Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 4532
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 play to that of Samuel Beckett’s metaphor in En attendant Godot (pb. 1952, pr. 1953; Waiting for Godot, 1954) in the West. Formally, the play is composed of three parts. Part 1 presents two intertwined monologues, by a man and a woman, which introduce the play and the problem. The end of the poem foreshadows the next parts, as the themes of intimate relations and fear of losing the ordinary material achievements of life appear. Part 2 presents a man and a woman (they are not even termed husband and wife) who live in a small apartment. They speak to each other in false, saccharine endearments. They have created a pseudo-idyll of security. Now, however, their “little stabilization” is threatened by the imminent arrival of the mother-in-law. Where will she sleep and what will she do? How can they all manage in such cramped quarters? Once again they begin to exchange cloying endearments, but they are again interrupted when the man looks out the window and observes a small boy and girl playing with a kitten. He describes their activities, and although Jean-Philippe Rameau’s pastoral music plays in the background, it is clear that the boy is going to kill the cat. The children’s cruelty stems not from perversion but from lack of moral sensibility and human empathy. The implication is clear: Moral principles and sensitivity make one fully human. The adults have quashed these qualities in their struggle for material things, and they are not inculcating such qualities in the next generation. A new age of barbarism may be on the horizon. The third part presents two men onstage in armchairs. Because the men are named “the Second” and “the Third,” the audience is alerted to the absence of someone, presumably “the First.” A siren wails, indicating some emergency situation, and one man sees a wounded figure crawling on the ground in the distance. The two men worry about whether the figure is really human or only a dog. They might help, but then they would have to leave their chairs, symbols of the positions they have attained in life. The dialogue dwindles; the men do nothing to help the figure; finally there is only silence. The title of the play clearly refers to the couple in part 2 and the men in part 3; the audience may also be witnesses, called by Róewicz to see the moral and spiritual deadness in society. The Witnesses is one of the most verbal of Róewicz’s plays. The sets and props are simple; the stage directions even state that the lines may be declaimed. The impact of the play lies in the text itself.
While Róewicz’s first three plays were not realistic or traditional in form, his next four plays exhibit even more daring in the exploration of avant-garde techniques, a testing of the basic nature of drama itself. In some of these plays Róewicz continues to treat distinctively Polish problems, but he goes beyond the concerns of his own society in the most famous play of this period, The Old Woman Broods.
The Interrupted Act
The Interrupted Act is the first of two plays of this period that have been termed essay-scenarios. This play consists mainly of stage directions (two-thirds of the entire text), and thus the work becomes a theoretical essay on the inadequacies of the contemporary theater and the difficulty of creating a new realistic and poetic drama. Róewicz also criticizes the avant-garde plays of Stanisaw Ignacy Witkiewicz and Witold Gombrowicz, as well as the works of the philosopher Leon Chwistek, as petrified classics. The title of the play refers both to the acts of a play and to the sexual act supposedly occurring off stage in scene 1. The main characters are an Engineer, his Daughter, the Robust Woman, the Nurse, the Stranger, the Assistant Engineer, and Workers. No plot is developed, however, and the audience is left with only fragments of action.
In Birth Rate, Róewicz continues to experiment with the essay-scenario. Ten pages long, the play is in the form of a writer’s diary or perhaps of a huge set of stage directions. The text describes the composition of an uncompleted play. Only an outline and several scenes are suggested. The subject of the play is the world population explosion. The problem is to be portrayed in scenes such as that of a crowded train or streetcar, so packed with people that at first the doors can hardly be closed; then the walls start to buckle; and, finally, the space overflows with people. Another scene would be of infants stacked in rows on shelves like rolls in a bakery shop. Halina Filipowicz evaluates this essay-scenario as rather negligible as a dramatic text but important as a performance score that can be realized through collaboration among the playwright, the actors, and the director. Birth Rate has also been compared and contrasted with Beckett’s novel Le Dépeupleur (1971; The Lost Ones, 1972).
