During the 1980s the Communist dictatorships of Eastern Europe were crippled and finally brought down in a wave of national disappointment, demonstrations and a loss of Soviet support. The governments of these countries had aggressively funded the arts to create jobs and boost their prestige, but funding did not buy support. Theatres across Eastern Europe remained full of dissidents, among them Vaclav Havel, a prominent playwright who, after being released in 1989 from imprisonment for his work as a human rights activist, became the president of Czechoslovakia. Theatres had been used as a cover for anti-government messages before: the final spark for rioting in Poland in 1968 was the government’s halting performance of a classic 1816 play by one of the country’s most popular poets, as audiences and the performers gloried in its anti-Russian message.
Given this background, demonstrations against the government in Poland understandably paid close attention to the design and symbolism of their protests. A series of ‘events’ organised by a student group based in Western Poland in the late 80s, Orange Alternative, mercilessly parodied Marxist seriousness, responding to being exhorted to help the police every year on Police and Secret Service Day by helping to direct the traffic in Warsaw while wearing blue face-paint and carrying gongs and cymbals, which were beaten every time the lights changed: the result was chaos. In a parody of films singing the praises of honest toil, ‘a spontaneous action’ was organised in which a square was cleaned by students with toothbrushes dressed in 1950s clothes, followed later that year by a restaging of the October Revolution as carnival, with cardboard ships moving through the streets and a department store chosen to represent the Winter Palace peacefully ‘stormed’.
These demonstrations were more pranks than an indictment of the government (and often parodied real protests as well), but more serious demonstrations were often equally planned. In Gdansk in 1981, one of the country’s most famous film directors was asked to advise on a ceremony commemorating rioters murdered a decade earlier by police; it featured carefully controlled lighting effects, a specially commissioned piece of music and a reading by a famous actor, while later protestors used equipment supplied by the CIA to break into TV transmissions with calls for resistance at the exact moment when half-time began in the national cup final; a priest involved later said that this was intentional so as not to annoy viewers.