When a group of Polish students founded the Theatre of the Eighth Day in 1964, they weren’t seeking careers. They wanted everything the Communists had taken away: brotherhood, discovery, freedom, truth. They chose their name from a poem by Konstanty Ildefons Galczynski: “On the seventh day, the Lord God rested, and on the eighth, He created theater.”
In the decades that followed, these artists launched a vital alternative-theater movement (influenced by Jerzy Grotowski, among others) and led political opposition to the Communist state. Eighth Day mounted symbolically charged and highly physical performances with titles like We Have to Confine Ourselves to What Has Been Called Paradise on Earth . . . ?!. The regime responded by denying them jobs and passports; the secret police planted informers in their meetings and rehearsals; and under 1980s martial law, the government banned their performances outright. But the ensemble persisted, performing in churches and relying on what they describe as the delirious “inner freedom” of dissidence. Eventually—astonishingly—they emerged from that dismal era on the right side of history.
The Files—part of the “Made in Poland” festival at 59E59 Theaters—chronicles this group’s transformation from university players to serious enemies of the regime as they face surveillance, blacklisting, and arrests. Seated in front of music stands, four original company members read out loud from their own recently unsealed security files, speaking precisely but ruminatively—an act far more theatrically compelling than it might sound. Occasionally, they rise to act out a scene from one of the productions under official scrutiny. Behind them, grainy video footage of performances and protests illustrates the subject.
The results are neither didactic nor somber. Literary translator Bill Johnston has rendered the blunt reports of spies and bureaucrats—which sometimes detail impassioned late-night discussions and vodka-fueled parties—into cadenced, rhythmically evocative English. If anything, the measured tones and gentle voices of these performers, now gracefully aging, turn artifacts of dreadful suppression into something beautiful. And that is a revenge to savor.
If The Files is moving, it can also be cerebral. The piece is certainly not for everyone: Despite some lighter moments and wavering attempts to give context for American audiences, it’s helpful to know something about Poland’s last century. But to me, it’s a small miracle to sit face-to-face with actors who made history by risking everything to tell the truth—today, having won, they look a lot like truth’s living embodiment.
This article from the Village Voice Archive was posted on November 5, 2008