Do we have a Josef Szajna?

August 24, 2016 § Leave a comment

The period of five years from  1981 –86 I spent in Poland , as a Visiting Professor at Warsaw University was one of the most fruitful years in my career a ans academician and a writer. This period coincided with the Martial Law regime that came into force, a month after my arrival in Warsaw. It was because for the first time in the communist history of political rule, the Proletariat rose in revolt against the Establishment in active collaboration with the intellectuals.

So, naturally, all the  artistic activities including theatre that gave the slightest semblance of protest against the rulers were prohibited. But, what distinguished Poland from the other communist countries in the Eastern Europe  was that the Polish  Government was well-aware that these activities were  taking place clandestinely in the Churches and Universities.

Business was as usual for the famous Polish directors, like Grotowaski,Kantor,Swinarski, Szajna and Waijda.  One of my students took me to see a play that took place in a church.

It was a play on a poet of the past ,portrayed through his own works as interpreted by the Director. This needed versatility of the highest order.

Josef Szaina ( pronounced as ‘Shayna’) one of the most talented  directorss of Poland, presented ‘Cervantes’, the author of ‘Don Quixote’, which is considered as the first novel written in any global language. It was in a way the quintessence of the Spanish writer’s work, sort of portrayal , loaded with subtle political meanings that drew spontaneous applause from the intelligent viewers.

That picture of the poet, waging an endless but unsuccessful war against consumer- oriented, complacent society may be a valid theme  in contemporary India .For, Cervantes protested against the physical reality, characterized by obscurantism, servility, hypocrisy, grossness, violence and betrayal.

Cerv antes’s private universe was in  total  contradiction to the one he lived in his pursuit of chimarcial  ideal showing him thus as an odd man out. His eternal battle was against artistic insensibility, and though his quixotism suffered defeat he went on and on without giving up.

Characters in Cervantes’s life and from his novel Don Quixote, were grated into the play, and they constituted the anonymous compo sition on the stage. There was the knight and the squire, lady love mother,step-father,wife, daughter,monk, grave-digger, beggar and the shepherd. . They were all symbols relevant to every period. Szajna absorbed many things from the poems of Cervantes and translated them to theatrical idiom.As in all Szajna’s works, the visuals were the bottomline of the production  and the spoken word was reduced to the barest minimum.

In the play, a platform projected into the auditorium. A gigantic puppet with a Death’s head ,hung at the rear end of the platform, suspended from the balcony. For eyes, the puppet had illuminated lamps .Its arms were made of chains, and its ladder-torso had a television set lodged in the belly. It could represent anything one could think of , god, death, destiny, technological explosion, that very well could be the end of the world. As one who had lived through Ausctwitcz, Szajna knew what suffering meant and what it was to blot out millions  in the name of ethnic cleansing.

The play began with Cervantrs’s mother sitting at the feet of the giant puppet, and introducing her son as one ‘who writes about things that hurt us’.

The lights then went up ,showing a hall where books were burnt, announcing consumerism,the windmills were represented by ladders, with the knight Cervantes , stretched on them, as in a cross. The play was full of metaphorical images. The knight entangled in a spider’s web meant a man caught within a system from which there was no exit.

Likewise, ladders falling on men, interpreted as progressive philistinism destroying the society. The knight appearing for self-judgment before the huge puppet was a fitting finale! He opened the refrigerator and out flew live doves as harbingers of peace and harmony. Still some hope for man!

When I saw this play in 1983,  the picture of Mahakavi Bharati stood before my

mind’s eye.  He, too, was a rebel with a cause as Cervantes was. If one were to go through all his works, prose and poetry and all the literary genres he experimented with, one can find striking similarities between these two creative geniuses in regard to their political, social and spiritual values. As such, I felt at that time that Bharati can be brought back alive on the stage, not on the  basis of umpteen stale and weary biographies written about him by mediocre authors but on the foundation of his own works,  as Szajna had created Cervantes as a theatrical experience.

But do we have a Josef Szajna?




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