Polycarp on the screen

On the first last thing: Dialog Śmierci w Ogrodzie Rajskim

Review of the video-performance of a Polish medieval Death drama

dir. by Jolanta Juszkiewicz [1]

Since everyone can watch this video production on the “Kropka Theater” Youtube channel https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=tfXKmaz1vsU , I will skip the reporting part, a must for the performance review, which people can read before watching it.

Everyone in Poland knows the medieval conversation of Master Polycarp with Death, and can remember from school that the teacher Polycarp has a vision containing the appearance of Death as person who answers his questions about what and why she is actually doing (Death is a feminine substantive in Polish). The text was known from a 15th-century manuscript,[2] and its printed version (Krakow 1542) was recently discovered.[3] This is the direct reason for the renewed interest in this venerable literary material, as evidenced by the performance on the stage of the Fredro Theater in Gniezno.[4]

The Polycarp drama text itself does not leave the workshops of Polish philologists and theater historians. The writer of these words has been involved in its research for years, he wrote a chapter about it in a textbook of medieval literature,[5] talked about it at conferences[6] and international congresses,[7] co-edited a collective monograph,[8] with a paper of his own.

Let us trust that this excellent work will be presented at the next congress of the International Society for the Study of Medieval Theater SITM in Prague 2022. Many members of the Society who participated in the Poznań colloquium in 2013 can remember Jolanta Juszkiewicz who presented then her performance about the medieval Polish woman saint Cunegundis.[9]


There are two speakers in the original text, Magister and Mors, but their dialogue is included in the author’s narrative. This role is played in the performance by the off-stage Voice (Głos, Jolanta Juszkiewicz), speaking on behalf of the characters who are actually playing on the stage: Gardener (Ogrodnik), Death (Śmierć), Polycarp, Godfather (Kmotr). This very skillful separating move puts us in the shoes of the reader, listener, audience. So an original window is created through which we get to know the old text. The „window convention” is more or less consciously used by directors of the old repertoire, which, due to the alienation of the old aesthetics, we are not able to watch seriously today as if we were watching an ordinary fictional drama. There must be some distance, quotation marks, a quotation device. 

Often it is the convention of a „folk performance”, where a group of amateurs preparing a  staging of a very old venerable text. Recently, it was successfully used by Mateusz Olszewski in the staging of The Story of the Glorious Lord’s Resurrection (2017 Oratorium Theater), where the precious play is performed by the personnel of the plane carrying pilgrims to the Holy Land. Jolanta Juszkiewicz found a completely new way of distancing herself from the old text, which we perceive today differently than its original audience: she made the text independent of the characters playing, thanks to which the text remains a quotation, and the pantomime of the characters only adds visual realization. The separation of the actor and the narrator preserves the integrity of the narrative text and moves the stage action into the sphere of unreal. It makes it unreal or independent, at least it breaks the fiction expectation, counteracts the fictionality of the play, which enforces the illusion of stage reality.

In the garden

Before our eyes, the Gardener (master of ceremonies) is arranging a modest garden, the Paradise dimension of which is yet to be revealed. In addition to the Master’s plant arrangements, foil garbage arrives at this scene – a mass of used whit foil bags we bring from shops, and which are brought on stage as the components of our death. Our lives are already scattered as apples under the famous tree, and they will also play a role. The audience already knows that the ultimate things will be witnessed, or at least a conversation about them. Among the Catholic Four Last Things (Quatuor Novissima) Death is the first and undoubted one. So this tv-meeting with her will be our vision, as it was for Polikarp / Polikard.

The Voice

Several aspects of this layer of presentation draw attention. An extraordinary innovation is the Prologue part, spoken with a characteristic double-voice: the line, after uttering in an ordinary voice, is repeated by reverberation: echo – the same words spoken while inhaling air. We sometimes hear this in children who recite a poem, and instead of stopping their recitation to take a breath, they continue to recite while breathing in. In this performance it is about something else, I understand it as a director’s attempt to signal the distance, the duality of the text’s status, the circularity of the viewing of another reality, which, after all, happens in our mind: visions come out of it and come back to it from an apparent exterior. It is also an acting method of playing „inspiration”, words that come to us revealed from elsewhere. After all, it is also a visualization of a dialogue that comes from ONE poet, one voice.

