Like many of his generation, Tadeusz Róewicz was deeply traumatized by World War II and the atrocities of the Holocaust. He seriously questioned whether it was possible to write poetry, to create art, in a world shadowed by Auschwitz and the other Nazi extermination camps. This led him to develop a new aesthetic that questioned and even outrightly rejected traditional concepts of beauty and lyricism, in favor of a deeply searching quest for the meaning of human suffering.
His daring and original plays regularly tested the boundaries of the very nature of drama. Particularly during the 1960’s, Róewicz experimented with a number of plays in which seemingly random or meaningless elements break up the normal structure of managed action. In many of them he toyed with the notion of what constitutes an actor, having people appear on stage in real street clothes instead of costume as a way of challenging the systemic lies of the Soviet-inspired communist system. Several of his plays even have random collections of people improvising together on stage, rather like the happenings of the 1960’s art culture in the West.
Thus it is not surprising that Róewicz drew a substantial amount of harsh and hostile criticism, and not just from the expected quarters. Almost any artist with any pretensions to originality or integrity could expect to come under fire from the stodgy communist party critics, who were in charge of making sure that all officially approved art met their ideological demands. However, Róewicz also received censure from groups who would be expected to be opposed to the effects of communist censorship, including Polish patriotic groups and even the Roman Catholic Church. He was accused of being irreverent, disrespectful of the genuine heroes of the past, and generally unacceptable in his treatment of his subject matter.
As a dramatist, Róewicz is associated with the 1960’s, the period of the classic plays on which his reputation rests: The Card Index, The Witnesses, and The Old Woman Broods. Each of these works represents successively more daring experimentation with theatrical conventions. Thus, in the light of his entire output of the 1960’s, The Card Index—Róewicz’s most famous play—seems almost timid in form. Indeed, the protagonist, the Hero, has even been interpreted in the context of typical Polish romantic heroes. Róewicz’s links to certain traditions in Polish literature (while initially noted by some critics) have become more apparent with time. For Róewicz, the 1960’s was a period of extreme experimentation in form; it was the time of his unstageable essay-scenarios (The Interrupted Act and Birth Rate), deliberate attacks on the conventions of the stage (The Funny Old Man and Na czworakach), and repetition of earlier techniques (Gone Out). In theme, Róewicz moved from an obsession with the wartime experience to current problems, applying his ethical scalpel to the diseases of postwar Socialist Poland. He explored other topics as well, such as the role of art and the artist in society (Grupa Laokoona and Na czworakach) and the influence of clichés and stereotypes on the popular mind (Spaghetti i miecz and Pogrzeb po polsku).
The plays of the 1970’s, with their return to more traditional forms, attest Róewicz’s protean ability to elude definition as a dramatist. White Marriage illustrates his mastery of conventional drama in the service of literary parody. Through Do piachu, Ró-ewicz conveys in realistic terms the anguish of a wartime situation, a theme formerly expressed in his poetry and drama by means of avant-garde techniques.
Róewicz’s works, regardless of genre, are characterized by formal experimentation and an emphasis on ethical themes. His competence as an essayist and film scriptwriter further testifies to his literary talent as well as to his sensitivity to current issues and to forms of expression. Indelibly marked by the past, Róewicz has been, at the same time, a penetrating observer of the present. In the words of the Polish critic Jan Kossowicz:Róewicz wants to put into words—to express through drama—himself. And at the same time [to express] the concerns of the people and of the time in which he is fated to live. His deepest desire, though not stated directly in any program, is to tell the truth, to reach . . . what is most important in man, that which defines him and his relationship to others.
The Card Index
Róewicz’s first play to be staged, The Card Index, startled Polish audiences with its open, fluid form. Although its initial production closed after only nine performances, the play has since become a classic of modern Polish theater. The Card Index is Róewicz’s most frequently performed play. The play established his reputation in drama as a spokesperson for his generation—the survivors of the war and the Holocaust. The then unusual form of the play foreshadowed Róewicz’s subsequent search for new and different kinds of theatrical expression with which to convey some of the most disturbing social and ethical problems of the 1960’s and 1970’s.
