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.