) and Roy M. Cohn (Andrzej Chyra) in Warlikowski's Angels in America. Photographs: Stefan Okołowicz.

The performance is framed symbolically, beginning and ending with death. First, it is the death of Louis’s grandmother, a Jewish immigrant from Eastern Europe. The rabbi’s eulogy describes her as the progenitor of her line – ‘not a person but a whole kind of person’ – who came from a distant, seemingly mythical corner of the globe (we, the central Europeans, are perhaps the only ones who know for sure that it exists). At the same time, he recalls America’s heritage: pioneering, full of dreams and ideals, founded on solid values. At the end, it is the death of Roy M. Cohn, a New York attorney. He, in turn, speaks of lawyers being the salt of the American earth, which, in the context of his ambiguous morality, acquires a clear significance. Thus, both deaths mark the end of certain ideas – and with them, the end of an epoch. Family, religious, and social bonds have been dissolved, and the rotten pillar on which American statehood and the American Dream are founded will simply need to be replaced rather than repaired – though it will certainly endure beyond Roy’s death. We are in a period of transition, in which – to use the words of the play – the snake has shed his skin before a new skin is ready. Louis describes it figuratively, calling Joe a ‘married, probably bisexual, Republican, Mormon, quasi-gay’. The characters’ identities – disturbed, undefined, internally contradictory – resonate with the nature of the times.

Warlikowski’s performance spans the unclear, somewhat hazy ‘before’ and this clearly defined ‘after’: the transition from one to the other determines the nature of the performance. It is a search for order in chaos, carried out simultaneously on several levels: resolving family problems stands for a crystallisation of moral values and an attempt to address the future of humanity and the world. The whole endeavour is thus undertaken with great élan and high stakes...

It is possible to discern two basic threads within the tangle of the plot: that of Harper and Joe, and that of Prior and Louis. Following Kushner, Warlikowski both interweaves them and develops them in parallel. Louis (Jacek Poniedziałek) abandons Prior (Tomasz Tyndyk); Joe (Maciej Stuhr) leaves Harper (Maja Ostaszewska). The two ‘fugitives’ meet and spend what is at first an intoxicating, and later an increasingly complicated month together. Earlier, Harper meets Prior on a ‘surreal’ level. Both of these levels are linked, partly because they work towards the development of the plot: it is during a shared hallucination that Prior informs Harper that her husband is homosexual, and that he later realises that this husband is sleeping with his partner. This ‘flash of illumination’ transports us directly to where this quite complex plot might have led had Kushner intended his play to be a bourgeois melodrama (although both the play and the performance share elements of melodrama).

At a certain level, Warlikowski’s production boils down to the presentation of various attitudes. Louis leaves Prior just as the latter’s condition begins to deteriorate, since, as he explains, he cannot reconcile Prior’s illness with his idealistic vision of the world. We might call him a coward or a scoundrel, or defend and justify his decision – but behind each course of action lies a clear question: can we blame someone for struggling to reckon with death? The situation between Harper and Joe is even more complex. Joe leaves his wife, following the homosexual impulses that he has repressed for years. But there are also broader dimensions to his decision, especially because Harper – addicted to Valium, disorientated, and with numerous problems – is not an easy partner. All in all, these seem like stories taken from life – or rather from the pages of glossy magazines.

Warlikowski directly points towards such an origin, presenting certain scenes according to the conventions of TV talk shows – complete with microphones and canned applause. In so doing, he does not implicate the characters themselves but rather what they endure throughout the performance: public curiosity, apparent empathy, and social judgement. However, this is also something less equivocal, as if placed within inverted commas – the sign of a certain distance, behind which there is no directorial intention to ‘reveal’. At the same time, Warlikowski portrays the characters and their petty dilemmas with a sensitivity and seriousness that appear to be unwarranted. This is something of a risk, although the scenes in which these traits were emphasised were those that I found to be particularly beautiful. Harper, lying at the foot of the bed, fawns over her husband’s hand as he lies with his lover. Prior dances as he embraces Louis. All of this takes place in a dream that ends abruptly, leaving the characters alone.

