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The Pope as Playwright : THE COLLECTED PLAYS AND WRITINGS ON THEATRE by Karol Wojtyla; translated with introduction by Boleslaw Taborski (University of California: $30; 393 pp.)

September 13, 1987|Dan Sullivan | Sullivan is The Times drama critic.

A theater person picks up this book rather cynically. How much interest would there be in the plays and the theatrical opinions of the author if he hadn't gone on to become Pope John Paul II?

This reviewer also remembers being bored by the author's 1960 play, "The Jeweler's Window," on NBC radio seven or eight years ago, starring Don Ameche. Rather than a play, it came across as a bland homily-for-voices, on a subject that priests only know from observation: marriage. "Love is enthusiasm rather than pensiveness." What can an actor do with a line like that but get out from under it?

Still, the Pope picked up considerable practical experience in Polish amateur theater before he became a priest (Taborski furnishes the specifics in his introduction), and some of these plays, written between 1939 and 1964, could be viable, given a blue pencil.

The earliest, "Job" (1939), omits one of those most dramatic characters in the original story--Satan. But it gives a realistic picture of Job's passage from conventional humility to anger as his plight sinks in, and his friends start whispering that the Lord doesn't punish people without a reason.

"Our God's Brother" (1950) is about a young painter who gives up his art and his social activism to become a priest. Here we see a man groping his way to sainthood, not a smooth path at all. At the end of the play, a revolution breaks out and the hero acknowledges its justice. But he is heading in another direction.

Wojtyla's theater writings are letters and reviews concerning a favorite Polish theater company, the Theater of Rhapsody. The letters don't argue that theater should promote virtue, but that it should promote thought. (Taborski reminds us that when Wojtyla was young, the underground theater was one of the few places where thought in Poland went uncensored.)

Wojytla also makes the good point that theater isn't necessarily about conflict, but is about change. That's what hurts plays like "The Jeweler's Window." Nothing happens, and when it does it's described (rhapsodically), rather than demonstrated.

Wojtyla's thoughts on acting resemble Brecht's. He sees the actors as presenting the character's case rather than his personality. That's interesting in regard to the role he now plays as the Pope--beloved as a public personality, but not in terms of doctrine.

In any case he's the first Pope in centuries to have given any hard thought to theater, except to condemn it as an occasion of sin. One can be grateful for that. And Paul Scofield might take a look at "Job."

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