Warsaw Voice February 12, 1995
By Eva Nagorski
Janusz Glowacki is a dramaturge and author of several books, plays an screenplays. He emigrated to the United States in 1981 and he lectured in universities such as Yale and Columbia. Awards include American Theatre Critics Association, Joseph Kesserling Award, Drama League of New York Play writing Award, the Hollywood Drama—League Critics Award and the Guggenheim Fellowship. His most recent play, “Antigone in New York”, premiered in Warsaw in 1992 and was listed in Time magazine as one of the ten best plays of the 1993.
Nagorski: Why did you specifically choose Tompkins Square Park as the setting for “Antigone in New York” and how did you research your play?
Glowacki: For a couple of years I used to live on 7th Street, between 1st and 2nd Avenues, and it was very close to Tompkins Square Park. It was impossible to miss this place because it was very special and unusual to find in Manhattan a park, which was completely filled with homeless. It’s like a very cruel, disappointing, awful microcosm of the world because it’s a Puerto Rican alley, Polish alley, Ukrainian, Jamaican, Cuban. During the night, especially in the winter, the homeless warmed themselves by setting fire in the trashcans. And from time to time, somebody would get too close, catch on fire, and they would push him down on the ground. It looked like pictures from Bosch’s paintings. As we all know, Bosch was the father of surrealism. And at the end of our happy century, surrealism has become synonym of naturalism.
— Why did you think this place and atmosphere could be successfully staged as a play?
— It was already theatre. People were dying, divorcing, having babies, marrying, and falling in love right in front of your eyes. Very unusual theater in the 20th century. However, the police have swept the park out and have thrown these people out of their homes. It was a sort of holocaust for all these people and they had no place to go. Now they are circulating around, around, around.
New York itself is a city where the limitation of heaven is the penthouses on Park Avenue, so it accentuates a very real of hell. People feel better when someone is poor so they can make sure that the power of struggling to the top always exists. Once, when walking through the park, a black woman told me, “Hey guy, I hope you’re rich. Because if you’re poor, you’ll go straight to hell. But if you’re rich, maybe you can do something about it.” Just the fact that you go to the theatre and the homeless lay on the ground in front of the doors on 42nd Street and no one reacts, gives New York a sense of sickness linked with success. Catastrophe is an officially recognized way of life. Beckett wrote that “nothing is as funny as unhappiness”. So my play is a comedy about unhappiness.
— What was your relationship with the homeless people you met? Are you still in touch with them now? How did they react to you and your plays.
— I spent a lot of nights and days in this park. Some were funny, some were nightmarish. I drank and talked with them, became friends. Flea, for example, whose character was one of the heroes of my play, was a real person who got his name from his epilepsy fits and was very proud he had the best epilepsy fits in the park. He was also very proud when I told him that his character appeared on New York stage. They liked me, they knew who I was and they liked the play. I still go to see them.
What I wrote is set up in the part but it's not a documentary about homeless. It was difficult because Americans are usually afraid of the homeless; they hate them or don’t want to hear about them. They have all these very American ideas that they (the homeless) are very happy because they are not paying taxes or rent, so it’s paradise. The problem was to make these people real, and also to be able to identify and sympathize with them. If not, it would never work on the stage. I think it’s a very warm play, full of feelings. It’s a love story actually. Flea, this pretty hustler from Poland; Sasha, a former painter from Moscow, a Russian Jew; and a Puerto Rican, Anita. Their dreams can’t get through so they make them a reality. They are very lonely so they are desperately trying to stick together. For example, once someone tried to defend Anita and called her "my woman”. Because of these words, she can do anything. She will never forget these words and she is deadly in love with the person. Even if she’s not sure it’s exactly the same person. She also keeps a telephone in her shopping cart, waiting, for a call to return to work at the sweatshop; she only needs a place to plug the phone in.
In Sophocles’ Antigone, a real tragedy, Antigone faces the choice between human rights and Gods law. In my play, the sky is so cloudy that you can’t see if any God is there. The human law is represented by the policeman, who wishes to do well but he’s hypocritical and all he can do about the homeless is violate their human rights and dignity as subtly as possible. There’s no catharsis, no victory of justice in my play; it’s a victory of public order. The park is swept away, the homeless are gone, everything in order but tragedy happens. The most honest person and yet the most punished is this Anita who is just following her feelings and moral instinct. She’s trying to get the body of this guy, someone who’s supposed to be her over, from Potter’s Field. What she wants to do is give him the minimum of what we all deserve from this world: to have our own private grave.
