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On Sławomir Mrożek - Playwright's Tango

Michał Bujanowicz recalls the life and works of one of Poland's foremost playwrights, Sławomir Mrożek

Sławomir Mrożek is a journalist, draftsman and writer of short prose works, but he is first and foremost a playwright who has been producing works for the stage for decades. He debuted in 1958 with a drama titled Policja / The Police. Mrożek's plays, now considered comedy classics, were welcomed immediately by both stage directors and the public. He gained world fame in 1964 with the play Tango.

Witkacy arrived too early, Gombrowicz remained on the sidelines, and Mrożek was the first to arrive right on time. Right on time on both clocks: the Polish, and the Western".
Jan Kott in Dialog / Dialogue (monthly), 1965, no. 4

In his works, Mrożek has demonstrated that he is most interested in man in his social and cultural "outfit." Employing satire and pastiche, the author has striven to define the principles by which humans operate within their micro-community or society. Mrożek very quickly gained a reputation as Poland's chief mocker and scoffer, a writer who perfectly unmasked and analyzed the absurd realities of life in the Polish People's Republic. On many occasions this unmasking was accomplished by turning these realities on their head. Audiences immediately recognized all the political allusions in his plays, and actively and passionately seeking them out even became something of a pastime. Political humor was seen in places where today it would be barely noticed or not sensed at all. Mrożek's works have always revolved around politics. The writer explores important social issues, but simultaneously touches upon the realm of ethics. He explores the norms of human behavior, glaringly revealed in relations between characters, simultaneously conditioned by social, political and cultural circumstances.

Mrożek's work is usually classified as lying within the realm of the Theatre of the Absurd.

Applying the concept of the absurd to the works of Mrożek is completely justified, provided this is done differently than with Beckett or Ionesco's plays. In their theatre, the absurd appears at a different level. It emerges from man's relationship to an absent absolute and thus evokes metaphysics. In the world of Mrożek's plays, on the other hand, it derives from inter-human relations (an individual's relationship to another individual or a group)".
-Elzbieta Sidoruk, "Antropologia i groteska w dzielach Slawomira Mrozka" / "Anthropology and the Grotesque in the Works of Slawomir Mrożek," Bialystok, 1995

Mrożek builds absurd situations by confronting stereotypes and precisely defined (and very often contrasting) characters. He is a keen observer of the contradictions inherent in man, who must find his place in a peculiar world built of a priori conventions. Above all, the playwright asks questions about morality and the ethical principles that inform behavior, simultaneously seeking out and revealing the imperfections or faults that reside in reigning social, political or cultural norms. Mrożek is a realist in whose works concrete matters burgeon to the scale of the absurd.

Many have underlined the almost mathematical principles according to which Mrożek's imagination operates. He selects absurd deviations from the reality that surrounds him and with iron logic guides them on stage to their ultimate consequence".
-Malgorzata Sugiera, "Dramaturgia Slawomira Mrożka" / "The Dramatic Works of Slawomir Mrożek," Krakow, 1996

His first play, The Police, is almost entirely free of references to a concrete time and place. The author thus mislead censors, who allowed its first production in 1958 to open. In a universal manner, the play is about the degeneration of police apparatuses, about power whose raison d'etre is the "subject-oppositionist." The point here, however, is not only to delineate relations between master and servant, but also to reveal the changes which these relations cause in consciousness in people, to demonstrate the inconstancy of their ideological stances. These themes are most fully illustrated in the absurd finale, when the protagonists mutually arrest each other, piling one arrest on top of the next. Mrożek thus finds a way to describe the times of Stalinist terror in Poland, and, as Malgorzata Sugiera writes, referring to the times of the post-Stalinist thaw, times closer to when the play was written, times during which his own countrymen demonstrated sudden and radical sifts of attitudes and beliefs". ("The Dramatic Works of Slawomir Mrożek", Krakow, 1996).The protagonists of Mrożek's subsequent plays, Na Pelnym Morzu / At Sea and Strip-Tease, likewise find themselves in absurd situations which they must identify and attempt to explain, thus redefining their own attitudes. Two of the castaways in At Sea - the Fat One and the Medium One - are forced to "shape" the views of the Little One so that he will agree to sacrifice himself by being eaten. In Strip-Tease, Man I and Man II behave as dictated by the Hand, whose orders reveal and unmask their attitudes. In Mrożek's plays, absurdity is born from strongly contrasting human relationships - after all, each of the castaways and Men embodies a different worldview. But the absurd born from their interaction serves a moral purpose: The Police contains a diagnosis of totalitarianism, while At Sea reveals the dangers of democracy in which decisions are made by majority rule. However, ideology does not account for the entirety of the message of these dramas. In these works, Mrożek above all seems to explore the norms that govern the behavior of individuals.