The Card Index consists of a series of incidents or images that pass before the eyes of the main character, the Hero, who is on stage throughout almost the entire play. The set is his bedroom, and he is for the most part in bed, but before him pass characters with whom he briefly interacts. The characters are primarily from his past (childhood, adolescence, wartime), but also from the present. It is as though the stage were a thoroughfare for persons and events that haunt and oppress the Hero. The logic of the play is psychological; the scenes jump from intimate but at the same time universal situations (childhood misbehavior, sexual initiation, infidelity) to particularly painful Polish experiences during the war (the shooting of a fellow Home Army soldier) and during the Stalinist period (writing “to order” for the regime in the 1950’s). Thus, the structure of the play lies in an association of emotionally and morally charged events. The result is a more compelling life story of the Hero than might be produced through a conventional plot. As well as a presentation of past events, some scenes concern life in contemporary Poland, where the oppressive quality of life is contrasted with the drama of moral choices characteristic of wartime.
In addition to its open, fluid quality, the text of the play exemplifies what critics have termed Róewicz’s “collage technique.” The dialogue is studded with bits of other texts: fragments of classic Polish poetry recited by a ludicrous chorus of three elders, alliterative nonsense lists, grammatical exercises (such as declensions), nursery rhymes, and snatches of Socialist journalese. While such elements suggest a breakdown of communication among the characters and a fragmentation of the Hero’s personality, they also carry subtle emotional significance. The poetry speaks of heroism and optimism, aspects of the Polish romantic ideal, and the alliterative list contains the name of a romantic hero.
Heroism and optimism have been completely compromised by the Hero’s wartime and postwar experiences. He has looked for values in the past but has found none. All he feels now is an inner emptiness, periodically punctuated by nightmarish memories of the execution wall. The Hero has become simply a survivor; he must gather the fragments of his life—his card file—and find a place for himself in the strange new reality of postwar Poland. During the years since the premiere of The Card Index, the themes of the play have come to be interpreted in an increasingly universal manner. The Hero is no longer understood only as a man of the wartime generation, but as contemporary man in search of his authentic self, attempting to become a true human being. This existential level of The Card Index accounts in great part for the unabated popularity of the play.
Róewicz’s second play, Grupa Laokoona (the Laocoön group), is a comedy in four scenes satirizing aestheticism, pseudointellectualism, and institutionalized “culture.” The characters are three generations of a family: Grandpa, Father, Mother, and Son, with the Mother’s Girlfriend playing a minor role. Father’s trip to Italy precipitates the family’s loss of faith in truth and beauty. Father (named Zdzisaw) recounts his disappointment at seeing only a plaster cast of the Laocoön Group in the Vatican Museum. Mother laments her lot as a woman but suddenly takes up painting to express herself. The Son cannot decide what to study at the university, loses faith in life, beauty, and work, and finally rebels. Even Grandpa’s faith in aesthetics falters. In the final scene, “despite the bankruptcy of humanism,” Grandpa and Zdzisaw are still able to enjoy the Gorgonzola cheese brought back from Italy. Throughout the play, Róewicz uses the collage technique in language. The dialogue consists of Polish proverbs, slogans, and clichés about art and philosophy. In their pointless conversation, the characters exchange snatches from the works of Søren Kierkegaard, Gotthold Ephraim Lessing, José Ortega y Gasset, Oskar Kokoschka, and the nineteenth century Polish Romantic poets, Julius Sowacki and Cyprian Kamil Norwid. The sustained comedy and even farcical possibilities of the play contrast with the atmosphere of The Card Index. The hilarity of Grupa Laokoona, however, can be misleading. Here, as in many subsequent plays, Róewicz conducts a minute analysis of the mentality of people who have reified and trivialized spiritual values. The critic Stanisaw Gȩbala describes the central theme of the play as the problem of the relationship between “the copy” and “the original”: A commercialized pap of mass culture is dished out to the average citizen, whose real need for contact with the sustaining values of authentic art goes unfulfilled. In this interpretation, Róewicz’s satire is both more subtle and more far-reaching. Grupa Laokoona can even be understood as describing a phenomenon that exists, albeit for different reasons, both in Eastern Europe and in the affluent West.
In his next play, The Witnesses, Róewicz again formulated the problems of a generation and of a social group. This time, however, instead of war and political upheaval, Róewicz’s subject is the materialism of Polish society of the early 1960’s. The play portrays a society desperately clinging to the “little stabilization” of their standard of living, even at the cost of ethical values and ordinary human relations. Róewicz’s play so captured the social climate of the times that “little stabilization,” became a catchword for this period and this phenomenon. The Polish critic Henryk Vogler has compared the impact in Poland of Róewicz’s metaphor in this...
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