The scenes are beautiful but also convincing. In the Mormon visitors’ centre there is a row of kneeling mannequins, with Harper and Joe, Prior and Louis interspersed among them. In the recorded audio re-enactment that plays we hear the voice of a settler, which recalls a certain biblical image of God as a good, lenient father who cares for his children. The voice on the recording is Joe’s, and the ‘Mannequin Mother’ resembles Harper. This is also how Harper herself interprets the scene: she perceives this mythical-biblical constellation through her own world and disappointment – her ‘promised land’ is nothing other than a happy couple living in a Brooklyn flat. Harper had a ‘difficult childhood’, and now she is left by Joe – ‘the one part of the real world [she] wasn’t allergic to’. Her life lies in ruins, and everything else is now coming to an end as a result: Harper is the prophet of the coming apocalypse. Each individual delineates her or his whole world – its beginning and its end. These two scales – the minute and the vast – are interwoven in the character of Harper.

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From left to right: Louis (Jacek Poniedziałek), Joe (Maciej Stuhr), Harper (Maja Ostaszewska) and Prior (Tomasz Tyndyk) at the visitors’ centre. Photograph: Stefan Okołowicz.

In the performance, the question of the world’s future is posed openly, and directly to the audience from the lips of the World’s Oldest Living Bolshevik (Zygmunt Malanowicz), who demands a Theory, a System of Thought, and a Praxis for our times. In truth, this sounds more like a warning than an appeal for a straight answer. Nevertheless, in this context, the decision to portray the world from homosexual perspectives – and to a lesser degree, from women’s perspectives – takes on a political flavour, resounding with the conviction that it is only the perspectives that have previously been marginalised that can bring about an alternative order. Or, at least, there is a willingness to give them the floor. (In the visitors’ centre, Harper points out with grim satisfaction that all the members of the mannequin-family were given a voice, with the exception of the mother and daughter).

Roy (Andrzej Chyra) claims to be a heterosexual who happens to go to bed with guys, and who thus cannot have AIDS: ‘AIDS is what homosexuals have. I have liver cancer.’ While, in America, being homosexual does not necessarily result in condemnation, Roy’s protestations suggest that it nevertheless implies a social degradation. Labels appear to be crucial here, since the term ‘gay’ serves to deny access to some, where others go unhindered. Joe conceals his homosexuality from his wife, his mother, from the world, and from himself, considering it ‘wrong’, ‘ugly’, and something to be fought. Joe’s Mormon faith partly explains his attitude, since Mormons ‘don’t believe in homosexuals’. However, we could say that this does not only reflect the views of this particular religious community, as Catholics also do not ‘believe in’ homosexuals – or at least think that they should undergo corrective therapy. In Warlikowski’s production, ‘this country’ is not only America, it is Poland as well.

It is impossible to overlook certain shortcomings in Kushner's exploration of some controversial issues. On one hand, we have a situation in which the newest medication – AZT, which helps to combat AIDS – is made accessible to only thirty individuals selected for a medical trial. Using his connections, Roy is able to become the thirty-first patient; life has its price, which only the privileged can afford. Rotten America only cares for its lice – such are the overtones of Kushner’s play, even if he perhaps does not express it so emphatically. On the other hand, however, it is this same America that is able to host the medical research that today, years after the publication of the play, contributes to the survival of thousands of victims of AIDS. This is perhaps something of a crude counter-argument, but it is the level at which Kushner’s polemic operates. It is similar with the character of Ethel Rosenberg who, like Roy M. Cohn, is based on a historical figure. Sentenced to death for being a Soviet spy – in the play, Roy has a significant influence on the verdict – Rosenberg was regarded as one of the foremost victims of McCarthyism, right up to the mid-1990s. Today, further evidence has emerged, which – while it does not condone or justify her sentence – nevertheless gives the whole case a slightly different complexion, one that is not so comfortably leftist.

However, these issues appear within the margins of the play rather than in Warlikowski’s production. Kushner’s Gay Fantasia on National Themes is perfectly suited to development into a manifesto – but Warlikowski does not undertake this task. Direct allusions to the Polish context only rarely emerge in the performance, and if the director takes a stand for same-sex rights, it is only to the extent that gay people form a socially – and thus in some sense existentially – distinct minority. This constitutes much of the political character of the performance, which is Warlikowski’s most forcefully and explicitly journalistic piece. At the same time, Warlikowski – in a departure from Kushner – shifts the emphasis, so that homosexuality ceases to be only a social-moral issue. Although his claim that everyone is alone, and thus in a minority, may seem in this context to be convenient and relativising, on the other hand it is also appears to be legitimate. If Warlikowski depicts the world from the perspective of the minority, it is primarily that of the individual: her or his solitude, desire for love, lack of contact with others. We come back to Harper caressing her husband’s hand, and to Prior dancing with Louis...