In 1964 audiences had their first opportunity to see Tango, a play now considered to be one of Mrożek's best, one that perfectly analyzed Poland of the time and as such was compared to Wyspianski's Wesele / The Wedding. Tango was also read as a kind of summary of the achievements of the Polish avant-garde, with Witkacy and Gombrowicz as its chief exponents. The character of Arthur came ultimately to be seen as a reminiscence of Hamlet, who like him had to mature to take action. In Tango the dangers inherent in contemporary civilization resound especially strongly, particularly because they are inscribed in a universal story of generational struggle. Within what appears to be a well-wrought bourgeois play, Mrożek has hidden an image of the world as a grotesque place.

Where did the worldwide popularity of 'Tango'come from? It explores an issue that is almost... planetary: the crisis and probable end of a civilization that, almost superstitiously, continues to drive 'forward.' The play is based on an educational model that has proven problematic at one time or other to all developed societies. It can be dressed in cultural costumes of all varieties, Serbian just as easily as Irish. Its message is so fluid, however, that this can be turned against all manner of nihilisms and totalities - those that seem rightist as well as those purporting to be leftist...".
-Jan Błoński in Dialogue (monthly), 1980, no. 8

The world of Tango disintegrates before our eyes. The family described in the play is in essence the image of a society in which fundamental bonds are decomposing at that very moment, established values are on the decline. Stomil, the head of the family and simultaneously stereotyped image of the avant-garde artist, says, "Science has become entangled in its own net, art has become incurably ill with the negation of itself, ideas are losing all their adherents." In a pseudo-Romantic gesture and after acquiring a superficial knowledge of psychology and philosophy, Stomil's son decides to rebel against his father and reorder reality, newly rebuild it. Arthur, who is a great proponent of the intellect and believes that the world can be rationally reworked, seeks out ideas that could once again "bond" the world, strives to delineate new norms of behavior. However, he is unable to avoid manipulating and using people. Edek (Eddie) comes to embody liberated modernity, which is precisely what Arthur and Stomil seek, though they do so in different ways and based on different meanings. Eddie has a primal, almost animal power; he sees no barriers, he is practical, corporal, amoral and vulgar. He proves capable of flourishing in any reality and under any circumstances. Superficially compliant, he ultimately becomes the situation's "master" and subordinates all others to himself. Eddie steers the world towards nihilism. In analyzing the significance of mythologies in Mrożek's works, Marta Piwinska wrote:

Arthur will always be left with a Romantic maximalism. However, 'Tango' is set in the present. When the Romantic hero wanted to save the world single-handedly, that was termed Prometheanism. When the contemporary hero seeks to save the world single-handedly, that necessarily denotes totality. History changes the function and significance of myths. That is why they are repeatedly subverted".
-Dialog, 1966, no. 5

Mrożek's heroes have often been described as marionettes, chess figures, as transparent reflections of social, cultural, moral, literary or, finally, character stereotypes. Jan Błoński has analyzed the contrasts between his characters, identifying the opposition between nature and culture as the most general discriminating feature. Thus, in Mrożek's works we might talk about the juxtaposition of wise men and simpletons, the intellect and the body, civilization and barbarism. However, these seemingly simple oppositions are subjected to complication and so

there is no clear division in Mrożek's plays between masters and peasants," "Rather, we might ask if instead of social division or together with it, there is also psychological differentiation? Anthropological? Indeed, this human typology has its social dimension, but it is above all ethical, existential, and God knows what else. Within each of us, Mrożek seems to say, lies dormant both a peasant and a strutting intellectual marionette. Except that in each of us their place and arrangement is different. Of course, there are moments, environments and eras that favor one over the other. It is this that gives rise to the variety of behaviors and dramatic intrigues".
-Jan Błoński, "Wszystkie sztuki Slawomira Mrozka" / "All the Plays of Slawomir Mrożek," Krakow, 1995

Mrożek's characters are strongly differentiated by their language. The author possesses an incredible literary ear, so his works are full of literary references, borrowings and quotations, often employed for purposes of parody. The language of individual characters seems to describe their culture. The world of his protagonists as embodied in the way they speak is therefore a world of "overheard" realities.

