The Open Theatre of Tadeusz RóÅ¼ewicz
By Daniel Gerould
Although he has not written anything new for the theatre since The Trap (Pulapka, 1981), Tadeusz RóÅ¼ewicz remains the most provocative and original Polish playwright of the post-war period. His probing of the boundaries traditionally assigned to theatre has put him in the forefront of artistic innovators along with Kantor and Grotowski. Outstanding directors have sought to realize his work in production, despite inherent tensions between the author's radically experimental propositions and the nature of theatre itself.
With his first performed play, The Card Index ( Kartoteka, 1960), RóÅ¼ewicz (already a major poet) introduced a new theatrical language of fragmented structure and imagistic montage, which, at first, seemed disorienting but eventually came to be accepted as a quintessential expression of post-war sensibility. For the generation of Poles who came of age in 1939, the experience of wholesale death and destruction during the war and occupation had rendered obsolete notions of beauty, high ideals, and noble words. A new aesthetic, RóÅ¼ewicz felt, had to take Auschwitz as its basic premise. Literature as it had existed until then was simply a lie. Repudiating ideologies, moral judgments and intellectual speculations as empty abstractions, the author of The Trap clung to the bare facts of human life as the only truths and the only values.
Of Polish playwrights since 1945, RóÅ¼ewicz has been the most restless experimenter with form. In a number of his works for the stage he undertakes an ontological analysis of theatre that questions the very assumptions that make performance possible. Recognizing that reality will not submit to the artistic conceptions of the past, the Polish poet strives to go beyond the limits of the genre. In rejecting hierarchical notions of high and low, foreground and background, beginning, middle and end, RóÅ¼ewicz essays a kind of drama that starts at point zero with an undifferentiated aleatory mass of sights and sounds and persists as pure duration.
RóÅ¼ewicz has repeatedly voiced the "desire to write a play that would be both truly realistic and at the same time poetic." By rendering poetry realistic and realism poetic, the playwright has achieved his goal in many of his dramas. His work is realistic in the sense of being totally immersed in existence in all its corporeality; the ordinary, the banal and the bodily are the playwright's raw materials which he refuses to imbue with any transcendental meaning. But RóÅ¼ewicz is an unorthodox "realism" unencumbered by illusionistic conventions. Externals, such as plot and cause and-effect sequentiality, are eliminated in favor of an interior drama that reveals life as it is experienced in the depths of stillness.
To paint a picture of everyday life in which nothing out of the ordinary happens, the author of The Trap favors the simplest means: emptiness among events, silence between words, waiting. Action, the most basic element of drama in the traditionalist view, is considered by RóÅ¼ewicz to be the antithesis of realism and thus the negation of true theatre. "My plays have no endings," the Polish poet has declared. Rather than the temporal unfolding of a plot, he strives for the simple duration of a given situation. His aim is the creation of an "open theatre" without fixed perimeters where scenes can be re-ordered or added at will. RóÅ¼ewicz’s method of composition is a poetic counterpoint and collage of images producing a polyphonic form capable of accommodating a rich mixture of styles ranging from the colloquial and salacious to elegant parody and pastiche of fin-de-siècle fashions and literary traditions.
Questioning the separation of theory from practice, RóÅ¼ewicz has produced a new kind of script that is half treatise and polemic with his predecessors, in which extended stage directions serve as a commentary to interrupt the action and disintegrate the dramatic form. The lengthy stage directions are also arguments with all future directors with whom the playwright may conceivably collaborate. His concept of "open theatre" involves the creation of works that can be completed only in the theatre when director, designer and performers confront the text-and one another.
For RóÅ¼ewicz, the struggle between a play and its realization on stage is the crowning moment of the whole theatrical process. "What I like best in the theatre are the rehearsals," the playwright avows. "When the director fights with everything and everyone. The drama of the battle over the shape of the 'performance'." The texts that RóÅ¼ewicz produces are designed to heighten the conflict by resisting the efforts of theatre artists to dominate the author. "I've written my plays," the author explains, "so as to make difficulties for the directors who stage them, not to make their lives easy."