The voice boldly deals with the text: not only does it modulate it in an actor’s way, expressing the speech of the character played, but transforms it into the service of the content. We can hear it already in the first scene preceding the spoken Prologue: the narrator, talking about how Polycarp prayed God for a vision of Death in person, imitates Polycarp’s prayer trance, repeating the phrase „he prayed, prayed, prayed, prayed …” until suddenly a short snapshot of the Death appears on screen (Jolanta’s face as half-dead person in bandages). These almost „subliminal” video snapshots during prayer are a good use of the TV method of production.

When Death, already fully revealed, speaks to the Master, she looks and sounds as if she has just been embodied, and is just learning how to pronounce the words: with great difficulty, long and slowly, she utters the word “mistrzu” (O, Master; 13 ”).

In snapshots, when Death shows her bandaged face, she does not speak, but moves her lips slightly, as if generating a voice that we hear from behind the scenes, already filtered through the text, as it was „revealed” to Polycarp / the narrator.


The whole burden of stage acting is borne by Cezary Molenda, who plays three silent roles: Ogrodnik, Master Polikard / Polikarp and Kmotr (from 21:35) – a new character in the printed version of the teacher’s dialogue with Death. Master Polycarp enters in a decorative coat with an appropriately thoughtful expression on his face, but does not accompany us for long, the present adaptation focuses on the newer part of the drama, staging the plot about the new character Kmotr (Godfather): a peasant who meets Death and invites her to be his coming child’s Godmother (which is a well-known fairy-tale theme).

The concept of the Kmotr role is stereotypical: in his behavior he is a perky boy, speaking „peasant language” with recognizable provincial features. The role has successful dance parts – for example, depicting death, which got stuck in the mud (24:30); the episode (27:20) of the Death dance at the baptism party is particularly artistically accurate. A piece of real dancing is produced – Kmotr „puts on” the costume of Death and performs a court dance. I must note that I have a dissenting opinion on the “dance” nature of the dances of death. The death dancing does not imitate any historical dances, as some researchers of danse macabre claim. Here, as a technical convention, this approach can be defended by the fact that it takes place during baptism. It is a joyful feast where people dance, so it is justified that in this case Death is actually dancing something literally, but also metaphorically – because the guests  are killed “in tens”.

The adaptation – focused as it is on the new plot of Kmotr – fortunately retains the penitential framework of the original Conversation of Polycarp with Death. When the Kmotr episode is finished, we see the Master in the ornate cloak again and hear Death giving the last answers. The dialogue ends with a vanitative sigh about abandoning worldly life. The Master takes off his rich robe and prepares to die. Master’s dying is played in two ways: first by approaching the Death costume hanging on a dry tree, and secondly by the actual moment of dying, when Polycarp is wrapping himself in a death shroud, made from the same white plastic thrash bags from which a costume of Death was sewn (36:20). It remains us to have a look at this important element of the presentation.

Death costume

The Death costume is a thrashy white skirt,  sewn in front of our eyes by the Gardener from old plastic bags, under which we all suffocate in our earthly paradise. Death doesn’t appear on stage in any other form but this costume, hanging on a dry tree and rotating freely with the wind. Exhausting the main character’s entire presence on stage, this causes tension and thus deepens the meaning of the visual stream of the whole story. The metaphorical dimension of this particular costume of death, should be placed in the row of various types of representations of death used by painters and poets in the past. Gradually it changed from a corpse (a deceased person as if just fallen asleep), through a rotting transi to a dry skeleton. As a result of this evolution, serious art could no longer follow this path of transforming Death into human form.