To speak is to refer to established models of speaking, contingent upon one's position, communicative relations and pragmatic needs. In 'Zabawa / The Party', the illiterate Farmhand suddenly joins a conversation... much like a character in a 19th century comedy might. Why? Because he has found a cherry-red dress and a woman's mask, and in donning a lady's costume he has acquired her linguistic abilities".
-Jan Błoński, "All the Plays of Slawomir Mrożek," Krakow, 1995

In Tango, Arthur gradually overcomes this predetermined marionette-like quality of Mrożek's main characters. Arthur is a stereotypical member of the intelligentsia and simultaneously a protagonist whose actions give rise to real and dangerous consequences. Critics would later underline that a breakthrough in the dramatic shaping of protagonists occurred in Emigranci / The Émigrés. AA and XX - the emigrants of the title - seem to be far more "real" and "honest" characters. Their language is individualized, so the play contains even more subtexts and subtleties, and in the end these two "castaways" - a member of the intelligentsia and a worker - cause their story, told through a string of continuous and mutual instances of unmasking, to take a tragic turn.

Mrożek's plays also explore the crisis of art and culture. In the relatively early The Party, the Farmhands have sophisticated needs in spite of their mental sluggishness, except that they are incapable of verbalizing these needs. What they seek is not only the cheap party of the title in the local firehouse or cultural center. The Farmhands, who some critics claimed might also be an image of society as a whole, long for real art and a rooting in tradition. It never enters their mind, however, that both culture and tradition have lost their authenticity and have been successfully distorted. Questions about the contemporaneous condition and meaning of art resurfaced in the morality-like play Rzeznia / The Slaughterhouse, dating from more than ten years later.

In the 20th century, the representatives of the spirit seek to endear themselves to life," wrote in his analysis of The Slaughterhouse. "Art, or at least art of the kind they propose, wishes to be saintly without sanctity, divine without God, absolute without an absolute, ideal when there is no such thing. In all this, is it not like the Violinist? He, too, feigns that he seeks music, while all he really wants is the Flutist. Later, when he trades his violin and bow for an axe-head and a knife, he seeks to intensify life instead of striving to rise above its prosaic dimension".
-Jan Błoński in Dialog / Dialogue, 1980, no. 8

In both The Party and The Slaughterhouse, the search for experiences and sensations and the desire for art combine with reflection on the role of memory of the past and the effects of transformations of the contemporary mindset. In Pieszo / On Foot, Vatzlav and Portret / The Portrait, Mrożek describes model situations, but bases these on historical concretes. On Foot is an excellent example of an epic drama that speaks directly about history, though this concept is embodied in the fate of dramatic characters entangled in historically significant circumstances. The play explores the disintegration of Polish society during World War II and after the war, periods of great transition from which the country's population emerged wanting solely to survive and live in peace. Vatzlav is also about social change - its story of a peculiar anti-utopia plays out within the convention of a philosophical tale of the Enlightenment. The title character is an exile from the inferior part of Europe who strives to find a place for himself in a new homeland. At its most basic level, Vatzlav explores issues of freedom.

Mrożek wrote 'Vatzlav' while in Paris in 1968. At this time, the writer proved to be one of the few penetrating minds who saw the student protests as clearly including symptoms of self-contestation and of theatrical biological gestures masquerading as politics".
-Malgorzata Sugiera, "The Dramatic Works of Slawomir Mrożek," Krakow 1996

In The Portrait, the character Bartodziej prays to a portrait of Stalin, appearing to be a "child of the idol, one who seeks meaning and life fulfillment in ideology. Bartodziej is burdened by guilt and strives to impose order on his inner chaos by finding a punishment that would fuse his life into a sensible whole. But a second protagonist, Anatol, just released from prison where he was sent after being betrayed by Bartodziej, also turns out to be a "child of Stalin."

