A Terrorist in the Archive: The Death of the Squirrel-Man by Małgorzata Sikorska-Miszczuk

Polish theatre’s revolutionary season didn’t last too long. One could argue that it occurred between 2006 and 2008, when there were a few vital productions exploring radical attempts to undermine or change the social and political order.1 Still, despite enthusiastic critical response,2 Polish theatre abandoned its interest in revolutionary utopias and issues of terror (or terrorism) fairly quickly. Instead, it turned its attention to issues of memory, specifically in a local context, attempting to work through issues such as the trauma of the wartime past and its afterimages. Revolutions were shelved, even though this period indicated above was also the beginning (or rather a restoration after years of neglect) of intense debate about critical, political, engaged, and engaging theatre.3

One of the few contemporary Polish dramatic texts relating directly to such “revolutionary” subject matter is Małgorzata Sikorska-Miszczuk’s The Death of the Squirrel-Man, published in Dialog in 2007. Despite broad publicity, it was only staged twice: once by Marcin Liber in 2006, and then by Natalia Korczakowska in 2007. The drama, which touches on the activities of the RAF, won a competition held by Teatr Usta Usta in Poznan and Teatr Rozmaitosci in Warsaw for the best stage play about Ulrike Meinhof.

Cover of "Dialog"

The play’s publication in Dialog was accompanied by an extensive body of articles and discussions about the concept of revolution, especially with regard to the phenomenon of German terrorism in the 1970s. It seems significant that none of these texts referred specifically to theatre’s treatment of terrorism from a critical or aesthetic perspective. Most of them focused on presenting facts about the RAF, the pop-cultural reception of its rebellious mythology, or—as was the case in the debate between theatre critics and researchers (in a discussion tellingly titled “How not to be like Ulrike Meinhof”)—reflections on the appropriateness of violence in the processes of social change

It might seem that Sikorska-Miszczuk’s text triggered a response related only to the inflammatory nature of the subject matter itself. Despite its approval from critics, the play was most often classified as Monty Python-like burlesque: a surreal variation on violent themes. However, what is most interesting about the play is not its subject matter, but what is hidden in the form, language, and structure of the play itself (which, incidentally, has made Sikorska-Miszczuk one of the most recognized playwrights of these times). Read seven years after its premier—which, in the history of the theatre, can be considered an epoch—The Death of the Squirrel-Man still seems to be one of the most interesting attempts to approach a historical topic critically, as well as a theatrical proposal that was neither fully sustained nor continued. What stands out about this play is the unique handling of the subject matter: a revolutionary icon and the imagery archive associated with her.

The Death of the Squirrel-Man has an almost non-feature structure, constructed by a number of stage “images” (to use an old-fashioned term), each of which is built around a single “event.” The whole revolves around Ulrike Meinhof and the titular protagonist Squirrel-Man, a “collective RAF victim, the subject of an experiment” and a representative of the common people, who, like South Park’s Kenny, is spectacularly killed in each episode, but who still, until the very end, declares his romantic attachment to Meinhof.

The structure of the play is based on a series of fairly detached episodes from the RAF’s history (here reduced to a Baader-Meinhof-Ensslin threesome), a series of digressions bonded together by Ulrike’s constant musings on the necessity of liberation and continuing to fight. Sikorska-Miszczuk blends a parodical language of revolution with linguistic inventiveness and, characteristically, her stage directions rarely act as staging tips. Most often, they are an important complement, or counterpoint, to the “proper” dramatic text. In the episodes mentioned, one can identify traces of the author’s research as well. At first glance, The Death of the Squirrel-Man is an interesting variation on a dramatic documentary; it does not, however, expose the archival or interventional value of its findings, but rather, it immediately fictionalizes them and allows for their seizure by discourse.

