Antigone Hangs Herself in Tompkins Square Park
- by Jan Kott
Tompkins Square Park is located on the Lower East Side of Manhattan. A couple of years ago I occasionally took my small granddaughter there for a walk. Her parents lived on Seventh Street near First Avenue. Tompkins Square Park is just three blocks further to the east. It’s within easy walking distance for a grand parent pushing a stroller with a baby in it. Sometimes Janusz would join me on those outings. Not many people now call Janusz “Glowa” (“Head”), only his old friends from Warsaw. At that time Glowacki lived in the same building on Seventh Street.
Tompkins Square has a separate children’s playground with slides, seesaws and a sand box. But the sand box is dirty. Tompkins Square is not a nice park. It can hardly be called a park. There’s more bare ground than grass. The trees have broken branches and are almost leafless they look like scarecrows. But the crows rarely drop by, because there aren’t even any crumbs to be had. The park is littered with torn newspapers and old rags. Empty bottles and tin cans are collected every morning by scavengirls who can earn a few pennies by selling them to be recycled. The homeless sleep on the benches if there’s even a hint of sunshine. For Poles who know ¯eromski’s novel, Homeless People (1900), there is something almost symbolic about the word. In American English the homeless simply stink and have no place to go. In that park where the greenery has been mercilessly trampled, they’ve taken over more than just the benches. A tribe of the homeless consisting of men and young women, children and old folks, have installed themselves on a wooden platform. Perhaps it was once a stage from which the walls fell down. They sleep, cook, eat, change the babies’ diapers, get sick and die in that most public of alt theatres. But no Levi-Strauss will ever describe that tribal settlement. A year ago the homeless were driven out of the park by the police.
For many decades the area just above and below Seventh Street has been one of the cheapest neighborhoods in Manhattan. It is populated by emigrants mainly from Eastern Europe: Ukrainians and Poles with some admixture of poor Asians. Even today there are restaurants with Slavic sounding names: “Zosia”, “Teresa”, “Danuta” where wonderful Russian pierogi can be had at bargain prices. The stores with vegetables and flowers are run by Koreans. A year or so ago the whole neighborhood started to undergo the process of gentrification. “Gentrification” is a strange word; it means more or less what cosmetic surgery does: a face lift, straightening one’s nose or taking out wrinkles.
It led to painting over a few facades, propping up some collapsing buildings, opening two new boutiques and one porno-shop. Two ill-lit dives where one could get drunk for a song have been upgraded to “pubs”. The price of real estate climbed and rent skyrocketed. The homeless are pushed out of “chic’ neighborhoods. As a result of gentrification, one day the police chased the homeless out at dawn. Tompkins Square Park was enclosed with a barbed wire fence ten feet high. Antigone, the heroine of Glowacki’s play, hanged herself from the main gate of the park.
Antigone, of course, comes from Sophocles. Like her ancient ancestor, Glowacki’s Antigone wants to bury a corpse—to give him a proper burial complete with two candles and a funeral banquet consisting of a hunk of cheese dipped in honey. But the corpse was stolen, or rather taken by ambulance to the morgue like all unidentified corpses in New York City. Then it is thrown in an unmarked grave near the jail. But this new thirty-five-year-old Antigone from Puerto Rico is determined to ‘steel back’ the corpse and bury it under a bench in Tompkins Square Park.
Besides the Puerto Rican Antigone and the corpse, there are two other characters in (Glowacki’s play, both homeless émigrés: Flea, a jack-of-all-trades from Warsaw, and Sasha, a Russian Jew from Leningrad— -‘former people’ straight out of Gorky’s Lower Depths. But the setting is not “a cellar resembling a cave” as in Gorky but a bench by a leafless tree among the bushes in Tompkins Square Park. What kind of theatre is this? This bench is their only address; the only place in New York they have left. Flea and Sasha have been in New York for five years, or perhaps even longer; they can’t remember any more themselves. They are together: Flea clings desperately to Sasha. They loathe each other as one loathes one’s own skin infested with vermin. But how can one walk out on one’s own skin? They try, but cannot do it. Where is there to go?
As I write these words, a tiny ant is running back and forth across my typewriter, unable to figure out how it got there. It has lost its way. So have the tiny Flea from Warsaw and Sasha, who once was somebody, but it no longer matters who, because now his hands shake badly. They are waiting. For a certain YoIa, who is supposed to be coming, or for a visa. And what keeps them going is their endless pondering over and mocking of their own Godots.
These two homeless bums wouldn’t have existed without Beckett. But what is more important is that Glowacki found them on that bench In Tompkins Square Park in the Lower East Side of Manhattan. It is not important from where the kernel came, but what tie bread is like.
