Village Voice March 3, 1987
FROM KILLING FLIES
passe en Pologne,
c’est a dire Nulle Part.”
-Alfred Jarry, Ubu Roi
“What a strange country!”
“I started with writing a feature story and it was turned down by the censors because it was too real. There were some names in it and they found it dangerous-not dangerous exactly, but too real. They said to make it abstract. Like a short story. As a short story it should be published. As something real, absolutely not, because it showed some dark sides of life under socialism. So I changed it from a feature story to a short story and after that they stopped it anyway. But it was a beginning.”
To this good-natured dismay, I have asked Janusz Glowacki to tell me his life story. It is exactly one week before his play, Hunting Cockroaches, opens for previews at Manhattan Theatre Club. He has been working hard at rehearsals with director Arthur Penn and a cast headed by Dianne Wiest and Ron Silver, in addition to keeping some other projects going.
In his native Poland, he was the successful though controversial author of an impressive variety of works—theatre pieces, screenplays (among them collaborations with Andrzej Wajda), fiction, and essays. But history intervened and he became an unexpected resident of the West.
J.G- My play Cinders was done in Poland during Solidarity time in something like five theatres. I left Poland for its opening at the Royal Court in London without any idea that I would stay. The opening was December 16, 1981, and on December 13, martial law was declared in Poland. I had gone early to participate in rehearsal. My wife was supposed to join me, but she was on the first plane that was stopped by martial law. I mean exactly December 13, Sunday at 8 a.m.
JL- When did she finally come?
JG- A year and a half later. From an Eastern European point of view, that’s pretty short. There’s another sense of time –more Asian.
Cinders was a great success in England, but after a frustrating two year wait it received a less enthusiastic reception when produced by Joe Papp at the Public Theatre—a cross-cultural lack of understanding that still troubles its author. Four of his one-acts appeared Off-Off Broadway and he has written another play, “Fortinbras Gets Drunk,” also optioned but still unproduced by Papp. His novel about Solidarity, Give us This Day has been translated into English among many other languages.
But nobody has to tell him that the production of his latest work is an extremely important event in his life. Not only is it the end of a long haul that began with having Hunting Cockroaches commissioned and first staged a year and a half ago by River Arts Repertory in Woodstock, followed by rewrites, re-rewrites, and the search for a venue in New York City. This is the kind of row most playwrights must hoe nowadays. But of even more urgency, the production is a pivotal test whether this émigré has anything to say to his audience in his new home. And any way in which to say it. “It’s your first American play, actually,“ his wife Ewa reassures him.
Tonight he is tired but eager to relax and talk. About him bustles Ewa, small, energetic, attractive, her attention divided between anxious involvement with what her husband says and getting their shy but curious seven-year-old daughter, Zuza off to bed. We are in a typical Lower East Side apartment, surely a shelter for many such families before—Ukrainians, Russians, Puerto Ricans, other Poles, all uprooted and uncertain where the next roots will take hold.
The setting is much tidier, better lit, and more spacious that the hovel in which Hunting Cockroaches takes place, but the geographical coordinates are the same. It exists in two worlds, spiritually, imaginatively, politically, even chronologically—as the play demonstrates at one painfully hilarious point when the main characters phone home, in two time zones, one downtown near Second Avenue, the other in Warsaw.
Glowacki—a tower of a man with a Polish ski jump nose, eyes glimmering beneath huge brows, wept up like wheat shocks, a mouth that never knows which way to curl—inhabits this duplicitous terrain with the affable if bemused irony of someone who more than once has had his well-worn path turn suddenly into a sliding board. He is a comedian by profession and natural origin. His humor is the kind that makes you die laughing instead of just dying. It is the laughter of survival.
For someone whose writing career has been a not-always successful gambit around censors, almost every word does double duty. It is picked up, tossed end over end, expanded, shrunk, until we see it entirely afresh. Not hindered, but eased by its deep Slavic cadences, here is the talk of a man who has seen words betrayed and his turned his rage at the betrayal into comedy.
JG I graduated as master of literature from the University of Warsaw where I’m from. After school, I went to the Dramatic Academy.
JL- You studied acting?
