How a play about a pope’s last days reveals the stark reality of dying
The Death of John Paul II

In Poland, ‘The Death of John Paul II’ divides audiences and highlights the career of an inventive young stage director

KRAKOW, Poland — On a slab in the middle of the stage is the body of an elderly man, being prepared for entombment. He had been desperately ill and in agony for days. He’s been undressed, examined and embalmed. Now a cosmetician enters with her pencils and brushes. She lays out the implements and, to help the time applying makeup pass agreeably, turns on some music.

Watching this end-of-life spectacle unfold, step by step, shouldn’t be especially shocking. Except that the character on the slab is Pope John Paul II.

“The Death of John Paul II” is an exquisitely (and excruciatingly) detailed, two-hour reenactment of the final days in 2005 of the life of the revered Polish pope. (Allegations of sexual misconduct against many priests diminished his pontificate but not his personal appeal.) Devised and staged by wunderkind Polish director Jakub Skrzywanek, the play has provoked a powerful response from audiences in the Poland — everything from outraged Catholic publications denouncing Skrzywanek’s work to overwrought audience members coming forward at evening’s end to kneel in prayer at the pope’s bier.

The play, which I saw with English surtitles at Krakow’s Divine Comedy International Theatre Festival last month, is a great example of the limits — and buttons — that theater pushes, through the devices of hyperrealism. At times fascinating and at others mind-numbingly laborious, the play invites such questions as: Why expose a historic figure, so venerated and so controversial, to such raw scrutiny, an inquiry that leaves nothing to the imagination? For long stretches, we’re spectators in the pope’s Vatican apartments, voyeurs at this deathbed.

The harrowing depictions of his decline impressed me with their specificity, but I can certainly see how the devout in a Catholic country would be upset by the portrait of a vulnerable pope, reduced to a mundane specimen. Incontinent, choking out guttural noises between painful rasps, he could be any terminal patient.

That, of course, is one of the points for the 30-year-old Skrzywanek, artistic director of the Contemporary Theatre in Szczecin, a city of 389,000 on Poland’s western border with Germany. The director frames “The Death of John Paul II” as both an epic emotional moment in Polish history — an analogue for, say, the assassination of President John F. Kennedy — and as commentary on a universal moral issue: the right to die. One can’t help thinking, in the drama’s scrupulously clinical representations of the pope’s slow death, about how humane it would be for a doctor to step in and end his suffering. (Which the play also surmises, in the case of the head of the Catholic Church, was not an option.)

“It was a question for me of how society will react, and I asked myself, ‘Are we ready to see John Paul II in a diaper?’” Skrzywanek said over lunch in a Krakow cafe. “And we have to face it because dying is the one of the biggest taboos in our society, right? Dying smells; it’s boring. It’s [what] dying looks like, right?”

The impulses to unsettle, to provoke, to use theater as an instrument of social awakening are supercharged in a country with volatile politics and a proud dramatic tradition. Directors like Skrzywanek — who has ambitions to bring plays to the United States — seek to devise productions in this vein regularly. Although same-sex marriage is illegal in Poland, for instance, Skrzywanek, in a previous piece, asked gay couples to volunteer to be married in symbolic ceremonies at the end of each performance. He discovered no shortage of takers.

Like Skrzywanek, Marta Gornicka,another sought-after director, seeks an unvarnished conversation with the Polish public.

“My work is always motivated politically and socially. So I felt that you know, I need to do this,” the Warsaw-based Gornicka said of her work-in-progress, “Mothers: A Song for Wartime,” in which she is casting women refugees from Ukraine. Planned for a June premiere at the city’s Teatr Dramatyczny, “Mothers” employs the technique that is Gornicka’s specialty — choral performance — with 25 nonactors, average women and children telling their stories in original words and traditional songs.

Gornicka is among a growing cadre of female theater directors in Poland. Although her work was not in this year’s Divine Comedy Festival, there were several plays by her peers, among them: Anna Augustynowicz (“Flight”); Katarzyna Minkowska (“The Stranger”); and Anna Karasinska, whose “Simple Things,” about two Polish actresses, captured the juried festival’s top award.

For Gornicka, who has a background in social work, theater must continually open itself up in new, relevant ways. In another choral production, her 2016 “Constitution for the Chorus of Poles,” she recruited more than 50 people of diverse ages, walks of life, ethnicities and political persuasions to read the Polish constitution, at a time of divisive national constitutional debate.

Of her latest project, “Mothers,” Gornicka said she “had this dream to work with mothers and with kids from Ukraine and from Belarus and also from Poland.” Plans are in the works for the show to tour Europe.

“So with those who had fled the war, those who had fled the persecution, and those who open their houses [to them] every day in Poland, I felt my position and my mission is not just to do theater, but to go to the community and to work with them.”

For “The Death of John Paul II,” Skrzywanek cast more than a dozen actors to play the pope and the priests, nurses, doctors and others who minister to the dying pontiff. His interest was sparked not only by the questions about when euthanasia might be justified, but also by his own memories as a 12-year-old, at the time of John Paul’s death. “The dying pope was the only picture I had of this experience of illness, of dying. And for me it was really hard because no one really tried to explain it,” he said.

On that day in 2005, Skrzywanek, whose nickname is Kuba, was playing a card game on his computer when his father shouted from the other room. “He started to scream, ‘The pope died, Kuba, you have to come to the room!’ and I want to continue to play because then I will lose the ranking points. But he was upset to get me to the room. And so then my father said, ‘Let’s pray,’ and we bowed down on our knees and started to pray to the TV screen. Imagine that.”

That intensity of devotion was what Skrzywanek sought to harness, in dramatizing what to some might seem a transgressive intrusion. As performed in Krakow’s Stary Theatre, interviews with ordinary Poles about their memories of the pope’s death were intermittently projected over the Vatican set. “We [did] great research, like 70 different [interviews], books, even Vatican medical documents,” the director said of a script it took more than six months to construct. “Then we hire doctors, experts from palliative field, they analyze those, they write us and prepare how was the condition of the [pope’s] body the last days.”

Skrzywanek asserts that it was the experts’ conclusion that during those final days, the pope was beyond lucidity. It is in this condition that “The Death of John Paul II” portrays him. The protracted ordeal is tough to watch; at one point, anxious Vatican minions ghoulishly prop up the exhausted pope on his balcony, so the crowds can see him. He’s reduced to being a barely breathing symbol.

The play concludes in an eerie re-creation of John Paul lying in state, surrounded by mourning priests and nuns. A cast member approaches the lip of stage and beckons the audience to join the proceedings. Row by row, we leave our seats and climb the steps to the stage to walk in a processional around the body. It looks so authentic, I stop and snap two photos. But why that reflex, really? Because as sometimes happens in the theater, I wanted to hold indelibly onto that sensation of knowing more than I did before.


By Peter Marks

Peter Marks joined The Washington Post as its chief theater critic in 2002. Previously, he worked for nine years at the New York Times, on the culture, metropolitan and national desks, and spent about four years as its off-Broadway drama critic.