“Rhapsodic theater” – how to suit action to word

In 1961 Karol Wojtyla wrote The Jeweler’s Shop; he was Archbishop of Krakow, but he continued to take an interest in theater and in creative expression of important issues, especially human love. We know from his book Crossing the Threshold of Hope that he always showed a profound respect for human love —  “As a young priest I learned to love human love. … If one loves human love, there naturally arises the need to commit oneself completely to the service of ‘fair love,’ because love is fair; it is beautiful. After all, young people are always searching for the beauty in love.” Weigel reports that John Paul II wrote the Jeweler’s Shop from his memory of friends and their relationships. So writing the play in 1961 is consistent with his office as Bishop.

But it is consistent in a more profound way with his life as a whole. If we reach back nine years to 1952 we find the priest, Father Karol Wojtyla writing a review of a performance of Shakespeare in the style of the Rhapsodic Theater. And of course, ten years previous to that Wojtyla was present at the founding of the Rhapsodic Theater, as a gesture of underground resistance to Nazi occupation, as the Polish nationals preserved their  cultural identity through this medium. So what is the “Rhapsodic theater”? It is fascinating to read his understanding of the Theater of the Word” in this essay of 1952 (See his work on Theater of the Word here)

Wojtyla contrasts Rhapsodic Theater with Shakespeare; Rhapsodic theater is “far removed” from Shakespearean theater. Its action is more stylized, he says at the end of the essay, to give  “sway to the word.” Yet it is more than the recitation of poetry. How is this? He explains at the beginning: “As in life, the word can appear as an integral part of action, movement, and gesture, inseparable from all human practical activity; or it can appear as ‘song’ — separate, independent, intended only to contain and express thought, to embrace and transmit a vision of the mind. In the latter aspect, or position, the word becomes ‘rhapsodic,’ and a theater based on such a concept of the word becomes a rhapsodic theater.”

Rhapsodic theater gives more sway to word; but how can word become separate or independent of  action? Would it not become simply philosophy or poetry? (Presuming even they could achieve such independence?) No, he will insist that it is theater – it requires acting, staging, drama. I think it is a way to open up the dimension of conscience and self reflection as an essential dimension of personal existence. So action must be suspended in the meaning of personal existence. 

Wojtyla finds a passage from Shakespeare inviting an inquiry into the relation of word and action.

Suit the action to the word, the word to the action, with this special observance: that you o’erstep not the modesty of nature. For anything so overdone is from the purpose of playing, whose end, both at the fist and now, was and is to hold as ‘twere the mirror up to nature, to show virtue her own feature, scorn her own image, and the very age and body of the time his form and pressure. [Hamlet, III.iii. 16-23]

But is it not ironic that Wojtyla will quote a passage from Hamlet, the man for whom “words, words, words” displace action or render action null? It must be ironic, because Wojtyla is neither a nominalist nor a nihilist. His point may be that action continues to reverberate in conscience; so too action emerges from the heart; and action intensifies (or degrades) love. As I said, action must be suspended in the meaning of personal existence, a meaning continually open to meditation and inner dialogue.  The Rhapsodic Theater captures that inner dialogue, as the true medium of action.

The Jeweler’s Shop is a drama about love, marriage, divorce but the action is past or future; with Augustine we discovers that past and future are present as aspects of the soul (distension of the soul, Confessions 11:26-27). Memory and anticipation must be fed by present attention (present) and ultimately by prayer. So perhaps the Theater of the Word, the Rhapsodic Theater, is an Augustinian exploration of the person.

On the one hand, Rhapsodic theater will establish a different approach to both the content and form of theater, as we shall see; on the other hand, Wojtyla says that it is theater, and fulfills the vision for theater as propounded in Hamlet – the mirror held up to nature,  showing virtue her own feature, etc. How does it do so? How does one suit action to word, and word to action? A profound question of philosophic and political import, as well as dramatic or aesthetic. Before continuing the Augustinian interpretation, we best return to Wojtyla’s review and see his account of how the Rhapsodic Theater suits action to word.

Suit the action to the word . . .


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