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Warsaw Scenes | Hamlet | Gombrowicz | Polish Odyssey

Playwright is Free | Stage View | A Tale of Two Moscows



New York Times - February 15, 1987



“Why do you write?” I was asked by an officer of the secret police in Warsaw. “An intelligent man does not write. An intelligent man does not leave any traces.”
“Why do you write?” I was asked by an officer of the secret police in Warsaw. “An intelligent man does not write. An intelligent man does not leave any traces.”

During the darkest years of Stalinism, when I was a little boy, my father took me to see an exhibit entitled “This Is America” at Dzerzhinsky Square in Warsaw. Feliks Dzerzhinsky, a Polish national hero, was the first chief of the Soviet KGB, when it was still known as the Cheka. The protagonist of many socialist plays and films, he was well known for his affection for young children, though he often had a deadly dislike for parents.

The exhibition at the square named for him displayed loud ties, gaudy billboards, burning crosses of the KKK and even bugs from Colorado that were trained at special camps to be dropped from planes at night to devour socialists' potatoes. All this to a decadent boogie-woogie soundtrack.

The exhibition was meant to evoke horror, disgust and hatred. It had, however, the opposite effect. Thousands of Varsovians, dressed in their holiday best, waited every day in lines as long as those to see Lenin's Tomb and in solemn silence looked at the display, listened respectfully to the boogie-woogie, wanting in this way, at least, to manifest their blind and hopeless love for the United States.

Almost 30 years later, in December 1981, I came to London for the opening of my play “Cinders” at the Royal Court Theatre. I bought supplies of food for my family in Poland and was about to go back when martial law was declared. It was clearly impossible to go back for the moment. Fortunately, “Cinders” was a great success, so I calculated that by eating the food I had intended for Christmas in Poland, I should have enough money to last three weeks. The only reasonable solution was to turn to alcohol. Then, quite unexpectedly, Joe Murphy, then president of Bennington College, invited me to lecture during the spring semester, and my old friend from the International Writing Program in Iowa, Paul Engle, sent me the money for the plane ticket.

The immigration officer at the American Embassy in London listened with a skeptical smile to my assurances that the reason for my visit to the United States was not specifically to spread venereal disease or to organize the assassination of the President, but rather to fulfill my childhood ambition of staging one of my plays on Broadway. After a half-hour of interrogation, if I had had a drop of pride I should have taken offense and left. Instead, I remembered the warning of the editor of a paper I once worked for - “Always avoid first reactions; they might be honest.” I swallowed my pride and the doors of Democracy opened in front of me.

After the spring lectures at Bennington, I remained in America and in the winter of 1982, dressed in my immigrant best, I stood solemnly in a long line to get half-priced tickets to a Broadway play. I was a little taken aback by not seeing the names of Great American Playwrights on the marquees, but I cheered myself with the thought that since I last heard them, the world had taken a great step forward, and the theatre apparently followed. In Russia, on the other hand, I remembered, great playwrights were rendered harmless or had emigrated to America. In any case, in the subsequent few seasons, I saw with dutiful respect something like 48 plays. Undaunted by this experience, I continued to think that Americans surely knew what they were doing, though I understood that for now, Broadway was beyond me.

So, deciding on a realistic compromise, in the spring of 1983 I tried to make contact with an Off Broadway producer. After several months, I finally reached one. The first question he asked me was, “How many characters are there in the play?” When I said 14, he asked if I could reduce the number to seven, because as far as he remembered, there has never been a play Off Broadway with a cast larger than seven. In a dignified way I said no. The producer, for some reason, looked amused, and told me to call him in case I changed my mind.

At the time I was full of vanity. First of all, my four one-act plays, which in Poland were rejected by the censors, had just been produced Off Off Broadway, and I made off with $250. Then, on a garbage pile in a very good neighborhood (the corner of Madison Avenue and 74th Street) I found a working black-and-white TV and a mattress. An architect friend of mine, who had a steady job in a pizza parlor, let me spread out on his floor. I filed my application for a green card, and I made an appointment with an important person at PEN. Confidently, I sent copies of “Cinders,” together with the reviews from London, to 48 theatres and I waited for the responses to flood in at any moment.

In the meantime, without worrying about censorship, I was finishing a new play, “Fortinbras Gets Drunk,” a macabre retelling of “Hamlet” from the Norwegian point of view. My novel about Solidarity, “Give Us This Day,” which had been rejected by the censors in Poland, was coming out in England, France, West Germany and Switzerland, which brought me almost $3,000.