Without Shakespeare’s Mackbeth and A Midsummer Night Dream there would have been no Slowacki’s Balladyna either. The comparison leaves room for future developments, but that’s exactly what is needed.
Waiting is eternal. Nowhere and everywhere. Beckett’s theatrical genius lies precisely in showing universal human situation beneath a leafless tree or in a sand dune. In Waiting for Godot, Estragon and Vladimir have feet that stink; they discuss which of the two thieves was redeemed, the one on the right or the one on the left of the Crucified Christ. They wait and they urinate. The protagonists of Glowacki’s play discuss the thirty pieces of sliver paid to Judas and they too urinate.
Let me repeat once again: the bread is what counts, not the leaven. Without Waiting for Godot, Mrozek’s Emigrés would never have been created. The two characters in Mrozek’s play are also inseparable, because they have no place to return to. Mrozek found them in a rundown tenement behind one of Berlin’s train stations. (Glowacki found them on a bench in Tompkins Square Park. A dramatic discovery is sometimes only a new address, in this case, that bench and a new connection: Gorky’s Lower Depths on a bench. But let me repeat once again: none of it would have been possible without Beckett.
I never cease to he amazed that the dramatic road to a new realism comes directly from what has perhaps too recklessly been labeled the theatre of the absurd. And yet it seems that only absurdist techniques can adequately describe the crumbling world around us. And besides the poetics of the absurd has received strong support from history, not only in Poland but also on both sides of what was once the ideological divide. Beckett called his Waiting for Godot a tragicomedy. We have experienced it on our own skins.
Antigone from the Lower East Side gives Sasha and Flea $19.50 for bringing the body of hex friend Paulie back from the pier in the Bronx where unidentified corpses from all over New York are put into coffins and numbered before transport to a pauper’s grave. We see ten coffins on stage. Sasha and Flea pry open the lids until they find a corpse that looks like the one for which they are looking. But Sasha’s glasses get broken, and Flea has an epileptic fit. As a result, they bring back the wrong corpse.. This one has a beard (as did Paulie), and Antigone doesn’t recognize that they are burying a stranger under the bench. But the police discover that one of the corpses has disappeared from the morgue. They start a search and find not one but seven missing corpses in Manhattan alone. Nothing out of the ordinary in New York City. Glowacki is simply unbeatable in piling up absurdist inventions. But New York easily outstrips the moat absurd absurdities, La réa1ité depasse la fiction.
Tragicomedy never ceases to be cruel. Often more cruel than tragedy. Before she hangs herself on the gate of the barbed-wire enclosed park, Antigone from Manhattan is raped. Right on stage behind the bushes. We can hear her screams until they gag her. At the end only the two, Flea and Sasha, are left sitting on the same bench, as they have for years from the very beginning.
Vladimir: Well? Shall we go?
Estragon: Yes, let’s go. (They do not move.)
But the two in Glowacki’s play won’t stay. The police will dose the park to keep the homeless out. In Glowacki’s play there is a fourth character - a police officer. He gives commentary and delivers the prologue and epilogue. Like the Chorus in a Greek tragedy, he is the City. The voice of the City.
In the epilogue the Policeman addresses the audience directly.
“Just one more thing I thought you might be interested in. Current statistics of homeless in New York City are growing. By the end of this year, for every three hundred New Yorkers there will be one homeless person, which means that in this theatre tonight there is at least one prospective homeless person and they know who they are. Have a nice evening.”
In the last moments of the action, just before its bitter denouement, Sasha and Antigone talk about starting a new life together.
About getting visas and going to Russia, because here, as Sasha puts it, “They would throw us out in one week.” Us? For the first time in many years this perpetually abused Puerto Rican Antigone has heard the word “us”. She suddenly throws her arms around Sasha’s neck.
An eminent American sociology professor asked me about be heroes of Glowacki’s play. What are they like? Whenever the Polish writer Julian Stryjkowski was asked how old he was, he used to say: “I am as old as everybody else.” What are Gtowacki’s heroes like? Like everybody else. Like all of us. Thus unexpectedly I saw into Glowacki’s heart.
I am getting old, I write less and less, and soon I too have to go to the common “morgue”. Time is running out, I can’t wait to pass judgment. The three most important Polish plays of recent years are
Mro¿ek’s Emigrés , Ró¿ewicz’s Dead and Buried, and Glowacki’s Antigone in New York.
Translated by Jadwiga Kosicka
Slavic end East European Performance Vol. 13. No. 1
© 2002-2005 Janusz G³owacki All rights reserved.
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