In the performance, visions and ‘revelations’ are triggered where the carnal and the spiritual meet. During his fever, Prior’s erection augurs the appearance of the Angel (Magdalena Cielecka). Roy’s old victim Ethel (Danuta Stenka/Dorota Landowska) comes to him when he is under the influence of morphine. Harper sets out on a Valium-induced trip to the Antarctic under the guidance of Mr Lies (Rafał Maćkowiak). These scenes are not clearly demarcated from the rest in the performance, although they are accompanied by a specific ‘aura’. One exception is the captivating polar episode: falling snow, spacesuits, the amplified, reverberating voices of the actors, and a seeming mix of ‘Scottish/Chinese/lunar’ music. In the other scenes, the staging appears to be rather modest: a wide range of technical devices is employed (lighting, music, microphones, and transmitters, etc.) but they seem to fade inconspicuously into the background, tucked away behind the actors. Warlikowski’s performance is in fact a series of conversations that create a vast space where the word can resound, where situations can develop, and which foregrounds the characters and their lines of questioning. This is a serious challenge for the actors, who have to make the occasionally clumsy and shallow dialogue, which threatens to slide into the banal, resonate with the voices of a broader conversation taking place over their heads.

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Above: Harper (Maja Ostaszewska, centre) and Mr Lies (Rafał Maćkowiak, foreground), during Harper's Valium-induced trip. Photographs: Stefan Okołowicz.

Above: Harper (Maja Ostaszewska, centre) and Mr Lies (Rafał Maćkowiak, foreground), during Harper's Valium-induced trip. Photographs: Stefan Okołowicz.

We could say that what occurs here is a certain interchangeability. Just like in the scene in the visitors’ centre – where Harper’s small, private world is elevated to the universal – ‘significant’ issues are rooted in the trivial, daily lives of the characters. There is no God here – for ordinary, everyday reasons. God has abandoned us because of sickness (Prior), because of loneliness (Harper), because of excessive expectations (Louis), because of a lack of acceptance (Joe). These answers do not appear to match the scope of this theme, which, it seems, requires much deeper consideration and a broader perspective. Certainly, Kushner’s characters are from a different mould than those of Dostoevsky, for example – though they are thrown into the same void.

Prior is designated a prophet by the Angel, but, terrified, he rejects this ill-fitting role. The only thing he demands is that his partner return to him, at his deathbed. Similarly, Harper only wants everything to return to how it was – she is ready to settle for, as she puts it, ‘the pretence of happiness’. The Angel, as Hannah (Stanisława Celińska) explains, is faith, which can either succeed or fail in living up to our expectations. Prior feels let down, as do others, and rejects it. For Prior, the Mormon God – who feeds disobedient prophets to whales – is too dreadful, and is unacceptable to him. In abandoning Prior, Louis, who is Jewish, attempts to come up with a theory that would enable him to justify his decision. He imagines a Jewish God who does not know forgiveness, only guilt. Hannah and Roy are poles apart – the former believing with a determination that dispels all doubt, and the latter in a God that can be outmanoeuvred (just as he fools the spirit of Ethel shortly before his own death).

In Warlikowski’s production, it is difficult to tell whether God is not worthy of people, or whether people are not worthy of God. Following his ‘revelation’, Prior is styled to look like Christ: longhaired, with a headband that resembles a crown of thorns. (As Warlikowski elaborates, Prior ‘begins to identify himself more and more with Christ’.)[2] The contemporary Christ is sick and dying. Opposite him is the Angel, dressed as a nurse and walking with crutches. Finally, she leaves, carrying a dummy of a man/prophet/god. Does imperfect humanity receive the God that it deserves? Or perhaps it is God who is imperfect, and who created humanity in his own image? In any case, in Angels – as in Warlikowski’s production of The Dybbuk and even more so in his production of Krum – such crucial questions are hardly ever abstract: most often they are brought down to the practical level of everyday life. The characters’ deliberations originate from – and must attempt to cope with – concrete situations and personal disappointments. It is a somewhat scaled-down metaphysics because it remains down-to-earth, located within the bustle of everyday dilemmas, doubts, and experiences. Warlikowski does not judge, he does not seek to determine whether such a metaphysics is cut out for our time. Certainly, it is suited to the characters – ordinary people with ordinary needs, which, in fact, turn out to be excessive.

