THE ANGELS OF WARSAW
Victory Gardens Theater
And so it was for millions, who turned from Luftmenschen into Luft.”–Andre Schwarz-Bart, in his Holocaust novel, The Last of the Just.
There’s a line missing from Marisha Chamberlain’s The Angels of Warsaw. It’s the line left out of a brief description of Nazi depredations against Poland’s capital city. A young American woman named Clare fails to speak it. She recalls how the Nazis blew up Warsaw’s streets and sewers, tore up her gas and phone lines, killed her women and children and horses. What Clare forgets to mention is how they exterminated Warsaw’s Jews.
An interesting omission. Of all the horrendous things that happened in Warsaw during World War II, the quarantine and annihilation of the city’s approximately 500,000 Jews was supremely horrendous. First they were walled in. Then they were starved. Then they were “evacuated” to extermination camps in groups of at least 6,000 souls a day. When they organized a resistance, the Polish partisans refused to help them. They chose to fight anyway, and held out until the Nazis demolished the ghetto itself with air attacks and artillery.
Turning nearly all of them to Luft. Certainly, if Warsaw has any angels at all, then 500,000 evanesced Jews must be among the angels of Warsaw.
So why does Clare leave them out of her litany? And why does Chamberlain leave them out of her play?
No, I don’t think it’s a question of anti-Semitism. Every word and line in The Angels of Warsaw bespeaks Chamberlain’s basic good-heartedness–her tender regard for victims and their sufferings, her indignation at bullies and their crimes. It would be hard to imagine her hating Jews. And equally hard to imagine Clare doing so, inasmuch as Clare pretty obviously represents Chamberlain’s point of view in the play.
I think Chamberlain ignores the Jews because recognizing them would create complications she can’t tolerate. I think she excludes them because their presence would introduce ambiguities with which her play’s fragile ethos can’t cope.
Angels, after all, is a work of hagiography. Inspired by the heroism of Father Jerzy Popieluszko–assassinated in 1984 for his work and words on behalf of Solidarity–it offers us Chamberlain’s loving vision of an activist priest (indeed named Jerzy), who endures his dark night of the soul on a train taking him from Paris to certain death in Jaruzelski’s Warsaw. Chamberlain’s Jerzy has his moments of panic and doubt. He makes wry comments about the Polish national character, considers taking a powder at the West Berlin station, and even makes a play for Clare. But these failings are to be understood as his Eli, Elis–the outcries of a man undergoing his reluctant yet inevitable rebirth as a national hero. As an embodiment of the martyred national spirit.
Jerzy’s essence is pure. His suffering is noble. He is Poland, and Poland is good.
There’s no room for Jews in such a pristine equation. Introduce the Jews and you have to start dealing with all kinds of queasy historical questions about Poles and priests, about communists and nationalists, about martyrs and executioners and genocide and guilt. About purity, nobility, and good. Pretty soon everything’s all smudged up. Messy. Uncertain. Father Jerzy’s beautiful suffering takes on a much more equivocal air, especially insofar as it’s meant to symbolize the beautiful sufferings of the Polish nation as a whole. Suddenly we’re back in the world of events, where the oppressed, turned ever so slightly, become oppressors. Where nothing’s quite as good, noble, or pure as we want it to be–especially among nations. Just look at what the children of Holocaust survivors are doing to the Palestinians, if you don’t believe me.
Clare’s omission isn’t the only thing wrong with this play. For all the allegorical significance they carry, the characters around Jerzy have precious little actually to do; and director Sandy Shinner’s attempts to move them around the railroad car turn out mighty awkward. Chamberlain’s dialogue tends toward a coy, portentous abstractness–I still have no idea what the much-discussed “All-Night Pizza” metaphor means–while her best dramatic idea, which is to put Jerzy in the same car as his eventual assassin, remains mostly unexplored. The onstage angel, furthermore, smacks heavily of Wings of Desire.
Kate Goehring projects a quiet passion as Clare; and Will Zahrn is amusingly, creepily amoral as the assassin. But Dennis Zacek exhibits none of the angry power he should have as Father Jerzy. The guy may not be a saint, but he’s got to show some kind of divine spark: it’s impossible to imagine this crumpled, rather irascible fellow getting his train trip in order much less carrying on a campaign of liberation against an authoritarian regime. Guy Mount just sort of bounces around, meanwhile, as an American fop with a heart of gold.
None of these shortcomings is as destructive, however, as the well-meaning lie at the heart of The Angels of Warsaw. The romantic lie, whose essential ugliness is demonstrated in the fact that it requires that the Jews, once again, be turned to Luft.