RóÅ¼ewicz has been fascinated with Kafka ever since he first visited Prague during the Stalin years when the Czech author was forbidden reading. Along with Chekhov and Beckett, Kafka serves as a model for RóÅ¼ewicz’s concept of inner drama and directly inspired two of the author's last dramas. The Hunger Artist, a highly personal adaptation of Kafka's tale, explores the creative process and the relation of artist to society.
Loosely based on the writer's diaries and letters, The Trap is an enigmatic work that "sets traps" for literal-minded critics, directors and audiences. Not one of the Czech author's literary works is ever mentioned (except the generic "Letter to His Father"), nor does the name Kafka once appear. This is hardly the usual life of an artist in which titles and names are constantly dropped. We may ask: is The Trap a biographical play about Kafka? RóÅ¼ewicz himself denies that this is the case, insisting that his task as poet, after absorbing masses of facts about the Czech writer, was to depart as far as possible from the documentary material so that his own drama could come into being.
In fact, the Polish author is more concerned with Kafka's inmost fears than with the realia of his life, and except for a few fragments from the letters, RóÅ¼ewicz leaves his sources discreetly uncited. The Trap dramatizes anxieties and nightmares of the artist Franz as he himself experiences them in relation to his father, his family, his friend, and his fiancée. And despite his attempts to escape the many threats of confinement-existential, societal and historical-assailing him from all sides, the traps are too cunning for Franz. At first sight the highly fluid structures of time and space that RóÅ¼ewicz has created for The Trap make the play seem formless and meandering. The play, however, actually has a firm skeleton of recurring phrases, images and motifs. It is only superficially an "amorphous" play, RóÅ¼ewicz argues,"less like the crown of a tree than the underground roots intertwined and growing in all directions. And therefore the length-in a temporal sense-of a scene on the stage does not always correspond to the length of the duration of that 'scene' or to the space that it occupies in the text."
The playwright uses Tableau XII, "At the Barber's", to illustrate the drama's temporal indeterminacy and elasticity. "The hidden magnitude of that scene is many times greater than what is shown taking place on the stage. It is a scene that comprises the past and the future lurking in the present. … The roots are still hidden in the soil, in the darkness, of the future." The scene takes place in 1914 as war is declared on Serbia, and at the same time the Barber's assistant Vic abuses the Jewish Gentleman like a Nazi thug some twenty years later.
Structured as a series of tableaux, The Trap is a family photo album through which we can move backwards and forwards. The central image embodying all the play's dangers, the "trap" is as much biology as history. It is lurking everywhere-as the body in which Franz is imprisoned and as the camp (Auschwitz) to which his sisters will be sent. The "trap" is simultaneously present at all times, in all scenes, extending beyond Franz to the world at large. Throughout the play the Nazis are waiting behind the scenes-represented by the Black Wall. At the denouement of The Trap, what has until this point been the tragedy of a family, and of an individual victimized by the family, becomes the tragedy of the Jews. As the actors playing Kafka and his family take their bows, the Executioner-Guards come out from behind the Black Wall that opens at the back of the stage and brutally push the performers off to the trains leaving for the death camps. As the wall closes, only desperate fingers and palms of hands can be seen.
For Jerzy Jarocki, a frequent RóÅ¼ewicz collaborator who directed The Trap in 1992, the drama grows out of the confrontation between Kafka's apocalyptic forebodings and RóÅ¼ewicz’s own experiences of the war and the Holocaust. Significantly, it is not the sensitive Franz, but his blunt pragmatic Father who scents the coming of the Executioners and forecasts the Holocaust. Franz is too obsessed with the inner concentration camp of creativity to which his art has condemned him to have direct knowledge of the approaching Nazis. Whenever the Executioner-Guards appear, he is in a state of dreaming. Literature, which is Franz's fate, proves perilous to his life.
Built on a poetics of heterogeneity, The Trap consists of realistic dialogue, long multi-layered conversations, remembrances, quotations, descriptions, visions, dreams and events taking place outside Franz's consciousness as well as scenes occurring in his presence but not perceived by him. Recurrence and transformation are devices that bind the diverse layers into a whole. Felice's teeth, ready to devour the artist, become the gold crowns of the corpses at the extermination camp Majdanek. The huge wardrobe that for Franz seems a tombstone appears to his Father as a means of salvation in which the family can hide from its persecutors. Father and son pairs occur in different modalities. Despite (or perhaps because of) the writer's instructions to bum his works, Max becomes Franz's "wardrobe" that will preserve his "children" from destruction. Franz's supposed son by Grete is a monster (as he has been for his Father), the revenge of nature on the artist for giving himself exclusively to the creative imagination.