JG- Yeah, and they fired me after one year, because they found out that I am talentless and cynical. Talentless, they could forgive, but cynical, not at all. So I decided I would start to write reviews of the theatre just to take revenge. Sometimes there were five openings a week and I would write reviews the next day for the daily newspaper and for the radio. And I really started to hate it. I stopped writing reviews and stopped going to the theatre for two years.
I started writing more features and from the features I discovered I should write more fiction. I wrote some scripts for movies. I found out very fast that censorship for movies is much stronger than for theatre. Movies have a big audience. So its like my feature I change to fiction. I changed a movie script to a play. Wajda was supposed to direct it as a film. But it was stopped by the minister of culture. As a play it was allowed to be done and it was pretty successful. It was a story about soccer but it was like a metaphor for Poland.
Then I wrote four scripts for movies that were done. One by Wajda and three by other directors. The one by Wajda was a bitter comedy, like everything I try to write. It was called, by the way, Hunting Flies. It was about the situation of the Polish intelligentsia—good people who are manipulated. But it was pretty funny. So I have made my way from hunting flies in Poland to hunting cockroaches in New York—the development of my big career.
Exploring Glowacki’s bitter terrain of manipulation, betrayal, and deceit in a brutally corrupt, mediocre society, Cinders happens in a girls’ reformatory where the inmates are forced to act out their version of Cinderella for a film by an up-and-coming director. The institution’s officials, as well as the filmmaker who hankers after recognition in the West, have their agenda for advancement and it all involves misuse of the young people—sexually and psychically. How the play came about, that it hopped from genre to genre until it found its most expressive home, is typical of the author’s way of working.
JG: First I wrote a feature about real girls in a reformatory. I found out that they had done some sort of Cinderella play. Then I made a documentary movie about the reformatory with a director friend and found out that it could be very interesting as a play. It could work on many levels—a movie in a play.
JL: The reformatory seems interesting to you. You also have a short story about a reformatory, “Cry, Butcher, Cry.”
JG: All Poland is a reformatory. They are trying to improve people. Socialism is a very noble idea. They try to make people happy. It’s an idealistic way to improve people, but unfortunately people are not improving as fast as they need. So they decide to put on some slight pressure and that pressure is growing and growing. And still they have beautiful slogans about making people happy.
JL: This is the humanitarianism the play speaks of so eloquently.
Deputy (from Cinders): I’ll tell you what “humanitarianism” is, shall I? It’s humanitarian to give them a hard time—clap them into solitary on bread and water, shave their heads, cancel visiting time. Applying a little pressure. That’s “humanitarianism.”...
My second point: your participation in this film is entirely voluntary. Therefore in compliance with the principles of democracy, I am going to ask you: “Do you want to take part in the film?” You then take your cue from me and reply, “Yes.” And I shall be obliged to reply, “Agreed.” Naturally, if this democratic procedure fails, I shall have to assign you to work on the film. But I’m sure it won’t come to that.
Of Glowacki’s works in English translation, the most optimistic is Give Us This Day, his novel about the Gdansk shipyards strike which led to the founding of Solidarity. Although it contains much razor satire and doesn’t gloss over the doubt, fear, and hardship experienced by the strikers, its overall brightness reflects the euphoria of that period. It is amazing that any work of fiction could be torn from such stupendous events almost as they were happening. Probably nothing could have been written if the author had not discovered the voice who tells his story—a latter-day Everyman, a poor, naïve worker who collaborates with management just to feed his large, ungrateful family until he is swept up by the sheer rectitude of Solidarity.
JG: During the strike, I saw a lot of people who were very poor and totally indoctrinated, who could not find out the difference between good and evil, because they had been brainwashed for so long from reading newspapers, being indoctrinated by radio and TV, everything. They wanted to be good, but didn’t really know how to do it. They were very simple, very primitive, but with a feeling of honesty. The novel is about how that big, very spontaneous movement helped them find their way—for a short time, unfortunately. One of the biggest ironies of history is that the biggest enemy of socialism became the workers.
I was trying to write about the most important event in my life. It was the first time I felt some kind of power. The first time in my life, really. It was something so surprising, so unbelievable, all this strike and all this hope. I’m not very sentimental. I built my anti-sentimental equipment, just to save some disappointments, like with my writing. But I was very moved.
