Tadeusz Różewicz, 2003, fot. Krzysztof Wojciechowski / Forum
Tadeusz Różewicz, 2003, photo: Krzysztof Wojciechowski / Forum

The Polish poet, playwright, screenwriter, novelist, satirist and translator of Hungarian poetry. One of the most versatile and creative continuators of the Polish and international avant – garde. Member of the Polish Writers' Association. Often mentioned as a candidate for the Nobel Prize.

Tadeusz Różewicz was born September 9, 1921 in Radomsko. His father, Władysław, was a junior court clerk and his mother Stefania Maria, of the house Gelbard, was a housewife. Tadeusz had two brothers, the elder Janusz and the younger Stanisław. Although Różewicz received an equivalent of GCSE in the Felix Fabiani school, his further education was stopped by the outbreak of World War II.

Table of contentsThe War, the Forest and the PenA New Shape of PoetryCongeniality EffectDerisive HumilityThe Chronic ForerunnerThe Wise Man in a Jester's Mask

The War, the Forest and the Pen

In 1939 Różewicz began working as an errand-boy, a warehouseman, and apprentice carpenter in the Bent-wood Furniture Factory - Thonet to help support his family. It was at this time that Janusz Różewicz, the first literary mentor to his brother, introduced him to the Polish literary underground. After a six-month training in an underground Officer Cadet School, Tadeusz was sworn into the Home Army (codename “Satyr”) to fight as part of the guerrilla troops from June 26, 1943 to November 3, 1944.

During this time he wrote poems and edited the newspaper Czyn Zbrojny (Armed Action). He published the tome Forest Echoes, which contained poems, epigrams, humoresques and patriotic, poetic prose together with Janusz in 1944. In these first pieces of Różewicz we can observe a passion for the works of  Juliusza Słowacki and Stefan Żeromski, as well as a spiritual dilemma akin to his contemporaries such as Krzysztof Kamil Baczyński and Tadeusz Gajcy, particularly as they relate to the circumstances of war.

In 1943 Janusz Różewicz wrote to his brother, “You'll write better than me, you'll be a better poet...” In July that year he was arrested by the Germans and was shot and executed on August 3, 1944.

Tadeusz revealed himself to the Liquidation Committee in 1945, received the Polish Army Medal in 1948 and the London Home Army Medal in 1974.

A New Shape of Poetry

Julian Przyboś, whom the poet had met in the editorial office of Odrodzenie (The Rebirth), brought Różewicz from Częstochowa, where he had passed his baccalaureate exams, to Kraków. Here Tadeusz began studying History of Art at the Jagiellonian University but never finished. He became involved with the neoavangardist Grupa Krakowska, whose members include Tadeusz Kantor, Jerzy Nowosielski, Kazimierz Mikulski, Andrzej Wróblewski and Andrzej Wajda.

Różewicz gave a new shape to poetry by rebuilding a sense of meaning in life after the tragedy of Auschwitz -- a trauma after which, according to Theodor Adorno, nothing authentic could be created anymore. The author has been accused of nihilism and a vulnerability to Western influence (namely Eliot, Pound and Russell) for his expressionistic and catastrophic poetry style, but nevertheless his poetry books Niepokój (Anxiety) (1947) and Czerwona rękawiczka (The Red Glove) (1948) have been considered revolutionary. Czesław Miłosz responded to them in one of his tomes, Ocalenie (Salvation).

Różewicz fled to escape the communist regime 1950, the same year his friend Tadeusz Borowski went to Berlin. There he again became fascinated with the universality and the “greyness” of human existence in line with the philosophical ideology of Eyelash by Leopold Staff.

After a year in Hungary, Różewicz came back to Poland and settled in Gliwice with his wife Wiesława. The couple had two sons, the elder Kamil in 1950 and the younger Jan in 1953. They lived in poverty away from the literary turmoil. In the book Czas, który idzie (Time to Come) he made ironic remarks about the superimposed order: “Communism will elevate people/ wash off the time of scorn,” as he came to know the bitter taste of the literary milieu's “battue.”

The political thaw after the death of Stalin and the events of 1956 opened Poland to the West. Fascinated by the works of the Paris avant-garde, particularly Beckett and Ionesco, he wrote the drama Kartoteka (The Card Index), his most revolutionary work and contribution to the theater of the absurd. More abstract, neobaroque and formist trials can be found in the poem Zielona róża (The Green Rose) and the tome Nic w płaszczu Prospera (Nothing Dressed in Prospero's Cloak), parallel with Miłosz's That.

