Like a good actor, no matter what the unexpected disruption, he absolutely refused to break character.
The audience arrived for the performance at staggered times so as to avoid detection by the armed Nazi patrols. Inside the apartment, the door was locked, the blinds drawn, the lights lowered. Furniture was pushed aside to make room for the “stage” where a group of young actors, calling themselves The Rhapsodic Theater, put on an adaptation of Adam Mickiewicz’s epic poem, Pan Tadeusz. Yet right in the middle of the performance, on the street below the apartment, a truck rolled by blaring Nazi propaganda. As every single person in the room had put his or her life on the line to attend this performance, it would have been understandable if the performers had halted and everyone stayed quiet until the danger passed. But that didn’t happen. The actors didn’t break character—and in particular, the one who was speaking lines as the propaganda passed by. As George Weigel describes the scene at the very beginning of his magisterial biography of Pope John Paul II, Witness to Hope:
“The twenty-two-year-old actor then speaking, an underground seminary student named Karol Wojtyła, paid no attention whatsoever to the racket outside. Unfazed, he continued his recitation as if the harsh static of the principalities and powers of the age simply did not exist…”
A pope who as a young man wanted a career on the stage.
That fact was enough, when I first heard it, to fire my imagination. As a writer, lover of the theater, and amateur actor myself, I find it wonderful that we had a pope, now a saint, with such an ambition. But, of course, what made the story even more intriguing was that the young Karol Wojtyła continued to pursue his theatrical ambitions even after September 1, 1939, when the Nazi army invaded Poland, the prelude to six years of a terrible occupation of his country.
A pope who once had acted in clandestine, subversive theater during the Nazi Occupation.
That’s the seed of a great thriller. That’s the stuff of drama. And so, realizing this, I decided to write a play about it.
My play is called The Actor. It is not a conventional “biopic” of John Paul II’s life, such as we find in the 2005 TV miniseries, Pope John Paul II, starring Jon Voight and Cary Elwes. My play does not attempt to depict the entirety of John Paul II’s life. Rather, my interest was focused on the period of the young Wojtyła’s involvement in underground theater, when he refused to let the Nazis kill his acting dream. I was fascinated by the question: why did he and his friends risk their lives for the sake of their art? But I was even more intrigued by the following mystery: why did the young Karol Wojtyła change his mind? How did it happen that a gifted young man so intent upon the theater ended up, long before the war was over, entering the underground archdiocesan seminary in Kraków? How did the actor become a priest?
The biggest problem I had to face as a dramatist was that there is no one answer to this last question. John Paul II himself says in Gift and Mystery, the little book he published in 1996 on the occasion of the fiftieth anniversary of his priestly ordination, that he realized his vocation at the end of a gradual period of discernment, “a progressive detachment from my earlier plans.” He writes that “in a way it was like being uprooted from the soil in which, up till that moment, my humanity had grown.”
In Gift and Mystery John Paul II cites an array of influences upon his decision: among them his family, and especially his father; his experience at the limestone quarry belonging to the Solvay Chemical Plant; the good Salesian priests he encountered at the Krakow parish of St. Stanisław Kostka; the Discalced Carmelite Fathers in the monastery on Kraków’s Rakowicka Street; and the influence of his long-time confessor, Father Kazimierz Figelwicz.
Most of these influences are incorporated into my play, as are two other important influences John Paul II mentions in Gift and Mystery. One is the lay mystic, Jan Tyranowski, who introduced young Wojtyła to the writings of St. John of the Cross. The other is the Franciscan Brother Saint Albert, who was the former painter Adam Chmielowski, whose own decision to abandon an artistic vocation for a religious vocation set an important spiritual precedent for the future pope. (In a marvelous twist of Providence, Pope John Paul II ended up beatifying Brother Albert in 1983 and canonizing him in 1989.)
So in the final act of The Actor I attempt–paying a little homage to Wojtyla’s own method in a play he wrote as a young priest about Brother Albert, entitled Our God’s Brother–to bring these seemingly disparate influences together into a fitting climax for the play. In a way, I suppose, I was trying to delineate the “plot” that the Holy Spirit was writing through Karol Wojtyła’s life in these important years.
This analogy of life to drama is one that animated John Paul II’s own thinking. As an epigraph to my play I quote a passage from his magnificent Letter to Artists from 1999: “Not all are called to be artists in the specific sense of the term. Yet, as Genesis has it, all men and women are entrusted with the task of crafting their own life: in a certain sense, they are to make of it a work of art, a masterpiece.”
This Sunday, April 27, Divine Mercy Sunday, the masterpiece that Karol Wojtyła made of his life will be confirmed by the Church when She proclaims him a saint. He began wanting to be an actor, but he ended up playing a role in a rather different drama. We human beings are, in a real sense, all actors in a drama in which we either achieve, or fail to achieve, our happiness. It is a drama in which God, as the young Karol Wojtyła learned, is the chief protagonist. Our task is to play the role that He assigns to us. And to do our best, no matter what challenges and disruptions come, never to break character.
The Actor is currently available as an eBook from Amazon, barnesandnoble.com, and Kobo. Those without a digital reading device can read the play on a laptop or PC by downloading one of these free Kindle apps from Amazon.
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