TOO BAD TO BE TRUE
- by Elzbieta Baniewicz
In Act Two of Janusz Glowacki’s The Fourth Sister, the reality created onstage dwells in regions of the poetic absurd. The General (played by the director), father of three daughters, sits with a bottle of vodka, immersed in childhood memories. Kolya, an orphan taken in by the General and sent to America to secure the three daughters a better start in life, has returned after just a few days, with only a few cents. Selling her wedding dress, purse, and watch, Tanya, one of the sisters, invested her entire fortune in his trip, so quite naturally she is feeling murderous towards him. Her dreams of a bright future across the ocean have disappeared irrevocably, like the vodka down her father’s throat.
In an American whorehouse, Kolya learns a rather brutal lesson in life. Since this is acted out on the General’s bed (a theatrical image very much in the style of Rózewicz or Witkacy), everybody takes part in the scene, not only his family but a legless, accordion-playing casualty of the Afghanistan war, and the American brothel-keeper. Where are they? In the theatre, of course. After all, they are all actors, and it is their task to lie convincingly, to “serve as a mirror of nature.”
The unity of time and place of action is constantly disrupted, as theatrical conventions change rapidly in this scene. Everything develops in the open from authentic elements: from pain, sympathy, terror, violence, great disappointments and small dreams, thoughtless ranting that drowns out emotional suffering, and above all, from helplessness in the face of what life brings the characters. It is a brilliant scene. Does it contain the truth of life? Yes. The truth of art? Definitely. Higher feelings? Certainly. They cannot get any higher or any more heart-rending since they are accompanied on the accordion played by a cripple in a wheelchair. This is comic and tragic at the same time. It has truth and absurdity in it, laughter and awe. The world has lost its bearings and refuses to be tamed by any human measure.
Tuning such different emotional values throughout the play into a multi-colored flow of life and the polyphonic sound of theatre is a masterstroke of directing on the part of Kowalski. That he is an outstanding actor is a well-known fact, but he has never revealed his directing talents before, so his accurate reading of Glowacki’s extremely difficult poetics comes as even more of a surprise. Despite appearances, especially his mask of a mocker, Glowacki is not an easy or pleasant writer. Perhaps rather perverse, considering what we’re used to. He not only skillfully combines diverse theatrical conventions—theatre with film, farce and comedy with tragedy, the grotesque with the affective, into a unique dramatic alloy—but he also fills his comic-bitter works with his own philosophy and sensitivity to human fate. It is insufficient to say that he is a modern-day moralist. This would sound too trite, too pretentious. However, it is actually the moral anxiety, the lyrical, tender attitude toward people that is the primary impulse for his “brutal” and “cynical” plays.
Already the superb dialogue proves how very aware Glowacki is of his goals and means. The different styles and levels of speech precisely define a character’s personality, social status, mentality. Moreover, the dialogue, full of unexpected twists, jokes, and paradoxes resulting from careful observation of people, takes a humorous form to express thoughts and moral messages. Glowacki addresses his plays to a well-educated audience. “I like writing on the other side of an already written text,” he says. “The world is one giant library. I like to relate to what has already been written: myths, archetypes, fairy tales. Nobody seems to mind.” Thus, he plays with works of literature, symbols, cultural icons, and various conventions, and invites the audience to join the game. It is a game of connotations, double implications, hidden meanings, which exist not only in separate lines of dialogue but, mainly within whole scenes, in their specific order and juxtaposition. No character, event, or line is accidental. The whole structure allows us to savor the precision of details, selected in such a way as to strengthen the universal meanings. The play is written with such expertise that all the meanings come from the stage, they are born organically from the actors’ actions.
