Themes and Meanings

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Tango, like many of Sawomir Mroek’s plays, contains allusions to the political and social situation of Poland in particular and the Western world in general. Like many Polish playwrights, Mroek was fascinated by the figure of Hamlet and saw the prince of Denmark as a prototype for the modern intellectual. Like Hamlet, Arthur is an intellectual who is faced with a world “out of joint,” the disintegration of his family and his country, and who feels compelled to attempt to “set it right.” Like Hamlet and all intellectuals, he is inclined to philosophical speculation rather than to determined, forceful action, and so he has only “words, words, words” to put up against the corruption of his environment. Incapable of decisive action, he berates himself for his indecision; instead of taking command to establish a new regime, he nostalgically dreams of the old order and convinces himself that restoring the old forms and ceremonies will also restore the validity of the old ideas. He does not want to acknowledge that these values (personified by his grandmother) have become anachronisms as a result of the nihilistic revolution of his parents’ generation. Arthur, a product of this revolution and of the upheavals of the Western world after World War II, longs for a new order, a structure that would give him moral and political guidance, but he has nothing to put up against this lack of order but abstract philosophy and empty formality.

And so, like Hamlet, Arthur will not rule, but will be killed, mainly as a result of his own indecisiveness. There will be a ceremonial funeral with pomp and eulogies, but it is the representative of unthinking force—Eddie, the former servant, an anti-intellectual man of action—who will, like Fortinbras, rise to power. He will establish his brand of order, autocratic and based on the force of arms, and the rest of the family will meekly assent to his rule; old hangers-on such as Eugene will do so enthusiastically. Once again, the humane tradition of Europe will prove inadequate, lacking the strength to refuse to dance with a totalitarian regime; paradoxically, the family will dance to the tune of a tango, the dance that symbolized the breaking of all moral traditions to Stomil and his generation.

Here the play’s political theme becomes clear. Poland and the Western world are mirrored in the Stomil household. There are the grandparents, senile remnants of fin de siècle hedonism, while the parents are representatives of the amoral generation produced by two world wars. Ala, Arthur’s fiancé, represents the younger generation, dazed and drifting. Finally, there is Eddie, the proletarian of simple tastes, unburdened by traditions and conventional restraints. He is able to act unscrupulously, filling the power vacuum left by a decadent bourgeoisie and an intelligentsia paralyzed by its incapacity to do more than talk. Mroek thus evokes Adolf Hitler’s rise to power and the ascendancy of fascist and communist tyrants all over the world. Tango suggests that unless people create new values from the chaos of the modern era, values that will go beyond reestablishing the old, outdated forms and ceremonies of Western civilization, they will be led a merry dance by the likes of Eddie.

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Characters