Monday, August 19, 2013

One of the greatest playwrights you've never heard of

Maybe I'm not quite dead now because I can feel how boring all this is.
Sławomir Mrożek died last week.

Some 19 years ago I spent a summer in Poland. In theory I was studying language and literature and getting credit for it. In practice, this study program was merely an easy way to spend the summer in Poland — i.e., room and board for several weeks, and the university residence in Krakow would serve as a convenient home base for several weeks afterward.

I skipped most of the grammar sessions, but to my own surprise I religiously attended the seminar on 20th-century Polish literature, which started with Wyspiański, who had the audacity to depict God in a stained glass window. And for a few months, everything I hadn't known about my Polish cultural heritage made sense to me. All the Tradition and Literature that had been paraded before me, snippets of poetry and film versions of great dramas, suddenly had context. Influenced by Viennese Secessionism and French Impressionism and driven by a unique set of historical and political circumstances, Polish Arts were grand, but also subversive and often secret — those works that were hidden from authorities were in effect being hidden from the rest of the world too; those that were disguised may not have been recognized for what they were on the outside; and another class of art was produced by émigrés/defectors, the likes of Gombrowicz, Miłosz, and Mrożek, often politically difficult work that couldn't be entirely owned by either side.

I would translate this work, I decided. This was my mission. To act as an ambassador of Polish literature. See what greatness had been hidden away for so long!

But, you know, life. And so.

Those days, a few thousand złoty (a couple bucks) would gain you admission to see a play being staged any night of the week in several venues, usually medieval stone cellars converted into cabaret-type bars. I saw a lot of theatre that summer.

When I saw Mrożek was being staged at the Teatr Stary, I asked around. You don't know Mrożek? But he's our greatest contemporary playwright! He's like Ionesco, only very, very Polish. Everyone knows Ionesco, why don't they know Mrożek? Rhinoceros, elephant, same kind of thing.

Stuck with the label of absurdist, perhaps ironic is a better fit — subtler, gentler, more traditional than absurd. But possibly less forgiving (that is, theatre of the absurd can get away with a lot more shit); irony endures the difficulty of not always being construed as such.

I forked out big money (relatively speaking) to see Milość na Krymie (Love in the Crimea). I don't remember much by way of plot, but the staging and acting of it was spellbinding.

The program for that event (which I dug out on hearing of his death) includes Mrożek's essay, Teatr a Rzeczywistość. It would take me forever and a day to translate it, but you can read about that essay here. (It's actually a pretty interesting artifact as a program, because it contains so much stuff.)

Puppeturgy: The Ends of Theatre & the Postmodern Stage, an essay that addresses Mrożek's lecture on Theatre versus Reality:
The limits of a stage are clear and well defined: one can be either on a stage or off a stage, but never in between, because such an intermediate zone simply cannot exist. With reality it is entirely different. Although it is obvious that reality begins where the stage ends, nobody really knows where are its limits. It is not even clear whether it has limits at all.

(It serves well to be reminded of this as I'm set to read Bulgakov's Black Snow soon. Which calls to mind also Pamuk's Snow.)

Arni Ibsen, Icelandic playwright, interviews Sławomir Mrożek: No one believes plays.

Read "The Elephant," a short story by Mrożek, online.

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