Reflection on Wojtyla's The Jeweller's Shop

Reflection on Wojtyla’s The Jeweller’s Shop (Jerz’s Literacy Weblog)

Last night, I read Karol Wojtyla The Jeweller’s Shop for the first time. I knew it was mostly a collection of monologues with little action, in part because it was written to be performed in secret, in Nazi-Communist-occupied Poland.

It is a poetic drama, in which the spoken word dominates over all other components of theater. (I’m reading it in translation, of course.) The old jeweler who figures in the lives of three couples only appears through their lines – he never appears in the play.

In the play, numerous references to “ego” and “alter ego,” which recalls the influence of Freud in the early 20th century. But even more notable is the anti-romantic stance. “I wanted to regard love as passion,” says Teresa, who lives for many years as a widow. If she expected love to sweep her away, she would have been disappointed.

Andrew dismisses “beauty accessible to the senses,” and prefers a stronger bridge between people: “beauty accessible to the mind.” It is perhaps this bridge that gives their brief marriage meaning even after his death.

I found personal meaning in the hesitation that Teresa and Andrew feel outside the jeweller’s shop window. “suddenly we were together / on both sides of the big transparent sheet / filled with glowing light.”

During my own engagement, for months I felt a horrid knot in my stomach when passing jewelry shops. Not because I didn’t want to get married or because I was worried about spending money, but because the sparkling metallic teeth of the salesbots gleamed so intensely whenever their sensors detected a young couple slowing down to take a look. (“May I help you?” “Why yes, you can BACK OFF, you gleaming metallic salesbot!”)

Where was I?

Teresa and Andrew are equal in height, still choosing their fate before the window, which has become a mirror.

The involvement of the chorus in the wedding scene reminded me of the abstract depiction of the wedding in Thornton Wilder’s Our Town, which was written about 20 years earlier, though Wilder was toying with minimalism for its aesthetic effect, not out of theatrical necessity. At any rate, the wine-cheered crowd is present for the wedding, which is public, and follows the couple part of the way. But at some point the crowd will drop out of the picture.

The rush and fun of the wedding will be over, and the hard work of the marriage will begin. Teresa sees it as “The will of Teresa being Andrew, / the will of Andrew being Teresa.”

Wojtyla, who would eventually become a priest, bishop, and John Paul II, knew suffering. His own mother died when he was about nine, his elder brother died a few years later, and his father died when Wojtyla was in college. While the play speaks highly of married love, unlike a traditional comedy (which ends with a wedding), this play includes that staple of country music, “old love on the rocks.”

Echoing Teresa’s formula for married love, Anna laments, “It was as if Stefan had ceased to be in me. / Did I cease to be in him too? / Or was it simply that I felt / I now existed only in myself?” (32)

Ibsen represents a similar discovery as a liberating, dollhouse-shattering force in Nora’s life, but Ibsen was more an individualist than anything else (including feminist). Wojtyla presents the ego as empty deadness, and points out the futility of Anna’s self-absorbed attempts to lash out: “So I fought for Stefan’s love, / ready to retreat at any time, / if he did not realize the sense / of the battle.”

Wojtyla has to convey to the audience a deeper understanding of Anna’s character than Anna herself possesses. “I thought the guilt was Stefan’s — / I could find no guilt in myself.” (34) But she and Stefan are both guilty of sins of cold hearts. (This affects their daughter, Monica, whom the passionate Anna finds strange and reserved.)

The play’s final section focuses on Christopher (the son of Teresa and the late Andrew, who died when Christopher was a baby) and Monica (the daughter of Anna and Stefan, who are still together).

The line that struck me the most powerfully is Monica’s: “I want so much to be yours, and there is only one thing constantly in my way – that I am myself” (57).

As the play was wrapping up, we see the mature Teresa’s discussion of the effect on her son of the mysterious Adam, and we see the mature Anna’s recognition that a chance encounter with the same Adam did some work to heal the rift between her and Stefan. I thought the play was going to end on a realistic note, but suddenly we have a final redeeming reflection from Stefan (who hasn’t spoken at all during this time).