The events of the RAF’s history—including Baader's arrest under the false name of “Peter Chenowitz,” his blood-soaked escape from the library, the group’s training in Palestine, the abduction of Meinhof's daughters to Sicily, and, finally, the arrest of the three bombers in Stammheim—are all placed in a time frame ruled by anachronism and condensation. Sikorska-Miszczuk writes a kind of historical fantasy (not coincidentally, one of the main motifs of the play is a tale of the revenge of the discarded color red), where Stammheim is a “harvest house” in a potato field and Palestinian terrorists sift sand. It should be asked to what order the invoked images belong. It seems that, ostentatiously, they come not from history, but from the collective memory of a popular myth (created largely by the media)—one heavily processed and, most importantly, elevated beyond an aesthetically and semantically codified legend about the RAF rebels. Sikorska-Miszczuk captures the images of historical events, and then deprives them of their documentary content, exegetic inquiry, and their secondary processing by spectral media actions. She empties the archive of images related to the RAF in order to make room for obscure meanings that emerge from the movement of images taken from another realm, one created largely by language and its concretizations. If, as Pierre Nora wrote, the “4 then Sikorska-Miszczuk makes an alternative terrorist gesture by breaking into the archives of the RAF’s history in order to make substitutions that will eventually modify the already constructed memory.

In the discipline of theatre, a clash with an iconic figure, and, therefore, with the entire repertoire of images accompanying it, is always a special situation. It requires decisions not only at the textual level, but also at the level of implementation. To what extent will these drama-encoded images be used? An excessive attachment to them threatens the work with the reproduction of an image so inflexible that it is almost completely resilient to modification. This may result in shutting down the frames of representation, the closure of the project itself, and the continued reproduction of a discursive machine. On the other hand, total resignation from the attributes of an icon menaces the recognizability of the subject matter and the proper use of its potential.

The same issue of Dialog that featured Sikorska-Miszczuk's play also contained a piece by Katarzyna Maniszewska dealing with pop-cultural entanglements (which have become the RAF's posthumous legacy). Maniszewska quotes, inter alia, the following examples: “In 2001, the agency Maegde und Knechte launched an underwear line that boasted RAF logos and slogans: ‘Prada Meinhof,’ ‘Terror,’ and ‘German Angst.’ In 2001, TussiDeluxe, a magazine for teenagers, published a photo shoot in which the models were styled as RAF terrorists…Pictures of Andreas Baader, dead and lying in a pool of blood…can be seen not only in archives, but also on t-shirts in an array of colors, and done in the style of Andy Warhol paintings.”5 Meanwhile, Sikorska-Miszczuk neither suggests such associations and specificity, nor draws such conclusions. The Death of the Squirrel-Man is free of any situational references to the arsenal of images associated with the RAF. The play begins with a perverse sequence: a fashion show (an obvious reference to the commercialization of any rebellion) of paper shopping bags that are to sell better, because Ulrike is hiding under one of them. And so a drama about the iconic Meinhof begins with an ostentatious lack of her image. Perhaps it is also a prudent sign of the fact that all iconography associated with the RAF is produced mainly by the arts and pop-cultural actions. It is almost always problematic, general, and illusory. Meinhof's face is not the face of Che Guevara. In fact, her most famous picture shows her dead. The only sign identifying her legend is her name, and so, all the characters, whose faces are hidden beneath the shopping bags scream, “I'm Ulrike Meinhof.”6 The end of the play offers a reversed situation: the RAF members’ heads covered by paper bags featuring their images. This time, everyone shouts his/her name, ripping the bags from their heads. As the bags rip, the execution of the image is made. The only attribute of the RAF’s fixed visual repertoire that remains intact is a rifle used in the most grotesque parts of the play.

Within the text, it is difficult to find references to potential recipients and followers of the pop-cultural terrorist fantasy. Society (including the Policeman​​, Squirrel-Man, and Gudrun Ensslin’s son), which is called on by Meinhof to answer, can only recite the words of a popular rhyme: “eenie-meenie-minie-moe.” And statistical sympathy (“I'm one in five and one in ten German”) for the RAF members is only avowed by Lucky, who is a fantasy of Felix Ensslin. Such absurd scenes of violence are hardly calculated to trigger fascination. So what is the text really about? What does it propose for the stage?

A scene from the staging by Marcin Liber

It can be argued that the most important gesture made ​​by Sikorska-Miszczuk relates specifically to overcoming the urge to remain in fixed archives of images and props. This gesture, specifically, bears the hallmarks of a terrorist act. It is a sort of assassination, one carried out in the space of language and the imaginary, one associated with the representation of historical topics. It is also an attempt to invent a new collective memory through a sharp change in discourse.