JL: Were you on the scene a great deal?
JG: I was just an observer. After I found out that it was happening, I decided to go. It was the time when everyone was waiting for some intervention, waiting for tanks. Everybody was running away from Gdansk. I was driving from Warsaw. It was totally empty highway in my direction, but crowded in the other. It was only the secret police, the army, and my car. It made me very scared, because everybody looked at my car and said, “There goes on more secret policeman on a special mission.”
JL: Did you start writing the novel at precisely that time?
It has very much the feel that you were in the middle of it.
JG: Immediately. I was so impressed and so moved that I started writing. It was stopped by the censors and published underground. After I emigrated, it was published in London and translated into many languages. It was very hard to write in a comic way at that time. Everybody was writing in an emotional way. My book was different because it was from a very simple point of view. I knew that it was the only way to write about something so emotional. To find somebody who didn’t understand anything. Because if not, it would have been some kind of melodrama or news report.
If Give Us This Day is Gowacki’s brightest work in English, Fortinbras Gets Drunk, the play he wrote just after he left Poland, is quite the opposite.
JL: Fortinbras seems about as dark as you can get.
JG: It was easy for me to write it. I know this dark. The play is as funny as our lives at the end of the 20th century.
The play opens, as does Hamlet (of which it is a parody, painfully apt for out times), with two guards keeping a terrible watch. From offstage are heard the screams of a torture victim. It is the Ghost of Hamlet’s father. He is really a spy in ghost’s clothing who has come hoe to “report.” Shakespeare’s tragedy is nothing but a Norwegian plot, the strategy of a large power to keep a small one, Denmark, subjugated. The person on the Norwegian throne may be dead or alive, he hasn’t moved for months, and no one has dared to investigate. Bureaucrats and thugs run the country while Fortinbras, the only remaining heir to kingship, stays alive by staying drunk, thus a threat to nobody. The significance of the work as metaphor for the East European power bloc is obvious, but one wonders if the parable might not apply elsewhere.
JG: It comes out of a macabre, grotesque horror about world politics. I was also interested in Fortinbras as a character, as a person. For Poland, he is very important, for all of Eastern Europe, but totally unimportant for America. He is the new ruler who comes and just takes power. For us he is our daily lives, all the time.
JL: I thought that it might be a weakness that the play refers topically to the time when the leader of the USSR was either half or wholly dead and nobody really knew what was going on. But now there’s a strange equivalency in our country. We’re very conscious of having a leader asleep at the wheel and the government—especially the foreign policy—run by faceless, unelected functionaries.
JG: Life imitates art.
Polonius (from Fortinbras): All the artists and greatest minds in Denmark know how much they owe to me. And I know how to talk to them. Poor Yorick used to dine with me. I myself, as you know, played Caesar on the Capital. It was I who invited the actors to Claudius’s court. It was only thanks to my personal intervention that Elsinore was the world premier of “The Emperor’s New Clothes.”…I wanted to prove—and succeeded in so doing—that it is precisely in time of intensified military and police vigilance that art flourishes to an exceptional degree….The whole world took note of this momentous event, which was proof of creative freedom in Denmark. The public as such couldn’t see the play on account of the curfew, but my wife and I enjoyed it immensely. But then our home has a long-standing tradition of culture. Our daughter even acted on the stage before she started working for the police.
Duplicity, hearing one thing and knowing another, was the atmosphere in which Glowacki grew up. But now in this country he is playing a new set of doubles and determined to survive the game. Although it was written in the West, the heart and mind of Fortinbras is still in Poland. But Hunting Cockroaches must be his first American play.
The author has made his own daily dilemma work for him. A Polish émigré couple, Anka and Janek Krupinski, face another night of sleepless anxiety in Manhattan. She is an actress who has just lost a job portraying a 19th century peasant for something called the Museum of Immigration. He is a writer who is earning his green card, but no money, by teaching Kafka at Staten Island Community College and spends hours studying a map of the United States only to conclude, “Such a strange country!” In their hole-in-the-wall, cockroaches have taken on new realms of meaning far beyond those envisioned by the author of Metamorphosis.
