Tadeusz Różewicz Essay - Rózewicz, Tadeusz

Rózewicz, Tadeusz

Rózewicz, Tadeusz 1921–

A Polish playwright, short story writer, and poet, Rózewicz, who uses his World War II experiences as the subject matter of much of his work, is one of his country's leading poets.

It is difficult to write about Rózewicz's poetry, as it is about poetry in general. In assessing its merits it is only too easy to slip from objective appraisement into personal bias. This is especially true of Rózewicz's poetry because he is a poet who has made a great effort not to write prettily and pleasingly. Convinced that the old type of "aesthetic sensation" is dead, and contemptuous of all aesthetic values, he writes poetry in order to create facts, not words. The source of Rózewicz's inspiration lies, by his own admission, in ethics, which goes hand in hand with politics, which to him in turn are synonymous with social progress. "I react to [political] events by creating new facts in verse form and not by poetry." Molded by events of history such as Nazism, Rózewicz felt the necessity of renouncing consciously the metaphysical sources of inspiration and was led instead, he says, to materialism, realism and socialism. The question of "here and now" is to him more important than any other consideration. (pp. 78-9)

The poetry of Rózewicz is intended to shock and not to create a beautiful form of art. For this reason he would not associate himself with any literary movement or poetic groups. In his poetry Rózewicz wants to lead the reader directly to the source and rediscover the commonplace faith, hope, death and love, "the sort of love which conquers death and that which is conquered by death."…

Rózewicz has also been noted for his spare use of words, for avoiding the rhetorical flourish, deliberately choosing the common, man-in-the street language. (p. 79)

As is perhaps true of all who publish a lot, Rózewicz is not free from certain annoying mannerisms and poems such as "Love 1944" or "I Was Writing" [in Faces of Anxiety] seem slightly futile. Such items however should not detract from others which are probably some of the best Polish poems of the modern times. (p. 80)

Magdalena Czajkowska, in The Polish Review (© copyright 1970 by the Polish Institute of Arts and Sciences in America, Inc.), Summer, 1970.

[The] efforts made by the figure in Rózewicz's monologues are efforts to overcome a far greater weakness and despair…. One of Rózewicz's best poems is 'In the Midst of Life', written in 1955. In it, the speaker is slowly teaching himself to pay attention to the objects and relationships in the world around him again. His small gains and backslidings are beautifully and movingly caught …:

            This is a table I said
            this is a table
            there is bread and a knife on the table
            knife serves to cut bread
            people are nourished by bread
            man must be loved
            I learnt by night by day
            what must one love
            I would reply man …

Behind poems like this, of course, is Rózewicz's consciousness above all of the German death-camps, and he has written of those as well as anyone might hope to. Other poems are about the poetic means available to him: he sees traditional verse forms, once pliable and accommodating to poets' interests, as threatening his subject-matter like savage animals:

          they press so close around their spoil
          that even silence does not penetrate

More recently his poems, and the short plays he has begun writing, have been expressing disillusion with the post-war generations in both Eastern and Western Europe, living their lives 'shallowly quicker', as he puts it in one poem. But this later work itself seems more nervous and mechanical in gesture. (pp. 119-29)

Derwent May, "Grave Poles," in The Listener (© British Broadcasting Corp. 1971; reprinted by permission of Derwent May), July 22, 1971, pp. 119-20.

Totally accepted by the public and with a state-supported theatre at its disposal, Polish avant-garde drama had won the battle against realism and its restrictive forms and was now obliged to seek other barriers to rebel against if it was to renew itself and not become routine. In order to remain avant-garde, the creative playwright must go beyond the reigning mode of drama, not merely repeat its formulas. Such has been the position of Tadeusz Rósewicz, a highly idiosyncratic writer who has carried the rejection of conventional theatre to its logical extreme by challenging the basic conventions of theatre that make its existence possible. In Birth Rate, which he simply calls "The Biography of a Play for the Theatre," the playwright pits himself against the very nature of drama. (p. 63)

A short-story writer and poet as well as dramatist, Rózewicz has constantly sought to obliterate all distinctions and limitations of genre and form. Deliberately striving for maximum impurity, he is an anti-artist who collects debris and creates "junk art" out of scraps of quotations, newspaper clippings, shopping lists, and even bureaucratic documents. Rózewicz's technique of collage and assemblage effectively serve his vision of the contemporary world as a colossal trash heap.