From Poland, the news was excellent. My wife was dismissed from her job, but wasn't arrested, and my little daughter was growing harmoniously and was a very verbal child. At age 3, she already knew such words as tear gas, tank, gun and passport. To top off my good fortune, a very well-known agent agreed to represent me and promised to make me rich and famous.

I found it funny, rather than upsetting, that in New York there was no money to cast 14 people. As everyone knows, in Poland there is never any money for anything, but no theatre director would bat an eyelash when presented with a play for 30 actors and 20 extras. How is that possible? The answer is simple. In Poland, according to Marxist dialectics, one should look at everything, money included, as a contradictory phenomenon. If there is no money at all, it means exactly the same as if there were an unlimited supply. There is only one condition for being accepted - art (and that includes plays) should defend the basic values of warm, socialist humanism.

A neurotically suspicious person could ask what is the difference between warm socialist humanism and regular humanism. The answer is simple: ours is better. In connection with this, there has hardly been a single decent comedy produced in Poland for the past 30 years. What one is allowed to laugh at doesn't make anybody laugh. A play about things that would make people laugh could never get past the censors. The situation with tragedies is even gloomier.

The first work I wrote in Poland for a student theatre represented regular or even cold humanism. The first act took place in a sleazy bar filled with alcoholics; the second in a train going nowhere. The censor ordered me to throw out the first part, to give the play more social value, and to find a destination for the train in the second part. In a dignified way I said no. The censor for some reason looked amused and told me to call him in case I changed my mind.

I was just beginning then, and it was not too late, if I had had the intelligence, to quit writing altogether. Instead I went with the director to a bar. We ordered black coffee and began the conversation in Corneillean tones. Then we switched to vodka, and our conversation started gently slipping from Corneille to Dostoyevsky, with special reference to “Crime and Punishment” and especially a character named Marmeladov, known for his love of alcohol and self-abasement. In short, I entered into negotiating with the Office of Censorship. After half a year we reached an almost honorable agreement - the sleazy bar was cut out, but the train was still going nowhere.

A neurotically suspicious person might ask what is the difference between an almost honorable agreement and a regular honorable agreement. The answer is: almost honorable means not honorable. The play has never been produced, because the First Secretary of the Party was going to Moscow and the censors were blocking all the works alluding to travel, including Swift's “Gulliver's Travels.” Nevertheless, I received compensation for the play and in addition got an advance, to write a novel that would keep me in zlotys for the next two years.

Ah, memories. But in New York my situation worsened. At the outset of 1983 someone broke in and stole the working TV. Immigration raided the pizza parlor and deported the architect, who, as it turned out, did not have a green card. I started to change apartments every two weeks, mercilessly moving in with friends and acquaintances. I was not able to fall asleep and when I did I was tortured by nightmares about Poland. From morning till night I hid from superintendents, and my agent hid from me. Out of 48 copies of “Cinders,” seven came back with identical sounding letters: the theatres thanked me warmly for the rare pleasure of getting acquainted with my play and expressed their sorrow at not being able to produce it and their belief that any other theatre surely would. The remaining copies never came back. The important person from PEN, who clearly understood something of the writer's condition, asked me if I had any experience as a miner.

From the immigration office, instead of a green card, I received the answer that according to the computer I did not exist at all and if I countinued to insist on existing I would be deported. My family in Poland was asking for money. Two theatres from Germany called complaining that they wanted to produce “Cinders,” but my agent was not returning their calls. I pretended to be surprised, too embarrassed to admit that he did not want to speak to me either. Not knowing what to do next, I said a prayer, dialed his number and for the hundredth time spelled my name to his secretary. It made no difference.

In this situation I relocated to an Irish bar on the corner of Seventh Avenue and 14th Street to clear up my thinking. After five double Smirnoffs, the idea of crossing out seven characters from my play seemed quite acceptable. I called the producer to tell him that I accepted his proposal and happily started to murder my play when my prayer, a little belatedly, showed effects. Joe Papp answered my phone call. He had read the play and agreed to produce it without cuts.

