A freedom fighter comes to call
Polish playwright Slawomir Mrozek, who has recovered wonderfully from a stroke, spoke to local theater students about emigration from a country - and a language.
Polish playwright Slawomir Mrozek, one of the last of the generation of mid-20th century dramatists, arrived in Israel this week a bit clandestinely. This is not his first visit, and Mrozek hopes that it is also not his last. His hosts inquired why he likes to visit the country so much. "I simply love being here," he said. "I understand that you don't, so much. I do."
The Polish Embassy, which helped organize Mrozek's visit, forged a connection for him with the School for Visual Theater in Jerusalem. Although this type of theater - visual-experimental theater that programmatically rejects the verbal - is not suited to Mrozek (in a whispered comment, he revealed that he has never been a great fan of Tadeusz Kantor's theater), there is a special personal connection. One of the most influential and beloved teachers at the visual theater school is Dr. Michal Govrin, who during her time in Paris in the 1970s while writing her doctoral thesis, saw Mrozek's play "The Emigrants," made it her business to acquire the rights and even contacted the playwright personally, hesitantly and with admiration.
In the meeting with her students, on a cold Jerusalem day, Govrin related how she had telephoned Mrozek, worked out the details of acquiring the rights and then was faced with a silence. She felt that she had to let the silence continue, and then at one point Mrozek said: "Perhaps we should meet?" In 1977 Govrin directed the play at the Jerusalem Khan Theater, and Mrozek visited Israel for the first time.
In Martin Esslin's book, "The Theater of the Absurd" (1961), Mrozek comes under the convenient and deceptive rubric of "theater of the Absurd." Mrozek is aware that his inclusion in the same category as Samuel Beckett and Eugene Ionesco (in its first edition, Esslin's book also included Israeli Amos Kenan) helped his reputation in the West, but to the same extent he disclaims "Absurdist" elements, with the exception of the absurdity of life in Poland under a communist regime, where everyone learns alternative methods of communication - for example, the communications between stage and audience, over the head of the censor.
"The Emigrants," a play that helped make Mrozek's name known in the West, is Polish and also universal: In a dingy basement in a Western city, on Christmas Eve, two emigrants from Eastern Europe meet, AA and XX. The one is a refined intellectual, the other a crude bumpkin; the one has emigrated for ideological reasons, the other in order to make money. During the course of the play it emerges that they are slaves of their emigration, they are slaves to each other, and the fact that they live in Western "freedom" does not make them free people.
Emigrated from the language
Slawomir Mrozek, who was born in 1930, never completed his academic education. He was registered in all kinds of departments to evade compulsory conscription into the Polish Army. In the 1950s he embarked on a commercial career as an artist-cartoonist (in one of his cartoons, Hamlet is seen standing with the skull facing the rows of the audience and saying: "Any questions?") and as a writer of short stories.
In the early 1960s he wrote "Tango," which to this day is considered his best-known play, about the second generation of rebels against the consensus, who try to impose a renewed order and logic and lead to a violent dictatorship. "Tango" is a family story, in which "Hamlet" reverberates, and it sums up well the situation of a generation of intellectuals in Eastern Europe. In Israel the play was given an excellent production by Habimah Theater in 1966, under the direction of Pole Aleksander Bardini, with a dream cast: Shraga Friedman, Lia Koenig, Rafael Klatchkin, Ada Tal, Alex Peleg, Dalia Friedland and Ilan Toren.
Mrozek does not recall this production (he was in Israel about a year ago when the play was put on again by Habimah). In 1964 he left Poland for Italy, and today he explains: "Because I did not want to write non-truth, I went to a place where I could write truth." In 1968 he was already living in Paris, where he published in Le Monde a harsh condemnation of the Soviet invasion of Czechoslovakia. Then he was excised from the repertoire of theaters in Poland and became an emigrant. To this day he also holds a French passport.
Mrozek is a tall man with dark glasses and shy by nature, who does not enjoy talking to an audience. When Michal Govrin asks him now, 25 years after "The Emigrants" was completed, whether he believes the emigrants will return to their homeland, he says: "It's very hard for me to think about that. As far as I am concerned the play was over about two years after I had written it. The problem is that I continue to live. Had I died then, I would have been exempt from such questions."
He himself returned to Poland 15 years ago, to the city of his birth, Krakow. Three years ago he suffered a stroke that affected his language center, but since then he has been wonderfully rehabilitated. He speaks French, English and Polish, of course, but he requests that he not be made to move from one language to another during the course of a conversation. When Govrin asks him how a writer who has "emigrated" from a language writes (clearly referring to the state of his health), he replies: "I lived for so many years with external terror, that I became accustomed to living with internal terror." Today he writes mainly memoirs, testing what he remembers.
To progressive humanity
The connection between Mrozek and the Jerusalem's visual theater school was also forged with the help of a graduate of the school, Avishai Hadari, who won a scholarship from IcExcellence, the Israel Cultural Excellence Foundation, and studied theater in Krakow for five years. Hadari speaks Polish and he translated a play by Mrozek, "The Fox and the Philosopher," which he read to the students at the school and to the playwright, whose face remained blank.
Hadari tried to explain to the Israelis the meaning of "speaking truth or non-truth" in Poland, but Mrozek thought that this was clear to any sensible person: When the communists were in power there were things that were impossible to say aloud, or at all. When Govrin asks cautiously about his feelings with regard to World War II in Poland, which he experienced as a boy, he replied: "I am not Jewish, to the best of my knowledge. I had a Catholic education. In my twenties I realized its disadvantages, and since then I have been against everything that happened in Poland, including what happened to the Jews, until 1968 and after that as well."
Apparently only a Pole can understand the depths of the word "informing": In Poland many people learned to inform on others to survive. Thus, with a stroke of the pen, a rival is wiped out and good points are acquired for the informer in the eyes of the regime; so much so, that informing became a literary genre, in bitter irony, of course. In 1983, during the military regime in Poland, Mrozek published in London a pamphlet containing a collection of imaginary "informings," some of them in manuscript, some of them typewritten (with corrections) and some of them pasted together from words cut our of newspapers.
Here is an example: "To Progressive Humanity, I hereby declare that I am strongly opposed to A. Hitler and his gang. I belief that A. Hitler is evil and I condemn him outright. In addition to which, I am opposed to Nero Caesar, to the Chinese emperor Ming and also to the oppressors of the peasant class in the ancient Egypt of the Pharaohs. I stress emphatically that I make these opinions known publicly and I have no fear of reactions to them. On this basis I request that Progressive Humanity award me the Nobel Prize for Peace. If this is not possible in dollars, then German marks are also acceptable. With best wishes for Progress for all, Slawomir Mrozek, Freedom Fighter."
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