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New York Times - March 4, 1990

A Playwright Is Free

(So Now What?)

A certain talented writer who, like myself, came here from Eastern Europe complained to me recently that totalitarianism has ruined him twice: first, by imprisoning him and forcing him to emigrate; second, by falling apart just when the writer had completed an 800-page novel on the very subject of totalitarianism. Needless to say, in the times of glasnost, Lech Walesa, Vaclav Havel and the Berlin Wall, the book was turned down by 11 publishing houses, where it was considered an excellent piece but totally outdated.
“Forget the money and time involved,” said the writer, “but what should I write about now? Donald Trump after the divorce, or what?” He shook his head gloomily.

His predicament sounds funny to many but not to everybody. As an émigré writer myself, I sense quite clearly that this wonderful earthquake in the East puts me in a little bit of a delicate position.

And rightly so; I, for example, came here not to improve my living conditions, but because of Gen. Wojciech Jaruzelski's martial law. My living conditions haven't gotten any better, and martial law is gone without a trace. General Jaruzelski has become a liberal, so why am I still here?

People who two years ago accused me in the Polish press of being a sold-out servant of imperialism are starting private enterprises now, and their only concern is how long it will take until the stock exchange will open in Warsaw. My once-banned novel about the birth of Solidarity, “Give Us This Day,” is scheduled for official release in Poland later this year with a print run of 100,000 copies. Instead of broadcasting specials from the Minister of Internal Affairs, Polish National TV airs Roman Catholic services interlaced with episodes of “Miami Vice.”

Secret police officers throw themselves in the arms of passers-by, begging their forgiveness, while Bibles stick out of their pockets discreetly. The Communist Party has disbanded itself at the last congress, and to commemorate this event, the delegates sang out the Internationale. And I am in New York, and I can't even ask them whom they had in mind when they sang “Arise, you wretched of the earth.”

In addition, “Cinders,” my play that appears to be about girls in a reformatory school who stage a tale of Cinderella but is in fact a metaphor for totalitarianism, is being performed by 16 theaters in the Soviet Union. More than that, I was invited to see it with my own eyes, and I went.

So, what am I still doing in America? What's the matter with me? Is it because I don't own an apartment in Warsaw anymore? But to tell the truth, I don't own anything here either. Then did I get used to round-the-clock Korean groceries on the Lower East Side, or attached to my clumsy English so that my refined Polish doesn't entertain me anymore?

Or do I regret the great amounts of effort I have made during the last eight years to detach myself from Poland and to try to attach myself to America?

And now when I have tried so hard to adapt my special talent of avoiding political censorship to a way of dealing with the commercial world, should I go back? On top of that, political censorship has disappeared from Poland, and commercial censorship hasn't yet been put in effect. Perhaps I am afraid I would miss American theater, but actually it's easier to see Arthur Miller productions in Moscow than on Broadway these days.

Maybe I belong nowhere, and I am simply dangling somewhere in the middle.

I remember how excited I was a few weeks ago when I took a seat among a crowd of Muscovites gathered to see my play “Cinders.” A man in a long coat took pictures of the spectators. In Moscow such a hobby is associated not with the Japanese, but with the K.G.B. I laughed, but I was the only one. Again there was something funny, and again I was the only one who found it amusing.

The audience looked at me in annoyance. Somebody said, “This is a foreigner,” and I didn't feel like laughing any more.

Well, I wrote “Cinders” as a Kafkaesque comedy, funny and scary in equal parts. But Kafka was banned in the Soviet Union for years as a too-realistic writer. Moscow has introduced a multiparty system by now, but it may still be too early to laugh at prisons and the K.G.B.

Recently, I've been struck by the rebellious thought that I can carry on living, sometimes here, sometimes there, without any specific address.

But immediately I took up a humbler tone and became ashamed of myself. Such whims can perhaps be afforded by citizens of elegant countries - for example, France - but they somehow seem unbecoming to a native of a country which has been seriously and regularly molested during the last 200 years.

Indeed, as a result of Polish history, I grew up on such patriotic literature that eroticism appeared, if at all, only in the guise of an unrequited love for the fatherland.

On the other hand, let's not go too far with this dumping on Poland. My country may be small and poor, but whatever you say, we Poles had created a democratic constitution in 1791, ahead of everybody else. Unfortunately, our neighbors put an end to this idea. But recently we have again been the first ones to stand up against Communism.

At this thought I raised my head. But immediately afterward, I remembered Schopenhauer, who warned that the least valuable kind of pride is national pride. Whoever exemplifies it reveals a lack of individual qualities.

I also have to mention that, to tell the truth, I stayed in New York when my countrymen were putting a definite end to Communism. Not that my life here was exactly a bowl of cherries. Frankly speaking, nobody was begging me to stay here and perhaps that's exactly why I stuck to New York. It was either wild vanity, or wild masochism.

Anyway, I settled down. I adopted a cat from the 92d Street A.S.P.C.A. and ornamented the iron bars installed on my windows. I look through them at my super, an elderly emigrant from Malta, twisted by rheumatism, who when it rains always looks at the sky with a happy smile.

I asked him once if he liked the rain and he answered that he hates it because his legs swell. But in Malta he used to wait for a tiny drop from heaven, and it never came. His land became dry as a stone and he had to emigrate. He came to New York because in his view it's humid here all year long.

Since my return to New York I have been pursued by a simple melody from the Leningrad production of “Cinders” in the Lenin Komsomol Theater. The audience was separated from the stage by iron bars. The girls wearing inmates' uniforms tried to break them down while singing a song to this melody. The song was about their love for America and their dream to get there. The audience wept. I didn't.

Actually, I hadn't written the song. It was composed by a Russian poet. But I was the one who fled to America. I wrote a play about this called “Hunting Cockroaches.” It is a dark comedy about a couple of Polish emigrants sharing their sleepless night with cockroaches in a Lower East Side apartment.

In Poland, only two years ago, “Hunting Cockroaches” couldn't make it through the censors because it was an anti-Communist play. I wouldn't be surprised if the same people who stopped it then would now attack it as anticapitalist.

Recently I went out in New York. It rained. At the corner of Seventh Street and Avenue A, I bumped into my smiling super. I shook his swollen hand. It was much worse than two months ago. Why doesn't he return to Malta, I wondered. The climate would be so much better for him. He has worked 30 years here; in his own country he would live a luxurious life on his Social Security. I found the courage to ask him. “I thought about it,” he answered, still smiling. “But the problem is that it never rains there.”

Copyright 1990 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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