Tadeusz Różewicz

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E. J. Czerwinski (review date Summer 1977)

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SOURCE: A review of “The Survivor” and Other Poems, in World Literature Today, Vol. 51, No. 3, Summer, 1977, p. 465.

[In the following review, Czerwinski takes issue with some of the translations in Różewicz's “The Survivor” and Other Poems.]

The best way to judge whether Tadeusz Różewicz is a fine poet is to learn Polish. There is no second way. A translator is worse than a jealous suitor: he despises his rivals. He tries to be objective, but he is constantly being infected with “translatoritis”—a sickness involving choice of words and, in some cases, choice of poems. Regarding the latter, for example, this anthology [“The Survivor” and Other Poems] includes one of Różewicz's best poems, “A Tree,” but Kryński and Maguire chose not to make a poem of it. They have translated it word for word, leaving out rhyme, subtlety and meaning. No attempt was made to “reconstruct” the original. It should have been omitted.

They are more successful with his other pieces, however, especially “The Parrot,” “It Is Possible,” “Following the Guide,” “For Some Time Now” and “Falling.” On the whole, one need not quibble with their choice of words (their knowledge of both languages is certainly not in question), but some of their constructions seem awkward. In “In the Midst of Life,” for example, the last two stanzas lose their sting: “Człowiek mówił do wody” should be translated as completed action: “a man talked” (not “was talking”) “to the water / talked to the moon,” et cetera. In “Voices of Expendable [Superfluous?] People” the line, “Wstydzę się że jestem” could better be rendered as “I'm ashamed that I am” and not “I apologize for existing.” There are other examples, but for the most part, the translators have done a commendable job.

Różewicz is considered one of Poland's best writers, an innovator, a perpetual avant-gardist. During the last ten years he has devoted himself to prose and drama. He is neither an “easy” poet-dramatist nor an uncomplicated man. His friends find him almost helpless when confronting ordinary everyday life; critics often cite the same fumbling attitude toward realia in his poetry and plays. The ordinary is transformed into the super-ordinary. His eye is often on the sparrow—and always on himself. He does not so much fear death as he is bothered by it. If he could live elsewhere, it would be sometime in the past, before the great war that destroyed what little hope man had. He walks a line somewhere between torment and hell, and those he meets along the way become objects of both his scorn and love. And what does he expect for his self-inflicted pose? Veneration—a small price to pay for the fruits of genius.


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Tadeusz Różewicz 1921–-

Polish poet, playwright, and short story writer.

The following entry presents an overview of Różewicz's career through 1995. For further information on his life and works, see CLC, Volumes 9 and 23.

Różewicz is widely considered one of Poland's most important and influential writers. His works tend to focus on universal themes, but speak particularly to the generation of Polish adults whose memories of youth, like his own, are filled with the horrifying experiences of World War II. Różewicz often scorns the conventional techniques and philosophies of literature and frequently questions the validity of poetry itself.

Biographical Information

Różewicz was born in Radomsko, Poland, on October 9, 1921. A Jew, Różewicz endured the horrors of the Nazi occupation during World War II. In 1941, Różewicz joined the anti-Communist Home Army and fought for four years. After Poland was liberated from Nazi control, the Soviet-backed regime came to power. Różewicz's career rose and fell according to the current government policy; at times his work was censored, and at other points celebrated. Różewicz began his career as a poet and later turned his attention to playwriting. He won the State Prize for poetry in 1955, 1962, and 1966; America's Jurzykowski Foundation Prize in 1966; and several other prestigious awards. In 1971, Różewicz was voted the most distinguished living poet in Poland.

Major Works

Różewicz employs a similar form and technique in all of his poetry, including the use of free verse and a lack of rhyme, meter, punctuation, and metaphor. Many of his poems struggle to express the tragic experiences of World War II and to delineate language's inability to articulate reality. In “The Survivor” and Other Poems (1976) the title poem relates the suffering and horror of the Holocaust and explores survival and regeneration against the tragic past of post-war Europe. Płaskorzeźba (1991; Bas-Relief) is a volume of poetry about poetry. In it Różewicz reiterates his themes of the loss of social and moral coordinates and presents his attempt at finding a new role for poetry. Różewicz's work typically focuses on the breakdown of post-war culture and the inauthenticity of modern life. Most of his plays use an open dramaturgy which is meant to create a self-contained reality onstage, again focusing on the theme of art's inability to capture reality. Kartoteka (1960; The Card Index) is a very experimental work featuring dramatic action with a dreamlike quality, but without a traditional plot. The play centers on the protagonist, called only the Hero, who is disillusioned by the betrayal of the post-war government. Grupa Laokoona (1961; The Laocoön Group) is a satire which ridicules the belief that beauty and harmony bring universal happiness. Akt przerywany (1964; The Interrupted Act) deflates the conventions of several literary schools of thought, including the surrealists'. The play depends as heavily on visual images as it does on dialogue, and there are several scenes in which no words are spoken. Przyrost naturalny (1968; Birth Rate) takes the form of a writer's diary in which the writer describes a comedy about a population explosion, which he never finishes. This play depends almost exclusively on visual images and can best be understood when seen in live performance. Na czworakach (1971; On All Fours) is Różewicz's vision of the artist in contemporary society. The play centers on a poet laureate who, in the process of being lionized as a cultural institution, loses his creative drive. The production is unique in that the actors perform the play on all fours. In the mid- to late-1970s, Różewicz turned to a more straightforward narrative approach and more complete character development in his plays. Do piachu (1979; Dead and Buried) destroys myths surrounding romantic notions of war, patriotism, and heroism as it recounts the events leading up to the execution of a Home Army officer for a crime he did not commit. Białe małżeństwo (1974; White Marriage) is set in a small, insulated Polish town and tells the story of two adolescent girls who rebel against the town's rules of decorum. Although seemingly more traditional and conventional than Różewicz's other plays, White Marriage parodies and subverts the conventions it employs. Pułapka (1982; The Trap) is based on the life of Franz Kafka, but parallels Różewicz's own family relationships as well, especially the Różewicz family's connections between fathers and sons.

Critical Reception

Różewicz's work encounters widely differing critical reactions. Reviewers often disagree about the content and style of his writing. Critics frequently note the spareness of Różewicz's poetic style. His language is stripped of metaphors and rhymes, and many commentators find this to be a powerful feature of his writing. However, other critics argue that this style is only effective when the image that a particular poem depicts is strong enough to stand alone. Michael Irwin states, “[w]hen the verse is doing no more than conveying information the bleakness can come close to empty mannerism. But when, as is frequently the case, there is a powerful idea or image to be expressed, the style comes into its own.” Most reviewers agree that Różewicz's plays are best appreciated when seen in performance rather than read, because of their reliance on visual imagery to convey meaning. Halina Filipowicz asserts, “Daring and original in conception and immensely inventive in execution, Różewicz's dramatic works display unusual theatrical power.” Many critics find a parallel between the fluid structures of Różewicz's plays and the dislocations of post-war Poland. Reviewers note Różewicz's preoccupation with finding value in life and art after the horrors of World War II and the inability to adequately capture reality with language. E. J. Czerwinski states, “Both in his poetry and in his plays Różewicz has always questioned values that people hold sacred—Communism, patriotism, Catholicism, the role of women as sexual objects (White Marriage), and especially the arbitrarily imposed rules of the game whether during wartime or at any time.”

Alice-Catherine Carls (review date Summer 1981)

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SOURCE: A review of Niepokój, in World Literature Today, Vol. 55, No. 3, Summer, 1981, p. 498.

[In the following review, Carls discusses the different styles Różewicz employs in his poetry.]

It is the policy of Polish publishers to print a few thousand copies of a work, thus making frequent reissues necessary. In 1971 a volume containing the complete poetic works of Różewicz was published. Today Ossolineum presents us with [Niepokój] an extensive selection of the poet's works through his 1969 Regio. One might regret that the present edition does not include poems from the later volume Opowiadanie traumatyczne: Duszyczka (A Traumatic Tale; 1979). One might also regret its format, a paperback without introduction or comments. A critical edition or at least a publisher's foreword would have been very useful, for Różewicz is at the same time a very well-known poet and a difficult one (see BA 50:1, p. 103).

Characteristic of Różewicz's poetry are the tensions which enclose his poetic material in a dense weaving: tensions between stories of his own life and instants from others' lives, reflected through biting humor or intense compassion; tensions between his search for values and his desacralization of art; tensions between a particular memory and broad frescoes assembled like surrealist mosaics. The forms of the poems also reflect Różewicz's lack of concern for a consistent rhythm: the tone and length of the poems change from page to page, not to mention the use of free verse next to prose poems. But through this poetical wandering which disobeys all the rules of versification, something like a timid confession appears: the poet's głos anonima, his anonymous voice, seeks to become a child's voice again. Short of reaching the promised lands he dreamed of, short of being reconciled with the real world he so often mocked, the poet seeks the eyes, the sensitivity and the freedom of a child in the hope of finding a new beginning for both himself and his poetry. This may well be the final destination of Różewicz's “naked” poetry.

A similar experience awaits the non-Polish-speaking reader in a volume of the Lockert Library of Poets in Translation, The Survivor and Other Poems, by Tadeusz Różewicz, translated and introduced by Magnus J. Krynski and Robert A. Maguire (Princeton University Press, 1976; see WLT 51:3, p. 465). Although considerably shorter, this volume contains a selection of poems also presented in chronological order and therefore conveys the same feeling about Różewicz's poetry.

Principal Works

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W lyzce wody (poetry) 1946

Niepokój [Anxiety] (poetry) 1947

Kartoteka [The Card Index] (drama) 1960

Grupa Laokoona [The Laocoön Group] (drama) 1961

Świadkowie albo nasza mała stabilizacja [The Witnesses] (drama) 1962

Akt przerywany [The Interrupted Act] (drama) 1964

Przyrost naturalny: Biografia sztuki teatralnej [Birth Rate: Biography of a Play] (drama) 1968

Stara kobieta wysiaduje [The Old Woman Broods] (drama) 1968

Na czworakach [On All Fours] (drama) 1971

Białe małżeństwo [White Marriage] (drama) 1974

Odejście Głodomora [Departure of a Hunger Artist] (drama) 1976

“The Survivor” and Other Poems (poetry) 1976

Do piachu [Dead and Buried] (drama) 1979

Conversation with the Prince and Other Poems [translated by Adam Czerniawski; revised and expanded edition published as They Came to See a Poet, 1991] (poetry) 1982

Pułapka [The Trap] (drama) 1982

Płaskorzeźba [Bas-Relief] (poetry) 1991

Poezja wybrane/Selected Poems (poetry) 1994

Halina Filipowicz (essay date Winter 1982)

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SOURCE: “Theatrical Reality in the Plays of Tadeusz Różewicz,” in Slavic and East European Journal, Vol. 26, No. 4, Winter, 1982, pp. 447–59.

[In the following essay, Filipowicz provides an overview of Różewicz's life and career.]

Although Sławomir Mrożek is the best-known Polish dramatist in the West, it is Tadeusz Różewicz who has revolutionized post-war drama in Poland. Considered by many one of the outstanding avant-garde European poets and playwrights, Różewicz revolts in his plays against realistic psychology and the storytelling of conventional drama and uses the formal principles of construction found in modern poetry and art. He thus creates a fluid dramatic form, more open and loose than forms developed by causal and discursive dramaturgy, which is capable of reflecting his view of malleable human nature in a world of instability and endless flux.1

A Polish Jew, Różewicz was born in 1921. From 1941 to 1945, he fought in the anti-Communist Home Army, only to see the Soviet-backed regime come to power in liberated Poland. Since the war he has been periodically attacked, ostracized, or placed on the pedestal of Polish literature, depending on the current cultural policy. Różewicz's dramatic work has thus been shaped by the emotional and intellectual experience of one who has lived through the atrocities of the Nazi occupation, the recurrent waves of Polish anti-Semitism, and the fluctuations in government control of the arts. His works for the theatre reveal an ironic distance to abstractions and ideologies, and they ridicule the inauthenticity that has infected modern life. Through the erosion of character and plot, they reflect the disintegration of post-war reality which recognizes no fixed standards or absolutes, where everything is subject to opportunistic calculation. The works play with absurdities of Polish and European cultural heritage, brilliantly dramatizing the richest variety of interests in concrete theatrical images and breaking down traditional categories of thought about the nature of theatre.

It is generally assumed that Różewicz began to write for the stage in the late 1950's, as an accomplished poet whose startling, seemingly unemotional verse, stripped of the usual poetic effects, was a crucial influence on modern Polish poetry. Yet Różewicz was working on a play, eventually entitled Dead and Buried, as early as 1948, shortly after his famous verse collection, Anxiety (1947), earned him immediate recognition. Thematically related to his early, largely autobiographical short stories in the collection An Interrupted Examination (1960), the play, however, was not completed until 1972.

Różewicz's dramatic and non-dramatic works have developed along parallel lines, nurturing one another both thematically and structurally. On the one hand, many of Różewicz's poems are, in his own words, “mini-dramas” written in preparation for the plays.2 On the other hand, such plays as The Card Index or The Witnesses, or Our Little Stabilization have grown out of his poems and short stories dealing with the experience of a war survivor or with the post-war pursuit of a “little stabilization.” These plays are also a vivid theatrical dramatization of Różewicz's theoretical essays, which reject the outworn conventions of the theatre of illusion in favor of looser dramatic form.

Różewicz's first completed play, the little known Exposure (Ujawnienie, 1950), has never been published or produced. It deals with dilemmas facing Home Army soldiers in 1945, when the Communists were stamping out political opposition. Although written in the dreary period of enforced socialist realism, Exposure is a poetic parable of human fate, exploring the deepest layers of individual and collective memory.

It was Różewicz's second play, The Card Index (Kartoteka, 1960), that electrified Polish theatre by its radical concept of open dramaturgy, an approach which does not describe slices of life but creates a self-contained reality on stage.3 When the play was first produced in March 1960, critics and playgoers were not yet ready for its style and vision, and The Card Index closed down after only nine performances. Since then, owing largely to theatre experimenters of the 1970's, The Card Index has become Różewicz's most frequently performed play, a classic of Polish drama and an approved alternate on the official high school reading list.4

A play about roles, identities, and the loss of self, The Card Index is a powerful dramatic exploration of an inner psychological state. Through a series of loosely connected episodes with only slight, uncomplicated dramatic action, Różewicz dramatizes in the character of the Hero the plight of his generation. This weary everyman of the twentieth century, an antithesis of the romantic hero, has been scarred by the war and the post-war Stalinist reign of terror. He killed and compromised for such lofty abstractions as love of humanity, loyalty, and patriotic duty, only to find himself manipulated and deceived. In an ironic reckoning with the past and present, he is stripped of his lies, illusions, and obsessions, and he discloses the secret desire to realize a new life.

Dispensing almost entirely with traditional plot, psychological characterization, and rational causation, Różewicz gives The Card Index the fluid structure characteristic of dreams. As the Hero remains for the most part in bed, half-awake, half-asleep, rapidly shifting images float by, merge, and dissolve, but each of the fragments is bright and hard. In these brief scenes, the Hero's bedroom is his parents' home, his office, a street, a coffee shop, and a Hungarian restaurant at the same time. The characters—real and imaginary, dead and living—appear and disappear in quick succession. The tone shifts from facetious to solemn, from cynical to sublime, from ironic to affectionate. The Hero is haunted by a memory of his childhood transgressions and his execution-style killing of a fellow soldier in the Home Army, who was suspected of pro-Communist sympathies. He confesses his malleability during the Stalinist era and his sexual infidelities. He evokes a refreshing vision of his uncle, a man of simple values and few doubts, and a nightmarish encounter with a waiter from Budapest, an allusion to a grotesque drawing by Stanisław Ignacy Witkiewicz (Witkacy), whose radically nonrealistic plays of the 1920's have served as an inspiration for Różewicz.

As in Witkacy's dramatic work, reality in The Card Index is entirely problematic, existing in a constant state of destruction and reconstruction. The action of the play is a journey in time and space through a strange, haunting landscape that becomes the Hero's interior state of mind, in which cause and effect no longer apply. Events happen by dream-like association, the result of analogical thinking rather than reasoning or logic, and tensions are not resolved but kept dynamic. The strength of the play lies in the playwright's brilliant use of the techniques of discontinuity, disjunction, and shifting planes of reality. No conventional realistic drama could capture the loneliness and frustration felt by the Hero as profoundly as The Card Index does by exclusively non-naturalistic means.

The play contains a vast amount of heterogeneous material: poems by Jan Kochanowski and Adam Mickiewicz; newspaper clippings; nursery rhymes; lists of alliterations; nominal declensions; and ravings by the three Elders, an ironic replica of the ancient Greek chorus. This method of building a drama out of details taken from his reading is characteristic of Różewicz's dramaturgy. The playwright then uses these materials for his own purposes, often pushing them toward parody and producing an added dramatic tension between abstract and concrete. In The Card Index, for example, the Elders recite Mickiewicz's lofty “Ode to Youth,” while the Hero, wary of the romantic ideal of heroic sacrifice, is wallowing in bed. Deliberately overloading his dramas with linguistic games, diverse citations, and hidden allusions, Różewicz not only plays with language and discredits antiquated concepts, but he also renders plot obsolete by stretching the nature of the dramatic genre and bursting its seams open.

The Laocoon Group (Grupa Laokoona, 1961) is a witty comedy satirizing an outdated notion that beauty and harmony are a guarantee of universal happiness. Here again extensive allusion and explicit quotation, devices which have their counterparts in much twentieth-century art and music, become for Różewicz ways of structuring his play.5 In an ironic tour de force, he combines quotations from Kierkegaard's Either/Or and references to Lessing's Laocoon, or On the Limits of Painting and Poetry with aphorisms by Ortega y Gasset, Oskar Kokoschka, Juliusz Słowacki, and Cyprian Kamil Norwid. The citations, traded by the characters as cliché tokens during their circular conversations on art and society, serve to underscore the staginess of the playwright's creation.

The deeper meanings of the play lie in its rich texture and complex and surprising relationships of characters and ideas, not in its scanty narrative. In a grotesque travesty of the grim revelations found in Ibsenesque family drama, it is revealed that the Father has seen merely a plaster copy of the famous Laocoon Group during his recent visit to the Vatican Museum, that the Mother dabbles in painting, the Son cannot decide on his college major, and the Grandpa still likes gorgonzola despite his loss of aesthetic values. Using a technique of omitting foreshadowing, explanation, and all psychological and narrative interconnections, the play is not an imitation of action but rather a series of variations on the meaning of art in modern society. Unexpected discontinuities and unresolved contradictions produce unusual theatrical excitement and give a dynamic thrust forward to this startling comedy.

An intense and compelling work, The Witnesses (Świadkowie albo nasza mała stabilizacja, 1962) is the most complete treatment of Różewicz's theme of the post-war “little stabilization,” or the sacrifice of moral sensibilities and bearings for acquisitiveness, self-seeking, and careerism. The play consists of three self-contained parts, which, not unlike the movements of a sonata, “together produce the total desired effect of variations on a basic theme.”6 Seemingly simple and straightforward in narrative action, with one-way, linear progression, the play has an irresistible forward motion and unity.

In the poetic Part One, the theme of the stabilization is introduced in two monologues by a man and a woman. In the two dramatic parts that follow, the theme is exemplified by specific situations in which fundamental notions of morality become softened and blurred. In Part Two, a happy and loving couple calmly witness a boy's mangling of a kitten, as Rameau's idyllic music is playing softly. In Part Three, two men hold on to their comfortable chairs, visual symbols of their positions in life, while a wounded man or animal is dying just a few feet away.

The movement of the play builds according to a regular pattern of mounting disaster, and the atmosphere of growing fear in the face of an unknown threat owes something to Maeterlinck and Witkacy. Throughout the play, the characters feel that “Our little stabilization / maybe is just a dream.”7 Yet they ignore signs of impending danger until, in the final scene, the hustle and bustle of their existence suddenly collapses in a moment of mysterious, apocalyptic silence.

The play, however, never falls into a trap of pervasive moralizing. Różewicz undercuts overseriousness and distances raw emotions by sudden shifts in tone from somber to ironic and grotesque. Moreover, normal audience sympathies and expectations are undermined by destroying any single illusion of the characters' identities. It is never clear whether they are real people or actors playing roles in a play-within-a-play, with the Stranger, a stage manager, straightening up the set at the end of Part Two. The play offers the audience no reality except the one that is being constructed at each moment on the stage. Consequently, conventional dramatic action, understood as an illusion of reality, ceases to exist in the play.

In The Card Index, The Laocoon Group, and The Witnesses, liberated from psychologically conceived characters and realistic storytelling, Różewicz dismantles the machinery of the theatre of illusion. Yet these plays rely as much on the spoken text as on theatrical images. In four works written between 1964 and 1971—The Interrupted Act, Birth Rate, The Old Woman Broods, and On All Fours—Różewicz creates a theatre where sound, shape, color, and movement supersede words, often capturing in purely theatrical terms the essence of an entire scene or even a whole drama.

In The Interrupted Act (Akt przerywany, 1964), a deliberately incomplete comedy inflating and puncturing dramatic conventions of the naturalists, symbolists, surrealists, and even absurdists, Różewicz provides an intense cerebral scenario waiting to be expanded and honed by an imaginative acting company. Although it would be possible to unearth several stories buried beneath the surface of this domestic drama, seemingly structured around the Engineer's split with his daughter, the playwright refuses to develop any of these lines. Instead, he consciously distorts and conceals the residual fragments of plot in order to baffle the spectator, who is deprived of the support of story-telling.

In print, the stage directions constitute two-thirds of the entire play. These scenic indications include Różewicz's most trenchant comments on inherent limitations of theatrical illusion. They are also for the playwright essential means of furthering dramatic action by detailing how The Interrupted Act is to be realized in the theatre. Różewicz suggests whole scenes in which not a single word is spoken. The Stranger, for example, comes in, sits at a table, pours himself a drink, lights a cigarette, and exits. In such wordless scenes, Różewicz's favorite technique is reminiscent of Witkacy's “visual emphasis through pointed focus” which “directs the spectator's eye to a significant detail, character, or area of the stage and then holds his attention there for a prolonged moment, imprinting the scene on his consciousness.”8 Yet the details in Różewicz's close-ups—a fly, a sugar bowl, a trouser cuff, or a hole in a sock—are intentionally incongruous and meaningless, a direct theatrical expression of the playwright's recurrent vision of severe dislocations and instability of the new post-war world.

Birth Rate: Biography of a Play (Przyrost naturalny: Biografia sztuki teatralnej, 1968) is the natural artistic extension of The Interrupted Act. Written in the form of a writer's diary, the ten-page Birth Rate describes the work on a comedy which was never completed. A general outline and a description of a few scenes in the diary are all that has been left. Inspired by popular and scholarly publications on population explosion, the play would portray “a living, growing mass of mankind which, due to a lack of space, destroys all forms and cannot be ‘bottled up.’”9 One scene, for example, would

… take place (happen) in a conventionalized train compartment or streetcar into which people keep crowding. … Now there is no more room on the seats. … People climb onto the racks intended for the baggage. They stand in the aisles. … The ones sitting inside have as their chief goal trying to shut the door.


As the space shrinks, physical and psychological tensions build up:

… the walls start to buckle. The living mass is so tightly packed that it begins to boil over. There are two or three explosions in close succession. Movement blends with shouting. Finally everything comes to a standstill. Out of the mass the [two] young people come forward in silence.


In another scene, infants would “lie on tiered wagons arranged in rows like rolls in a bakery” (272–73). In still another scene, the action would be set in “a scientist's laboratory, vaulted like a cellar, where women-vessels stand in rows in the shape of amphoras, jugs” (273). Although the cellar is seemingly isolated from the external world, “there is a feeling of apprehension that behind the walls … another world is growing, bubbling, and multiplying” (273).

Although the original idea stood “pure and sharp” in Różewicz's mind, he never developed it into a full-scale play (275). In January 1980, in an interview after the world première of Birth Rate at the Teatr Współczesny in Wrocław, Różewicz said: “Do you realize how hard I worked in order not to write Birth Rate?”10 He thus implied that while it would have been relatively easy to write a conventional comedy on biological proliferation, it took tremendous effort to devise a performance score “based solely on movement” (272). In this open dramatic structure, the traditional action and dialogue are replaced by “the growth of a living mass” and the “process of bursting, the crumbling of the walls” (272, 270). Used only sporadically, the spoken text must “have nothing to do with the action” (270).

From a traditional, strictly literary point of view, Birth Rate is a rather negligible text. From an exclusively theatrical point of view, it offers fascinating material for environmental theatre, which can be fully experienced and comprehended only in live performance.11 Ideally, Birth Rate should be developed through an active collaboration between the playwright and an acting company. But in 1966 and 1967, when Różewicz was writing Birth Rate, he did not have his theatre company to work with in the sense that, in the United States, Jean-Claude Van Itallie had the Open Theatre to develop The Serpent (1968), a seminal production of the American avant-garde theatre. Annoyed by the inadequacy of writing a “full literary text of the play,” time and again Różewicz records in Birth Rate his “overpowering need … to improvise it all with a theatre group” rather than “describe what would be easier to transmit in direct contact with living people” (270). It was not until 1979 that he participated in the rehearsals of Birth Rate at Kazimierz Braun's Teatr Współczesny. A major event in post-war Polish theatre, the production directed by Braun radically reshaped Różewicz's score, using it as a starting point for a stunning environmental performance piece which included also fragments of his plays and poems. Although closely planned in conception and precise in execution, the production—like Różewicz's scenario—emphasized the process of creation rather than the final product by allowing unexpected events to occur and by involving the audience in the performance.

In The Old Woman Broods (Stara kobieta wysiaduje, 1968), the setting—a steadily growing pile of garbage—becomes a direct theatrical expression of the characters' inner vision, a powerful metaphor for the violent destiny of modern man and the fatal course of Western civilization. The landscape, in the form of a broad, flat expanse full of heaps of debris, seethes with motion as the characters crawl through the refuse or unload truckfuls of discarded objects, live people and life-size puppets, and books and encyclopedias—visual symbols of useless ideologies and obsolete abstractions. Behind this agitated world lies the still, empty wasteland of madness and death. The play's dominating tone is one of ambiguity and uncertainty, danger and menace. As in The Witnesses, Różewicz achieves great intensity through a peculiar form of suspense: beyond a vague feeling of impending doom, no one knows what will happen.

Through acts of simultaneity, juxtaposition, and discontinuity, Różewicz succeeds in creating an allusive and resonant piece, rich in its powers of theatrical suggestion. Rhythmic acceleration, applied throughout the play, propels the drama forward in a mounting crescendo of insistent sights and sounds. While the scene explodes in frightening images of the decay and death of a society, the Old Woman, the sole survivor of an apocalypse, frantically digs through the debris in search of her lost son. In its handling of dynamic tensions and visual effects, The Old Woman Broods is a masterpiece, showing Różewicz's ability to find a telling theatrical image and develop its multiple associations for maximum effect.

Written between 1965 and 1971, On All Fours (Na czworakach, 1971) is a tragicomic version of the Faust legend, but the elements of the mythic plot and characters are used by the playwright for his own purposes of disintegration and subversion. In Różewicz's unpredictably comic and profound work on the position of the modern artist in society, the character of a poet laureate becomes a cultural institution, honored and idolized, exhibited in his study turned into a museum, and kept alive with daily doses of nutritious soup. As organ music is playing, visitors to the shrine adulate the Immortal Laurenty. Through the pressures of mass society, Różewicz's artist has thus been transformed from a talented individual into an impersonal genius, but in the process he has lost his creative drive and is now a broken puppet. Not even Laurenty's inevitable alliance with evil, represented here by a shabby and comical creature, can bring back his vitality and inspiration.

In accord with his dramaturgical principle of rendering the figurative concrete and theatrical, Różewicz undercuts the mythic grandeur of the Faust legend and degrades literary cults by having the characters move on all fours. He thus catches the audience unawares with a bizarre, theatrical surprise, reminiscent of devices in Witold Gombrowicz's plays and novels. Różewicz warns that the actors' position on all fours should not be taken as an allegorical “metamorphosis of man into dog, ape, pig, or some other ‘beast,’” or a comment on the characters' moral stature.12 (Różewicz's word of caution, however, has not prevented at least one critic from claiming that Laurenty walks on all fours because years of humble service to the regime have conditioned him to crawl.)13 Rather, Różewicz strives for a daring dramatic effect, infused with humor and irony, which would provoke, attack, and arrest the attention of the spectators. More than simple mockery of the audience, the extravagant theatricalization of movement points to the limitless possibilities of a nonrealistic theatre and thus serves as Różewicz's ultimate shock tactics to demolish the conventions of the theatre of illusion.

In the mid- and late 1960's, during a period of intense creativity, Różewicz also wrote three minor works: The Funny Old Man (Śmieszny staruszek, 1964), Spaghetti and the Sword (Spaghetti i miecz, 1964), and Funeral Polish Style (Pogrzeb po polsku, 1972). The first play, a monologue of a rambling seventy-year-old who confesses in court his real or imaginary guilt, has been very effective on stage in large part owing to its excellent role for an actor. In the other two plays, Różewicz dismantles the traditional myths and symbols of Polish culture by attacks on his contemporaries and predecessors. Although the playwright displays great linguistic virtuosity and literary erudition, both plays are fragmentarily developed and incompletely integrated. Despite the richness of invention shown in many of the details, the other elements do not coalesce to form a valid dramatic universe. As Różewicz admits, some of his plays may first “seem like a hodgepodge of images, ideas, and words, but in a fortunate moment it will all come together.”14 The occurrence of this “fortunate moment” depends largely on an intelligent and sensitive director who can bring unity to the diverse materials in Spaghetti and the Sword and Funeral Polish Style.

Completed approximately at the same time as Spaghetti and the Sword, He Left Home (Wyszedł z domu, 1964) is one of Różewicz's most coherent and unified compositions for the stage. A strange and puzzling work, complex in structure, He Left Home is built like a collage out of the collapsing ruins of the traditional family drama. The playwright subverts the ideological framework and the patterns of thought and feeling that had once been supported by the secure form of family drama. The true dramatic action of the play thus lies not in its residual plot—a family in search of the missing husband and father—but in its philosophical concerns. In quest of existential freedom, Różewicz's protagonist escapes into real or pretended amnesia, theatricalized as a remote interior landscape beyond spatial and temporal categories. Through the juxtaposition of spectacular wordless scenes with striking poetic monologues and more conventional episodes, Różewicz integrates fragmented planes of reality in a multidimensional composition full of dynamic tension.

In three plays published in the mid- and late 1970's—Dead and Buried, Departure of a Hunger Artist, and White Marriage—Różewicz continues to experiment with dramatic form, but in a surprising new direction, writing in a predominantly conventional dramatic idiom. As he explains in a 1974 interview, he needs to be inconsistent in his art in order to remain creative.15 Moreover, Różewicz must have realized that, by about 1970, the open dramaturgy was absorbed into the mainstream theatre. In his famous essay, significantly titled “Writing on Stage” (1969), leading Polish theatre critic Konstanty Puzyna pointed out the inadequacy of perceiving the written text as either the primary or the invariant component of theatre and hailed the open dramaturgy, based largely on improvisation and collective creation, as the instrument for the renewal of contemporary theatre.16 This new approach to theatre and drama culminated in a number of crucial productions, such as Jerzy Grotowski's Apocalypsis cum figuris (1968) and Józef Szajna's Replika (1972), which stunned theatre artists and audiences throughout the world. At the same time, many other Polish directors were indulging in sometimes boring, sometimes awe-inspiring exercises in open dramaturgy, rewriting the classics and putting together their own scenarios in which striking visual effects were substituted for thematic and philosophic concerns. After years of clashes with the censor and indifference from directors and playgoers, during the 1971/1972 season Różewicz suddenly became the third most frequently produced playwright in Poland.17 But he refused to be a guru of the new theatre. Once again, he chose a path of his own.

Unlike the earlier plays, Dead and Buried, Departure of a Hunger Artist, and White Marriage are developed with much more clarified story lines. Structure and technique remain for the most part traditional, as the action moves chronologically through real time and space, holding an audience's attention by the progressive unfolding of events, without excessive overloading, jerky contrasts and discontinuities, abrupt narrative jumps, or elliptical shifts. Dialogue, more conversational than in any of Różewicz's other plays, is a direct expression of the characters' thoughts and emotions. No longer devoid of psychological identity, the characters actually talk to one another for extended periods and respond to what has just been said to them.

A bitter and powerful anti-war drama, Dead and Buried (Do piachu …, completed in 1972 but not cleared by the censor's office until 1979), explores a tragic web of circumstances which led to the death of a Home Army soldier. Departure of a Hunger Artist (Odejście Głodomora, 1976), based on Kafka's short story “Ein Hungerkünstler,” reworks—using the less radical dramatic techniques—the central motif of The Laocoon Group and On All Fours, or the theme of the artist's role in the contemporary world.

More immediately accessible than the other two works, White Marriage (Białe małżeństwo, 1974) has been an unusual box-office success in Poland, playing over a thousand times to sold-out houses in Warsaw and Wrocław. Although some critics have expressed reservations about the play's frank treatment of sexuality, unheard of in Polish drama, audiences have felt at home with this comedy of manners, redolent of the fin de siècle and belle époque. Set in a provincial backwater, seemingly bypassed by history and drowsing peacefully in its own intrigues and snobbery, White Marriage captures the leisurely atmosphere of a Polish country estate at the turn of the century, where two adolescent girls savor the forbidden and refuse to observe the proper forms of social decorum. Highly controlled and tightly contained in form, the play has an exciting story line and sequential plot with all the traditional parts of drama: exposition, complication, crisis, discovery, and reversal followed by dénouement.

White Marriage has thus an obvious appeal to theatre goers who had formerly been disconcerted at Różewicz's plays. They do not realize, however, that the dramatist, playing with the techniques and conventions of traditional theatre, is leading his audience wherever he wishes. The titillating comedy about growing up is merely a disguise for a witty pastiche of several works of earlier Polish writers, including Mickiewicz's Pan Tadeusz and Narcyza Żmichowska's The Heathen Woman. Thus Różewicz almost imperceptibly succeeds in lifting White Marriage off the ground of realistic dramaturgy and predictable expectations into the realm of literary parody and pure theatricality.

Daring and original in conception and immensely inventive in execution, Różewicz's dramatic works display unusual theatrical power. The playwright mixes the most diverse sources of inspiration and draws on all his imaginative resources. He is a master of theatrical effect, capable of constructing a flamboyantly nonrealistic stage action, and an expert craftsman playing with the techniques and conventions of the theatre of illusion. Różewicz pushes timeworn patterns of realistic theatre to absurd extremes, thus making them self-conscious and theatricalist. Liberated from clichés of plot and character, with the logic of rationalist dramaturgy constantly undermined, Różewicz's plays may seem incoherent and unfocused. In fact, they are precisely structured and artfully integrated, with form and content perfectly wedded. The supposed looseness of Różewicz's dramaturgy has a dramatic impact in his plays: it precisely reflects his major theme, the disintegration of post-war reality, and allows him to bring together a startling variety of heterogeneous material, styles, and tones.

Like the plays of Witkacy, Gombrowicz, Beckett, and Ionesco, Różewicz's dramas are not exclusively literary, and they can be fully experienced only in the theatre. Różewicz agrees with Witkacy that “The literary side of the performance is only a small part of the play being presented on stage, where the author provides only a formal skeleton for the creative work of the director and actors.”18 Like Witkacy's plays, Różewicz's dramatic works require a different kind of acting, not the Stanislavskian “wallowing in stale emotional entrail-twisting,” but an ability to improvise with one's body and voice.19 Yet Różewicz strives to go even further than Witkacy. As he reflects in Birth Rate, “The new art of the drama—after Witkacy and Beckett—must start from the problem of a new technique for writing plays” (276–77). Thus his basic tools—even in the plays of the 1970's—are visual images rather than words, and his primary artistic medium is carefully orchestrated movement within a special, arbitrarily constructed space. These spectacular effects—such as the simultaneous setting in The Card Index, the refuse dump in The Old Woman Broods, or the images of biological proliferation in Birth Rate—carry forward the plays' inward progressions and physically express psychic states and abstract qualities. Różewicz uses these effects with great force and precision, creating an exciting theatrical reality which is inevitably dependent more upon the creative actor than simply the words of the playwright's text.20


  1. Różewicz's poetry and drama are not unknown in the United States. Three volumes of poems are translated into English: by Adam Czerniawski, by Victor Contoski, and by Magnus J. Krynski and Robert A. Maguire. Plays such as The Card Index, White Marriage, The Funny Old Man, and The Old Woman Broods (translated by Czerniawski or Edward Czerwinski) have been produced by such theatre groups as the Yale Repertory Theatre and the La Mama Experimental Theatre Club. However, apart from Krynski and Maguire's excellent introduction to their volume of translations, Catherine Leach's “Remarks on the Poetry of Tadeusz Różewicz” in Polish Review (Spring 1967), and brief discussions of Różewicz's drama in Martin Esslin's The Theatre of the Absurd (1972), Oscar G. Brockett and Robert R. Findlay's Century of Innovation (1973), and Daniel Gerould's Twentieth-Century Polish Avant-Garde Drama (1977), there is no substantial body of criticism in English of Różewicz's work.

  2. Tadeusz Różewicz, “Poemat otwarty i dramaturgia otwarta,” Odra 15 (July-August 1975), 89.

  3. With the exception of Exposure, the year given in parentheses refers to the first publication of a play, which often precedes the first production.

  4. In 1971, Różewicz published three additional scenes of The Card Index, which are not available in the English translation. See Tadeusz Różewicz, “Niepublikowane odmiany tekstu,” Odra 11 (November 1971).

  5. From 1945 to 1947, Różewicz was enrolled in the art history program at the Jagiellonian University in Cracow.

  6. Martin Esslin, The Theatre of the Absurd (New York: Penguin, 1972), 313.

  7. Tadeusz Różewicz, Sztuki teatralne (Wrocław: Zaklad Narodowy im. Ossolińskich, 1972), 102.

  8. Daniel Gerould, Witkacy: Stanisław Ignacy Witkiewicz as an Imaginative Writer (Seattle: Univ. of Washington Press, 1981), 56.

  9. Tadeusz Różewicz, Birth Rate, trans. D. Gerould, in Daniel Gerould (ed.), Twentieth-Century Polish Avant-Garde Drama (Ithaca: Cornell Univ. Press, 1977), 270. Further reference to Birth Rate will be to this edition, with page numbers given in the text in parentheses.

  10. Halina Filipowicz, an unpublished interview with Tadeusz Różewicz in Wrocław, 26 January 1980.

  11. For discussion of environmental theatre, see especially Richard Schechner, “6 Axioms for Environmental Theatre,” The Drama Review 12 (Spring 1968), 41–64.

  12. Tadeusz Różewicz, “Przemiany,” Odra 12 (April 1972), 101.

  13. Witold Filler, “Pudel w zupie czyli kłopoty z Różewiczem,” Kultura 10 (16 April 1972), 10.

  14. Tadeusz Różewicz, “Komentarz,” in Poezje zebrane (Wrocław: Zakład Narodowy im. Ossolińskich, 1971), 419.

  15. Konstanty Puzyna, “Koniec i pocz̧ͣtek [an interview with Tadeusz Różewicz],” Dialog 19 (June 1974), 116–23.

  16. Konstanty Puzyna, “Pisać na scenie,” in Burzliwa pogoda (Warszawa: Państwowy Instytut Wydawniczy, 1971), 32–38.

  17. Kazimierz Andrzej Wysiński (ed.), Almanach sceny polskiej 1971–1972 (Warszawa: Wydawnictwa Artystyczne i Filmowe, 1973), 195.

  18. Stanisław Ignacy Witkiewicz, “‘Wniebowsţͣpienie’ J. M. Rytarda,” in Bez kompromisu: Pisma krytyczne i publicystyczne (Warszawa: Państwowy Instytut Wydawniczy, 1976), 141.

  19. Stanisław Ignacy Witkiewicz, The Madman and the Nun and Other Plays, trans. and ed. Daniel C. Gerould and C. S. Durer (Seattle: Univ. of Washington Press, 1968), 161.

  20. In early spring 1982, Różewicz completed The Trap (Pułapka), a play which derives its subject matter from Franz Kafka's correspondence. Using a flamboyant juxtaposition of realistic scenes with dream sequences and metaphorical visions, The Trap explores tensions between a remarkable artist and his middle-class milieu.

Eric Shorter (essay date Spring 1982)

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SOURCE: “Plays in Performance Festivals: Dublin and Avignon,” in Drama, No. 143, Spring, 1982, pp. 30–1.

[In the following essay, Shorter recounts what it is like to experience Różewicz's Birthrate in the theater.]

Ought we to be primed for the play? Should we get ready for it, like students? How much are we expected to know before the curtain rises? Is it best to have read the book, or not? Suppose you do not even speak the language in which the play is written?

These and other questions filtered vaguely through the minds of some playgoers at the 1981 Dublin Theatre Festival on their way to the Gate [to see Tadeusz Różewicz's Birthrate]. Of course the Gate has never cultivated the idea that we should go to the theatre without an idea in our heads. Decades ago Hilton Edwards and Michael Mac Liammoir turned it into a playhouse where the best in European drama was brought forward unflinchingly. They never asked you to check your mind at the cloakroom, so to speak. Take it in with you, by all means.

So, as I say, on our way to the Gate one was—well, pretty mindful. More mindful than usual in fact, because the forthcoming entertainment was not only to be given by a company from Poland but also it was a play of which nobody outside Poland could have heard, let alone read. In fact (and to this extent we had been primed by publicity) it wasn't going to be a play of the kind which playgoers in general might expect. It was more in the nature of—well, a company work.

At least that was the warning in the unusually prose-packed programme. There were ten pages of dense description about the origins of this ‘work’ from the germination of the idea in the mind of the author, Tadeusz Rozevicz, to the actual staging; and as far as could be gleaned from a couple of quick skimmings (it was in admirable English but dense with metaphysical, philosophical, Existential and Absurdist notions about the metaphorical scope of modern drama and the range of its intellectual imagery) we were in for something we were unlikely to get the hang of but we would not be bored for long because the ideas would spray around with so much physical emphasis that the divertissement value must be high, if nothing else.

All this however was guesswork. What was certain for the moment was only the title, Birthrate. And no doubt in anticipation of the haze created by that programme note and being anxiously courteous that spectators should not be too befuddled by the prospect, the director of the company Kazimierz Braun, invited twenty or thirty critics and other professional spectators to turn up at the theatre an hour early.

So there we sat in the empty auditorium, a curious scattering of evidently chosen guests, waiting, presumably, to be primed. And there, in the aisle by the prompt corner, stood this tall, kindly-looking, diffident man, smiling and speaking quietly in excellent if slow English. He had, he said, a proposition. Would we each be kind enough to help ourselves to a chair (of which a stack stood at the side of the stage) and form a line which would begin at the stage curtain. He would be behind it; and we would be let in with our chairs at regular intervals timed by stop-watch; and when we had passed behind the curtain on to the stage we were to choose a place to sit with our chairs. It was entirely our choice but once made to be adhered to.

So we dutifully lined up. What was the phrase in our still pretty vacant minds? Audience participation? What would go on behind the drop-curtain? Would we have to play roles for which we hadn't rehearsed? One by one we were let in. And there we discovered not only others from our privileged group sitting in the shadows beneath a solitary overhanging lamp; but they were sitting round a small model on the floor of what would prove to be the last scene of the play. It was the model of a railway carriage compartment; with plastic figures which might have come naked out of a Christmas cracker to serve as hordes of people. The theme of the show was to be overcrowding; and as he addressed that hushed circle of playgoers for nearly an hour the director never allowed us to look at anything except the maquette, unless to look up at him when he asked one or other of us to contribute a handful of those naked plastic babes so that the railway compartment should become more crowded than ever.

Meanwhile, as we huddled behind the curtain on that famous stage (with its awesome history and our sense of personal incongruity), we could hear people coming into the auditorium to take their seats.

It was time to go. Mr Braun ushered us out through the curtain, up one of the aisles and then (no: please, it is not time to take your seats) through an exit door, down a flight of steps into the dark Dublin night, across a footpath through a garden and thence to the back of a queue, consisting evidently of—well, unprimed playgoers.

Who wants to go to the theatre to form queues? Have you ever been to modern Poland? They queue for everything there—all the time. Ah, yes. Point taken. And as we filed past various tableaux—some more vivants than others, and some symbolising aspects of Polish life (especially death)—we began to acquire that sense of community which was adding every minute to the policy of the company from Wroclaw—that is, to prime us for their performance.

By the way (some of us asked after following the crocodile past the mainly bleak tableaux in this dank, defunct dance-hall with here a living corpse in a coffin babbling repeatedly slogans of gloom, and there a naked woman, encased in glass symbolising I forget what now, and over there a scientist raving about social progress, while an actor invites us all to have a drink—‘you deserve it’—only to shrug his shoulders apologetically in front of a stack of empty bottles)—by the way, when were we going to see the play?

Eventually we were directed (actors at every door) back into the dear old Gate Theatre, but not before we had been individually frisked as we entered. And as we took out seats there was a sense of reunion; also of resentment because anyone who happened to have turned up a few minutes late (and Dublin playgoers are notoriously apt to linger elsewhere first—at, say, Groom's) was left unprimed in the auditorium, supposing himself too early for the show after all.

Anyhow, the curtain finally rose and something began to look like a play—very mimetic, very episodic but with characters who moved and spoke from time to time, sometimes in Polish, sometimes in French and sometimes in English. And so one began to feel—well, almost at home, especially with allusions to Chekhovian figures in what looked like a moment from The Cherry Orchard as a grand family found itself bidding farewell to a mansion.

But no sooner had we settled more or less comfortably to let the somewhat abstract-seeming drama sweep over us than an actor came down to the footlights and declared that the company had lost faith in the play. At which point the house lights went up; and in an effort to discover what the play had been about a random spectator in the stalls was asked by an actor to consult the programme ‘note’ and to read it aloud to the rest of us.

It never does to sit in the front stalls at modern plays any more than it did in the days of the Crazy Gang. One is liable to be pounced on. Anyhow this mild American tried to declaim the stuff in the programme, which was described from the stage as being the actual text of the ‘work’; and then somehow, with a sigh of relief, it seemed as if the evening was over.

But no: it was just the interval. We were requested however to quit the building for scene changes to be made; and one or two of us cynically considered that to let any playgoers out of the Gate would be to tempt them not to come back. But back most of us went to find the stage extended over the front stalls and something which looked more than ever like a play taking place on it.

At last we had reached that railway compartment. And such a jostle of actors you never saw before, on or off stage. It was standing room only for most of the playgoers too as they watched a sort of beehive of humanity struggling to find a seat on the train. Such discipline and such chaos and such theatrical vitality brought the long and challenging evening to an end which well-deserved its ovation as the actors circulated among us, shaking our hands and finally seeing us off the premises with a warmth and friendliness which no one who experienced it is likely to forget.

Much of the evening's style had been derivative. In Paris a decade or more ago the American Robert Wilson made us file past various exhibits, out of one auditorium into another; and anyone who knows the work of that other Pole, Jerzy Grotowski, will recognise in Birthrate his influence. Tadeus Kantor, whose productions have been in Britain recently, belongs to the same, harsh but heart-filled Expressionist tradition. And we cannot forget Peter Brook's contribution to these experiments in the manipulation of an audience.

Was all the priming crucial? Was the last exciting scene in that railway compartment with all of humanity swarming for some space the artful (because highly entertaining) seal on a basically pretentious package of avant-garde clichés? One hesitates when one's Polish is no better than mine to stick labels on such work. But it will stick in the mind of everybody who was there for as long as they live. Of that I'm sure.

Further Reading

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Czerwinski, E. J. Review of Teatr, 2 vols. World Literature Today 63, No. 2 (Spring 1989): 333.

Review of Różewicz's complete plays.

Sokoloski, Richard. “Sources of Tadeusz Różewicz's Correspondence: Julian Przyboś, 1945–1962.” Polish Review XLI, No. 1 (1996): 3–36.

Presents several letters written to Różewicz from Julian Przyboś which help demonstrate the relationship between the two writers.

Additional coverage of Różewicz's life and career is contained in the following sources published by the Gale Group: Contemporary Authors, Vol. 108; Contemporary Authors New Revision Series, Vols. 36, 66; Dictionary of Literary Biography, Vol. 232; DISCovering Authors 3.0; DISCovering Authors Modules: Poets; and Major 20th-Century Writers, Vols. 1, 2.

Robert Hauptman (essay date Summer 1982)

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SOURCE: “Tadeusz Różewicz and the Poetics of Pessimism,” in North Dakota Quarterly, Vol. 50, No. 3, Summer, 1982, pp. 77–82.

[In the following essay, Hauptman discusses how Różewicz seeks to overcome his pessimism through his poetry.]

“Wer, wenn ich schriee, hörte mich … ?”

Rainer Maria Rilke

Although many twentieth century poets such as Trakl, Celan, or Plath have manifested bitterness, despair, and pessimism in their verse, Tadeusz Różewicz, playwright, short story writer, poet, one of Poland's most important littérateurs, is perhaps unique: the frequently unrelieved negativism, especially of his early poetry, demands a new perspective on the part of the reader; the bleakness of his vision is such that it defamiliarizes1 through hyperbole. The reader is traumatized into submission. And yet the vision that Różewicz depicts is unequivocally not hyperbolic: it is rather the most credible response to the Holocaust, the war, and the sufferings of the individual;2 it is the poetic equivalent of Celine's fiction; and it is simultaneously a catharsis and reminder that man the creator is also man the destroyer.

The style in which Różewicz writes, unmetrical, shorn of metaphor, descriptive, but at the same time lyrical, has resulted in a poetry of such unique power that H. Olschowsky, writing in 1968, calls Różewicz “… die entscheidenste Gestalt in der Polnischen Lyrik der letzten 20 Jahre. …”3 The potency of this poetry derives from the contiguity of a pessimistic Weltanschauung with a bare superstructure. This occurs most effectively in Różewicz's early verse. As he attempts to exorcise his despair, the poetry becomes more optimistic, and in these cases the simple, straightforward style, so appropriate in the earlier work, no longer achieves its purpose.