In her performance Jolanta invented a procedure that can only be very conventionally called Personification. It is a visualization that does not represent Death, but only simulates it. Only the costume is playing its character, replacing it on stage. The whole semantic content is only in the word that captions this garbage image. But this garbage image is a terrible memento of what our (present) life on earth can become. The very concept of this costume as the only acceptable visual representation of Death today would be aesthetically fruitful enough, while the inclusion in the costume of the great curse of our cluttered times makes the procedure brilliant – I do not hesitate to use this word. This accomplishment exceeds the celebrated motif of the empty foil bag dancing elaborately on the wind, in the movie American Beauty.

The success of this semantic amalgam is even increased by another achievement – of an effective theatrical actualization of an old drama. It occurs unexpectedly, because looking through the distance window as we were, no one could expect such a clear proof that we as humans have the same problem as the poets who 500 years ago wrote about their encounters with Death: that what she has to tell us about herself, we can perfectly know, if we look around us today. You’ll find out (as we read in the drama’s Prologue): „if you want to learn about it.”


This review was written first in Polish for the platform teatrologia.pl

Dane o spektaklu:

Adaptacja, Reżyseria, Głos – Jolanta Juszkiewicz

Choreografia, Scenografia, Performance – Cezary Zygmunt Molenda

Montaż – Eryk Lenartowicz

Kamera – Jacek Katos


‘Amor mi sprona’ Alfonso Ferrabosco Sr, wykonanie Robert Rønnes & Choir Playback

‚La Fina’ Giovanni Cavaccio, wykonanie Michel Rondeau

‘Joseph Lieber Joseph mein’ Johann Walter, wykonanie Michel Rondeau

Spektakl teatralny w sieci na podstawie druku ‘Śmierci z Mistrzem dwojakie gadania’ (Kraków 1542, wydał Wiesław Wydra, Poznań 2018)

Dofinansowano ze środków Narodowego Centrum Kultury w ramach programu Kultura w sieci.

© Teatr Kropka Theatre

[1] Dialog Śmierci w Ogrodzie Rajskim, online since 30 July 2020.

[2] Ed. as  ‘Gospodzinie wszechmogący… [Dialog mistrza Polikarpa ze Śmiercią]’, ed. by Roman Mazurkiewicz i Wacław Twardzik (Kraków: Instytut Języka Polskiego PAN, 2006), [repr. in:] Widzenie Polikarpa. Średniowieczne rozmowy człowieka ze śmiercią, 2014: 315–327.

[3] Śmierci z Mistrzem dwojakie gadania, wyd. Wiesław Wydra (Poznań, Wydawnictwo Poznańskie, 2018).

[4] Krótka rozmowa ze Śmiercią, dir. Marcin Liber, premiere 18.01.2020.

[5] A. Dąbrówka, Średniowiecze. Korzenie, „Mała Historia Literatury Polskiej”, Warszawa 2005:340-251.

[6] Rozmowa Mistrza Polikarpa ze Śmiercią – uwarunkowania artystyczne w ujęciu kognitywnym (język, ikonografia, gatunek, techniki przekazu), Spotkania Mediewistyczne 23 (2011).

[7] The Theater of Death in early Polish drama, ref. na 12 kongres Société Internationale pour l’étude du Théâtre Médiéval, Lille 2007; online paper https://www.academia.edu/10661498/The_Theatre_of_Death_in_Early_Polish_Drama .

The birth of printed drama from medieval manuscript: new discovery in the case of Polish dialogue between Master Polycarpus and Death. 16 kongres SITM, Genoa 2019. Paper The birth of printed drama from medieval manuscript: new discovery in the case of Polish dialogue between Master Polycarpus and Death, „European Medieval Drama” 23 (2019).

[8] Widzenie Polikarpa. Średniowieczne rozmowy człowieka ze śmiercią, Andrzej Dąbrówka i Paweł Stępień (red.), Studia Staropolskie, s.n., 37 (Warszawa: IBL PAN, 2014).

[9] Some photos in my blog entry from that time




Informacje o Andrzej Dąbrówka

Tenured professor, Institute of Literary Research (Polish Academy of Sciences), Warsaw.
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2 odpowiedzi na „Polycarp on the screen

  1. Death on a peasant cart


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