Thus far no one has produced, and probably no one in the future ever will produce, an equally compelling portrayal of the children of Stalin, a portrayal that is somehow from the inside," wrote Jan Błoński. "(...) Both Bartodziej and Anatol are worthless people. And this renders them capable of serving a false idol, one capable of turning these weaklings into heroes - at least in their own eyes".
-"All the Plays of Slawomir Mrożek," Krakow, 1995

Miłość na Krymie / Love in the Crimea, which draws on the dramas of Anton Chekhov, is one of Mrożek's most recent plays. In this work the playwright draws a strong link between eroticism and love on one and, and politics on the other. The play is saturated with historiosophic pessimism and seems to turn its back on socially or historically conditioned forces, seeing hope in what is individual. After historical upheavals, man finds salvation in matters personal and individual.

The Plays of Sławomir Mrożek
(from Małgorzata Sugiera's "Dramaturgia Sławomira Mrożka" / "The Dramatic Works of Sławomir Mrożek" and other sources:

  • Profesor / The Professor (in: Jerzy Afanasjew, "Sezon kolorowych chmur. Z życia Gdańskich teatrzyków 1954-1964" / "The Season of Colorful Clouds - From the Annals of Gdansk's Little Theatres 1954-1964", Gdynia 1968)
  • Policja / The Police, "Dialog" 1958, nr 6
  • Meczęństwo Piotra Ohey'a / The Martyrdom of Peter Ohey, "Dialog" 1959, nr 6
  • Indyk / The Turkey, "Dialog" 1960, nr 10
  • Na pełnym morzu / At Sea, "Dialog" 1961, nr 2
  • Karol / Charlie, "Dialog" 1961, nr 3
  • Strip-Tease, "Dialog" 1961, nr 6
  • Zabawa / The Party, "Dialog" 1962, nr 10
  • Kynolog w rozterce / Dilemmas of a Dog Breeder, "Dialog" 1962, nr 11
  • Czarowna noc / The Magical Night, "Dialog" 1963, nr 2
  • Śmierć Porucznika / The Death of the Lieutenant, "Dialog" 1963, nr 5
  • Der Hirsch, trans. Ludwik Zimmerer (in:) Stücke I, Berlin (West), 1965 (no Polish version)
  • Tango, "Dialog" 1964, nr 11
  • Racket Baby, trans. Ludwik Zimmerer (in:) Stücke I, Berlin (West), 1965 (no Polish version)
  • Poczwórka / The Quarter, "Dialog" 1967, nr 1
  • Dom na granicy / The House on the Border, "Dialog" 1967, nr 1
  • Testarium, "Dialog" 1967, nr 11
  • Drugie danie / The Main Course, "Dialog" 1968, nr 5
  • Szczęśliwe wydarzenie / A Fortunate Occurrence, "Kultura" 1971, nr 5
  • Rzeźnia / The Slaughterhouse, "Kultura" 1971, nr 5
  • Emigranci / The Émigrés, "Dialog" 1974, nr 8
  • Garbus / The Hunchback, "Dialog" 1975, nr 9
  • Serenada / The Serenade, "Dialog" 1977, nr 2
  • Lis filozof / The Philosopher Fox, "Dialog" 1977, nr 3
  • Polowanie na lisa / Fox Hunting, "Dialog" 1977, nr 5
  • Krawiec / The Tailor (written in 1964) "Dialog" 1977, nr 11
  • Lis aspirant / The Trainee Fox, "Dialog" 1978, nr 7
  • Pieszo / On Foot, "Dialog" 1980, nr 8
  • Vatzlav (written in 1968), published by the Instytut Literacki / Literary Institute in Paris
  • Ambasador / The Ambassador, Paris 1982
  • Letni dzień / A Summer's Day, "Dialog" 1983, nr 6
  • Alfa / Alpha, Paris, 1984
  • Kontrakt / The Contract, "Dialog" 1986, nr 1
  • Portret / The Portrait, "Dialog" 1987, nr 9
  • Wdowy / Widows (written in 1992)
  • Miłość na Krymie / Love in the Crimea, "Dialog" 1993, nr 12
  • Wielebni / The Reverends, "Dialog" 2000, nr 11
  • Piękny widok / A Beautiful Sight, "Dialog" 2000, nr 5

Author: Michał Bujanowicz, April 2004.

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