The Fourth Sister is not “a variation on Anton Chekhov’s well-known play about the Prozorov sisters,” nor is it an “intelligent pastiche,” nor “a travesty of Chekhov’s world illustrating the post-communist melancholy,” as some Polish reviewers persist in declaring. Writing Antigone in New York or Fortinbras is Drunk, was Glowacki travestying or making a pastiche of Sophocles or Shakespeare, or showing the Greek or British reality? That’s pure nonsense. Chekhov exists in this play, indeed, but as a point of reference, an allusion or an ironic quote—not in relation to the story line but the world of values. Despite the three women thirsting for love, it has little in common with the original. A hundred years ago love, honor, a disinterested devotion to principles and service to social ideals, which determined the status of the intelligentsia, had a particular meaning. Modern man is falling in all directions, and the moral rock-bottom that one could hit has disappeared, melted into oblivion. No scandal is a real scandal anymore, it can only be more or less visible in the media. The hopes for a better world that Chekhov shared with his generation of the Russian intelligentsia and the revolutionaries as well have been fulfilled, but it is a rather grotesque fulfillment. The history of the passing century provides ample proof that the values for which they fought in word and deed have gotten lost, or changed into their opposites.
Another quotation or reference in the play is the old Chinese tale of Cinderella, rewritten by the Brothers Grimm, one of the important myths of European and, nowadays, world culture. Kolya, the orphan taken into care, drudging for free and used for the worst chores, becomes a star and a millionaire due to a strange twist of circumstance. As in the original fairy tale, Cinderella-Kolya puts on the shoes that don’t fit the real daughters of his “benefactor”; he is transgendered into a princess. Doubly so, in fact in two realms: in art and in life. This unexpected transformation is accomplished for the first time (in art) when, dressed as a woman, he accompanies a documentary film director to the Oscars. In the award-winning film Children of Moscow he pretended to be a juvenile prostitute who, according to the director, “has been through hell” and “decided to tell the whole truth in front of the camera”—a completely untrue story, though incorporating true elements, which brought him to the height of fame and success in Hollywood.
Cinderella’s second transformation (in life) is, so to speak, “genuine.” On his second trip to America, Kolya ended up cross-dressing as Sonya Onishchenko (having again used his multiple-entry visa) in a whorehouse, like dozens of Russian women. He didn’t mind be-coming a prostitute for the purpose of the film, but would not do it in real life. He beat up the brothel manager and ran away, accidentally carrying off the suitcase of a gangster, and ending up in Moscow quite unexpectedly as a millionaire. Now, he is no longer poor Cinderella the drudge, but a businessman, Jacob Ivanovich. Everybody in Moscow falls to their knees before his money as if before an altar. One finds an analogy here to Cinders, Glowacki’s earlier play that had also exposed the mechanisms of manipulation in life and in art, only on a much smaller scale. Living in hypocritical communism we had the delusion that things were different in the world beyond the Iron Curtain, but Glowacki, who has been living in the United States for a long time, sees both worlds clearly and feels no admiration for either.
The cult of the golden calf has effectively pushed out or replaced religions, ideologies, and elementary values, especially as it is supported by the omnipotent media; their money is the bottom line of everything. It has become the most powerful element of the modern world, it elevates people to the heights of success, fame, and power; few are able to resist it. Cinderella transformed into a princess is the same as a bootblack turned into a millionaire; that focal, indestructible myth of America has become a universal myth. Only, it is acted out in ever-changing settings, with more and more exotic characters playing the main parts. In Glowacki’s play, it’s the residents of Moscow, but The Fourth Sister is not about Russia, or at least not only. “Maybe this world was once more cruel, but it was never as stupid as now,” sensibly notes Vera, the eldest sister. And where is stupidity more picturesque, where are social frustrations more painful, and crimes more cynical, than an empire eleven time zones across disintegrating before our very eyes. It is a question of scale. In Russia, a country that realized the idea of equality and social justice for several dozen years, the myth of Cinderella’s transformation is now accomplished with exceptional speed and force. The kings of life, the “new Russkies” in their luxury limousines, are multiplying just as fast as corruption, mafia organizations, and poverty. Their extravagance and love of Byzantine opulence amazes even Western millionaires, whose fortunes were the work of many generations. When, at the end of the millennium, history offers such a field of observation, one can’t really blame the author for examining the degeneration and convulsions of the modern world in a location where they are the most prominent.
