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New York Times - September 19, 1993


Given the Realties, It's Impossible to Be Absurd

Janusz Glowacki's most recent play, “Antigone in New York,” was produced in March at the Arena Stage in Washington.

Does the notion of the theatre of the absurd still have any meaning? Haven't Beckett's and Ionesco's plays become quite naturalistic today?

A few weeks ago, I went to Poland. On my way, I stopped in Berlin. At the Alexanderplatz, I met a former Shakespearean actor from Warsaw who now makes his living buying secondhand cars in Germany and selling them in Poland. He had a black eye and one arm in a cast. A few days before, just as he was about to reach the Polish border, a group of aging skinheads about 40 years old dragged him out of his 1979 burgundy BMW, beat him, robbed him and left him on the road.

To cheer him up I invited him for a drink. But he winked at me and said, “Don't worry, I'm fine. I've just established solid contact with a very influential branch of the Berlin-Moscow Mafia and ordered for myself decent, widely respected documents: proof that my father served in the S.S.”

“You're kidding,” I said, incredulously.

“I know,” he said. “S.S. papers are hard to get because everybody is after them. But I was promised at least Wehrmacht.” JUST ACROSS THE GERMAN-POLISH border, on the other bank of the Odra River, in Slubice, I came upon an undocumented camp for refugees. Romanians, Russians, exiles from the former Yugoslavia -- men, women, children. These people believe only in escape. Escape from fear, mad nationalism, crime and poverty. But they came too late. Germans, tired of guilt complexes, closed their borders. And now they have nowhere to return. They are waiting. Like in Beckett's theatre. Well . . . not quite so. Among them prowl Mafia men -- messengers of hope.

The price of crossing the river is about $100. Some mobsters, more humane, exchange their fee for two hours with a mother or daughter or a sister or all of them.

The three sisters from Romania, the three sisters from Russia: Will they get lucky and manage to cross the Odra River? Will their dreams come true and will they land in one of the housing projects for refugees, the favorite target of German arsonists?

And somewhere in the Pacific, well hidden under the deck of a Chinese ship, are three sisters from Beijing. TWO HEROES OF MY LATEST PLAY, “Antigone in New York,” a former artist who is a Jew from Russia and a petty hustler from Poland, manage to reach Manhattan. But the move has taken all their energy. They have settled down in Tompkins Square Park on the Lower East Side of Manhattan. It is their final destination.

Not quite so, as the police are about to make a sweep through the park. But before that happens, a homeless Puerto Rican woman pays them to bring the body of her man from Potters Field and rebury him in the park. By mistake, they pick the wrong guy. Still, nobody notices and the funeral takes place.

Excerpts of my “Antigone” were published by the Polish press. A couple of days ago I was in Tompkins Square Park, where the homeless gather again. One of the Polish homeless who had read the press account took me aside and asked, “How did you know that we buried somebody here?”

My eyes widened: Had he made it up or hadn't he?

Jan Kott, an expert on Shakespeare, Beckett and Ionesco, suggested recently that the term “theatre of the absurd” should be updated to the much more appropriate “theatre of new realism.” AT THREE CROSSES SQUARE IN Warsaw this summer I met an expert on “social realism,” a former drama critic for Trybuna Ludu, the Communist Party daily. After the opening of each of my plays, when I was still in Poland, I used to approach Trybuna Ludu trembling with fear, then read the review and sigh with relief.

“I made it once again. He hates it.” There couldn't be better publicity. The next day, a long line would form in front of the theatre.

Always after midnight and one bottle of vodka, the Marx in the critic's soul was gently superseded by Dostoyevsky. The critic would enter the hangout of Warsaw artists, and, drifting between tables, would plead, “My God, I'm a bastard! I beg you, please, spit in my face.”

On this day I asked him if he was still covering theatre.

“Why?” he answered. “All my life I fought against Communism. Since we crushed it, there is no reason for me to write. Now I only worry that Western money for supporting democracy is being pocketed by former Communists.”

He got into a brand-new Mercedes-Benz, flashed me a victory sign and drove off.

When I left Poland 11 years ago, reading, writing and attending theatres was primarily a form of anti-Communist activity. To be just, I have to admit that the audiences granted playwrights a big benefit of the doubt. It was only necessary to write that the hero drank, betrayed his wife, had a hunchback or was lame, and the audience, knowing that Communism was to be blamed, rewarded the author's courage with standing ovations.

Today, theatres close one after another. Warehouses are filled with books people used to risk their freedom to read. Weekly literary magazines are going bankrupt. Harlequin books are omnipresent, as are movies starring Schwarzenegger or Stallone. THE PRODUCER OF ONE OF THE MORE prestigious theatres in Warsaw told me that even with a sold-out show he loses money. The most profitable solution is to close down. The cost of running a theatre has jumped so high that ticket prices should be increased at least fourfold. But those who attend theatres are students and teachers who hardly make ends meet. “The worst thing is that there is no censorship anymore,” a fellow playwright complained. “And when everything is allowed you don't feel like writing. I had an idea for a farce based on a true story. Not long ago, a group of religious salesladies working in pharmacies plotted to save their customers' souls. For a couple of days, to prevent the sin of birth control, they secretly pounded holes in condoms before selling them. I have a good title for this: 'Three Days of the Condom.' But I can't do it because my priest hated the idea.” THE GREAT MIGRATION TRAIL crosses Warsaw. In front of Mercedes and Ford sales windows appear the homeless. In February I watched them with Piotr Fronczewski, the star of my play when it was produced in Poland.

“Actually, your play could easily be set in Warsaw,” said Piotr Fronczewski. “The heroes could be Romanian, Croatian and Gypsy . . . it doesn't matter.”

I agreed.

But it did matter.

A certain well-known Polish writer felt personally offended by my play on behalf of Poland and wrote that the homeless Polish character is morally inferior to the Puerto Rican Anita and especially to the Russian Jew, Sasha. He considered the play anti-Polish and implied that it was written to please anti-Polish circles in the West.

But luckily my honor as a Polish patriot was saved by an American theatre producer. “Your play . . . I love it . . . but unfortunately it is anti-American,” he announced. “It's so pessimistic. Your characters have no hope. Too bad. Because there is some potential in it. Why don't you write something more realistic?”

Copyright 1993 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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