Cancelled Polish adaptation of Kafka play in New York raises questions over censorship from Warsaw 

Cancelled Polish adaptation of Kafka play in New York raises questions over censorship from Warsaw 

15 January 2020
Image: Magda Hueckel

In twists and turns worthy of the book itself, the New York-based Skirball Center for the Performing Arts announced earlier this week that it is cancelling a production of Polish theatre director Krystian Lupa’s theatrical adaptation of Franz Kafka’s novel The Trial, which was billed to be performed in March 2020 as part of the theatre’s Winter/Spring 2020 season.

In a statement issued on Monday, NYU Skirball cited the withdrawal of funding by the Adam Mickiewicz Institute (IAM) — the international exchange programme of the Polish culture ministry — as the reason for the cancellation. In a statement issued on Tuesday, the IAM denied these claims, saying that they were never officially asked to finance the production and that the IAM “did not withdraw the grant for Lupa, because it never awarded it”.

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In the book The Trial, the reader follows the story of Josef K., who is arrested and persecuted for an unknown crime by an unrevealed and omnipresent authority. With both the reader and Josef K. himself left in the dark as to the reasons for the character’s arrest, the book is often read as a dystopian novel critiquing authoritarian regimes and their murky legal proceedings.

“Do you know the first line of The Trial?” Jay Wegman, the executive director of NYU Skirball, asked The Calvert Journal in an interview yesterday. “It reads something like ‘Someone must have been spreading lies about Josef K, for without having done anything wrong…’” referring to his own situation vis-a-vie the IAM’s official statement.

According to Wegman, the IAM had promised $50,000 to support the production of The Trial at the Skirball. The statement issued by the IAM reads that “at no point did anyone from the Skirball approach IAM with an official ask for financial support”. While Wegman confirms that no contract was ever signed, he cites multiple visits by the IAM team and numerous conversations with both current and recent IAM staff in which funding was verbally promised. According to Wegman, he began conversations about potential funding with the IAM in December 2018. But in a statement, the IAM claims that it did not find out about the US production until November 2019, when the Skirball’s Winter/Spring 2020 season was publicly announced.

Krystian Lupa, the Polish theatre director, stage designer, and playwright behind The Trial, is one of the most prominent voices in the Polish theatre scene and is himself no stranger to controversy. The Trial is no exception. Inspired by the revolutionary theatrical performances of the Polish theatre director and artist Tadeusz Kantor (1915-1990), Lupa’s provocative and bold productions — which have also included theatrical adaptations of novels by Thomas Bernard and Herman Broch, among others — are known for their psychological intensity and impressive durations.

Lupa first began working on his theatrical adaptation of The Trial, which is five hours long, in 2016. Initially intended for the Teatr Polski in Wroclaw, Lupa cut his ties with that theatre following a leadership change, citing the appointment of a new, conservative director, Cezary Morawski, as the reason for his departure.

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Lupa’s theatrical adaptation of The Trial, like Kafka’s original text, takes place in an unspecified place and time, but there are scenes which explicitly bring the present day into the production.

At one point, the character of Max Brod, Kafka’s friend and later biographer, flips through a book with the title “Year 2017” and discusses a general strike and a man setting himself on fire in a central square. Both of these elements refer to events in Poland: the general women’s strike on International Women’s Day on 8 March 2017; and Piotr Szczesny, the man who set himself on fire in an anti-government protest on the square in front of Warsaw’s Palace of Culture and Science in October 2017.

The thinly veiled commentary about contemporary Poland is most prominent in the play’s middle section, which strays from the book completely, focusing on Kafka’s own personal relationships with his fiancee Felice Bauer and Brod. In this same section, Brod says: “It’s time for this country to seek medical help.” Lupa’s contemporary additions only strengthen the anti-totalitarian narrative of Kafka’s novel, which critiques and parodies a situation in which a government has total control over every aspect of daily life.

Following a hiatus, Lupa resumed work on the play in Warsaw, where it premiered at Nowy Teatr in November 2017 with the support of three other major Warsaw theatres, including TR Warszawa, Teatr Powszechny, and Teatr Studio. A spokesperson for Nowy Teatr wrote in a statement to The Calvert Journal: “Since Nowy Teatr didn’t take part in any negotiations or correspondence between the Adam Mickiewicz Institute and Skirball concerning a possible grant to support the presentation of The Trial, it is difficult for us to have a clear view of the situation.” Meanwhile, the IAM’s statement says that it itself was not present in the negotiations between Nowy Teatr and NYU Skirball.

While the sequence of events and facts are contested between all parties involved, what is clear is that the NYC production of The Trial will not take place. For his part, Lupa does not shy away from blaming the recent events on the incumbent right-wing Law and Justice party (PiS). In a statement obtained by The Calvert Journal, Lupa wrote: “The declaration of Piotr Glinski, Poland’s Minister of Culture and National Heritage, is clear: artists who do not sympathise with the current leadership’s cultural policy, who criticise its values, decisions, and actions, will be treated as enemies of Poland and will not be supported by the Ministry of Culture and National Heritage in any form, neither in projects realised in Poland, nor in foreign presentation of their works. The Ministry’s evident intention is to create a new elite of Polish artists sympathetic to the current leadership.”

Wegman seconds Lupa’s interpretation of events: “This situation is political, I have absolutely no doubt,” he told The Calvert Journal. “No one in Poland is going on the record with a faithful account of events because everyone is scared of losing funding in the future.” For his part, Wegman is determined to bring Lupa’s work to New York audiences in one way or another. He revealed to The Calvert Journal that he is already in talks with the Lithuanian National Drama Theater to bring Lupa’s version of Thomas Bernard’s Heldenplatz to the Skirball for its 2021 season. “If you cut off our funding in one way, we will find another way to bring the artist’s works to our audiences.”

In the meantime, NYU Skirball has announced that it will be joining with the Public Theater, New York Theatre Workshop, PEN America, and CUNY’s Segal Center to present a marathon reading of The Trial on 8 March 2020. The reading will be preceded by a conversation with Lupa about global censorship and persecution in the arts.

The IAM did not respond to a request for comment for this story.

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