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The sword of Damocles and the mirror

A review of Protest, a play directed by Aldona Figura. Written by Václav Havel, staged by Teatr Dramaryczny in Warsaw, premiered February 2020.

February 3, 2021 - Anna Fedas - Books and ReviewsIssue 1-2 2021Magazine

What kind of dilemmas and challenges do civic and human rights activists face today? Where can independent minded people find understanding, consolation and relief? Who can put into words the experiences of public intellectuals, human and civil rights activists not being heard? How can they deal with the anger and envy of those who try to conceal their fear and cowardice behind a wall of judgement against the steadfast ideals of activism? Are individuals guided by values in their civic life destined to cause remorse in others? Finally, how can they preserve integrity in the age of opportunism? Thankfully, Václav Havel and his plays are here to help. One good example is Protest, recently staged at Teatr Dramatyczny (The Dramatic Theatre of the Capital City of Warsaw), directed by Aldona Figura, which I highly recommend to those who want to watch their own experience on the stage (once it will be possible again).


Those who are not so familiar with Havel as a playwright should know that theatre writing was his personal way in dealing with the political and social reality during communist Czechoslovakia. Aleksander Kaczorowski, a Havel biographer, has called it Havel’s specific type of auto-therapy. Havel wrote 25 plays, many of which were based on his personal experiences. Some of his plays were staged before they were censored. Writing and then presenting the political and social issues of Czechoslovakia was a perfect way for Havel, as a public intellectual, to take advantage of what he experienced not only with his contacts with authorities but with co-workers, other dissidents and friends.

Protest, directed by Figura, is based on three of Havel’s one-act plays: Audience, Vernissage and Protest – all three written in the 1970s. There are three different parts, contexts, characters and attitudes. Only one character, the main hero of the play called Ferdynand Waniek – not surprisingly identified with Havel himself, although it has been denied by him many times – remains in all three parts, treating his interlocutors with patience, calmness and composure.

The first scene takes us to a brewery, where we are observers of a workplace misunderstanding between an older, experienced foreman, representing the community of workers, and Waniek, a younger intellectual, forced by the authorities to work at the brewery as punishment. Although the older worker does not hide his sense of advantage over the younger one, he loses it pretty quickly when he realises that the younger one refuses – justifying it with his moral principles – to participate in the denunciation system. Angry at Ferdynand’s attitude, he argues that intellectuals are in a better situation compared to the workers because they can always put into words the experience of oppression and then take advantage of it. The foreman, as an ordinary worker, can only be left behind in this system. He is doomed to be forgotten: “One day you will go back to your actresses and show off how you rolled barrels in a brewery – you will be a hero. And me? Where can I go back? Who will notice me? Who will appreciate me?”

In his latest book, A People’s History of Poland, the Polish historian and journalist Adam Leszczyński writes about tensions between social classes in Poland. The intellectuals were in a more privileged position compared to unskilled workers, who were not supported by international organisations and had no opportunity to describe their experiences. To this day, public intellectuals seem to forget about this and tend to isolate themselves from the working class, a fact that populist politicians commonly refer to. Of course, such inequality does not morally justify the actions of the brewery’s foreman. He knows this perfectly well; it is for this reason that he reacts with anger. In order to solve the situation and ease the tension, he asks Waniek to invite a well-known actress to visit their workplace using his social connections – a resource unavailable to the working class, which only seems to highlight the dramatic effect of the scene.

Tragedy and protest

In the second scene, Waniek pays a visit to the flat of an affluent couple. The friends unsuccessfully try to impress their guest but instead make him feel envious. They show off by telling stories about foreign travel, presenting expensive furniture and serving extravagant appetisers (in a very exalted way; applause for Anna Gorajska – the actress playing the role of the wife). They boast about their happiness and lavish lifestyle. When it does not seem to make an impression on Waniek, the couple start getting angry – without his jealousy, their way of life and accumulated wealth brings them no pleasure. If this were not enough, they try to force Waniek to admit that his life, marriage, work and civic involvement do not satisfy him and he would secretly dream of leading a life according to their model. When nothing comes out of it, the couple continue to feel enraged. In line with William B. Irvine’s concept, this scene perfectly reflects the “hedonistic treadmill” – in a consumerist society, it is easy to lose oneself in an unceasing chase for fulfilment, satisfaction and jealousy of the people whom one calls friends. What Havel portrayed in the second act is the tragedy of the wealthy middle class.

