Szopka (Nativity Play)
Polish term designating both a puppet show presented at Christmas time and the stage set where the play is performed. It is also called “traditional szopka” to distinguish it from the “satirical szopka”, a more recent form. Especially prevalent in the 19th century, the term relates to szopa (stable) and stajenka (manger), and thus comparable to the French crèche (etymologically, manger) and it plays a similar role in the Christian narrative and symbolism, where it refers to the first cradle of Jesus in Bethlehem. In the past, the szopka was also known as jasełka, apparently related to źobek (trough, or manger).
The szopka represents the birth and adoration of the Baby Jesus, with the calls of the angels, the homage of the shepherds, and the offerings brought by the Three Kings/Magi, to which is added a gallery of characters representing various states, occupations, and ethnic groups that come to the Child to honour Him with their dances and their songs, exchanging dialogues in verse and rhythm, sometimes parodic, disdaining any attempt at a continuous narration. A constant theme of this Nativity is the hostility of King Herod, who, in the end, is beheaded and dragged to Hell. Its loose textual structure is consistent with many medieval works, which combine an austere morality with ribald wit. The oldest texts date from the mid-19th century and demonstrate increased vitality of the genre, which absorbs and assimilates other art forms, such as carols, folk songs, fragments of plays with nationalistic or patriotic themes whose motifs differ according to the region of origin.
It is later, in the second half of the 17th century, that the szopka appeared in the form of a mobile puppet show (the Ukranian vertep was known at the end of the 16th century). Sources of the 18th century indicate that at that time the term had a triple meaning: home entertainment organized and played for enjoyment by members of the household; a play with admission charges performed by professional showmen in a private setting; a public show played by professionals in a locale rented for this purpose.
The stage could be constructed on a single level, the mansion, which corresponds to the most ancient iconographic sources – an engraving by K.W. Kielisiński dating from 1837 representing a szopka with a long proscenium where the puppets were guided by a groove connecting the two towers between which was placed the manger – or a multilevel construction of the type prevalent in Cracow (Kraków) in the second half of the 19th century, richly decorated and illuminated. The bell towers were present from the beginning, probably as a reference to religious architecture. The szopka puppets (called kukiełka or marottes, in the 20th century in the context of the jasełka) were figures with inert arms and legs that were manipulated from below by a rod. Specialized ensembles, consisting at first of Church priests, and later artisans and seasonal workers, would present these shows at Christmas and Carnival time. The traditional performances became rare during the 20th century, and were largely replaced by the satirical szopka (particularly that of the Zielony Balonik, an artistic cabaret in Cracow active from 1906) and at puppet theatres, which, especially after 1956, returned to the more traditional Nativity plays.
The origin of the szopka gave rise to two competing hypotheses. The first is that it has evolved from the mystery plays performed at Christmas, a tradition begun by St Francis in 1223, when the Church organized processions to the symbolic site of the birth of Jesus. The second hypothesis relates to the architecture of the portable medieval altar, (the retable or altarpiece) and the evolution of its theatrical function (from the tabernacle to the raree or “rarity” show).