In his first play, The Card File (1960), the playwright celebrates the anonymous man. The generic, nameless hero lies in bed throughout the entire play contemplating his own hand and opening and closing his fingers. Passers-by—fragments of his past, present, and future—wander across the stage and question this modern everyman about his life and commitments. Interrogated by these insistent voices, the unwilling protagonist asserts, "I like the little toe on my left foot better than I do all of humanity." By remaining totally passive and irresponsible, he attempts to resist all pressures from the outside world.

Rózewicz's works are marked by a deep suspicion of abstractions, ideologies, and principles, particularly those forcibly imposed on human beings in the name of mankind. A crucial difference emerges between the individual and humanity in the abstract. The poet mistrusts words and seeks truth in nakedness, in the bare biological facts of the human organism and the world of things which surrounds it. For Rózewicz, the only verities are concrete. A montage of bits and scraps, misplaced emotions, stray characters, lost in a world of fluid time and space, The Card File is without dramatic action and refuses to fit into the standard theatrical mold.

As Rózewicz continues his struggle to write plays in the face of the growing impossibility of such an enterprise, stage directions replace dialogue; the author is forced to abandon writing normal plays, even avant-garde ones. Instead of literary texts, he produces arguments with the theatre and scenarios in which playwright and performer are co-creators. In The Interrupted Act (1964), Rózewicz makes a play out of his dissatisfaction with all existing dramatic forms. The conflict in the drama is between the idea of the play and the impossibility of its execution. Remarks by the author, personal intrusions, theoretical deliberations, and polemics with other theorists of the theatre interrupt and subvert the play itself to produce a new kind of narrative script in which what cannot be presented in the theatre becomes theatrical.

In the course of a few years, Rózewicz has moved to ever more extreme positions, endeavoring, by a process of expansion, to burst the bonds of drama and break open its forms. In The Old Woman Broods (1968), the poet creates a score, an elastic scenario in which he invites the collaboration of a director and theatre; the playwright himself is unable to complete what he has set in motion. Rózewicz's stage directions, which constitute over one third of the printed text, are not descriptive or prescriptive, but offer the imaginative director suggestions and ideas which he is free to carry out as he wishes. The author does not tell the director how to produce the play, but once having posed the problems, he deliberately leaves the work partly unfinished and open to different kinds of solutions.

The Old Woman Broods presents Rózewicz's version of the apocalypse. After the end of the world, life goes on much the same as before; human beings continue reproducing and accumulating things in the rubble produced by a nuclear war, and refuse and paper keep piling up everywhere on the surface of the scarred earth. The Old Woman Broods is a series of variations on the theme of rubbish. Rubbish becomes the playwright's all-inclusive metaphor as he portrays the contemporary world as a giant trash heap and graveyard—a cosmic garbage can for all culture and civilization. Human beings are fighting a losing battle with rubbish and ugliness—they are human garbage themselves. Modern civilization's waste products are its only true art, and Rózewicz fashions drama out of such impermanent artifacts as old, discarded newspapers.

All these tendencies in Rózewicz's art achieve the fullest expression in Birth Rate, a potential play about biological proliferation that overflows the stage and the possibilities of drama. The process of enlargement has now been carried so far that no currently existing theatrical form can contain the subject (just as the living mass in Birth Rate causes the walls to buckle). Accordingly, the playwright must leave his work unwritten, asking some future director and future theatre to compose it in a manner which Rózewicz cannot yet imagine. As in conceptual art, the author's inability to write the play becomes the drama.

