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University of Toronto · Academic Electronic Journal in Slavic Studies

Toronto Slavic Quarterly

Ewa Wąchocka

Un-Presented Reality:
On Polish Society's Self-Identification in Drama after 1989

The transformations that took place in Poland's social and political life after 1989, the year of the downfall of the communist regime and of the beginning of democratic government, triggered a profound, albeit rapid, cultural change. Clearly the twilight of the communist model of economics and politics coincided with the exhaustion of a certain version of culture. The culture before 1989, divided into various spheres depending on the impact its products were expected to have upon reality, developed in a context in which various artists and artistic institutions, the orientation of which with respect to the Authorities was meticulously observed by the regime, were either granted favour and influence, or were banished backstage - if not literally exiled. For Polish theatre and dramatic arts, the collapse of the exhausted model of culture boded well in all respects: it could have brought healing changes in the forms of communication and, more importantly, it could have marked the beginning of a new quality in drama. In the eyes of optimists, the end of the old system opened up brand new, unexplored perspectives - especially in the context of the newly restored freedom of speech. Such optimistic visions do not come as a surprise; after all, analogous cultural developments took place at similar moments in the 20th century history of Poland in 1918, 1945, and, to a certain extent, in 1956. Indeed, Polish theatre took its chances, although its transformation did not come about without the pain of lifesaving surgery and necessary re-evaluations. In the writing of drama, however, the consequences of changes proved to be of insignificant import. Against all expectations, the break-through associated with the year 1989 did not particularly resonate in drama, passing largely unnoticed. The abolition of censorship undoubtedly opened up artistic space for themes up to then disapproved of or outright forbidden, but did this fact inspire contemporary drama to make any serious efforts towards reorienting itself in the new reality? Was drama powerful enough to make a diagnosis that would permit true self-knowledge on the part of society? Did it offer a valid description of the state of social consciousness, or an analysis of the painstaking process of self-identification and recognition?

It is worth remembering that post-war Polish theatre was wholly political. For obvious reasons, to outsmart censorship, it strove to speak about the times by resorting either to canonical classics of drama (predominantly romantics), or to parables like Sławomir Mrożek. Such an escape into historical costume and Aesopic language is one explanation of the monothematic character of drama and the narrow spectrum of genres within dramatic arts of the period. In the beginning of the 1990s, however, this mode of communication with the audience lost its currency and soon its lack of value became obvious. This resulted in an alarming recognition of the grave instability of values. A common understanding of what is worth what in art vanished. Moreover, social expectations with respect to theatre (and culture in general) became blurred as well. It was therefore inevitable that questions about the place of art and the position of art's audience within the new reality would sooner or later have to emerge.

Rather abruptly, the audience's other preferences came to the fore - or perhaps, quite simply, new circumstances created a favourable climate for audiences to manifest their long-held tastes. Indeed, the language of political allusion lost its position, yet this did not mean that political themes vanished from the artistic arena altogether. However, what these tendencies disclosed most evidently was the painful lack of new, modern communication techniques with the audience. Especially in drama, the lack of a language in which addressing issues of political nature (or generally, issues of significance) would be possible without resorting to allusion or parable was experienced as a major obstacle.

Thus, in broad terms, the restoration of state sovereignty in Poland not only brought an end to the career of the easy "theatre of allusion", but also marked the moment when the Romantic tradition[1] - the basic paradigm of Polish literature - lost its cultural productivity and had to be removed from its central position. Moreover, the twilight of the Romantic paradigm was preceded by the exhaustion of that of the theatre of the absurd,[2] described by Martin Esslin. Bearing in mind that no other paradigm as distinct, as productive, or as expansive as those has emerged to replace them, it comes as no surprise that today, in a situation dominated by the urgent need to devise new ways of addressing reality, drama is starting over, beginning with the penetration of what at first sight appears to be an exclusively private zone. It begins anew with modest, individual stories, focusing on family matters (not infrequently grotesque), or portraying the fates of outsiders at odds with life, which are sometimes presented in various shades from the romantic palette, or - more frequently - in naturalist tones. In this context, the relatively small number of plays attempting to settle accounts with the past and to reassess the ideological and moral problems of recent history appears to be symptomatic of a broader tendency in drama.