Różewicz's stylistic invention of file-like text compilation and editing, as observed in the text Przygotowania wieczoru autorskiego (Preparations to an Authors Soiree), provoked Przyboś in 1967 to viciously attack Różewicz for “trashy, pop-art ideas.” In 1968 the poet moved to Wrocław.

Różewicz’s works have been translated into 49 languages. In 2000 he received the Nike Litarary Award for Matka odchodzi (Mother Departs), a book of poetry containing the author's intimate confessions in the form of poems, notes from the Gliwice Journal and selections from the memoirs of his mother Stefania and his brother Stanisław. The text documents are supplemented by family photographs and fragments of written correspondence, including Stefania Mria Różewicz’s  letter to Tadeusz from a time shortly before Christmas 1943.  A calendar page from 1957 notes on July 16, “Mom died today at 10:20 A.M.” In such moments words evidently reveal their imperfection, even those of a poet even as great as Różewicz.

Congeniality Effect

Tadeusz Różewicz, photo: Aleksander Piekarski / ForumTadeusz Różewicz, photo: Aleksander Piekarski / Forum

In his contemporary poetry the author expresses the unrests and embitterments of a generation defined by wartime. In line with his experiences in the Home Army, Różewicz shows a world of relative values with man objectified and dominated by biology or technology. The I-speaker in his poems is a disintegrated personality, devoid of self and lost in a world of collapsing form.

His poems reveal him as a skeptic defiant to the world order rather than one of despair.  Piotr Lachmann remarked that Różewicz’s poetry achieved a congeniality effect (as opposed to Brecht's alienation effect). Before Lachman's cameras Różewicz stated his “Discourse about the Void”:

...The Void rages. Completeness doesn't have to. The void has to make itself visible. The void in which biology struggles. The devil is also a void – its strength lies in the fact that you cannot grasp it, it doesn't have a form. And this void is growing. And what happens in it: the most complicated weaponry as yet unseen by any man. Biologically (…) Syphilis or cancer do not threaten or scare us as much as AIDS. Committees gather to recommend the use of condoms, which in turn are forbidden by the Holy Congregation. All this beguiles our life.

Różewicz saw the film during a multimedia evening prepared by Jolanta Lothe and Piotr Lachmann in the Videotheatre Poza in 2003. He read poems from his Szara strefa (The Grey Zone), trying to convince the audience, “I'm not a philosopher, I'm intuitive.” He dismissed congratulations on his acting skill by saying, “I wasted that talent.” Nevertheless, Różewicz demonstrated an excellent feel of the stage during a soiree in the National Theater in 1998:

...What is first? Writing? No. Reading is first. When you're my age, you begin to feel that what you read is equally important to what you write. Sometimes more important, more interesting. Poetic soirees should change. Whenever I listen to my poems read by somebody else, I get the urge to correct them. Or to read somebody else's. I recently came back to Demons by Dostoyevsky, maybe after forty years. There is a genial masterpiece of a description of a soiree. An old writer Karmazinov – whose character was inspired by Turgieniev – he cannot finish reading his “Merci, Merci” humoresque... He read, and read until the young people started teasing him. I was quite abashed by the whole description.

He started reading Staff's Mickiewicz but stopped after the first stanza because of someone's cellphone signal. “Please leave!” sounded the voices from the audience. “Who's to leave? Me? I won't go,” protested the poet. “Where's the fire brigade? Police? Security?”

“Where's good breeding?” came a question from the audience. The owner of the ringing phone finally left. “We had a nice break,” the poet didn't lose his composure. “So now, I will read my poem ‘Where evil comes from’...” At that moment the silence was interrupted by the sound of a camera shutter. The poet stopped reading again. The whole situation seemed straight out of The Scattered File.

Derisive Humility

Tadeusz Różewicz in Konstancin, Poland in 2008 Tadeusz Różewicz in Konstancin-Jeziorna, Poland in 2008, photo by Elżbieta Lempp 

His bitter account with the contemporary past, as it tries in vain to find itself in the chaos of contemporary life, is illustrated in his dramas. His debut play The Card Index (written in the years 1958-1959) is a pinnacle achievement in the cannon of post-war drama, opening an emergence of new staging possibilities in Poland and beyond.

The play was published under censorship in the Dialogue magazine (02/1960), and later along with The Green Rose by the National Publishing Institute in 1961. The full uncensored version was only published by Integral Arts in Wrocław 1972. The play first premiered in 1960 in the Dramatical Theater in Warsaw under the direction of Wanda Laskowska.