The third scene is an unusual dialogue between Waniek and his colleague – also a writer who has been named a dissident despite maintaining various arrangements with the authorities. Waniek, in an extremely cultured way, asks his interlocutor to sign a letter of protest against a detained oppositionist. His colleague, rather nervously, presents a long argument to why he cannot sign and ultimately does not. In what appears to be an incompetent attempt to camouflage his opportunism, the writer discloses a broader settlement among the intellectuals themselves. What is more, the frustrated writer begins to attack the main character, undermining the meaning and the chosen ways of his activism.

The third scene is reminiscent of a contemporary discussion among Polish activists and pundits which took place in August 2020 after the arrest of Margot, a non-binary LGBT+ activist. There were many official comments from people who were angry with Margot for not saying or doing what they thought should be done. An activist was cast in their script; and they did not want to acknowledge that Margot was entitled to their own script. Many commentators and politicians, including those on the opposition, were outraged at the vulgar slogans in protest against the ruling of the Constitutional Tribunal in Poland. They did not want to recognise the right of the protesters to their own expression.

Natalia Sarata from the RegenerAction (Polish name: RegenerAkcja) Foundation, which has been supporting the burnt-out activists and observing their struggle for many years, comments on this tendency to review the activities and statements of civic activists: “Every activity is reviewed. Sometimes the review is silent, when most people do not want to listen or see a problem. When measures are non-standard and a person starts to be treated as a representative of a group, the activity will always be reviewed with great intensity. Especially if this group is a minority and has not yet been heard by the mainstream with due attention. Silent and polite ‘reviews’ are the so-called ‘tone policing’ used by majority groups and people in privileged positions towards people from minorities. It means ‘we will listen to you, if you are politer, you will speak as we want, you will act nicer, quieter’ – cutting to the needs of people who, in any case, have never been ready to listen before … Anger is an obvious activist tool. The current women’s protests are a powerful demonstration of this.”

Tomasz Markiewka, a philosopher and columnist, also wrote about social and activist anger in Gniew (Anger). In his book, he quotes Martin Luther King Jr, who has faced voices of criticism for his activities by the so-called “moderate whites”: “They seem to support the rights of the blacks, King complains, but they are constantly disgusted that they are fighting for themselves? Too loudly, too insistently, too aggressively.”

A look into the mirror

In order to understand why someone arouses our anger, momentary reflection is required. It is remarkable that the more reflection we have, the more we can see. This problem was already outlined by Carl Jung with his shadow theory. We see ourselves through the relationships we have with others, it is thanks to them that we are able to determine what we are running away from, what we are attracted to, what pushes us away, what fascinates us, and what we know about ourselves. As Jung outlined: there is our dark side and our bright side. The dark side, the parts we do not like about ourselves, is sometimes hidden from us and if it was not for the phenomenon of projection, we would never know about it. When we project onto others, we have a chance to get to know ourselves.

From this perspective, it is unsurprising that the stoic attitude of the main character evokes a mixture of strong and unobvious emotions in the other characters – from a sense of superiority, through anger, hatred, aggression, to sadness, shame, loneliness and resignation. What causes such a roller coaster of emotions? The other characters look through Waniek – a writer, a dissident, and an activist – like a mirror. Each of them discovers something uncomfortable, so they discard them with feelings of shame and guilt. They try to quickly blame Waniek, who remains untouched, unbroken, unshakeable. And he rejects this blame. That is why we observe this anger and aggression against the main character. It is as if the Jungian shadow was activated and so the result is a battle against his consciences – a struggle for his own humanity.

In the end, each of Waniek’s interlocutors realises that they are unable to pass the blame on to him. They cannot change him, they can only change themselves, but seem unable. They recognise the nonsense and hopelessness in which they are stuck. They return to the initial position of being moderately warm, cordial and polite to the main character. However, the emotions and strong words that have been expressed are in the air and remain hanging like the sword of Damocles. They can reverberate at any time; the problem remains unsolved.

Audience, Vernissage and Protest were first staged in Poland by the Zygmunt Hübner Powszechny Theatre in November 1981 and directed by Felix Falk. It was a revolutionary decision. In the Polish People’s Republic, this was the truth at the apogee of the Solidarity carnival, a performance that spoke outright about the repression of the opposition and its closure. A few weeks later, martial law was introduced and the performance ceased. Havel’s plays returned to Polish theatres in 1989, but with just two of the one-act plays (without Vernissage).

The past year has brought about some historical milestones which have included some difficult dilemmas for us to reflect upon. Thankfully Havel’s plays are still an inspiration for all those trying to understand these dilemmas accurately.

Anna Fedas is a human rights activist, member of the Equal Treatment Council in Gdańsk, and a co-ordinator of international relations at the Stefan Batory Foundation.

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