The first literary echoes of the martial law conspiracy sounded in Paweł Mossakowski's Identification (Identyfikacja) of 1986, where - among folk-heroic, flawless heroes of the patriotic underground and mean confidantes of the totalitarian regime - honest, weak people, who are overwhelmed in the face of the communist militia's oppressiveness of are portrayed as well. A still broader spectrum of phenomena characteristic of Polish reality after the political breakthrough of August 1980 informs the plays by Eustachy Rylski. Three of his plays, A Chilly Autumn, The Scent of Wisteria, and The Wolf of Kazan (Chłodna jesień, Zapach wistarii and Wilk kazański) form a bitter contemporary trilogy offering both a vision, and an accounting of the gains and losses of the Polish struggle for freedom. In each of the three plays, Rylski attempts to portray a "hero of our time," who would exemplify the central ethical questions of the present-day reality. In the first play of the trilogy, the "hero" is an artist in the service of the regime, a writer who grows towards rebellion against oppressive powers. The hero of the second play is an intellectual, a politician siding with the Church. The last play of the trilogy, The Wolf of Kazan, features the character of a young businessman, a lonely workaholic, who - having got entangled in shady business with the mafia - eventually becomes a gangster. Rylski's original set of plays comprises a drama of the breakthrough, which offers a portrayal of the subsequent formative stages of the new consciousness of the Poles. By and large, however, his plays represent the only attempts at a reassessment of history and at uncovering its truth in drama.

It would be hard to criticise contemporary playwrights for their incapacity to observe the world. More frequently, critique has targeted a contrary tendency: drama duplicates fragments of life and carries them off the street and out of the household directly onto the stage. Critics, striving to diagnose the essence of drama's difficulties with the veritable depiction of reality, have long cited the ideological blurredness, or perhaps ideological uprootedness of art - symptomatic of the postmodern climate of our time - as the major pathogenic factor at work. Drama, so to say, wanders in the margins, describes peripheries, but fails to reach its destination, because it is ignorant of the way to the centre. It suffers from lack of synthesis, and is wanting in sources of deeper reflection on the period it reflects and, in some way, co-creates.

Even if today's drama is indeed incapable of attaining greater universality, or unable to formulate a more profound diagnosis of the present, playwrights can by no means be criticised for lack of courage and inventiveness in addressing current issues. Undoubtedly, the transformations and conflicts of this transitional period in Poland's history, resulting in the collapse of former organising structures and an acute crisis of values, proved to be one of the most seminal sources of dramatic inspiration. On the one hand, the major themes derived from this source include the maladies and flaws of the new system, the moral degeneration of the former patriotic conspirators, and the selling-out of the best Solidarity ideals in the merciless reality of the free-market tug-of-war. On the other hand, themes inspired by recent history oscillate between visions of predatory capitalism, dangerous, yet alluring, built upon the ruin of the old titles and proprietorships of the past, as in the vision Paweł Huelle created in his The Ostrov Spa (Kąpielisko Ostrów); and the drama of the loss of ethnic identity and economic independence, as in the plays by Stanisław Bieniasz. It should be noted, however, that in drama addressing such issues, historical processes are usually shown against the backdrop of interpersonal relations, rather than through the broad perspective of the general transformation of the system. And still, apart from themes informed with a clear political undertone, the subjects of family crisis, the generation gap, and the histories of outsiders, losers, and people unable to adapt to the new reality loom large in drama. These, in other words, are the "dramas of life," developed and artistically transformed in a variety of ways.

