Unspeakable stories: how Jolanta Janiczak became Polish theatre’s feminist conscience

This is our Poland

24 July 2021
Top Image: Dawid Stube
Read more Tracing the trailblazing lives of Poland’s first feminist activists

Since late 2020, Polish culture portals have liked to imagine Jolanta Janiczak as a seer. For years, her interviewers enthuse, she has written on topics which now have all of Poland in an uproar. With her experimental portrayals of women wronged by history — whether maligned empresses or the last European to be burnt as a witch — Janiczak appears to have foreseen not just the #MeToo movement, but Poland’s own renewed struggles over women’s self-determination.

The country’s latest wave of women’s protests, which followed the tightening of Polish abortion laws last October, may have come and gone, crushed by a mixture of police force and Covid-19 curbs on mass gatherings. But amid the simmering resentment, activists and artists are repudiating old taboos, and long-repressed narratives — whether personal or artistic — are increasingly finding a mainstream audience.

A prolific playwright tackling sexual violence, the aftermath of trauma, and the erasure of marginalised voices from the historical record, Janiczak would appear to be the patron saint for this women’s uprising. Yet while she readily describes herself as a feminist, she says there is nothing programmatic or premeditated about her choice of subject matter. “My interest in women’s issues came naturally,” she tells me. “Perhaps it was simply a function of my gender: I wanted to write on topics which affect and engage me.”

Performers during The Empress Catherine. Image: Michał Walczak

“There are a lot of horrific testimonies from women living in small towns, those lacking formal education and financial security”

Janiczak talks of an early play she wrote soon after graduating from Kraków’s Jagiellonian University. (She’d tried out for acting school, she recalls, but feared that an acting career would force her to shelve her storytelling ambitions. In the end, she chose psychology.) Her piece explored the fate of history’s great “muses” — Camille Claudel, Sylvia Plath, Zelda Fitzgerald — and the ways in which their creative contributions were erased or appropriated by their partners.

Janiczak herself has had far better luck. She and her husband Wiktor Rubin are often billed as Polish theatre’s most dynamic duo, with Rubin directing most of Janiczak’s work since they met at university.

Janiczak’s theatrical breakthrough came in 2011, with her play on the 16th-century Castilian queen Joan the Mad. Locked away for most of her reign due to purported mental instability, Joan was rumoured to be in denial over her husband’s death, opening his casket to kiss and embrace him. The claims of her madness, however, are disputed, and some historians call her a pawn in the political games of power-hungry relatives.

Performers during No One Will Believe Me Anyway. Image: Dawid Stube

“Joan’s story was the first that really gripped me,” Janiczak says. “The play portrays a woman’s quest for self-expression and the emancipatory potential of her supposed madness. I’m fascinated by characters who grapple with hopeless situations and hold on to the strength of their convictions, even when these lay them open to ridicule.”

Two years after Joan, the playwright took on another famed female ruler, one less obviously tragic but perhaps even more misunderstood. She describes The Empress Catherine, an account of Catherine the Great’s rise to notoriety, as an attempt to counterbalance the “myriad” male narratives painting Catherine as a sex-crazed, ruthless schemer.

“Catherine has been described by hundreds of historians,” Janiczak says. “Unfortunately, much of this writing borders on pornography, or shows her as this Machiavellian figure. She’s condemned as a textbook example of callous, capricious rule.”

“Similarly, assaulted women may recall nothing but a smell, somebody’s fingernails, perhaps one eye … but repress their memories of faces, of various details that the court system deems crucial”

“In fact, Catherine was only 17 when she was dragged from Prussia to Petersburg to marry the Russian heir apparent,” the playwright says. “It was a complicated journey from that to any sense of self-determination. That background could not fail to shape her ethics.”

The Empress Catherine shows a young woman forced to harness her body and her sexuality to win over her royal consort and then to make a bid for political independence. Janiczak says that she sought to portray Catherine’s struggles without judgment or blame, instead analysing the circumstances which drove her to put her “dignity, integrity, and pride” on the line.

“It’s easy to paint her as someone who achieved her goals by underhand, “unworthy” means,” Janiczak explains. “In 19th-century parlance, she sold herself. Throughout the play, she wrestles with these external judgments, reflecting on whose record of her life will be definitive. My story about Catherine’s bid for sovereignty also shows her vying for narrative power – now, she’s going to define the terms, tell things as they happened, use others to advance her story. One pertinent question, of course, is who gets to write down a story and then pass it down.”

Performers during The Empress Catherine. Image: Michał Walczak

Read more Girls to the Front is the feminist collective making resistance about more than just protest

In this sense, the playwright likens written history to a coffin. She insists on a distinction between recorded facts, frozen in time, flattening reality to “ideas, heroic deeds and monuments”, and “events”, encompassing the breadth of human emotions and fleeting inner states. She also makes a public-service case for her interrogations of the past.