The key to Różewicz's vision can be found in “The Survivor”:

I am twenty-four
led to slaughter
I survived(4)

(from “The Survivor,” tr. M. J. Krynski, R. A. Maquire)

This simple opening epitomizes the poet's life: “I am twenty-four” indicates that he was a youth when the war broke out and that this past is now gone; “led to slaughter” contains within it the Holocaust, the war, and the sufferings of the individual; and “I survived” leads the reader from the way in which one managed to survive to the necessity of exorcising the experience and ultimately creating a new and viable life. (This was no easy task in post-war Europe and one which not every sensitive person achieved; neither Tadeusz Borowski nor Paul Celan, for example, were able to come to terms with the Holocaust and its aftermath and both capitulated to it by committing suicide.) Even in 1945, Różewicz is searching for a position from which he can recenter his life:

I seek a teacher and master
let him restore to me sight and hearing and speech
let him once again name things and concepts
let him separate light from dark.

Perhaps it is this type of positive groping in the otherwise dismal perspective of “The Survivor” (“Man can be killed like the beast,” “Virtue and vice have equal weight”) that induces Edward Czerwinski to insist that “… Różewicz's approach to the problem of living, although not sanguine, is certainly not sardonic or pessimistic.”5 An occasional positive assertion, while praiseworthy, can hardly negate the despair that Różewicz's poetry more frequently manifests.

The horror that Różewicz and his coevals experienced cannot really be articulated. They would have avoided it at virtually any cost, had they been able to:

We envied
plants and stones
we envied dogs
I would like to be a rat
I used to say to her

(from “Leave Us Alone,” tr. Czeslaw Milosz)

But because such transformations are impossible, the victims have, in a sense, been contaminated; they have become a generation apart and wish to remain so: Różewicz concludes,

forget about us
don't ask about our youth
leave us alone

As a pariah, a physically or psychologically wounded creature, Różewicz can hardly be faulted for attempting to protect himself from further injury:

I walk on this crumbly
and build a house
a castle on the ice
everything in it
is prepared for the siege
only I am surprised
outside the walls

(from “I Build,” tr. Victor Contoski)

Abjuration of the normal social intercourse that man demands and extensive schemes for self-protection do not necessarily result in escape. It is impossible to account for every contingency.

Even a usual occurrence, like the shining of the moon, evokes a negative response. Różewicz transforms one of the poets' favorite positive images (“Mondbeglänzte Zaubernacht, / Die denn Sinn gefangen hält”—Ludwig Tieck) into its antithesis:

The moon shines
The man falls
The man dies
and the moon shines

(from “The Moon Shines,” tr. Victor Contoski)

This is a supreme example of the “anti-poem,” the poem of simple but absolute statement, the poem, at least in Różewicz's hands, of unrelieved pessimism. The same result is achieved in “Job, 1957,” which also utilizes lyrical repetition—so reminiscent of Federico García Lorca's “Verde que te quiero Verde / Verde viento. Verdes ramas.”

What remained
was begun in love
what grew was ripened
what was merry
is changed to dung
earth heaven the body of Job
roses dung
lips dung

(from “Job, 1957,” tr. Victor Contoski)

Everything is reduced to a common denominator: Job (whose faith triumphed over all adversity), earth, heaven, experience, physical objects—all is reduced to excrement, of use only to flies. “Job, 1957” begins in despair and offers no possibility of redemption. As such, it is a negative but tolerable position. “She Looked at the Sun,” on the other hand, offers ostensible tranquility:

in the bright of day
stands a girl
and smiles to herself

(from “She Looked at the Sun,” tr. M. J. Krynski, R. A. Maquire)

But the poet cannot escape from the recent horror, and an involuntary transformation occurs:

darkness pierces
light and joy
through the sun I see
a black sewer
a pit dank fetid
at the bottom
a little Jewish girl
who on liberation day
came out of hiding
after many years
she looked at the sun
stretched her arms before her went blind

A more pessimistic assertion would be difficult to imagine. This is Różewicz's metaphor for those who survived through incredible sacrifice, only to be destroyed in the aftermath—the Celans, the Borowskis, “the little Jewish girls.”

The foregoing discussion should vindicate the author's contention that Różewicz is indeed a poet of pessimism, Czerwinski notwithstanding. In fact, Krynski and Maguire assert that Różewicz's early poetry limns “as gruesome a picture of life as can be found in any postwar writer, for it is largely drawn in terms of death.”6 How, it might well be asked, can a poet whose vision is so negative continue to exist, interact and create? Three answers suggest themselves: first, as the war experience receded, Różewicz was able to write in a more optimistic vein:

Look he trusts again It's good
he's embracing a woman's body
He will live and create life

(from “Warning,” M. J. Krynski, R. A. Maguire)

Secondly, even in the early poetry, an occasional positive groping occurs, as in “The Survivor.” Finally the very act of creation is a vicarious self-destruction, catharsis, and redemption. For, if “poetry is suicide” (from “The Feeding of Pegasus”) it is equally true that, as Czeslaw Milosz notes, “the act of writing a poem is an act of faith …”7 and if for Milosz this act requires a hiatus from the recent savagery, for Różewicz, the act of creation may function as the hiatus itself. Finally, if Różewicz admires the artist who abandons art, he concomitantly recognizes the necessity to continue:

“The Return”

I can never come to terms
with some of my poems
years pass
I can't come to terms with them
yet I cannot disown them
they are bad but they're mine
I gave them birth
they live away from me
indifferent and dead
but there will come a moment when they all
will rush back to me
the successful and the failed
the crippled and the perfect
they will roll into one
and will return into me
so that I shall not die
in a void

(tr. Adam Czerniawski)

Poetry negates the past, absurdity, nothingness, and therefore Catherine Leach can say that, “Since the essence of modern life for Różewicz is exactly its lack of authenticity, the impossibility of conversation, alienation, its nothingness—his task as a poet must consist in the naming of nothingness”8 Pessimistic articulation is its own salvation: for Różewicz poetry is redemption.


  1. For a general discussion of this concept, see R. H. Stacy, Defamiliarization in Language and Literature (Syracuse, 1977).

  2. This is not meant to imply that other artistic responses are untenable, but rather that Różewicz's extirpation of the past's horror in terms of a present equivalent is the method that appears most effective to the present writer.

  3. H. Olschowsky, “Zur poetischen Semantik in der Dichtung Tadeusz Różewiczs,” Zeitschrift für Slawistik, XIII (3) (1968), p. 417.

  4. Translations of Różewicz's poetry can be found in a number of journals, anthologies, and collections. See, for example, Victor Contoski, ed., Four Contemporary Polish Poets (n.p., n.d.); Adam Gillon, Ludwik Krzyzanowski, ed., Introduction to Modern Polish Literature (New York, 1964); Milne Holton. Paul Vangelisti, ed., The New Polish Poetry: A Bilingual Collection (Pittsburgh, 1978); Magnus John Krynski, Robert A. Maguire, “The Poetics of Tadeusz Różewicz,” The Polish Review, XX (1) (1975), 71–110; Czeslaw Milosz, ed., Postwar Polish Poetry (Garden City, 1965); Tadeusz Różewicz, Faces of Anxiety, ed. Adam Czerniawski (Chicago, 1969), not available to author; Tadeusz Różewicz, “Poems,” Polish Perspectives, X (8–9) (August-September 1967), 70–80; Tadeusz Różewicz, “The Survivor” and Other Poems, ed. Magnus J. Krynski, Robert A. Maguire (Princeton, 1976); Celina Wieniewska, ed., Polish Writing Today (Baltimore, 1967).

  5. Edward J. Czerwinski, “Tadeusz Różewicz and the Jester-Priest Metaphor,” The Slavic and East European Journal, XIII (2) (Summer 1969), 219.

  6. Magnus Jan Krynski, Robert A. Maguire, “The Poetry of Tadeusz Różewicz,” The Polish Review, XX (1) (1975), 73.

  7. Czeslaw Milosz, The History of Polish Literature (London, 1969), p. 458.

  8. Catherine Leach, “Remarks on the Poetry of Tadeusz Różewicz,” The Polish Review, XII (2) (September 1967), 126. This essay is an interesting discussion of Różewicz's work in terms of the existential thought of Heidegger, Jaspers, and Sartre.

E. J. Czerwinski (essay date March 1984)

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Last Updated on June 7, 2022, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 6529

SOURCE: “Feasts in Time of the Plague: Polish Theatre and Drama, Post-Solidarity,” in Modern Drama, Vol. XXVII, No. 1, March, 1984, pp. 41–54.

[In the following essay, Czerwinski discusses the state of the theater in post-solidarity Poland.]

The classics are back and East European theatres are feasting on them. It is that time again when the winds of resistance die down and the ominous calm spreads across the theatre community. It has happened before, each time signaled by the censorship of Adam Mickiewicz's Dziady (Forefather's Eve), a nineteenth-century classic that straightforwardly excoriates the old Russian regime. Unfortunately, things have not changed much and Mickiewicz's diatribes against the Russians translate fortuitously into criticism of the Soviets. The present state of theatrical ennui in Poland, however, was precipitated not by Mickiewicz's poetic abuse, but rather by General Jarużelski's prosaic convening of ZOMO—the Polish equivalent of Hell's Angels. Polish actors, directors and producers responded with their own convocation—a total boycott of television (one channel continues to drone on, attempting to give a semblance of normality to a catastrophic cultural situation).

The television boycott has had its reverberations in Poland's theatres. When Jan Paweł Gawlik was appointed director of Warsaw's Dramatyczny Teatr (Dramatic Theatre), the actors and staff, led by the actor Gustaw Holoubek, resigned their positions. Józef Szajna took an early retirement, resigning from his post as director of Teatr Studio, rather than compromise the dictates of his conscience. Adam Hanuszkiewicz is no longer director of Teatr Narodowy (The National Theatre). Of the respected figures in the theatre, only Kazimierz Dejmek created a controversy within the theatrical community when he assumed the directorship of Warsaw's Polski Theatre. By comparison, it came as no surprise that Jerzy Krassowski and Krystyna Skuszanka, the husband-wife team of Nowa Huta fame (in the fifties and early sixties Szajna was their scene designer), quickly stepped in to fill the void created by Hanuszkiewicz's resignation from The National Theatre.

As a result of the theatre boycott and the actors' insurgency, the government quickly abolished all unions and called upon the aging former president of SPATIF/ZASP (Union of Polish Artists), Henryk Śletyński, to form a new “house union.” The effort, of course, was unsuccessful: actors, artists and professionals—as if answering in perfect harmony—refused to join any government-sponsored organization. If one group in Eastern Europe is following the spirit of Solidarity, it is those whose moral duty is to create a country's culture. The best artists have proved to be the finest citizens. On 4 May 1983 Andrzej Wajda was dismissed as head of Group x, the movie production unit. His activities as spokesman for Polish artists during Solidarity's too brief halcyon days and his film Man of Iron, which won the Golden Palm Award of the Cannes Film Festival, stressed too blatantly the cynical shifts in Polish politics. Wajda remains in France, where he is completing work on Danton's Affair, based on the Polish play by Stanisława Przybyszewska. During the same period Poland's finest actor, Daniel Olbrychski, star of several international productions including Günter Grass's The Tin Drum, was requested to leave the country because of his criticism of the tactics employed by the government. Other artists have been directed—ordered—to conform, to create for a dubious posterity “sermons in stones.” Some have succumbed; the majority, despite insidious harassment, continues to hold on to what one director has referred to as “a still and quiet conscience.”1


The plethora of classics, whether by design or not, has turned into swan songs for various directors. Józef Szajna retired, leaving behind him three productions which will continue in Teatr Studio's repertory: Replika (1973), Dante (1974), and Cervantes (1976). His premature retirement (he now devotes his time to painting) startled the professional community. Vibrant and filled with a lust for life, despite the fact that he spent his youth (from age seventeen to twenty-two) in several death camps, Szajna has always been proud of his role as Poland's Hound of Heaven. For this reason one takes his alleged retirement with a grain of salt.

In contrast, Jerzy Grotowski's exit from the theatre, especially with the recent abolishment of his Laboratory Theatre in Wrocław, has an air of finality about it. His production Apocalypsis cum figuris (1968), in essence, signified his farewell to the theatre. Even Richard Schechner's valiant plea (he went down on his knees in front of Grotowski during the ITI Conference in 1976) failed to persuade Grotowski to return to directing in the theatre.

Adam Hanuszkiewicz also bade farewell with a classic, Leśmian, a dramatization of the Polish poet's works. Jerzy Jarocki, another of Poland's fine directors, turned to Calderón's Life Is a Dream at the Stary Theatre in Kraków. Besides world dramas, Polish classics—Witkacy (who committed suicide in 1939), Wyspiański, and Mrożek (who now resides abroad but is sanctioned by Polish authorities)—also conveniently became the staple of most theatres when martial law was declared in December 1981. According to several sources in Warsaw, “there virtually will be no theatre in Poland next season (1983–84).”

However true this prediction may prove, the past year has produced, if not a feast, at least something of substance for a patient clientele: a play by Poland's finest dramatist, Tadeusz Różewicz, entitled Pułapka (The Trap), based on the life of Franz Kafka; a satire written in France by Eugeniusz Priwieziencew, in collaboration with Helmut Kajzar, who died of cancer of the spine on 2 August 1982, before completing the play; and a production of Albert Camus's The Plague, with dramatization, scene design, and direction by Kazimierz Braun.

But before proceeding to recent developments in Poland's theatres, something must be said of the one person in the twentieth century who might conceivably be able to shift the Leninian emphasis—from the masses to the mass—that is, from Communist insularity to, in that person's words, “spiritual liberation.” Over a century ago, the Romantic poet Juliusz Słowacki predicted that there would be “a Slavic Pope.” That man hailed in verse was fated to be a Pole from Wadowice, Karol Wojtyła, Pope John Paul II: “And so here he comes—the Slavic Pope, / Humanity's brother. …”2

No one would deny the fact that the theatre world, at least, has been searching for someone who would, if not resuscitate, at least breathe new life into the theatre, in much the same way Jerzy Grotowski did in the sixties and Józef Szajna and Tadeusz Kantor attempted to do in the seventies. Of course, Grotowski, Szajna and Kantor were born to the theatre as were Stanislavski and Diaghilev before them. On the other hand, Karol Wojtyła seemed merely to be waiting for his entrance, as it were, to a higher arena during his years as actor and dramatist in Kraków, under the tutelage of his first mentor, the director Mieczysław Kotlarczyk.

Nonetheless, Grotowski and Wojtyła have much in common: each man quite early in his career seemed conscious of his destiny, and both are preoccupied with the moral makeup of man. Grotowski became a singular force in the theatre in the sixties and later attempted to become a spiritual mentor to artists and workers in the seventies. In abolishing his Laboratory Theatre, he has concomitantly given up his crown as the prince of contemporary theatre. During the same period Wojtyła, in a puff of white smoke, was metamorphosed into the spiritual leader of the Roman Catholic Church, John Paul II.

As a dramatist, Karol Wojtyła was what he is today: defender of the traditional value system—family, home and church. As an actor in Kraków, he prepared for his present role; as a Pole who witnessed the Holocaust, he has now become the symbol of suffering humanity striving to free itself from political as well as a self-inflicted moral oppression. He is the quintessential charismatic figure of the late twentieth century. His much publicized journeys for peace through South America, to Africa and to Poland were in the nature of a planned happening. In Pope John Paul II audiences—Catholic and non-Catholic—seem to sense a moral urgency, a commonly shared feeling that they could be better than they are, that by means of a spiritual force they could control destiny—despite the specter of a nuclear holocaust. If this assessment is true, then we very well may experience a new type of theatre and drama in the near future, where man is thrust once again into the moral center from which he has been somehow displaced by industry, by technology, by politics and long ago by another fellow Pole, Copernicus, who accurately charted God's—not man's—universe. Like Grotowski, whose dramas mirrored man's spiritual wasteland, Pope John Paul II is extending an invitation to all men to participate in his sacred dance. His role in this creative process is to act as a catalyst, to focus attention on the eschatological questions that give meaning to life—questions, not answers—for chaos must first be molded into a recognizable macrocosm through which humanity may study its destiny. Life must become total theatre. Of course, Pope John Paul II, like other pragmatic visionaries before him, has set up for himself an impossible task.


Polish artists, happily, have assumed more realistic roles to which they are more amply suited. This is not to say that they have given up their moral responsibility as artists: on the contrary, each seems to be heeding the call of Pope John Paul II in a personal way. Tadeusz Różewicz, for example, has published two plays during this period in which man is thrust into the center of moral and personal dilemmas. As if reacting to the Pope's call for an examination of mass conscience, Różewicz forced the publication of his previously censored drama, Do piachu … (To the Boneyard …), which he had been writing and revising for almost two decades, since 1955, when he made his first excursion into drama. Published in the Polish monthly Dialog, 23 (February 1979), 5–29, and produced and directed by Tadeusz Łomnicki at the Teatr na Woli in April 1979, the production evoked a great deal of harsh criticism.

It is something of a modern-day miracle that To the Boneyard … made it through the convoluted maze of the censor's network. Of course, the time could not have been more propitious. At the moment of publication Cardinal Stefan Wyszyński announced that Pope John Paul II was invited to visit Poland. Łomnicki took advantage of the situation and announced his intentions to produce the play. Różewicz felt that, indeed, Poland was again a country of hope: “My youth is in that play—my whole life. I want people to understand. …”3

Różewicz is proud of his reputation as Poland's jester, a role which he has often assumed in the past.4 Both in his poetry and in his plays Różewicz has always questioned values that people hold sacred—Communism, patriotism, Catholicism, the role of women as sexual objects (White Marriage), and especially the arbitrarily imposed rules of the game whether during wartime or at any time.

The jester's stance is part of Różewiczian irony: the smiles never disappear from the faces of his characters. At times the irony is surface-deep, as with the propaganda chief Kiliński, the villain—anti-Communist, pro forma—who announces in earnest: “Up to this time we had only one enemy, but from today we have two enemies”5—of course, the Soviets and the Germans. More often Różewicz's irony is directed toward man's inhumanity to man. In To the Boneyard … his hero, Waluś, the provincial innocent who resembles Billy Budd, is executed for allegedly raping an old woman. His innocence magnifies the injustice: his goodness and calm acceptance of punishment for a crime he did not commit are a mirrored metaphor of the war being waged outside the barracks. He is the sacrifice, the vestige of a primitive ritual like the one which demands separate latrines for officers and enlisted men. Waluś is executed in order that the rules of the game be followed.

Różewicz appears to be saying that the war seems to have a special meaning for each person. Each participates in his own war: for the man who fought the enemy face to face, it is a war between two foes; for the man who fought as a partisan, aiming his fire at objects that moved, it is a war game of nerves; for the man deported to Auschwitz who survives, it is the worst war of all—an eternal one that will end only when he does. Yet each participated in the same war. For Różewicz this paradox is the true meaning of any war.

After Boneyard Różewicz turned to a theme that has interested him for a number of years—the conflict between fathers and sons. Children have always occupied a special place in his dramas. In a number of them Różewicz has even employed the names of his two sons, Kamil and Jan. In Pułapka (The Trap), published in Dialog, 26 (June 1982), 5–40, Różewicz has articulated his own familial frustrations within the framework of the life of Franz Kafka.

The play in fifteen scenes is the most personal statement Różewicz has uttered after his early poetry. Since the publication of Boneyard, and especially since the imposition of martial law, he has, like other Polish artists, turned inward. The Pope's recent visit has also affected him: “I am not a Catholic, but I am religious. John Paul reminds me that I am sixty-two years old.” Perhaps Kafka's brief, troubled life also reminded Różewicz that the time had come to straighten things out at home. Earlier in his four brief sketches Różewicz had confided that all his former themes and preoccupations were explored in these short plays and that they were the “most significant of all … [his] works. To understand what I am doing, one must read these plays.”6

In the four sketches Różewicz self-consciously employs the various techniques and themes he has used in his eighteen plays: the breakdown of language communication, the repetitious static nature of the merry-go-round of history, the absurdity of human existence and, above all, the captive artist forced to move his writing hand along a blank sheet of paper, even when it is not holding a pen or pencil. In all of these pieces the lonely artist stands in the midst of the clamor of contemporary events. What is missing in these plays is his personal theme, often merely hinted at—the eternal conflict between fathers and sons. Through Kafka's life—not his writings—Różewicz has come to grips with his own artistic and human dilemma that involves those closest to him. Suffice it to say that Różewicz and his son Kamil, a brilliant, brooding social historian (he is currently doing research on Max Weber [1864–1920], the German sociologist and political economist), have had problems adjusting to each other.

This is not to say that The Trap is a drame à clef. Its significance lies in the fact that Różewicz explores a new theme in a lyrical, personal way, and that it was written during a time when hope and despair in Poland alternated with each other like birth and death. It is also interesting to note that Jan Kott, who recently retired from SUNY at Stony Brook, considers The Trap Różewicz's finest play.

So does Różewicz. As if searching for identity, he depicts the life of his hero Franz from early childhood in Tableau I, where the child confides to his nurse: “I'm afraid of daddy … daddy said that he'd tear me apart like a frog.”7 In the final scene, Tableau 15, entitled “Under the Wall,” an apparition, the “little soul” of Franz Kafka, appears, “standing and staring lifelessly at the people. He exits together with the last member of the audience.”8 The catharsis, however, comes in Tableau 14, when the mature Franz is reassuring his dying father: “… sleep … don't be afraid of anything, daddy. …”9 The circle has been completed and the son becomes the father, but not until the old father has had his last say in the son's metamorphosis: “… don't you see that pack of dogs that run about the earth, through villages and towns, through forests and streets … don't you hear their barks … and I sense with my peasant nose, the nose of a poor beggar who sniffs the earth and the tree, the bread and the meat, that they are on our track … they'll overtake us on earth and underground; they'll find you in your shelter … they'll strangle and burn us all. … (Father listens intently.) They're closing in … they're coming after us. …”10 Even in death father remains with son. This confrontation is the longest scene in the play and the sole encounter between the two (except for a brief exchange in Tableau 8, the engagement party, during which Franz manages to utter only one word to his garrulous father—“I”). It is also significant that Różewicz has added a caption to Tableau 14: “He'll Never Grow Up.”11 Ironically, it is a statement that the Polish writer has often made in his own household.

Różewicz, in The Trap, combines the petty business of life with the paradoxes of eschatology. He makes Franz Kafka live again by bringing him down to life-size. He succeeds in doing this by concentrating on “inner holocaust”: the distance between father and son is the area between life and death. Franz Kafka had a primal fear of his father. Paradoxically, Różewicz seems to share this fear with his son. When in Tableau 3, a dream—“The Sacrificial Animal”—Franz screams: “I'm afraid of people, I'm afraid of you, I'm afraid of little girls who are as malicious as monkeys … I'm a dirty animal,” we hear echoes of themes from some of Różewicz's earlier plays: The Laocoön Group (1961), The Funny Old Man (1964) and He Left Home (1964). The themes lay dormant until 1972, when Różewicz attempted to write a play about “them”—“the living, growing mass of humanity”—Dostoevski's anthill. The attempt, an essay on writing a play, was entitled Przyrost naturalny (The Birth Rate).12

But before proceeding to the production of The Birth Rate and Kazimierz Braun's association with Różewicz, it may be interesting to comment on the adventures of a young man, an excellent actor, who began his writing career during this period, who left Poland to accept a role as a Polish prisoner in a death camp in Alan Pakula's Sophie's Choice, and who as a writer is preoccupied with a similar theme—the atrocities perpetrated by “them”—not during war but during a “state of war.” Sons without fathers, without guiding hands, lost before they could even find themselves—this is also Eugeniusz Priwieziencew's highly personal theme.

Priwieziencew regards Różewicz as his mentor, but he considers him an “inner writer,” as compared to an “outer writer” like himself. Różewicz, according to Priwieziencew, knows how far to go: “His Aesopian bare style is the result of all the subterfuges that writers have to indulge in. I want to write openly—from the heart.”13 Priwieziencew's works are appropriately referred to as “Open-Heart Drama.”14

Born of a Russian father and a Polish mother at the end of World War II, he was brought up in a Polish orphanage. He met his father for the first time when he was thirty-three years old, in 1976, traveling by plane from Warsaw to Moscow. His mother had a nervous breakdown when she was pregnant and died in childbirth. Priwieziencew was born in a hospital for the mentally ill and was later dispatched to an orphanage.

His initial meeting with his father changed the course of his life. His father, a homosexual, was living with an Orthodox priest. After various attempts to force him to remain with his father in Moscow, Eugeniusz, with the help of various Soviet writer friends, including Vasily Aksyonov, returned to Warsaw, never to see his father again. In 1979 his father was murdered under mysterious circumstances, and Eugeniusz was “advised” to sign papers which gave up his right to any inheritance. He agreed and has not heard from the authorities in the Soviet Union since that day. His father's art collection (including rare icons and valuable paintings) went the way of all individual wealth—to the state.

After his traumatic meeting with his father Priwieziencew wrote his first full-length play, the only one of his six dramas to be staged thus far. Entitled Dwa dialogi jednego wieczoru (Two Dialogues during One Evening), this semidocumentary not only mirrors his life but subjects his “inner biography” to painful scrutiny, to literary open-heart surgery.

The title of the play is misleading, for there are actually three dialogues: one with Anthony's wife, Barbara; another with his father; and a third, a poetic dream sequence, with his mentally ill, resurrected-from-the-dead mother. It is all true. Only a few facts have been altered a bit: in the play Anthony's father comes to visit him from the United States; except for a reference to the father's “slight mannerisms of a homosexual,” nothing more is said on the subject; and in the dream episode Anthony's (Priwieziencew's) mother seems to be speaking from the grave. During the final moments of the play Anthony is metamorphosed into Priwieziencew: “O, for God's sake, leave me alone; don't fondle me—I'm a grown man. So, please: leave me alone; damn it! What a man!”15

It would be interesting to speculate on how Two Dialogues would have developed had Priwieziencew's father been murdered in 1977 and not in 1979. At any rate, Priwieziencew next turned to a more salacious theme, the world of Warsaw's demimonde, after his father's death. The play, Kurwy (The Whores, 1980),16 depicts the lives of five women on New Year's Eve and is completely free of personal reference. The death of the youngest prostitute, Alka (she hangs herself in the bathroom), is a rather contrived bit of business, but Priwieziencew's depiction of the low life under Communism—the first play in Eastern Europe to do so—makes it an interesting experiment.

Priwieziencew's most recent play, Sukces (Spin the Lucky Battle, 1982), ends where Różewicz began when he first published Kartoteka (The Card File, 1960): man trying to extract sense from the absurdity of existence. In his latest play Priwieziencew encounters the young Różewicz face to face. It is as if both artists have completed their earthly circular journey, each beginning at the opposite end. Spin the Lucky Battle is reminiscent of the theatre of the absurd of the sixties, but its themes and concerns are rooted in affairs resulting from actions taken on 13 December 1981.

Spin the Lucky Battle will have to wait for a second coming of Solidarity before it will be published or produced in Poland. The three-character play (I, You, and She) is more a confession à trois than it is a dramatic episode. I and You recount world events that have forced them into exile. She performs the role of a fallen oracle, eager to bring the “others” down to her level: “Planning isn't always the best way. Let's resign ourselves to our fate.”17 You asks the eternal Polish question: “What's going to help us? The West is weak and littered with Arabs.” He suggests the final solution: “We could put on concentration camp uniforms, with a pink triangle and the letter g for Gay sewn on them. Then we'd be given honors like that poor guy in the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier.”

After spinning the bottle for the thirty-ninth time, You and I transform themselves into Ola and Ala respectively. She becomes He (Ace). Nothing changes and the results are predictable; for as Ala observes, “lovers of regimes adapt themselves very well over here.” As Ola and Ala assume their original roles (You and I), they stare at She/Ace, who is “dripping with blood.” They accept defeat stoically, standing still, as You delivers a personal eulogy: “Sons-of-bitches. They couldn't come up with any other solution.” They take the plastic bag filled with water that She/Ace has brought to them to perform absolution and the last rites: “A girl with matches who gave me this bag poured her tears into it.” You climbs into a garbage can; he remarks before closing the lid: “I was always accustomed to be driven away.” I spins the bottle for the last time, the fiftieth spin. He looks out at the audience and confides: “Had there been no forty-year-old guys like us to lead the young … in whose name would one speak and what would one say?” As if eager to supply the answer, he hands the bottle to a member of the audience: “It's your turn. …”

Priwieziencew has proclaimed himself spokesman for Polish artists living inside and outside of Poland. He has decided to return to Poland, should his request to secure a Consular Passport be denied. Like his two heroes, he understands the rules of the game: “I have no illusions—no guarantees—no one ever promised me any. I write and will continue to act. What else is there left to do?”

Kazimierz Braun concurs. Often invited to teach and direct abroad, most recently in the United States, Braun prefers to develop his idea of “spatial theatre” in the contemporary theatre in Wroclaw, the home of a number of famous groups: Henryk Tomaszewski's Pantomime Theatre, the Kalambur Student Theatre, and Jerzy Grotowski's defunct Laboratory Theatre. If the authorities will give Braun artistic autonomy, he may very well prove to be the person that the theatre world has been waiting for since the departures of Grotowski, Szajna and Kantor. Long associated with Różewicz, Braun has directed the première of almost every one of the dramatist's plays. His recent revolutionary ideas concerning theatre, however, were born of his production of Różewicz's The Birth Rate: A Biography of a Stage Play, premièred on the eve of the eighties—30 December 1979.

Braun's production of The Birth Rate was undoubtedly influenced by Maciej Słomczyński's dramatization of James Joyce's works, entitled Anna Livia, which Braun produced and directed two years earlier in 1977. The production was Braun's greatest success, surpassing his American directorial debut of Różewicz's White Marriage at the Slavic Cultural Center in Port Jefferson, New York, in 1975. The Irish were so impressed with Anna Livia that they invited Braun and his production of The Birth Rate to the Dublin Theatre Festival in 1981. Critics lavished praise on the production: “Nothing quite like the presentation mounted by the Wrocław Contemporary Theatre—the first Polish group to perform here—has been seen at a Dublin Theatre Festival, or is likely to be seen again for some considerable time.”18 Eric Shorter of The Daily Telegraph was equally effusive: “What threatened at first to be a pale and pretentious derivation of work of other experimental directors like Peter Brook and Robert Wilson as well as provocative Poles like Tadeusz Kantor and Jerzy Grotowski became an evening of such vivid theatricality, powerful imagery, rare imagination and heart-warming teamwork between us and the actors as well as between themselves that it seemed to put the efforts of the aforementioned luminaries temporarily in the shade. It certainly puts this festival back on the map as a vital date in the international drama calendar.”19 Similar laudatory reviews have accompanied Braun's subsequent productions, including Witold Gombrowicz's Operetta (1981).

But it was The Birth Rate that paved the way for Braun's most innovative production, Camus's Dżuma (The Plague). Like Anna Livia, The Birth Rate is a fusion of disparate works: fragments from Różewicz's essays, scenes from the writer's other plays and from his poetry, most notably Twarze (Faces). The play is in the form of a staged happening, beginning with a session between the director and the audience in a large rehearsal room; the second phase takes place in the prop-room areas, where uniformed inspectors, armed with weapons, keep order over the audience that files in to view the objects (contraceptive devices, photos of various births, “a real scientist at work,” etc.) on display; the third phase is the performance on the stage. (A similar spatial arrangement was worked out for The Plague.)

In describing the production one is afraid to distort Braun's intent; undoubtedly, the work affects each person differently. For this reason one tends to agree with Braun that no description of the production will define it adequately: “The production must be experienced,” Braun insists. “A new theatre quality has emerged. It is not the theatre of Gombrowicz or Witkiewicz, nor is it the theatre of Różewicz.”20 In all fairness, it is the theatre of Braun, and it is being silenced by Poland's censors.

Because Braun's production of The Plague may never be staged again, it may be of interest to theatre historians to trace the sequence of events that led to its closing which, consequently, led to Braun's being hospitalized for high blood pressure and a near coronary. The following official account is a summary of the events leading to the closing of the play:

“After the first dress rehearsal, on 29 April 1983, the production was prohibited from continuing.

“After numerous interventions and disputes and after being viewed by several commissions at subsequent dress rehearsals, we were ordered to effect a number of cuts in the production and were permitted to stage two performances (on 6 and 7 May 1983).

“After further efforts by the theatre, we were permitted to put on nine performances—no more.

“This production of The Plague is considered by a number of important critics as being the most ambitious and important to be staged in Poland in over a decade. As a result of the censor's actions, not one review has appeared in any newspaper or journal to date (August 17, 1983).

“At each of the nine performances thousands of people were turned away from the theatre, since fire regulations permit only four hundred and fifty people inside the theatre.”21

Perhaps Braun's own statements regarding the meaning of The Plague (which were to be published in the program) helped to precipitate the heavy-handed response to his production: “The Plague is evil, evil outside us, as well as inside all of us. One must recognize it, label it, become aware of it. And take a stand against it; one must define oneself in regard to the plague.” Braun's metaphoric self-immolation is consummated in the final words of his commentary: “Each member of the audience is alone in relation to the plague. Only during the finale is it possible for him to realize his oneness, his solidarity.” It is little wonder, then, that one of the censors confronted Braun and his actors with the aptly formed rhetorical question: “Are you equating Communism with the plague?”

Whatever Braun's real intentions, in the given political situation in Eastern Europe it is not surprising that the censor jumped to the obvious conclusion. As rumors spread throughout Wrocław, people unable to purchase tickets milled around the Contemporary Theatre during the nine performances, like night-vigilants awaiting a miracle. The fire department was always on hand, “in case of fire.” The theatre world had experienced its first major casualty since the perennial censorship of Mickiewicz's Forefather's Eve.

It is difficult to imagine that Braun actually believed he could stage his version of Camus's novel in Poland. In response to the natural question regarding how the plague affects people, Braun ingenuously explains: “It severs ties, destroys understanding, communication, and contact among people. It breaks down the social structure. It creates an act of separation, of alienation, of exile. In the face of the plague, each is alone. Alone he must effect a moral choice. And take his stand.”22 Obviously Braun has done just that: “I spent a year of my life on this production. It is a personal—an artistic—statement. Can we blame Camus for being clairvoyant? I am sure he was not writing about a particular plague. And I have no particular plague in mind. My concern is theatre and the human condition. Each must make his own moral choice.”

In truth, Braun's dramatization employs all the devices of his new approach to theatre. Camus's The Plague is merely a metaphor. There are no rats: they have been transformed into four waiters. There is no play proper: two segments of the production take place in various parts of the theatre; the final scene is a play-within-a-play and is enacted onstage. There is very little dialogue: most of the action is outlined in the text. And the audience is an integral part of the cast of characters.

Although Braun insists that he merely interpolated Camus's philosophy into his production, the dialogue seems to be a direct comment on the present political climate in Poland, ironically even more so since the lifting of martial law on 22 July 1983. The plague (whatever it is) is spreading; no one is spared, not even any of the four nurses ministering to the populace. Nurse II sounds the oft repeated theme: “We considered ourselves free, but no one will be free of it, so long as the disease persists.” Her heroic wisdom did not escape the censor's scissors.

One almost begins to sympathize with the lot of the censors, for the text resounds with slogans that apply directly to the country under martial law: “Communications with the rest of the country were cut off. All means of correspondence were forbidden. Telephone links between cities were completely interrupted for several days and later were greatly restricted. Telegrams were censored. It became apparent that no one would be able to leave the city.” The censors finally concluded that mere cutting would not save the situation. After a series of verbal battles with Braun and various influential critics and intellectuals, the committee relented and gave permission for a limited run.

Even without the obvious political associations, the production is a theatrical event. In Part II the audience is divided into three groups: each is led by a waiter-rat to separate areas of the building. The same scene is enacted before each of the three groups; that is, the actors perform the scene three different times. The three groups visit a hospital operating room and the character Grant's workroom (he is referred to as an “inner émigré”); and finally they are silenced as Father Gustav delivers a blood-and-thunder sermon, reciting verses from Isaiah and chanting (rabbi-style): “How long, Lord; how long?” Naturally, parishioner-audience response is predictable. It often seems that Braun deliberately creates the volatile situation. The dialogue is highly inflammatory: “There were a number of victims. Unfortunately we do not know the precise number.” The words seem to have been copied from the daily newspaper, and the audience is quick to make necessary associations—the miners in Silesia, the strikers in Poznań and Gdańsk, etc.

But it is after intermission, in Part III, that we experience the “new theatre”—Braun's theatre. The audience comes together in the auditorium to witness a new production, Molière's The White-Haired Pedant, a play-within-a-play. Braun's ingenious addition to Camus's text astonishes the audience that has somberly gathered together to hear another sermon. Instead, they are served a delicious comedy starring two lovely ladies, Armanda and Henrietta. Soon there is laughter in the theatre. When the audience has completely succumbed to Molière's wit, Braun slowly brings it back to the late twentieth century. As Armanda and Henrietta deliver their lines, each slowly becomes disoriented. The prompter's voice grows louder but to no avail. The plague has struck the theatre. New actresses are summoned. They, too, are overcome by the disease. As the plump promptress struggles into a tight costume, she also succumbs. Finally, the waiters assume the women's roles and take part in a dumb show, destroying all the scenery on the stage in the process. Farce has given way to tragedy. Dr. Lambou enters, surveys the ruins, and stares at the audience: “People have gotten used to this; they've succumbed to the rhythm of the plague! And that, precisely, is the greatest misfortune.” His admonition is an echo of the conversations heard on the streets of Wrocław and Warsaw.

In the face of personal and national tragedy The Plague ends on an optimistic note. At any other time the purveyors of socialist realism would welcome such a move, but if the censor has guessed rightly, perhaps a more somber conclusion would be more appropriate. For in Braun's version the plague disappears. Dr. Rieux, as if speaking for every member of the diseased city, admits to having undergone a metamorphosis: “I shall endeavor to live in such a way that I may one day become a saint. I'd like to be one now, really.” The personal appearance of “the Slavic Pope” seems almost imminent. Before it can happen, however, Tarron interjects that he wants simply to be a human being. Dr. Rieux's response—“We are striving for the same thing”—obviates the necessity for Pope John Paul II to make an appearance. Religion and socialist humanism can and must coexist, since the goals are the same.

To underscore his theme—that hope is within man's grasp—Braun introduces a woman who enters unobtrusively and begins to hang wet diapers all over the theatre. General Jarużelski himself would forgive such an impropriety of life-affirmation. But today the censors in Poland are hard taskmasters. Even coexistence is suspect. It may very well be that the temporal feasts have come to an end.


  1. Interviews with Polish intellectuals conducted during the period 12–28 July 1983. These and subsequent quotations will remain uncited for obvious reasons. All translations from Polish in this article are my own, unless otherwise cited.

  2. Juliusz Słowacki (1809–1849). Other poets cited as voicing the same prophecy include Konstanty Ildefons Gałczyński (1905–1953) and the Nobel Prize winner Czesław Miłosz (born 1911).

  3. Interview with Tadeusz Różewicz, conducted on 24 July 1983 in his apartment in Wroclaw.

  4. See E. J. Czerwinski, “Tadeusz Różewicz and the Jester-Priest Metaphor,” in The Slavic and East European Journal, 13 (Spring 1969), 217–228.

  5. To the Boneyard …, in Dialog, 23 (February 1979), 15. All citations in this article from Polish are my own translations.

    See E. J. Czerwinski, “The Prophetic Development of an Artist: Tadeusz Różewicz,” in Slavic and East European Arts, 1 (Spring 1983), 132–149.

  6. Interview with Różewicz, conducted on 17 July 1982.

  7. The Trap, in Dialog, 26 (June 1982), 5.

  8. The Trap, 40.

  9. Ibid., 39.

  10. Ibid., 39–40.

  11. Ibid., 35.

  12. See Sztuki teatralne (Theatre Plays), (Wrocław, 1972), p. 300.

  13. Interview with Priwieziencew in July 1982.

  14. See E. J. Czerwinski, “Eugeniusz Priwieziencew: Open-Heart Theatre and Drama,” World Literature Today (Winter 1982), 41–43.

  15. Trans. E. J. Czerwinski, unpublished.

  16. The Whores, in Slavic and East European Arts, I (Spring 1983), 111–131.

  17. Spin the Lucky Battle has just been published in Slavic and East European Arts, 2 (Fall 1983), 150–161, trans. E. J. Czerwinski and Janusz Wilk.

  18. Desmond Rushe, “Exciting Invitation to the Venturesome,” in Irish Independent, 7 October 1981, n.p.

  19. “Heart Warmer from Poland,” in The Daily Telegraph, 8 October 1981, n.p.

  20. Krystyna Demska, “New Productions: ‘The Birth Rate (A Biography of a Stage Play),’” in The Theatre in Poland, 6 (1980), 16.

  21. Part of the actual text acquired by me on 23 July 1983.

  22. After convalescing for six weeks in a hospital, Braun returned to Wrocław to continue his battle with the censors.

Halina Filipowicz (essay date September 1984)

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Last Updated on June 7, 2022, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 6584

SOURCE: “Tadeusz Różewicz's The Card Index: A New Beginning for Polish Drama,” in Modern Drama, Vol. XXVII, No. 3, September, 1984, pp. 395–408.

[In the following essay, Filipowicz asserts that Różewicz's The Card Index exhibits an open dramaturgy and a rejection of literary conventions which have caused a strong impact on Polish drama.]

The Card Index (Kartoteka) is the best known and most seminal of some fifteen full-length plays by Tadeusz Różewicz, foremost Polish poet and dramatist who has achieved an unimpeded style of his own.1 Written in the late 1950s, when the arts in Eastern Europe were emerging from the dreary period of enforced socialist realism, The Card Index revolutionized Polish theatre by its radical concept of open dramaturgy, an approach which does not imitate or embellish life but creates a self-contained reality on stage. Using the formal principles of construction found in modern poetry, art, and music, Różewicz gives his play a fluid dramatic form, one that is more open and loose than forms developed by the conventional, mimetic dramaturgy of realistic psychology and storytelling. Yet The Card Index never becomes an abstract construction in pure theatricality. The fragmentary, seemingly incoherent form of the play serves to express severe dislocations in postwar Polish society, which witnessed the Communist takeover, the subsequent Stalinist reign of terror, a collapse of the Soviet-backed regime, and the short-lived liberalization of the late 1950s. The form of The Card Index also reflects Różewicz's view of malleable human nature in the world of instability and endless flux. No conventional realistic drama could capture those complex sociopolitical and moral issues as profoundly as The Card Index does by exclusively antimimetic means.

Historically, the nonrealistic idiom has been the dominant mode of expression for Polish dramatists such as Adam Mickiewicz, Juliusz Słowacki, Cyprian Kamil Norwid, Stanisław Wyspiański, Stanisław Ignacy Witkiewicz (known as Witkacy), or Witold Gombrowicz. Różewicz imbues the antimimetic tradition of Polish drama with a new vitality by deconstructing its thematic and structural patterns, and refusing to maintain any consistent set of conventions.2The Card Index offers the audience no reality except the one that is being created at each moment by impersonation and enactment. In the theatricalized world of the play, Różewicz strives to reach beyond spoken language. Sounds, shapes, colors, and movements are the materials out of which a new dramaturgy should be created. His basic tools are thus images rather than words, and his primary medium is carefully orchestrated movement within a special, arbitrarily constructed space. Among his greatest gifts as a playwright is his ability to find precise visual effects which, superseding words, convey in purely theatrical terms the essence of an entire scene. Along with the work of Witkacy and Gombrowicz, Różewicz's concept of open dramaturgy has been a major influence on postwar Polish playwrights and theatre artists such as Helmut Kajzar, Jerzy Grzegorzewski, Kazimierz Braun, or Janusz Wiśniewski. Yet its most vivid parallel is Tadeusz Kantor's work. Różewicz, however, developed his daring dramatic style in The Card Index long before Kantor completed his most significant internationally acclaimed productions, Dead Class (1975) and Wielopole, Wielopole (1980).

Różewicz's assault on dramatic conventions was so radical that the first Polish production of The Card Index in March 1960 closed down after only nine performances.3 Despite an influx of West European avant-garde drama to Poland during the post-Stalinist Thaw, Polish critics and playgoers were not yet ready for the unique style and vision of The Card Index. Polish theatres all but ignored the play until 1971, when the literary monthly Odra published additional scenes from The Card Index, or approximately one-third of the original script.4 Known as the Unpublished Variations of the Text (Niepublikowane odmiany tekstu) or simply the Addenda (Dodatek), the scenes contain politically sensitive references to the Polish anti-Communist military underground during World War II, the Soviet invasion of Hungary in 1956, and the moral devastation of Polish society wrought by the War and the Stalinist era. The playwright feared that, despite the loosening of arts control in the late 1950s, the scenes would not pass censorship inspection. He thus chose self-censorship, excising and rewriting the scenes to save the script from the censor's ban. The eventual publication of the Addenda spurred a renewed interest in The Card Index, which received six different productions in 1971 alone. Since then, owing largely to theatre experimenters of the 1970s, The Card Index has become Różewicz's most frequently produced play, a classic of Polish drama, and an approved alternate on the official high-school reading list.

The deleted scenes have radically changed the critical understanding of The Card Index. They illumine the protagonist's past and clarify his motivation, but their explicitness pushes the play into the realm of conventional causal dramaturgy. As Różewicz honed and polished his concept of open dramaturgy, he replaced the more straightforward scenes with those in which a totally problematic sense of reality shatters any firm sense of story, and all connecting links must be provided by the audience itself. The forthright stage realism is used by Różewicz only when he seeks an ironic effect. Paradoxically, then, the censorship restrictions prompted Różewicz to search even further for a new dramatic idiom.

A drama about roles, identities, and the loss of self, The Card Index is a powerful theatrical exploration of an inner psychological state. The organizing principle of the play is the protagonist's interminable journey through a strange, haunting landscape that becomes his state of consciousness. In a series of loosely connected, open-ended episodes with only slight dramatic action, Różewicz evokes the fragmented, self-contradictory nature of the human mind, and he embodies in the character of the Hero the plight of his generation. As the action unfolds, the Hero painstakingly pieces together the card index of his collective biography. An anonymous man “of indeterminate age, occupation, and appearance,” he assumes various identities, including those of a soldier in the anti-Communist military underground during the War, a writer, and an insignificant employee of a ridiculously absurd institution called “the national operetta.”5 He exists precisely in this multiplicity of personae, not as a distinct, individualized character of realistic drama. The playwright thus prevents spectators from holding any consistent attitude towards the Hero.

A weary man of the twentieth century and an antithesis of Mickiewicz's or Słowacki's Romantic heroes, Różewicz's protagonist has been scarred by the War and the postwar Stalinist era. He killed and compromised for such lofty abstractions as love of humanity, loyalty, and patriotic duty. In a bitter yet cathartic reckoning with the past and present, the Hero is stripped of lies, delusions, and obsessions, as he searches restlessly for a new beginning.

The action of the entire play occurs in the confined space of the Hero's windowless room, while he stays for the most part in bed. As so often happens in Różewicz's plays, the theatrical metaphor shifts from the actor to the stage as a whole. The setting in The Card Index is a direct expression of the protagonist's inner reality. In precise scenic images that supplant words, the setting stresses the absence of any avenue of escape and thus captures the Hero's sense of entrapment, while the bed, with its connotations of privacy, intimacy, and rest, suggests his vulnerability and passivity. The room thus has a double identity as a physical space and the Hero's state of mind.

Dispensing almost entirely with sequential plot, rational causation, and psychological verisimilitude, Różewicz gives The Card Index the fluid structure characteristic of dreams. Both naturalistic conventions and dream worlds are invoked, played off against each other, and dissolved. By creating this perpetual disequilibrium, Różewicz demonstrates the uselessness of insisting on any one level of reality. As the Hero remains in bed, rapidly shifting images float by, but each is bright and tangible while it lasts. In this half-waking dream, the Hero's bedroom is his parents' home, his office, a street, a coffee shop, and a Hungarian restaurant at the same time. The characters—real and imaginary, dead and living—appear and disappear by a process of free association, the result of analogical thinking rather than reasoning. The tone changes from facetious to solemn, from cynical to sublime, from ironic to affectionate. Despite their apparent offhand quality and spontaneity, the shifts in space, time, and tone are executed with seamless precision. The flow of images is tightly controlled by the structural principle of a polyphonic interplay of mounting tension and abrupt juxtaposition, as the seemingly unrelated episodes, including the Addenda, advance the play's circumstances rather than an identifiable storyline.

In an early manuscript version, The Card Index actually begins with one of the excised scenes, a nightmarish encounter between the Hero and the Hungarian waiter. Set in a Budapest restaurant shortly after the Soviet invasion of Hungary, it introduces political and moral concerns of the play.6 The Waiter, wary of foreigners in his invaded homeland, pressures the Hero into confessing his occupation. The Hero evades the question: “You see, I occasionally write” (p. 40). The Waiter then concludes contemptuously that the Hero must be a journalist. In Eastern Europe, journalism has become synonymous with propaganda and misinformation, and there is little pride in announcing that one works as a journalist. The Hero is thus forced to clarify that, although he sometimes does newspaper reporting, he is actually a poet. It does not come easily to him to call himself a poet, and he distances his awkward confession through a quick succession of histrionic effects. According to the stage directions, “The Hero shouts in despair. … The Hero laughs. … The Hero weeps” (p. 40).

Two young women come back from a swimming pool and use the restaurant as a sun deck. The image of the sunbathing women, a visual representation of carefree enjoyment of life,7 is counterpointed by the Hero's startling vision of gallows outside the restaurant. The gallows are an oblique reference to the death of the Hungarian opposition leaders who, in 1957, were charged with treason and hanged. The Waiter assures the Hero that he has merely seen a merry-go-round, and the Hero, drowsy after a heavy meal, meekly accepts his explanation.

A poignant reminder of the repressive politics in Eastern Europe, the scene carries an implied warning against complacency, opportunism, and self-seeking. The memory of his visit to Soviet-invaded Hungary will haunt the Hero throughout the play, along with his memories of the Holocaust and the Stalinist era. The fact that Różewicz makes the Hero a poet suggests the importance of artists' defiance against political oppression in Eastern Europe. In a brief moment, the Hero exposes lies and falsifications of the regime's propaganda and thus challenges the prevailing ideology. However, he soon sinks back into the stupor and self-imposed silence.

In the opening scene of the revised version of The Card Index, the Hero is in bed with his secretary, while the space around him seethes with simultaneous activity. Various people casually walk through his room, as if it were a street. Some of them “stop and read a newspaper. … Others listen for a moment to what is being said in the Hero's room. They sometimes add a few words and move on” (p. 5).