It is not accidental that family-oriented subjects, and, more precisely, analyses of the degeneration of human relations, should find an important place in contemporary drama. As if to confirm the alarming reports of sociologists, playwrights seem to warn that the collapse of family relations is the primary source of most of the problems haunting contemporary man. Hence, the degeneration or atrophy of elementary human ties has become a significant point of reference in the fate of a dramatic persona, even though the symptoms of the malady identified in Polish drama are in their intensity still far from the tragic events of Marius von Mayenburg's famous Fireface ( Feuergesicht). Depicted with clinical precision in such plays as Spam (Mielonka) by Dagna Ślepowrońska, Abortus (Wyskrobek) by Damian Dewitz, or Let's Talk about Life and Death (Porozmawiajmy o życiu i śmierci) by Krzysztof Bizio, the images of emotional numbness, growing indifference, incessant mental battles fought within one's self - are all more reminiscent of the gloomy portrait of family relations painted in Jamaica (Bis Denver!) by another German playwright, Oliver Bukowski, than they are of Mayenburg's tragic vision. Polish playwrights seem predominantly concerned with the individual dimension of the process of alienation, and with its particular psychological consequences; the sociological dimension of the problem interests them only in as much as it provides the context in which the experience of loneliness may gain a tangible texture, and thus also become legible. This is probably the reason why dramatic attempts to relate individual alienation to more general, large-scale transformations, or to seek ways to express the peculiarity of the situation of an individual clashing with the culture of postmodernity, are rare. In this regard, a play by Lidia Ameyko titled When Reason Sleeps, the Answering Machine Turns On (Gdy rozum śpi - włącza sie automatyczna sekretarka) deserves special attention, as it portrays the impossibility of communicating in a world increasingly subordinated to technology. Similarly, Ewa Lachnitt's The Man of Trash (Człowiek ze śmieci), a play offering a picture of the disintegration of forms of life in huge urban agglomerations, cut off from their roots, is an important attempt to address the relationship between the individual and the culture within which he or she functions.

The determination to face everyday reality manifests itself also in the appearance of particularly troubling themes which until recently were basically alien to the Polish stage. Such a tendency is readily observed in new plays striving to underpin the most burning issues of the present reality and to diagnose the incurable diseases afflicting the "here and now," such as social pathologies (e.g. drug addiction) and the overall increase in various forms of violence. Illustrative examples of this trend are the depictions of the environment of juvenile delinquents in the shocking Youthful Death (Młoda śmierć), a series of para-documentary études by Grzegorz Nawrocki, and in Marek Bukowski's more "literary" but likewise disconcerting Deadman (Truposz). This innovative trend in the Polish drama - which, it should be noted, has never had any long-lasting realist traditions - could be described as "drastic realism," a local, Polish analogue to the European "new brutalism."

The ability of such tendencies to lower the stylistic register is much greater than usually realised. The drama of most recent years, read as a mirror of reality, sparks protest and frequently fills the audiences with repulsion. The latter results from the transgression of all possible taboos both in the sphere of language and in stage imagery. And yet it is not only plays investigating the problems of the social margins that shock audiences with the violence of the events they depict and the vulgarity of their idiom. Cruelty and coarseness, a complex signum temporis, are among the most characteristic traits of the new Polish drama. And even though the brutality of these Polish plays is still far from the intensity of rape, violence, and deviations that pervade the oeuvre of British "brutalists" such as Sarah Kane and Mark Ravenhill, and even though their vulgarity does not go as far in transgressing cultural norms as does the abhorrent verbal provocations of Werner Schwab's Fäkaliendramen - its function, still, seems to be similar. Language anchored in a degenerate everyday reality expresses every hideous thought, as if the character wished to break free from it by making it materialise in words. It is only infrequently, however, that the most recent Polish drama - treated as metaphor - meets Richard Rorty's criterion for literature. Rorty, putting literature at the top of his hierarchy of discourses, argues that it has taken over the function of philosophy and helps us to build our own autonomy, determine our identity and, effectively, become less cruel - or, in other words, to realise the consequences our private idiosyncrasies have for others.[3] In fact, the new Polish drama hardly ever facilitates self-identification, recognition, or reflection.