JG: I was sure I should write something about my insomniac’s nights in America. It was a very dramatic time for me. I suddenly was between two cultures, two languages, without money, friends, but with my child and wife. We lived first in Washington Heights and afterward in the East Village. It was a very hard time—very, very. So I decided to write about it in a funny way. It was a very funny experience if I hadn’t been part of it.
Ewa Glowacki joins us a moment: “A tragedy. It was a tragedy.”
JL: You must have already been exposed to English when you wrote it. Were you writing it somewhere between Polish and English?
JG: I wrote it mostly in Polish.
EG: I was typing it for you and there’s a lot of mixing of Polish and English. Like there’s no word for “immigration” in Polish. Or “super.” Working on the Polish version, it was like translating it again, English to Polish.
JG: Because I was working on it in Woodstock so quickly and there has been a lot of rewriting, I didn’t have time for a Polish version. There were times I just handed it one page at a time to the English translator, Jadwiga Kosicka, without ever knowing what the whole would look like. I just finished it in Polish two days ago. I found out just how American it is by trying to translate it back into Polish. It was like a new creation, really.
Characters from Anka and Janek’s lives past and present come swarming out of the crannies of the apartment like the insects in the title. A pair of Polish secret police terrorize them in typical Glowackian terms.
Czesio (from Cockroaches): Take it easy, Rysiu, it’s not worth getting worked up. My god, you’d think we were dealing with some real slobs, but she’s a famous actress, a great artist. When we were going through that architect’s apartment in Miodowa Street this morning he started acting up. So Rysiu roughed him up a bit, and you know what, my friends, it’s hard to believe that a supposedly cultured man with the benefit of a college education would scream like that.
JL: The feeling of not giving anything to write about which torments the writer in the play, is it your feeling also?
JG: I was trying to show somebody who is paralyzed by fright, by everything new, by not knowing what to do. I wrote the play, so it isn’t me. But it is my feeling of being unsure of my writing—if somebody will be really interested in it. It came out of a feeling of being a stranger. I was all the time taking from the streets in Poland, how people were speaking. And suddenly I became deaf. It was so funny. I came to America but I lived in Spain. Everybody spoke Spanish, so I had a double feeling of being a stranger.
JL: Has the audience redefined itself in your mind yet? Whom you’re writing for?
JG: I will see. Cockroaches will be an important test of me. How it works and if I find some way to communicate. You know, everybody in Poland thinks that I have made a big career here. I’m really sitting in Manhattan drinking scotch on the rocks in a penthouse. After all, my play was produced at the Public Theatre, on of the best. Now I’m doing another play. They don’t understand the New York nightmare. It’s a schizophrenic state. After I came here, all my dreams, my nightmares, were about Poland. But when I was awake, I was in New York. In Poland it was police and censorship. Here it’s the super and burglars and…..cockroaches.
There it was if they were going to let me be published and here it is money. I try not to think about whether it will make money when I’m writing. I try to write just what I want. Cockroaches tries to show Polish nightmares with American nightmares.
But on the Lower East Side, I’m beginning to find a lot of very funny things which I am a part of. I am losing this feeling of being so much a stranger. I know that I am from another culture, but I think I can take advantage of that. This crowd of Ukrainians, Poles, Puerto Ricans, drug dealers, prostitutes, artists, show business people, burglars, rapists, intellectuals. It’s crazy. And now my English is getting better. And everybody speaks English and sometimes Polish or Russian. It’s so funny that even in New York, Ukrainians still have fights with Poles, like everything was really transferred from Europe to here.
JL You have a section at the beginning of the play about sincerity. Anka accuses Janek of not being able to smile sincerely, which is what it takes to be successful in this country. In all of your other works you are engaged at the deceit that one has to practice just to get through life. Here there is the mythical American openness or honesty.
JG- In the play he says it’s a strange country. For a long time, I took seriously this niceness. In Poland people say “I like it” or “I don’t like it.” Here it is very dramatic to find out that it doesn’t mean anything when they love it. Also I had to learn that here in America you should praise yourself. In Poland nobody will say “I wrote something terrific.” If here I say that I wrote something “not bad,” people will say “ if you have some doubts about it, why do you want me to read it?” Now I’m saying I wrote a terrific piece.
© 2002-2005 Janusz G³owacki All rights reserved.
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