As Zbigniew Majchrowski remarked, The Card Index is contemporary to The Teutonic Knights in that it was written before man went to space, before the Second Council of Vatican, before the erection of the Berlin Wall and the career of the Beatles.

The strength of the play is the derisive humility the character feels towards himself, and Różewicz towards his character – wrote Jan Błoński. The gibberish in which the author often drowns the action, has a method and aim – a refusal of tragism. Only mockery can save our clear-headedness  and thus our freedom... The author evokes an unclear but undefeated hope which he kept at the bottom of his heart. - [Tadeusz Różewicz The Card Index. The Scattered file, Kraków 1997]

The Card Index consists of two images: the internal emptiness of the Character and a flood of phenomenae, people and objects that flows through his room. No other play has changed the face of European drama to the degree that The Card Index has. Since it first premiered its formal novelty has never lost perspicuity, nor has the complicated, firmly Polish subject-matter hindered the play from entering stages abroad. There is nary a season when The Card Index is not published or staged somewhere in the world.

Różewicz's debut play became a classic of theatrical avant-garde, a vivid form of theatre that touches upon the crux contemporary problems. However Konrad Swinarski, who directed the play twice, in 1965 in Tel Aviv and two years later for the Television Theater (with Tadeusz Łomnicki as the Character), muses that it lacks a proper ending:

"If Różewicz only dared to write one more final scene," he said in 1973, “then The Card Index would be a contemporary play. It is written in a beautiful language, it has both literary culture and tradition, it's both sensual and political it has everything I value in a play, nevertheless it has no continuation."

The Chronic Forerunner

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The Scattered File fulfills Swiniarski's demand and authors the idea of a “play written on stage.” Różewicz experimented to repeat the phenomenon of the Card Index in the free speech reality brought by the Third Republic.

Thus the Scattered File came about, a cycle of open rehearsals which the author directed and played with the actors from November 17 to December 2, 1992 on the camera stage of the Polish Theater in Wrocław. Apart from minor changes in the text, most of it are extracts from newspapers, the sermons of Skarga or speeches by Piłsudski.

The actors brought newspaper articles. One Card Index text about beer grew to be seven. The construction of the play on stage mad its record a lot longer than the canonical version. However, none of the rehearsals of the Scattered File covered everything that was printed in the book.

It was a time of subversive topics such as the illegal trade of human organs, or the argument of the rabbis to give their seal of approval for kosher vodka produced in Polish distilleries. An entire poem is comprised of newspaper adverts. There's another, especially ironic, poem composed of fragments of parliamentary debates. Różewicz, a chronic forerunner, proved that with the disappearance of censorship a new habit came about – uncontrolled garrulity and verbosity. He had found the danger and mocked it in a pastiche of parliamentary debates dominated by empty routine and formalities.

The formal experiment of the Scattered File did not in any way disrupt the integrity and timelessness of the first version. The record of the play gives directors a whole new range of texts which can be scattered and used anew. In 1998 Kazimierz Kutz brilliantly brought the play to the Television Theatre with a highly suggestive vision of the Character, as played both by  Jerzy Trela and Krzysztof Globisz, entangled between past and present in the political and mental transformations.

The Wise Man in a Jester's Mask

No one smuggles tradition on stage as successfully and in such a novel way as Różewicz. Although his tradition has been unfairly neglected and ridiculed, the previous century does not know an instance of such an influential Polish writer.

The strength of the author's art lies in the ability to combine opposites. On one hand he uses a classical, sophisticated form, but implements it to deliver fresh and unconventional content. He also performs the same strategy in reverse: subjects from the past are often given innovative forms of expression, so that his creations are ambiguous, disturbing and universal at once.

His plays feature a duality of characters who come from the intelligent class (however, he also finds room for simple peasants, like Waluś in Do piachu or Wrona in The Card Index). Personages whose noble duties (God, honour, fatherland) have been questioned in the post-yaltan reality and doomed to failure; futile, eternal rebellion; or giving up and opportunistically subjugating oneself to illusory comforts; these were all visible in the drama, “Witnesses or our little stabilization.”

Few can deal with the media as well as Różewicz. However, deeming his creations journalistic would be a gross simplification. As a clear-sighted observer and amateur of the press he subjugates the intake of news to artistic treatment. Under his penmanship they become metaphors for the fate of the contemporary man. In line with the romantic traditon Różewicz both disdains and admires, everyone can find a reflection of their own life in his characters as they are anchored in the specifics of history.