The Funny Old Man
The Funny Old Man represents yet another kind of theatrical experimentation. The play is a monologue in which the title character testifies in court. The Old Man has been accused of indecency and sexual perversion. His female judge, her male assistants, and the defense lawyer are all life-size mannequins. In addition, the defense lawyer is headless. The stage directions also prescribe gymnastic equipment as part of the set and, during the intermission, athletic young women are to exercise on it. Children appear in the second half of the play. They are not to enact any roles but are simply to be themselves, playing noisily so that at times they nearly drown out the testimony of the Old Man. While the Old Man himself is ridiculous, his confession of his desires and weaknesses reveals the drama of his inner life. The play can be evaluated as simply a vehicle for a great actor. Critic Jan Kossowicz suggests, however, that The Funny Old Man marks a turning point in Róewicz’s dramaturgy. After two attempts at writing a new kind of theater (The Interrupted Act and Birth Rate), Róewicz in The Funny Old Man begins to create a new theater for the stage. Three kinds of “beings” make up the cast of the play: the mannequins, the Old Man, and the children. Each of these represents a different source of theatrical conventions: the metaphor of dolls or puppets, the enacting of a role, and, finally, life itself. Róewicz plays with theatrical elements to create a multileveled drama in which different kinds of reality intersect.
The Old Woman Broods
With his next play, The Old Woman Broods, Ró-ewicz recaptured the success of earlier plays. The Old Woman Broods is perhaps the most visual of Ró-ewicz’s plays. More clearly than in The Funny Old Man, the set and props play an important role, solidifying the central idea. In contrast to The Interrupted Act, Birth Rate, or The Funny Old Man, the dialogue and stage directions are carefully integrated in this play. The first scene takes place in a railway café, sealed off from the outside world: Garbage is piled so high that when the windows are opened, a sea of garbage flows in. Contemporary civilization has become a great garbage heap, and all sources of water have been polluted. The Old Woman is a huge, repulsive being, dressed in layer on layer of clothing and jewelry, with varicolored hair, wrinkled skin, and false teeth. She is infertile and aggressive, obsessed by her own insatiable desire to give birth. She converses with two Waiters and with a Distinguished Gentleman, himself a relic of the past. In the second scene, garbage is everywhere on stage. The stage directions describe the set as “perhaps a battlefield. A huge garbage heap. A polygon. A necropolis. Perhaps a beach.” Three young girls alternately sunbathe and wait on the Old Woman. The landscape around them seems to be pulsating debris containing people, refuse, and books. The Young Waiter appears, now returning from World War III. Despite the apocalyptic state of affairs, the stage directions relate that life seems to go on normally: “People work, entertain themselves, tell jokes, gossip. At times, agitated voices can be heard, even singing. . . . These voices arise from the pile of garbage.” Guards representing the government of an authoritarian kingdom keep order and in particular forbid littering with even a scrap of paper. In the end, only the Old Woman remains on stage, frantically searching for her lost son in the garbage heap. This final scene presents a shocking visual conception of modern dehumanized life, first ruled by materialism and finally controlled by violence.
Róewicz’s next play, the tragicomic and even self-parodic Na czworakach (on all fours), was actually written between 1965 and 1971. The hero of the play, Laurenty, is a mediocre poet-dramatist, marked by complexes and erotic obsessions. In act 1, he is waited on by his cook and housekeeper, Pelasia (who is continually cooking soup for him), and he is visited by admirers, such as the student with the significant name of Margaret. Laurenty himself introduces the idea of walking, not upright, but on all fours, forcing his followers to do the same. Act 1 contains a modern variant of the Faust legend, as Laurenty is visited by Mephistopheles (in the form of a poodle). In act 2, the hero has become officially recognized and revered as a great writer, the Immortal Laurenty. He sits at his desk, a mummified exhibit, and is viewed by the public in his study, which has become a museum. In the epilogue, Laurenty performs like a circus animal under the whip of Pelasia. She gives him homemade wings; he first attempts to write, next to fly. A choir sings a song by the Polish Renaissance poet Jan Kochanowski as the play closes. Na czworakach ridicules the myth of the gifted artist and institutionalized cultural figures as well as public reaction to such myths and figures. The act of walking on all fours can be interpreted as Laurenty’s subservience of his art to political dictates, but the device is also another of Róewicz’s constant attempts to break down the illusion of realistic theater and find the most appropriate form for the content of his plays.
Another important play of the 1960’s is Gone Out. The play initially seems to be a strange family drama in which the wife, Eva, and her two children, Gisela and Benjamin, search for the missing husband and father, Henry. Henry, the protagonist, is an amnesia victim as a result of a Chaplinesque situation: He went out, slipped on a banana peel, fell, and, after an hour, returned home. Because of his fall, Henry has lost his memory and forgotten who he is and what he does. Like the Hero in The Card Index, Henry is a kind of Everyman, whose life is constructed before the audience during the course of the play. Henry’s life was ordinary and pointless, an existence from which he desired to escape. The play shows his reeducation; the other characters recall his life for him, teaching him his role in the home and family. The acts of the play are interspersed with pantomime interludes that further break up the already loose construction of the work. Because the real meaning of the drama lies in Henry’s quest for freedom, the work can be considered a kind of modern morality play.