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Foreground: Prior (Tomasz Tyndyk) and the Angel (Magdalena Cielecka). Photograph: Stefan Okołowicz.

In one of the parallel scenes, Harper and Joe, and a half-naked Prior and Louis sit on a couch and chairs set at right angles. This scene is like many others in the performance, and yet it is somehow unique in its atmosphere and, above all, in its striking symmetry. The couples take it in turns to converse, glancing discretely and undemonstratively at each another during their moments of silence. They have seen each other before – Louis and Joe met in the office, Prior and Harper in a dream – and now they appear to listen in to one another with no great surprise or emotion. Prior clings to Louis, Harper embraces Joe. Slowly, but increasingly surely, Louis rejects Prior; Joe pushes Harper away. Both couples remain bound in an embrace, but already they are beginning to drift apart – like the two halves of the ‘perfect unity’ of which the hermaphroditic Angel spoke, and which must be separated. It is also a paradise lost: for Warlikowski’s characters, God’s presence is no more necessary than that of another human being.

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From left to right: Joe (Maciej Stuhr) and Harper (Maja Ostaszewska), and Prior (Tomasz Tyndyk) and Louis (Jacek Poniedziałek). Photograph: Stefan Okołowicz.

In Joe’s dream, any human who wrestles with the huge and powerful angel is doomed to fail. Immediately before his death, Roy raises his finger and cries out ‘Hold!’; we could contend that he has remained domineering right to the end, but not more so than God himself, who brings death. At the end of the performance, God, perceived through a prism of disease and misfortune, is openly accused of negligence – although this is somewhat tongue-in-cheek. In any case, the characters reject God only to the extent that God rejects them. In the scene at the visitors’ centre, the small group of the chosen people listen humbly on their knees to parables of the good Father, which sound like the words spoken by a biblical prophet – only played from a recorder. If God exists, he will neither hear, nor respond.

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Roy (Andrzej Chyra) and Ethel (Dorota Landowska). Photograph: Stefan Okołowicz.

Roy dies, Prior lives – feeding in part from Roy’s ‘carcass’, in the form of the AZT that he has ‘inherited’. There is an explicit declaration in the hand that has been dealt: a member of the old order dies, while a would-be prophet of the future survives. It is the final political chord of the performance, and it is a quiet one. Although the last scene offers a clear resolution in itself, it determines very little since there is very little to be determined here. At the level of the plot, there are reunions and break-ups: Harper leaves Joe for good, Prior takes Louis back – although only with certain reservations. Unlike Louis, Joe has not learned his lessons; thus, everyone gets what they deserve.

But the vital questions remain unanswered, the future of humanity and of the world remains unclear. These questions are suspended at a certain point – swept abruptly aside. This occurs in a very literal sense: it is as if the performance breaks off. The actors gather together on the stage, sitting in a line of armchairs opposite the first row of the audience. They face us and speak to us directly. They tell a story of a mythical spring with healing properties that dried up long ago, but which, it is said, will one day re-emerge for all to bathe in. For the time being, we must content ourselves with half-measures, as indicated by Louis’s and Ethel’s recital of the Kaddish over the body of Roy. Forgiveness, love, and care of each other.

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From left to right: Belize (Rafał Maćkowiak), Roy (Andzrej Chyra), Ethel (Dorota Landowska), Louis (Jacek Poniedziałek), the Angel (Magdalena Cielecka), and Prior (Tomasz Tyndyk). Photograph: Stefan Okołowicz.

We are faced with the search for a soothing explanation for tragic, historical events. There is talk of the ‘Great Work’ that awaits us all, of how wonderful we are... Clearly, there is something extremely naive in these declarations – which are devoid of any scepticism – and there is also a good deal of risk in addressing the spectators directly. And yet we cannot react with indignation. There is no manifesto, appeal to the audience, or even a message – it is rather a declaration of faith from the director. Faith in humanity. So unjustified, that it is almost religious.

Translated from Polish by Duncan Jamieson, Adela Karsznia, and Małgorzata Rogalińska. 

Notes

  1. ^ This is an edited and revised version of a text that was first published as ‘Wszyscy jesteśmy Chrystusami’ (We Are All Christs), Didaskalia, 77 (2007), 2-5.
  2. ^ Krzysztof Warlikowski, Théâtre Ecorché (Flayed Theatre), ed. by Piotr Gruszczyński, trans. by Marie-Therese Vido-Rzewuska (Arles: Actes-Sud, 2007), p. 180.

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