In general, “Cinders,” which opened at the Public Theatre in February 1984, got very good reviews. The run of the play was extended twice. I gave a few interviews for very sophisticated periodicals with very few readers. A few theatres in Europe bought the rights, and my novel about Solidarity was published in the United States. The computer apparently found me because I got my green card. I opened a bank account, my family was allowed to leave Poland. I rented an extremely snug apartment on the Lower East Side and even without the security of a lease, I hopefully invested in four sets of window bars and eight locks. Joe Papp organized a reading of “Fortinbras” and bought the option for the play. I started to write a new play, “Hunting Cockroaches,” commissioned by the River Arts Repertory Theatre in Woodstock, N.Y. Everyone patted me on the back and said “You made it!” Afterward,I calculated that my great successes accumulated enough money to live on for three months.

Ah, memories. The first novel I wrote in Poland treated the subject of the so-called Red Bourgeoisie. The protagonists were the untouchable children of Communist Party dignitaries who, in a starving country, were driven to school in party limousines and sent to Monte Carlo for summer vacations. After reading the book, my censor reflected: “All this is true. Everybody knows it, but writing about things known to everybody is worthless from the artistic point of view. That is why I am stopping your book, not because of political, but because of artistic reasons.” The book was never published, and I received a summons for an interrogation with the secret police. Nevertheless I was given an advance to write a screenplay, which kept me in zlotys.

“You have made it, but you will never be able to make a living from it!” I was told in December 1984 by a friendly Czechoslovakian playwright, who had been making it ever since 1968. “You can be saved only by grant money. You must immediately ask five celebrities for recommendations and apply to the Smithsonian Institution, the National Endowment for the Arts, the Guggenheim Foundation, and about 48 others. Of course, you will never get any of them. Nevertheless, you must repeat your application every year. That way, your name will begin to be recognized by important people.”

“You can be rescued only by a big-name agent, but a big-name agent will never take you,” advised a Hungarian novelist who had been looking for one since 1956.

Nevertheless, last year, a big-name agent agreed to talk to me. We were sitting in his office on the top floor of a skyscraper. The history of literature, theatre and film, ornamented with numerous dedications, was hanging on the walls. It was raining. Invisible through the fog, Manhattan spread underneath, with its Broadway, Off Broadway, Immigration Office and Lower East Side. I asked if he could help me. “What can I do?” he said and threw up his arms. “I cannot even stop this rain.” Like a virtuoso of three-card monte on 42d Street, he was shuffling my contracts, which I never understood, and letters from theatres in Europe, from Germany, Belgium and France. “From each production of 'Cinders,' after deducting the percentages for the theatre, the translator, the person who has Americanized the British text and your agent's fee, you will get 20 percent.”

“As for 'Fortinbras Gets Drunk' “ - he looked amused - “How many people in New York care about a Norwegian prince? A minor character who appears on stage only after Hamlet is dead? Don't you realize that in American productions of 'Hamlet' your Norwegian prince is usually edited out in order to save money?”

“ 'Hunting Cockroaches'?” - his expression changed to pity. “Would you go to see a play with insects in its title? Anyway what are you going to say about cockroaches? They have been with us for millions of years. You have to write about something that's hot, that's in the air.”

“Chernobyl?” I cleverly suggested. He shook his hand to indicate that it was too late. “At this very moment I know of 48 screenwriters in New York alone who are finishing screenplays about Chernobyl. I don't know about Hollywood.”

Outside, a harmless drizzle was still falling on the 48 screenwriters in New York City writing screenplays about the nuclear explosion in Chernobyl. A more polluted drizzle was falling on 48 screenwriters in the Ukraine writing screenplays about homeless people in New York City. I don't know why - maybe it was the weather - I felt a little depressed.

Nevertheless - I was in America, after all - “Cockroaches” was staged in Woodstock, and the insects proved attractive to at least one producer in New York, who even assured me that “Hunting Cockroaches” would make the ancient beasts positively fashionable. Then Arthur Penn agreed to direct it. In this situation, I went to the Irish bar that had helped me so much once before. When I got home in the morning in my mailbox I found a notice from the IRS that they wanted to audit my taxes for 1984, the year when the production of “Cinders” and my flamboyant lifestyle caught the attention of their computers. Some people clearly never learn from experience. Once again, I was leaving traces.

Copyright 1987 The New York Times Company


Warsaw Scenes | Hamlet | Gombrowicz | Polish Odyssey

Playwright is Free | Stage View | A Tale of Two Moscows


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