The entire drama is punctuated by the presence of Franz's Animula, or little soul, a childhood double, who, RóÅ¼ewicz tells us in one of his permissive stage directions, may appear at any point throughout the performance . The playwright has written several such appearances into the text, as, for example, in Tableau Ill where Animula watches Franz's dream of his Father's enactment of Abraham's sacrifice of Isaac, and in Tableau XV where the "little soul" is a silent witness to the deportations through the Black Wall. Never does Animula identify with any of the characters or actions, remaining on stage alone after everyone has gone and leaving the theatre with the last spectator. If the Executioner-Guards take us ahead into a historical future, Animula always brings us back to a timeless past of childhood and its open eyed perceptions of adult horrors-noncommittal, non-judgmental, non comprehending.
RóÅ¼ewicz is only one of many late twentieth-century playwrights who have found in the Czech author's life and work inspiration for their own dramas, but The Trap may well be the most penetrating treatment of Kafka's psychic dilemma. It is curious to note to what extent RóÅ¼ewicz's intensely personal, Polish viewpoint anticipates that of the British writer Alan Bennett, who analyzes Kafka's predicament in almost identical terms, although his own plays on the subject are radically dissimilar.
In his "Author's Note" of 1987 to Two Kafka Plays (Kafka's Dick and The Insurance Man), Bennett views Kafka as a prey to traps both biological and historical. "Death took no chances with Kafka and laid three traps for his life," Bennett writes. "Parched and voiceless from TB of the larynx, he was forty, the victim, as he himself said, of a conspiracy by his own body. But had his lungs not ganged up on him there was a second trap, twenty years down the line when the agents of death would have shunted him, as they did his three sisters, into the gas chambers. That fate, though it was not to be his, is evident in his last photograph. It is a face that prefigures the concentration camp."
The third trap that might have caught Kafka (but never did) is the consequence of Bennett's playful imagining that the Czech writer first avoids TB and then escapes the Nazis by fleeing to America in 1938, only to die of asbestos poisoning which he had contracted in 1917 while managing his brother-in-law's factory. Although Bennett uses the same "trap" metaphor as RóÅ¼ewicz, it is unlikely that the British playwright could have known the Polish drama. And whereas Bennett has written "exterior" drama of a satirical nature about the reception, perception and consumption of Kafka as a cultural artifact in present-day Britain, RóÅ¼ewicz has placed Franz's ambiguous inner drama as son and artist in the context of the tragic historical catastrophe that engulfed his family, his culture, and his civilization.
The ultimate "trap" for RóÅ¼ewicz is Kafka himself, who, the Polish playwright avers, is a "black hole" in the European literary firmament capable of swallowing whatever is attracted to it. In The Trap Franz maintains that "Silence contains everything and is more important and vaster than speech and sound." For RóÅ¼ewicz , theatre has great possibilities; there is nothing it can not encompass. But speaking about silence has become such an impossible task that it has kept him from writing for the stage since 1981.
In 1991-ten years after the play was first published- RóÅ¼ewicz added a prologue to The Trap in the form of a poem, "Interrupted Conversation", which is an interior monologue by Franz during the last months or days of his life in a sanatorium near Vienna. Unable to speak, the dying writer communicates with the outside world on scraps of paper. His thoughts are disconnected but return persistently to his obsessions: the various women in his life, his complexes, problems with his Father, reflections on war and death. According to the poet, the prologue offers a summation of the play, with stress on its twin themes of suffering and silence. It is RóÅ¼ewicz’s farewell to Kafka.
Ambassador Theater presents the US Premiere of
…Anxieties and nightmares of Franz Kafka…
By Tadeusz RóÅ¼ewicz
Translated by Adam Czerniawski
May 28 – June 21, 2015
XX Bldg. of the George Washington University
814 20 Street, NW, Washington DC