Fact and fiction mix in Paris Pope John Paul II spectacular
If a novelist twists historical facts to fit a plot, we can accept it as poetic license. When Dan Brown has the dashing “symbologist” Robert Langdon race to the American Embassy in the wrong part of Paris, we might shrug and say it’s a mistake but The Da Vinci Code is a thriller anyway. But what should we say when a major theatre production mixes fact and fiction in the life of the late Pope John Paul II so much that it misrepresents history? Is that just a little white lie? Or maybe something more?
This has been on my mind since seeing “N’Ayez Pas Peur” (Be Not Afraid) a few days ago. This latest spectacular by the French impresario Robert Hossein is a theater version of the life of the Polish pope. It opened in late September in Paris and will run until early November. Spread out across the wide stage of the Palais des Sports, the play sweeps through the eventful life of Karol Wojtyla at a quick and entertaining pace. We see him as a forced labourer in Nazi-occupied Poland, a young priest out hiking with students, at his election as pope and then on his many journeys around the world.
Hossein is a veteran showman, with two shows on the life of Jesus and one each on Ben Hur and Charles de Gaulle to his credit. Some of the scenes are wonderful. There’s a re-enactment of the 1978 conclave where Hossein takes some liberties with the rituals. On the stage, some cardinals stand up and give speeches for Wojtyla, something that is strictly banned under Vatican rules. But Hossein makes up for it by using a huge reproduction of
Leonardo da Vinci’s Michelangelo’s The Creation of Adam in the Sistine Chapel as the stage backdrop.
When in the next scene a cardinal announces from the balcony of Saint Peter’s Basilica “Habemus papam!” (we have a pope!) and Wojtyla appears, the audience clapped and cheered as if they were actually there on Piazza San Pietro that day. The 1986 Assisi ecumenical summit, a real inter-faith spectacle presided over by the former actor John Paul himself, was re-enacted on a nearly empty and dark stage with about a dozen actors dressed as leaders of different faiths. The spotlight moved from one actor to the next as each one chanted a hymn or prayer from his faith.
It was when the story turned to the end of communism that it didn’t feel like poetic license anymore. In one short episode, a tense session in Warsaw between John Paul and Polish President General Wojciech Jaruzelski — this seemed to be a reference to his 1983 visit to Poland — slides seamlessly into a talk between Jaruzelski and Soviet President Mikhail Gorbachev. Gorby praises John Paul and says he’s going to visit him soon — but that visit only took place at the Vatican in 1989.
That was quite a stretch, but still OK — come on, I told myself, this is not a documentary. Then came a scene where the Berlin Wall opens up and who comes out marching through the breached border with the cheering East Germans but … JP2! And there to meet him is … Gorby! There were lots of teens in the audience — this play must be well advertised in the Catholic high schools — and they loved it. They’ve heard that John Paul helped tear down the Wall and that Gorby reformed the Soviet Union out of existence, but have no memory of watching it on CNN. Now they could see what it was like. Sort of…
This is where journalists can feel like real spoilsports. Those of us who covered these events remember that nothing of the sort happened at the Wall. John Paul and Gorbachev first met in December 1989 at the Vatican, not in Berlin. The pope didn’t even make it to the reunited city until 1996. Even if they had met in Berlin years after the Wall opened, it still would have been a hugly symbolic event. Just imagine it — the anti-communist pope and the last Soviet communist leader, meeting at the symbolic epicentre of the collapse of communism. It would have been fabulous … but it never happened. Will everybody in the audience know that? What if they leave thinking history happened like that? Should a showman make it up to that extent just to create a memorable but false scene?
Actually, I should have known from the start that this was coming. The story started out on an unbelievable note. The opening scene is a re-enactment of the 1981 assassination attempt on John Paul, staged with all the appropriate shock and noise and confusion. It is narrated from the side of the stage by an actor playing Cardinal Jean-Marie Villot, the former Secretary of State or number two in the Vatican hierarchy. He was French, so he was probably picked because he would be familiar at least to older Catholics in the audience. The only problem was that Villot was himself already dead for two years by the time of the event he was narrating. He continued to narrate the story throughout the evening.
Is this getting too close to the story? That’s what we ask when a journalist gets so wrapped up in a story that he or she can’t see it from the outside anymore. I know this wasn’t a documentary, but I still think Hossein went too far in bending history to fit his show.