Inevitably all of the above makes one wonder whether the reason for the present state of affairs lies in the fact that the dramatic persona of today is no longer capable of carrying the burden of representation, and - at the same time - of filling the role, which by definition mediates between the stage and the audience. In such a stage personality, the whole theatrical and paratheatrical reality ought to find its reflection: the artists' self-consciousness along with the needs of the audience. The contemporary protagonist, however, is immobilised by apathy, immersed in profound depression, stuck in idleness, permanently alienated and, in a sense, thoughtless. Indeed, the observation that the dramatic persona has undergone a far-reaching disintegration is anything but revolutionary. Yet what appears striking in the development of the dramatic arts of today is that the defining characteristic of new drama (in Western Europe as much as in Russia or Poland) is the persona's depressive condition, and - consequently - a depressed, morbid vision of reality matched by depressed, morbid reactions to it. Authors of different social and economic backgrounds, representing experiences of living within the framework of dissimilar political systems, essentially confirm the same diagnosis of the present-day reality. Irrespective of the sociopolitical conditioning of the playwright, the existential situation of man in the contemporary world is presented in the same fashion throughout Europe; hopelessness, or more precisely, depression, becomes its central metaphor. Today, the helpless, passive, lost protagonist is almost a norm: both in new plays and in contemporary reinterpretations of the drama of the past. The protagonist of today's drama is a hero incapable of recognising the rules of the surrounding world and unable to properly acknowledge his or her own participation in it, who vacillates irresolutely and willessly in the incomprehensible chaos of incoherent events, a hero doomed to live life in a fragmented space, devoid of coordinates.

Forty years ago, Tadeusz Różewicz's The Files - with its hero idling away his time in bed, with its grotesque chorus of senile men prompting him towards action with the now famous "Say something, do something, in theatre one has to play, something must be happening here"[4] - came as a shock to the Polish audience. Today, Marek Koterski deliberately alludes to this artistic gesture of contestation, showing the same character, that of an intellectual suffering from chronic impotence, in each of his subsequent plays. His character is a man haunted by bad luck: born too late to live in the "good old pre-war" Poland, and too soon to be able to accept "new" Poland as his true homeland. The difference between the characters created by Różewicz and Koterski lies exclusively in the motivation of the respective hero's incapacity: if the passivity of the Różevian hero results from the overburden of his experience of tragic history, the passivity of Koterski's Everyman is an expression of his indifference, a position assumed a priori. All his plays are characteristic for their consistency in laying bare the misery of everyday life. Beginning with The Community (Społeczność), through The Inner Life (życie wewnetrzne) and The Day of a Loony (Dzień świra) - each of his plays offers a description of a life-consuming struggle with the inertia of life itself. The reality Koterski portrays is that of life confined to a district of high-rise apartment blocks, a life before the television set, a life disturbed by the noise of the elevator right behind the wall - and yet life lived in the rhythm of obsessive monologues, through which the artist narrates the boundlessness of his unfulfilment, complexes, fears and frustration, in which he tells the story of the huge reserve of ill-invested, wasted energy.

All of the above brings one to the conclusion that the basic problem of drama, which is its inability to reach into the centre of reality instead of wandering at its periphery, does not in fact lie in the insufficiency of contemporary themes, but in the serious lack of artistic will to enter into a relationship with the spectator. Drama has ceased to be the space of conflict. In a gesture of escapism, it avoids presenting events and characters in a fashion that would make confrontation possible. Escaping into the realm of nebulous generalities, withdrawing into the illustration of assumptions adopted a priori, retreating into dispassionate objectivism - Polish drama unwittingly signals its act of capitulation, the tangible expression of which is its retreat from reality. Predominantly, this tendency towards resignation manifests itself in the practice of mean, paltry, flat realism.