In the play He Left the House, forty-year old Ewa, anxious about her husband’s long absence, calls for the police. She and her daughter Gizela have difficulties giving a description: “Daddy was nondescript, not much like anything, like everyone.” Meanwhile the amnesia-stricken Henryk wanders around town, finally reaching a cemetery where he is witness to an excellent “Shakespearean” scene: two undertakers over a grave where lies “at one time a martyr, at another a knave.” Afterward he comes back home, merrily lacking the memory. However, his wife soon starts to “educate” him, filling his head with judgments and stereotypes. Henryk absorbs the cliches compliently, but later comes back to his senses to again leave the house.

Różewicz’s dramaturgy has a renewable value thanks to the irony infused in the obstacles of his plays. Year after year these works affirm his prophetic talent. In each rendition, his predictions regarding the destruction of the natural environment arouse as much emotion as they did in the premiere. The vision of trash falling through the cafe windows in A Woman Sits remains terrifying. Although we have made some progress since the play was written, the world is still heading towards self-annihilation – war continues, environmental issues continues to dominate the news.

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On All Fours tells the story of an old infantile writer, who like the brilliant French painter Maurice Utrille, is happiest about his electric train. Laurent's fun is disturbed by the overprotective maid Pelasia and the swarm of intruders who want to bask in his glory. His office will soon be invaded by “The Girl” who presumably wants to write a dissertation. However, she doesn't spare any efforts to seduce him, quickly becoming his wife and heiress. The dead Laurenty will still be sipping Pelasias soup in his apartment – now turned into a museum -- where the Widow shows the Profane around telling completely delusive stories.

Różewicz’s works often annoy, provoke, and occasionally incite outrage. The hyper-charged sexuality of the characters in his morally subversive and pioneering White Wedding tore apart the atmosphere of an old gentry manor, in which to girls became women. The erotic staffage – now really naive - provoked a critical outcry, among them party members such as Atrur Sandauer. Meanwhile the first post-war topless scene, with Barbara Sułkowska as Paulina under the direction of Tadeusz Minc, brought crowds of spectators to The Small Theater.

Do Piachu earned itself a bad reputation among the Home Army veterans. Różewicz describes guerrilla life, but without the patriotic highs, presenting what other often fail to mention: the mud, dirt, lice, blood, poor quality food, the disconnection from our close ones, the absence of women, the severe discipline. Waluś, a village peasant who dreams of seeing Kraków and Częstochowa, comes back from a predatory excursion. His two superiors who took part in it have made off with the loot. The commanders focus their anger on the boy with animal treatment to which he uncertainly obeys. Różewicz’s anti-epic about anti-heroes, the absurdities of war and the dehumanization it causes, futile sacrifice in the name of a restrictive law, caring for thy neighbor, his pain, suffering and death, probes the boundaries of human debasement and sacrifice.

The outrage of the veteran milieu that broke out after the first two stagings of the play (by Tadeusz Łomnicki in the Warsaw Teatr Na Woli in 1979 and Kazimierz Kutza The Television Theater in 1991) caused the author to place limitations on access to his works. Of late, only Janusz Opryński and Witold Mazurkiewicz have succeeded of late, on behalf of from the Provisorium Theater and the Theater Company in Lublin, in 2003.

Neither scandal nor subversiveness alone necessitates greatness, as some worshipers of theatrical currents may assert; these qualities must be supported by artistic justification.

The contents of the play Trelemorele can be best summed up in the subtitle: “A soap opera for public and private television.” Różewicz blantantly undermines the language of the medium that in attempt to be endearing ultimately becomes jibberish mixed with a dose of kitsch and perversity. The family in front of the set consumes the medley of images that flow out of debilitating game shows, infantile commercials, imbecile series and unreliable news. A nervous walk among the channels doesn't change anything. Everywhere it is the same thing, equally nauseous and hopeless.

The timelessness of his plays, avant-garde in form and rebellious in content, is also not confirmed by the frequency in which these works are staged. Despite being a few decades old they retain a contemporary bite. With bitter irony they show the everyday life of the Warsaw intelligence, as seen by one of the most clear-sighted annalists of Polish reality in recent history.

His plays provoke imagination with a metaphorical, intelligent and often razor-sharp language. The longevity of those plays abroad indicates that his language resonates with an international audience.

Różewicz addresses the most serious matters in a fickly, roguish manner, a subversive, who like Stańczyk, dons the jester's mask to shamelessly hit you in the face with the truth.

Author: Janusz R. Kowalczyk, July 2013.