— Did you choose specifically a Pole and a Russian to show that once degraded to a certain status in life, everyone is the same?
— The homeless in my play are the same as we are. If someone would be thrown out of their apartment for a year, they would be exactly the same. For me, it was obviously easier to write the characters of Russian and Polish people because I know about it. But I can’t think it was a reflection of Polish—Russian relations. It could have been anyone. But it was somehow easier to show so—called Polish anti-Semitism. Flea, a Polish hustler, really loves this guy (Sasha) but he’s still repeating these anti—Semitic slogans... he just heard them somewhere but they don’t have any meaning for him. But as I said, Flea loves him but can’t help and say, “You Jew”. So, it’s to show the absurdity of anti-Semitism, especially here in Poland, where all the Jews have already immigrated.
— Does your play have more of a Polish or American flavor to it?
— I don’t know. I think it’s my play and I’m divided between these two. It’s set up in New York and it’s about humans. Usually, what I write is about people and the rest is set design: Nowy Swiat, London, Manhattan. It’s a set and people are moving around inside. Since I have lived in New York for already twelve years, it’s obviously very New York somehow. But it’s the black humor in this play.., that’s just my character of writing.
— Where do you get the black humor. Is it a product of your upbringing or just you?
— Myself. I was born with black humor and because of that, I survived somehow. I think irony is the best way to express some very tragic and serious feelings. And I’m almost sure that it’s the only way, especially now in this world that has become completely schizophrenic. When I say that Beckett and Ionesco sound completely realistic, this is true. You have Chechnya, you have Bosnia, you have all this skit. How can you shock people through literature? It’s just impossible, I think. People are too tired with violence and they really don’t care. Who cares about Chechnya in the USA? They don’t even know where it is. They were excited about Bosnia for a couple of weeks. And now they don’t care because it's too far. All that is left from our world is to show how tragically funny we are.
— What do you think the position of the Polish writer is today? Do they have subjects to write about? Do people read their work more now than they did before? Do they have problems getting published?
— It sounds paradoxical, but I suspect that some writers might be missing communism. They felt censorship was part of their life, weakness and power. They were fighting for something and it was very clear what was good and evil. The end of communism meant the end of certain work for writers, in all of Eastern Europe, where these writers, or professional victims, would travel all over American universities, lecturing on their troubles. Until I left, I had plenty of excuses, that I can write only what I can, unless I were free and so on. A lot of people were just buying books because it was prohibited to get truth. Now everything has become complicated and writers are suddenly facing reality. I think that some Polish writers feel relieved that they are now normal writers that they don’t have this duty to fight against communists. But for many of them, it’s a problem. Now, there are crowds of publishing houses which publish' everything... so there’s competition. And the audience, readers in Poland and the world, has stopped being interested in them. Because an eagle in a cage is much more interesting for a viewer than the eagle which flies. Then the eagle is only interesting for bird—watchers. Same as with people in a cage; it’s fascinating. But a free man is just a free man.
Poland, the Czech Republic and Russia are now like the landscape after the battle. All the world is watching what sort of people, country, system will appear after everything collapses. It’s like seeing someone coming out from a pile of bodies, and it’s the ‘new man’. This ‘man’ will become the hero of plays, movies, etc... he’s something new the world will be interested in. But hopefully, it’s a moment of evolution and it’s too hard to assume what will come from this. When Chairman Mao was once asked what he thought about the French Revolution, he answered that it’s too early to judge.
— But for you personally, there’s something that pulls you here to Poland... otherwise, you wouldn’t come back so often.
— Well, I spent more than forty years in Poland, so I believe I belong here. I come to see friends and all this evolution. In stores, which used to sell army uniforms, they’re selling Mercedes Benz and there’s a long line of people. It’s fascinating how it’s changed. But, actually, I think it’s much more exciting to go to Russia now, but I’m waiting till it gets a bit warmer.
— What is your view of America now after having lived there for some time?
— I was really fascinated with America. When I came it was a problem of hopeless and unreturned love to the United States, which is just Polish history. I had no doubts that I should go to the USA if I immigrated because of the general pattern: Statue of Liberty, Donald Duck, Tennessee Williams, General Patton... I think my writing was influenced by this change, when I got transplanted to the U.S. It was like the beginning of a second life. I was really a well—known writer and suddenly I became completely anonymous.
