Sławomir Mrożek

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The son of a village postmaster, Sawomir Mroek was born on June 26, 1930, in Borzcin, near Krakow, Poland. In 1939, the Soviet army moved into Poland to meet the Nazis, and independent Poland’s twenty-one-year life came to an end. Mroek spent the remainder of his boyhood near Krakow in a country under foreign domination. Although he never completed a university degree, the playwright studied architecture and painting at the Academy of Fine Arts in Krakow; he also studied oriental art and philosophy for a time. His interest in structure and artifice, as evidenced in the areas he chose to study, seems to have carried over into his fiction and his dramatic works.

In the postwar years, the normally active Polish theater suffered from a strict adherence to its Soviet satellite government’s policy of socialist realism; Mroek saw his first play after the war, but he was not initially attracted to the stage. Rather, he began by drawing cartoons and writing humorous sketches for the Krakow newspapers in 1955. The so-called thaw of 1956 removed some restrictions on the creative expression of Polish artists. One year later, the appearance of Mroek’s illustrated collection of stories and sketches called The Elephant helped establish him as a satirist and a writer of fantasies, which were very often thinly disguised, humorous attacks on the bumbling Polish bureaucracy. By 1958, Mroek was editing a weekly, Postpowiec, to which he contributed more satiric pieces. Meanwhile, he became involved with an improvisational theater group called Bim-Bom, for which he wrote a short play called The Professor as part of a presentation called “Joy in Earnest” in 1956.

Mroek, as evidenced by his story “Escape Southward,” in The Elephant, rejected the avant-garde as a supportive environment for creative effort relatively early in his career. In the story, an apeman and three village boys happen on a competition at the headquarters of the Association for Polish Writers in which the participants spit, belch, and recite original works on dandruff and sweat glands. The apeman manages to win first prize with a series of inarticulate grunts leading to the word “cauliflower,” and at the climax of his delivery he throws a dead rat at the audience. Mroek remained independent of mob art—avant-garde or otherwise—and began to contribute plays to Dialog, which was edited by Adam Tarn. Most of his plays, beginning with The Police in 1958, were first published there. He supplemented his income as a playwright through journalism, illustrations, theater criticism, and through translations of English poetry into Polish.

Produced at Warsaw’s Teatr Dramatyczny in June of 1958, The Police examines in cartoon style what happens when the only remaining revolutionary in a totalitarian state swears allegiance to the government. As represented in this play, Mroek’s vision, both frightening and hilarious, became increasingly popular on Polish stages; eight more of his plays were produced in the next six years. He soon became Poland’s best-known playwright outside Poland as well; in 1961, Mroek had his American premiere in New York City, where the Phoenix Theater presented The Police.

Having been awarded both the literary prize in 1957 by the Warsaw magazine Przegld Kulturalny and the Millennium Award of the Jurzykowski Foundation in New York in 1964, Mroek left his native country for Genoa, Italy, in 1964. His intensely Polish play, Tango, in which, as Adam Tarn has noted, he both satirizes the Polish character and falls under its spell, premiered in Belgrade, Yugoslavia, on April 21, 1965, and some six weeks later was produced in Poland.

The success of Tango , coupled with Mroek’s...

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outspoken criticism of the Soviets, contributed to a growing international reputation. In 1968, while living in Paris, he publicly denounced the Soviet invasion of Czechoslovakia; consequently, his passport was revoked, and he was declaredpersona non grata by the Polish government. His work was banned in Poland from 1968 until 1974, and, although he continued to write during that time, his plays became more overtly political. Freed from the constraints imposed by the Communist government, but also cut off from the theatrical traditions that he had reshaped in his plays, Mroek lost some of the ingenuity and evasiveness that contributed to the power of his earlier work. The Emigrés, which has had many successful productions around the world since its premier in Paris in 1974, treats the cyclic movement of history that has created in Poland under totalitarian rule a contemporary phenomenon of émigré literature, of which Mroek is a part, to rival the tradition of Polish émigré art—the work of Adam Mickiewicz and of Juliusz Sowacki, for example—which was vital to the cultural life of Poland in the years of foreign domination in the nineteenth century. Mroek’s response to Solidarity can be found in Alpha, which concerns a charismatic revolutionary, modeled on Polish labor leader Lech Walesa, kept under house arrest in an unnamed European country. During Alpha’s English-language premiere in New York City in 1984, Mroek himself was exploring yet another facet of the theater by directing a production of his play Ambasador in West Germany.


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