Among the Hero's visitors are characters from his past and present who have come to impart moral lessons. The Hero's parents reprimand him for his childhood transgressions. Olga, his war bride, bitterly reminds him that he had abandoned her. And three Elders in tattered clothes, an ironic replica of the Chorus in ancient Greek tragedy, recite Mickiewicz's lofty “Ode to Youth,” extolling the Romantic ideal of heroic self-sacrifice.8 But the Hero, oblivious to the surging, pulsating activity around him, wallows in bed holding up his hands and examining them closely. This suspended gesture, Różewicz's favorite technique, is reminiscent of Witkacy's “visual emphasis through pointed focus” which “directs the spectator's eye to a significant detail, character, or area of the stage and then holds his attention there for a prolonged moment, imprinting the scene on his consciousness.”9

The Hero's fragmented monologue, which weaves its way through the scene, is patterned after model sentences in phrase books for foreigners, as if the Hero were learning to use spoken language again:

This is my hand. I am moving my hand. … My fingers. … My live hand. … I am lying in bed. Chiefs of state and chiefs of staff have given me their permission to lie in bed and stare at the ceiling. … A beautiful, clean, white ceiling. … The world didn't come to an end. We have survived. … I can lie in bed, clip my fingernails, listen to music.

(pp. 5, 9–10)

The Hero's lines are a salient extension of Różewicz's famous poem “The Survivor” (“Ocalony,” 1947), and the narrator's internal monologue in the short story “A New School of Philosophy” (“nowa szkoła filozoficzna,” 1956). Like the other War survivors in Różewicz's work, the Hero marvels at the very fact of being alive. He also awakens to the tremendous ethical implications of the Holocaust and the postwar imposition of the Communist rule which destroyed in Polish society “those organic bonds that survived, such as the family and the parish church.”10 For him, a witness of atrocity, a great simplification of everything has occurred. He uses the language in its most fundamental function and names simple objects and actions, thus groping for a firm sense of reality. He discovers that the experience of atrocity has revealed the fragility of an entire system of moral values, with its neat division into good and evil, beauty and ugliness, including as well the very notion of truth. The parents, Olga, and the Elders still cling to those values. But the Hero has emerged from his experience with few verities intact.

The scene, however, never falls into the trap of pervasive moralizing. Although Różewicz undoubtedly feels deep sympathy for his protagonist, he views the Hero at least as ironically as the Hero views himself. Normal audience sympathies and expectations are undermined by a sudden shift in tone from somber to grotesque. For instance, the playwright undercuts the seriousness of the Hero's monologue by interposing trivial details from his childhood and an irrelevant newspaper article.

Moreover, the Hero is both a victim and a victimizer, but his own malleability becomes evident only during his encounter with the Peasant in one of the excised scenes.11 The episode reflects a tangled web of moral and political issues in wartime Poland, following the September 1939 invasion by both the Nazis and the Soviets. The vehemence of the Poles' struggle against the German occupation of their country was matched only by their hostility towards the Soviet-backed Communists, but the latter were by no means without supporters. The deleted scene focuses on this rift within Polish society. During the War, both the Hero and the Peasant fought in the same unit of the Home Army (Armia Krajowa), an anti-Communist military underground. Presumably for his pro-Communist sympathies, the Peasant was dismissed from the unit, and the Hero was ordered to kill him. Now, in the theatricalized reality of The Card Index, the Peasant returns from the dead and jeers at the Hero for having been an object of manipulation in a political power struggle between the Communists and the underground.

In the encounter with the Uncle, which follows the opening scene of the revised version, the focus shifts from the Hero's persona as a Home resistance fighter to that of a political opportunist. Both evasive and adaptable, he has eventually accepted the Communist rule in Poland. In a postwar about-face, he sacrificed his political beliefs and moral sensibilities for earthly gratifications and the crassest pragmatism. However, in the censored version of the scene, the only direct reference to the Hero's support for the Communists is found in the cryptic line: “I applauded. I shouted cheers” (p. 13). In its original version, which was removed by Różewicz, the scene is a scathing indictment of postwar Polish history. It features two additional characters, the Young Man, who was tortured by the Polish Communist police during the Stalinist rule of terror, and an old Hungarian Miner, who exposes the Hero's hypocrisy and malleability.

In the Miner's account, the Hero's artistic career was launched by his service to the government propaganda machine and his adherence to Andrei Zhdanov's doctrine of socialist realism. In keeping with the socialist-realist mode of exaggerating and extolling the accomplishments of the Communists, the Hero produced propagandistic falsifications of reality. Moreover, he justified the “glitter and shine” of his writing with more clichés and stereotypes: “I was motivated by the love for the common man, by the desire to uplift him. … to make him better” (pp. 50, 47). When the post-Stalinist Thaw came, the Hero again moved with the tide, denouncing his earlier stance and seeking to please the new regime.

The later, revised version of the scene with the Uncle abandons the realistic motivation and storytelling. Well aware of conventions and techniques used by playwrights to create a logically believable world on stage, Różewicz exposes these theatrical forms as fraud. His method is first to consider possibilities offered by scenic realism, and then to undermine the credibility of such old-fashioned dramaturgy. During the meeting with the Uncle, the Hero perceives the inadequacy of the role or mask forced upon him by others. In several short speeches, he suddenly reveals his hidden inner nature, his wished-for identity, and the secret desire to realize a new life. The scenic indications call for Stanislavskian psychological acting in addition to naturalistic costumes and properties. Różewicz then punctures this illusion of reality by using spoken lines as ritualistic incantations or self-enclosed language games rather than an expression of thoughts and emotions. When the Uncle suggests that the Hero go back with him to the idyllic home of his childhood where life is less complicated, the Hero bluntly refuses:

I can't, Uncle. … I open my mouth, and I want to swallow whole cities, people, buildings, paintings, bosoms, TV sets, motorbikes, stars, belly dancers, socks, watches, titles, medals, pears, pills, papers, bananas, masterpieces. …

(pp. 14–15)

The Hero's all-embracing craving for the visible world may be understood literally as a grotesque expression of consumer societies' preoccupation with material goods. Such materialism erupted especially in Eastern Europe, where the lifting of the Iron Curtain during the late 1950s followed a shift in Communist Party policies from strictly enforced ideology to a degree of pragmatism and flexibility. But similar lists of disconnected nouns occur throughout the play in a variety of contexts. Thus, through giving names to human beings and objects, the characters seek to regain a sense of control over outside reality that has been shattered by their experience of atrocity. Moreover, in their search for equilibrium amid chaos and the complete fluidity of all values, the characters find refuge in the world of objects. As Czesław Miłosz has observed in his essay on postwar Polish poetry: “Human affairs are uncertain and unspeakably painful, but objects represent a stable reality, do not alter with reflexes of fear, love, or hate, and always ‘behave’ logically.”12 The lists of nouns are also the play's special language, truncated and seemingly nonsensical, but by no means illogical. Grammar, or in Ludwig Wittgenstein's terminology, “the totality of rules which state in which connections words have meaning and propositions make sense,”13 has been reduced in Różewicz's language games to a rule of ever shifting assemblages of dislocated fragments. Since the manner of representation of reality determines how reality is represented,14 these assemblages mirror the characters' fragmented world and their experience of disintegration.

The scene between the Hero and the Uncle remains suspended and unresolved as it quickly dissolves into another episode in which Różewicz continues to play with naturalistic conventions. The Hero is back in bed when two strangers, the Guy in a Hat and the Guy in a Bicycle Cap, enter and proceed to measure him and his room. In the process, they remove from the Hero's clenched fist crumpled drafts of his curriculum vitae. Thus Różewicz rips apart conventions of naturalistic dramaturgy. In a superb display of visual irony, he shows that one can describe the dimensions of a set or even the protagonist, but this kind of information lacks any insight into the character's past or inner world. Hence, a realistic playwright must often resort to such conventional devices as an unexpected discovery of vital information in a letter or a diary. The original version of the scene is shorter and more straightforward. Dressed in long overcoats with heavily padded shoulders, the two strangers appear as omnipresent bureaucrats of the oppressive late 1940s and early 1950s, when one's right to privacy was considered a capitalist whim. In an interview, Różewicz explained that both strangers work for the Polish Communist secret police (Urząd Bezpieczeństwa).15 Consequently, the Hero's evasiveness may be explained by his fear of being followed. The excised scene thus seeks to make a blunt political statement, but becomes a piece of antigovernment propaganda lacking the depth and richness of the revised version.

In an abrupt transition from the realistic to the bizarre and the unexpected, the Hero trades a pair of socks for Bobik, “an elegant, middle-aged man, perfectly groomed and sleekly pomaded [ulizany],” who walks on all fours (p. 16). Różewicz thus catches the audience unawares with an extravagant theatrical surprise reminiscent of devices used in Witkacy's, as well as Gombrowicz's, plays and novels. He strives for a daring dramatic effect, infused with humor and irony, which will provoke, attack, and arrest the attention of the spectators. This theatricalization of movement points to the limitless possibilities of nonrealistic theatre and thus serves as Różewicz's shock tactics to wreak havoc on conventions of the theatre of illusion.

More than simple mockery of the audience, Bobik's movement on all fours is in fact a visual extension of the Polish epithet ulizany with its connotations of self-effacement and servility. In that respect, the Hero identifies with Bobik. He all but forces him to drink the water in which the Uncle, “an honest and simple man,” had soaked his feet: “It's a medicine for people like you. For people like myself” (p. 17). The water thus serves as a metaphor of expiation and catharsis. Yet a moral regeneration does not occur. Neither Bobik nor the Hero drinks the water. Instead, the Hero orders coffee from the Waitress, who appears from nowhere and even offers to take off her clothes, while the Elders recite a list of disconnected nouns. The Hero and Bobik sip the coffee, examining their hands. Bobik, a born opportunist, has survived the War with only a few ink stains on his hands. But the Hero's hands are still stained with “enemies' blood” (p. 18). His explanation has a bitterly ironic undertone, for among the “enemies” whom the Hero killed during the War was the Polish Peasant.

Left alone on stage, the Hero contemplates suicide as the only way to escape the nightmare of the past and the compromises of the present. The motif of escape is underscored visually, as the Hero, with a rope around his neck, locks himself up inside a closet. When he emerges moments later, he sits down on the bed and eats a sandwich. The attempted self-destruction is thus counterpointed by a trivial but life-affirming action of eating.

The present soon merges with the past as the Hero is visited by the Childhood Friend, who had drowned three years before the War, and the middle-aged Fat Woman, who was once an object of the Hero's adolescent sexual fantasies. An unfocused, offhand conversation between the Hero and his Friend about such topics as masturbation and defection to the West suddenly culminates in the Hero's rigorously unsentimental account of World War II:

Do you remember the wire factory? That's where the first bombs were dropped on Friday morning, 1 September 1939. I was on my way to get a paper. A kid was yelling that the War started. Another one kicked him in the behind: “Shut up, you asshole”—but in an hour the city was bombed. It went on like that for several years. There was the occupation. In May '45 the War ended. Apparently thirty-three million people were killed.

(pp. 37–38)

This impassive, antiheroic description, placed in the intentionally disrespectful context of the earlier conversation, would not have passed the censor's inspection and has been relegated by Różewicz to the Addenda.

When the Fat Woman appears on stage, the Hero hardly notices her, engrossed in reading aloud old letters. Indeed, the language of The Card Index relies on a consistent mixing of the most varied materials, including also newspaper clippings, nursery rhymes, poems by Polish classics and Różewicz himself, and nominal declensions. This method of building a drama out of details taken from his reading and his own works is characteristic of Różewicz's dramaturgy and has its parallels in modern art, music, and poetry. The playwright combines these materials in striking new arrangements, often pushing them toward parody and self-parody, and producing an added dramatic tension between abstract and concrete. This grotesque juxtaposition has a deflating effect which renders the characters' rhetoric obsolescent and hollow.

The scene with the Fat Woman is interrupted by a five-to-ten-minute intermission. Following this brief suspension of the dramatic action, the events immediately preceding it—the eating of a sandwich, the Fat Woman's entrance, the reading of the letters—are repeated exactly as they had occurred. The audience is thus reminded that it merely watches a theatrical reality which may be arbitrarily manipulated.

The Hero is back in bed, reading aloud a newspaper article, when the Elders return. Outraged by his violations of the dramaturgy of intrigue and fast-paced action, they admonish the Hero:

Do something, get going, think.
There he lies while time flies. …
He's finally asleep, the gods will rage!
There can be no bread without flour.
There must be action on stage.
Something should be happening at this hour!
If you don't move, the theatre is defunct.

(p. 23)

The Hero gets rid of the Elders in a grand spectacle of stabbing and decapitating. Sensational, spectacular scenes are part of the dramatic heritage, which Różewicz pushes to absurd extremes. In the theatricalized world of The Card Index, the deaths of the Elders are just another stage convention, and the Elders are soon resurrected.

Instead of the fast-moving action that the Elders demanded, the Hero plunges into a wordy and pathetic monologue. The audience, that has just seen theatrical conventions punctured and ridiculed, is caught short in shocked amazement as the established premises of the play are suddenly disavowed. The spectators are thus forced to pay close attention to the Hero's existential questioning of his condition. The Hero admits that his ideals have been merely delusions, and his inability to escape his obsessions isolates him even further from other people. In a flashback, he relives an execution he had witnessed or survived, and he wonders how it was possible for the Holocaust to occur at all.

The unwary spectator is first carried along by the intense interplay of human emotions. But it soon becomes evident that the Hero's attitudes are presented not as the playwright's own opinions, but in a dramatized and theatricalized manner, and they are treated with characteristic ambivalence and irony. A foil to the Hero is the Young German Woman, on a tour of Poland, who mistakes his room for a coffee shop. She sits down at a table, checks her makeup, orders coffee and pastry, and initiates a superficial conversation. Her casual presence provides a striking contrast to the Hero's emotional outburst and the blatant realism of the conclusion of the scene. A loudspeaker blasts screams and curses in German, as the Hero apparently has another flashback. The recorded sound creates a vision of helpless people brutally rounded up for an execution or a deportation to a death camp. This straightforward psychological realism is so manipulative that it might provoke laughter in the audience, if it were not for the Young Woman. A detached observer, she “does not seem to hear the screaming, and she looks at the Hero in astonishment” (p. 26). The Young Woman then tiptoes out of the room, leaving a red apple on the table. The result is a sense of distance that allows for a powerful effect without sentimentality. The image of the apple, symbolic of a simple affirmation of life, and a moment of silence following the Woman's exit, supplant the obviousness of the spoken lines and the sound effects, and they thus express more poignantly all that a Polish poet returned from the hell of the Holocaust cannot say to his audience.

Różewicz's technique is to alternate static and dynamic elements, exaggerate extremes of tempo, and play off long monologues against pictorial effects and theatrical surprises. In a moment of radical discontinuity, the focus shifts to the Elders, who assume the role of the protagonist and thus expose the fragility of traditional dramatic categories. Reciting Różewicz's poem “Persuasion” (“Perswazja,” 1959), they reprimand the Hero as if he were a child at fault. When the Teacher comes in, the Elders send the Hero to bed and thus temporarily remove him from the stage action.

Reminiscent of both Gombrowicz's novel Ferdydurke and Różewicz's short story “An Interrupted Examination” (“Przerwany egzamin,” 1958), the episode with the Teacher renders concrete and theatrical a popular Polish saying: “Life is a never ending examination.” The Teacher has come to examine the Hero. Yet the First Elder takes the examination in his place, and the Teacher does not even notice the difference. Addressed by the Teacher as a “young man” (pp. 28, 29), the Elder recites lengthy quotations from history textbooks and lonely-hearts columns, in addition to stereotypical blurbs about the significance of Chopin's music in the life of Polish society. Following this irrelevant exchange of useless information, the roles are switched again, and the Hero examines the Teacher. Pointing to his hand, the apple, or a button, he asks the Teacher: “What's that?” (p. 29). He thus continues the ritual of naming objects and reconstituting the very fabric of reality. The Elders soon join the Hero and recite entire lists of nouns.

The action now accelerates, leading up to a rapid and surprising epilogue. Różewicz's method of dramatic construction depends, for its forward thrust, on rhythmic augmentation of elements and accelerating velocity. He manages a steady increment in tempo and in richness of orchestral voicing with musical nuance and almost mathematical precision. Fast movements and a breakneck tempo are achieved by lack of explanation, rapidity and brevity of dialogue, and flamboyant verve. The Secretary, who had imperceptibly got out of bed, returns with a file of documents to be signed by the Hero. The Elders gape at her buttocks in tight-fitting clothes, and they recite excerpts from two frivolous poems, both entitled “To a Maiden,” by Jan Kochanowski, Poland's greatest Renaissance poet and one of Różewicz's masters. The Teacher asks the Hero for some money. As in the opening scene, various people walk through the Hero's room. A young couple stops and kisses passionately. The Hero's parents come back to explain to their adolescent son mysteries of procreation. And the Hero speaks, in verse and in prose, of his childhood fantasies of heroism and self-sacrifice. He then plunges into a sequence of short, staccato sentences reflecting the fragmentation of the self. Like the narrator of Różewicz's short story “Attempted Reconstruction” (“Próba rekonstrukcji,” 1959), he records his journey through the inner landscape of the mind: “I traveled a long way before I reached myself. … faces, trees, clouds, the dead. … All this is merely flowing through me” (p. 34). The rhythmic progressions of the scene, seemingly random and discontinuous, remove the fixed points necessary for viewing what takes place on stage from a single perspective. In so disconcerting the audience, the playwright draws attention away from the illusion to form—away from any single illusion of a character's reality to the shifting forms of illusion which the character may assume.

In the final scene, the Hero is alone with the Journalist, who has come to interview him. Like the interview scenes in the dramatist's later plays On All Fours (Na czworakach, 1971) and The Hunger Artist Departs (Odejście Głodomora, 1976), the scene reveals Różewicz's increasing mastery of dramatic effect, and his skill in playing with the techniques and conventions of traditional theatre and leading his audience wherever he wishes.

The interview promises to provide insights into the Hero's psychology and past history, but the audience's predictable expectations are quickly thwarted. The Journalist demands answers to such questions as: “What is your goal in life?” or “What do you intend to do to prevent a nuclear war?” (pp. 35–36). The Hero, speaking from the Polish experience of atrocity and disintegration, recognizes the uselessness of abstract concepts, neat categorizations, and impressive slogans. He finds it impossible to identify with any system of ideology or tradition which previously might have offered support. Therefore, when the Journalist complains: “You didn't tell me much,” the Hero replies: “You've come too late” (p. 37). The Hero's answer also indicates to the audience that the stage action is over. His closing line thus punctures any remaining theatrical illusion of plot and character, and underscores the staginess of the playwright's own creation. Fragmented and open-ended, The Card Index has no final conclusion. The stage “lights do not go out even when the tale is ended” (p. 5). The action is merely suspended until the next performance.

Conventional drama generally illumines the world by simulating real situations and people within a clearly defined time span, but for Różewicz this mimetic aspect of drama is of secondary importance. His interest is in the possibilities of the dramatic medium, rather than in its conventional objects or themes, and he strives to present his vision in other, nonmimetic ways. The strength of The Card Index lies in the dramatist's brilliant use of simultaneity, discontinuity, juxtaposition, and shifting planes of a reality which exists in a constant state of destruction and reconstruction. In this richly textured and ingeniously patterned play, Różewicz has developed a systematic, nonrealistic dramatic technique which enables him to present a large and complex world in a highly subjective yet coherent and formally satisfying fashion.

Stripped of the narrative and psychological interconnections, Różewicz's theatre is overwhelmingly pictorial rather than exclusively literary. He uses theatrical images with great force and precision, but the visual element is never at rest as a fixed and detachable background. A seemingly disjointed and incomplete work, The Card Index is a scenario waiting to be expanded and honed by an imaginative acting company. Like other plays by Różewicz, it offers theatre companies rich material for their collective creations, but it depends on non-Stanislavskian acting for its effect. Consequently, Różewicz's dramas were not fully integrated into the Polish theatre until the early 1970s, when a new, antipsychological approach to acting was developed at Jerzy Grotowski's world-famous Teatr Laboratorium in Wrocław. The Laboratorium never produced a Różewicz play, but its innovative body and voice training provided Polish actors and directors in other Polish companies with creative tools to execute nonrealistic compositions such as The Card Index for the stage. It is no coincidence that during the 1971/1972 season, after years of indifference from theatre artists, Różewicz became the third most frequently produced playwright in Poland.16 Both a direct influence and a pervasive presence, Różewicz's drama now serves in Poland as a model for the unlimited possibilities of an antimimetic and nonliterary theatre liberated from psychologically conceived characters and realistic storytelling.


  1. It is generally assumed that The Card Index is Różewicz's first play, written at the time when he had already established himself as a leading Polish poet. However, prior to The Card Index, Różewicz had completed the little-known Exposure (Ujawnienie, 1950), but its anti-Communist stance has prevented the play from publication or production. Moreover, Różewicz had been working on another play, eventually entitled Dead and Buried (Do piachu. …), as early as 1948, shortly after his famous collection of verse, Anxiety (Niepokój, 1947), won him recognition as a major new talent. Dead and Buried, however, was not completed until 1972.

  2. Both in Poland and abroad, The Card Index has frequently been perceived as a play indebted to the theatre of the absurd, mainly the work of Samuel Beckett (see especially Jan Kott, Theatre Notebook, 1947–1967 [Garden City, N.Y., 1968], pp. 131–134). Although both playwrights share some structural and philosophical concerns, The Card Index is an attempt to go beyond Beckett's dramaturgy and to create a new art of drama. Różewicz thus explains his attitude towards Beckett's theatre: “It was for me both a revelation and a challenge. I wrote my plays in opposition to Beckett's. His dramatic work was my point of departure, not a point of arrival. I worked against Beckett's nihilism. I sought to overcome Beckett's dramaturgy by creating a theatre after Beckett. All means were fine to accomplish this goal. I took my lessons from Jarry, who had a tremendous influence on the entire Polish theatre of the twentieth century. I also took lessons from the Polish classics: Mickiewicz, Fredro, Wyspiański, and Zapolska; from the Polish expressionists such as Miciński and Przybyszewski; and from Witkacy and Gombrowicz” (personal interview in Wrocław, 4 August 1983. See also Irena Sadowska-Guillon, “Tadeusz Różewicz: le théâtre de la mythologie [interview].” Europe: revue littéraire mensuelle, 61 [April 1983], 161–165).

  3. For information about the production at Warsaw's Dramatyczny Theatre, see Marta Fik, Trzydzieści pięć sezonów (Warszawa, 1981), pp. 123–124; and Marta Piwińska, “Różewicz a Teatr Dramatyczny,” Współczesność, 5 (May 16–31, 1960), 9.

  4. Tadeusz Różewicz, “Kartoteka: Fragmenty nie publikowane,” Odra, 11 (November 1971), 67–75.

  5. Tadeusz Różewicz, Kartoteka (Warszawa, 1981), p. 41. Further reference to the play is to this edition, with page numbers given in the text in parentheses; the translation is mine. For the English translation of the censored version of the play, see Tadeusz Różewicz, The Card Index and Other Plays, trans. Adam Czerniawski (New York, 1969). In addition, the Polish director Kazimierz Braun directed a production in English at the University of Connecticut in Storrs in March 1980, using the omitted scenes which were translated into English by Jarek Strzemień.

  6. The scene is also a grotesque allusion to Witkacy's charcoal composition titled “The Prince of Darkness Tempts Saint Theresa with the Aid of a Waiter from Budapest” (c. 1913).

  7. Różewicz later developed this image into an entire scene in his play The Old Woman Broods (Stara kobieta wysiaduje, 1968).

  8. This association of the Chorus with the Polish Romantic tradition was emphasized by Tadeusz Minc in his two, widely acclaimed productions of The Card Index: in 1973 at the Mały Theatre in Warsaw and in 1977 at the Kameralny Theatre in Wrocław. In both productions, the Chorus represented a group of young Polish revolutionaries, participants in the unsuccessful national uprisings of 1830 and 1863. The Chorus thus personified the national and Romantic mythology on which the Hero and his generation were raised.

  9. Daniel Gerould, Witkacy: Stanisław Ignacy Witkiewicz as an Imaginative Writer (Seattle and London, 1981), p. 56.

  10. Czesław Miłosz, The Witness of Poetry (Cambridge and London, 1983), p. 89.

  11. In the scene with the Peasant, Różewicz reworks the central motif of Dead and Buried, a play he had begun before The Card Index.

  12. Miłosz, p. 89.

  13. Gerd Brand, The Essential Wittgenstein, trans. Robert E. Innis (New York, 1979), p. 137.

  14. Ibid., p. 34.

  15. Personal interview in Wroclaw, 4 August 1983.

  16. Kazimierz Andrzej Wysiński, ed., Almanach sceny polskiej 1971/1972 (Warszawa, 1973), p. 195.

Daniel Gerould (essay date March 1986)

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SOURCE: “Laocoön at the Frontier, or The Limit of Limits,” in Modern Drama, Vol. XXIX, No. 1, March, 1986, pp. 23–40.

[In the following essay, Gerould traces the Laocoön myth and its role in Różewicz's The Laocoön Group.]

FATHER I had a bit of bad luck. I get there, I go over to the blindingly white Laocoön Group, of course there's a crowd, a mob, a lot of tourists. I elbow my way through. And there's a sign on the base of the statue: “Laocoonte—Calco in Gesso. Dello Originalle in Restauro.” What could I do?

SON But, Daddy, what makes the Laocoön Group so beautiful?

FATHER (Pacing up and down the room) My boy, it contains all the inner harmony of the ancient Greek. Ancient man developed his body, mind, and soul harmoniously, and that is why he created an art that is unique in its form. Truth and beauty were one. In the marvelous harmony of the human forms that are entwined by the serpents, the Laocoön Group expresses even suffering in a form that is harmonious and full of moderation. … I'm a bit tired. …

SON Is that true of the snakes too?

FATHER The snakes?

SON Did the snakes too live in that marvelous harmony that's expressed by their coils?

FATHER Of course they did.

SON (Enthusiastically) Ave, Imperator, morituri te salutant.

FATHER You've got the periods mixed up.

SON (Shrugging his shoulders) I only just … (The Son raises his thumb up in “Caesar's gesture,” then turns it down) ingula!

FATHER What's that supposed to mean?

SON Oh, nothing. …

Tadeusz Różewicz, The Laocoön Group (1961)1

Almost all the classical myths—the House of Atreus, Return of Odysseus, Medea, Oedipus—providing impetus for modern versions and offshoots have been transmitted in literary form as dramatic or epic poetry. An interesting exception is the Laocoön, which exists spatially as something seen—a sculptural myth less remembered for its narrative content than for the immediacy of a single visual anecdote.

Although recounted at length in Book II of The Aeneid, the myth of Laocoön finds its enduring shape in the Hellenistic Greek statue mentioned by Pliny as standing in the palace of the Emperor Titus, lost for many centuries, and then rediscovered in the Italian Renaissance. Laocoön is thus exceptional on two counts: it has made its mark on Western consciousness as an image rather than a story, and this process began in modern times. Not surprisingly, the sculpture gave rise to other works of art—by El Greco and Blake, most notably—rather than to drama.2

The Laocoön Group has always had something of a public, rhetorical character, lending itself to doctrines and declarations. The sensational unearthing of the statue on Esquiline Hill on January 14, 1506, was a major cultural event. Within an hour Michelangelo was on the scene to view what was immediately acclaimed to be one of the greatest masterpieces of ancient art. On June 1, under the sponsorship of Pope Julius II, who had purchased the sculpture and placed it in the Vatican Museum, Romans held a festival to honor the finding of the Laocoön.3 The statue became the object of such admiration that the pious and moral Pope Adrian VI referred to it as idola antiquorum and tried having the entrance to the museum closed off.4

So there arose in the Renaissance a second myth—not of Laocoön, priest of Apollo, but of the sculpture itself. The world's reactions, not what gave rise to them, became the center of attention. The Laocoön Group as an artifact to be confronted became high drama, starting with a discovery and containing many reversals of assessment and interpretation. Without a context, detached from its original setting and housed in the Vatican as a museum piece, the Group was above all an object provoking speculations on aesthetics, each age finding in it verification of its own principles and predilections. A cultural monument, the Laocoön saw other, figurative monuments erected in its name. Ever since Pliny declared it to be unequaled among ancient sculpture, the Group has been taken as an exemplar to be defined and categorized.

If the late Renaissance found in the Hellenistic sculpture the pathos of the baroque, Germany in the second half of the eighteenth century discovered support for a new classicizing impulse. Winckelmann, Lessing, Herder, Goethe, and Schiller saw the Group as a monument to the noble simplicity, serenity, and greatness of soul which they took to be the classical heritage. So labeled and stereotyped, Laocoön became a rallying cry and watchword, signaling “the tyranny of Greece over Germany”—in the colorful phrase of Eliza Butler.5 Laocoön was synonymous with an ideal of posed classical beauty to be extolled and imitated.

Lessing's treatise Laocoön, or The Limits of Painting and Poetry (1766)—growing out of a description of the sculpture in Winckelmann's pamphlet Thoughts on the Imitation of Greek Works in Painting and Sculpture (1755)—is the most celebrated response to emerge from the long preoccupation with the work, rivaling the Group itself in influence and becoming the focal point for subsequent theorizing about art and literature. Due to Lessing, a continuing dialogue on aesthetics in the name of Laocoön has become a part of cultural history.

Often called “theatrical” (usually in the pejorative sense of something mannered and calculatingly effective), the Laocoön nonetheless remained only a topic for aesthetic discourse in nondramatic forms until very recently. Then, in the 1960s and 1970s, for reasons I shall attempt to explain, two Eastern European playwrights, quite independently, disclosed for the first time theatrical uses for the Group by placing it in plays about mass culture, copies, and bureaucratization.

It is true that in The Tyranny of Greece over Germany, Eliza Butler did forecast the possibility of making theatre out of theorizing about art occasioned by the Laocoön in her witty and ingenious analysis of Lessing's essay as a five-act nineteenth-century drama (about the liberation of poetry from the bondage of art) in the Ibsenite mold, with the author himself as raisonneur bringing about the gradual revelation of the truth, but her perception remains only a playful literary analogy attached to the obsolescent form of “drama of ideas.”6 For aesthetic discourse on the theme of Laocoön to come to life on the modern stage, there first had to take place the revolution in the concept of theatrical form of the late 1940s and 1950s, and the resulting rejection of two ideas central to Lessing's argument: the separation of genres and the idea of drama as action. The banality of earnest disquisition must be rendered as such, and not disguised by plot and character or elevated to the rank of “serious” ideas.

In 1961 the Polish poet and playwright Tadeusz Różewicz turned to the Laocoön for both the title and principal topic of his second play, which exemplifies a modern, nonnarrative use of myth as cultural icon. Różewicz refuses to mythologize. His Laocoön Group is not a retelling, modernization, transposition, or adaptation of Greek myth on stage. It is not a copy, but it is about copies and copying. Nor is it an imitation of an action, but rather a series of conversations that are imitations of what has already been written and said.7

Everyone in the play is engaged in artistic discourse, and the most diverse cultural experiences and products are offered for sampling. Two housewives read Spinoza and await impatiently a new edition of his letters, quote Ortega y Gasset, debate the merits of experimental stagings of naturalistic plays and reworkings of Shakespeare, and evaluate new movements in painting. Customs officials know the works of Kierkegaard and talk of the “disintegration, alienation, frustration” resulting from the cultural crisis as something quite routine. Even a tired bureaucrat quotes Kokoschka in German, talks of Burckhardt's views of the Renaissance, and analyzes theories of cubism.

In the midst of this world of proliferating cultural images (now available to all on a mass scale) and ready-made phrases and stereotypes designed to make art manageable as a commodity for consumption, Różewicz introduces the Laocoön as an instance of a great work that will elicit awed responses. Making no attempt to reanimate the myth or reinterpret it, he provides a theatrical context in which the sculpture will be viewed as a dead fact of cultural history about which nothing new can be said, but much old repeated.

To this purpose, the playwright creates a pseudointellectual family consisting of three generations of two interlocking pairs of fathers and sons (fitting respondents to the entwined fathers and sons of the Laocoön). Theirs are no longer the elite reflections of a Lessing or Winckelmann, but the average man's parrotings of received opinions. Różewicz's family are a primary consuming group with insatiable aesthetic demands who desire instant and constant artistic experiences which the culture industry will supply by its skills at imitation, duplication, reproduction.

A professional himself in the cultural establishment (art historian, curator, professor—we never know exactly what his position is), the Father returns home from Rome “completely saturated with beauty,” having seen among other masterpieces the Laocoön Group, which, unfortunately, was on display only in a plaster copy, while the original was being restored. Aided and echoed by Grandfather and Mother (everyone repeats what has already been said, whether by himself or others), the Father tries to inspire the Son, interested in cars and machines, with the higher values of art embodied in the Laocoön by mouthing platitudes out of Lessing. The Son, hesitating between careers as a musicologist or as a dentist, goes off to a friend's house to watch a TV show on how to look at a work of art. But all the fine sentiments and lofty views about art are nothing but plaster copies.8

The diffusion of culture in a mass society results not in philistine rejection of art, but rather in the total embrace of it. In the West, under capitalism, where everything is to be bought and sold, the product is culture as a commodity, or the commercialization of art. In Eastern Europe, under communism, where all art is state promoted, financed, and controlled, a leveling pseudoculture is created by the bureaucratization of aesthetic experience.9 Despite differences in the degree of government involvement, the institutionalizing of culture has led to the same proliferation and vulgarization in both East and West (where grants, subsidies, arts councils, and foundations take the place of direct state support), although the claustrophobic self-containment of communist societies makes the cliché-ridden formulas more rigid. It is precisely because the official fostering of culture has been so complete in Eastern Europe that writers in those countries have been among the first to register and analyze the linguistic consequences.

Różewicz chose the Laocoön as the unifying motif for a play about mass culture and copies—consisting of four disconnected scenes, without beginning, middle, or end, and devoid of action—even though the statue is the subject of aesthetic discourse only in Scenes 2 and 4, whereas Scene 1 takes place in a train compartment at the frontier, and Scene 3 presents the committee meeting of an arts jury deciding on the selection of a monument to honor a great poet. In this respect the Polish playwright has followed the example of Lessing, who in the Preface to his treatise explains: “Since I started, as it were, with the Laocoön and return to it a number of times, I wished to give it a share in the title too.”10

In the opening scene of The Laocoön Group, the First Gentleman (who subsequently becomes the Father) in his exchanges with the Customs Officials talks of beauty as though it were a consumer good acquired abroad that must be declared at the border. The traveler in quest of aesthetic experience returns from the land of classical culture with a “great treasure” which he does not try to conceal from Customs. This enlargement of cultural possessions is part of the tradition of “The Italian Journey” that each voyager shares with all his predecessors.11

Shortly after Różewicz's first trip to Italy in the summer of 1960, he wrote both The Laocoön Group and the antipastoral poem Et in Arcadia Ego, which opens with an epigraph from Goethe and closes with the line: “I have tried to return to paradise.”12 Like the German poets, Różewicz—“an inhabitant of a small town in the North” from the area near Wrocław (which once was Breslau)—is drawn to the ideal of classical beauty to be found in Rome. His Italienische Reise takes him to view the cultural monuments:

In the Vatican Museum …
the guides hurriedly copulate
with the beauty in the tourists' eyes
… … … … … … … … … …
an original in original marble
but of course(13)

Yet following his experiences of war (Różewicz fought in a guerrilla unit), the paradise of a naïve faith in art has been lost. Deprived of innocence, the poet is now a believer who has ceased to believe:

It was no accident that I chose to study the history of art. …
I was full of reverential wonder at works of art (the aesthetic
experience replaced religious experience) but simultaneously I felt …
that something had come to an end for me and for humanity.(14)

Great cultural monuments like the Laocoön, invested with so much meaning over the centuries, are no longer to be revered—or even taken seriously. Those who speak of art in the solemn tones appropriate to religious experience are using the wrong language. Plaster replicas and proliferating images destroy the exceptional status of the work of art. A plurality of copies causes “the decay of aura” and “the liquidation of the traditional value of the cultural heritage,” according to Walter Benjamin in “The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction.”15 The realm of art has moved from sacred ritual to politics, as mass society strives to overcome uniqueness and distance gives way to familiarity. A culture of the ersatz and the inauthentic comes into being.

For Różewicz, the plaster of copies is a negation of vitality, suggesting the death mask and the corpse. At the end of Part II of Et in Arcadia Ego, the author cites—from one of his early postwar poems, “Mask” (1946)—the following lines describing a Venetian carnival:

huge effigies with monstrous heads
laugh noiselessly from ear to ear
and a maid too beautiful for me
an inhabitant of a small town in the North
rides astride an ichthyosaurus
Objects excavated in my country have small black
heads sealed with plaster and horrible grins(16)

The “Objects excavated” make reference to the Nazi practice during the occupation of sealing with plaster the mouths of Poles about to be shot in public executions so that they could not shout insults or “Long live Poland!”17

The Laocoön is likewise an excavated object, an artifact of human culture, available for study by the historian of civilization. According to the Father, the classical ideal of kalokagathia—that beauty and goodness are united, and the body and soul are in perfect harmony—is most fully expressed in the Laocoön Group, where even suffering takes on a beautiful form.18

But is this a valid principle for the present? The “small black / heads sealed with plaster” indicate that the old forms are anachronistic and that the time of beauty is long since past. Can physical pain, torture, agony ever be expressed harmoniously and with moderation?19 The Son—with the clear vision of a child—looks in fascination at the snakes, wonders if their lives have the same marvelous inner harmony expressed in the statue by their coils, and denies that he himself is a manifestation of beauty. And as for plaster casts, he reports matter-of-factly that he sees copies everywhere and thinks nothing of it.

An alternate picture of violent death in antiquity, more consonant with the experience of Różewicz's generation, confronted the poet years before in the Polish capital, itself a recent scene of slaughter. Coming to Warsaw for the first time since the end of the war, in October, 1945, when the city was still in ruins, the twenty-four-year-old Różewicz found on a path overgrown with grass a few pages torn from The Iliad, including the lines:20

A cloud of dust rose where Hektor was dragged, his dark hair falling about him, and all that head that was once so handsome was tumbled in the dust …
So all his head was dragged in the dust; and now his mother tore out her hair, and threw the shining veil far from her and raised a great wail as she looked upon her son. …(21)

Whether or not the Laocoön Group is the perfect expression of the classical ideal of harmony and moderation (“noble simplicity and serene greatness”) is not the issue.22 Różewicz joins in the discourse initiated by Lessing not by stating his own views (he has none and remains objective) or making the statue a symbol or metaphor, but by having the characters repeat the famous quotations, hackneyed phrases, and banalities to which the Laocoön has given rise. No interpretation of the sculpture is offered other than the clichés advanced, thereby rendering the discourse theatrical, not ideological or instructional.

The playwright simply shows how such excavated cultural objects and monuments “impinge on a modern consciousness.”23 The heritage left by the Laocoön is an accumulation of received opinions, piled layer upon layer; the response is no longer to the work of art, but to responses to previous responses. Not only is the Laocoön Group subject to reproduction, but so are all the ideas about it. The clichés of cultural discourse about the arts are the results of a process of endless duplication.

In Human, All Too Human, Nietzsche writes of “Copies”: “Not infrequently, one encounters copies of important people; and, as with paintings, most people prefer the copy to the original.”24 Although they pay lip service to the concept of the original, the characters of The Laocoön Group live contentedly in the realm of copies. Everything in their world is a replica, including the Mother's paper flowers. Human beings likewise have become counterfeits, their thoughts and words imitations. The need for copies is, Benjamin argues, an expression of the desire felt by the masses to bring the formerly inaccessible work of art closer—that is to say, to put it on their level, at their disposition.25

The reproduction of art leads to its bureaucratization. Prizes and competitions, as for the statue to honor the great poet in Scene 3, are functions of the cultural apparatus. The jury must decide on the Słowacki monument project. Should it be in the shape of a grandfather clock with a cuckoo-Słowacki who awakens the nation every hour? Or should the poet be represented as an ordinary civil servant with Wawel castle in the background, creating the impression that his poetry resembles a soap bubble, but can thunder when necessary? Or should it be a folk-art creation, with Słowacki in a bottle in the shape of a ceramic jar? The jury become involved in a discussion of poetry and “aesthetic revisionism,” and as the scene ends they declaim Słowacki's verse.26

Behind the words of The Laocoön Group—produced automatically, proliferating mechanically, reverberating hollowly—there is nothing, except paper, on which the various citations quoted by the characters have been transmitted. These are all paper feelings and paper problems, as real as the paper rose which for the Mother is so “alive” that she changes its water daily. Paper is the ultimate reality for bureaucracy, subject to constant reproduction and proliferation, and the management of the arts is accomplished through the power of paper and its multiple copies.

Różewicz's theme of mass culture—state-supported, bureaucratized, rendered an ersatz commodity—is a peculiarly modern one. Yet replication is a time-honored practice in the arts, and a reliance on copies cannot be used as a test to distinguish the debased present from an earlier elite age. And here lies another dimension in the choice of the Laocoön Group as the cultural icon to be viewed and discussed in Różewicz's play.

The plight of the Father, who laments missing the original on his visit to the Vatican Museum, becomes more ambiguous when we learn that Winckelmann had never been to Rome and had seen only a plaster cast of the Laocoön when he wrote his famous description of the statue that inspired Lessing, who quotes it at length on the first page of his treatise.27 Quite insensitive to the visual arts, Lessing at the time of his writing Laocoön knew only a series of engravings and had not even looked at a plaster cast.28 When years later in 1775 he finally made his Italian journey, he included no mention of the sculpture in his diary but is said to have decided, after hours of contemplating the original, that he preferred the plaster cast. Winckelmann himself, in his History of Art among the Ancients in 1764 (in which he repeats his earlier description of the Laocoön), has something positive to say about copies: “We study the copies of the originals more attentively than we should have studied the originals themselves.”29

All the later German enthusiasts of the Laocoön followed suit. Herder cited Winckelmann, and Schiller copied verbatim the archaeologist's now canonical description. Goethe, who called the Group “the most complete masterpiece of sculptured art,” worshipped at the feet of a plaster reproduction in Mannheim in 1771.30 And all of these copies (apparently of poor quality) were of an incorrectly restored original; the right arm of the father and the right arm of the son are raised high in the air when they should be bent back.

Out of these layers of copied opinions about a copy of a falsely restored original which recedes farther and farther in the distance, there grew up the myth of the Laocoön—in the modern, negative, political sense of a misleading and potentially harmful belief that has gained currency through constant repetition. For in actual fact the idea, first put into circulation by Winckelmann, that the Laocoön Group exemplifies “noble simplicity and serene greatness” seems in no way whatsoever to correspond to the intricate, realistic original, which gives a heightened and harrowing depiction of physical pain.

In this tangle of copies, it is natural that Różewicz's Father, as he recounts for the benefit of Son and Mother his impressions of the plaster cast he saw in Rome, quotes word for word Winckelmann's description as cited by Lessing, in which there is, in turn, repeated the commentary of the Italian Latinist and poet Sadolet (who in Różewicz's system of deformation becomes Gadolet, from the Polish gad, meaning reptile). Thus, the myth of the Laocoön—a mistaken interpretation based on a faulty copy and then endlessly recopied—is passed down from Father to Son, who is—or soon will be—a copy of his Father.

The repetition of clichés and slogans is a political device—as is the constant citing of authorities—used to promote uniformity and suppress deviation. Transferring these techniques from the political to the aesthetic realm and creating out of them a dramatic style, Różewicz reveals the totalitarian power of words. But even in a world of carbon copies, the characters of The Laocoön Group, as they “hunger for beauty,” experience a longing for authenticity. Constant immersion in culture leads to a creative urge. Grandfather asks Father: “Couldn't you put it in your own words?” “Tired of the polytechnicalization and catastrophic situation in the arts,” the Mother paints in her spare time and may soon have an exhibition.

Both Mother and Son voice the desires to “be themselves”—that is to say, an unrepeatable original—and lead an “authentic” life. But these are further clichés which they have copied from the popular jargon of the day. All talk of the cultural crisis and the need for authenticity is another banality as spurious as the rest. It is impossible to escape from the ready-made phrases recurring in tightening loops and entwining the family, much as the serpentine coils twist about Laocoön and his sons.

Culture plagiarism is at work. With its name-dropping (Arp and Giacometti, Moore and Calder) and use of fashionable words (“alienation,” “crisis,” “inner values”), Polish intellectual life is mimicking the West. Each generation adopts a different imitative pose. For the Son, there is the mythology of popular youth culture with its heroes to be aped (paralleling those for the intelligentsia of his parents' age). When the Son enters the room to assert his individuality, he copies slavishly James Dean's movements.31

Since culture consists of ever-growing piles of copies and reproductions, Różewicz proposes a correlative poetics of accumulation and proliferation that mixes genres and styles, based on the view that the chaos of reality overflows all formal bounds, and affirming the triumph of trash and apotheosis of cultural refuse. In this respect, the Polish poet is anti-Lessing, whose Laocoön was written to set limits between the arts of painting and poetry.

In The New Laokoon (1910), Irving Babbitt, an American epigonos of the classical ideal striving to defend the frontiers against barbarians who would blur genres, says approvingly of Lessing that he “is a lover of boundaries and distinctions, and of the clearly defined type.”32 Różewicz, on the other hand, as a writer who intermingles lyric, epic, and dramatic, is an opponent of limits interested in overstepping bounds, breaking forms, crossing frontiers. The Laocoön Group opens at the frontier; the word, granica, is the same as for limit in the title of Lessing's treatise. In Eastern Europe boundaries are most often confining, and frontiers threatening. Różewicz's challenge to limits consists of breaking down fixed forms and striving for maximum impurity through the creation of junk art out of scraps of quotations, clippings, lists, and documents.

In the theatre this challenge results in what he calls open dramaturgy. The openness lies in the denial of a perfect, finished, unchangeable work, in favor of what is fragmentary, lacking in internal cohesion: a collage of citations, different styles, found objects (newspapers, overheard conversations).33 The play can be realized—if at all—only in the theatre through active collaboration with the director and actors. Not the form, but the struggle with it (breaking it open), is what attracts the author of The Laocoön Group. “What I like best in the theatre,” Różewicz writes, “are the rehearsals. When the director is fighting with everything and everyone. The drama involved in shaping the ‘performance.’”34

Once again the Polish poet sets himself against the classical ideal as interpreted by its humanist guardians. “For Lessing,” Babbitt argues, “the highest thing in art is the plot or design and the subordinating of everything else to its orderly development.”35 The concept of limits dictates that poetry, and thus drama, is temporal, action- oriented, whereas painting and the visual arts are spatial. For Różewicz, standing at the frontier, amidst the different genres, this is simply not the case. “The themes of my plays do not develop through time,” he writes, “so the action does not ‘develop’ either.”36 Without beginnings or endings, his dramas unfold spatially (or geographically) in a circular structure. Poland and the West, the journey to Italy and the return, discourse always coming back to its point of departure—these are spatial perceptions in a work about the contemplation of a piece of sculpture.

A sense of history as well as of geography permeates The Laocoön Group, allowing us to see the layers of cultural residue on display in cross section. Greek, Roman, Renaissance, Enlightenment, and Modern are the periods of history so amassed, each having its relationship to the statue. So too the three ages react according to generational perspectives: Grandfather, the old-fashioned humanist, holding that beauty makes life harmonious; Father, the overworked bureaucrat, lecturing about his travels; and Son, latest product of popular culture, interested in the snakes.

By his Latin citation, “Ave, Imperator, morituri te salutant,” the Son locates the Laocoön in a Roman rather than a Greek context, attracted to the mass culture of Rome, its public shows and games. Instead of ascribing the sculpture to high culture, as do Father and Grandfather, he places the Laocoön in the category of “bread and circuses” as an example of the man-versus-beast gladiatorial combats popular in the reign of Claudius. The Father immediately squelches the boy's enthusiasm, telling him he has the wrong historical period, but if we accept the current dating of the work as circa 55 B.C., the Son is actually less off the mark than either Winckelmann or Lessing.37 In any case, the date of composition remains uncertain, and the Laocoön has proved adaptable to many different settings.

The Son's placing the Group in the Vatican Circus rather than in the Vatican Museum may reflect his own interests in the more brutal aspects of mass culture, but it has its justification. According to Suetonius, Claudius's public shows in the Vatican Circus alternated chariot races with gladiatorial combats, wild-beast shows, panther hunts, and other novelties involving men and animals. Finding in the Laocoön a gruesome and sensational depiction of pain and suffering—and not the noble simplicity and serenity of soul perceived by his elders—the Son quite naturally associates the statue with the Roman Circuses.38

The Son's reading of the Laocoön is not out of keeping with the judgments of art historians in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries who have found the subject repulsive and the work weird, distressing, melodramatic, pathological, horrifying. “The snakes have no truth to nature,” one Victorian scholar objects, “but are zoological monstrosities … one of them is biting like a dog.”39 Snakes may be venomous or constrictors, but they do not bite and crush their victims.

There is something abnormal and astounding about the anecdote contained in the sculpture. In other words, the Laocoön Group can be perceived as a fait divers—the ultimate expression of popular culture for the masses. The fait divers is a short, fragmentary news item about crimes, horrors, calamities, monsters, and curiosities of nature, lending itself to a brief text and striking headline.40 The Laocoön considered as a bizarre accident involving monstrous creatures becomes myth as fait divers: “Priest of Apollo and two sons killed on beach by sea serpents,” or “Priest killed trying to save sons from water snakes,” or “Huge snakes crush and bite priest and two sons.”

The arousal of curiosity, the taking inavowable pleasure in disaster, the anomalous nature of the event allowing the viewer to project his own fantasy are all characteristics of the fait divers explaining its mass appeal (shown in the Son's obsession with the snakes). The Laocoön Group is “a monstrous item” that illustrates “the structure of the fait divers” as analyzed by Roland Barthes.41 It is autonomous, a closed structure without context, requiring no outside reference or explanation, and consisting of two terms related by a causality that is aberrant or a coincidence so improbable as to suggest a hidden design. In the case of the Laocoön Group, the disproportion between cause and effect—the break with the norm introducing the paradoxical and irrational—lies in the fact that a priest in the act of protecting his sons is struck down, that three members of the same family have been attacked at the same time, and that the snakes bite and crush simultaneously. The illogicality of the world is affirmed by the fait divers as it casts doubts on the everyday workings of causality and gives a glimpse of the unfathomable mystery of the universe. Another theorist, Cl. Sales, places the fait divers at the “Frontiers of the Known World”:

It invalidates our way of thinking the world and begins at exactly that point where our intelligence is revealed as unable to understand the universe and get a grip on it. Its discourse is located on an ambiguous frontier where the world ceases being classified, repertoried, subjected to discernible laws and where there is disclosed an unintelligible universe in which all our certitudes vanish.42

The cheap journalistic form of fait divers offers a more penetrating reading of the Laocoön Group than the high-art criticism of serious journalism which succeeds only in repeating cultural clichés. In his poetry, fiction, and drama, Różewicz has shown a preference for the fait divers, for the simple enumeration, in disjointed fashion, of brute fact, or what Barthes calls “the unorganized discard of news.”43 Wartime experiences taught him to mistrust all ideologies, abstractions, and intellectual speculations, and rely only on the concrete. Sensing the impossibility of making reality submit to artistic conventions, he makes assemblages of disparate pieces of trash and bits of old newspaper. Posed on “an ambiguous frontier where the world ceases being classified,” Różewicz confronts, on one side, the nonart of the fait divers, and, on another, the pseudoart of kitsch.

