“Wormwood” is stunning 1985 Polish underground theater attack on Communist repression

By Lucy Komisar

For about 20 years, from 1964, when Communists ruled Poland and dissidents went to jail, a very extraordinary underground theater troop bucked censorship and pelted the regime with avant garde works inspired by the director Jerzy Grotowski. It played to full houses at shipyards and churches and other opposition stages until the actors in 1985 were forced into exile.


Now, decades later, the Theatre of the Eighth Day – with actors who joined the troop in the 1970s — travels internationally to reprise the astonishing and subversive plays that described and denounced life under repression and roused and nourished the opponents of the Communist regime. The company’s name comes from a line by a Polish poet who said, On the seventh day, the Lord God rested, and on the eighth, He created theater.

Wormwood the name of a star, is a vivid, ironic and satirical attack on the Polish Communist system. First staged in 1985 at the church in Mistrzejowice, near Krakov, it is composed of pointed skits whose double meanings and metaphors were clear to audiences.

As the censors cracked down, the company became more physical, which you can see in this play. They also shifted into fantasy. Both were techniques to avoid saying the words the regime didn’t like – though the meanings are so apparent, that nobody could be fooled. Sometimes the music in Wormwood is dark or funereal as in a church service. Sometimes it is a gypsy hurdy-gurdy sound.


A man is knocked to the floor and kicked. A woman tells him to run. He declares, Poland, I love traveling around Poland, in the prisons.

She says, Poland is a country crisscrossed by poisoned rivers. He: Homelands in captivity. Poland, all rise. Your trial is now in session.

In a mock court, the defendant carries a sail boat and puts it clown-like on the scales of justice.

A man asks, Where are my documents? He holds the boat. Wasn‘t I supposed to leave today?


The protagonists dream of escaping and pull up sheets for sails. They imagine being in Rome where they have escaped to joyous days. He’s wearing a Hawaiian shirt. She holds a wine bottle and glasses.

The man declares, Can you hear me? It’s been two years now since I’ve been free.

A man shooting a machine gun cries, They ordered me to fire at civilians. But I swear I didn‘t know they’d given me live ammunition. They sing the hymn of the national army reserves.

The venue is a bathroom. Forever occupied, the characters declare. Is it ever going to be free?


The style is in-your-face and confrontational. It’s a stunning production. The four actors, who have played together for more than 35 years, move seamlessly together, as if they were four parts of one body.

They performed in New York in Polish with English supertitles and occasional lines of English. One of the actors explained to me after the show that they speak English and could do the play in English, but Actors Equity forbids foreign companies from putting on shows in English if American actors can do the parts.

What a foolish decision in this case! The play and the actors who created it are part of theater history and should be allowed to perform all over America to show audiences the imagination and courage the Theatre of the Eighth Day had in a perilous time.

Wormwood. Written and performed by Adam Borowski, Tadeusz Janiszewski, Marcin Keszycki, Ewa Wojciak. Directed by Lech Raczak. Music by Arnold Dabrowski. The Theatre of the Eighth Day, co-presented by Polish Cultural Institute in New York, at Abrons Arts Center, 466 Grand Street, New York City. 212-598-0400. Opened November 11, 2009; closed November 15, 2009.

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One Response to "“Wormwood” is stunning 1985 Polish underground theater attack on Communist repression"

  1. Jane Augustine   Jan 28, 2010 at 2:15 pm

    Lucy — good review. Time to ask Actors Equity to get sensible. Yrs Jane


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