Sikorska-Miszczuk seems to follow a different path from visual artists whose work focuses on the RAF, for example, who analyze preserved materials and discover in them — thanks to intermedia translation — palimpsests and obscure connotations and meanings, which, in a reality attacked by images from all sides, actually belong to an invisible realm. Instead, The Death of the Squirrel-Man seems to evince a radical distrust of the available images associated with German terrorists, from archival images to those produced in the course of memory.

In his text, The Fate of Art in the Age of Terror,7 Boris Groys draws attention to the unequal clash between artists, terrorists, and the media within the field of the contemporary production of an image. He notes that the public sphere is dominated by a particular type of iconophile, arguing that the excess of photos and videos causes such a constitution of the visual sphere that, by its severity, it basically impedes any discussion about the mechanisms and crisis of representation. This oversaturation renders images identical to each other, pseudo-critical, and closed off. Perhaps the attitude of the author of The Death of the Squirrel-Man comes from a similar position. In her text, Sikorska-Miszczuk expresses a phobia of the iconographic. As the author of the drama, co-responsible for the production of stage images, she prefers to deal with “weak” representations, barely adhering to the events she is describing.

A clear suggestion of this position can be found in the stage directions describing the arrival of Baader/Anti-man: “A Poet went for a walk when a pot of poetry broke above his head and a cluster of bubbles was formed. From one of the bubbles, there sprang a small moon-maloon, a galaxy, little stars and cosmos, and from all of that, Anti-man was born and popped up to the surface to make his self-presentation.”8 In this scene, the image is reborn as a derivative of a “moon-maloon” and “bubbles” in the logic of associations.

Generally, Sikorska-Miszczuk plays with the potential meanings of signs, as evidenced by the following excerpt: “The chancellor of Germany said that…he would like to see the squirrel on the German coat of arms, but for the time being it is a black eagle with wings outspread on the shield like «tsiplata-tabak» (roasted chicken), a popular dish in Soviet railroad stations.”9 Here, a basic, sacred identity is being undermined; if an eagle can become a “tsiplata-tabak,” it is no wonder that Ensslin and Meinhof, in the “Palestinian” episode, load “howitzer, mortar, hand-held bomb launchers”10 like grains of good and evil, and not like explosives and cartridges.

The image of grains and seeds is repeated throughout the text. The Policeman snacks on birdseed. Terrorists hoping to win over Baader bring him seeds, claiming that he is a canary in a cage. The Policeman and the Squirrel-Man discover that “seeds of fear” — i.e. bombs—have been planted in them. Similarly, all the images piled up in Sikorska-Miszczuk's drama are "grainy:" they are all prone to change, bearing an uncertain status, and opening the story up to an invasion of new meanings. Things seemingly detached from each other are combined in new patterns and configurations. Pumpkins, too, are not simply bulky vegetables, but heads caught in the crosshairs of the RAF’s rifles. Herr and Frau Pumpkin are indifferent residents of a stable Germany. A pumpkin functions as the carriage upon which Ulrike escapes from her old, “raped” life. A pumpkin also appears in Lucky’s dream: “His burned hands fly over the desert…fall to the ground, a pumpkin grows out of them. His Mother picks the pumpkin and sets it in the sand. ‘This pumpkin is no good,’ she says. What could that mean?”11 It should also be noted that the image of the burning body of Ensslin’s so recalls famous images of self-immolations from the 1960s. Squirrel-Man says, “Bombs—the seeds of fear. Just a metaphor.” To which the Policeman replies, “It’s no metaphor. Let’s get out of here.”12