If the Son reads the Laocoön Group as fait divers, his parents turn it into kitsch. According to Matei Calinescu in Faces of Modernity, kitsch is grounded on the idea that “artistic culture can be turned into something fit for immediate ‘consumption,’ like a commodity,” and arises with the “proliferation of cheap … imitations” and “spurious replicas or reproductions of objects whose original aesthetic meaning consisted … in being unique and therefore inimitable.” Even masterpieces can have their aesthetic significance destroyed by being “consumed” as kitsch by philistine sensibilities:

A kitsch-man … is one who tends to experience as kitsch even nonkitsch works or situations, one who involuntarily makes a parody of aesthetic response. In the tourist's role … the kitsch-man will “kitschify” … cultural monuments.44

This description fits Różewicz's Father perfectly. In his Italienische Reise to see the plaster copy in the Vatican Museum, he “makes a parody of aesthetic response,” but the words he uses are directly quoted from others. When did the process of “kitschifying” the statue begin? Even at the time of its discovery—trumpeted in advance as the summit of ancient art—the Laocoön was already on its way to becoming a cultural cliché. Francesco, son of the architect Giuliano da San Gallo, recounts how he, his father, and Michelangelo went down to the ruins of the Palace of Titus:

“We set off, all three together; I on my father's shoulders. When we descended into the place where the statue lay, my father exclaimed at once, ‘That is the Laocoön, of which Pliny speaks.’ The opening was enlarged, so that it could be taken out; and after we had sufficiently admired it, we went home to breakfast.”45

Not unlike the Son in Różewicz's play, the boy Francesco was introduced to classical beauty by his father by means of the Laocoön. But contact with the sublimity of art soon arouses an appetite for something earthly—just as in The Laocoön Group, Grandfather, having lost his belief in the supremacy of beauty, asks for Gorgonzola, a cheese brought from Italy providing physical rather than aesthetic sustenance. After buying the sculpture for 500 crowns, Pope Julius II placed the Laocoön in the Vatican Museum, where it could be “sufficiently admired” by crowds of fathers and sons who would then go for breakfast, lunch, or dinner, and repeat the obligatory phrases, revealing their natures as dutiful receivers of culture.

Is it the crowds of gaping tourists who have turned the Laocoön into kitsch, or is Lessing himself to blame for having given currency to the stereotype of “noble simplicity and serene greatness” which he took from Winckelmann? Perhaps in the last analysis the unknown team of artists who created the Laocoön Group should be held responsible. In Authenticity and Kitsch, Pawel Beylin points out that we hesitate to call ancient works kitsch simply because history triumphs over aesthetics.46

Yet Andrzej Banach in his study On Kitsch has no reluctance to place the Laocoön in the chapter on “Museum Kitsch,” including appropriately a very poor photographic reproduction of what appears to be a bad copy of the Group, perhaps taken from a Polish illustrated journal of the second half of the nineteenth century intended for mass consumption. According to Banach, the stereotype of canonical beauty in classical works leads to kitsch. The danger, he argues, lies in exaggerated perfection, aiming for power of expression, especially when it is imitated or reproduced, as it is in his own book.47

Różewicz's turning loose his family of pseudoaesthetes on the Laocoön can be seen as a defacement comparable to Marcel Duchamp's drawing mustaches and a goatee on a reproduction of the Mona Lisa.48 But can we tell if the abuse is of the masterpiece or of the inferior copy? Are the two distinguishable anymore? Has Różewicz brought out the kitsch in the Laocoön Group or in the regimented, bureaucratized society of mass culture and consumer art?

In a similar spirit, the Russian novelist and playwright Vasily Aksyonov invokes the Laocoön as a cultural icon in his comedy The Heron.49 Here the sculpture provides a visual equivalent for the entrapment by slogans and clichés and the constrictions of the bureaucratic mentality. Like Różewicz, Aksyonov is an author who refuses to be confined by boundaries and distinctions. Combining short prose poems and lengthy stage directions with dialogue and songs, he writes a play, at “an ambiguous frontier where the world ceases to be classified,” which transcends the limits of dramatic form. The genre breaking of The Heron, Aksyonov tells us, grew out of the impossibility of having the work staged:

I wrote this play in the winter of 1979, sitting in my own dacha, in Peredelkino, a writers' village near Moscow, having already been ousted from the Writers' Union and all official Soviet literature. … I didn't expect it to be staged at all, so I wrote a lot of very prolonged remarks there, and some verses too. I adapted it for reading, because I didn't expect any changes in the attitude toward me. I couldn't imagine that this play would be suitable for the Soviet theatre at all.50

Aksyonov's play takes place at a frontier in a second and more literal sense; the action occurs in a Baltic Health Resort for Garment Workers seven kilometers from the Polish border, and the Heron—a strange bird girl, a mysterious swamp creature—flies over from Poland every night, arousing yearnings for a different life in the Soviet characters who are mired in a banal reality. The comedy is, according to Aksyonov, a modern version of The Seagull, and a paraphrase (or copy) of the whole genre of Russian dacha plays as developed by Chekhov, Gorky, and Andreyev. The drama unfolds as a pastiche of Chekhovian motifs and devices, including a rhythmic interweaving of arrivals, eating and drinking, talking and love affairs; three sisters dream of going not to Moscow but to Poland, which represents for the Soviets a glamorous and decadent Western country, source of consumer goods, pop culture, and romance.

Caught up in the stereotypes of mass culture, parroting clichés and slogans from newspapers and TV, copying the most banal aspects of consumer society Western and Soviet, the characters in The Heron have lost their souls and identities, and their meetings with the Heron make them aware of their fall from grace. Shot at the end of the play because of the “law of drama” requiring that a gun hanging on the wall be used, the Heron undergoes a last-minute resurrection, appearing with an enormous snow-white egg upon which she sits. To exemplify the mongrel lineage of contemporary mass culture (shown at a lower and less pretentious level than in Różewicz's play), Aksyonov creates a rich stylistic mishmash of foreign phrases, pidgin Russian, slang, Soviet jargon, pop songs, folklore, and literary and classical imagery.

The image of the Laocoön Group dominates the first half of Act II, as we see the old revolutionary turned apparatchik, Kampeneyets, who runs the Health Resort as his own family enclave, making deals about buying and selling household goods (Iranian detergent, Dutch shampoo) over the telephone, and at the same time slowly entangling himself and all the other characters in the long cord until they finally become immobilized in a group sculpture called in a stage direction “our Laocoön.”51

A glancing allusion, a mythic quotation, the Laocoön does not inform Aksyonov's play as fully as it does Różewicz's, nor does it engage as many layers of cultural history (Chekhov and the Russian dacha tradition assume that role). Here the famous sculpture suggests not the tyranny of Greece over Germany, but the triumph of bureaucracy over Russia. As in Różewicz's play, the Laocoön Group in Aksyonov's Heron signals the politicizing of culture, the babbling of empty phrases, the copying of copies. The telephone cord sending words along prescribed lines becomes the linguistic chain that fetters all the characters and takes away their ability to move beyond a fixed set of responses. “Our Laocoön” binds us to rigid categories of thought, inflexible systems of belief, and prevents seeing and feeling the world afresh.

Making copies has always been the traditional way of studying and transmitting art. Shortly after its discovery, the Laocoön Group gave rise to Renaissance engravings, marble copies, bronze models, etchings, and plaster casts. From a cast of Laocoön, Titian copied the Christ for his Altarpiece of the Resurrection. But copying need not always be official and reverential. Titian also made a comic version of the Group in which Laocoön and his sons are depicted as apes.52 Reacting to the idolatry of his fellow Germans, Heine wrote the following poem:

Now come and embrace me sweetly,
You beautiful bundle of charms;
Entwine me supply, featly,
With body and feet and arms!
She has coiled and twisted round me
Her beautiful sinuous shape—
Me, the most blest of Laocoöns,
She, the most wonderful snake.(53)

Różewicz claimed that it was only a regrettable compromise with the “laws of drama” that made him abandon his initial plan to create a marmalade Laocoön:

The group was to have been a sculpture made of marmalade. Not of marble, not of plaster, but of ordinary marmalade. It was to have been the undoing of aesthetes and pseudoinnovators sculptured in marmalade. It was to have been the “cloaca maxima” of putrid aesthetics. But in the process of “work on the play” the hand of the playwright started to glue together an “action.” The theatre (the “authentic” one) insisted on its rights and there arose a nearly authentic comedy with settings and an intermission. Out of the marmalade there flowed a group of characters.

If only they had “dissipated.”54

I failed to mention earlier that Sophocles wrote a tragedy on the subject. If only Sophocles' Laocoön existed, the entire situation would be different.55 A dramatic version of the myth from classical times would surely have resulted in later narrative and dramatic treatments. But the original was lost, and no copies had been made.


  1. Tadeusz Różewicz, Teatr niekonsekwencji (Wrocław, 1979), pp. 62–64. Translation my own.

  2. El Greco's painting shows Laocoön lying passively on the ground holding the serpent at his head and the sons scattered beneath a stormy landscape. Blake's engraving, based on a visit to the cast room of the Royal Academy Schools, entitles the Group “Jehovah and his two Sons Satan and Adam” and the serpents “Good and Evil.” The work is covered with aphorisms on the nature of art.

  3. Margarete Bieber, Laocoön: The Influence of the Group since Its Rediscovery (New York, 1942), pp. 1, 2, 19.

  4. Jacob Burckhardt, The Civilization of the Renaissance in Italy, I (New York, 1958), 169.

  5. Eliza Marian Butler, The Tyranny of Greece over Germany (Boston, 1958), originally published by Cambridge University Press in 1935.

  6. Ibid., pp. 57–58.

  7. Stanislaw Gębala, Teatr Różewicza (Wrocław, 1978), pp. 100–108. In the subchapter “Kopia i oryginał,” Gębala treats at length the theme of the copy (pp. 100–119).

  8. Józef Kelera, Kpiarze i Moraliści (Cracow, 1966), pp. 121–125. (On Różewicz's first play, see Halina Filipowicz, “The Card Index: A New Beginning for Polish Drama,” Modern Drama, 27 [March 1984], 395–408.)

  9. Gębala, pp. 108–111.

  10. Lessing, Laocoön, trans. Edward Allen McCormick (Indianapolis, 1962), pp. 5–6.

  11. Henryk Vogler, Tadeusz Różewicz (Warsaw, 1972), p. 40.

  12. Kazimierz Wyka, Różewicz parokrotnie (Warsaw, 1977), pp. 47–55. Translation my own.

  13. Tadeusz Różewicz, Conversation with the Prince and Other Poems, trans. and intro. Adam Czerniawski (London, 1982), p. 110.

  14. Ibid., p. 11.

  15. Walter Benjamin, Illuminations, trans. Harry Zohn (New York, 1968), pp. 223–224.

  16. Różewicz, Conversation with the Prince, p. 117.

  17. Lesęaw M. Bartelski, Genealogia Ocalonych (Cracow, 1969), p. 198.

  18. Werner Jaeger, Paideai: The Ideals of Greek Culture, trans. Gilbert Highet, II (New York, 1963), 194.

  19. Kelera, p. 123.

  20. Tadeusz Różewicz, “Tarcza z pajęczyny,” Próba rekonstrukcji (Wrocław, 1979), pp. 482–483.

  21. Homer, The Iliad, trans. Richmond Lattimore (Chicago, 1962), p. 446.

  22. Winckelmann's phrase is edle Einfalt und stille Grösse.

  23. Adam Czerniawski, “Introduction,” Różewicz, Conversation with the Prince, p. 17.

  24. Friedrich Nietzsche, Human, All Too Human, trans. Marion Faber (Lincoln, Nebr., 1984), p. 176.

  25. Benjamin, p. 225.

  26. Juliusz Słowacki (1809–1849), one of the greatest Polish romantic poets, regarded as a national bard.

  27. Butler, p. 47.

  28. Edward Allen McCormick, “Translator's Introduction,” Lessing, Laocoön, p. xxviii.

  29. Butler, pp. 56, 77.

  30. Ibid., p. 81.

  31. Gębala, pp. 115–119.

  32. Irving Babbitt, The New Laokoon (Boston, 1910), p. 39.

  33. “I tend to find any old newspaper more absorbing than the finest edition of poems,” Różewicz told Czerniawski, cited in Conversation with the Prince, p. 16.

  34. Różewicz, “Sobowtór,” Próba rekonstrukcji, p. 499. Translation my own.

  35. Babbitt, p. 97.

  36. Tadeusz Różewicz, Birth Rate: The Biography of a Play for the Theatre in Twentieth-Century Polish Avant-Garde Drama, ed. and trans. Daniel Gerould (Ithaca, N.Y., 1977), p. 276.

  37. McCormick, p. xi, and Bieber, p. 12.

  38. Suetonius, The Twelve Caesars, trans. Robert Graves (Baltimore, 1957), pp. 193–195.

  39. Ernest Arthur Gardner, Handbook of Greek Sculpture. 1896–1897, cited by Bieber, p. 18. In the most recent study of Lessing's treatise, there is unexpected affirmation of the “noble simplicity and serene greatness” of the sculpture. “Winckelmann's empirical observations of the Laocoön statue … are entirely sound” (David E. Wellbery, Lessing's Laocoön: Semiotics and Aesthetics in the Age of Reason [Cambridge, Eng., 1984], p. 101).

  40. Georges Auclair, Le Mana Quotidien: Structures et fonctions de la chronique des faits divers (Paris, 1970), pp. 9–23.

  41. Roland Barthes, “Structure of the Faits-Divers,Critical Essays, trans. Richard Howard (Evanston, Ill., 1972), pp. 165–195.

  42. In Le Fait Divers, Musée national des arts et traditions populaires, 19 novembre 1982–18 avril 1983 (Paris, 1982), p. 58.

  43. Barthes, p. 185.

  44. Matei Calinescu, Faces of Modernity: Avant- Garde, Decadence, Kitsch (Bloomington, Ind., 1977), pp. 226, 259.

  45. John Addington Symonds, The Life of Michelangelo Buonarroti (New York, n.d.), p. 98.

  46. Pawel Beylin, Autentyczność i kicze (Warsaw, 1975), pp. 189–190. Beylin, like other theorists of kitsch, maintains that it differs from authentic art in being repeatable and reproducible.

  47. Andrzej Banach, O kiczu (Cracow, 1968), p. 292.

  48. Calinescu, pp. 254–255.

  49. In Vasily Aksyonov, Aristofaniana s lyagushkami (Ann Arbor, Mich., 1981). The Heron is dedicated to friends and co-workers on the almanac Metropol, an uncensored anthology of Soviet writing which was suppressed at the time Aksyonov was writing his play (January—April 1979). It has been performed in Paris, in alternation with The Seagull, in February 1984, at the Théâtre de Chaillot, directed by Antoine Vitez. A reading of The Heron, translated by Edythe Haber, was given by the Open World Theatre Company in New York in March 1985.

  50. Eastern European Drama and the American Stage, A Symposium, sponsored by the Academy for the Humanities and Sciences, April 30, 1984 (New York, 1984), pp. 24–25.

  51. Aksyonov, Aristofaniana, p. 355.

  52. Bieber, pp. 5–7.

  53. Cited in Butler, p. 251.

  54. Tadeusz Różewicz, Sztuki teatralne (Wrocław, 1972), pp. 312–313. Translation my own.

  55. The English translation of Różewicz's Laocoön Group by Adam Czerniawski is also lost. Unfortunately, the translator tells me he has no copy.

András Fodor (essay date 1988)

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SOURCE: “On Różewicz,” in Acta Litteraria, Vol. 30, Nos. 1–2, 1988, pp. 152–60.

[In the following essay, Fodor discusses his translation of Różewicz's poetry into Hungarian and Różewicz's relationship to Hungarian poetry.]

Tadeusz Różewicz has been known in Hungary since the 1960s. Yet, even the postscript to his first volume published in this country sets out the way in which his plays differ from those of Mrożek, noting that Różevicz is really a poet. Accordingly, his theatre, too, reveals the lyricist's universe, a continuity of existence of the lyrical self on and off stage. Thus we did have some knowledge of Różevicz being one of the best-known representatives all over Europe of the new generation of Polish literature, yet, his introduction to a Hungarian audience has been slow in coming.

During a trip to Britain in 1970, I already discovered in a bookshop a collection of his poetry, published in Rapp and Whiting's contemporary poets series. It was around that time that I was invited, back in Hungary, by the Európa Publishing House in Budapest, to select and translate a volume of Różewicz's poetry. It should be pointed out that at that time, the late 1960s, works by him were already being published in book form in the Soviet Union, Czechoslovakia, and West Germany as well. (In Hungary, only three thin volumes of his had been published up till then.)

It was an accidental circumstance that brought Różewicz to my attention. In 1958, I was one of the poets featured, together with him, in an anthology presenting the new poetry of the socialist countries (Hlubši neż smrt, Prague). In my own poems, I was, at that time and later on as well, striving for a simplicity with more weight to it, and I seemed to detect, in Różewicz's lines, the kindred notes of a certain prosaic quality, in the positive sense of the word, and also of a concreteness free from pathos. That was perhaps the impression that really got me interested in trying to give him a Hungarian voice.

He was born in 1921, in Radomsk, a small town near Cheştochowa. Because of financial problems, he was not able to complete the secondary school. During the years of occupation, risking double persecution, he was active in the underground press. Then, in 1943–44, having completed a secret training course for officers, he served as a partisan with the National Army.

As attested even by these few facts, his pathway of becoming a poet has largely been mapped out by the War. With him, the repeated return to the nightmare of those years is not merely a capricious obsession of memory. Różewicz, with full reason, calls himself “a pit filled with memories”, “with each lying on the other”. It is a responsibility holding within itself the horror of humiliations, a humane endeavour relearning the elementary concepts of a community ethic, that have made Różewicz's attitude as a writer a valid example to his age and his generation. In one of his short stories, the hero—whom one can easily identify spiritually with the author—, on his way to France, instead of drinking tea, keeps sucking water from a tap turned towards his mouth, in spite of his companions' remonstrances—“Please, understand, you're in Paris, not in a concentration camp.” But the maniacal man closes his eyes and thinks to himself, brooding, “They're like children,—they don't know a thing. They don't know what water is. They don't know what air is. Don't know what bread is. Or soup. They don't know what a bed, a table, or an onion is. They don't know what your body, a song, a flower, a child is … I'm dead and they don't know.”

In his debut volume Niepokój (Restlessness), published in 1947, he described his existence in words whose dumbfounding quality make them fit to be engraved upon a tablet:

I am twenty-four
I escaped
when they were taking me to be slaughtered.

In his moving great lyrical monologue Plain, written in 1954, he already arrives at the insight that he has tarried for too long among the dead; yet, in the self-same poem, he repeats his vow, valid for his entire oeuvre:

I did not leave them
whatever else the appearance may be
it is not I who hold them but they
who hold me back
the Slaughtered the Just
hold me on their open palms

Even the few lines quoted make it manifest that Różewicz's style is far more prosaic and unmelodic, much drier than that of the Hungarian poets who recorded the dramas of anti-fascist commitment in their own country, Attila József, Miklós Radnóti, or János Pilinszky. For a Hungarian audience, the idea of what a fine piece of poetry should be like is still very much associated with the sort of regular, metrical composition exemplified by the aforementioned artists. Polish lyrical poetry in the inter-war period, however, more readily latched onto—more readily, that is, than its Hungarian counterpart—the form-renewing aspirations of the avant-garde. Early on, the school most renowned for launching and transmitting various trends, i.e. the Cracow school, founded by Peiper, had contacts with the Italian futurists, and subsequently with Russian and German constructivist and expressionist movements, as well as with French surrealism. Różewicz, though once attracted to them, is, in many respects, closer to the trend represented by the other major group of poets in the 1920s, namely, the Warsaw-based Skamander (Tuwim, Iwaszkiewicz, Słonimski). Instead of the luxuriant associations, the image-creating caprice of these, he attends to the dry facts of daily life, striving for an immediate object-centredness. Amongst those who have influenced his voice as a poet, we could probably mention several names from Przybo⋅ and Ważyik to Apollinaire or Blaise Cendrars. Still, right from the first mature verses, even in the peculiar, lapidary syntagms, one gets the unmistakably individual beat of emphatic suggestions, ellipses, or couplings of vocables. And, manifest from the start, too, has been a conscious craftsmanship in composition, a deliberate purpose, shaping even the simplest form, and, inwoven with the ostensibly monotonous diction, trenchant irony and sharp humour. All this, along with some later features of Różewicz's constantly more depersonalized tenor of vision, might be conceived of as an Eastern European parallel to contemporary French poetry after Eluard. Yet, even behind the diction, which, though mastered, he uses with natural ease, one can hear his distinctive voice, a voice all his own, whose only true source is his Polish destiny, the experience of the years spent on his native soil, which have matured him into a man. Therefore it strikes one not as a deplorable flaw but rather as a mark of individuality that Różewicz's poetry, intrinsically shunning the spectacular forms of euphony and, in its irregularity, all but creating an impression of improvization, employs images that are unembellished, pared down to the point of masochism, and ruggedly spare. His translator is sometimes embarrassed: he would like to impart some poetic heat to the puritanical adjectives and the laconically conceptualized images until he realizes that it is precisely this, viz. the to-the-point-and-no-frills, restrainedly bald diction, that is the very strength of Różewicz's poems.

Before embarking upon the job of translating him, I knew full well that the colours I needed to mix in order to achieve this array of hues were hardly to be found on the palette of contemporary Hungarian lyrical poetry. In addition to my own invention, I had to draw on such often contrasting poetic creeds as the reticent sombreness of Gyõzõ Csorba, the frivolously quotidian “voice trials” of Sándor Weöres and Dezsõ Tandori, Mihály Ladányi's illusion-free grotesques, or JÁnos Pilinszky's fragments from his late period, which he called “Splinters”.

Although earlier I had no personal contact with the Polish poet, it must be mentioned that Różewicz does have some direct experience of the Hungarians. In 1950, the recipient of a scholarship, he came to spend half a year in Budapest. As luck would have it, he was lodged in the Eötvös Collegium, then newly converted into a students' hostel,—the very building from which, shortly before, I had moved out. That was the period, incidentally, when poets were travelling between Warsaw, Prague, Budapest, and Sofia like children on exchange visits. That was how the Hungarian László Naǵy, for instance, got to Bulgaria. And, just as the latter wrote about the fair at Plovdiv and Bulgarian dances, naturally Różewicz, too, wrote about the Hungarian world. These verses of his are still extant, yet he himself, not without reason, left them out of his later poetry collection.

He fared the same way as his “fellow-wanderers”, that is, in the words of a Polish literary historian, “he took his optimism abroad”. Depressed by his experiences at home, he singled out the encouraging developments he saw in another, friendly country, and repressing his own bitterness, presented these with genuinely felt pathos, in terms verging on the eulogistic. He wrote, for example, a poem which he dedicated to the miners' children of Tatabánya (Swifter than a Dream). It concerns a miner's family who, having recently been given a new flat, are enthusiastically showing the poet, on the top of their standardized apartment block, newly sprung up on the hill, how the wind is swaying the green branches. These writings contain few platitudes and a great deal of poetry. Also,—besides naive hopes—some genuine warm feelings for a fraternal nation which had also emerged from the particular version. To us, it is more than just a curiosity that he has inserted in it a few scenes that the original, 1960 text did not initially contain. As a result, I could see some characteristic Budapest settings on the stage, complete with gipsy music, hotel waiters, and girls enjoying themselves at a poolside.

The helpless hero lying in his pyjamas on an old-fashioned brass bed is, in all conscience, redolent of Beckett's influence, yet, even if we were to discover in him the whole inventory of modern drama, the play's central preoccupation once again reflects the fate of middle-aged Poles who lived through the War. It also reminds one of a film-segment made by Andrzej Wajda (from Twenty-Year-Olds' Love, the work of several directors), where we see a former partisan by the name of Edmond, impersonated by Cybulski, who, surrounded by happy young men, moves about like some comical Rip Van Winkle, utterly baffling his young companions. The hero of file is a similar kind of character, for, while confronted with his whole life, eddying forth from his mind,—all the people he has met,—he is forced to confess to his peasant uncle, “I'm as empty as a basilica at night”. And when his kinsman from the countryside asks him, “Are you coming home at last?”—he answers, “No, I haven't swallowed enough yet. I'm such a one, I can't return home any more.” (It is worth considering what a bitter and acid variant this is of the destiny-formula offered in Cantata profana.)

The reason why the young man cannot return home is that he is unable to adjust to the changed circumstances,—although this hero, too, was once a resistance fighter. “Brothers!”—he once exclaims, “My generation! I can't understand you. For I've been—I've been many things, and now I've got nothing in me …”

The author's most devastating judgement is contained in the sentence, “Everything dies in your hands, because you lack faith.” For us, however, there is an obverse to that statement, too,—namely, that Różewicz cannot relinquish faith, either as poet or dramatist.

The Hungarian collection of Różewicz's poems was published in 1972, under the title The One Who Has Escaped. The first to respond to it was the poet himself, who was most impressed with it. Recalling some of the intrigue and disputes surrounding the preparations, he expressed his pleasure over the fine book like this: “as the saying goes, all's well that ends well”.

Of the critical responses here in Hungary, the one I prize most is Gyōzō Csorba's dictum, contained in a letter he sent me. This is what he wrote:

The bull's-eyes in your translation have really inspired me,—which, in itself, would be nothing extraordinary with you,—but you have achieved this in translating a poet whose voice is fairly far-removed from yours. You have done an excellent job, and I think it would be a good idea for you to try in your original poetry this austere, puritanical, but at the same time extremely tough and compelling voice.

Różewicz himself I did not meet for some considerable time. For over a decade, neither of us visited the other's country. Then, in the autumn of 1985, he revisited Budapest. Appealing to the happy memories of long ago, he sent for me, saying he would like to see me. Also present at our reunion was the helping spirit of our collaboration concerning his volume, Konrad Sutarski, a Polish poet based in Hungary. This is how the occasion is recorded in my diary: “Różewicz has mellowed a great deal. His movements and his speech have become slower. He enunciates so clearly that, although my Polish is a bit rusty, I am surprised at the ease with which I understand his words. His lineaments have grown softer, less angular. He says generalities, but his gloomy predictions betray intelligence. “Yes”, I submit to him, “there are a lot of problems in our part of the world.” He, on the other hand, is of the opinion that the whole planet is heading in the wrong direction. “This is not the way we envisaged things …” His equanimity is also pierced by a glint of self-mocking humour. Later, when, at Koorád's flat, we toast our reunion, he banteringly remarks, “There. We're talking nothing but politics, instead of talking about poetry or women.” Yet, when the conversation turns to the spreading Eastern European fashion of bathing naked, he is wryly dismissive: “What good is that for someone with our figure?” All the same, he describes, in a few sentences, political and literary conditions in Poland, and hands me a copy—printed on low-quality paper—of his latest volume of verse, which, however, largely contains his earlier poems. He mentions how pleased he was to discover in Gyorgy Somlyó's novel Ramp a motto borrowed from him, translated into Hungarian by me: “I am twenty-four / I escaped / when they were taking me to be slaughtered.” to me, this brief outburst of humanity alone is proof enough that, now in 1985, he is still the same Różewicz who, in 1947, reborn, made his debut.”

Finally, if asked whether, looking over his career, the Polish poet has remained Eastern European, and if so, what defined the characteristics of this attitude, my answer would be a strong affirmative. It seems to me that his output as a dramatist, too, is deeply anchored in that fact of topography, the particular ambience in which it has been created. To that extent he differs from his Western colleagues, practitioners of the genre of the absurd. That is why, at a conference of poets organized in Mexico, he finds it easier to communicate with his Hungarian colleague,—bound to him as he feels, instinctively, by the kindred tragedies experienced; for—though having suffered many disappointments and much bitterness—we have both preserved the old ideals behind our sense of a shared destiny. And, although he has, by now, visibly withdrawn from the more publicly active domain in Polish letters, it is inconceivable that he should be able to live and work in any other place than Poland. Presumably, only in that milieu is he capable of preserving his faith—a glow surviving even under the ashes—in man's mission. Here it was, in Eastern Europe, that he first knew, for instance, the old women who “believe in eternal life”; who are “the salt of the earth / the bark of the tree / the meek eyes of beasts”; who “see all things on their true scale / on a scale much like that of / everyday demands”. Their faces, like some living map, bear the imprint of the changes wrought in us. Our own interior world, too, is as scarred, bearing the marks of countless battles. Yet, it is still a vital, effective organism.

It is this same faith—a faith, however, which harbours no illusions—that is at work in Różewicz as well: a resolve—battered, yet undiminished—to continue, with the dogged optimism of those who understand, that which, according to our destined ends, we have sworn allegiance to.

Edward Możejko (review date Autumn 1988)

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SOURCE: A review of Überblendungen, in World Literature Today, Vol. 63, No. 4, Autumn, 1988, pp. 688–89.

[In the following excerpt, Możejko praises Różewicz's style in Überblendungen.]

Überblendungen (Penetrations) is an attempt to give a cross section of Tadeusz Różewicz's poetry in German. Whether the attempt is successful is another matter. Różewicz has attained a position alongside Miłosz and Herbert as one of the most prominent Polish poets of the postwar era. He was awarded the State Prize for Literature in 1966 and five years later was recognized by a vote of younger Polish poets as the most distinguished living poet in Poland. His debut volume, Niepokój (Anxiety; 1947), opened a new vein in Polish poetry in that it established a terse, objective, almost factual style which spoke directly about the horrors of war and hitherto unknown humiliation of human dignity. In subsequent collections Różewicz pursued this tone of moral concern, which at times turned into bitter irony and expressed profound disappointment with the conditions of human existence. He avoided the pitfalls of the Stalinist period, in which poets often sacrificed sincerity in favor of opportunistic bows to the regime; unlike other writers, he survived that dreadful era virtually intact as an artist.

Różewicz's poetry is characterized by two major formal traits: a narrative structure which reminds the reader of prose, and concreteness of description, as in “Pigtail”: “When all the women in the transport / had their heads shaved / four workmen with brooms made of birch twigs / swept up / and gathered up the hair.” His poetry therefore poses no particular difficulty to translators, in either German or English. Moreover, he entirely abandons traditional stanzas and meter; what really counts is semantic cadence and intonation. By and large, Peter Lachmann, a minor poet himself, has coped well in rendering the Polish originals into German, although his tendency to abridge texts occasionally goes too far, as when he eliminates an entire stanza from “Cud dnia powszedniego,” clearly diminishing its ironic flavor.

My major reservation, however, is in Lachmann's selection of poems. A number of important, almost programmatic pieces are missing. Perhaps they exist in earlier translations of Różewicz's verse into German, but if so, this should have been indicated in a short introductory note. Despite this shortcoming, Überblendungen will doubtless solidify Różewicz's position as a poet of international significance.

Madeline G. Levine (review date Spring 1989)

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SOURCE: A review of Poezja, in World Literature Today, Vol. 63, No. 2, Spring, 1989, pp. 332–33.

[In the following review, Levine asserts that Różewicz's Poezja demonstrates how the poet's work “has come full circle.”]

The fruits of almost forty years of poetry writing are gathered together in the new two-volume edition of Tadeusz Różewicz's poems [Poezja]. The 1988 edition recapitulates, with only minor changes, the 1976 volume Poezje zebrane and adds to the earlier collection approximately fifty new works that have appeared in print during the last decade or so.

It will come as no surprise to readers who are familiar with Różewicz's poetry that the post–1976 poems are centered on two obsessive themes: the depressing inevitability of death, and the inadequacy of poetry in the contemporary world. Różewicz began his literary career by writing about mass death in wartime, the death of the young, and the death of faith in ethical values and human decency. His poems were full of restrained anger, tightly controlled, deliberately denuded of pretty decorative effects. In the 1960s he began to experiment with longer and looser forms and to explore erotic and sensual themes. His latest poems, from the 1980s, hark back to his earlier work, particularly to the poems of the late fifties and early sixties, when his briefly expressed Stalinist enthusiasms were well behind him.

The last two poems in Poezja are representative of the ways in which the development of Różewicz as a poet has come full circle. In the next-to-last, “Ołowiany żołnierzyk” (“Tin Soldier”), the poet reminds us that the major battles of the twentieth century have faded into memory as harmless, painted still lifes; and the poet, who should be raising his voice against the preparation of the new machinery of slaughter, has grown too tired to play his role. The same sense of a slow fading away of the poet, and also of the powers of poetry, is expressed in the final, untitled poem, which begins “Słabnie poeta” (The poet weakens). Building around the conceit of Rimbaud's famous synesthetic assignment of colors to the French vowels, Różewicz reaches the melancholy and familiar conclusion that poetry has been effaced by the postatomic age.

between two wars
images turned white
metaphors turned white
A blanc E blanc I blanc
O blanc U blanc
in the glare of the atom bomb
eyes lips turned white
the shape of the world turned white

Halina Filipowicz (essay date 1990)

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SOURCE: “The Puzzle of Tadeusz Różewicz's White Marriage,” in Drama and Philosophy, edited by James Redmond, Cambridge University Press: New York, 1990, pp. 211–23.

[In the following essay, Filipowicz traces the different feminist readings of Różewicz's White Marriage.]

Why Tadeusz Różewicz's White Marriage (Białe małżeństwo) should have earned a reputation as an unequivocally feminist play is perhaps more a question for a cultural historian than a literary scholar.1 All the same, it is an issue that can hardly be ducked in the context of current feminist debate.

The most eloquent case for White Marriage as a feminist work, indeed the first major feminist play in Polish, has been made by Rhonda Blair and Allen Kuharski.2 Both Blair and Kuharski regard White Marriage as a play that questions the gender-based habits and assumptions imposed by a rigidly patriarchal culture. They do not subscribe to the concept of écriture féminine which links sex and style, hence they are hardly amazed that a man should have had such enlightened insights into what it means to live as a woman in a male-dominated, traditionally Catholic society. They arrive, however, at conclusions that are markedly different.

To Blair, the play's central character, Bianka, is a victim of the phallocratic order of things, which makes it impossible for her to find ‘room for moderation or tenderness between the sexes’.3 Bianka can cast off the shackles of conventional gender-roles only at the expense of self-deformation:

In the course of the play Bianca is increasingly cornered by the social and sexual demands of her world as she is pushed into the role of the ultimate stereotypical woman-child-virgin-bride, that is, the appropriately passive female. She struggles to create an identity which both fits the demands of her patriarchal society and allows her to be at peace with herself, but this proves to be impossible. She finally denies her womanhood altogether and thereby lets go of her humanity. In doing so, Bianca becomes a kind of feminist tragic hero.4

In Kuharski's view, Bianka emerges victorious rather than victimized. There seems no way out of the gender-fix except by renouncing sex-roles as well as transcending gender itself. Bianka succeeds in doing both:

Through Bianca's refusal to consummate her marriage with Benjamin on their wedding night, not only is her feminist revolution begun in the most fundamental way, but her spiritual marriage with Benjamin is made complete … [T]he couple's rejection of sex also marks the death of the degrading old patriarchal order and the start of a new era … Against the squalor and tensions of the world around them, Bianca and Benjamin assume a blazing luminosity at the end of the play.5

The closing scene,6 in which Bianka burns her clothes, cuts off her hair, and declares to Beniamin that she is his brother, signifies, to Blair, Bianka's ‘spiritual death’.7 This desperate act of Bianka's deformation of herself is an indictment of the patriarchal society which denies her full human potential. By the play's end, then, the opposition of male and female is left firmly in place. Not so in Kuharski's view. Unless I have wholly misunderstood his article, Kuharski deploys a deconstructionist strategy of undoing binary oppositions such as male versus female. He conceives of gender as a complex and shifting formation beyond all reach of reductive determinist thinking. Regarded from his perspective, White Marriage is a systematic process of displacement which deconstructs sex-role stereotypes and phallocentric presuppositions. To Kuharski, the final scene represents Bianka's

inner transformation and her invitation to [Beniamin] to a new kind of life … With this androgynous new ‘supercouple’, Różewicz challenges not only the duality of male and female but the very principle of dualistic thought.8

Blair's and Kuharski's exegeses rest on the assumptions that Różewicz has converted to feminism, that the characters in White Marriage always mean what they say, and that the linguistic structure of his play is a logically ordered sequence of referential assertions. Both Blair and Kuharski are willing to burke those aspects of Różewicz's creative biography that might contradict their interpretation. They do not, moreover, seem to be aware of the ways in which Różewicz's rhetorical stratagems work to complicate the ostensible logic of his argument beyond its express meaning. Although deconstruction is silently present in Kuharski's article, he finds no use for the deconstructionist ways of reading that have demonstrated rhetorical fragility of texts. In a marked departure from the deconstructive practice, Kuharski believes that White Marriage somehow offers a stable meaning. To him, the contradictory elements in the play invite a dialectical interpretation: he has proposed a ‘resolution’ of the binary opposition, or a displacement of the unresolved opposition by a third category, the ‘spiritually androgynous union’.9 But such an interpretation assumes that the oppositions are related in some scheme of hierarchical subordination, and thus a synthesis is possible.

White Marriage is certainly a treasure-house for feminist interpretation—almost too obviously. We watch Bianka destroy her trousseau, and we inevitably conclude that she rebels against the crude biological determinism of a phallocentric world. We see a wedding-feast table turn into Bianka's bride-bed, and we cannot help thinking that sexuality itself is seen as a process of ingestion. The play, no doubt, remains relevant both to ordinary life and ordinary human concerns, but this is only one part of the story.

If White Marriage is a statement about the politics of sexual oppression and liberation, why, then, has Różewicz filled his play to the bursting point with extraneous material, much of which is hardly feminist in nature?10 The play is a kind of vacuum sucking in whatever phrase or fact may be nearby. Many of them are dazzling coruscations which are not backed up by any very solid content, others are marred by some rather facile mythologizing at the point where Father establishes his identity as a priapic bull, and Bianka hers as a virgin Athena. In even the most apparently simple passages there are enigmas introduced by the permeation or pervasion of everyday conversations by extended literary quotations. This situation is further complicated by a conjoining of the inherited material with Różewicz's own literary pastiches.11 The fabric of quotations, references, and correspondences which crowd the play is, obviously, crucial to the way Różewicz experiences reality. In an age of deepening illiteracy, when even the educated have only a smattering of literary knowledge, erudition is of itself a kind of fantasy, a surrealistic construct.

When the allusions, quotations, and pastiches are juxtaposed with ordinary speech, what effect do the vagaries of the text have on our perception of the characters and their behavior? Audiences are not likely to identify all the references in Różewicz's catalogue of erudition, but they will hear the stylistic registers shift between prose and poetry, between trivial exchanges and overembellished pronouncements, between a textbook fragment and a turn-of-the-century advertisement. Blair does not acknowledge the borrowed material and considers it written by Różewicz himself. Kuharski concedes that the play is embedded in the Polish literary tradition, but he immediately cautions us that White Marriage is ‘a bold departure from that tradition’.12 When he does discuss the play's debt to the past, he privileges those references in the play (to Maria Komornicka and Narcyza Żmichowska) that support his principal thesis.13

Before we approach White Marriage as a play impelled by literature as well as a text of male authority that comes up against the limits of its own explanatory force, we must consider more closely the premises underlying Blair's and Kuharski's explication. There is certainly no good reason why male writers should not address themselves to issues of feminist politics. To deny this would be to subscribe to the sexist mystification that perpetrates the idea of some deep ontological divide between the sexes. However, when Blair and Kuharski declare White Marriage the first major feminist play in Polish and accept Różewicz as a well-meaning fellow-traveller, they are a bit too willing to indulge in their assumption that Różewicz has broken clean out of the prison-house of his creative biography. Stanislaw Barańczak has pointed out the ‘definitely nonfeminist sexual obsessions expressed in [Różewicz's] poetry’.14 His plays too confront us with the male-sanctioned order of things, in which women's proper place is that of natural providers of male domestic security or of male sexual gratification.

However outspoken their respect for human dignity, the plays of Różewicz reveal a nervousness about feminism, indeed an alarming tendency toward misogyny whenever female characters are involved. Różewicz can be astonishingly cruel to the women in his plays. They are, almost without exception, mere stereotypes: the repulsive Fat Woman (in The Card Index) and Old Woman (in The Old Woman Broods); the demonic housekeeper in On All Fours; the lame-brained young women in The Card Index, The Interrupted Act, The Old Woman Broods, and On All Fours; the cloying wives and fiancées in The Card Index, He Left Home, and The Trap, for whose affectionate simplicity the male characters come to feel a cold detestation. The few intelligent, articulate women in Różewicz's plays are viewed by the male characters with suspicion and condescension.15 Young and attractive women exist in Różewicz's work primarily as orifices: the war bride, the Secretary, and the female Journalist in The Card Index; Kowalski's mistress in A Funeral Polish Style; the Young Woman in On All Fours; Gretchen in The Trap; even the Impresario's Wife in Departure of a Hunger Artist. Given this context, it would not be impossible to view White Marriage as another flight of phallic fancy.

Yet a writer's œuvre need not be the ultimate criterion in judging a work at hand. Perhaps White Marriage indeed represents Różewicz's conversion to feminism, and he intended his work to be read as a feminist one. If so, we must also confront the perennial problem whether, and how, to honor the principle of authorial intentionality.

There is no paucity of statements by Różewicz about the genesis of White Marriage. The play, he said in a French interview, is firmly rooted in modern culture:

My literature doesn't come from Freud. It is, like Freud, from our epoch. And so are the existential and feminist themes which are very obvious in White Marriage, for example. But the play is also a reaction against the surge of pornography in the 1970s, against the brutalization of eroticism as we saw it in Genet.16

It is tempting to surrender to the author's overt intention so freely dispensed. As we compare several explications by Różewicz, however, we begin to realize that we will not go very far if we take them uncritically. The proposition that White Marriage is an engagé play, conceived to counter the pornographic exploitation of sex, had already been dismissed by Różewicz himself six years before the French interview. In a conversation with his Polish scholar-friend, Józef Kelera, he had this to say about the origins of White Marriage:

It's impossible to tell why I've written this play. I could have come up with sham answers [pozorne odpowiedzi]. I could have said, for example, that by writing this play I tried to stem the tide of pornography in the world, that I tried to return the human face to eroticism and sex which have been rendered inhuman by pornography.17

Further, Różewicz did not diminish his ‘purely playful motives [motywy czysto zabawowe]’ in writing White Marriage, but he sought to explain why it ‘holds a very special place’ in his creative biography although ‘it's not a step forward in the development of [his] dramatic technique’.18 The theatre at the time, he said to Kelera, was shrouded in mysticism; White Marriage was to bring the theatre down to earth. Nonetheless, Różewicz emphatically denied that his intention in White Marriage was to show a conflict between biological and social aspects of human existence. Throughout the conversation, he indeed dwelled on those elements of White Marriage which have more to do with literary tradition than with real life. He called White Marriage ‘a layer cake [przekładaniec]’ of quotations and allusions.19 He is indebted, he said, to Piotr Skarga, Adam Mickiewicz, Aleksander Fredro, Narcyza Żmichowska, Gabriela Zapolska, Maria Komornicka, Stanisław Przybyszewski, Jan Lemański, Tadeusz Miciński, and Stanislaw Ignacy Witkiewicz. He compared the ‘movement of the play: “up” and “down”, forward and backward’, to ‘copulation, to the rhythm of life, to an act of conception’.20White Marriage, then, emerged as a tale of the erotic relations between master and matter, of the unique intimacy he achieved with his writing as begetter.

Such a confession of phallic authority and literary paternity may well prompt misgivings about the author who is elsewhere presented as a crypto-feminist, if not a fully fledged convert.21 Let us turn, however, to Różewicz's explanation of the play's last scene. Bianka, he told Kelera, destroys the traditional social ‘forms’ that have constrained her, causing her ‘complexes and obsessions’:

This ending means, above all, that Bianka does exist: I am here, in this world, I am a person, I am an individual … Second, she doesn't say: I'm your loyal wife with whom you can do in bed whatever you want and so on, but in her innocence she says: I am. Understand that I also exist.22

The motives of defensive male prejudice seem to have blinded Różewicz to his best insights on the subject of gender relations when he immediately negated the second part of his explanation. Bianka's final line, he said, is a proclamation of ‘her human condition, not of her gender [płeć]’.23

For her boldness Bianka must pay with her sanity. This is essentially what Różewicz told Kazimierz Braun, a noted theatre director. He chided Braun, who directed two of the early productions of White Marriage, for missing the point of the final scene: ‘Even you didn't take Bianka over the edge of sanity.’24 He reminded Braun that the scene had been inspired by an actual incident in the life of Maria Komornicka who, in Różewicz's explanation, went insane after declaring herself a man.25 The original title of the play, as Różewicz tells us elsewhere, was in fact Madness (Szał).26

In the conversations with Konstanty Puzyna as well as Kelera, Różewicz repeatedly said that it was the situation in the theatre at the time that prompted his response in the form of White Marriage. His diagnosis of the situation, however, changed. In 1976, when he spoke with Kelera, it was the separation of the theatre from the rest of human life that concerned him. In 1974, when he talked with Puzyna, it was the theatre's scorn for drama as literature. In no uncertain terms he rejected the theatre which favored either a collective creation or the arrogated authoritarianism of the director and the designer at the expense of the playwright. As he told Puzyna, White Marriage was conceived out of the desire to have the authority unconditionally surrendered to the dramatist. He wanted to write a play resistant to manipulations by theatre artists. White Marriage, he contended, is such a work. It can do very well without directors and designers: ‘I feel like “playing it out” in a notebook and reading it to my friends … [in] my “one-man's theatre” at home.’27

If Różewicz's authorial intentionality is so hard to pin down—shifting incessantly from interview to interview—it is because he insists on his right to self-contradictions:

I have left the door open so that I can experiment. I don't want to be held accountable for my theories. Otherwise someone will grab me by the lapels and say: You said this and that and you better stick with it.28

On epistemological grounds, then, it is necessary to deny that authorially determined meaning can be reliably ascertained at all. Even if an author were to follow through his or her intentions, a text inescapably exceeds the limits of what its author set out to assert. Indeed, the author's intention is a condition whose fulfillment neither the author nor the audience can know with certainty and one which cannot control the play of meaning.

Whatever Różewicz may have consciously undertaken to say in White Marriage, it is ultimately the play's language that speaks to us in ways often unbeknown to the author. We must therefore confront the play on its own terms. It is a procedure that both Blair and Kuharski seem to have adopted. But since their authority is the English translation, they are compelled to carry their argument at a considerable sacrifice of the Polish original's linguistic richness and complexity. Further, Blair and Kuharski regard White Marriage as a human document, that is, as a representation of characters who think, feel, and act in a way that is enough like ours to engage us in their experience. In their approach to White Marriage as a human document and a feminist critique of patriarchy as well, language is taken as a more or less transparent device conveying meaning. But, to quote the Hero of Różewicz's The Card Index, ‘It's a lot worse with words than we think.’29 Apart from the fact that language is never fully transparent to meaning, the imagined world of White Marriage is generated by literature and thus foregrounds the linguistic medium itself. This aspect of the play—its play of language—is often overlooked or insufficiently stressed.

The outpouring of quotations, allusions, and pastiches in White Marriage is not merely a literary stylization to convey the intellectual ambience of the Polish fin de siècle when the action takes place. The play's main rhetorical strategy is, in fact, that of decontextualizing rather than setting up a context, of a de-montage rather than a montage.30 The spoken lines constantly oscillate between the language of everyday conversations and the language of borrowed or parodied fragments. When the fragments are lifted out of their context and placed in a new linguistic milieu, they merge but do not meld. This is underscored by the fact that the extraneous materials are usually either read aloud or recited rather than delivered in the style of casual conversation. The most immediate result of such a rhetorical strategy is an unsettling sense of incongruity. The recognizable details of life compete with the power of the language that draws attention to itself.

Moreover, when the action is repeatedly interrupted to allow a reading or recitation, we begin to distance ourselves from the reality on stage. And since the lines in an inherited fragment compel a character to assume a different expressive identity, the play's textual workings deny the characters any stability or psychological continuity. After the work of expressionist dramatists, it is, of course, no longer safe to assume that a play is going to present characters, each of whom has a total unity. On the contrary, one of the major achievements of modern drama has been to put that notion of selfhood in question, to present it as an aggregation of conflicting selves. This is in fact one of the unspoken premises in Kuharski's article. But White Marriage goes even further. The identities of the characters become functions of language rather than a pre-existent given which uses language. It is not that there is no such thing as identity, but that it is a changing set of linguistic conventions.

In White Marriage, then, we have a dramatic text whose perfidious play of language inescapably undoes the ostensible meaning which, in Blair's and Kuharski's interpretation, has to do with a fully rationalizable conflict between individual self-assertion and society's crudely reductive, biological view of sexual difference. To discover signs of the strain and self-division in the text, let us look at the characters of Beniamin and Bianka, who are central to Blair's and Kuharski's feminist reading of the play.

Of all the characters, Beniamin is the one who rarely speaks in his own voice, and before he says any text of his own at all, before he has a chance to establish his identity, he gives a poetry recital at a soirée. He appears in six of the play's thirteen scenes; in one of them, he asks a short question, and in the remaining five he usually recites poems. His quotations occupy a rhetorically significant position: they either open a scene and prompt a response (in scene 4),31 or they counter a preceding text as a scene draws to a close (scenes 7, 9, and 11). In scene 12—the crucial scene of the wedding feast and the wedding night—Beniamin's own text is minimal; the linguistic centerpiece of the scene is his exchange with Bianka of excerpts from Żmichowkska's The Heathen Woman. Once we see the character of Beniamin as generated by literary quotations, then his identity becomes precarious rather than fixed and unified, and his spoken lines can hardly be taken as a reliable source of determinate meaning.

