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A Farewell to the Polish Multi-Talent Slawomir Mrozek

By Andrzej Wirth


Mrozek was the last Polish name I heard upon leaving my flat in Warsaw’s Old Town in the early morning hours of April 19, 1966. I did not know then that I was not supposed to return ever again. The caretaker had stopped me in the hallway, stuttering: “The en-en-en-gineers broke into Mro-mro-zek’s apartment!” One could not overlook the admiration this man -– a farmer who had been transferred to the city -– had for the technical skills of the thieves.

I lived in a garret wall to wall with Slawomir Mrozek, in an architectonic installation for the privileged. Two years later, Mrozek would turn into an émigré for the same reason as I would: the strangulating of the Prague Spring by Soviet tanks. Without being aware of it, we were moving on a double helix of time.

Mrozek was a multi-talent of a rare kind, an original cartoonist, a satirist and humorist, a writer of short stories and novellas, a designer of dramas and one-act plays, an author of memoirs. He made his mark in each genre. But apart from strokes of genius, there was also that which failed. However: De mortuis nil nisi bene -– we should remember his chef-d’oeuvres.

The earliest masterpiece seems to be the illustrated book The Elephant (1957), in which a besieged city serves as the example for a standardizing immanent critique of the political system (Cold War, Stalinism). His great achievement consists in extending his satirical sensibility to all phenomena of life, while keeping the focus on Poland. Last but not least he conceived of dramatic structures devoid of external reference; I call this Model dramaturgy.

I was the first critic to conceptualize Mrozek‘s practice by attempting to explain his syllogistic dramatic structures through the influence of the Polish Analytical School of Philosophy. My ironic review of his masterpiece The Police (1958, Teatr Dramatyczny, Warsaw) allowed for the authorization of the play and opened the path for subsequent plays.

The next masterpiece in this sense was Tango (1964), proposing a universal model of conformist behaviors in the form of an intergenerational drama. In Warsaw, the staging by Erwin Axer was interpreted as the battle of the political parties: "Only power can be generated out of the void.” In London, Martin Esslin rather accentuated the rapprochement of the aristocracy (of manners) and the new bourgeoisie; in the Boston staging by David Wheeler, Arthur’s parents were -– in accordance with the rule of political correctness -– Beatniks, Arthur himself was a Hippie, and Edek an Afro-American. Some years later, Tango was to be considered in Europe as the foreshadowing of the Cultural Revolution in 1968. This verification of the Tango model confirms Mrozek’s motto: “Facts are possible, too.”

Another masterpiece of psychological realism (Mrozek can also do this, if he wants to) is The Émigrés (1974). The Police (1958), Tango (1964) and the one-act plays were the masterpieces of the Khrushchev Thaw. I will not mention the plays of the 1980s, they were poor, although not complete failures.

Mrozek used a unique type of irony: he put on display the hidden absurdities, not as a stigma of the human being, but as a deficiency of thought. His reductio ad absurdum constitutes a methodological and instructional procedure, not a Weltanschauung (world view). Mrozek’s satire is apathetic and devoid of moral claims. The author has no mercy with the one falling victim to his humor. A satirist like Mrozek is only possible under the conditions of a mild totalitarianism. He practiced an ingenious, immanent critique of the system; and using the reductio ad absurdum he discovered the absurd among the familiar and the familiar within the absurd. An “Aha”-reaction followed the “Ha, ha”-reaction in the guise of a therapeutic measure, so as to deliver one from one’s fears. This strategy became generally accepted in Eastern and Middle Europe. Without Mrozek, the dramatist Vaclav Havel would not exist.

Originally, Slawomir Mrozek was no dissident in Poland. He thought with the system, but much more extensively than the system would wish for. In exile, he avoided adopting the attitude of the émigré (like me), which would have meant to write from the position of the opponent. Even during the creative crisis of the 1970s, he would always remain a writing draughtsman, sustaining his popularity.

Mrozek never conceded to being loved, and felt every critique, even the most admiringly positive one, to be an indiscrete look at his cards. The eternal gap between the writer and the interpreter opens up at this point: the writer does not want to be interpreted.

On August 15, Slawomir Mrozek passed away in Nice, at the age of 83.


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