— How did you gain your recognition in America and abroad? Some of your plays have been produced all over the world. Do you think you could have had the same global success if you had stayed in Poland?
— I came to the U.S. from London, after the opening of my play, “Cinders”, which got terrific reviews. So I thought it would be no problem to produce this play in the US. However, I heard what is the most killing opinion in the U.S. about any writer: “It’s too European.” I sent this play to 49 theatres and I got five answers that they loved it but were not going to produce it. I’m still waiting for the other answers.
Arthur Miller is the one who really helped me. I met somebody who knows him, sent him the play, he read it and liked it very much. He sent the play to Joe Papp, called him and sent him a letter. It was amazing that someone still exists who does something like that for someone else. Joe Papp read it, liked it, and did it. It was a success, with Christopher Walken and it got great reviews. After that, it was easier. Then I wrote “Hunting Cockroaches”, and it became a hit with the critics.
- What was funny for me was that in Poland, I was considered a writer who only wrote about Krakowskie Przedmiescie. When I left Poland, everyone said I had no chance at all, that “he’s just a writer who writes ironically about society.” And suddenly “Cinders” was done in Taipei, Sydney, Buenos Aires, Seoul... One way to check if you’re a good writer is to do something in front of a new audience.
— Immigration is a subject, which virtually affects every family somehow. How did you incorporate this issue into your writing, which you yourself dealt with? For example, “Hunting Cockroaches” had such a huge success and probably a large part of it was due to the fact that it dealt with an issue many could relate to.
— The most importance of “Hunting Cockroaches” was that it was a comedy, a very funny play about a very serious subject: to people, a famous writer and an actress, who lost everything except their accents. And they landed in this new country, lost in this different culture, language, city, everything. I showed how surreal this situation was for these people. And for this, I think I used America and real life. With “Antigone”, it was different. It got terrific reviews but also some bad ones. Like in the Washington Post, this woman said it was an attack on the Clifton Post, this woman said it was an attack on the Clifton Administration from a barbarian, Eastern point of view. She took it as me saying the Clifton administration was doing nothing about the homeless situation. She wrote that I’m under the influence of Dead Souls by Gorky... but it was actually written by Gogol, but, Gogol or Gorky, who cares in Washington, D.C.
— What about now, with immigrants coming to the U.S.? Are the hopes as high and is there the same amount of awe as before?
— It’s changed; it’s much more reasonable. However, I read recently that 80% of young people want to go to the U.S. and think about immigration. It’s sad because Poland has suddenly become a free country and because everything is going so slowly, people are losing hope and trust in this government and country and want to build their lives outside of it. And they are the most, in my opinion gifted and brave intelligentsia who could really rebuild this country. Before, it was just an escape from totalitarianism; there were some economical and political levels. Now, political immigration doesn’t exist anymore. When I had decided I would stay in New York, I was actually almost 100% sure that I would never be back in Warsaw again. Yet, everyone was saying that the Soviet empire was on the verge of being finished off. But since I have no political imagination, I never thought that communism would collapse. I thought it was a life sentence for all of us. Especially since my fortuneteller told me that I would never be back, so...
- Your wife and daughter joined you in the US three years after you left. What are they doing now in New York? Does your daughter have any of your characteristics and want to follow in your Footsteps?
— My daughter, who is fifteen, has also a black sense of humor. We almost are unable to talk seriously; it’s always a game. Two years ago, I was depressed because she decided she wanted to become an actress. And I know what it means in New York. But a year ago, she switched to movie director, which I prefer. I hope she’ll switch to producer and then maybe, she’ll produce my work.
My wife writes children’s books. Now she just opened a company called Interaccess, which does advertising. For example, one of their clients is MCI, the telephone company, and they target the ethnic market, such as Russian and Polish, on radio and TV.
- You are currently on the jury of the Nowy Scenariusz contest, which is looking for new screenwriters here in Poland. How would you advise a novice screenwriter today?
— I would advise a beginner to write about a story he would like to see. And to write whatever comes from himself. It’s worth remembering that movies are pictures, and it’s not worth remembering those movies, which were recently successful. Besides, personal fears, hopes and obsessions are most priceless. The obsession of most young American screenwriters is success, which is exactly why they are not successful. The best thing for all writers is to catch something that’s in spirit that will happen but has not happened yet. I think in “Hunting Cockroaches” I caught something; the spirit of people who are transplanted to another country... intellectual aristocrats who become bums and how they feel about it.
© 2002-2005 Janusz G³owacki All rights reserved.
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