Bianka, even more than Beniamin, emerges as a literary construct. Indeed, she describes herself, in scene 9, in the words of Żmichowska's letter to her brother Erazm,32 and in scene 13 she assumes the identity of Maria Komornicka. Her own spoken lines are more extensive than Beniamin's, but so are her inherited fragments. As soon as the play opens, we see her read a book. The fact that it is a textbook of zoology, rather than a poem by Wincenty Korab Brzozowski, is a welcome, if unexpected, change from the point of view of Paulina, Bianka's vivaciously practical friend.33 Bianka's identification with the precious turn-of-the-century writing, such as Brzozowski's, is confirmed in scene 2. She is present in this scene through her diary that is read aloud by her parents; the diary fragments are excerpts from Komornicka's ‘Black Flames’. In scene 8, after Beniamin has proposed marriage to her, Bianka reads from the journal herself:

I shall dwell with thee at the bottom of a lake in a golden temple like a bell, which thou wilt toll with thy strong arms like boughs … and the still heart will stir … The heart of the bell, thine heart, to hold it in my hand like a frightened little bird … The heart pounds and bursts with happiness … with my claws I shall toll thy silent bell … Oh, the bellringer of my temple! Toll the silent bell of my body with thy bronze heart, follow me to the top of Mont Blanc, wrap me with the flame of thy desire …34

The passage throbs with the most embarrassingly jejune emotionalism. It invites a smile at the reiterated ‘bell’ and ‘heart’. It may even provoke a growl: heart me no such heartness. It cannot, however, be taken seriously; it is, indeed, a parody of Komornicka's overembellished poetic prose.

In scene 12, on their wedding night, Bianka declares to Beniamin:

Have you seen a woman who is beautiful, strong in her passion, holy in her soul? Her forehead glows with the power of thought which could determine the fate of Athens. Her lips burn with desire, her gaze with irresistible seduction … Have you dreamt of her? If her eyes are downcast, 'tis only because a flame of hope or of memories is too bright and must be concealed; her blush is her blood, 'tis her life which springs forth for it cannot be contained in her body … and her love … believe me, brother, such women there are … if you meet her, you might succumb to the desire to die in her embrace, to be no more …35

The lines are from Żmichowska's novel; removed from their context, they strike us as extraordinarily muddled and pretentious. In the same scene farther away, Bianka turns to the imagery and the diction that filled the pages of the turn-of-the-century Chimera:

My legs have grown together … from my feet up to my navel I am covered with cold fish scales … Ben … your beloved has a fish tail instead of legs … you know? I am a siren … you've married a siren … a chimera. Look! I have a lioness's head, a goat's body, and the tail of a snake …36

Bianka ends scene 12 with another excerpt from The Heathen Woman. It is in plain idiom which may be more appealing to contemporary audiences, but it nonetheless points up the stylistic instability of Bianka's language.

Throughout the play, Bianka seems in opposition to the phallocentric world that surrounds her. However, different linguistic effects in her spoken lines are at times concordant with, but most often directly subversive of, the manifest content of the play. The seemingly peripheral quotations and pastiches work to deny Bianka a psychological identity and hence credibility as a character. Locked in textual combat with Bianka's own lines, the inherited fragments rarely fail to embarrass the apparent logic of her rebellion. In no other scene is this more evident than in the penultimate scene 12. The events of this scene are, of course, the turning point of the play: Bianka refuses to consummate her marriage to Beniamin. Yet there is an insoluble antagonism between action and word. Bianka's and Beniamin's recitations provoke laughter but not without a sense of discomfort as if our laughter were inappropriate, perhaps even irresponsible. This sense of discomfort is hardly relieved by scene 13 which, unless we are familiar with Komornicka's biography, catches us unawares. The humor of the ridiculous excerpts does not eliminate an awkward sublimity in scene 12, but it does little to prepare us for the rueful pathos of the play's closing scene.

Różewicz's use of inherited material is not limited to White Marriage. In the earlier plays, such as The Card Index and The Laocoon Group, it was his way of recovering and re-examining the past, of evaluating its inherent cultural value through new context. But the pervasiveness of quoted and paraphrased fragments in White Marriage (as well as Departure of a Hunger Artist and The Trap, written immediately afterwards37) suggests a more radical strategy. According to Różewicz, he used the many references in White Marriage as a scaffolding to assure a cohesive structure. At stake for him was a closed dramatic form, as opposed to the looser, more open forms of his plays such as The Card Index:

I would like … to make sure I am contained in time and space, that I won't disintegrate into smaller and smaller pieces but that I will begin to coalesce again … My complete surrender to the open dramaturgy had become a threat in the sense that dramatic elements might continue to disperse and thus leave an empty center. I was aware of that, and so I tried to pull these elements back to the center … to contain them within a framework [of quotations and references], to compress them … until they release a new energy.38

As we have seen, however, the inclusion of the borrowed material in the spoken lines undermines the very thing Różewicz said he was trying to accomplish: a stable form. It is not only that White Marriage, wavering between different linguistic registers, stubbornly refuses to yield an exact meaning. By outrageous peculiarities of language, the play also betrays an internal struggle for an appropriate language. In White Marriage, there is a very precise identifiable movement back and forth among many stylistic possibilities none of which, however, is decisive. The rhetorical practices within the play break the text down into contradictory elements, put in question and at times suspend an ostensibly determinate meaning, and prevent the text from being read as a unified whole, as an organic unity. It would not be too much to say that these discordant dynamics of the text are a source of the palpably disturbing effect the play has on us.

Most of the inherited material in White Marriage comes from the Polish modernist movement, known as the Young Poland. It was notorious for its linguistic license and stylistic liberties, which for many decades made the style of the Young Poland writers ‘a synonym for bad taste’.39 When White Marriage recreates this linguistic chaos, it literally makes the most of it. The world we see on stage is a world structured of fragmented visions as well as verbal fragments which clash with one another. It is a world denied a center, deprived of a single linguistic authority.

We might be tempted to conclude that the play seems to touch on feminist aesthetics precisely in its defiance of the unifying power and rigid discipline of logical reason, which, we are told, has been the domain of male power par excellence. Such a conclusion, however, would be based on a belief that each of the sexes has its own, essential attributes—a belief, in other words, that re-enforces the old stereotypes about gender difference. The trouble is, moreover, that while White Marriage may indeed not be reducible to a single interpretation, it is not reducible to interpretations taken out of context of the play's linguistic system.


  1. The play was written between May and October 1973. It was first published in 1974, and had its world première in 1975 in Warsaw.

  2. See Rhonda Blair, ‘A White Marriage: Różewicz's Feminist Drama’, Slavic and East European Arts, 3 (Winter/Spring 1985), 13–21; and Allen Kuharski, ‘White Marriage and the Transcendence of Gender’ in James Redmond (ed.), Themes in Drama, vol. 11: Women in Theatre (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1989), pp. 129–38. In Poland, where feminist theory has not yet arrived, critics are generally satisfied to carve the play up into the oppositions of body/soul, culture/nature, social contract/bestial instinct, high/low, mature/juvenile. See especially Marta Fik, ‘Mariage blanc’, The Theatre in Poland, 17 (September 1975), 13–14; Tadeusz Burzyński, ‘Białe małżeństwo po raz drugi’, Kultura (Warsaw), 13 (12 October 1975), 13; Marek Jodłowski, ‘Między Operetķͣ a Rzeźni̧ͣ’, Odra, 15 (September 1975), 77–81, and ‘“He, he” Różewicza’, Odra, 15 (December 1975), 107–8; Barbara Osterloff, ‘Białe małżeństwo inaczej’, Teatr, 30 (1–15 December 1975), 11–12; Józef Kelera, ‘Od Kartoteki do Pułapki’, [introduction to] Tadeusz Różewicz, Teatr, vol. 1 (Cracow: Wydawnictwo Literackie, 1988), pp. 51–7. Marta Piwińska has cautiously discussed White Marriage as ‘a historical drama’ about ‘a vague [niejasna] revolt of artists, women, and children surrounded by swinishness’ (see ‘Cukiernia ciast truj̧ͣcych’, Dialog, 19 [March 1974], 92). No less cautiously, Tadeusz Drewnowski has described it as ‘a play about the emancipation of a woman’ (see ‘Poeta zostaje sam …’, Polityka, 30 [25 October 1986], 9; emphasis added). And Irena Bołtuć has, with irresistible logic, applauded the play as ‘a defense of women, which is concerned not with the superficial and deceptive equality of professional and social status, but with partnership in life, including its most intimate aspect, sex’ (see ‘Z czym na festiwal wrocławski?’, Teatr, 30 [16–31 March 1975], 4).

  3. Blair, ‘A White Marriage: Różewicz's Feminist Drama’, p. 20.

  4. Ibid., p. 13. Blair's idea that Bianka is a tragic hero anticipates Kelera's conclusion in ‘Od Kartoteki do Pułapki’, p. 56. His essay originally appeared in Dialog (April-May 1985).

  5. Kuharski, ‘White Marriage and the Transcendence of Gender’, p. 136. He finds the ending tragic only to the extent that Bianka and Beniamin are compelled to reject physical sexuality. In Kuharski's interpretation, Beniamin appears a willing participant in Bianka's ‘feminist revolution’, despite that her declaration in the last scene catches Beniamin unawares. Dressed in his Sunday best, he stands speechless. Różewicz, a master of open-ended dramatic forms, would not have it otherwise. Worth noting is a significant change from the conclusion of the first edition of White Marriage, in which Bianka extended her arms to Beniamin in a gesture of welcoming (see Białe małżeństwo, Dialog, 19 [February 1974], 33). In all the subsequent editions, this gesture is absent, and thus Bianka appears cautious toward Beniamin.

  6. Both Blair and Kuharski have conceded that White Marriage consists not of scenes, but of tableaux, the term adopted in the English translation (see Tadeusz Różewicz, Marriage Blanc and The Hunger Artist Departs, trans. Adam Czerniawski [London: Marion Boyars, 1983], pp. 5–69). The Polish text uses the term ‘obraz’; when applied to drama, it simply means a brief act or a scene, without the visual connotations suggested by ‘tableau’.

  7. Blair, ‘A White Marriage: Różewicz's Feminist Drama’, p. 20.

  8. Kuharski, ‘White Marriage and the Transcendence of Gender’, p. 137.

  9. Ibid., pp. 135, 136.

  10. Among Różewicz's sources was Felicjan Faleński's unfinished play, The Dances of Death (Tance śmierci, c. 1860–c. 1885), which, in the character of Princess Febronia, ridicules emancipated women as unkempt and neurotic spinsters (see Archiwum Literackie, vol. 8 [Wrocław: Zakład Narodowy imienia Ossolińskich, 1964], pp. 115–293). A biography of Maria Komornicka, another source for the play, is in the same volume of Archiwum Literackie.

  11. Jerzy Paszek has identified the following verbal fragments in White Marriage: a poem by Wincenty Korab Brzozowski in scenes 1 and 8; Maria Komornicka's poetic prose, ‘Black Flames’ (‘Czarne plomienie’, 1901), in scene 2; a poem by Komornicka in scene 3; poems by Stanislaw Korab Brzozowski and Jan Lemański in scene 4; a poem by Tadeusz Miciński in scene 7; Juliusz Slowacki's drama, Balladyna (1839), and Różewicz's pastiche of ‘Black Flames’ in scene 8; Narcyza Żmichowska's letter to her brother and her novel, The Heathen Woman (Poganka, 1846), in scene 9; Lives of the Saints (Żywoty Świetych, 1579) by Piotr Skarga, Różewicz's pastiche of hagiographical poetry, and a poem by Stanislaw Wyrzykowski in scene 11; The Heathen Woman in scene 12; and the diction of the leading Polish modernist journal, Chimera (1901–1907), scattered throughout the play. (See J. Paszek, ‘Aluzja literacka w dramacie [Biale malżeństwo Różewicza]’, in Sztuka aluzji literackiej: Zeromski, Berent, Joyce [Katowice: Uniwersytet Śļͣski, 1984], pp. 146–55.) It is worth adding that a folk song in scene 4 appears in a similar context in ‘Little Frog’ (‘Żabusia’, 1889), a short story by Gabriela Zapolska whose works were a major source of inspiration for the play.

  12. Kuharski, ‘White Marriage and the Transcendence of Gender’, p. 130.

  13. The text of White Marriage does not bear out Kuharski's claim that ‘Bianca's initial narcissism and excessive aestheticism can be seen as an allusion to the early life of [Zofia] Nalkowska’ (‘White Marriage and the Transcendence of Gender’, p. 132).

  14. Stanislaw Barańczak, [an untitled review of the special issue of Slavic and East European Arts which carried Blair's article], Slavic and East European Journal, 30 (Summer 1986), 298.

  15. See, for example, the scene between the protagonist of Departure of a Hunger Artist and the Young Woman. She interviews the Hunger Artist using the formal and respectful pan, but he addresses her with the familiar ty. He thus underscores his own position as master while relegating the woman to a position of inferiority.

  16. Irène Sadowska-Guillon, ‘Tadeusz Różewicz: le théâtre de la mythologie a venir’ [an interview with Tadeusz Różewicz], Europe: Revue Littéraire Mensuelle, 61 (April 1983), 164.

  17. Józef Kelera, ‘Na temat i nie na temat’ [an interview with Tadeusz Różewicz recorded early in April 1976], Odra, 16 (June 1976), 65.

  18. Ibid., pp. 67, 66.

  19. Ibid., p. 66.

  20. Ibid., p. 66.

  21. As Sandra M. Gilbert and Susan Gubar have pointed out, ‘In patriarchal western culture … the text's author is a father, a progenitor, a procreator, an aesthetic patriarch whose pen is an instrument of generative power like his penis’ (see The Madwoman in the Attic: The Woman Writer and the Nineteenth-Century Literary Imagination [New Haven: Yale University Press, 1979], p. 6).

  22. Kelera, ‘Na temat i nie na temat’, p. 66.

  23. Ibid., p. 66.

  24. Kazimierz Braun and Tadeusz Różewicz, Jezyki teatru (Wrocław: Wydawnictwo Dolnośļͣskie, 1989), p. 40.

  25. For a biography of Komornicka, including a description of the clothes- burning episode in July 1907, see reminiscences by her sister and brother: Aniela Komornicka, ‘Maria Komornicka w swych listach i mojej pamieci’, and Jan Komornicki, ‘List brata’ in Archiwum Literackie, pp. 294–341, 350–3. According to Jan Komornicki, Maria Komornicka looked upon women as ‘inferior creatures’ (p. 352).

  26. See Tadeusz Różewicz, Przygotowanie do wieczoru autorskiego (Warsaw: Państwowy Instytut Wydawniczy, 1977), p. 81. He later replaced Madness with Black Flames, borrowing the new title from Komornicka's ‘Black Flames’, which is quoted in scene 2 and parodied in scene 8. According to Paszek, White Marriage is a negative of ‘Black Flames’ (see ‘Aluzja literacka w dramacie’, p. 154).

  27. Konstanty Puzyna, ‘Koniec i pocz̧ͣtek’ [an interview with Tadeusz Różewicz recorded on 23 January 1974], Dialog, 19 (June 1974), 122.

  28. Ibid., p. 122.

  29. Teatr, vol. 1, p. 116.

  30. For a different explanation of the role of the quotations and allusions, see Paszek, ‘Aluzja literacka w dramacie’. According to Paszek, they serve as cultural ornamentation to evoke the atmosphere at the turn-of-the- century, as a source of humor, and as a means of characterization.

  31. In scene 4, Father recognizes that Beniamin, by leaving out the last two words (‘O, death’), has turned Stanislaw Korab Brzozowski's poem into an erotic verse. He picks up Beniamin's verbal game and responds with Lemański's carpe diem poem ‘Novena xxv’, to which he has added a final couplet.

  32. See Teatr, vol. 2, p. 154.

  33. Ibid., p. 109. In scene 8, Paulina once again identifies Bianka with the same poem, ‘Affinité d'ombres et de fleurs en le soir’ (1899) by Wincenty Korab Brzozowski (see p. 150). Incidentally, there is no evidence in the text to support Blair's and Kuharski's claims that Paulina is Bianka's sister or half-sister. By the premises of the play, her identity must remain an enigma.

  34. Ibid., p. 150.

  35. Ibid., p. 168.

  36. Ibid., p. 169.

  37. These two plays, written between 1975 and 1982, are based on Franz Kafka's fiction, diaries, and correspondence.

  38. Puzyna, ‘Koniec i pocz̧ͣtek’, pp. 120, 123.

  39. Czesław Milosz, The History of Polish Literature (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1983), p. 329.

Paul Coates (essay date 1991)

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Last Updated on June 7, 2022, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 5285

SOURCE: “Gardens of Stone: The Poetry of Zbigniew Herbert and Tadeusz Rozewicz,” in The Mature Laurel: Essays on Modern Polish Poetry, edited by Adam Czerniawski, Seren Books, 1991, pp. 173–88.

[Coates is an assistant professor of English at McGill University and author of literary theory. In the following essay, he analyzes the differing styles of Zbigniew Herbert and Tadeusz Różewicz and each poet's approach to humanity.]


There are several possible ways of describing the tremendously subtle mechanism of checks and balances that regulates Herbert's poetry. One could say that in it the incidental becomes central, or—in the terms of his book of essays on European art and culture—the barbarian enters the garden.1 Here the word ‘barbarian’ bears spruce inverted commas, and is as dapper as pinstripes: the man classified as a ‘barbarian’ (a denizen of ‘Eastern Europe’, for instance, from the forested edge of the steppes) is perhaps ‘one of us’. And yet Herbert himself ironically doubts this: Mr Cogito loses the battle with his face, whose inherited medieval desires defeat the educative applications of Mozart and Veronese.2 The barbarian, however, is also modern man, a quizzical interrogator of the heritage of nineteenth century museum culture, and of such Judaeo-Christian relics as the Mona Lisa (‘Jerusalem in a frame’, the philosophy of Spinoza and angelology.3) It is a garden of stone, that ever-present element in Herbert's work (“if he had a sense of identity, it was probably with stone”4): the garden graveyard of stored culture, as strangely impressive and useless as the treasures of Xanadu in Citizen Kane. It is the place of culture as interpreted by Walter Benjamin, its every monument built on barbarism. For Herbert, the garden of culture clearly remains open, despite the cataclysms of this century, but the significance of its inventory is problematic (as Stanisław Barańczak notes, it is a mistake to term Herbert a classicist).5 What should one do with these objects, which are no longer manufactured? Why and how should one recount stories already known? (In ‘Jonah’, Herbert's knowledge that we know the story already causes a certain weariness: “then the well-known things occurred”.)6 In order to find a niche for himself amidst the angels, for instance, the poet has to invent one characterized by incompetence.7 For Różewicz, meanwhile, there is no longer any garden. If World War Two can be seen as the catastrophe that threw all previous European culture into doubt, aesthetic education having signally failed to prevent the eruption of barbarism from civilization's midst, then for Herbert it was an explosion that created a Pompeii, full of frozen, once-human forms, whilst for Różewicz it submerged the old world's surface under level ash. Herbert's garden may lie west of Poland rather than East of Eden, but it is not the West of whose relative political freedom so many Poles dream, as the otherwise intelligent Polish critic Artur Sandauer was to claim in a piece neatly trimmed to a tendentious Party line; nor is it a place preferred through snobbish affectation. For Herbert, the West is rather an enclave of the past, whose inhabitants have as yet been spared the full force of the twentieth century's lesson in the appalling fragility of human life. For the Pole whose compatriots were decimated by war, and whose liberation meant the imposition of a further cage, the West becomes a museum dreamworld: he rubs his eyes, unable to be sure such a place still exists. His own being seems so unreal before the imperturbable complacency of the Gioconda that he pinches himself to make sure he really is standing in front of it.

Another description of the dialectic of Herbert's work might speak of semi-allegorical dramatizations of the confrontation of the real and the ideal, the human and the ethereal: Fortinbras and Hamlet.8 In ‘Revelation’, the essence of things is obscured by the postman's visit, prompting a resolution to hold fast the exquisite moment when next it occurs.9 Similarly, Spinoza yearns to see God, and on succeeding discourses to Him on the nature of man. In an ironic, poignant reversal, the poem presents misunderstanding as the bedrock of experience, with man absorbed in absolute philosophy while God has an entirely different notion of the “Really Important Things”.10 One might be tempted to see God's interest in the trivial as a rebuke to the philosopher's fury for the absolute; Różewicz would doubtless have presented the material thus. It is more accurate, however, to identify this God as a careworn wife, another version of the woman whose preoccupations never intersect with those of the men in Herbert's verse (the fusion of lovers in ‘Two Drops’11 is atypical). In ‘Silk of a Soul’, for instance, her concerns (a silk stocking) have a simplicity the poet considers poignant:12 she is like a more distanced version of Tereza in Kundera's The Unbearable Lightness of Being. The shadow of the unattainable girl ghosts its way between the lines of Herbert's work, which is perhaps limited by its inability to bring the theme into direct focus. Thus in ‘I would like to describe’13 he says he would give everything for an expression “extracted from my breast like a rib”,14 whilst “an absent girl's fingers”15 below his rib are said to disturb Mr. Cogito's quest for the pure thought.16 If there is an unstated yearning for love here, for the woman who might grow out of the rib, it acquires pathos from the inability or reluctance to grasp that love is the object of longing. Similarly—though the presentation is more detached and ironic—the housekeeper-muse of ‘Routine of the Soul’,17 does not dream of the poet but, as she looks down from her balcony, of her moustachioed gendarme.

It is Herbert's interest in the encounter of the ideal and the everyday that prompts his recurrent concern with angels, those figures of mediation. Describing Arion's song in a poem accorded the important strategic final position in his first collection, Herbert writes that no-one knows exactly what the angel sings;18 it is like the most beautiful object in another poem—the one that does not exist.19 Herbert becomes a frustrated Platonist: as Arion rides away on a dolphin's back, the poem becomes ‘Sailing from Byzantium’. He wanders an Eden whose current ghostly persistence (in the phantom form of those inherently alienated objects, works of art) barely recalls its once-ideal state.

If for Herbert Eden's ideal trees have turned to stone, it is because of their rootedness in suffering: the cry of Marsyas petrifies the tree to which he is attached.20 Stone, however, is of ambiguous import. On the one hand, it is the pebble whose isolated perfection and self-sufficiency rebuke humanity, rather as does Rilke's torso of Apollo.21 But although Herbert is tempted by the aesthete's project of transforming life into a work of art, conferring upon it the stoical perfection of stone, the moralist in him abhors the stone's inhumanity. The result is an extremely subtle, unresolved dialectic of the aesthetic and the ethical. Warmth transmitted to a pebble by a human hand would be false.22 To warm the pebble is to be like the children in ‘Painted Bird’,23 whose hot hands give life to the bird and—in so doing—condemn it to torture and existence “on an impossible border”.24 No wonder the poet is loath to deliver up the pebble to a similar fate. At the same time, the alienated human being can seem stony in his own eyes.25 Mr. Cogito likens his head to a pebble; and when Herbert notes in another Mr. Cogito poem,26 that everyday speech tends to exaggerate the motility of thoughts, he is not simply commenting on his own tendency to revert again and again to such motifs as the stone (so that the exquisite texture of his work may be criticized as stemming from too intimate a knowledge of, and respect for, its own limitations), he is also noting the affinity between human thoughts and stones. Observing a dead friend, Mr. Cogito remarks that it would be a relief if the body became a stone.27 The relief would surely be due to the friend's safe removal into the distance of a work of art, dispelling the eerie distance of a human being deprived of life. Art turns things to stone; but art is not guilty, for this effect is the inadvertent result of its own suffering (‘Apollo and Marsyas’). Artur Sandauer, in an effort to discredit ‘Fortinbras' Lament’,28 has termed ‘Apollo and Marsyas’ the superior work, but it seems to me to have a worrying final flaw. Towards the poem's end Apollo walks away, musing that Marsyas's scream may provide the basis for a “new branch / of art—let us say, concrete”.29 Is the use of the word “gałąź” (branch) here a sign of Apollo's insensitivity, or Herbert's? (Marsyas has been tied to a tree petrified by his screams.) The witty dismissal of concrete poetry unwittingly identifies with Apollo (as does the classical stylization), trivializing the poem's own insight into the appalling effect of an art adequate to the suffering from which it stems. It corresponds to the poem's reduction of Apollo to almost a fop. And it is here perhaps that one encounters Herbert's one real limitation: a perhaps understandably self-protective refusal to be as evidently horrified by the mid-century's catastrophes as he surely is. It is as if the calculated art of outwitting the censor had muted some aspect of his sensibility (and that of his entire generation), a constant resort to classical allusion filtering out direct feeling in a manner that comes perilously close to aestheticism. To deem Herbert's tactic both understandable and probably self-protective is to argue that the alternative would be a career and fate resembling those of Paul Celan (a poet I will be referring to again in connection with Różewicz)—or, closer to Herbert's Polish home, the ambiguous, tortured figure of Tadeusz Borowski. The fact that Herbert can sustain comparison with Celan is indicative of his stature, but in its light Herbert's irony does seem finally (pace Alvarez)30 to be somewhat dandified. Attempts at more impassioned utterance (e.g. the envoi to ‘Mr. Cogito’31), result merely in extremely accomplished rhetoric.

Stanisław Barańczak has termed Herbert's poetry “a ‘tragic vision’ related in a classical style”.32 The tell-tale inverted commas represent Barańczak's own identification with the tone of ‘Apollo and Marsyas’: like Herbert himself, they hold tragedy at a slightly queasy distance. Barańczak's reading of the devastatingly bitter irony of the following lines from ‘Substance’ is usefully symptomatic of the difficulty critics have in locating Herbert's position. The lines are “they perish / who love beautiful words above fatty smells / but fortunately they are few”.33 Barańczak maintains that the irony is all-but imperceptible: “there is almost nothing that would provide us with a sufficient clue to the irony: read as an isolated and anonymous text, ‘Substance’ could easily be misunderstood as unequivocal praise for the survivors.”34 The dissonant middle line, however, adopts two contrasting voices in order to criticize both: “piękne słowa”—beautiful words—is part of the dismissive vocabulary wherewith the devotees of common sense pass their verdict upon the idealists, while “tłuste zapachy”—fatty smells—is the beautiful loser's denunciation of those Shelleyan nineteenth-century Polish poet Słowacki would have termed the “zjadacze chleba” (the breadeaters). The pervasive mood is one of disgust with language and society. Where Różewicz sits disgustedly outside language, Herbert registers his unease from within. The result is the extraordinarily painful sense of disinheritance Andrzej Kijowski once isolated as the central feature of Herbert's work: the dislocations bespeak an alienation from everyday discourse, and perhaps even from the possibility of meaningfully expressive discourse in general (whence Herbert's use of such distancing devices as dramatic monologue, personae and classical allusion and stylization). The same discord is present in the final lines of ‘Substance’: “the nation goes on / and returning with bags fully laden from the paths of its flight / erects a triumphal arch / for the beautiful dead”.35 These lines are harder to misunderstand, but it is still possible for an intelligent critic to do so. Thus Sandauer interprets the calculated dissonance (a term that is, I think, more useful than irony here) as a logical contradiction, tartly correcting Herbert: “as for the triumphal arches, it [the nation—PC] does not raise them for the “beautiful dead” (whom it fobs off with monuments) but—as the name itself shows—for the victors”.36 In actuality, Herbert's discord emphasizes the selectivity of historiography, and of the collective memory: he reconnects parts of the mind society hypocritically separates. But he does not do so for political reasons. Herbert is less a political poet than a moralist; Barańczak's confusion of the two being a very common one in recent Polish ideology. ‘Fortinbras's Lament’, for instance—legible from both ends of the political spectrum as an allegory of the crushing of Polish ideals, and idealists, under Stalinism37—is both political and apolitical: Fortinbras is a model of the tyrant, a fusion of baroque and totalitarian ruler, and so Herbert establishes the type as perennial, and opposition as perennially quixotic. Herbert's disgust is less with a particular form of power than with the Darwinism of a history in which the strong always defeat the weak. A party of one, he has no aspirations to power himself; his Mr. Cogito is not—pace Trznadel—one more in the line of Polish Hamlets,38 but a bystander even in his own life, closer to Prufrock than Prince Hamlet. Herbert's comments in Trznadel's own Domestic Disgrace giving his reaction to the verse of the younger generation, bear this out:

When I read their poems—very patriotic and correct ones, for they oppose violence and force—I want to say: life is more complex, mysterious and knotty than the Party, the army, the police; let us step slightly to one side of an everyday reality that truly is appalling and try to write out of doubt, alarm and despair.39

Fortinbras' lament, as Sławiński has shown,40 is a pseudothrenody: the new ruler pays lip service throughout to de mortuis nil nisi bonum, but his every remark about Hamlet carries an undertone of the pragmatist's thinly-veiled contempt for the dreamer. But the poem's most subtle effect is found in the closing lines, which dissolve the apparent absoluteness of the division between the conqueror and the dead Prince: their lyrical cadence shows the strong-arm man capable of pity and poetry. The pity, however, is exclusively for himself, and so is quite compatible with ruthlessness. But the deliberate dissonance, the simultaneous exposure of two different tonalities, is highly reminiscent of the way Herbert closes ‘Substance’. The contradictoriness of language—its political nature—is the very thing that compromises it in Herbert's eyes: every word is shot through with party spirit. If Herbert is a fugitive from Utopia, it is not simply the self-proclaimed ideal of ‘real socialism’ that he is fleeing; if this were the case, he could have remained in the West, where Barańczak and Trznadel now work. The interweaving of opposed voices by his dialogic imagination serves instead to rebuke the notion that any human society is bearable as now constituted. The lesson of Herbert's work is not an Aesopian political one, but the agonized one of Adorno's: there is no true life in the midst of the false.41


To touch on Adorno is to reach an appropriate point of passage from Herbert to Różewicz. After all, was it not Adorno who famously declared Auschwitz an impassable obstacle to poetry's resumption after the war, and does not Różewicz describe his task as that of “creating poetry after Auschwitz”?42 It can indeed be argued that a meditation on the conditions that made possible the concentration camps is central to all Różewicz's finest poems, from the taut, shocked description of the dead Jewish girl's pigtail43 to his enumeration of the unfulfillable tasks his poetry confronts.44 It is also, however, at the heart of his dilemma: how to strip language naked, in quest of fidelity to extreme experience (Grenzsituationen) without reducing it to cliché? (Różewicz's valorization of the common man, his identification with the ‘Głos Anonima’, the voice of anon that furnishes the title of one of his collections, adds to this danger.) One way to do so is to surround one's poem with negations, admitting that it is not what it should be. Even here, though, cliché threatens, as the intensity of negation generates a desire to swing back into affirmation; and so where Herbert clamps negation and affirmation together in dissonance, Różewicz oscillates between them. Thus Adam Czerniawski's useful anthology of translations45 can include the fine ‘The Survivor’ on one page,46 and opposite it the banal and lachrymose (and perhaps self-parodistic) ‘Purification’47 (“Naive you will come to believe in beauty / moved you will come to believe in man”).48 Sometimes the shift in gear occurs in mid-poem. An interesting example is ‘In the midst of life’;49 a less complex one, ‘In connection with a certain event’.50

‘In the midst of life’ begins very impressively, and its first six verse units are powerfully stark, evoking the poet's attempts to reconstruct a life, beginning with the simplest things, after the cataclysm. As he then tries to reconstruct value the poem falters: “that old lady / leading a goat by a rope / is needed more / more valuable / than the seven wonders of the world / whoever thinks or feels / she is not needed / is a mass murderer”.51 The stanza is problematic because its words are no longer identified as something of which the speaker is striving desperately to convince himself, and so one is compelled to view him as believing them. The moment one has a self-assured speaker, the poem's doubting persona is ruptured. Moreover, little old ladies are recalcitrant literary properties; so automatic is the sympathy they receive that their use can border on demagoguery.52 At its best, the poem recalls a convalescent Borowski. The shift out of the first person near the end, where we are told that “the man talked to the water”,53 can be read as a sign of the self-alienation that made possible the earlier rupture of the doubting persona. The ending (if he heard a voice … / it was the voice of another man [my ellipsis—PC]54) has things both ways: nature is harshly silent, but contact has been established with another human. But is this other voice merely his own, the fruit of the relinquishment of the first person, so solipsism and isolation persist, albeit disavowed? Had the poem been shorter, Różewicz might not have succumbed to the forlorn and self-contradictory quest for new certainties, resting content with the powerful bleakness of the majority of the poem's lines.

‘In connection with a certain event’ is a far inferior work. When the poet demands why he and his fellows failed to impart “new feelings” to the young man who leapt from the window of his “boring home”, his own phraseology gives the answer. To say, as Różewicz does, that the young man he has depersonalized (“that which fell out”) “died of the poison / a festering world / left inside him”55 is to use language incapable of sparking genuinely new feelings. The poem evinces an unholy mixture of existentialism and socialist realism (fused by the interest each has in the denigration of the bourgeoisie, and by their shared Schadenfreude in the degradation of ‘high culture’)—a mixture that is surely the basis of Różewicz's enormous prestige in official Polish culture (the existentialism appeals to self-styled intellectuals, while the socialist realism fulfils Party demands). Since the poets of ‘In connection with a certain event’ are not so much individuals as members of a Brechtian committee or Sprechchor dutifully concerned for their worker comrades, it is hardly surprising that the suicide lacked individuality too. The poem's mixture of depersonalization and compassion is found also in ‘The Prodigal Son’:56 “that peasant beyond the inn's corner / with back turned / is my friend”:57 the turned back is a sign of the world's indifference, and of the indifference of opposites (turned back and friend), a theme to which I will return. The poet identifies with this depersonalized figure because he too is depersonalized (“the world / all around / is complete without me”).58

The element of socialist realist turpism in Różewicz's work may be concentrated in the volumes from the Stalinist period, but it is not restricted to them. One can find it in the ‘Appendix to the notebooks of Malte Laurids Brigge written by “life itself”’,59 with its jeers at Rilke and pervertedly aestheticized interpretation of the suicide of his daughter in 1972 as an “anti-Rilkean gesture” (sic!): her death interests Różewicz only as a source of munitions in a polemic over poetics. It is in fact quite possible to dissociate oneself from Rilke whilst acknowledging his greatness (and for reasons quite similar to those of Różewicz, who sees how the degradation of life in Auschwitz questions Rilke's metaphysics of death)—as is shown by the work of Paul Celan. In one frightening poem Różewicz even adopts the voice of the hangman: ‘Head in the void’60 describes the elitist intellectual and concludes menacingly: “you are a head / which will be removed / and cast away”.61 The poet lays his pen aside and takes up the mightier sword.

If the Różewicz of these poems (and others, such as ‘Spring planting in Korea’,62 ‘A meeting in Nowa Huta’63 or his sanctimonious elegy on the death of Gałczyński)64 is little-known in the West, it is because they have mercifully been spared translation. One need not seek any conspiratorial causes; they have remained untranslated because they are not very good. Thus objections to Różewicz's work should direct themselves against its quality, not its philosophy. Attacking the poetry for its philosophy is the tactical mistake made by Jacek Trznadel;65 if the philosophy is to be attacked it should be at its true weak point, its linkage with the highly variable quality of the work. The key difference between Różewicz and Herbert becomes one of consistency, to achieve which Herbert paid a high price: the decision to write for the drawer during the Stalinist era. Where Herbert's work is all of a piece, that of Różewicz is highly uneven. ‘Reply’66 banally rejects negative poetry and discovers the golden mean; the tasks the plan has set for poetry include “let it remove from man / all that is animal or divine”.67 These lines ought to be juxtaposed with the conclusion of ‘A bourgeois death’—a far superior poem:68 “when you discover the golden mean / dying begins”.69 Różewicz's failure to perceive the contradictions in his work, and to drop poems like ‘Reply’ in the dustbin, is surely linked to the tendency to destroy opposites that pervades even his best poems, such as ‘The Survivor’: man and beast, love and hate, friend and foe, dark and light are termed “empty synonyms”.70 It is fed by the despair inculcated by the war. Thus, in a perversely self-fulfilling prophecy, the sense of the paltry worth of poetry can lead on occasions to the writing of worthless poems. Różewicz's work is tainted by an atrophy of choice which issues alternately in cynical, sub-existentialist biologism, and sentimental socialist realist exaltation (“the coming of age will be more beautiful”).71 Fortunately for his international reputation (his Polish reputation is another matter—as Trznadel rightly notes, Różewicz has had little influence on the New Wave Polish poets),72 when it comes to translation others have chosen for him.


When evaluating Różewicz's work, however, the fairest, most valid and illuminating comparison is not with that of Herbert but with the prose of that other great Polish exponent of the vision of the stony world, Tadeusz Borowski.73 The central question seems to be whether nihilism or negation is dominant in their work. The distinction between nihilism and negation is outlined by Greil Marcus:

The nihilist, no matter how many people he or she might kill, is always a solipsist: no one exists but the actor, and only the actor's motives are real. When the nihilist pulls the trigger, turns on the gas, hits the vein, the world ends. Negation is always political: it assumes the existence of other people, calls them into being. Still, the tools the negationist seems forced to use—real or symbolic violence, blasphemy, dissipation, contempt, ridiculousness—change hands with those of the nihilist.74

As Marcus notes, the one category tends to flow into the other. The distinction may be sharpened however by describing negation as always concrete and particular, the rejection of a specific historical moment or experience, and nihilism as the pessimistic generalization about history in its entirety derived from that single experience or moment. The difference between Różewicz and Borowski, then, would be that although the oeuvre of each partakes both of nihilism and negation, negation prevails in the former, and nihilism in the latter. For all his tendency to project a world of pure brutalism and chaos—of which his fascination by ‘Mondo Cane’ is symptomatic—Różewicz is able to focus his poetry on something other than negativity, even if only intermittently and (paradoxically) by negation, through outlining the tasks poetry will never fulfil. Yet at the same time he is satisfied that his own negation has fulfilled them, through the programme of anti-poetry. Both Borowski and Różewicz strive to overcome post-war despair by adopting the socialist realist litany of accusations, directed primarily against fascists and imperialists. But the hysterical frenzy with which the later Borowski propagates this view (particularly in his journalism) indicates a fundamental inability to believe it. What preserves Różewicz from the suicide that claimed Borowski (and those other temporary survivors of the concentration camps, Paul Celan and Primo Levi) is his refusal to implicate himself in the all-too-human inhumanity the camps fostered: ‘l'enfer, c'est les autres’ is an existentialist maxim that can also be pressed into socialist realist service. Horror does not rage in his blood, for in the end he is a tourist, staring through glass at the evidence of evils other people wrought. The time-traveller leaves the garden of stone, a survivor, having shaken the nightmare and successfully called it past.


  1. A Barbarian in the Garden is the title of Herbert's book of essays on Western art and culture (Barbarzyńca w ogrodzie, Warsaw: Czytelnik 1973).

  2. Wiersze zebrane (Warsaw: Czytelnik 1982) pp. 203–4, henceforth abbreviated to WZ. All references to Herbert's poems are to this edition.

  3. ‘Jeruzalem w ramach’. Ibid., pp. 137–8, pp. 238–40, pp. 78–9.

  4. “Jeśli miał poczucie tożsamości to chyba z kamieniem” Ibid., p. 207.

  5. See Barańczak's Uciekinier z utopii: o poezji Zbigniewa Herberta (London: Polonia 1984), chapter one. (This chapter is largely omitted from the English version of Barańczak's study, A Fugitive from Utopia: The Poetry of Zbigniew Herbert [Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press 1987].)

  6. ‘Potem byłyrzeczy wiadome’, Wiersze zebrane, p. 146.

  7. Ibid., pp. 78–9.

  8. Ibid., pp. 148–9.

  9. Ibid., pp. 162–3.

  10. Ibid., pp. 238–41.

  11. Ibid., p. 7.

  12. Ibid., pp. 83–4.

  13. Ibid., pp. 55–7.

  14. ‘Wyłuskane z piersi jak żebro’, Ibid., p. 7.

  15. ‘I czul pod żebrem palce nieobecnej’, Ibid., p. 213.

  16. Ibid., p. 213.

  17. Ibid., pp. 220–1.

  18. Ibid., pp. 49–50.

  19. Ibid., pp. 154–8.

  20. Ibid., pp. 133–5.

  21. Ibid., pp. 158–9.

  22. Ibid., pp. 158–9.

  23. Ibid., pp. 126–7.

  24. ‘Na niemożliwej granicy’, Ibid., p. 9.

  25. Ibid., pp. 217–8.

  26. Ibid., pp. 215–6.

  27. Ibid., pp. 218–20.

  28. See Artur Sandauer Głos dzielony na czworo: Rzecz o Zbigniewie Herbercie (Poeci czterech pokoleń, Kraków: Wydawnictwo literackie 1977, pp. 313–41). Sandauer's reservations about ‘Tren Fortynbrasa’ may well be motivated by an unconscious reaction to the tone of the conqueror's lament, which uncannily resembles that of Sandauer's own essay on Herbert: apparent praise, undercut throughout by insinuation. The extreme deviousness of Sandauer's essay has rendered it a very difficult object to skewer; Sandauer himself mocked Izydora Dąmbska's failure to do so (see Jak fał szowaćteksty, czyli moralność Pani Dąmbskiej (Pisma zebrane, Vol. IV, Warsaw: Czytelnik 1985, pp. 236–42, and Dąmbska's W sprawie artykulu profesora Sandauera pt.Głos dzielony na czworo, in Tygodnik powszechny 1976, nr 19). It is Ḑͣmbska's failure to pinpoint the slipperiness of Sandauer's style that allows the latter to wriggle off the hook. Again and again in the Herbert essay Sandauer will formulate an accusation and then modify it, apparently seeking the mot juste, but really in order to have his cake and eat it (for instance, if he truly felt that “syncretic” more precisely described Herbert's work than “wtórny” (second-hand), then he would have cancelled “wtórny” at the stage of composition—rather than allowing it to stand, and then appending an apparent correction). Vanity may also have co-operated in the generation of this critical stream-of-consciousness: every thought that impinges on the great brain merits transcription.

  29. “nowa gałąź / sztuki—powiedzmy—konkretnej”, Wiersze zebrane, pp. 133–5.

  30. Al Alvarez, Introduction to the Poetry of Zbigniew Herbert, in: Herbert, Selected Poems (Harmondsworth: Penguin 1968), p. 11.

  31. Wiersze zebrane, pp. 255–6.

  32. Barańczak, Uciekinier …, op. cit., p. 17. (This remark is absent from the book's English version.)

  33. “Giną ci / którzy kochają bardziej piękne słowa niż tłuste zapachy / ale jest ich na szczęście niewielu”, Wiersze zebrane, pp. 97–8.

  34. Barańczak, Fugitive …, op. cit., p. 96.

  35. ‘Naród trwa / i wracając z pełnymi workami ze szlaków ucieczki / wznosi łuk triumfalny / dla pięknych umarłych’.

  36. Sandauer, Głos …, op. cit., p. 341.

  37. It is read thus both by Sandauer and by Jacek Trznadel (Polski Hamlet: kłopoty z działaniem, Paris: Libella 1988, pp. 282–310). Sandauer, it should be noted, gingerly avoids the use of the term ‘Stalinism’.

  38. Trznadel, op. cit., pp. 308–10.

  39. Interview with Jacek Trznadel, in Hańba domowa (Paris: Instytut literacki 1986), p. 222.

  40. J. Sławiński, Tren Fortynbrasa, in: T. Kostkiewiczowa, A. Okopień-Sławińska, J. Sławiński, Czytamy utwory współczesne (Warsaw 1967).

  41. T. W. Adorno, Minima Moralia: Reflexionen aus dem beschädigten Leben (Frankfurt a.m.: Suhrkamp 1978 [1951]), p. 42: ‘Es gibt kein richtiges Leben im falschen.’

  42. All references to Różewicz's poems are to the Poezje zebrane (Wrocław-Warszawa-Kraków-Gdańsk: Zakład narodowy imienia Ossolińskich 1976), p. 695.

  43. Ibid., p. 136.

  44. Ibid., p. 327.

  45. Tadeusz Różewicz, Conversation with the Prince and other poems, introduced and translated by Adam Czerniawski (London: Anvil Press 1982).

  46. Poezje zebrane, p. 19.

  47. Ibid., p. 52.

  48. ‘Naiwni uwierzycie w piękno / wzruszeni uwierzycie w człowieka’.

  49. Poezje zebrane, p. 331.

  50. Ibid., p. 224.

  51. ‘Ta staruszka która / ciągnie na powrozie kozę / jest potrzebniejsza / i cenniejsza / niż siedem cudów świata / kto myśli i czuje / że ona jest niepotrzebna / ten jest ludobójcą’.

  52. Perhaps only Baudelaire has succeeded, in Les Petites Vieilles, in avoiding sentimentality when referring to them. [In the original the reference is to “that old woman”–Ed.]

  53. ‘Człowiek mówił do wody’.

  54. ‘Jeśli usłyszał głos / … to był głos drugiego człowieka’.

  55. ‘Umarł na truciznę / którą zostawił w jego wnętrzu / gnijący świat’.

  56. Poezje zebrane, p. 269.

  57. ‘Ten chłop za rogiem karczmy / tyłem odwrócony / to mój przyjaciel’.

  58. ‘Świat ten / dokoła / jest pełen beze mnie’.

  59. Poezje zebrane, p. 702.

  60. Ibid., p. 146.

  61. ‘Jesteś głową / która zostanie zdjęta / i odrzucona’.

  62. Poezje zebrane, p. 199.

  63. Ibid, p. 208.

  64. Ibid, p. 227.

  65. Trznadel, Polski Hamlet …, op. cit., pp. 285–93.

  66. Poezje zebrane, p. 152.

  67. ‘Niech odejmie od człowieka / wszystko zwierzęce i boskie’.

  68. Poezje zebrane, p. 207.

  69. ‘Kiedy odkryjesz złoty środek / zaczyna się konanie’.

  70. Poezje zebrane, p. 19.

  71. Ibid., p. 178.

  72. Trznadel, Polski Hamlet …, op cit., pp. 292–3.

  73. To compare Różewicz's poetry with the poetry of Borowski—as does Adam Czerniawski (Conversation with the Prince …, op. cit., p. 15)—is to load the dice in Różewicz's favour. Borowski's major work is his prose.

  74. Greil Marcus, Lipstick Traces: A Secret History of the 20th Century (Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press 1989), p. 9.

Halina Filipowicz (essay date 1991)

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Last Updated on June 7, 2022, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 9559

SOURCE: “Tadeusz Różewicz's Postmodern Trilogy,” in Polish Review, Vol. XXXVI, No. 1, 1991, pp. 83–101.

[In the following essay, Filipowicz asserts that in his trilogy of works—The Interrupted Act, Birth Rate, and “The Guards”—Różewicz “strives to return the theatre to the realm of the unsettling truth of human existence, to a condition that is unstable and unpredictable.”]

Picasso claimed that he had always had to fight his dexterity as draftsman and painter.1 Tadeusz Różewicz,2 a virtuoso master of innovative dramatic techniques, abandoned his playwriting dexterity3 to make things as difficult as possible for himself and to tease, or shock, his critics and potential audiences. Helped in part by the example of predecessors such as Witkacy and Gombrowicz in Poland and Beckett and Ionesco in the West, Różewicz had already found his own poetics lying just aslant from the way others—even his contemporaries—wrote drama. Then, in a period of intense creativity during the mid- and late 1960s, he wrote three short pieces that cut across the traditional demarcations between drama and non-drama.

The trilogy—The Interrupted Act, Birth Rate, and “The Guards”—is a seemingly amorphous array of ideas and images, assembled with that impetuous disregard for any sense of formal unity which is in itself the hallmark of a mature style. Różewicz's willful irregularities and his self-conscious liberties with the dramatic idiom seem to anticipate one of the standard claims of postmodernism that literature and criticism cannot be distinguished.4 Yet when he permits himself the freedom of creative maneuver it is not simply to dissolve drama into part-drama or criti-drama. As he tests the limits and potentialities of drama, Różewicz seeks to develop meta-forms for which we do not, as yet, have adequate notation.


The Interrupted Act (Akt przerywany), Birth Rate (Przyrost naturalny), and “The Guards” (“Straż porz̧ͣdkowa”) appear consecutively in Różewicz's collected plays.5 Each of them is seemingly chaotic in shape and incompletely integrated. Each is an unfinished—interrupted—work, but together they make a context for one another. They are related not just stylistically, but in substance also, and the connections between them are as intricate as they are cunning. In The Interrupted Act and Birth Rate, Różewicz combines a creative with a critical strategy, and he covers a vast and often unruly range of concerns that most playwrights resolve before they start writing.6 “The Guards,” written while he was working on Birth Rate, is a two-page scenario for an open-ended production that assumes a life of its own. At one point Różewicz considered combining Birth Rate and “The Guards,” but he later abandoned the idea.7

The trilogy is outlandish because of its inveterate iconoclasm, but also because there is an antic as well as a sober side to Różewicz's writing. With his customary wit, he gives rein to his playfulness and teasingly transforms the process of creation into a sexual pun. In The Interrupted Act, he makes the pun out of the protagonist's coitus interruptus and his own stop-and-go strategy. In Birth Rate, he can scarcely contain his abundance of ideas and refuses to fit his vision into a conventionalized form in the same way that he evokes an image of biological proliferation that overflows all boundaries. And in the final piece, the Guards are the midwives watching over the parturition of an artistic creation. In all three works, the creative and procreative processes can be seen to stand for each other.

A major obstacle to considering the three works is the deceptive clumsiness of their technique. With its patchy structure and its gamut of polemical tones, the trilogy can seem diffuse and unsatisfying. What we have, we might be tempted to conclude, are three outlines that hang together only loosely. It is easy to be convinced that the trilogy is without structure and hence without meaning. Predictably, critical reception has never been unanimously favorable towards Różewicz's experiment; and indeed two of the most dismissive criticisms come from the author himself, who writes The Interrupted Act off as “a compromise” (T1, 393), and Birth Rate as “cancerous tumors” (T1, 426; [BR, 276]).