A scene from the staging by Natalia Korczakowska

“What could that mean?” It is a question that is often suggested through the stage directions, suggesting a kind of open interpretation, but also a lack of attachment to certain decryption codes, even though the invention new ways of storytelling and imagery is particularly poignant when connected to a historical afterimage. Such is the case of the recurrent image of the airplane. The Squirrel-Man, killed once again, presents his deathbed vision: “My vision is entitled ‘The Story of a Guy Who Had an Airplane Fly Through the Window.’” He then adds: “A plane flew in through the first window. A plane flew in through the second window. A plane flew in through the third window.” After a while, commentary appears in the stage directions: “We’ll never know what he had in mind. Perhaps a story about how a plane flew in through the window? If so, Emperor Bokassa and his chimpanzee pale in comparison.”13 An airplane also appears when the Squirrel-Man‘s throat is cut with glass shattered by Ulrike's jump out of a window. Others claim that the glass actually came from the window through which the plane flew. In the surprising finale, another allusion raises the question of whether or not (and how) various discourses that legitimize violence and terrorism are similar to each other when Squirrel-Man, a representative of the neutral society for which the group is fighting, but whose members they also kill, hangs himself, in Ulrike Meinhof's stead. In her cell, he tells her to knot her rope until it is so long that she can “fly out this window and fly around and give this rope to the people whose window the plane flew through.”14 At this point, we can see how Meinhof’s role as a warrior seeking a kingdom “which is not of this world,” but who still rejects an angelic wing sent by God, surprisingly coincides both with with the suicidal flight of both the terrorists and their victims.

Sikorska-Miszczuk’s play is ruled by a seemingly anarchic logic of imagination. A closer reading, however, reveals unjustified elements that lead to further historical entanglements. An example of such a situation is the appearance of the tyrant, Bokassa, who is present only in stage directions. He is watching the proceedings of the RAF members vigilantly, so as not to yield to his “competitors” in cruelty. The story of the emperor not only aims at confusing scale and values, but can also be read as a clear allusion to the tyranny that European countries, struggling with “barbarians,” discreetly supported.

The production of eccentric, weak images also allows for commentary on the very system of their production. This is especially true in the case of two interconnected motifs of dismembered bodies. When Meinhof sees Baader and Ensslin digging in a pile of human debris, she tells them the story of Kadmos, who sowed a dragon's teeth, which grew into warriors, some of whom went on to become the founders of Thebes.. Here, instead, it is the Policeman who grows out of the warriors’ teeth and then arrests the members of the group for “sowing” them, using Stammheim harvest house as their prison. In the scene’s finale, the previously “pigeon-hearted” Policeman prepares a meal for the three prisoners by roasting the leg of one of their victims. After the paper bags featuring their mug shots explode, he announces: “All’s well that ends well! Isn’t that right? The evil people died. Good. Isn’t that right? Good. Isn’t that right? Well, all right…if that’s the way it is…I’ll eat Bonner’s leg myself.”15 That which is grown from human teeth eats human flesh. The cycle of violence and images proposed by Sikorska-Miszczak is completed. Perhaps the formation of all images is always accompanied by “singing of the cannibals from Kealakekua Bay who ate Captain Cook.”16

1A few acclaimed productions should be mentioned here: Danton’s Case, directed by Jan Klata; Nordost, directed by Grażyna Kania; Komuna Otwock’s The Future of the World and Terrordrom Breslau, directed by Wiktor Rubin.

2In his article “Terror Terroryzmu,” Łukasz Drewniak writes, “Terror is sexy. Polish theatre today prefer depictions of acts of violence directed against society. The sources, occurrences, and animators of terror." Łukasz Drewniak, “Terror terroryzmu,” Dziennik, January 18, 2008. http://www.teatr.jgora.pl/pisza.php?id=105

3For example, in 2008, Polityka teatru. Esesje o sztuce angażującej, by Paweł Mościcki was published. It was the first publication in many years to offer a broad analysis of the political potential of theatre.

4Pierre Nora, “Between Memory and History: Les Lieux de Mémoire,” Representations Vol. 26, Special Issue: Memory and Counter-Memory, (Spring 1989), 15.

5Katarzyna Maniszewska, “RAF w modzie,”Dialog 5/2007, 11.

6Małgorzata Sikorska-Miszczuk, The Death of the Squirrel-Man, translated by Jadwiga Kosicka.

7Boris Groys, The Fate of Art in the Age of Terror, in: Concerning War. A Critical Reader in Contemporary Art, eds. M. Hlavjova, J. Winder, Utrecht 2010.

8Sikorska-Miszczuk,The Death of the Squirrel-Man, 20.

9Ibid., 25.

10Ibid., 30.

11Ibid., 31.

12Ibid., 35.

13Ibid., 29.

14Ibid., 40.

15Ibid., 40.

16Ibid., 37.