Unsurprisingly then, the most interesting works addressing the problems of contemporary Poland are those that steer clear of realist conventions (The Scattered Files [Kartoteka rozrzucona] by Tadeusz Różewicz and Wiesław Myśliwski's Requiem to a Housekeeper [Requiem dla gospodyni]), while the playwrights who could be said to have truly succeeded in communicating with the audience are those who managed to create their own, unique language - a language of myth and psychology - and, through this language, to call a whole unique world into existence. Tadeusz Słobodzianek, for instance, alludes to, recovers, and reconstructs the past - both the past told by histories, and that of the realm of the legend - and in so doing, he composes what one could term alternative history. Drawing on myths, stories, and the truths of the oral tradition, the artist calls into being a polyphonic and polysemic, de-mythologized version of fossilised events - a version which is neither the only nor the last alternative to the History accepted by tradition. Ingmar Villqist (the pseudonym of a Polish playwright), in turn, invents a mysterious town named Ellmit, which islocated somewhere in Scandinavia, inhabited by strange, traumatised and emotionally bruised characters. Ellmit becomes the artist's "laboratory", a secluded space of experimentation upon the living "human tissue," where he can scrutinise emotions, close human relationships, and the mechanisms of concealed tensions.

Both Różewicz and Myśliwski show a multidimensional, if at times grotesque, image of society's condition in the face of essential transformations and the consequences of a new, mentally "undomesticated" reality. The Scattered Files is a unique sequel to the play Różewicz wrote thirty years earlier. The Files, the original, as well as the scattered, are heavily burdened with history. On the one hand, it is a history less remote: that of World War II, of the experiences of Stalinism, of the thaw of September 1956, and - especially in The Scattered Files - of the subsequent stages of the Polish struggle for sovereignty; shown, however, without pathos, portrayed as if they took place somewhere between the parliamentary space of the Polish Sejm and a bazaar. On the other hand, the recent history informing both plays is immediately contextualised by what has always already loomed large in their very essence: the other, remote history - familiar, yet not a part of the playwright's curriculum vitae - interiorised from countless pages of literature as the memory of the nation. Above all, this history is embodied in the Salon of Warsaw from Adam Mickiewicz's Forefathers' Eve, in the dilemmas of Konrad and Kordian, the heroes of the masterpieces of Polish Romanticism, in the reminiscences of The Wedding by Stanisław Wyspiański, and in the patriotic sermons of Piotr Skarga. Interestingly, unlike in the allusions Różewicz makes to the remote past, his dramatic narrative of recent history is notable for its shortage of facts on a grand scale, such as significant dates in a history textbook. Instead, it is informed with the shallow, trifling, everyday quality of passing time; no occurrences of great significance leave their mark upon it, and it is only close scrutiny that allows one to discover subtle waves on its surface and, at its bottom, the delicate debris of the momentous events taking place in the background. And yet, even in Różewicz's presentation of history as tradition, the remote past reverberates with the distant echoes of the stereotype's pathos, with the obsolete sublimity of gesture and pose, and sometimes carries with it an only too obvious, and at times ridiculously pathetic, political allusion. Nothing is to be taken for granted; everything is twisted in a distorted gesture, distorted grimace; fossilised, and therefore dead; artificial, and therefore inauthentic.

Unlike that of Różewicz, Myśliwski's drama shows the friction between the old and the new, between the traditional rural culture (which somehow has not yet lost its subtle poetic aura), and the expansive, loud culture of the urban agglomeration. It mellifluously combines the present with the past, the real with the imagined, thus emphasising a sense of misdirection, the inability to find one's own place in a world which abides by the rules of common sense pragmatism. The past inscribes itself into the timeless order of nature and religion, providing a solid foundation upon which human consciousness can rest; the present, conversely, is nothing but chaotic contingency, devoid of stable points of reference.