A number of commentators faulted The Interrupted Act and Birth Rate on two counts: as a disjointed, uncompelling structure and as a self-indulgent preoccupation with writer's problems. The Interrupted Act, critics argued, is mired in “a pile of stage directions” and “reformatory philippics”8 which “make little sense,”9 while Birth Rate is no more than “a notebook, rather rambling toward the end, about unsuccessful attempts to write a drama.”10 Różewicz loses more than he gains by his experiment, insisted those who dismissed The Interrupted Act as mere trickery11 and who attributed Birth Rate to his faltering creative confidence, to “an impasse” in his artistic biography.12

More sympathetic critics controverted such claims by pointing to Różewicz's resourcefulness at inventing diverse tactics in the trilogy, to the genre crossings, to the images and ideas deployed with unflagging energy. They nonetheless grappled with terminology. The Interrupted Act was regarded as “a new kind of narrative script,”13 as “esejo-scenariusz,14scenariuszo-esej,15esej dramatyczny, dramat eseistyczny, komedio-esej, esejo-dramat[,] … esejo-felieton.16Birth Rate was described as “a sketch” and “an essay”17 or “something bordering on a confession, a literary sketch, and a philosophical treatise”18—a work akin to conceptual art.19 When all other terms fail, The Interrupted Act and Birth Rate are subsumed under the heading of “anti-drama.”20

Różewicz's resistant texts—writing focused on writing whose subject is drama itself—might be classified as creative biography, were it not for the fact that Różewicz goes beyond a transcription of an act of artistic creation. The trilogy is self-reflexive, yet it is never mainly about itself. Neither is the trilogy just a rebellion against the creeping power of conventionalized form. The polemics and shrewd thrusts are only in part planned provocations, since they also belong to Różewicz's general strategy. The three works, exploratory as well as subversive, reflect both an awareness of the shortcomings of accepted dramatic conventions and an attempt to create a viable alternative. Hence the disruptive strategies, the curious instability and a strain of autism of the trilogy. It also, incidentally, demonstrates that, in his own eclectic and undoctrinaire way, Różewicz was from the beginning quite aware where he stood among the various dramatic and theatrical traditions of this century.

The trilogy springs, in no small degree, from Różewicz's dissatisfaction with what he perceives as the stagnation and complacency of European drama of the 1960s. In his view, the revolutions in the dramatic technique, brought on by Chekhov and Beckett, have been taken for granted and—ignored. Much of contemporary drama—by playwrights such as Dürrenmatt, Frisch, Hochhuth, and Sartre—is merely an “exterior theatre” (T1, 428).21 The exterior theatre pretends to be a “reflection of ‘real life,’” while in fact it is designed according to a firmly established set of pre-Chekhovian conventions: clearly defined, eloquent characters; a determinate message; action in the simple, literal meaning of physical activity on stage (T1, 405). What surges most deeply through Różewicz's critique is his concern that drama has become literal, that it has lost its capacity for metaphor.

The trilogy is Różewicz's unrigorous response to the predominance of the exterior theatre. Now and then he admits to exaggeration used for rhetorical purposes. His formulations and emphases naturally reflect his critical attitudes as well as his own particular creative dilemmas. He speaks not as an aloof artist secluded in a realm of formal experimentation, but as a watchful observer and critic conscious of the orders of difficulty involved. His monologue invites dialogue and debate. “Perhaps this is something to think and talk about?”—he concludes his prefatory comments to The Interrupted Act (T1, 387).

Thus far we have been concerned with Różewicz's explicit enunciations which lay bare the conventionalities of the European drama during the 1960s. When we begin to approach the trilogy in a systematic fashion, difficulties bristle. Each part of the trilogy exists as a set of instructions and proposals as well as critical formulations. For Różewicz, plot and character are no longer necessary as a means of articulating the self in the theatre. The trilogy is executed through the playwright's own voice which records the creative act in its becoming. It is the didascalies, or the extended commentary, that are the structuring principle. “A part of the performance,” he notes in The Interrupted Act, “has already occurred”—on paper, of course (T1, 393). What is secondary in most plays here becomes of primary importance. Różewicz constantly shifts the boundaries between criticism and creative work. Part essay, part diary, part drama, and an intense polemic throughout, the trilogy is situated in the frontier zone in which different genres meet.

One might say that Różewicz was not writing for stage performance, and so was exempt from the constraints of theatrical conventions. After all, in The Interrupted Act, he offers us “a closet comedy,” in Birth Rate, “the biography of a play,” in “The Guards,” “a description of dramaturgy.”22The Interrupted Act, he cautions us in the preface, is “a sketch of a narrative,” not intended for production on stage, on television, or on the radio (T1, 386). In an interview after the trilogy was written, Różewicz affirms, teasingly perhaps, that to him “the most important thing is to play out a drama ‘on paper.’ What will happen to it in the theatre, or even who will be doing it, is not important.”23

We soon realize that we will not get very far if we read Różewicz uncritically. He tells us elsewhere in The Interrupted Act that the extended stage directions—“the motor” and “the instrument” of his work—are to be included in the program notes for the audience to read (T1, 390). This very provision—along with specific, if often ironic, instructions for the prospective director of The Interrupted Act—indicates that Różewicz is thinking in terms of a performance rather than a reading-room drama. That he locates the essence of his work not in the words on paper but in an enactment before an audience is also evident in Birth Rate. He seeks to obliterate the dichotomy between writing a play and its performance. What he strives to put down on paper, he says, “would be easier to convey in direct contact” with a theatre company at rehearsal (T1, 420; italics as found). He envisions an active collaboration whereby he would “improvise it all” with the actors: “I'd gladly forego the complete literary text of the play for a scenario” (T1, 421, 420; [BR, 270]). And indeed he does. The trilogy, thin by the standards of the stage, is negligible from a strictly literary point of view as well.24 At a first reading, the three works seem fragments, five-finger exercises. But, with a writer of Różewicz's reach, first readings are always inadequate. The laconic wit of a title such as The Interrupted Act would by itself signal the hand of a major writer.

The point of the trilogy is, ostensibly, to preserve the directness and spontaneity of the first rush of inspiration, to be as free and loose and expressive as possible. One frequently has the sense that Różewicz merely sat down and began to write, capturing his ideas almost instantaneously. He has succeeded to a remarkable degree. His ever-changing and frequently contradictory plans for the action on stage give the impression of naturalness, sincerity, the immediacy of a text-in-progress. The slow maturation of the trilogy, however, shows just how much planning and reworking stand behind the seemingly spontaneous writing. Once it is recognized that the trilogy went through many stages of composition, it has to be recognized that, despite its almost documentary appearance, Różewicz's aesthetic of process is, to some degree, fiction.

Różewicz, for example, seems to make no distinction between the time of conception and the time of action. The events in The Interrupted Act take place, according to the diary of one of the characters, during the early morning of 7 October 1963, while their written record as well as the preface are dated a day later. But we know (cf. T1, 403) that Różewicz began work on The Interrupted Act late in July or early in August, after Great Britain, the Soviet Union, and the United States reached, on 25 July, an agreement to limit nuclear testing. What we have, then, is not the first, spontaneous draft but a final version, the result of several months of writing and revising.

Birth Rate, seemingly an aborted text, a number of paragraphs abandoned before they were begun, is in fact the product of many years of conceptualization. Różewicz had worked on Birth Rate since 1958, and in the process he accumulated copious notes, sketches, drafts, clippings, and related correspondence. Yet he spares us the paraphernalia of a work-in-progress. For the published version, he chose only three journal entries from the final period of his work on Birth Rate. They are dated 31 October 1966, 11 January 1967, and 13 January 1967. One of the discarded notes, dated 28 November 1966, appeared separately.25 And so did an early draft of the opening section written in the fall of 1963—retitled the prologue to The Funny Old Man.26

The entire trilogy is just under forty-four pages, which is often the length of a single play. At times Różewicz can become unabashedly personal, yet each page is free from self-indulgence, since he has carefully selected and edited his material. However arrant his nonconformism, he is well aware that randomness or willful irregularity is just as conventional as unity. He never fully relinquishes control over his material, even when he provides, as in “The Guards,” a bare outline or a sketch. The leaps and disjunctures, then, must be part of Różewicz's general strategy rather than a random procedure. If the trilogy strikes us as raw and unfinished, it is because it was meant to create such an impression. More than experimentation in form, the fragmentation of the trilogy is the bearer of meaning.27


At first sight The Interrupted Act is little more than a light-hearted bagatelle.28 This thirty-page work has only about nine pages of spoken lines, or the primary text. The remaining two-thirds are the didascalies which include stage directions as well as the preface, entitled “The Author's Avowal” (“Wyznanie autora”), and extended critical comments. The secondary text, then, is essentially a casual essay, both auto-analytical and polemical. Różewicz, moreover, makes a point of creating the plot and the principal characters of his would-be-drama in the secondary rather than in the primary text. Indeed, the story and characterization cannot be extracted from stage action and spoken lines alone.

In the didascalies, the plot follows the rules of logical sequence, and the principals are endowed with a wealth of biographical detail. But these narrative connections have few bearings on what actually happens on stage: the characters lack a sustained development, the plot disintegrates into multiple fragments and indirections, and the action is scattered by the play-wright's distracting cues. It is not simply that Różewicz refuses to work within the conventionality of dramatic form. Before he can disown established conventions, he must lay them bare to see whether there are hidden springs of inventive potential beneath the petrified crust. He may occasionally confuse technical faults with conventions and reject mannerisms of behavior and speech which are likely to be observed only on an old-fashioned stage. But convention, to him, is not necessarily a term of opprobrium. It would not be impossible to read The Interrupted Act as Różewicz's meditation—ironic, technical, parodistic—on the nature of convention.29

He conceives of convention as an agreement between author and audience regarding subject matter and formal restrictions. When conventions seem natural, they are hardly noticeable. It is when they have been all but outgrown that they appear conspicuous, indeed domineering and pretentious. “The recognition of convention,” notes Harry Levin, “historically coincided with its repudiation.”30 In The Interrupted Act, Różewicz both recognizes and questions the authority of entrenched dramatic conventions and thus intentionally strains the covenant between playwright and spectator.

His premise is that convention is an externally technical matter that serves as a mediating element between drama and life. It thus circumvents the dichotomy of form and content, of subject and medium. But he finds himself confronted with two problems. First, the existing conventions are insufficient. Second, drama never represents life quite perfectly for it situates itself in the border area where naturalness runs into artificiality. There is an inescapable tension in The Interrupted Act between Różewicz's polemical thrusts against drama that seems to diverge from life on the one hand, and his clear adumbrations of drama as “play [gra],” as theatrical artifice that “has never had anything to do with so-called ‘real life,’” on the other (T1, 403, 405).

Różewicz begins by testing the convention of exposition which cannot occur without a more or less skillful recourse to contrivances. The first character to appear on stage—in what constitutes the nonverbal Scene One—is the Engineer's daughter carrying a suitcase. “Unfortunately,” Różewicz tells us.

… we cannot prove—through so-called theatrical devices—that the young woman is leaving forever or that she is leaving for North America … With a suitcase in hand she might also be leaving for college, going on vacation or taking laundry to the cleaners … The young woman could have called the airline information … But that had already happened before the curtain went up, and the young woman simply walks across the room …

(T1, 387–388)

It might have helped, Różewicz concedes, had he moved the action to the Engineer's study, but the Engineer, “a very reserved man,” is not likely to say much, especially now that a farewell conversation between father and daughter has already taken place (T1, 388). Różewicz, then, takes to its logical extreme the paradox inherent in the dominant dramatic tradition of the last hundred years, which turns the stage into as perfect a representation of reality as possible. If we expect a representative interrelation between theatre and life, then we should be ready to forego the exposition because an introversive character cannot indulge in a verbal outpouring, while another character's walking across the stage is not necessarily pregnant with meaning just because she is emigrating.

Can the exposition be saved if Scene One is replayed in a verbal version? Różewicz has yielded, he says, to the demands that the convention makes in order to show the “seed” of the discord between father and daughter (T1, 389). The seed turns out to be the Young Woman's Electra complex. Różewicz carefully sets the stage for this revelation, drawing on popular conventions of mystery and suspense. A wall clock strikes midnight, a silver bowl gleams ominously on the table. The spotlight is on the Young Woman's red, swollen lips which seem to have a life of their own while she speaks. The rhythm of the Young Woman's verbal outpouring creates a sense of her growing agitation. Yet the scene is anything but a psychosexual analysis of her sense of emotional privation. The speech and movement are orchestrated in a technically demanding etude which ridicules the histrionic effects of old-fashioned acting. More importantly, the etude parodies the conflict theory of drama which has dominated dramatic criticism since the early nineteenth century.

The significance of the Young Woman's monologue is situated, most obviously, on the semantic level. She begs her father and his mistress to stop their prolonged and noisy lovemaking. Yet she always refers to an enigmatic “them,” hence only those of us in the audience who have read the program notes will realize that she means the Engineer and the Nurse. What is more, the Young Woman moves in and out of character. We are reminded that we have been watching a consciously calculated performance when she tells us: “This is a joke, just a joke” (T1, 397).

Różewicz, then, does not conceive of the Young Woman's speech as a convenient narrative link providing precise explanations. Instead, he concentrates on the phonetic and phonological expressiveness of the monologue. Partly this is a matter of repetition made musical, partly it comes from a cunning rhythm of silence and sound. The sounds are verbal, but they also include inarticulate screams, finger-tapping, and banging. Words and phrases are used as much for phonetic resonance as for lexical meaning. Differing intensities of sound are as carefully modulated as they are in music. The array of the Polish vowels o and a in the first twelve lines of the monologue suggests the daughter's gasps of outrage. Onomatopoeic combinations of nasal vowels and fricative consonants in the next twelve lines make for the distinct effect of a squeaking bed. The half a dozen silences, which punctuate the monologue, allude to the coitus interruptus, while the accelerando of the intercourse is generated for the ear by the sequences of sharp consonant sounds (ż, sz, and r in the Polish original):

Żart przecież to żart żar żartur tort tortur zażartować można ż̧ͣć żnę żniesz ż̧ͣdać ż̧ͣdło ż̧ͣdza tych ż̧ͣdz żenada żenić się żeński żerdź żłopać żoł̧ͣdź żołdak żołnierzyk żonaty żonkoś tych żonkosiów żreć żart życie życiodajny żywioł rupiecie ruptura rura rurocia̧ͣg rusałka rżeć rży rżņͣć albo rzņͣć nożem pił̧ͣ (T1, 397–398)

Concomitantly, the monologue makes use of sexual puns: rżņͣć, for example, is both “to saw” and, in slang, “to make love.” The sound-semantics of the Young Woman's speech, rich in expressive power, constitute what Boris Eichenbaum has called “phonic gesture.”31

In Scene Two, the most elaborate of the four, Różewicz first unravels the convention of cause-and-effect. If we expect dramatic action to follow real-life motivation, then such thoroughgoing literalness is destined to be defeated by convention because reality often turns out to be rather uneventful and must therefore be twisted into conformity with the conventional standards of the stage. As Scene Two opens, the Robust Woman, or the Engineer's housekeeper, walks into the living room. According to the rules of dramatic causality, she should have been awakened by the Young Woman's shouting and pounding. She would then enter saying, “God! What's going on here!” (T1, 399). But the Robust Woman, Różewicz points out, was sound asleep and heard nothing. There is no particular reason why she has gotten out of bed in the dead of the night. When she nonetheless produces the obligatory exclamation of astonishment, it is form without meaning “because nothing is going on” (T1, 399).

Random action, Różewicz proceeds to demonstrate, may produce similar results as a highly conventionalized one. The Robust Woman notices sugar cubes on the table and, while plopping several of them in her mouth, she finds the Young Woman's farewell note under the sugar bowl. Letters, of course, are a standard dramatic convenience, and in plays such as The Inspector General and A Doll's House, the fount of suspense. Różewicz too uses the letter as a source of information that should bring about a sudden reversal of the situation. Indeed, shortly after the housekeeper comes upon the note, Różewicz tries, tongue-in-cheek, two unexpected shifts in the action, which might shock or delight the audience. One of them does in fact qualify as the full-fledged—if short-lived—reversal: the raging Engineer accuses the housekeeper of negligence and strangles her.

Before we tie Różewicz to the stake for committing another compromise, we should consider that he fills Scene Two to the bursting point with such material as a description of the Archangel Michael; the housekeeper's diary read aloud; and the essay “Nota Bene” (“Uwaga”) which articulates his concept of theatre and drama as “gra,” that is, playful manipulations of multiple levels of reality with no regard for the laws and logic of ordinary life. Thus, by situating the convention of the discovery scene in a radically unconventional context, Różewicz reduces it to a ruse.

He continues to investigate possibilities for developing the action in the wordless Scene Three which draws on the stock elements of symbolist drama: the character of the Stranger, symbolic evocations of an invisible reality, and explorations of states of mind, of intuition and vague forebodings. Różewicz has warned us in the preface that he has failed to translate Scene Three into a dramatic situation. By now, however, we have learned that Różewicz is fond of contradicting himself and leading us astray. His pronouncements, therefore, cannot be taken with absolute certainty until his creative procedures are closely examined.

When Scene Three opens, there is no one on stage. The sugar bowl has disappeared, a sign that some time has elapsed since the preceding scene. The door in the middle, leading to the hallway, has been left ajar since the daughter's exit. We are left in silence to contemplate the details of the set. Since we expect something to happen, speculates Różewicz, we might imagine the closed door to the Engineer's study to expand and assume a symbolic function. Różewicz thus conceives of action not only as the physical activity represented on stage, but also as a phenomenon of perception, whose essential quality is the mental activity induced in the spectators: the action is to gain intensity and complication, but only in the private theatre of our mind. In this scene, more so than in any other scene of The Interrupted Act, he strives to pull theatre away from its emphasis on fact and to return it to the realm of imagination. He indubitably tests our patience and powers of concentration. He catches us in a web of oscillating strategies and invites us to make our own connections between image, stasis, and voids of silence.

At the same time, he conducts an almost clinical experiment which plays with the theatre's propensity for turning a casual detail into a symbol. The action in the theatre is usually so concentrated that everything seems profoundly relevant to the purpose in view. Even the most ordinary details cannot be taken for granted. To the contrary, each of them arrests the audience's attention and grows on the eye. As one critic has cogently put it:

A playwright discovers that in his first draft of the play … symbols grow up like weeds. This chair has suddenly turned into a throne. That bird the cat killed is proclaiming itself to be the human soul ravaged by time. And oh, how that potted plant in the window is carrying on! It is about to become Persephone.32

The sole character of Scene Three is the Stranger. He comes in, sits down at the table, lights a cigarette, and pours himself a glass of cognac. To baffle our most dogged effort to construct a unified viewpoint, Różewicz has markedly changed the appearance and motivation of the Stranger since he first mentioned him in the didascalies. We must ask, then, not what motivates the characters, but what the situations express. The wordless Scene Three bears an uncanny resemblance to a note by Ludwig Wittgenstein whom Różewicz considers a major force in his intellectual life.33 Indeed, Scene Three might seem a dramatization of Wittgenstein's remark were it not for the fact that the latter was not published until 1977:

Nothing could be more remarkable than seeing a man who thinks he is unobserved performing some quite simple everyday activity. Let us imagine a theatre; the curtain goes up and we see a man alone in a room, walking up and down, lighting a cigarette, sitting down, etc. so that suddenly we are observing a human being from outside in a way that ordinarily we can never observe ourselves … We should be observing something more wonderful than anything a playwright could arrange to be acted or spoken on the stage: life itself.—But then we do see this every day without its making the slightest impression on us! True enough, but we do not see it from that point of view … [O]nly an artist can so represent an individual thing as to make it appear to us like a work of art … A work of art forces us … to see it in the right perspective but, in the absence of art, the object is just a fragment of nature like any other.34

Though Różewicz ignores narrative links between the scenes, he has observed, throughout The Interrupted Act, the law of re-entry: he carefully synchronizes exits and entrances with changes of scene. This is also true of the final scene. The Assistant Engineer bursts into the apartment to alert the Engineer that a flood threatens to destroy a new bridge. The law of reentry, however, turns out to be a mere mechanical device with no bearing on the significance of the closing scene. The news about the flooding could have been used as a preparation for the climax, one that another playwright might have readily exploited. Not so Różewicz. Here there is to be no resolution of the complications of the plot. The Interrupted Act strikes a note of indeterminacy and leaves the audience in uncertainty. In an emphatic protest against the unnatural, Różewicz has emptied the established conventions of meaning merely by taking them literally. By this very procedure he has exposed the limitations inherent in the dramatic medium if drama is taken to represent reality as truthfully as possible.

Birth Rate, even more so than The Interrupted Act, anticipates the postmodern sensibility with its emphasis on self-reflexiveness and the auto-critical faculty. It reveals the process of its own creation and thus seems a prolonged description of birth: the words of the text are only a running commentary, and the artist is spectator to the birth of his own work. But the description itself is the birth. Birth Rate is thus a natural extension of The Interrupted Act. In the earlier work, the old forms could be seen fragmented; here, the new ones are foreshadowed.

The ten-page text is in the form of a diary that reflects Różewicz's struggle and indecision as he is putting down his ideas for a comedy entitled Birth Rate. He questions self-consciously and irreverently the status of his own work as well as critical criteria and audience expectations. Sentences are left unfinished; thoughts are cut short. “I don't intend to conceal the difficulties,” declares Różewicz (T1, 426; [BR, 275]). He arrives, nonetheless, at one of the most daring compositions of the twentieth-century theatre.

In the first diary entry, Różewicz describes his idea for a “spectacle” carried solely by movement (T1, 419, 422, 424). He conceives of a closed space teeming with human bodies in motion. An early version of the spectacle is thus reminiscent of Beckett's The Lost Ones (Le Dépeupleur), completed in 1966 and published early in 1971. It is unlikely that Różewicz was familiar with Beckett's work. He does not read French, and the Polish translation of The Lost Ones was published not until December 1971. The Lost Ones, usually classified as a non-dramatic text, narrates the story of two hundred people crowded inside a tall cylinder. They compulsively search for their lost ones as well as for an exit from the cylinder.35 What constitutes the action of Różewicz's spectacle is a gradual expansion of the “mass of humankind which, because of insufficient space, destroys all forms” (T1, 420). In the “central,” or climactic, scene, the bottled-up human energy erupts in a series of explosions—a visual rendering of the “explosion of the ‘population’ bomb” (T1, 424).

The other two entries are instances of the different ways in which reality ineluctably overcomes all attempts by the writer to control its unruly energy or to contain it within formal restrictions. Here, it is an accumulation and proliferation of verbal fragments that creates the image of an expanding mass. Both entries are filled with autobiographical details, scraps of quotations, and critical formulations. Różewicz discusses the interior and the exterior theatre. He assembles layer upon layer of references to his own works and to his readings. He quotes Chekhov's statement from his plan for Platonov and then repeats two sentences from it.36 He cites the final lines of The Cherry Orchard. He includes a scene from Chapter Six of Lord Jim and immediately comments on it. These seemingly irrelevant, discordant digressions—even though not all of them are of equal interest—are indivisible from the unique form of Birth Rate. Conversely, the form acts out meaning and is inseparable from the particular information conveyed in the text. Różewicz denies a perfect, unchangeable work: “I don't want to bring Birth Rate to ‘an end’” (T1, 427).37 The slowly and laboriously constructed Birth Rate—we will recall that Różewicz began it in 1958—is left unfinished and is indeed an unfinishable text.

In “The Guards,” Różewicz again chooses the instability of form over a preconceived order of plot and character patterning. This two-page piece exists as the blueprint for a performance where there is a constant interchange and circulation of elements, where none of the elements are absolutely definable. The personae are a wide array of the stock characters of drama, but their number is changeable, and their presence on stage only tentative.

“The Guards” appears to insure spontaneity and thus poses the question of improvisation and indeterminacy. It might seem that the piece is open to on-the-spot creativity, to the give-and-take which is central to improvisation. However, the range of alternatives is predetermined: permutations exist within a closed field of possibilities. The limits, within which the participants operate, are protected by the Guards. Thus the situation is not as open-ended as it is in improvisation.

Identified by armbands, the Guards are not merely coordinators responsible for cueing and flow. They are there to assure nothing less than “a normal development of the drama,” or to abide by certain preconditions and presuppositions which they alone seem to know (T1, 431). They admit only the personae with valid passes, who can justify their participation in stage action. Speech is dissociated from action: holders of yellow passes are entitled to spoken lines, and those with black passes, to movement and gesture. Some participants appear only once, others reenter every five minutes. But there are also those who manage to sneak in without any permission or prior arrangement. Through their persistent intrusions the incipient drama disintegrates into disparate lines and actions.

The intruders want the performance to conform with the randomness of life. They acknowledge no boundaries and repudiate all contrivance in order to make room for the unexpected and the unruly. The Guards, on the other hand, are entrusted with the responsibility of warding off chaos and making reality submit to a preordained order. If a work of art is a totally controlled modification of reality, then the Guards are there to fulfill the traditional function of the artist. On occasion, however, even they must make an allowance for the aleatory: “Often the Guards aren't sure whether a particular individual indeed has the right to participate in the action” (T1, 432). Confronted with the impossibility of choice or, rather, the interchangeability of choices, they permit several lines of development apart from the main action.

It is in this compact, seemingly negligible work that the boundaries between drama and life, or between form and happenstance occurrences, are most profitably removed. The fact that the Guards also appear in three other plays conceived about the same time—A Funeral Polish Style (Pogrzeb po polsku), On All Fours, and the abandoned Order Must Prevail (Porz̧ͣdek musi być)—testifies to Różewicz's continuing preoccupation with the vital permeations of rigidly imposed boundaries, clearly demarcated and highly protected. The Guards work to repress multiplicity and heterogeneity, while the intruders spare no effort to overthrow that tyranny by transgressing the limits. In the words of Czesław Miłosz, Różewicz is “a poet of chaos with a nostalgia for order.”38 Różewicz finds Miłosz's description quite appropriate, but he adds: “It would also be correct if one were to reverse that and call me ‘a poet of order with a nostalgia for chaos.’”39


What is at stake in the trilogy is not simply a rejection of convention with its restrictions of form, but an investigation of the relationship between reality and drama when representation must, by nature, depend on unnaturalness. The progression in the trilogy is from subverting and dismantling the worn conventions of drama toward creating an alternative form which would be better equipped to convey the complexity of life. In The Interrupted Act, Różewicz, in a rather cavalier fashion, calls this new kind of drama the “realistic poetic theatre” (T1, 389, 393, 400). In Birth Rate, he speaks of the “‘interior’ theatre” (T1, 428, 430). His realistic poetic theatre has nothing to do with the style of poetic realism or with verse drama, and his interior theatre with symbolism. If he is not concerned with the ambiguity of the terminology he is using, it is because he argues not in abstract terms, but in terms of a performance he is outlining on paper for an imaginary audience.

It took Różewicz some ten years before he succeeded in bringing his ideas to a full practical realization with “The Guards.” But the concept of the realistic poetic, or interior, theatre is the guiding principle behind his treatment of the material in The Interrupted Act and Birth Rate as well. Różewicz's concept, then, must be extracted from his self-contradictions, from his formulations, often vague and imprecise, from the exact combination of the formal expressive devices in the trilogy. His proposal for a new kind of drama—tentative or inconsistent in many of the details—makes little coherent sense if we try to read it as an analytic exposition of a theory of drama. In any rigorous sense of the word, Różewicz has no such theory, and does not want to have. His well- known skepticism about intellectual formulae leads him to a disinclination either to endorse or reject critical theories.40

The realistic poetic theatre, for one, challenges the very notion of a dramatic character who moves the action forward and with whom the spectator can identify. In Birth Rate, any conception of character is dissolved in the growing mass of humankind and of critical commentary and literary quotation as well. All the characters in The Interrupted Act (except the Robust Woman) and many of the anonymous personae in “The Guards” appear briefly never to return again, and their presence is not motivated by the development of the plot. The Stranger, for example, “is not related, in ‘the dramaturgical sense,’ to any of the personae” in The Interrupted Act (T1, 409). Like the intruders in “The Guards,” he “has no connection with the play” (T1, 410).

Another consequence of the realistic poetic theatre is the disintegration of overt action. There should be no sequential development of events, no progression according to the laws of exposition, complication, and resolution, but rather “the duration of a certain situation” whereby images and events are experienced in a state of manifold potentiality (T1, 428; [BR, 277]). The duration may mean stasis, as in the Stranger's silent scene in The Interrupted Act, or a charged, unstable mode of vitality, as in Birth Rate and “The Guards.”

The timing of the duration, moreover, should coincide with the time the spectators spend in the theatre, that is, stage time should correspond to the real, elapsed time. The duration of The Interrupted Act “is identical with clock time,” and its timing is exact yet flexible enough to accommodate different levels of perception and concentration in the audience (T1, 393). The Interrupted Act is to last “thirty to seventy minutes” (T1, 393). In his essay, “The Theatre of Inconsistency” (“Teatr niekonsekwencji,” 1964), however, Różewicz allots to The Interrupted Act “an hour, two hours, even three hours.”41 He is willing to try the audience's powers of concentration much like Robert Wilson does in his productions. The opening sequence, he points out, “takes, let's say, three minutes. I would like the potential director to stretch these events over a ten-minute period” (T1, 393). Following the Young Woman's exit there is a pause of “one to five minutes” (T1, 391). The housekeeper then slowly walks across the stage, stops, and stands motionless for “about sixty seconds” (T1, 391). The Stranger may remain on stage “up to seven minutes,” sipping cognac and saying nothing (T1, 392). In Scene Two, a single action—the beating of eggs by the housekeeper—may take between “five and twelve minutes” (T1, 408). By avoiding rigid temporal boundaries, Różewicz rejects the traditional function of art: the imposition of fixity upon flux.

Equally decisive is his insistence that “the spoken text in [his] theatre have no more significance than it does in life” (T1, 392). He has sometimes been accused of wanting to destroy the spoken word in the theatre. This is hardly true. Unlike Antonin Artaud, he does not recommend a retreat from the word but wants to stop the loquacity that prevails in much of contemporary drama. He considers the word “an imperfect yet indispensable means of communication” (T1, 392). That is, language, as a conventional practice, cannot provide grounds for absolute certainty in communication. Language is, nonetheless, adequate for conveying ordinary, casual, or tentative meanings, insofar as we share the regularities of the linguistic practice.

What is more, Różewicz recognizes that the word is only one of the many signs of the theatre, but it alone has the power of replacing most of them.42 He does not want the spoken text to monopolize the attention of the audience. In The Interrupted Act and “The Guards,” speech is often disengaged from action. In Birth Rate, the spoken text, used only sporadically, has “nothing to do with the action” (T1, 420; [BR, 270]). Różewicz thus renounces the conventional dramatic speech that explains characters' motivation and their states of mind. After all, in real life people rarely articulate what they think, and when they do, their manner is not necessarily precise or eloquent. But the silences that punctuate speech are not empty. They echo things unspoken. For Różewicz, it is the moments of silence that “often build and move the ‘action’ forward. What counts is what the author, the ‘protagonists’ of his plays, and the spectator-listeners fill these ‘moments of silence’ with” (T1, 429).

Such a denial of an artificial world of make-belief on stage is not at all unique to Różewicz. The voids of stillness, the investigations of silence and of the open-ended dramatic structure also characterize Beckett's work. Różewicz's concept of the realistic poetic, or interior, theatre is indeed indebted to Beckett whom Różewicz calls “the Shakespeare of our times” (T1, 404) and a “playwright-poet” (T1, 405). It also owes a debt to Chekhov who blazed the trail for Beckett.43 In fact, Różewicz quotes Chekhov approvingly in Birth Rate. But when he dwells, in The Interrupted Act, on several gray hairs on a bookshelf and flies on the sugar cubes, he seems to make light of Chekhov's technique whereby nothing was really casual or random, down to the smallest, seemingly irrelevant details which had their own function to perform.

Różewicz insists, often polemically, on his innovative autonomy. He has repeatedly declared, in Birth Rate and in interviews, that drama must take a decisive step beyond Beckett, that is, the Beckett he knew in the mid-1960s: “The new drama—after Witkacy and Beckett—means a new playwriting technique, not a ‘stupendous’ topic” (T1, 427).44 The search for a new technique is both the form and matter of the trilogy, but it does not merely spring from Różewicz's creative restlessness. The basic terms of his position derive from a philosophical problem of final importance: how to find in dramatic form adequate realizations of human existence.

From the very beginning, Różewicz places his critical and creative procedures in the trilogy within the context of twentieth-century history. He identifies himself as a survivor of World War II, as “an inhabitant of the greatest cemetery in the history of humankind,” as a dispossessed European who has been “inhaling the apocalypse” (T1, 420, 403). To him, the world, understood as a stage for a coherent plot, came to an end with the atrocities of the war. “We've already had the end of the world,” declared Różewicz in his bitterly satirical poem, “An Elegy on the Return of Dead Poets” (“Elegia na powrót umarłych poetów”), published in August 1946 but never reprinted in his verse collections.45 But the ending has not conferred meaning on what came before or what comes after.

When Różewicz begins The Interrupted Act, there are many signs of an eased tension between East and West. The ominous course of modern history seems to have been halted. He feels that he can restore to the theatre its autonomy and independence from political pressures:

I must admit that I almost had a good time while writing the didascalies. Where did this blithe optimism come from? It's just that I, along with the entire humankind, was able to breathe again. The apocalypse became inconspicuous. The world seemed a more permanent, more solid structure. I won't deny that the change in my attitude had to do with a political act of worldwide significance—with a ban on nuclear testing. (T1, 403)46

By late 1966 and early 1967, when he is working on “The Guards” and Birth Rate, his blithe optimism has yielded to uncertainty and solicitude. In the sections of Birth Rate dated 11 and 13 January 1967, he alludes to new, violent spasms of history. On 10 January, Lyndon Johnson delivers a State-of-the-Union address urging Americans to fight the war in Vietnam. In China, Mao Tse-tung has launched the Cultural Revolution, and thousands of Red Guards rampage against old ideas, old culture, old customs. The escalating war in Vietnam poses the danger that the Soviet Union and China, already aiding North Vietnam, might enter directly into the war, which could lead to a nuclear confrontation. Thus in Birth Rate, a work ostensibly complete unto itself, Różewicz draws our attention to what is inside and outside the text. He cannot separate his work from its relevance to human concerns or treat it as a self-sufficient, self-reflexive linguistic entity. In the face of the social and political tensions, drama—indeed all artistic creation—appears to him suspicious, paltry, and self-indulgent.

The dilemma, then, is not only how to write drama after Witkacy and Beckett, but also: how to write drama in a civilization which has experienced the Holocaust and constantly faces the threat of extinction as well as the creeping degradation of social values and moral verities.47 The exterior drama knows no such reservations. It makes of dramatic action a parable of political or social argument. Such parables, Różewicz argues, are not primarily theatre, but rather uses of the stage. To him, theatre is not a matter of overt political or social argument or of isolated moments of reflection and feeling, but is rather coterminous with reality itself even when a just, stable, and direct representation is not possible.

In the final analysis, Różewicz's position in the trilogy derives from the epistemological problems about literature with which history confronted writers in Central Europe in the twentieth century. A witness to totalitarian manipulations of truth, Różewicz faces the question of what kind of truth is embodied in literature. He believes that audiences have come to expect of the theatre practical truths which appeal to daily concerns; they are willing to equate truth with facts. He strives to return the theatre to the realm of the unsettling truth of human existence, to a condition that is unstable and unpredictable. The thinness, the asperities of the trilogy are a speech-symbol of the new right of formal instability he claims for drama. This instability is the matter as well as the form of these three works.

The trilogy is situated on the borders of contemporary drama. Różewicz himself has never again embarked on an experiment quite so radical. The three pieces stand implausible before us, but the doors they open will not soon be closed.


  1. See John Richardson, “The Catch in the Late Picasso.” The New York Review of Books, 31 (19 July 1984), 27.

  2. Since his memorable volume of poems, Anxiety (Niepokój, 1947), Różewicz has been a major figure in contemporary literature. He is a poet-playwright whose works have repeatedly made readers and audiences recognize new possibilities for poetry and drama. For a study of Różewicz's plays, see especially Józef Kelera, “Od Kartoteki do Pułapki,” in Tadeusz Różewicz, Teatr (Cracow: Wydawnictwo Literackie, 1988), v. 1, pp. 5–66.

  3. Różewicz's playwriting techniques on occasion get the better of him, and the result is what Marta Fik has called “an outpouring of effects [efekciarstwo]” (Reżyser ma pomysły [Cracow: Wydawnictwo Literackie, 1974], pp. 210, 217).

  4. For a discussion of postmodernism, see especially Linda Hutcheon, A Poetics of Postmodernism: History, Theory, Fiction (New York: Routledge, 1988), and Harry R. Garvin (ed.), Romanticism, Modernism, Postmodernism (Lewisburg: Bucknell University Press, 1980).

  5. See Sztuki teatralne (Wrocław: Zakład Narodowy im. Ossolińskich, 1972), pp. 269–310, and Teatr (Cracow: Wydawnictwo Literackie, 1988), v. 1, pp. 383–433. All references to the trilogy will be to the 1988 edition (indicated as T1), and they will be given in the text in parentheses. The chronology is as follows: The Interrupted Act: written 1963, first published 1964, premièred on 11 December 1965 at the Stadtische Bühnen in Ulm, West Germany; Birth Rate: written 1958–1967, first published 1968, premièred on 30 December 1979 at the Współczesny Theatre in Wrocław, Poland; “The Guards”: written 1966, first published 1972, its elements were incorporated within the Wrocław production of Birth Rate (cf. Kazimierz Braun and Tadeusz Różewicz, Języki teatru [Wrocław: Wydawnictwo Dolnośļͣskie, 1989], p. 168).

    All translations are mine except for occasional references (indicated as BR) to Birth Rate, trans. Daniel Gerould, in D. Gerould (ed.), Twentieth-Century Polish Avant-Garde Drama: Plays, Scenarios, Critical Documents (Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 1977), pp. 269–279. For an English translation of The Interrupted Act, see Tadeusz Różewicz, The Card Index and Other Plays, trans. Adam Czerniawski (New York: Grove Press, 1969), pp. v–vii, 1–32.

  6. By Różewicz's admission in the text (cf. T1, 385, 419–420), each of these two works was originally intended to be a scripted drama, that is, a finished corpus which has boundaries that are thought to demarcate the supposed beginning, middle, and end. The works he has eventually produced spoil these boundaries and other divisions as well.

  7. See Tadeusz Różewicz, “Kartki wydarte z dziennika.” Odra, 24 (November 1984), 41.

  8. Jan Kłossowicz, Teatr stary i nowy (Warsaw: Wydawnictwa Artystyczne i Filmowe, 1973), p. 85.

  9. Jan Błoński, “Rozważania na czasie.” Dialog, 12 (April 1967), 80.

  10. Tymon Terlecki, “Polski dramat awangardowy.” Kultura (Paris), 32 (November 1977), 21.

  11. See August Grodzicki, “Akt powtórzony.” Życie Warszawy, 23 (28 June 1966), 4; Jaszcz (Jan Alfred Szczepański), “Wyszedł z teatru.” Trybuna Ludu, 19 (28 June 1966), 6.

  12. Terlecki, “Polski dramat współczesny,” p. 29. See also Bożena Frankowska, “Glossa do wyroku Salomonów.” Teatr, 35 (6 July 1980), 3.

  13. Daniel Gerould, “Introduction: The Avant-Garde in Twentieth-Century Polish Drama,” in Twentieth-Century Polish Avant-Garde Drama, p. 90.

  14. Maria Bechczyc-Rudnicka, “Doniosła premiera”: Teatr, 35 (27 April 1980), 4.

  15. Jerzy Koenig, “Różewicz bez cudzysłowu.” Teatr, 26 (15 July 1971), 16.

  16. Kelera, “Od Kartoteki do Pułapki,” pp. 26–27.

  17. Ibid., pp. 29, 37.

  18. Tadeusz Drewnowski, “Laboratorium Różewicza—bez sceny.” Dialog, 33 (July 1988), p. 137.

  19. Gerould, “Introduction,” p. 93. See also Drewnowski, “Laboratorium Różewicza—bez sceny,” p. 137.

  20. Drewnowski, “Laboratorium Różewicza—bez sceny,” p. 137; Tadeusz Nyczek, Lakierowanie kartofla i inne teksty teatralne (Cracow: Wydawnictwo Literackie, 1985), p. 82. While critics at times hesitated whether Różewicz's trilogy was stageworthy material, several undaunted directors worked hard to meet the challenge and match his inventiveness. Marta Fik's reservations about a production of The Interrupted Act at Lublin's Juliusz Osterwa Theatre in 1970 well describe the treacherousness of the trilogy in performance. The production, she wrote, was endowed with an overplus of vision. Thus the director, Kazimierz Braun, “reduced Różewicz to peaceful submission [spacyfikował]”: “the spectators had so much fun that it didn't even occur to them that someone was trying to contest their taste” in drama (Reżyser ma pomysły, p. 220). For accounts in English of the première of Birth Rate, see Krystyna Demska, “Birth Rate (A Biography of a Stage Play) by Tadeusz Różewicz.” The Theatre in Poland, 22 (June 1980), 14–16; and James F. Schlatter, “Giving Birth to Birth Rate: A Theater Collaboration of Tadeusz Różewicz and Kazimierz Braun.” Theater Three, no. 6 (Spring 1989), 145–157.

  21. Here, as elsewhere, Różewicz uses “theatre” and “drama” interchangeably.

  22. All three appellations are the works' subtitles.

  23. Konstanty Puzyna, “Wokół dramaturgii otwartej [an interview with Tadeusz Różewicz].” Dialog, 14 (July 1969), 101.

  24. In an interview some twenty years later, Różewicz engages in postintentionality by assuring us that the trilogy is a performance score which exists in opposition to his “‘literary’ plays” such as The Funny Old Man (Śmieszny staruszek), On All Fours (Na czworakach), White Marriage (Białe małżeństwo), and Dead and Buried (Do piachu); in the latter, “the spoken text is more important than situations” (Braun and Różewicz, Języki teatru, p. 22).

  25. Różewicz, “Kartki wydarte z dziennika,” p. 41.

  26. See Tadeusz Różewicz, “Prolog do Smiesznego staruszka.Dialog, 11 (December 1966), 5–6. For the genealogy of this fragment, see Puzyna, “Wokół dramaturgii otwartej,” p. 102.

  27. At times Różewicz's critical attitudes and creative concerns in the trilogy echo the ideas of Leon Chwistek (1884–1944), a philosopher and a painter. Indeed, in the preface to The Interrupted Act Różewicz recommends Chwistek's article, “Theatre of the Future” (“Teatr przyszlości,” 1922), to critics and theatre artists. To reform Polish theatre, Chwistek proposed a number of radical solutions ranging from a new design for theatre architecture to disjointed dramatic structures, simultaneous recitations which would replace a verbal exchange of information with “a symphony of words,” and the removal of the protagonist who “dawdles on stage from beginning to end and ruthlessly imposes his personal problems on us” (L. Chwistek, Wielość rzeczy-wistości w sztuce i inne szkice literackie [Warsaw: Czytelnik, 1960], pp. 181, 178). For an overview of Chwistek's ideas on theatre, see Zbigniew Osiński, “Leon Chwistek jako teoretyk awangardowego teatru.” Miesięcznik Literacki, 5 (June 1970), 33–42.

  28. Różewicz's memory seems to have betrayed him: in the preface to The Interrupted Act he identifies it as his first comedy, although two years earlier he completed a comedy entitled The Laocoon Group (Grupa Laokoona).

  29. For a cogent examination of the history and definitions of the term “convention,” see Harry Levin, Refractions: Essays in Comparative Literature (New York: Oxford University Press, 1966), pp. 32–61. Conventions, Levin points out, “rely on prior awareness and widespread acceptance,” and tradition is the vehicle by which they “are assimilated, organized, transmitted” (pp. 36–37).

  30. Ibid., p. 45.

  31. Boris Eichenbaum, “How Gogol's ‘Overcoat’ is Made,” in Robert A. Maguire (ed. and trans.), Gogol from the Twentieth Century: Eleven Essays (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1974), p. 277.

  32. Tom F. Driver, Romantic Quest and Modern Query: A History of the Modern Theatre (New York: Dell, 1970), p. 460.

  33. See his essay of 1967, “Notatka na marginesie ksi̧ͣżki Normana Malcoma Ludwig Wittgenstein,” in T. Różewicz, Proza (Wrocław: Zakład Narodowy im. Ossolińskich, 1973), pp. 550–552.

  34. Ludwig Wittgenstein, Culture and Value, trans. Peter Winch (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1980), p. 4e. Italics as found.

  35. For an account of the première of The Lost Ones, staged in 1971 by the Mabou Mines Company in New York City, see Ruby Cohn, Just Play: Beckett's Theater (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1980), pp. 224–229.

  36. See Slegfried Melchinger, Anton Chekhov, trans. Edith Tarcov (New York: Frederick Ungar, 1984), pp. 74–75.

  37. He thus echoes Picasso's conviction that “in finishing a work you kill it” (quoted in Richardson, “The Catch in the Late Picasso,” p. 24).

  38. Czesław Miłosz, The History of Polish Literature (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1983), p. 464.

  39. “Tadeusz Różewicz in Conversation with Adam Czerniawski.” The New Review, 3 (April 1976), 12.

  40. For a brief but important discussion of Różewicz's distrust of theories and abstractions, see Magnus J. Krynski and Robert A. Maguire, “Translators' Introduction” to Tadeusz Różewicz, “The Survivor” and Other Poems (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1976), pp. ix–xix.

  41. Różewicz, Sztuki teatralne, p. 314.

  42. Tadeusz Kowzan has identified thirteen principal sign-systems of a theatrical presentation. They are: word, tone, mime, gesture, movement, make-up, hairdo, costume, property, set, lighting, music, and sound effects. See T. Kowzan, “The Sign in the Theater: An Intróduction to the Semiology of the Art of the Spectacle.” Diogenes, no. 61 (Spring 1968), 52–80.

  43. For incisive essays on Chekhov's seminal role in the emergence of modern drama, see J. L. Styan's “Chekhov's Dramatic Technique” and Martin Esslin's “Chekhov and the Modern Drama,” in Toby W. Clyman (ed.), A Chekhov Companion (Westport: Greenwood Press, 1985), pp. 135–145, 107–122.

  44. See also Irène Sadowska-Guillon, “Tadeusz Różewicz: le théâtre de la mythologie a venir [an interview].” Europe: Revue Littéraire Mensuelle, 61 (April 1983): “The theatre of Beckett, whom I regard as the father of new drama, was to me both a revelation and a take-off point … My major task, as I was beginning to write for the theatre in the late 1950s, was to go beyond Beckett, to create a theatre after Beckett” (p. 162). (This statement may be confusing insofar as Różewicz began to write for the theatre in the late 1940s; by 1950, he had published the first three acts of They Will Fight [Bęḑͣ się bili], had written Coming Out [Ujawnienie] which remains in manuscript, and had begun a long and laborious process of writing Dead and Buried.)

  45. Quoted in Adam Wlodek, Nasz łup wojenny (Cracow: Wydawnictwo Literackie, 1970), pp. 283–284.

  46. Różewicz is referring to the agreement of 25 July and the treaty of 5 August 1963 for a partial prohibition of such testing.

  47. See Różewicz's statements in Sadowska-Guillon, “Tadeusz Różewicz,” p. 163.

Elzbieta Baniewicz (essay date May 1991)

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Last Updated on June 7, 2022, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 2145

SOURCE: “Labyrinth of an Obscure Law: Różewicz Stirs Polish TV,” in Performing Arts Journal, Vol. XIII, No. 2, May, 1991, pp. 56–61.

[In the following essay, Baniewicz discusses why Różewicz's Do piachu met with such controversy in Poland.]

Art is rarely one of the early fruits of revolution. Today Polish artists, who demanded freedom at the Round Table not so long ago, talk chiefly about money. Culture is costly, and new economic order, with its suppression of inflation, has brought recession and growing unemployment, so it can hardly be expected that the government will zealously try to save art rather than health services, housing, or industry. Film production has dropped from a few dozen films annually to merely a few. Movie theatres survive thanks to commercial American productions like Batman, and they are being closed down more and more frequently, unless someone manages to change them into currency exchange offices. The theatre repertoire looks rather like the bookstore windows, where naked bottoms and guns advertising gutter literature appear beside memoirs of the camps, and dreambooks compete with anti-communist propaganda, science fiction, and the confidences of witches. Plays with small casts and song concerts promising financial profits have ousted productions of national literary masterpieces or Shakespeare, which used to be a kind of specialty of the Polish theatre. Eminent actors had used the language of universal literature to wrestle with Fate, God, History, inscribing into the works of the classics contemporary experiences, ranging from the existential to the political. Thanks to them the public imagination gained new perspectives.

Now economic dangers dominate most discussions of art, though chaos in the domain of values seems much more important than financial chaos. The ethos of Solidarity, founded with the significant participation of artists around the idea of a common enemy, has fallen apart, and a few dozen parties have come into being, from Social Democrat to Christian Democrat. It is no longer enough for artists, nor for politicians, to declare themselves against communists. Choosing values has become a much more subtle matter than it was last year, and few can cope with the new situation.

The broadcast of Tadeusz Różewicz's play Do piachu … (Bite the Dust), prepared by the TV theatre seen by millions every Monday, was the most important artistic event of the last few months. No production has shocked public opinion as much for a long time. The protests of indignant viewers even reached parliament, and prompted violent polemics in the press. The attack was on both the author and our TV, which “dared to show such dirty rubbish using state funds.” Both the substance of the play and its extremely naturalistic aesthetics offended audience members. This is nothing new, since before being accepted, each of Różewicz's plays had met with resistance from both the actors who were to play in them and from the public. But the sharpest attacks were made on Do piachu … ; after the première at Warsaw's Teatr Na Woli in 1979, the author was accused of betraying his nation and of desecrating its values; he withdrew the play and forbade its further production and translation.

Do piachu … is a provocative text concerning matters most important to Poles, namely the national mythos and its fundamental concepts of bravery, heroism, the romantic struggle for freedom, and military honor, deeply rooted in the national mentality. On the one hand, this is understandable as the ideology of a country deprived of freedom for centuries; Polish soldiers fought for the freedom of their country on all world fronts and in many abortive uprisings. On the other hand, patriotic heroism became a permanent stereotype effectively obscuring any other truth about war. A dozen or so years ago, when history was still a domain under the absolute rule of politics, it was the defenders of stereotypes who protested against Różewicz's play. They continue to do so today when emerging democracy is freeing life of the dominance of ideology, but has also set free the old specters of intolerance, chauvinism and my-God-and-my-homeland type incantations.

The TV play's director, Kazimierz Kutz, a well-known Polish movie director, presented the author's text as faithfully as possible. In ten filmed sequences reminiscent of a Brechtian morality play, and alluding to the drama of the stations of the Passion of Christ, he presented the moving story of Walus, a private in the army. A farmhand who found himself in a peasant partisan unit, he came to know there the charm of heroic legend: patriotic songs and vivid tales of heroic deeds. Sometimes that meant “getting infected on a whore” who had to be shot afterward because she had been “having a lay with gendarmes.” Walus, not a very clever boy, fascinated by the theatre of war played out by his companions from the unit, went off with them to pillage. They escaped, while Walus was caught by partisans from the Home Army (AK). In accordance with the soldiers' code of honor he must take the consequences of robbery and the rape of the priest's housekeeper, which he probably didn't commit.