In the capital city of Moscow, the mentality of global village residents, fed as they all are with the same media pulp of politics, violence, and sex, shines with the full brilliance of total confusion. Nothing depicts this phenomenon so well as the reactions of the nouveaux riches. Indeed, Tanya, who cried for five days after Diana and Dodi died but didn’t have enough heart left for the casualties of Kosovo, is no different from millions of her peers across the world. Her dreams are the same, though more naive perhaps: Versace and Armani clothes and a man in a sporty BMW, with loads of money to take her to the Caribbean where everything is colorful—the water, and the snakes, and the palm trees—just like she sees on television. Like young girls all over the world, she watches Titanic and dreams of great love. The kind of love that came to the heroine of Pretty Woman, the kindhearted prostitute played by Julia Roberts. The fact that she didn’t accept money for her services made the unhappy millionaire fall in love and marry her. A whore transformed into a lady— that’s just another variation of the Cinderella story. It feeds the mass imagination extremely effectively, and even if the moral foundation of happiness is suspect, nobody minds. On the contrary, it’s a model of success worth following.
A hundred years ago, in Chekhov’s time, fallen women pretended to be virgins; today, virgins pretend to be prostitutes. That’s the way things have become, and in conformity with the spirit of the times, Tanya boldly acts on this principle. In her situation it seems that dreams will never come true, but they do. She finds a wonderful lover, Kostya, and brushes against the elegant world thanks to him. She goes to clubs with techno music and aquariums, drinks Ballantine’s whisky, gets a Versace wedding dress and a watch. And she doesn’t bother about the fact that her Prince Charming gets his money from selling drugs and tanks. For people like him, a war in Yugoslavia or Chechnya means good business; you can always lose a battle and sell any “surplus” tanks to the Arabs or somebody else. Chagall’s painting of a boy hanging upside down, missing a shoe and a sock, reminds Tanya of her own life. Katya, her older sister, describes this from a broader perspective: “Because, I think that the whole of Russia is hanging upside-down in the air. And we are hanging with her. So, my problem is, are we all going to fall flat on our faces and knock out our teeth? Or maybe there’s some hope?”
Only their father, the General, as he keeps asking whether there’s any “righteous war” he could fight in, has remained faithful to his ideals. Imperial ideals, of course. True, it’s he who says the Chekhovian lines: “A person is born and is ready to change the world and suddenly he sees it’s already seven p.m., asks questions like “Who rules here?” “Where’s all the money?” “How will it all end?” and “How should we live?” But he is undoubtedly one of those who are the most disillusioned with the new reality. Just like a whole army of Russians who were told for years that their country was great and powerful, and who were given medals, he finds it hard to accept the thought that the Soviet Union won the war but lost the peace. His generation will never fit into the democratic reality, that is, if democracy ever becomes a reality.
His growing bitterness can transform easily from a local to a general feeling. Quite obviously, the modern world is a system of communicating vessels. “I suspect that America’s the same bordello as here. Calvin Klein, the Sistine Chapel, and Monica,” says Vera. This simply means that the global village we live in has no capital city we could escape to, or where we could find a better life. Moscow was such a place for Chekhov’s heroines, because a hundred years ago the concept of a center and the provinces still existed. Glowacki, like a true ironist, is not very much an optimist. It is no coincidence that the compositional element binding the play is the world’s greatest show—the Academy Awards ceremony in Hollywood. It is repeated at the beginning of each of the two acts, but each time from a different perspective: media glitter and truth, success and its moral price. The time and space of this play are locked in a circle; it is happening now and everywhere. Is the reality of the finale a virtual joke, or a premonition of something ominous in the air?
Janusz Glowacki, The Fourth Sister, Powszechny Theatre, Warsaw, 1999— 2000 season. Director: Wladyslaw Kowalski.
(Translated from the Polish by Joanna Dutkiewicz)
PAJ, NO. 67 (2001) PP. 99—104: © 2001
The Johns Hopkins University Press and PAJ Publications
© 2002-2005 Janusz G³owacki All rights reserved.
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