“We can’t allow our history to ossify around us,” she argues. “That’s a sure fire way to build a complacent, conservative world where the same injustices are repeated again and again. Unless and until we have more gender balance in our historical narratives, we won’t be able to treat women in an equal, fair, and dignified way.”

Questions around “authoritative” narratives — what makes one, in whose eyes, and to whose detriment — have also driven Janiczak’s experiments with language. She speaks of her suspicion towards straightforward, demonstrably “rational” accounts, especially when applied to trauma and marginalisation. The language of her plays attempts to push back against such narrow ideas of reliability and rationality in storytelling. Instead, she strives to convey her characters’ fragmentary perceptions and memories of trauma. “Those caught up in war often don’t remember how they came to lose a limb,” she says. “Similarly, assaulted women may recall nothing but a smell, somebody’s fingernails, perhaps one eye … but repress their memories of faces, of various details that the court system deems crucial.” She refers to their harrowing narratives as “unspeakable stories”.

Performers during No One Will Believe Me Anyway. Image: Karolina Jóźwiak

“I think of feminism as an attentiveness to marginalised voices and perspectives”

The inspiration for these onstage tales is often taken from online forums where abuse victims share their very real experiences. Most unspeakable of all, Janiczak argues, are the stories of lower-class women, such as Barbara Zdunk, the heroine of her play No One Will Believe Me Anyway, or women with learning disabilities. “There are a lot of horrific testimonies from women living in small towns, those lacking formal education and financial security,” Janiczak says. “What strikes me is how many of them portray their abuse as normal. Some of them say they’re unsure what it is they’re feeling, or whether their emotions are appropriate to their situation. One woman told a reporter that she never spoke out as she was never asked. Others were never asked the right questions, questions which wouldn’t instantly brand them as responsible.”

Janiczak is no lofty academic observer: having grown up in a village in Poland’s Tatra mountains, she’s well-equipped to understand the shame and social pressures that women in small communities contend with. She hopes that her future work might draw more freely on this experience. Having made her name by defending history’s tragic queens, she would now like to train her lens on rural and working-class women — those whose stories appear the hardest to tell, and which perhaps most need telling.

Her latest play to premiere on the Polish stage might mark a half-way point on that journey, dealing with a privileged yet uniquely vulnerable historical figure. The Curse of the Kennedys, once again directed by Rubin, looks at the fate of Rosemary Kennedy, JFK’s all but forgotten sister. In Janiczak and Rubin’s telling, Rosemary is the outsider in a family of dashing overachievers. Committed to an institution due to her troubled mental state (although, as with Joan the Mad, it is unclear whether she ever suffered from genuine illness) Rosemary withers away in secret, even as mysterious misfortunes start to mar the Kennedy mystique.

I ask Janiczak about her experience of being a non-Western writer taking on some of America’s greatest icons. Might American claims to cultural universalism mirror the rigid male narratives she has been grappling with? The playwright, who was once a US green card holder, is surprisingly sanguine.

“Americans are increasingly open to outside perspectives on their history,” she says, citing her cross-country travels and theatre festival visits. “On the other hand, the US — with its murderously fast, ruthless incarnation of capitalism — is a country for people who are quick to act, resourceful, able-bodied, and primed for constant competition. The Curse depicts a kind of American aristocracy; a well-heeled family whose children, besides Rosemary, fit that mould.”

Jolanta Janiczak. Image courtesy of the artist
Performers during Curse of the Kennedys. Image: Magda Hueckel
Jolanta Janiczak. Image courtesy of the artist

She speaks of her continuing engagement with American culture as a source of reflection, just as much as her experiences in Poland. “I can’t stop thinking about Lisa Montgomery,” she tells me. Montgomery, sentenced to death for her gruesome murder of a pregnant woman in 2004, became the first female inmate in nearly 70 years to be executed by the US federal government. Defence lawyers drew attention to her childhood of violence and abuse — a “lifetime of torture” which allegedly resulted in profound mental illness. “It’s the worst story there could possibly be,” Janiczak says.

Unlike the courts, she says, feminist theatre should not condone or condemn, but seek to understand. “I think of feminism as an attentiveness to marginalised voices and perspectives,” she says. “At its best, it is a sensibility which restrains judgment. It’s about viewing the world — including all in it that seems shocking or shameful — through a gentler, more tender lens, without rushing to conclusions.”

She hopes that her work on “unspeakable” stories might contribute to a shifting of the debate around gendered violence in Poland. She’s been picking away at language’s rigidities, she says, out of desire to give truer expression to women’s traumas.

Why do that, and why move to portray the most vulnerable in particular? “So that we may one day reach those who need help,” Janiczak says. “Even in places which may seem completely out of reach.”

Read more

Unspeakable stories: how Jolanta Janiczak became Polish theatre's feminist conscience

Lesbian postcards from the future: the artists sending back messages from Poland’s radical queer tomorrow

Unspeakable stories: how Jolanta Janiczak became Polish theatre's feminist conscience

Girls to the Front is the feminist collective making resistance about more than just protest