Students on the Drama of Divine Love

In May 2015, Benedictine College’s Theatre Deparment performed a play directed by senior Gregorian Fellow Will Wright. Rather than choosing a light-hearted play that was easy to perfrom, Wright chose a profound play that explored the philosophy of love itself – Karol Wojtyla’s The Jeweler’s Shop, written and originally performed in occupied Poland before Wojtyla became John Paul II.

Because of the occupation and the Nazi laws against the arts, the play was performed in underground theatre – in secret, at audience members’ homes, with no stage or props of any kind. To impress the original danger on his audience, Wright decided to perfrom The Jeweler’s Shop within another layer of theatre.  Performances were at random places across the college campus and even in the city of Atchison itself, no posters were made, and no tickets were sold. There were Nazi interruptions throughout the play. And the audience loved it so much that an additional, unplanned performance had to be done.

Wright, the director, and actress Sydney Giefer, also a Gregorian Fellow, answered some questions on the play and their experience with it. The original article can be read here, and the interview is below.

What does The Jeweler’s Shop say about human and divine love?

Giefer: What a weighty question! Even after the extensive rehearsal process and several readings of the script, I cannot begin to tell you all that it has to say about human and divine love. The script is something which can certainly be taken to adoration and, upon each reading, offer something new. Currently, the largest take-away I have is in regards to what Pope Benedict calls the “interconnectedness of Being”: how we live in and through those who are present in our lives, and every action is not extraneous from us or those we love. We are not “solitary islands”. Particularly in regards to the storyline of which I took part, my character Teresa realizes profoundly in her own experience that she was not created to be alone, but desires true, deep friendship and love: an “alter-ego.”

One of my personal favorite lines from my character is in the first act: “The disproportion between a man’s wish for happiness and his potential is unavoidable.” I look at this in regards to divine love – a finite being with the desire for the infinite is unattainable without divine aid. There will always be an infinite longing that none can fill but the Lord.

Also, another favorite line which relates to your  question:

“Sometimes human existence seems too short for love. At other times it is, however, the other way around: human love seems too short in relation to existence – or rather, too trivial. At any rate, every person has at his disposal an existence and a Love. The problem is: How to build a sensible structure from it? But this structure must never be inward-looking. It must be open in such a way that on the one hand it embraces other people, while on the other hand, it always reflects the absolute Existence and Love; it must always, in some way, reflect them.”

Wright: Human love is imperfect, as is human life. Teresa and Andrew’s relationship is the closest that any of the couples get to divine love. They love one another deeply and profoundly, and they have a child together. However, Andrew’s death (spoiler alert!) cuts this beautiful relationship short, even though Teresa is still able to let his memory and love for him stay in her.

Divine love is what we are all striving towards, even if we do not know it. The character of Anna is unhappy with her disinterested husband and is helped by the mysterious character of Adam. He asks her if she is afraid of love. She answers yes. We may be striving for the love of God, but we are afraid of it. We are afraid of the love that he show us.

Can you describe the approach you took when you decided you wanted to do The Jeweler’s Shop?

Giefer: Will chose to direct this show as a piece of underground theatre in order to recreate, as closely as possible, what Karol Wojtyla and the Rhapsodic Theatre achieved in 1940s Poland during the Nazi occupation. Theatre was both illegal and dangerous, but Wojtyla and his fellow actors sought to bring beauty and hope to a captive nation. During the rehearsal process, we practiced in various locations throughout campus, including an apartment, my dorm room, the abbey crypt, and the Legacy classroom, just to name a few. Every afternoon Will would text us the time and location of that night’s rehearsal. He encouraged each of the actors to take on a Polish alter-ego and fully immerse ourselves in the process. We advertised through word of mouth (and a little Facebook) the times and locations of each show, including two different houses, the abbey crypt, and the attic of one of the residence halls. We also added intrusions of the Nazi police to the script in order to further draw the audience into this experience with us.

Wright: I think that entertainment value had a lot do with the way that we ended up producing the show. By itself, the play is hard to listen and remain engaged to. The language can be beautiful and poetic, but hard to understand without reading it. In addition, the monologues can get very long. I knew that I had to spice it up and so I suggested the idea to our Theatre Chair and he said to roll with it. And roll we did. Holding it in “underground” locations and simulating a sort of Nazi interruption captivated audiences and took them to a world that was not their own. Mission accomplished.

What did the experience teach you about underground theatre?

Giefer: Underground theatre is something unlike anything I have ever experienced before. It smashes the fourth wall between the actors and the audience so much that both become integral players in the story.

I studied Polish Theatre for about a week in my Russian and Eastern European Theatre History course last semester. One of the tenets of the Polish style is emphasis on the words and the communion between actors and listeners alike. It was incredible to be able to study this and then turn around and experience it through the performance of The Jeweler’s Shop.

The underground theatre provides and intimacy with the audience that is unachievable on stage, particularly in that it strips the show of costumes, props and any element of spectacle, and the audience surrounds the actors even to the point of sitting at their feet. The emphasis on the language demands that the audience members use their imagination to see the unfolding of the story, and, through this device, they become active players in the performance. They are affected and moved in indescribable ways, and, because the fourth wall is so utterly nonexistent, the invitation to relate to the characters is far more powerful for both the audience and the actors alike. Never before have I seen people so moved by a performance, or been so moved myself.

Wright: It’s a risk worth taking. Theatre might not be the first thing that people think of when forced into hiding or controlled by harsh curfews etc. But bringing beauty and truth to an oppressed population is something that is worth fighting and possibly dying for.

What’s a funny story about something that happened during rehearsals or production?

Wright: Just the sheer number of people that attended blew us away. On the first night we had no idea what to expect. There were no tickets or reserved seats, so we were just hoping that there would be more than five people. We ended up filling the house, so much so that our actors were barely able to navigate their way to the stage!

The Gregorian Institute is Benedictine College’s initiative to promote Catholic identity in public life by equipping leaders (the Gregorian speech digest), training leaders (the Gregorian Fellows), defending the faith (the Memorare Army for Religious Freedom), and celebrating Catholic identity (the Catholic Hall of Fame).

Tom Hoopes

Tom Hoopes

Tom Hoopes, author of The Rosary of Saint John Paul II and The Fatima Family Handbook, is writer in residence at Benedictine College in Kansas and hosts The Extraordinary Story podcast about the life of Christ. A former reporter in the Washington, D.C., area, he served as press secretary of the U.S. House Ways & Means Committee Chairman and spent 10 years as executive editor of the National Catholic Register newspaper and Faith & Family magazine. His work frequently appears in Catholic publications such as Aleteia.org and the Register. He and his wife, April, have nine children and live in Atchison, Kansas.