Three of Róewicz’s plays from the 1970’s—Do piachu, The Hunger Artist Departs, and White Marriage—exhibit more conventional dramatic forms than the works so far discussed. By the 1970’s, many of Róewicz’s experimental techniques had become commonplace in avant-garde theater. His early plays such as The Card Index and The Witnesses were already classics of the contemporary stage. By the 1971-1972 season, Róewicz was the third most frequently produced playwright in Poland. Perhaps in a refusal to be categorized or officially accepted, Ró-ewicz created three plays that seem quite unlike his previous works.
Do piachu (dead and buried) was written between 1955 and 1972. Because of the play’s politically sensitive subject—the action involves the noncommunist wartime underground—it did not pass the censor until 1979. Do piachu traces a tragic course of events that leads to the death of a Home Army soldier. The play has a traditional structure, and the plot advances chronologically to the final scene of execution. The Hunger Artist Departs is a reworking of Franz Kafka’s short story “Ein Hungerkünstler” (1924; “The Hunger Artist,” 1938). The play also takes up the theme of art and the artist in contemporary life, a theme that Róewicz had treated earlier in Grupa Laokoona and Na czworakach, using more experimental techniques.
White Marriage, set on a Polish country estate and with Biedermeier interiors, concerns the sexual coming of age of two sisters, Bianca and Pauline. The sisters are the offspring of a wealthy but only seemingly staid family consisting of Father, Mother, Aunt, and Grandfather. The play is composed of thirteen consecutive tableaux. The tone is at first that of a comedy of manners, but the play rapidly becomes more like a farce, and the sexual theme becomes an obsession. The adolescent girls’ initiation into the mysteries of sex is provoked by the impending marriage of Bianca to Benjamin. Bianca steals biology books from their father’s library, and the two sisters read aloud about the sexual characteristics and habits of animals. It soon appears, however, that Pauline is the more sensuous sister. She gorges on chocolates and in fact eats with delight frequently during the play. Bianca tends to be revolted both by Pauline’s eating and by her frank (but sometimes misinformed) eroticism. Bianca writes purple prose in her diary, is horrified at the onset of menstruation, and has demanded from Benjamin a “mariage blanc.” Róewicz’s penchant for sets and props that become part of the action (as in The Old Woman Broods or The Funny Old Man) appears in this play in the form of headdresses, masks, and especially of giant phalli appearing at inopportune moments, sexual “members” that only the apprehensive Bianca sees. The tableaux reveal that the entire household is either involved in sexual activity (Father, Grandfather, the Cook), suffering with sexual problems (Mother), or remembering past sexual situations (Aunt). Certain scenes seem like a nineteenth century French farce gone wild, as Father (wearing a bull’s headdress) runs across the stage chasing the Cook or a Wench. Grandfather finds that his urges have not abated with age; he bribes the willing Pauline into voyeuristic and sadomasochistic rituals by giving her delectable chocolates. White Marriage is not only an erotic game, however, but also a literary one: The text contains elements of parody of nineteenth century Polish works such as Adam Mickiewicz’s Pan Tadeusz (1834; English translation, 1917), Narcyza michowska’s Poganka (1846; the heathen woman), and perhaps the comedies of Aleksander Fredro.
A serious note enters the action when Mother and Aunt, while preparing Bianca’s trousseau, discuss the dress and proprieties observed for mourning (presumably at the death of Grandfather). Perhaps Bianca is being prepared for another kind of death. Throughout the play Mother complains about her burdens: “given” in marriage but indifferent to sex, tortured by Father’s relentless sexual desire, and enduring numerous pregnancies. In tableau 10, Bianca slashes her trousseau to ribbons; in tableau 11, the wedding banquet table becomes the bed for the bridal couple but one that, for Bianca, is more like a coffin. She puts off Benjamin’s sexual advances, and in the final startling tableau she throws her clothes into the fireplace fire, crops her hair with big scissors, and, standing naked before Benjamin, announces that she is his brother. By the final scene, White Marriage is no longer simply a parodic farce. The play also raises the contemporary problem of female identity: Bianca rejects all the feminine roles proposed in the world of the play, roles embodied by the characters of Mother, Aunt, or Pauline. As usual, Róewicz provides no answers to the questions raised in his plays. In the light of its final scene, however, the earlier part of White Marriage may be interpreted less as farce than as ridicule of the contemporary obsession with the erotic. The work reveals the real brutality underneath the sexual conventions, however playfully portrayed, of both the nineteenth and the twentieth centuries.
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