A simple and rather banal story; a naive simpleton outsmarted by more clever men finds himself in a situation with no way out. He is incapable of defending himself, and there is nobody who would want to defend this illiterate boy. War in the forests is not a time for subtle moral judgments. The law of war which allows one to kill the enemy and ensures that the code of battle is also respected in one's own ranks is stronger than anything else, even if it is unclear to the individual. A bullet from a compatriot's gun will end the life of Walus.

It is no accident that this play originating directly from Różewicz's autobiographical experience—he spent nearly two years among the partisans—took so long to write: 1955–72. “Many years had to pass,” Różewicz will say, “before I understood that a writer only has the right to love, and not to contempt.” Many years of effort in writing, a dozen or so poetical volumes, and struggle with the difficult drama form had to pass before this extraordinary human experience of war could find equally extraordinary artistic expression.

“The star of poetry shines by its own absence,” one can say about Do piachu. … The language of art freed of aestheticism, created out of words simple to the highest degree and expressing the elementary experiences of human existence through pure information, is more moving in its authenticity than all the poetical terms reserved for expressing pathos and loftiness. The original title of the drama, Song of the Love and Death of Private Walus, which is an ironic paraphrase of Rainer Maria Rilke's poem “The Song of the Life and Death of Cornet Christopher,” is a reference to the poet's actual intentions. The absolute should not be sought for in God, or any kind of higher idea; it can be found in a faulty body, a human rag, in the simplest words and elementary moral impulses. The phenomenon of biological life, of naked human existence, remains an absolute.

In this play lyricism is mixed with vulgarity, physiology with prayer, and ideology with prosaic life. Laughter and sadness, irony mixed with serious overtones, provide a strange balance of meanings and impressions. Every thought is countered by a situation from life: an ideological lecture for the soldiers is accompanied by the disemboweling of a pig, talks on the great politics of Churchill are held on the boards of a forest latrine. Discussions on the need to strengthen the authority of the commanders are held over a plate of fresh liver washed down with spirits. Dirty jokes and rough peasant language, with its specific accent and grammatical mistakes, disavow every platitude, every doubtful piece of thought. In roughly hewn sentences the heroes express ordinary human decency, manifested in a few normal impulses of pity.

Kazimierz Kutz has made the problem of law the main subject of his production. The tragedy of Walus's fate is the effect of opposition between various laws: the law of war which permits one to kill and bestows the moral right to kill, and where only individual conscience rules. At no moment do the real enemies of the partisans, the Germans, appear. Thus the war is only a background creating the coordinates for the story.

The war, always present in Różewicz's writing, comprising the structural axis of his works, is presented here as an extreme situation in which people live as if outside the law. And every evil, “the evil which is within us,” can be justified by the exceptionality of the times. War, but not only war—one can imagine a similar story of Walus the contemporary everyman in a different reality—creates situations in which law is suspended. No religious or moral codes can give changeable reality a form. The only ethic measure is one's own conscience, moral impulses, and the unending attempts at being human. The law of God set down in the past has been transformed, as Kafka put it, into a labyrinth of unknown laws. Modern man, especially people living in a region of the world through which the two most cruel totalitarianisms of the twentieth century have passed, is often ruled by laws which he neither knows nor understands. Then the only support can be found in an internal dictate, a “moral law inside me,” the foundation of modern humanism and the material of which the human church is built.

The most disturbing thing about the story of Walus is the fact that his fate is governed by a law he doesn't understand and which he finds incomprehensible. No judgment has been passed on him, his guilt remains pure conjecture, yet the penalty is carried out by those who lack any moments of doubt. One of the partisans expounded his philosophy in direct terms: “An order is an order. Father or no, brother or no … I'd finish you off too, if they told me to.” The rule that “the leaders do our thinking for us” has so often been justification for crime. This rule, adapted to quieter times in the phrase “because they told me to,” has frequently justified ordinary villainy and baseness. As literature has shown up to now, contemporary tragedy is not born of the opposition of the values of God and man, but of the opposition of quite earthly systems of values professed by ordinary people.

Różewicz never set his plays within the tame conventions of drama. On the contrary, he broke them and created new ones, so that the subject matter could become visible in the structure of images and language. In this way he provided replies to the important question of our times: how can art be possible after Auschwitz? His plays are usually peopled by anonymous heroes in everyday situations; the commonplace actually creates this world. The author is consistent in not beautifying anything, in not referring us to metaphysics; though he emphasizes the ugliness of the world, his plays nevertheless remain moving and lyrical. The anti-aesthetic, the carnal and brutal perspective in which reality is described, is a provocative consequence of the fact that only another human being can be a sanction in this world. A human condemned, like the writer, to his own body and a crippled awareness.

Since that is the case, the role of the writer in the world has to change. He no longer represents any transcendent spirit, nor is he a prophet, a great national poet, the conscience of his nation, being only a man like everybody else, an anonymous person. A writer differs from ordinary mortals only in the quality of his moral sensitivity, not even in his lifestyle and satanic superiority, as was the case, for instance, in the modernist conflict between artist and philistine.

Authors who dare to question stereotypes of thought are invariably misunderstood and attacked for their desecration of all that is sacred. One such sacred theme in Polish culture is the role of a writer who fortifies his countrymen's hearts and is a romantic ruler of souls. Różewicz has questioned this role of the writer who puts himself above society as a supplier of social, political, metaphysical ideas. He has given up any kind of public role and discourse in favor of defending the rights of individuals who do not represent any grand ideas, those who do not profess any ideology. He only defends humanism in the spirit of Montaigne, who said that no idea was worth killing a man for. The stand taken by Różewicz, one that is in opposition to patriotic and national mythology, destroys the order accepted for generations as right and founded on the triumvirate of God, Nation, Homeland. In a country as Catholic as Poland such a stand is difficult to forgive. That makes it all the more valuable.

Jonathon Aaron (review date Spring/Summer 1991)

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SOURCE: “Without Boundaries,” in Parnassus, Vol. 9, No. 1, Spring/Summer, 1991, pp. 110–28.

[In the following excerpt, Aaron praises Różewicz's “The Survivor” and Other Poems.]

Tadeusz Różewicz, strongly present in [Czeslaw] Milosz's anthology, is now available to American readers through a cogent selection, “The Survivor” and Other Poems, translated by Magnus J. Krynski and Robert A. Maguire and published by Princeton's poetry in translation series in 1976. The war is perhaps more overtly central to Różewicz's poetry than to that of any of his current contemporaries. A twenty-four-year-old survivor in 1945, having fought with the military underground, he was, he writes, “full of worshipful admiration for works of art (the aesthetic experience having replaced the religious), but at the same time, there grew within me a contempt for all aesthetic values. … I consciously gave up the privileges that accrue to poetry. … and I turned to the banal truth, to common sense. … I have returned to my rubbish heap.” He was determined, as he put it, to write “not verses but facts.”

Krynski's and Maguire's translations of forty poems (accompanied by facing Polish texts) provide a distinct impression of the poet's shifts in temperament and tone from 1947 through 1969. (The other significant Różewicz collection in English, Tadeusz Różewicz: Selected Poems, translated by Adam Czerniawski and published by Penguin in 1976, is, annoyingly, unavailable in America and may already be out of print. Its ninety-one poems, combined with those in the Princeton volume, form a broader selection of this poet than we have of any of his contemporaries.) Judging from “The Survivor” and Other Poems, Różewicz's emotional range is a good deal narrower than [Alexander] Wat's. Ostensibly a partisan of socialist realism in the late Forties, Różewicz for a while adopted a forced optimism that ran against his fundamental disgust with the world in which he found himself at the war's end. Wat, a generation older and no less an exile in Stalinist Poland than he had been in Stalinist Russia, chose to write in a style aggressively atypical of what the times seemed to demand. At his best, Wat seems to write from a perspective beyond disappointment. His anger is metaphysical. Różewicz, on the other hand, tends in his poems to reflect a cold fury, the rage of someone who has been personally betrayed. If Wat's poems come from somewhere beyond hope, Różewicz's show the anguish of a person unable to relinquish the hope in which he no longer has the slightest faith.

The editors of the Princeton selection provide a subtly helpful means of getting to the heart of Różewicz's work. In citing “The Survivor” in their title, they point the reader to that early poem (1947), which begins:

I am twenty-four
led to slaughter
I survived.
These labels are empty and synonymous:
man and beast
love and hate
friend and foe
light and dark

The poem becomes a series of abrupt, short-hand notes whose halting quality suggests the unspeakable nature of the experience the speaker is trying to emerge from. He perceives a world of unsponsored and unverifiable categories, of conceptual as well as material ruin.

Concepts are but words:
virtue and crime
truth and falsehood
beauty and ugliness
courage and cowardice.

Finally the speaker somehow manages to express something like a wish:

I seek a teacher and master
let him restore to me sight hearing and speech
let him once again name things and concepts
let him separate light from dark.

The dramatic directness of this poem is typical of Różewicz. It expresses the bleak self-reliance of his search, of what comes across in this collection as a career-long attempt to find that “teacher and master” within himself. The world being what it is, he has nowhere else to look. Różewicz's lines are short, his syntax simple and severe. Only rarely does he allow himself the luxury of a metaphor. His poems are the utterances of a man who can no longer consider individual perceptions, sensory or intellectual, in and for themselves. For him, each impression and thought is a means of sustaining his sense of having survived. Moreover, there can be no letting-up in this effort. Time is too questionable for him to allow himself anything more than a strict and constant registering of essentials.

Różewicz's “In the Midst of Life” was a key poem in the Milosz anthology—a stark illumination of the post-war perspective of Różewicz and his contemporaries—and it is no less important a poem in the present collection. The voice here is that of the survivor attempting with fearful care to reason and feel in a shattered world:

After the end of the world
after death
I found myself in the midst of life
creating myself
building life
people animals landscapes
this is a table I said
this is a table
on the table is bread a knife
a knife is to cut bread
people live on bread

The survivor is hesitantly testing in a dialogue with himself his capacity to reestablish order with shreds of the familiar. “Let him once again name things and concepts” was the appeal in the earlier poem. Now, however, there is no question of finding a teacher. Resuming life in a destroyed world is a personal process in which one moves toward complex awareness through a series of painful, halting steps, each of which links thought and observation. Something is defined and then seen in the world.

this is a window I said
this is a window
beyond the window is a garden
in the garden I see an apple tree
the apple tree is in bloom
the blossoms fall
the fruits form
my father picks an apple
that man picking the apple
is my father

“In the Midst of Life” is a poem of inescapable power. In it acts of naming and understanding become matters of life and death. The poem itself becomes a crucial instance of the process it describes, defining and justifying its own extreme claim to necessity. In this and in many other poems in the Princeton selection, Różewicz presents us with poetry as nothing less than a means of living. The matter of his poems is a matter American readers are likely to have a hard time getting close to, accustomed as they still are to the separation of poetry and politics, and to a social experience as yet untouched by mass destruction, by the logical brutality of fate.

Introducing Różewicz in his anthology, Milosz called him “a nihilistic humanitarian, constantly searching for a way out of his negation which is mitigated only by pity; … It seems that his tragedy is to deny the values which are affirmed by his revolt.” Denial is implicit in his aggressively unartistic poetics—in his use of slang, lists, snatches of journalistic trivia, in his ironic borrowings from “literature”; and it is often explicit in his rhetoric of disillusion. “My Poetry”—the phrase is a poem's title and first line—“explains nothing / clarifies nothing / renounces nothing / embraces no whole / fulfills no hope.” Różewicz, antinomian that he is, is nobody's fool. But the Princeton translations give a firm sense of his sensibilities and concerns and are thus genuinely trustworthy sources of the idea that the poet's denials are ultimately assertions of value. Toward the end of a poem called “Continuous Performances,” he says:

Now it is forbidden to leave
our world
it is forbidden to withdraw from it
once you could go off into the desert
now you have to be constantly present
everyone is constantly present
it is forbidden to leave our world
even for twenty four hours
everything must be interconnected

This passage suggests a purpose one detects time and again in Różewicz's work—that of measuring the nature of a restricted world in order to know it well enough to live in it. There are many unforgettable poems in this book, poems in which Różewicz's harsh intelligence challenges the reader's experience of the world and his sense of how language can amplify it. “Conversation with the Prince,” “Precis,” “Way Out,” and “Continuous Performances” are among those which best portray Różewicz's underlying effort to construct and maintain a sense of place in the continuous aftermath of what Milosz has dryly called “unheard-of circumstances.”

… These translations of Wat, Różewicz, and Herbert require more than our attention. In them, we have the means of understanding more clearly a national experience utterly different from our own. They also offer ways of understanding our own that are entirely new. These days it is no longer terribly unorthodox to believe that poetry and politics might at times have something in common. But what still has not changed is the notion that politics in poetry—“political poetry”—is versified sloganeering, doctrine advertised. A couple of simple points are antidotes to such thinking. First, rant is rant, whatever its stripe, and not to be confused with poetry. Second, true poetry comes from what happens to us, from that complex encounter (real or imagined) with people and events which are shaped in part by politics. All poetry, then, is in some measure political. The poems of Wat, Różewicz, and Herbert lend to this idea a weight it might at first not seem to deserve. And they show us a kind of poetry we need more of in our own language, a poetry that does not necessarily denote political conditions or cases, but a poetry which comes out of the knowledge that conditions and cases affect our lives, that they will indeed influence, not to say determine, how we are going to live and die.

A final word: The presence of Czeslaw Milosz pervades the preceding commentary. No single writer of our time has with such profound effect brought another literature across the distances of language and history to the readers and writers of our own. His contribution to our literary self-awareness has been and continues to be crucial. It could turn out to be transforming. Two instruments of that possible transformation, his Postwar Polish Poetry and his Herbert's Selected Poems, ought to be reissued. They are books as necessary now as they were when they came out, for reading them we come to know more clearly what we must accept: that we live in a community whose essence is without boundaries, and in which all our fates are the same.

Bill Marx (review date 1993)

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SOURCE: “Gurus and Gadflies,” in Parnassus: Poetry in Review, Vols. 18–19, Nos. 1–2, 1993, pp. 100–20.

[In the following excerpt, Marx traces Różewicz's attempt to capture life in postwar Poland through the poetry of They Came to See a Poet.]

Now in his 70's, Polish poet Tadeusz Różewicz has always treated poetry as a zero sum game, struggling to evolve a language that adequately expresses the political deterioration of Poland after World War II. From this comes his rejection of high culture, his fundamental disdain of rhetoric, and his transparency of style, which have made him one of his country's most popular poets. Yet for all of his work's personal intensity, Różewicz is an example of [Adam] Zagajewski's ontological poet, in this case a writer who has made skepticism, rather than belief, into an absolute. Scorning words as reality's betrayers, Różewicz sacrifices the beautiful on the altar of the moral, turning the process of writing about oppression into aphasic yet eloquent drama. Teasing and tense, Różewicz's poetry has neither intellectual panache nor linguistic ambition. The lyrics in the third (and expanded) edition of his translated poems, They Came to See a Poet are hammer strokes, a collection of taps and whams, that, with astounding purity, pound at the impossibility of crafting poetry true to the sins of history. At the end of his poem “They Shed the Load,” Różewicz writes that “they forget / that contemporary poetry / means struggle for breath.” Reading They Came to See a Poet is like listening to a swimmer gasping for air; it's Różewicz's version of [Miroslav Holub's] Vanishing Lung Syndrome.

The pain is symptomatic of Różewicz's obsession with the visceral, the sensual, the unmediated. It's an astringent aesthetic dedicated to clarity, as he explains in an interview with translator Adam Czerniawski: “I was aiming at a poetry of absolute transparency so that the dramatic material might be seen through the poem, just as in clear water you can see what is moving on the bottom. And so the form had to vanish, had to become transparent, it had to become identified with the subject of the given poem.” His scorn for words makes him yearn for the invisible poem, a clean window on terrible facts or overbearing realities: “peel image off image / colours off shapes / feelings off images / down to the core / to the language of suffering / till death.” Holub's empirical wonderland becomes Różewicz's all-encompassing vacuum. Yet nothingness can never be wholly described, categorized, or put into song. In Canvas, Zagajewski writes with edgy bravura “That each failure is different: what consolation.” Różewicz has no such sardonic balm; for him, each failure is the same. The repetition of defeat is the fate of the post-Auschwitz poet: “I'd been writing a good while / suddenly I noticed / no pen in my hand.”

Despite temptations to remain silent, Różewicz has written hundreds of poems, his subjects varying from communist propaganda (“The new man / that's him there / yes it's that / sewage pipe / which lets through / everything”) to the nature of poetry, from the gaunt vicissitudes of aging (“my time is up / time presses / what's one to take / to the further shore / / nothing”) to statements of perseverance (“I am / stubborn / and submissive in my stubbornness / like wax / only thus can I / impress the world.”). Only on rare occasions does he swap his tight-lipped modernism for sentimentality, as in his admiring poem, “A Tale of Old Women”: “for these are beautiful women / good women / they are the embryo / mystery devoid of mystery / the sphere that rolls.” The typical Różewicz lyric has few words and little punctuation, though he has written some interesting long poems, such as “Et Arcadia Ego” and “Autistic Poem.”

Różewicz's plaintive jabs haven't the steam-driven energy of Holub's awed squibs from the scientific front lines or the personalized meditations of Zagajewski. For Różewicz, words are like boulders dropped, out of exhaustion, on the page. They don't roll far. “Job 1957” is a typically bleak arrangement:

Earth sky Job's body dung
sky dung
eyes dung
that which was begat in love
which grew ripened
which was gladsome
is turned to dung
earth sky Job's body
rose dung
lips dung
that which was veiled in caresses
which was robed in dignity
which rose
flies cover
sky and sun
swarm over silence and lips

They Came to See a Poet is full of miniature Stonehenges, syllables laid about in seemingly incomplete patterns, brutal reminders of a fuller message, a better time. Różewicz articulates the fall into history by becoming the prophet of the partial, the herald of the unfinished: “The poem / is finished / now to break it.” Though he makes occasional use of religious imagery, Różewicz ends up chanting a mantra of absence, a blunt testament that, as proof of its fragile authenticity, is erased as soon as it is said. Różewicz's ethics are in the momentary presence of his language, the extraordinary demands he makes of words. …

Of course, [Czeslaw] Milosz and Różewicz have always had that courageously critical spirit, but it's been tied to rebuking the authoritarian (or modernist) spirit. Their complex moralism has had less to do with propagandizing good and evil than acting as a rich but intolerant defender of ontological convictions, of either religious belief or radical doubt. The trick for [Piotr] Sommer and Zagajewski (which has, in some senses, already been pulled off by Holub) is to criticize and/or revise these bedrock attitudes without betraying them in the face of Western alternatives. The skepticism of the artist must be applied to the fundamental assumptions of a revered dissident generation. From a post-Cold War perspective, the traumatized polarities of Milosz and Różewicz leave precious little elbow room for tolerance and play, offer few invitations to expand, to become inclusive rather than exclusive. Central European poets can either rest on the defensive battlements of certainty or light out for more moderate territories and stake fresh provinces of the imagination out of what Holub calls life's “undiminishing uncertainty.”

Bogdana Carpenter (review date Autumn 1993)

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SOURCE: A review of Conversation with the Prince and Other Poems, in World Literature Today, Vol. 54, No. 4, Autumn, 1993, p. 662.

[In the following review, Carpenter points out some of the strengths and weaknesses in Różewicz's poetry from Conversation with the Prince and Other Poems.]

It is welcome to have Adam Czerniawski's translations of Różewicz's poetry in print again. This latest collection [Conversation with the Prince and Other Poems] is an expanded version of the Selected Poems (Penguin, 1976), with a generous selection of Różewicz's recent poems. The translations are smooth, colloquial, both resourceful and very flexible, and also show a thorough familiarity with all aspects of the originals. The introduction raises a variety of issues. Perhaps one should not expect too much from a presentation that is necessarily constricted. Still, there are some assertions that seem to raise more questions than they answer.

First, the “moral preoccupation” of Różewicz is stressed; yet if he is a “moralist,” it is of a very special kind. One of the most winning features of his early work is a lack of moral pretentiousness: “I seek a teacher and a master / may he restore my sight hearing and speech.” But with the passage of time he became something of an “immoralist,” his “stale anger” (“Conversation with the Prince”) leading toward the near-total nihilism of “Job 1957” and “Nothing in Prospero's Cloak” (1962). The tone of truculent rancor pervading so many poems, often without a clearly defined object, is one of his salient traits. Might it not be said that Różewicz expresses a seductive, ingenuous hostility to moral concern?

Second, Czerniawski passes in silence over Różewicz's Stalinist phase in the fifties. Perhaps these poems were grudgingly written (which is not certain), yet this was a time when other poets preferred silence. The choice had consequences. Can we understand his subsequent nihilism without recalling it? Third, does “lack of self-consciousness” really characterize Różewicz's poetry? He has written more poems about poetry and the act of writing (as Czerniawski admits) than many of his contemporaries. Couldn't one stress his self-consciousness with equal validity? Fourth, Czerniawski notes with satisfaction that Różewicz's volume of collected poems runs to more than 700 pages. Yet his work is very uneven. Hasn't this prolificness resulted in dilution of quality? Fifth, are the “object poems” which Czerniawski especially admires—about a piece of rope, a birdcage, grass, a newspaper—really in the main current of Różewicz's work? I too like them, but I don't believe they show the force that is characteristic of his best poems.

Finally, must we accept the whole of Różewicz's poetry? I believe he has written some of the finest postwar poems in Polish, but in dealing with him one must, above all, make careful distinctions. Only then will we be in a real position to appreciate his strengths.

Richard Sokoloski (essay date 1994)

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SOURCE: “Różewicz at Seventy: Rebirth of a Survivor,” in Polish Review, Vol. XXXIX, No. 2, 1994, pp. 195–211.

[In the following essay, Sokoloski reassesses Różewicz's work as the writer enters a new phase in his career upon turning seventy.]

The year 1991 marked Tadeusz Różewicz's seventieth birthday. In retrospect, it is clear that the occasion not only inaugurated an important renewal of interest in his works but, more significantly, may well have inspired a new phase in his writing. In May of that year, the University of Ottawa staged an international symposium devoted to Slavic Drama, a substantial portion of which dealt with problems of Różewicz's dramaturgy.1 In November, another major conference, devoted exclusively to Różewicz's art, was held at the University of Poznań.2 A month earlier, Różewicz received an honorary doctorate from the University of Wrocław.3 Literary periodicals, both in Poland and abroad, among others Dialog,4Teatr [Theater],5Notatnik Teatralny [Theatrical Notebook],6Odra [The Oder],7 and Slavic and East European Arts,8 published exclusive or partial theme issues. Two monographic works have appeared: Walka o oddech: o pisarstwie Tadeusza Różewicza [A Struggle for Breath: On the Writings of Tadeusz Różewicz] by Polish scholar Tadeusz Drewnowski,9 and A Laboratory of Impure Forms: The Plays of Tadeusz Różewicz by American scholar Halina Filipowicz.10 A volume of English translations of Różewicz's poetry was published by Adam Czerniawski.11 Różewicz himself in the last two years has come out with two books: Płaskorzeźba [Bas-relief],12 a collection of his poetry, and Nasz starszy brat [Our Older Brother],13 a compilation of poetry by his deceased brother, Janusz, which he personally edited and introduced. In addition, he has published a publicistic tract, “Sztuka nienapisana” [“The Unwritten Work”].14 A number of new individual poems have also been appearing in Twórczość [Creativity]15 and Odra;16 this author was recently informed in conversations with Różewicz that several more are to follow. Finally, the Teatr Polski [Polish Theater] of Wrocław staged three highly innovative productions of Różewicz's Pułapka [The Trap], Złowiony [Caught] and Kartoteka [The Card Index], the last under the author's personal direction.

For a number of reasons, these occurrences were long overdue. In a career spanning almost fifty years, Różewicz has exercised an important if not always congenial presence in Polish letters. During the preceding decade, however, but for the irregular publication of some individual poems, he had virtually withdrawn from art. The productivity that characterized his writing since the beginning of the post-Second World War period had virtually come to a halt. It is significant, therefore, that Różewicz's “silence” has ended. It is also meaningful that in Poland critical attitudes, often extreme in regard to Różewicz so as to deflect analysis into non-artistic concerns, have to an extent begun to change. A reassessment of Różewicz's contribution has long been advocated by scholars.17

It is ironic that an artist so consummately concerned with matters of artistic form has engendered such controversy as a result of his art's content (or lack thereof). The irony can partially be explained by the complex nature of Różewicz as an artist and a private individual, a dilemma which few Polish writers have been spared. The problem, however, is more involved and undoubtedly has its basis in difficulties relating to Różewicz's artistic contribution per se. That a reassessment of the author and his art against all of the above factors is presently underway, is clearly a step in the right direction.

In many ways, Różewicz is an enigma. Despite his considerable reputation nationally and internationally (he has received numerous distinctions and has been translated and performed in more than thirty languages, including Arabic and Chinese), he shuns the public eye and fiercely defends his private life, maintaining a Spartan lifestyle in a modest second-floor apartment in Wrocław. The erstwhile “classic” of Polish postwar literature is simultaneously the model of the “anonymous man,” as much a part of quotidian reality as the mothers of school-age children who, encouraged by his published telephone number, often call for assistance—and are given it—regarding the “correct” interpretation of his writings. Descended from a generation “contaminated by death,” Różewicz nonetheless retains a remarkable sense of humor that he unabashedly displays in a conducive social setting, not to mention in his creative writing. For all the criticism leveled at him by the literary establishment, the Roman Catholic Church, and, at times, even the larger reading public, his best critic—perhaps as an antidote—remains himself: his auto-ironic stance, often veiled in his humor, is unmistakable.

His private self is in many ways at odds with the artistic persona, and in Poland where a problematic relationship has always traditionally defined the two, this factor has likely contributed to much misunderstanding. In Różewicz, the two elements are irreconcilable. For all the care he displays in the artistic formulation of his works, once created, they are often viewed with detachment, more often with indifference. Were it not for some well-intentioned individuals close to Różewicz, it is likely that much of his literary archive would have long ago been lost.18 The further removed temporally from his work, the more reluctant the author is to speak of it in detail. His dislike of interviews is well known, and on the rare occasions he does speak of his art, whether informally or in writing, his comments are often contradictory and even self-parodistic. An incorrigible outsider, he has steadfastly avoided “camps,” “establishments” and institutions, literary and otherwise. Such a stance has inevitably invited opposition, given that the various demarcation lines have always been strongly drawn for him. Being apolitical is itself a political act.

It is Różewicz's writings, however, which remain the most problematic issue. Broadly speaking, Różewicz has sought to obliterate all formal boundaries of traditional art in the interest of creating forms anew. His poetry and drama often define each other, as certain aspects of one are more easily understood with reference to the other. Similarly, his eye is that of a painter manqué insofar as the visual often supplants verbal constructs in his poetry and plays. Dispossessed of a sense of cultural validation by the events of World War II, he metaphorically proclaims “the death of poetry” while at the same time exploring meta-poetically all means possible to revive a linguistic code that has been debased by reality, yet remains inextricably tied to it. Various individual attempts to “label” Różewicz have undoubtedly yielded valuable insights into his art, yet have failed by their very nature to encompass the contradictions at the basis of his artistic strategy—a fragmentary, volatile, and highly synthetic use of autonomous forms. Numerous appelations, ranging from “modernist,” “cubist,” “existentialist,” “postmodern,” even “classic,” are all duly justified, yet ultimately insufficient. Terms and epithets such as “anti-poetry,” “absolute transparency,” “reductivist,” “collage,” “happening,” “nonrepresentational,” “poetic drama,” “theatricalization of poetry,” and “non-consequential theater” have all only limited application. Forms are further blurred generically in his writings to the extent that he struggles, as it were, not to write verses or plays, creating instead poems devoid of “poetry” and dramatic texts that stubbornly resist transcription and performance. Language and art often turn inward in his works, the result being that his poems and plays at times constitute an unending dialog with themselves and past traditions, often characterized by confusing orgies of intertextual quotation, self-quotation and deliberate misquotation.

Though always subordinate to his formal concerns, Różewicz's themes are no less perplexing. What initially seem indisputable transparencies often prove on closer reading to be opaque and many-layered; otherwise innocuous words like “beginning” (początek), “end” (koniec), “return” (powrót), “light” (światło), “shadow” (cień), and “nothing/Nothing” (nic/Nic) are all mots à clé which relate to a much larger sequencing of complex philosophical dimensions. Personages such as “Hero” (Bohater), “Old Woman” (Stara kobieta) and “Anonymous” (Anonim), reappearing throughout his dramas and verses, all function in similar fashion. In a broad sense, one can speak of pervasive and unwavering thematic motifs that inform all of Różewicz's writings (cultural disinheritance, demythologizing), yet at the same time one may also trace an historical evolution and expansion of certain key concerns. The immediate postwar period (1946–1958), for example, was characterized by Różewicz's introduction of a new verse form (the so-called “Różewicz Variant” [Wiersz różewiczowski] that enabled writers to deal artistically with the war experience and effectively “create poetry after Auschwitz.” The period has been well-documented by critics and remains somewhat less problematic. The succeeding period, roughly from 1960–1981, saw the expression of a number of larger more universal concerns in his work: the rapid growth of mass culture and the ensuing suppression of the individual, the search for a secular form of ethical/spiritual legitimacy to replace outmoded models (“Nothing”), the effects of consumerism, the place of art and the artist in a changing society, ecological concerns. In his effort to denounce the old and formulate the new, it was during this middle phase that Różewicz introduced some of his most radical postulations (especially in regard to dramatic form, but also in his poetry), while at the same time incurring the wrath of some of his most formidable critics. Conversely, the term “tragic nihilism” (nihilizm tragiczny) perhaps most aptly categorized what was perceived by many as Różewicz's artistic impotence during this time. While much of the criticism ensued, Różewicz's reaction (1982–1991) was silence.

Today, the whole “Różewicz affair,” as it has been described by one observer,19 insofar as it involves the need for criticism to adopt an effective and meaningful approach to an important contemporary writer, seems to have come full circle. A welcome sign in this process is the above-mentioned work by Halina Filipowicz.

An American Slavist of Polish origin, Filipowicz in her book proposes a solution to the “affair” above all by providing perspectives on Różewicz's dramatic art that are not only fresh and extremely well-informed, but also “pure” in respect to the author's conscious decision to situate her comments exclusively within the text. In effect, to let art by art. Her conclusions give much cause for thought.20

The result is a thorough exegesis, rich in bibliographical detail, that proceeds linearly on the basis of a historical-interpretive approach across Różewicz's entire dramatic canon. Each chapter reinforces the point that Różewicz's strategy is deliberately and consistently conceptual in nature, emphasizing more the process and perceived goal, rather than the mere product. The author's individual plays are segregated according to chapter headings: “Subverting a Heroic Myth” (Dead and Buried, The Card Index, Spaghetti and the Sword); “Dismantling Domestic Drama” (The Laocoon Group, He Left Home, On All Fours); “A Postmodern Trilogy” (The Interrupted Act, Birth Rate, The Guards); “Our Little Stabilization” (The Witnesses, The Old Woman Broods); and “Drama Born of Literature” (A Funeral Polish Style, Departure of a Hunger Artist, The Trap, White Marriage). The synthetic approach which Filipowicz pursues, attempting to isolate and then inter-relate the disparate forms and themes found in Różewicz's dramas, breaks important new ground for further critical analysis.

In the opening chapter, “Różewicz's Dramaturgy: Context and Method,” Filipowicz describes the essence and objective of Różewicz's art as “the urge to represent experience … and … the limit that literacy conventions place on experience” (p. 5). The definition is apt and attests to Różewicz's importance as a leading contemporary writer much preoccupied with the relationship between textual and actual reality, a central post-modernist concern. This affinity, which is clearly enunciated by Filipowicz in the chapter “A Postmodern Trilogy,” is one of the most meaningful observations of the book. More importantly, however, it advances a conclusion that is implied, though not specifically stated.

A central theme of Różewicz's art is the limiting of experience by language. His subsequent elaboration of this idea, however, also points to a fundamental crisis of contemporary post-modernist thought: language that turns inward to discover new truths about reality leads inadvertently to the cul-de-sac of mimesis, for the state of reality it depicts is no more than a mirror image of itself, one that is fragmentary, self-referential, “de-constructed.” Despite a contrary artistic strategy insofar as the post-modern deliberately exposes fictive methodologies, as opposed to hiding them as realism had done, the results are in the end one and the same. Though mutually in conflict, art and reality are inextricably linked. What separates Różewicz from other post-modernist writers in this regard is the fact that his strategy, while appearing to undermine and subvert obsolete values thereby “de-constructing” from them “new” ones, is in reality a radical attempt to create a wholly new form of moral and spiritual sanction with no recourse whatsoever to previous models, all of which for him had ceased to exist long ago. The creation, or “pre- construction” perhaps, of an all-embracing ethical/spiritual Leviathan from seemingly worthless non-referential “impure forms,” a “sacrum novum” that ignores even de-constructed models of former ideological or metaphysical coordinates, is what in fact comprise Różewicz's notion of “Nothing” (Nic). The basis for such a new ordering, Różewicz would argue, is to be conceived and formulated entirely from within the individual.

Thus, for all of Różewicz's enormous “play-giarizing” of both himself and other writers, I would argue that his larger intent is more pre-creative than subversively re-creative (which Filipowicz also does, though in another context, p. 29), and that to this extent Różewicz has perhaps transcended even post-modernism. I strongly suspect that Różewicz's period of silence in the eighties was in no small way the result of the magnitude of the task he had set himself. Filipowicz's work is an indispensable tool for locating this task in the larger confines of Różewicz's “oeuvre.”

Płaskorzeźba, containing twenty-six poems that had been individually published in various journals during Różewicz's “silence,” are as the title implies, poems conceived from the other side of poetry. The collection is both a farewell to poetry and a proclamation of poetry in various forms, many of which have been seen before in Różewicz but are here more fully developed and formulated. Poetry about poetry. Poetry beyond poetry. Poetry of “Nothing.” Poetry of silence.

That the collection represents an important transitional stage for Różewicz is implied by the novel physical format of the edition. Despite the enormous financial difficulties facing publishers of “serious” literature in Poland today, Wydawnictwo Dolnośląskie produced a somewhat extravagant 136-page volume that is conceptually brilliant. The glossed front and back hard covers create the illusion of a single slab of gray marble with Różewicz's name and the title carved in bold Roman cursives. Opening the volume, one sees four photographs of the poet on opposite sides of both inner flaps: the front two show a passive, contemplative poet seated at his work desk, head in hand, and standing before a rubbish heap, hat in hand; the back two show a more engaged poet seated again at his desk, his hand reaching for something, and at the same rubbish heap, carrying more rubbish to place on the pile. His hat is worn, two pigeons observe from a distance. The poems in the volume are printed in the same cursive style accompanied by all of the author's handwritten drafts, complete with corrections and instructions, appearing opposite the published versions. Several graphics by the noted Polish artist Jerzy Tchórzewski are reproduced throughout, along with a drawing by the author entitled “The Poet as Optimist, the Poet as Pessimist.”

Płaskorzeźba is more than simply a volume of poetry; it would seem that the book itself is trying to say something. Is the cover a tombstone? Is Różewicz announcing metaphorically once again “The Death of Poetry?” Does “the death of poetry” mean literally its death? Or does it imply, as it did in his controversial article of 1966,21 its death and rebirth, conceived in meta-poetic terms? Does the drama played out by the four pictures of Różewicz suggest a poet no longer silent and inactive? Do the imperfect handwritten versions of the poems placed alongside their published counterparts suggest that the real poems of the volume are somewhere in between? Is the poet pessimistic or optimistic? Finally, is it significant that the poet entitled the publicistic tract that preceded this volume “The Unwritten Work”? And is it significant that in the work that followed, Our Older Brother, the poet returned to the most painful period of his private life, the war? The “Beginning,” the period in which his mature artistic life began? At this juncture, it is perhaps too early to answer all of these questions?

The opening poem of the collection, “Bez” [“Without”], recapitulates the foundations of Różewicz's artistic and philosophical past, his loss of all ethical pre-determinants and the subsequent angst. The theme is again repeated in “Einst hab ich die Muse gefragt …”:

największym wydarzeniem
w życiu człowieka
są narodziny i śmierć
życie bez boga jest możliwe
życie bez boga jest niemożliwe

(“Bez,” 1–4, 14–15)

the greatest events
in a man's life
are the birth and death
of God
life without god is possible
life without god is impossible


lecz ten co przyszedł po Końcu
nie otrzymał odpowiedzi
odarty przez czarnego anioła
z wiary nadziei miłości
znalazłem się na drodze
pustej ciemnej

(“Einst hab ich die Muse gefragt …” 3–5, 15–19)

but he who came after the End
received no answer
torn by a dark angel
from faith hope love
I found myself on a road
made empty dark
no longer warm

For Różewicz, the destruction of all moral and cultural coordinates also implied the end of poetry, insofar as it was able to inform reality. This ubiquitous theme in his verse reappears in Plaskorzeźba, and the impotency of poetic language is emphasized:

jałowa siła zacienia
obszary języka
w kącie na gazecie
leżą rozgotowane wiersze
religijne i inne

(“więc jednak żyje się pisząc wiersze za długo?”, 1–8)

a hollow force darkens
areas of language
on newsprint in the corner
overcooked verses
linguistic ones
religious ones and more

(“Can one live too long writing verse?” 1–8)

marnieje religia filozofia sztuka
maleją naturalne zasoby
to co zostało
wystarczy jeszcze
dla felietonistów
z “Tygodnika Powszechnego” i “Polityka”
dla dziennikarzy

(“Wygasnięcic Absolutu niszczy …” 1–10)

religion philosophy art
are perishing
the natural store of language
grows small
what remains
of “Universal Weekly” and “Politics”

(“The Disappearance of an Absolute destroys …” 1–10)

In his plays, Różewicz often focuses on the difficulties of dramatic creation, at times even on the impossibilities. In Płaskorzeźba, the same attitude is revealed in respect to poetry. In the opening line of “jeszcze próba” [“further attempt at a poem”], he rhetorically asks whether his poem will be successful, then proceeds to illustrate why it cannot. In an indirect allusion to “The Unwritten Work” mentioned above, he muses on the value of poetry that results in failed efforts, as in “Biedny August von Goethe” [“Poor August von Goethe”], or poetry that never materializes because the poet is more absorbed in the necessary, albeit distracting, process of reading, as in “Czytanie książek” [“Reading Books”]. “Poemat równoczesny” [“Contemporaneous Poem”] and “Kredowe koło” [“Circle of Chalk”] are varying considerations on the theme of linear and fluid time in poetry. In one of his more personal efforts, “rozmowa z Przyjacielem” [“Conversation with a Friend”], he delves into a form of magic realism and contemplates poetic conception from the life beyond.

Realizing the constraints imposed on poetry by language, he offers formal solutions by alluding to a number of radical non-verbal possibilities, including silence, infinity, meaninglessness, formlessness, even outright resignation:

poezja nie zawsze
przybiera formę
po pięćdziesięciu latach
może się objawić
w kształcie drzewa
przybiera kształt
gnieżdzi się w milczeniu
albo żyje w poecie
pozbawiona formy i treści

(“poezja nie zawsze …”)

poetry needn't always
take the form
of a poem
after fifty years
may appear
to the poet
shaped like a tree
a departing
a light
it takes the shape
of lips
nests in silence
or lives in the poet
unformed meaningless

(“poetry needn't always …”)

na początku
jest słowo
wielka radość tworzenia
po końcu wiersza
zaczyna się

(“na początku …” 1–6)

in the beginning
is the word
the great joy
of creation
at the end
of the poem

(“in the beginning …” 1–6)

w każdej chwili
mogła mnie napaść poezja
biegłem do utraty tchu
za obrazem który się poruszył
pozwalam wierszom
uciekać ode mnie
marnieć zapominać
żadnego ruchu
w stronę realizacji


I felt
that any moment
poetry might assail me
I ran til breathless
after any image that moved
I let poems
escape me
fade vanish
be forgotten
with no movement
toward realization


trzeba mieć odwagę
aby napisać coś takiego
piękno jest prawdą
prawda jest piękną
przecież to słynna formuła
uśmiechnął się do mnie
pobłażliwie znawca
trzeba przyznać
że Keats miał odwagę
ale lepiej gdyby tego
nie powiedział

(“co⋅ takiego”)

beauty is truth
truth is beauty
it takes courage
to write such thoughts
why, that was Keats'
famous formula
The expert gave me a knowing smile
there's no doubt
Keats was courageous
still I wish
he'd never said it

(“the very thought”)

The most complex poem on poetry in the entire collection is undoubtedly “Poemat autystyczny” [“Autistic Poem”]. The verse is also a generic hybrid that combines a meta-poetic subject with elements drawn from the form of the dramatic monologue and literary interview, all parodied and subjected to distortions and reductions in the temporal, spatial and linguistic spheres. The poem, which is placed second-to-last in the collection, seems to indicate the direction in which Różewicz's verse is leading: to a state of maximal compression with reference exclusively to the banality and hollowness of everyday—to nothing (“Nothing”?). It concludes as follows:

—dlaczego nie zabiera pan
poeta milczy
poeta idzie
świat zredukowany
jest zawsze
bardziej skupiony
do samego siebie
siedzę na
dworcu kolejowym
na czym koncentrujemy
naszą uwagę?
na niczym
Św. Jan od Krzyża
niezmącony spokój domu
Św. Teresa z Awili
nie ma mistycznego uniesienia
bez umysłowej pustki
Kartezjusz (otworzył okno)
spodziewał się ujrzeć ludzi
zdążających ulicami
chapeaux et manteaux:
rien de plus
—why don't you
the poet is silent
the poet goes
a world made smaller
is always
more dense
to myself
I sit
in a railway station
to what do we turn
our attention
to nothing
St. John of the Cross
the unbroken peace of home
St. Teresa of Avila
there is no mystical rapture
without intellectual void
Descartes (opening his window)
looked to see people
pacing the streets
chapeaux et manteaux
rien de plus

As in most collections of Różewicz's poetry, a disparity of themes is apparent. In Płaskorzeźba, three noteworthy poems in this regard are “czarne plamy şͣ biale …” [“black spots are white …”], “Myrmekologia” [“Myrmecology”] and “Świnobicie” [“On the Killing of Pigs”]. The first is a powerful anti-war tract conceived in the spirit as “Dezerterzy” [“Deserters”], also written and published in the eighties (though why this excellent poem was not included in Płaskorzeźba is unknown); the latter two deal with cruelty toward animals and were likely inspired by Różewicz's reading of Wittgenstein.

Edward Czerwiński, an American Slavist, devoted an entire issue of Slavic and East European Arts to English translations (his own) of Różewicz's recent poetry. The compilation, subtitled “Bas-relief and Other Poems,” includes all of the poems contained in Płaskorzeźba, along with several others from earlier periods, including “Złowiony” [“Caught”] and “Duszyczka” [“Animula”]. Also provided is a short judicious introduction. Unfortunately, Czerwiński's translations are marred by a number of infelicities, in fact too many to be discussed in detail in this article. A disturbing number of editorial oversights also hamper the edition.

The errors begin on the table of contents. Listed on page 30 is a poem supposedly entitled “living poetry touched him.” The “poem” is, in fact, part of another poem, “Der Tod ist ein Meister aus Deutschland,” which is listed on the previous page.

Lapses also often occur in relation to the spacing on the page of certain parts of poems. It is evident from Różewicz's handwritten drafts that the physical appearance of a poem is of tantamount importance. While translators may take license, as do poets, in certain instances it would seem that this is not the case in Bas-relief and Other Poems. For instance, in the poem “black spots are white,” the key refrain “a child was born / with four legs / a calf was born / with two wings” (lines 26–29), is not separated from the lines that follow, although Różewicz's manuscript clearly indicates that it should be. The same error is made in the concluding two lines of this poem, and in the final two lines of “The Chalk Circle.” Conversely, a space is unjustifiably inserted between lines 34–35 of “Pig Sticking.” An important error occurs in the title of the poem “Kredowe koło.” In the original, Różewicz has inserted a short inscription, “Przepisalem dnia 7 lutego 1988 roku” [I re-wrote this on February 7, 1988], as an appended piece of information. In the English translation, Czerwiński has made the inscription a part of the title proper, rather than relegating it to a more inconspicuous position. On page 44 (line 5), “Casanova” becoming “Gasanova” is symptomatic of annoying misprints that appear in several places.

Generally, Czerwiński's translations are literally correct, although several clear mistranslations do occur. On page 19, he renders “coś podobnego” as “something like that,” although it is evident from the poem that Różewicz is using this title in its idiomatic sense of “Imagine that!” or “The very thought!” On page 20, “co ze sobą zabrać / na tamten brzeg” clumsily appears as “what to take with you / on that other shore” instead of “what's one to take / to that other shore.” Two lines later in the same poem, the Polish original “więc to już / wszystko / mamo” incorrectly appears as the incomprehensible “then it's time / everything / mama” instead of perhaps “then, that's / all / mother.” On page 21, it would appear that the translator has not understood the phrase “przez zoila” (line 3), which he renders as “by zoilean” (?). The Polish term refers to an overzealous and unfair critic, coined after such a personage in antiquity named Zoilos. A more apt rendering might be: “by some Zoilos.” In the three lines that follow, it is clear from the sense that “krwawi / z języka / spada” cannot be translated as “bleeds / from the tongue / falls,” but rather as “bleeds / falls / from the tongue.” On page 22 (line 13), the original “miłość” becomes “live” rather than “love.” In “To Peter” (p. 48), the Polish “w kraju i zagranicą” becomes “in the country and abroad” (line 30), rather than “at home and abroad.” Later in the same poem (p. 49), the incomprehensible “pono ironic” is used to translate the Polish “pono ironiczny,” which might be better served by “pseudo-ironic” or “how nearly ironic.” On page 51, the penultimate line of the poem appears as “you can write to Lea now,” translated from the Polish “możesz już pisać na Lea.” The translator has in fact mistaken a street for a person. A correct rendering would be: “you can now write to me on Leo street,” the street referring to an address Różewicz once shared with Kornel Filipowicz (and Wisława Szymborska, who also appears in the poem) while residing in Cracow. On page 52, “strawiłem życie” oddly appears as “I consumed my life” rather than perhaps “I wasted away my life.” A little later in the same poem (line 44), a “cricket” rather than a “grasshopper” is used to translate “konik polny.” Again in the same poem (line 17), a twelve-year-old playmate (“dwunastoletni kolega”) suddenly becomes eight years older and appears as a “twenty-year old friend.”

Another irritating aspect found in the translations is a penchant to lapse into a colloquial idiom, and at times even into slang. Also, a number of stilted passages were noticed. In the otherwise lofty and reverent poem “bez” [“without”], the Polish “a może pokarałeś mnie / małego ciemnego za upor” unfortunately becomes “or maybe You punished me / a little greenhorn (!) for my stubbornness” (p. 15, lines 32–33). Similarly, “a więc to tylko tyle” comes across as “and so only so much” (p. 20, line 11), rather than perhaps “there's no more, then” or “then, that's all there is.” Occasionally, bad English creeps in, as “pozbawiono … / … instynktu życia” becomes “people were deprived … / … of the instinct of (!) life” (p. 26, lines 6–7). On the first line of page 28, the otherwise innocuous “czy wiersz się uda” appears as the swank-sounding “will the poem pan out.” On the same page (lines 7–8), the Polish “wiersz … / … do nieba wzięty” evokes a strange image when in English it becomes “a poem … / … elated (!) to the sky.” A wrong tense suggested by a faux ami in Polish results in inelegant-sounding English, as in “For several months now / my friend / Kornel Filipowicz / is (!) in that other world” (p. 50, lines 1–4).

A number of revisions to the translations would provide a welcome contribution to the growing amount of primary sources in foreign languages.

To conclude: it is important at this juncture that recent events have raised several new and pressing questions. More significantly, the availability of new materials, primary and secondary, argue convincingly for more innovative perspectives on Różewicz and his work. One need only compare the pessimism of his concluding words of his “post factum” to the poem “przerwana rozmowa” [“interrupted conversation”], written in 1989: “I'm now sixty-nine years old. The time for farewells is at hand.” (Mam 69 lat. Nadchodzi czas pożegnań.), to the renewed vigor, and characteristic wink, that Różewicz the artist expressed in the opening of his “Unwritten Work,” two years later, to speculate that Różewicz and his art have entered a new phase:

New art is created by discovering new form, new expression, new language and syntax—not by venting noble declarations, promulgating otherwise legitimate political views, signing letters and protest forms, or by professing to be filled with the noblest of human and humanistic sentiments. A committed artist is an artist committed to the struggle for new form … content is everyone's birthright. … We often hear today that anyone can be an artist or poet, that everything passes for poetry. Yes, all is poetry—except bad verse.22

It is comforting to know that his most recent poem to date, composed on June 20, 1993, and still unpublished, begins and ends in the following manner:

Od jutra się zmienię
Taki od jutra
bo mamy już pierwsze dni
lata 1993 roku
a ja … (ale to już moja tajemnica).
Starting tomorrow I'll change
Yes, starting tomorrow
for it's already the first part
of summer 1993
and I … (but let that be my secret)(23)

As inevitably happens in respect to Różewicz, the discussion must remain open. …


  1. See A. Donskov and Richard Sokoloski, et al., editors, Slavic Drama: The Question of Innovation (Ottawa: 1991).

  2. The proceedings of the conference, held November 4–6, are forthcoming. See J. Łukasiewicz, “Jubileusz Różewicza” [Różewicz's Jubilee], Tygodnik Powszechny, No. 48 (1991), p. 14.

  3. October 7, 1991. See Łukasiewicz.

  4. No. 10 (1991).

  5. No. 10 (1991).

  6. No. 2 (1991).

  7. Vol. 6 (June 1993).

  8. Vol. 7. No. 2 (1992).

  9. Tadeusz Drewnowski, Walka o oddech: o pisarstwie Tadeusza Różewicza (Warsaw: 1991).

  10. Halina Filipowicz, A Laboratory of Impure Forms: The Plays of Tadeusz Różewicz (Westwood: 1991).

  11. Adam Czerniawski, They Came to See a Poet (London: 1991).

  12. Tadeusz Różewicz, Płaskorzeźba (Wrocław: 1991).

  13. Tadeusz Różewicz, Nasz starszy brat (Wrocław: 1993).

  14. Slavic Drama, pp. 342–347.

  15. No. 2 (567) (1993).

  16. No. 6 (1993).

  17. Most recently by Łukasiewicz and Marta Wyka. See notes 2 and 19.

  18. Maria Dębicz, Literary Secretary of the Teatr Polski in Wrocław deserves enormous praise for her efforts in this regard.