The holistic, distanced perspective of history pervading the drama of Różewicz gives rise to parodic, grotesquely disfigured images. In turn, the self-presencing of the space of myth in Myśliwski's plays awakens nostalgia for tradition, which is irrevocably fading away. Różewicz seems to be pointing to what the stereotypes of our contemporary concept of history indeed rigidly fix in our vision. This is possibly the reason why in his Scattered Files, at the end of the scene in the Salon of Warsaw, the whole stage is covered with a black shroud. With such a theatrical gesture, as if in accord with Francis Fukuyama, Różewicz seems to declare the end of history. He cancels history - and yet he does so only to return to history, but this time choosing a different approach. Returning, Różewicz reassesses history from the perspective of the mediocre, poor, and unrepeatable reality, found exclusively in the concreteness of ordinary human existence. In this respect Różewicz shares a vision with Myśliwski, who likewise shows the cultural and historical breakthrough of the year 1989 from within the space of a village cabin.

Thus, next to grand images (always shown in their stereotyped versions), the drama of Myśliwski and Różewicz employs minor histories of modest, humble, and sometimes plainly stupid, ordinary people. Różewicz speaks of the end of history understood as metanarration, and, at the same time, of the beginning of historiosophy conceived in terms of the description of the mechanism of the multiplicity and divergence of individual fates. Great History does not exist; what does exist, however, is the limitless multiplicity of the dimensions of human fate, which cannot be reduced to anything but an individual truth, to the sensations and experiences of a unique human being. Exemplary in this respect is the character of Hela, the girl who "knew nothing of Caesar and died [] If Hela did not know that Caesar had crossed the Rubicon - then Caesar never crossed the Rubicon [] [Thus,] Hela rendered history null and void."[5]

The characters peopling Różewicz's plays are neither distinguished nor preeminently gifted. Rank and file, they do not aspire to realise the fates of their generation; all they wish for is to be able to represent themselves and to follow their own fate.

The texts of Różewicz and Myśliwski stand out from the otherwise uniform practice of contemporary Polish drama, haunted by the spectre of the un-presented reality. Meanwhile, however, it is the young theatre that is replacing drama in what used to be drama's sovereign domain: the difficult art of careful, tender analysis. Evidently, the lively interest in the new epoch and the need to understand its uniqueness are bringing about theatre's serious criticism. In the contemporary Poland, which is experiencing milestones in politics, the economy, customs, manners, social structures and interpersonal relations, this young theatre is driven by the will to be in touch with the fast-flowing current of everyday events. The common impression, or, better still, a frequent observation made by those "younger and more gifted ones", as they are frequently called, is the Artaudian thought that "all our ideas about life must be revised in a period when nothing any longer adheres to life."[6] Artists such as Grzegorz Jarzyna, Anna Augustynowicz, Piotr Cieplak and Zbigniew Brzoza are creating their theatre in the cracks and fissures between everyday life and its representations; they strive to stick back onto life what has peeled off it, but without which it is not possible to live a normal life. And hence, quite unsurprisingly, the focal points of their interest - and those that determine their artistic strategy - are building the ethics of the new reality, creating new models of morality, and developing social awareness of the importance of ethical norms.


  1. Cf. M. Piwińska, Legenda romantyczna i szydercy [The Romantic Legend and its Scoffers] (Warsaw: PIW, 1973)
  2. Z. Majchrowski, "Ucieczki od dramatu." ["Escapes from Drama"] in: Dialog 4 (1997).
  3. R. Rorty, Contingency, Irony and Solidarity (Cambridge: Cambridge UP, 1989).
  4. T. Różewicz, Teatr Vol. 1, (Kraków: Wydawnictwo Literackie, 1988) 90.
  5. T. Różewicz, Kartoteka rozrzucona [The Scattered Files] Dialog 10 (1994) 27.
  6. A. Artaud, Teatr i jego sobowtór (Warsaw: WAiF, 1978) 34.
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