The key to Birth Rate lies in the figure of the playwright who is both the author and the hero of this unwritten lyric drama. A modern Hamlet, meditating in the graveyard of civilization, and an inhabitant of the greatest necropolis in history, Rozewicz dramatizes his own hesitations in trying to write the play; he had hoped to forge a drama out of his struggles with the "living mass," but in the face of so much death, he wonders if he can write at all. In a long inner drama, the poet carries on a debate with the voices of his predecessors and masters: Witkacy and Gombrowicz, already classics from the past; Beckett, the turning point in modern theatre; and finally, Rózewicz's three models for interior drama—all novelists and story writers, all Slavic—Dostoevsky, Chekhov, and Conrad.

If the essential drama contained in Birth Rate at first seems highly external in its attempted depiction of expanding population, the work soon becomes internal as the author battles with swarming images and masses of living matter, is increasingly overcome by them, and finally holds his "dialogue" with past writers and dramatists about how to present the processes of life in the theatre, letting these artists speak directly through quotations and excerpts. Rózewicz's "Biography of a Play for the Theatre" turns into a collage of citations and allusions, with the author's marginalia serving as dramatic commentary.

Birth Rate is also an interior drama of silence in that the processes which it explores occur deep within the human organism. For Rózewicz, the masses are perceived biologically—not as a body politic, but as a physiological entity. The important revolution is one of population, not regimes; the dramatic action takes place in organs and wombs. The drama of Birth Rate lies in the artist-intellectual's confrontation with the human body and in his inability to write his play about this "living mass." In other words, Birth Rate describes the playwright's own inability to give birth. Out of this impossibility Rózewicz asks that a new art of the theatre arise. (pp. 64-6)

Daniel C. Gerould, "Tadeusz Rózewicz: Playwriting as Collage," in Performing Arts Journal (© copyright 1976 Performing Arts Journal), Fall, 1976, pp. 63-6.

[Rózewicz] is a poet with hauteur. He knows he is good ('a shoddy poet who has died/Is a shoddy dead poet'). In Poland, he occupies a very special position, venerated although he is only in his fifties and followed by a comet-trail of apprentices. Political hurricanes, like those which buffeted Slonimski (who sailed into them) or drove Zbigniew Herbert abroad, haven't affected him much. He is almost equally well known as a writer of plays, impossible farces like The Interrupted Act which is really a St Valentine's Day Massacre of Polish theatrical fads, or the famous Card Index. Three of these plays have also been translated….

Many of [his] poems are about poetry. Rózewicz is very deliberately not an aesthete, not an ideologue and not a 'presenter' or showman. He prefers to regard poetry as a force, the poet responding to it as zealot touched with grace—except that no God but the world itself is distributing this grace….

Some of his verse is very direct. The short poem 'Massacre of the Boys', which is about Auschwitz and known all over the world, or the much longer 'Old Peasant Woman Walks Along the Beach' (1952) are in no way sly. The latter, in fact, is surprisingly close to the sort of helpful, socially-conscious verse which the regime appreciated at that time. War and occupation are present almost everywhere: 'Objects excavated in my country have small black/heads sealed with plaster and horrible grins …' Images like that, in most countries seen only by a few people who have since devoted much energy to trying to forget them, were an almost universal experience for Rózewicz's generation in Poland: they and the corresponding interest in the fact of being alive govern many of his poems.

He writes, like Tadeusz Borowski, about the jaunty nihilism of the concentrationnaire who finds he has survived ('the following are empty synonyms:/man and beast/love and hate …'), and also clearing away the debris of dead words after a war or an autocracy. Here he is like that group of post-war German poets who took little, hard words and rinsed them carefully one by one until they were usable again: Rózewicz's 'In the Midst of Life', though written … as the Stalinist period was waning, catches their mood. Sometimes he becomes sentimental, and sometimes the dryness and spareness look like snobbery rather than economy. But at his best, in the untitled poem which begins 'He tears easily …' or in 'Shallowly Quicker' (about a world which has sold out of souls), Rózewicz belongs in every anthology of post-war verse.

Neal Ascherson, "Pre-War Quality," in New Statesman (© 1977 The Statesman and Nation Publishing Co. Ltd.), April 8, 1977, p. 469.