  19. Marta Wyka, “Czy istnieje ‘sprawa’ Różewicza?” [Does the Różewicz “Affair” Exist?], Tygodnik Powszechny [Universal Weekly], No. 26 (1991), p. 8.

  20. Her approach is to be compared to that of Drewnowski in his recent monograph. The latter was criticized for his defensive, at times even apologetic tone toward Różewicz. The latter work is nonetheless a valuable contribution especially in respect to its rich historical, biographical and bibliographical references. See Piotr Bartkowski, “Różewicz odepchniety” [Różewicz Pushed Aside], Dialog, No. 10 (1991), pp. 74–78.

  21. “Sezon poetycki-jesień 1966 (fragmenty) [Poetry Season-Fall 1966 (fragments)],” Proza [Prose], Vol. 2, (Cracow: 1990), pp. 123–128.

  22. Slavic Drama, p. 342.

  23. Poem in the author's [R. S.] possession.

Holt Meyer (review date Winter 1995)

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SOURCE: A review of Forms in Relief and Other Works and Bas-Relief and Other Poems, in Slavic and East European Journal, Vol. 39, No. 4, Winter, 1995, pp. 647–48.

[In the following review, Meyer compares two different translations of Różewicz's Płaskorzeźba.]

Tadeusz Różewicz (1921–), one of the greatest living Polish writers, has worked in various literary genres, including lyric, drama, prose, and criticism. He began publishing poems and stories under a pseudonym in the underground press during the Nazi occupation while serving as a partisan in the antifascist Homeland Army (Armija krajowa). Almost immediately after the publication of his first book, Niepokój (Disquietude, 1947), he was recognized as a major voice of postwar Poland, and quickly became a classic poet in his own lifetime.

Both Sokoloski and Czerwinski concentrate on Różewicz's most recent work, especially his 1991 book, Płaskorzeźba, the title of which, translated freely as Forms in Relief by Sokoloski and literally as Bas-Relief by Czerwinski, is included in the titles of both collections (Czerwinski's title is somewhat misleading, since his book contains no poem entitled “Bas-Relief”).

Różewicz's central themes came to the fore in his very first works and have remained dominant to this day: the inability to express oneself and the inadequacy of language when confronted with the catastrophes of war and the holocaust, as well as the closely connected themes of non- communication in modern society—in short, themes which were almost omnipresent in existentialist literature of the 50s, e.g. in the work of Samuel Beckett (Czerwinski refers to Różewicz as “the Polish Beckett” in his introductory remarks), Albert Camus, Paul Celan, and others. Różewicz's poetry is decidedly impersonal. As John Osborne puts it, “Różewicz lets the reader contemplate how the invisible hand of power and injustice kills language, freezes speech and substitutes a dead and formal glaze for the living spirit. In doing this Różewicz paradoxically allows the language to live again, but only just like a prisoner allowed a temporary reprieve.”

In the course of the late 50s and early 60s, Różewicz's work became increasingly complex both from a philosophical point of view, taking up a relativistic position with respect to contemporary morals, as well as in his poetic technique, tending more and more towards the deformation of everyday language, especially on the level of syntax, including enigmatic sentences like “poeta ‘on umrzeć.’” Both of these tendencies coincide in an ever-increasing presence of meta-poetical discourse (e.g. in “Coś takiego,” an ironic comment on Keats' “beauty is truth”—which is translated in both collections).

Różewicz's work is, as Sokoloski states, essentially “iconoclastic,” and represents the “cul-de-sac of mimesis.” His innovation and deformation on the linguistic level, combined with a complex fabric of quotes from literature, philosophy, popular culture and propaganda, presents the English-language translator with a formidable task, especially since the poet often makes use of features and nuances of Polish which do not exist in English (e.g. gender congruence, embedding of the subject in the verb, and impersonal constructions, not to mention the impossibility of finding adequate rhymes).

The first English translations of Różewicz's works were published thirty years ago in the anthology Postwar Polish Poetry (1965), edited and translated by another great poet, Czesław Miłosz. Four years later, Adam Czerniawski, also a prominent Polish poet and critic, as well as a scholar of English literature, began publishing whole books of translations of Różewicz's poems and plays, and has continued doing this to this day. His fine bilingual volume Poezja wybrane/Selected Poems, which was published in Cracow in 1994, contains mainly his own translations, but also some by Sokoloski.

Sokoloski's introductory essay in Forms in Relief describes the evolution of Różewicz's work, also discussing the period of the poet's “virtual silence” between 1982 and 1991, which was in part a reaction to critics' attacks on his supposed “artistic impotence.” The essay contains interesting insights on Różewicz's work, especially into his concept of “tragic nihilism,” “demythologizing,” and “Nothing,” but is not without aggravating errors (e.g. the philosopher Adorno's name is distorted almost beyond recognition into “Ardano”). Sokoloski's collection is bilingual, and contains four of Różewicz's essays, providing fascinating insights into the poet himself and into his views Polish political and literary history. The book also contains a useful bibliography of Różewicz's poetry in English.

Czerwinski's collection contains no essays, but the editor makes a heroic effort in translating the complex prose-poetry works of the 60s and 70s “Złowiony” (“The Catch”) and “Duszyczka” (“Dear Soul”), the last of which is reminiscent of Molly Bloom's monologue at the end of Joyce's Ulysses. His collection is only in English, and contains some 30 translations, while Sokoloski's has nearly 50.

The title of Różewicz's collection Płaskorzeźba stresses the concern for form and sober craftsmanship typical of Różewicz. However, Czerwinski's lyric translations are so literal that they often fail to communicate the intention of Różewicz's verses and even incorporate Polish structures and phrases which have other meanings or even don't exist in English. For instance, the leitmotiv of “An Autistic Poem,” “co to takiego poeta?,” translated by Sokoloski as “what exactly is a poet?” (Czerniawski: “what is a poet?”), is translated by Czerwinski word for word as “what sort of thing is a poet?,” which is loquacious and not idiomatic in English. When Czerwinski translates “poezja nie zawsze / przybiera formę wiersza” as “poetry does not always / take on the form / of a poem,” he doesn't get any of the individual words wrong, but shows little sense for the whole, since he includes a figura etymologica (poetry-poem) avoided by Różewicz. At the same time, Sokoloski's “at times / a poem needn't have / a verse form” solves the problem “poezja-wiersz” better, but includes an interpretation (“needn't”) which is not necessarily contained in the original text. The same tendencies can be found in Czerwinski's and Sokoloski's renderings of “pozbawiona formy i treści” as “freed of form of content” and “unformed / meaningless,” respectively. Czerwinski's desire to translate every word leads him to use the far too positive “freed” (one says in Polish “pozbawiony wolności”: “deprived of freedom”—perhaps “deprived” would have been better in this case as well). Sokoloski has the proper tone, but jumps too quickly from “form” to “formed” (Czerniawski's “formless” is better) and “contents” to “meaning”—differences which are significant for Różewicz's linguistic poetry.

Czerniawski is often even freer than Sokoloski, sometimes adding words and lines which can't be found in the original, as well as switching the positions of stanzas. At the same time, as Piotr Wilczek points out in an article on Czerniawski's translations (“Adam Czerniawski jako tłumacz poezji Różewicza,” Świat literacki, 1991, No. 2, 79–83), quoting Różewicz's Hungarian translator Andreas Fodor: “it's more difficult to find the proper tone than it is to discover lexical equivalents.” Sometimes an English translation with an altered structure can be closer to the Polish original, since, as Wilczek points out, “even the most literal translation produces a completely new semantic structure.” A purely literal translation gives the impression of helplessness on the part of the translator. Wilczek rightly calls for more systematic thought on general difficulties of translations from Polish to English.

One could view these problems as symptoms of the dilemma of translating lyric in general, but, when in doubt, one should at least produce a grammatically and stylistically readable text, which Czerwinski sometimes fails to do. Both Sokoloski's and Czerwinski's books contain a number of typos, and all the umlauts are missing in the German quotes in Czerwinski's book; this is especially irritating in “Eine Fliege im Zimmer,” which contains long German passages.

Despite these difficulties, it is gratifying that the occasion of the poet's seventieth birthday, which Czerwinski expressly commemorates in his dedication, gave rise to such a large quantity of translations of this great poet. Not only is Różewicz's most recent work now accessible to the English-speaking readership, but the reader can also, if he or she so chooses, compare two or three different translations, thus getting a good concept of the multifaceted work of Tadeusz Różewicz and of general issues in Polish-English translation. In the world of translation, the more the merrier!

Richard Sokoloski (essay date September–December 1995)

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SOURCE: “Modern Polish Verse Structures: Reemergence of the Line in the Poetry of Tadeusz Różewicz,” in Canadian Slavonic Papers, Vol. XXXVII, Nos. 3–4, September–December, 1995, pp. 431–53.

[In the following essay, Sokoloski delineates the evolution of the Polish verse form, specifically Różewicz's contributions to verse construction.]

The following paper seeks to reexamine the general evolution of verse forms in modern Polish poetry in order to distinguish certain modifications formulated by Tadeusz Różewicz. More specifically, it considers the extent to which his innovations have reaffirmed the line as an important unit of measure in contemporary Polish versology.

Sustained experimentation in post-accentual verse structures is an inherent feature of Polish poetry of this century. Limited by conventional terminology, however, contemporary Polish versologists are divided in the matter of a suitable analytic strategy that would encompass the disparate yet collectively similar modes used to create much of modern Polish verse. Maria Dłuska, for example, spoke of sensorial poetry (wiersz emocyjny),1 while Zbigniew Siatkowski, stressing the evolution of preceding theories, preferred the general notion of a fourth system (czwarty system),2 the syllabic, syllabo-tonic and accentual systems comprising the first three. Others have put forward the idea of a fifth system,3 considering sentential verse (wiersz zdaniowy), the loosely defined preisosyllabic method common to much of medieval Polish poetry, as an initial legitimate system. Generally, scholarship has tended to accept more the widely used, though somewhat misleading European notion of free verse (modernistyczny wiersz wolny) to designate the latest stage in the evolution away from conventional syllabic and tonic possibilities.4 Still others speak of irregular verse (wiersz nieregularny), emphasizing the deviation but not division from previous forms.5 When consciously scrutinized, the radical constructs of modern Polish verse do not lend themselves to the same type of quantitative analysis reserved for earlier systems.

In regard to Różewicz, the term anti-poetry6 has been used to describe his own attempt to seek out a new variant of verse form through the deliberate depoeticization of poetry. In some of his more extreme experiments, not only did he blur the distinction between poetry and prose, he challenged poetry's very existence. And yet, though his poems are often divested of the traditional accouterments of poetry (image, diction, lyric voice) and verse (metre, rhyme, syllabic uniformity, stanzaic form), the basic compositional element of his prosody, and for that matter of his poetry, remains the line. Wyka aptly described Różewicz's fundamental lyrical device7 as resembling the use of children's building blocks (klocki), according to which poetry and the poetic world, conceived in “absolute transparency,”8 are both reconstructed in what would appear the most simplistic manner possible. Różewicz's blocks however, go beyond mere literary strategies; not only do they semanticize the themes of his poetry, as Wyka has observed, by assembling his lines in a cleverly conceived incremental fashion, Różewicz also managed to hit upon an important prosodic innovation.

Historically, the foundations of modern European verse structures were established by a number of late nineteenth and early twentieth-century European poets, including Gerald Manley Hopkins, Cyprian Kamil Norwid, Walt Whitman, Guillaume Apollinaire and Vladimir Mayakovsky, all of whom sought new rhythmic possibilities by discarding arbitrarily established prosodic forms based ultimately on the syllable or foot. In their poetry, a more subtle sense of natural flow was encouraged through a variety of means that emphasized spoken intonational patterns, balanced phrasing, underlying euphonic patterns, syntactic and semantic manipulation, including at times radical typographic arrangement. English criticism had recourse only to general terms like cadence and phrasing to describe the overall effect conveyed by this conscious rhythmic symmetry, which often consisted of small segments of words assembled more by virtue of their syntactic, intonational or euphonic interrelationships, and less for syllabic or accentual reasons. Highly elusive and not points of measure in any strict sense, these componential units nonetheless constituted important structural elements whose value could only be defined and gauged according to the variation and subtlety of rhythmic effects conveyed, in contrast to the more obvious yet limited possibilities of conventional metre, accent count, rhyme and other normative factors.

In this much expanded scheme of things, the need to establish new evaluative criteria was essential. In their research, versologists turned their attention to elements which had hitherto been neglected: the preponderance of specific syntactic groupings, breath units derived ultimately from spoken speech, clusters of words expressly segregated for emotional effect, rhetorical encapsulations of sense and thought units that selectively package out as it were key ideas, images or perceptions. All of these factors were studied as important components for establishing overall rhythmic foundations. Consequently, modern prosody came to be defined more as an intuitive substructure within a poem, one that conforms to no prescriptive laws other than those it dictates for itself. In name, modern prosody:

emancipates itself from structural principle and proceeds arbitrarily with none but empirical principles; the subtlety of its rhythms is not a formal complexity but arises from the fusion of a number of indeterminates.9

Not unlike former syllabic and accentual techniques, modern verse deploys a rhythmic substratum primarily intended to function in tandem with the intellectual and emotive reception of the implied meaning. However, by expanding the formal boundaries of verse construction to include what had become an ill-defined middle ground between poetry and prose, poets gave to the former a number of characteristics of the latter. To be sure, such experimentation has brought poetic language much closer to a spoken idiom, in the process expanding its potential audience by facilitating accessibility and reception; from the point of view of versification, though, no single theoretical system of scansion has yet been devised to encompass its various structural methodologies. In the main, the processes of modern verse construction are easier to experience than to scrutinize.

Though in many ways a twentieth-century phenomenon, modern Polish prosody has antecedents that reach as far back as the beginnings of the literary language itself. As early as the sixteenth century, Mikołaj Sep Szarzyński (c. 1550–1581)10 initiated a series of experiments in respect to the syntactic uniformity of the poetic line. A century later, in an era when syllabic-based prosody still provided an inviolable model, Krzysztof Niemirycz in 1699, in a translation of Lafontaine's fables appropriately entitled Bajki Ezopowe-wierszym wolnym (Aesop's fables in free verse),11 produced lines varying in length from eight to thirteen syllables. While the author preserved certain quantitative syllabic structures within his lines, including appropriately placed caesuras and syntactic breaks, the fluctuating length of the lines was more dictated by purely thematic concerns. In the eighteenth century, poets of the Enlightenment such as Krasicki and Trembecki, commonly carried out similar experiments relating to line length.12 Romantic poets such as Mickiewicz and Słowacki, working within the strict canons of both syllabic and syllabo-tonic structures, nonetheless departed significantly from prescribed norms in their poetic dramas.13 Freer forms of construction were often implemented to depict the highly wrought emotional states of their heroes. Finally, the important contribution of Cyprian Norwid in the latter half of the nineteenth century merits special attention. Misunderstood and unappreciated in his lifetime, the poet was a major precursor whose experiments in irregular and free forms uncannily foreshadowed many later innovations both in Polish letters and European verse forms in general. At times obscure and not always successful, his work in various areas of prosody, including line lengths, syllabic and accentual variation, graphic possibilities of expressing intonational nuances, and matters relating to secondary and even tertiary stress, have only relatively recently begun to receive in-depth study.14

Accentual verse played a decisive factor in the eventual emergence of modern verse structures in this century. An initial foreign impetus in this regard was provided by the Russian poet Vladimir Mayakovsky. Through his “ladder” poems, Mayakovsky deliberately strove to incorporate into his verse construction intonational accents derived from spoken, more precisely, declaimed speech. Working largely within quantitative metrics, mostly in the form of tonic verse, though occasionally venturing into syllabo-tonic structures, the Russian poet nevertheless stressed the importance, through conscious vertical arrangement of a line's appearance on the printed page, of natural units of spoken speech as a rhythmic element of poetry—in effect, word groupings apportioned purely on the basis of their recitational-declamatory potential. Such steps (or perhaps rungs) within a line were units of measure larger than the accent, smaller of course than the line, that had nothing in common with traditional feet or enumerated tonic segments:

[Original Russian omitted]

Citizen tax collector!
                    Forgive my bothering you …
Thank you …
          don't worry …
                         I'll stand …
My business
               of a delicate nature:
about the place
          of the poet
                         in the workers' ranks.

(“Conversation with a Tax Collector about Poetry”)15

The importance of achieving emotional effect through non-traditional prosodic means was quickly pursued by the Polish Futurists. Following on the achievements of their Russian counterparts (who exercised a considerable influence on them),16 a number of hybrid forms were formulated and pursued by such poets as Stern, Młodożeniec and Wat. More deeply concerned however with iconoclasm and provocation than sustained investigative experimentation in the strict rigours of verse theory, their contributions in respect to expounding a formal systematic poetics were somewhat minimal. Generally, their efforts focused more on the exploitation of such elements as euphonics, typography, spelling, and punctuation to achieve their poetic objectives. The following fragment from a poem by Młodożeniec is typical.

… upał opala owale
                    i smaż y dekoltaże
                    gdzie zerka
lalkowaty lowelas w łśniących lakierkach
… kokota … … …..
… … … … … … kokota
                    kokota łasi lażącego kota
                    i liże krem z lyżeczki
mdł orzecznie zlizuje z żarem talerza
ż … … …. a … … … r
s … p … i … e.. k … a


… the heat tans the ovals
                    and fries decolletages
                    where peeps
a dollish ladies' man in patent-leather shoes
….. cocotte … … … … ….
… … … … … …. cocotte
                    the cocotte fawns over the climbing cat
and laps the cream from the spoon
with fervour licking so sickeningly the dish
h ….. e ….. a ….. t
s … c … o … r … c … h … e … s


The formulation of a new verse structure in Polish poetry owes much to the efforts of Peiper, Przyboś and the various other members of the Cracow Avant-gardistes (Awangarda krakowska). More taken up with the theoretical aspects of verse form, their insistence on the emotive rhythmic effects of the spoken language—as opposed to quantitative accentual metrics—as the crucial factor in verse construction marked an important turning point in the development of modern Polish poetry. Written primarily for recitation and only secondarily for publication, their poems sought to harness and exploit as much of the expressive energy of human speech as possible. The goal was to harmonize the content of an utterance with its corresponding equivalent in rhythmic speech. According to such a strategy, stress, syllable count and appropriate syntactic breaks at line closures no longer had relevance. Rather, the imperfections of human speech patterns, the hesitations and pauses, the aspect of “speaking with difficulty”18—or conversely, the unexpected turns and often explosive outbursts typical of declaimed speech, were all exploited by poets for their rhythmic potential. Groupings of words into lines often paralleled deliberate intonational ordering. Emphasizing either rhythmic conformity or deliberate contrast to subject matter, or purposely breaking the logical flow for dramatic ends, the motive force of language became the stuff of poetic construction. Consider the following examples, both by Przyboś:

To—wrzask wody obdzierane siklawą z łożyska
i gromobicie ciszy
Ten świat, wzburzony przestraszonym spojrzeniem,
nie pomieszczę Twojej śmierci w granitowej trumnie Tatr.

(“Z Tatr”)

I hear:
Water's roar stripped by alpine waterfall from its bed
the thundrous bang of silence.
This world, perturbed by my frightened gaze,
I'll silence.
I'll not fit your death in the granite coffin of the Tatry.

(“From the Tatry”)19

Znowu ufałś—i wą tpiłaś znowu
(krakało spłoszone zamykanie ramp … )
pod konstrukcjami z żelaza i szkła
stał się pociąg,
który underzeniami kół poza rozpacz wykraczał.


Again you trusted—and again you doubted
(the startled closing of the ramp croaked)
below structures of metal and glass
the train waited,
a fact
transgressed despair through the beat of the wheels


In both cases, the poet has gained emotional rhythmic effect through use of intonational line structures, none of which is reducible to traditional methods of scansion. In the first instance, the contrasts in line lengths suggest the varied physical and emotional contours of the mountain landscape he is describing. In the second, the poet conveys the emotional—and prosodic—hazards of trying to express the inexpressible, against the backdrop of a train station. By building his lines on the basis of vocalized patterns that typify the hesitant nature of human speech in times of emotional anguish, and again by further contrasting divergent line lengths, the poet has deliberately avoided traditional metrics and retarded logical syntactic flow, yet has nonetheless effectively semanticized the theme—in effect, by “speaking with difficulty” within the rhythmic structure. In contradistinction to their predecessors, the single greatest prosodic achievement of the Cracow Avant-gardistes lay in their use of the intoned, non-quantitative line as the fundamental criterion for verse construction. It is important to keep in mind however, that although their experiments with intonational patterns of human speech yielded important advances, in the broader confines of their verses all of these poets still maintained a healthy respect for the strict rules of normative syntax, and above all retained the sentence as a formal instrument of semantic value, despite its linear fragmentation or elongation. In fact, Peiper, the head and an important theoretical voice of the Avant-gardistes, was content to define poetry as “the creation of beautiful sentences.”21 This principle becomes clear when such poems, as for example “From the Tatry,” are rewritten without the arbitrary use of lines; in effect, there then remains little to differentiate them from ornate prose, possessing as they do all the formal features of prose, including punctuation and syntactic coherence.

Słyszę: To—wrzask wody obdzieranej siklawą z łożyska i gromobicie ciszy. Ten świat, wzburzony przestraszonym spojrzeniem, uciszę—lecz nie pomieszczę Twojej śmierci w granatowej trumnie Tatr.

[I hear: water's roar stripped by the alpine waterfall from its bed and the thundrous bang of silence. This world, perturbed by my frightened gaze, I'll silence, yet I'll not fit your death in the granite coffin of the Tatry.]

Significantly, while the emotive power of the poem is somewhat undermined once the linear ordering is removed, the meaning of the poem is not altered in any way. This feature signalled the innovations that were soon to follow.

The importance of Czechowicz22 at this juncture is crucial. A prolific translator of Apollinaire, Verhaeren, Rimbaud and Whitman, Czechowicz was responsible for introducing a number of innovative changes in Polish verse forms. In Różewicz's words, he:

gave the avant-garde a new dimension, a new depth. He enlarged its field of vision and expression. He seemed to become its second wing, but a wing which did not fully develop, and was broken.23

Avant-gardiste verse, non-quantitative with intonational intervals often at odds with logical syntactic pauses, was nevertheless typically designed with long masterfully constructed sentences, often contrastively aligned by length for greater emotional and rhythmic effect. Significantly, the most characteristic innovations of Czechowicz's verse forms were his disregard for sentential strictures and punctuation, and his reduction of sentences in terms of their number, length and formal complexity. In their place he introduced truncated sentence equivalents (oznajmienia),24 groups of words (or even a single word) that semantically fulfilled the role of a sentence, yet reduced formal grammatical structure to an absolute minimum. Further, he stabilized line length and reinstituted logical intonational intervals at line ends, more specifically pauses wherein both syntactic and intonational pauses coincided. Unlike the avant-gardistes, the basis of his line was not its emotional-intonational foundation defined through juxtaposition with preceding and subsequent lines; its innovative quality was more the result of the author's formulation of an altogether different unit of measure for constructing a line, the so-called element of phrasal cadence (skupienie).

Coined by Klemensiewicz,25 the term skupienie (literally: convergence, agglomeration) is a primary compositional element in modern Polish versification. Broadly defined, it refers to a group of words bound by common syntactic and semantic properties and segregated on the basis of logical accent, together constituting a unified structural component of a sentence or acting as a sentential equivalent. A larger and looser unit of rhythm than the metrical foot, it is based on syntactic, semantic—and for the purposes of prosody—ultimately rhythmical relationships between a given group of words. Unfortunately, no single term exists for this unit in modern English verse terminology, hence the approximate, though somewhat misleading term phrasal cadence is employed.

All of the above elements of Czechowicz's versification had appeared earlier in the work of a number of poets. What was significant, however, was that Czechowicz managed to systematize these features into a poetic form with a high degree of mellifluousness, one that combined linear uniformity and syntactic-intonational intervals to produce “an illusion of isochronism.”26 Consider the following fragment by Czechowicz:

godziny gorzkie bez godów
czarny druk na pożółkłych stronicach
jakby ze stromych schodów
spływał a w mroku żywica
zwija się zaułek zawiły
zagubiony we własnych załomach
tętnią mu rynsztoków żyły
rytmami dwoma
niebo sine nicho szare
domy szare domy sine
beznamię tnym obszarem
to niebo to miasto rodzinne
tylko myśli się miłość żywą
w myśli na bruku się klęka
naprawdę złotą niwą
faluje tylko piosenka

(“elegia uśpienia”)

bitter hours with no festivities
black print on yellow pages
as if from steep staircases
the sap has flown down in the darkness
an entangled backstreet furls away
lost in its own turns
veins of the gutters pound
with two rhythms
blue sky grey sky
grey houses blue houses
like a dispassionate expanse
here the sky here one's hometown
thoughts only of real love
kneeling in thought on the pavement
truly like a golden field
only a song flows

(“elegy of sleep”)27

The notable features are an absence of punctuation, a loosened syntax resulting in sentences devoid of predicates (ll. 1–2, 9–12), subjectless sentences (ll. 13, 14), the overall simplicity of the sentences proper (ll. 3–4, 5–6, 7–8, 15–16), overlapping intonational-syntactic pauses at line ends when sentences do extend interlinearly (ll. 3, 5, 7, 15), a rather conventional rhyme scheme, the relative uniformity of line lengths, and finally a predominant musical effect of the verse achieved through use of specific units of cadence. It is to be remarked, however, that there is no concerted attempt to build uniform linear structures either in terms of syllable or accent count. Nonetheless, Czechowicz's lines are endowed with a marked sense of rhythmic autonomy, as opposed to the strong rhythmic interplay, and hence interdependence, of the lines that characterize Avant-gardiste verse. Similarly, when written as prose, the lines do not so immediately reveal their meaning to the reader as was the case with Avant-gardiste verse. Most significantly, a new unit of measure, the phrasal cadence, had clearly emerged as the prosodic foundation of each line.

The following poem is one of Czechowicz's more mature works, and in regard to its verse composition, is somewhat atypical. It is offered at this point only because it heralds a number of the changes that were to follow. Note how the syntax has become more fragmented, the uniformity in line length shows more disparity, and the cohesiveness offered by formal rhyme (present in the above example and frequently used in Czechowicz's earlier output to strengthen the clausula) has been all but abandoned. The rhythmic autonomy of individual lines, based solely on phrasal cadences, is strongly defined. At this juncture, the arbitrary use of line assumes a semantic role: if line breaks are removed, meaning becomes problematic.

niepokój z ognia
siwobiał y wodospad
rozwiane włosy matki
gdy je czesze rozcięły na pół
smutek wlatuje przez okna
dośnić dospać
dosię gnąć katedr ostatnim
obrotem kół
jak tło mozaiki spękana
ręka na trzonie ł opaty
moja może być zbrodnia
i dobry dar
janku joanno anna
szepcze jesienny badyl
skądże to w oczach wilgotnych
rudy żar
tak naznaczyło mnie signum
tonąc widzę w odmęcie
widzę kto dni me ciosa
z bólu i cyfr
niczego nie roztrzygną;
słupy płomienne w rzędzie
kładą się
jest kosa
będzie wichr

(“nic wiecej”)

anxiety of fire
waterfalls of white and grey
mother's flowing hair
cut in half as she combs it
sadness flies in through the windows
to sleep itself out sleep to the end
reach the cathedrals in a last
turning of wheels
chapped like the background of a mosaic
a hand on the shaft of a spade
the crime may be mine
and the good gift
O Johnny, Joanne, Anna
an autumnal stalk whispers
whence from damp eyes
comes the ruddy glow
thus a signum had marked me
drowning I see in a whirl
I see who hews my days
of pain and numbers
they will resolve nothing
columns of flame in a row
lie down
here's a scythe
the storm will come

(“nothing more”)28

In many respects, Różewicz's own contribution to the eventual formulation of a fourth system was a logical synthesis of the numerous experiments that preceded him, more precisely of those of the Cracow avant-gardistes and Czechowicz. Narrowly defined, his verse structures were typically non-quantitative, asyntactic, based fundamentally on minimalized phrasal cadences of a relatively uniform length whose line delineations were justified above all by emotive-intonational concerns and did not necessarily coincide with logical sentential-intonational intervals. What resulted was a manner of verse construction based purely on the conscious manipulation of stark intonational units that spoke to the reader in subdued incremental-like whispers, neither declaiming nor “speaking with difficulty.” Formal emotional austerity alongside concrete lexical density combined for a poetry that forced concentration, both intellectual and emotional. Such demands were further compounded by the frequent lack of logical syntactic signaling at line intervals and the virtual abandonment of rhyme, both of which made for a greater independence of individualized line segments. With prosodic features apparently ignored, Różewicz's poetry at first glance seems to possess an altogether uncomplicated formal arrangement; on the contrary, however, because of its radically redefined versification, its structural analysis is quite elusive if one wishes to appreciate its construction fully. Simply put, it is written out of a sense of profound disorientation that leads, at times successfully, at other times not, to a reestablishment of order. Inspired by chaos, it longs for form.

Consider the following poem “Matka powieszonych” (“Mother of hanged men”).

Ociera się o szorstką skóre tłumu.
po ulicy chodzi
matka powieszonych
srebrną głowę niesie
w dłoniach
ach jaka ciężka bryła
wypełniona nocą
rozsadzona swiatłem
pomylona krąży
i śpiewa i śpiewa
w butach z krzywym obcasem
z jałowym łonem
zwiędłą piersią
pomylona syrena wyje
do obrzękłego nad miastem księżyca
ołówianymi stopami stąpa
po betonie ulic
matka powieszonych
z księżycem u szyi
idzie na dno
ociera się o szorstką luskę tłumu.
She rubs against the crowd's rough skin
she paces the streets
mother of hanged men
she carries a silver head
in her hands
oh what a heavy lump
filled with the dark
shattered with light
now mad she circles
and sings and sings
shoes with broken heels
her womb barren
breasts dry
a syren gone mad she howls
to the swollen moon above the town
with leaden feet she treds
the concrete streets
mother of the hanged
the moon about her neck
she sinks to the bottom
rubs against the crowds rough scales(29)

Here, the subtle sense of rhythm becomes apparent to the reader only in a gradual, incremental fashion, the structured cadences of the individual lines subtly informing through a kind of non-discursive communication. Rhythmic form and the eventual ‘meaning’ of the poem are arranged so as to coalesce, the result being that a certain quality of experience is conveyed. A purely subjective experiencing of the poem, as opposed to its formal recognition, is ultimately the reader's task. Undoubtedly, such a method imposes certain demands if the goal is to be obtained: “An indispensable pre-condition for discerning [Różewicz's] rhythm is the prior existence in the reader's consciousness of firmly established rhythmic patterns.”30

The primary rhythmic source of measure in Różewicz's poetry is the phrasal cadence, arbitrarily ordered recitational units within a line that may extend in length from a single word to several accented word groupings, depending on the author's intent. Yet unlike traditional verse forms that are generally constructed intra-linearly and may be so analysed, a correct “reading” of the underlying rhythmic substructure in a typical poem by Różewicz occurs only through a concentrated attempt by the reader's to intuit the gradual emergence of a pattern of impulses across the entire space of the poem. Dealing with the prosodic structure of modern verse, in the final analysis only the base components and parameters can be discussed; to describe the actual process is more problematic.

“Mother of hanged men” is a characteristic example of Różewicz's innovative construction, variously referred to as the so-called Post-Avant- gardiste (poawangardowy), Różewicz (Różewiczowski), or simply Fourth-system variant.31 Elementary modules of short intoned verbal structures, grouped into lines often according to common grammatical, syntactic and semantic properties, yet occasionally further divided across lines for greater emotional effect, constitute the essence of his structuring. The poem is repeated with its units of phrasal cadences appropriately noted (/) and numbered (1–3).

Ociera się / o szorstką skórę / tłumu / (3)
Tu / (1)
po ulicy / chodzi / (2)
matka powieszonych / (1)
czarną / (1)
srebrną głowę / niesie / (2)
w dłoniach / (1)
ach / jaka ciężka bryla / (2)
wypeł niona / nocą/ (2)
rozsadzona / światłem / (2)
pomylona / krąży / (2)
i śpiewa / i śpiewa / (2)
w butach / z krzywym obcasem (2)
z jałowym łonem / (1)
zwiędłą piersią / (1)
pomylona syrena / wyje / (2)
do obrzękłego / nad miastem / księżyca / (2)
ołówianymi stopami / stąpa / (2)
po betonie / ulic / (2)
matka powieszonych / (1)
z księżycem / u szyi / (2)
idzie / na dno / (2)
ociera się / o szorstką łuskę / tłumu / (3)

As seen above, Różewicz's line is generally defined by phrasal cadences, usually one to three in number and extending over five to seven syllables, whose linear boundaries regularly coincide with normal syntactic breaks (virtually every line), though not necessarily with logical intonational boundaries (ll. 3–4, 16–17, 18–19). Thus note, for example, how in line seventeen the cadence “do obrzękłego księżyca” has been rhythmically split and shunted for dramatic effect, the image of the moon symbolizing a solitary uncaring God.

Occasionally, however, phrasal cadences can be divided interlinearly for even greater rhythmic and dramatic purposes, as in the poem “Dwa wyroki” (“Two verdicts”).

Widzę / uśmiech /
zdięty / z jego białej twarzy /
pod murem. /
Zwiastun śmierci / Nieznajomy /
schylił głowę /
niżej /
Widzę /
śmieszny posąg boleści /
w przydeptanych pantoflach /
przy kuchni /
małą krzywą
figurkę /
skamieniałej matki. /
I see the smile
removed from his white face
at the wall
The Harbinger of Death the Stranger
bowed his head
I see
a funny statue of pain
in well-trodden slippers
beside the stove
the small crooked
of a mother turned to stone(32)

Here, the single phrasal cadence of lines eleven and twelve (“małą krzywą figurkę”) has been linearly separated, deliberately retarding the rhythm of the poem at a crucial terminating juncture to focus attention on a key personage in the poem.

The relationships existing between Różewicz's lines possess both formal and semantic implications. More specifically, the ends of his lines serve as a key focal point for expanding on Wyka's concept of Różewicz's poetry as a form of building-block construction. A formal gauge that is helpful in this regard relates to recent studies of the poetic line.33 Traditionally, terminal junctures of a line of poetry were viewed in one of two ways: according to whether the logical syntactic flow of an utterance was stopped or allowed to continue into the proceeding line. However, use of the single conventional criterion of syntax in determining whether a line is end-stopped or run-on is insufficient, failing as it does to take into account features such as logical intonation patterns, rising and falling cadences, breath units, semantic obstructions, and an array of euphonic devices, all of which can assist, retard, or even reverse the external syntactic flow of poetry. Considering that the ways of modern prosody are much more complex than traditional quantitative systems, functioning ultimately as a result of a subtle rhythmic accumulation between lines and thus only discernible across inter-linear spaces, new attempts aimed at redefining the concept, classification and use of the line would seem to afford some valuable insights.

Longman distinguishes a number of end-line types,34 all according to either: a) the manner in which the semantic message of the line is decoded by the reader—more precisely, the direction that the process of decoding takes at a line terminal, either absence of movement, forward, backward, or certain combinations of the preceding—or b) the resulting emotional effect on the reader when information is either offered, withheld or made obscure. In terms of the decoding of the message, six possibilities exist. For the purposes of this paper, only four need be mentioned: the end-stopped line, wherein the message is unequivocally conveyed upon the reader's reaching the last word of the line; the end-stopped reflexive line, wherein what seems to be an end-stopped line is “complicated by the addition of a semantic movement that refers the reader backward to something previously stated in the line,” in other words, the eye reaching the end of the line and then turning around to verify something; the enjambed line, wherein the message is not end-stopped and the reader is left to assume it must carry into the following line; and the enjambed end-stopped line, wherein the reader on reaching the last word of the line, realizing that a semi-autonomous syntactic grouping (often a phrase or sense unit) has been completed yet the larger message of the line would nonetheless seem to encourage movement forward, hesitates somewhat uncomfortably before continuing on into the next line.

It is this last variant that is most prevalently used by Różewicz. Consider the following fragment from the poem “Światło i cień” (“Light and shade”).

maleńka śmierć
stawia pierwsze kroki
dojrzewa szybko
w nocy kładzie się
na moim sercu
na ustach
jak morze wykute
w czarnym kamieniu
krzyczałeś w nocy
mówi żona
to śmierć we mnie żywym
drążyła korytarze
krzyczała we mnie
jak opuszczona jaskinia
pełna kości
miniature death
takes its first steps
matures quickly
lies at night
on my heart
on my lips
like a sea forged
in black stone
you cried in the night
my wife said
death now alive in me
drilled corridors
cried out within me
like an abandoned cave
filled with bones(35)

All consisting of semi-autonomous phrasal cadences, each line (except 1, 5) could individually signify the end of a completed thought, the more so since these intervals are reinforced by the occurrence of logical intonational pauses. In fact, strong syntactic breaks occur in less than half of these lines (ll. 2, 3, 4, 9, 10, 14, 15). As a result, although there is a general underlying inclination of forward movement through what are three logically constructed sentences (divided by stanzas), the direction of movement is constantly made ambiguous by the marked presence of possible syntactic intervals that also coincide with intonational pauses. In other words, the reader is left to grope through an apparently simple verbal terrain made problematic by Różewicz's use of line ends. To expand on Wyka's metaphor, the poet has provided the blocks, and the reader is left to assemble them, gradually, one at a time, in the hope of reestablishing recognizable forms.

So subtle indeed is the fragile rhythmic symmetry of modern verse, at times it eludes even its own creators. During a recent poetry reading (U. of Ottawa, 1991), Różewicz stumbled badly as he recited “Poeta w czasie pisania” (“The Poet as he writes”). The poem reads as follows:

Poeta w czasie pisania
to człowiek odwrócony
tyłem do świata
do nieporządku
Poeta w czasie pisania
jest bezbronny
łatwo go wtedy zaskoczyć
wynurzył się
wyszedł ze świata
na wędrownych piaskach
ślady jego ptasich
z oddali dochodzą jeszcze
głosy słowa
ziarnisty śmiech
ale nie wolno mu
za siebie
wyrzucony na powierzchnię
pusty poniewiera się
po mieszkaniu
zakrywa twarz
na której maluje się
błąka uśmiech
jeszcze nie potrafi
na najprostsze pytania
oddech wieczności
przyśpieszony nieregularny
The Poet as he writes
is someone with his back
toward the world
and disorders
of reality
The poet as he writes
is without defense
easily startled
frightened scorned
he has emerged
left the world
of animals
marks of his bird-like feet
are seen
over drifting sands
words voices
still reach him
from afar
the seedy laugh
of women
yet he musn't look
thrown to the surface
he knocks about at home
hides a face
on which wonder
is drawn
a smile strays
he cannot answer
the simplest of questions
he has heard
the breathing of eternity

Różewicz's ensuing apology revealed much about his poetic method and the nature of modern verse in general:

Ladies and gentlemen, at times I may not be the best interpreter, the best reader of my own poems. Often the lines come together and can play tricks … A good actor for example might read the same poem in a way that differs significantly from my own reading. Emphasizing certain elements in another manner, assigning different values to words. Myself, I was trying at one point for example with “… thrown onto the surface / empty / he knocks about at home / hides a face / on which wonder / is drawn / a smile strays / still / he cannot answer / the simplest of questions / he has heard / the breathing of eternity / rapid / irregular”—and then follows a very important, one of the most important parts of the entire verse. When one reads: “… still / he cannot answer / the simplest of questions.” It's as if the entire poem were leading up to those three short lines: “still / he cannot answer / the simplest of questions” [long pause] See? “… he has heard / the breathing of eternity / rapid / irregular”. So sometimes it's … But then I shouldn't be teaching you how to read my poetry, should I?37

In formulating a new verse idiom capable of dealing with the realities of 1939–1945, Różewicz's solution was both innovative and traditional. Innovative insofar as his apparently “unpoetic” poetry solved in effect Adorno's question ‘How does one write poetry after Auschwitz?’38 and traditional to the extent that his use of the line as a pivotal unit of verse structure recalled not only the initial inspiration of Polish prosody—medieval sentential verse based on the intoned line—but moreover reconfirmed the line as an essential factor separating verse from prose. The line allows poetry possibilities denied to prose. Not only does it permit the poet to segment word groupings by means other than syntax and punctuation, it also provides an important motive force. Comprising both spatial and temporal dimensions, the line offers a fundamental axis that the poet can use to his advantage. In prose, the line occurs by chance; however, as an element of structure in a poetic text, the worth of a line can be appraised horizontally, in terms of autonomous values, or vertically, as a sequential unit. By exploiting the line as a fundamental prosodic unit, Różewicz not only reanimated a vague and long-neglected form of construction, he also demonstrated a subtle means by which words become poetry. According to Przyboś, his mentor and probably the most knowledgeable critic of his verse construction: “In Różewicz, there are no firm prosodic supports, only the poetic effort itself.”39 Some remarks of Brooks and Warren on the poetic line are perhaps more instructive. Defining the line as “a unit of attention,” they added:

Poems are rare in which individual lines constitute sense units. For this reason, line divisions, unless they happen to coincide with sense pauses (whether indicated by punctuation or not), are often as unrelated to the rhetoric of the poetic assertions as foot divisions.40

Their observation sheds much light on an important feature of Różewicz's prosody. Finally, what some critics of Różewicz's verse have labeled anti-poetry—the term is not the author's—in many respects should rather be seen as an attempt to return a certain primal dignity to poetic language, one that allows the author to write once more, in Barthes phrase, “from point zero.”

What is the effect on the reader of such a method? Only that Różewicz's poetry seems to speak in the simplest of language, yet slowly and grudgingly, and never with certainty. Struggling for breath, its author leads the reader along between the word and silence.

Such are the general innovative features of Różewicz's prosody as they define the unique variant of verse construction he formulated. This is not to imply that Różewicz refrained from further formal experimentation, above all with more complicated intonational structures and looser syntax, not to mention a gamut of euphonic and rhythmic devices. Indeed, his most recent volume of poetry Płaskorzeźba (Forms in relief)41 heralds a number of interesting developments. However, to isolate and outline the broader characteristics of his verse, would require a much longer work.


  1. M. Dluska, Próba teorii wiersza polskiego (Cracow, 1950) 271–286.

  2. Z. Siatkowski, “Wersyfikacja Tadeusza Różewicza wśród współczesnych metod kształtowania wiersza,” Pamiętnik Literacki 3 (1958): 138.

  3. M. Giergielewicz, Introduction to Polish Versification (Philadelphia, 1962) 109.

  4. St. Sierotwiński, ed. Słownik terminów literackich, 4th ed. (Wrocław, 1986) 282. Also generally adopted by The Institute of Literary Research (‘Instytut Badań Literackich’). See E. Miodońska-Brookes, A. Kulawik, M. Tatara, eds., “Polskie systemy wersyfikacyjne,” Zarys poetyki (Warsaw, 1980) 462–527.

  5. S. Sawicki, “Problematyka badań nad wierszem wolnym,” Roczniki humanistyczne Towarzystwa Naukowego Katolickiego Uniwersytetu Lubelskiego III (Lublin, 1960): 5–65.

  6. A. Lam, “Antypoezja T. Różewicza, czyli potęga nicości,” Z teorii i praktyki awangardyzmu (Warsaw, 1976): 93. See as well Madeline G. Levine, Contemporary Polish Poetry 1925–1975 (Boston, 1981) 73–91.

  7. “dziecinną zabawę w obrazowe klocki.” Quoted from J. Pieszczachowicz, “W szorstkich objęciach Tadeusza Różewicza,” Poezje wvbrane: Selected Poems, Tadeusz Różewicz, trans. A. Czerniawski, 274.

  8. A. Czerniawski, “Tadeusz Rozewicz in Conversation with Adam Czerniawski,” The New Review 3 (April 1976): 9–16.

  9. J. Myers, M. Simms, The Longman Dictionary of Poetic Terms (New York, 1989) 261.

  10. See J. Błoński, Mikołaj Sęp Szarzyński a początki polskiego baroku (Cracow, 1967).

  11. See K. Niemirycz, Bajki Ezopowe-wierszym wolnym (Krosno nad Odrą, 1699); M. Dłuska, Studia i rozprawy, vol. 2 (Cracow, 1967): 150–156; J. Łoś, Wiersze polskie w ich dziejowym rozwoju (Warsaw, 1920) 138–40.

  12. See J. Wieczerska, “‘O rymotwórstwie i rymotwórcach’ I. Krasickiego,” Pamiętnik Literacki 53.2 (1962); H. Turska (ed.), Słownik rymów Stanisława Trembeckiego (Toruń, 1961).

  13. See A. Okopień-Sławińska, Wiersz nieregularny i wolny Mickiewicza, Słowackiego i Norwida (Wrocław, 1964) 12–16; M. Dłuska, O wersyfikacji Mickiewicza, Próba syntezy (Warsaw, 1965).

  14. See M. Grzędzielska, “Wiersze C. Norwida (Norwid wobec norm sylabowca)”, Sprawozdania Polskiej Akademii Nauk 9 (1951); “Wiersz Norwida w okresie ‘Vademecum,’” Annales Universitatis Mariae Curie-Skłodowska 15.2 (1960); A. Okopień-Sławińska, Wiersz nieregularny i wolny …

  15. Cited from: [original Russian omitted] (Moscow, 1970) 29. The translation is from Vladimir Mayakovsky, The Bedbug and Selected Poetry, trans. by Max Hayward and George Reavey, ed. and intro. by Patricia Blake (Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1975) 191.

  16. For the affinities and divergencies between Russian and Polish Futurism, see: B. Carpenter, The Poetic Avant-garde in Poland 1918–1939 (Seattle, 1983) 3–77; Z. Folejewski, Futurism and its Place in the Development of Modern Poetry: A Comparative Study (Ottawa: University of Ottawa Press, 1980); N. Kolesnikoff, “Polish Futurism: Its Origin and Aesthetic Programme,” Canadian Slavonic Papers 17 (1976): 301–311.

  17. Cited from St. Młodożeniec, Kreski i futureski (Boundaries and Futuresques) (Warsaw, 1921) 14. This and all subsequent translations are by Richard Sokoloski.

  18. “trudne mówienie” A term coined by M. R. Mayenowa to describe the difficulties involved in performing an utterance. Used as a fundamental device by modern poets. See M. R. Mayenowa, Stylistyczna motywacja polskiego tonizmu (Warsaw, 1960).

  19. Cited from J. Przyboś, Utwory poetyckie (Warsaw, 1975) 94

  20. Cited from Miodońska-Brookes 521.

  21. “tworzenie pięknych zdań,” cited from Siatkowski 131.

  22. For general secondary sources on Czechowicz, see Z. Herbert, “Uwagi o poezji Józefa Czechowicza,” Twórczość 9 (1955); T. Kłak, Czechowicz: mity i magia (Cracow, 1973); A. Sandauer, “Upiory, półsen, muzyka. Rzecz o Józefie Czechowiczu,” Poeci czterech pokoleń (Cracow, 1977); B. Carpenter, The Poetic Avant-garde in Poland 1918–1939 (Seattle, 1983) 174–89.

  23. “Poezja Czechowicza dodała ‘awangardzie’ polskiej nowy wymiar, nową głębię, rozszerzyła pole widzenia wrażliwości. Stała się jak gdyby drugim skrzydłem, ale skrzydło to nie rozwinęło się w pelni, zostało przetrącone.” J. Czechowicz, Wiersze wybrane, Intro., T. Różewicz (Warsaw, 1987) 10.

  24. Siatkowski 132.

  25. Z. Klemensiewicz, Skupienia, czyli syntaktyczne grupy wyrazowe (Cracow, 1948).

  26. “fikcja izochronizmu” Siatkowski 133.

  27. Cited from Wiersze wybrane 66.

  28. Cited from Wiersze wybrane 94.

  29. Cited from Różewicz, Poezja I, 13.

  30. “Nieodzownym warunkiem rozpoznawalności jego rytmu jest istnienie w świadomości czytelnika mocno utrwalonych tych wzorców rytmicznych.” Miodońska-Brookes 509.

  31. Miodońska-Brookes 522.

  32. Cited from Poezje I, 18.

  33. S. Friebert, D. Young, A Field Guide to Contemporary Poetry and Poetics (New York, 1980) 95.

  34. Myers, Simms 163–167.

  35. Cited from Poezja II, 467.

  36. Cited from Poezja II, (Cracow, 1988) 420.

  37. “Wiecie Państwo, ja czasem nie jestem najlepszym interpretatorem, najlepszym czytelnikiem swoich wierszy. I czę sto mi się te linie łączą i robią zbytki z … Także dobry aktor, na przykład, czyta ten sam utwór w sposób bardzo różniący się od mojego czytania, prawda? W inny sposób i inaczej akcentuje pewne treści, inaczej zabarwia słowa. Bo tu, na przykład, próbowałem tę sprawę: … ‘wyrzucony na powierzchnię / pusty poniewiera się / po mieszkaniu / zakrywa twarz / na której maluje się / zdumienie / błąka uśmiech / …’ I tu była bardzo ważna, jedna z najważniejszych części tego wiersza. W czytaniu przechodzi: … ‘jeszcze nie potrafi / odpowiadać / na najprostsze pytania / …’ Cały wiersz jak gdyby przygotowuje do tych trzech linijek: … ‘jeszcze nie potrafi / odpowiadać / na najprostsze pytania / …’ Prawda? … ‘słyszał / oddech wieczności / przyśpieszony / nieregularny /’ Także czasem, no … trudno uczyć czytania swoich własnych wierszy, prawda?” Audio recording in the author's (R. S.) possession.

  38. T. Adorno, Prisms, trans. Samuel and Shierry Weber (London, 1967). The notion of “writing poetry after Auschwitz” was also an inspiration for Różewicz's poem ‘Widziałem cudowne monstrum’ (I saw a most wondrous monster). See Poezja, vol. 2 (Cracow, 1988) 343–44.

  39. “U Różewicza nie ma żadnych podpórek wersyfikacyjnych, jest trud poetycki.” J. Przyboś, “Dyskusja o poezji Różewicza, “Źycie Literackie 31 (1954): 42.

  40. Cited from Princeton Handbook of Poetics, ed. F. Warnke and O. B. Hardison Jr., (Princeton, 1986) 115.

  41. T. Różewicz, Płaskorzeźba (Wrocław, 1991). See also in this regard: T. Różewicz, Forms in relief, ed. & trans. R. Sokoloski (Ottawa, 1994).

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Rózewicz, Tadeusz


Różewicz, Tadeusz (Vol. 23)