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Sławomir Mrożek (1930-2013)

 

Polish dramatist, prose writer, and cartoonist, whose works explored alienation, abuse of power, conformity, and the limitations of human freedom under a totalitarian system. Mrożek often used surrealistic humor and grotesque situations to reveal the distorted beliefs of his characters. His most famous plays include Tango (1964), a multileveled family saga, and Emigranci (1974), about the collapse of illusions. 

ARTHUR (jumps up and runs across the stage): But it's not only Grandfather. I was born twenty-five years ago and my baby carriage is still standing here. (He kicks the baby carriage.) Why isn't it up in the attic? And what's this thing? Mother's wedding dress. (He pulls the dusty veil from under a pile of rubbish.) Why isn't it put away in a closet? And Uncle Eugene's riding breeches. What are they lying around here for when the last horse he ever rode died forty years ago. No order, no sense of reality, no decency, no initiative. You can't move in this place, you can't breathe, you can't live!" (from Tango, 1964)

Sławomir Mrożek was born in Borzecin, near Cracow, the son of Antoni Mrożek, a village postmaster, and Zofia (Kedzior) Mrożek; she died in 1949. His early years Mrozek spent in the villages of Borzecin and Porabka Uszewska and in Cracow. Though he received a conventional Catholic education, religious issues have not been in the forefront in his plays. More important for his development were the war years, the Nazi occupation of Poland, the establishment of a "people's republic" after the war, and the Stalinist repression, which created a whole generation of disillusioned young people.

Mrożek graduated from the Nowodworski Lyce in 1949, and then started to study architecture. After three months, he dropped out, and entered the Academy of Fine Arts in Cracow, but again abandoned the curriculum because he was "bored" and joined the staff of Dziennik Polski. For a short time he studied also Oriental philosophy at the University of Cracow, to avoid being drafted in the army. His early journalistic pieces were in tune with the official ideology. "We trust the Great Stalin, trust the Communist Party of the Soviet Union. Why should we be not certain of the future," he wrote in 1952, but a year later when his love for Stalin began to wane, he stated: "Jazz can help solve the problem of youthful boredom. . . . " 

Opowiadania z Trzmielowej Gory (1953, Tales from Bumble Bee Hill) Mrożek's first published book containing two satirical stories, was printed in an edition of 25,000 copies. The second volume, Polpancerze praktyczne (Practical Half-Armour) also appeared in 1953. Mrożek attaced petit bourgeois mentality, warned about the revival of fascist tendencies in Germany, and introduced  Dwight D. Eisenhower as a continuator of Hitler's tradition.

In 1956 Mrożek traveled to the Soviet Union and in 1957 he spent two months in France. Mrozek's satirical drawings started to appear regularly in the humor magazine Przekrj and in Szpilki, and in 1958 he began editing a weekly, Postepowiec. In 1959 Mrożek married the artist Maria Oremba; she died of cancer in 1969 in West Berlin.

For a while Mrożek was better known for his cartoons than for his fiction. "In any case, drawing for me was the school in which I learned to write," he once said. His talent for playwrighting Mrożek discovered when he wrote a show, Joy in Earnest, for the student theatre Bim-Bom. His first play, Policja (1958, The Police), presented the old story of the fox and the geese in a new form - an highly efficient police force, that has suppressed all disloyalty to the government, must manufacture fake political dissenters to secure the existence of the system. During this period student and cabaret theatres began to develop in Poland, Andrzej Wajda made his early films (Kanal in 1957 and Ashes and Diamonds in 1958), Stanislaw Lem published his early science-fiction stories, and Witold Lutoslawski made his international breakthrough with Funeral music in memoriam Bla Bark (1958), in which he used 12-tone techniques.

The most important playwrights at that time, Mrożek and Tadeusz Rozewicz, introduced fresh ideas in the Polish theatre, especially from the repertoire of the absurd. Liberalization of the system did not last long. Following serious strikes and riots over food shortages and Soviet "exploitation," Wladyslaw Gomulka assumed power and began limited Stalinization. In October 1957 the journal Po prostu was closed down and the workers 'councils were dissolved.

Mrożek established his international reputation with his early short story collections. Słoń (1957, The Elephant), in which the themes were not tied down to Polish conditions too demonstratively, became a bestseller and received the prestigious award of the literary review Przeglad kulturanly. It was followed by Wesele w Atomicach (1959, Wedding in Atomville) and Deszcz (1962, Rain). Almost all volumes of his short stories and plays were usually sold out instantly.

Mrożek's short fiction satirize the Polish mentality, romantic heroism and grandiloquence, or the oddities of the Communist system, but his main target is the human behavior, human follies. In 'The Elephant' Mrożek parodied didactic tales. The director of the Zoological Gardens wants to reduce the costs of the establishment. He orders an elephant made out of rubber. Unluckily, it is filled with gas. Next morning children from a school visit the zoo. The teacher tells that "the weight of a fully grown elephant is between nine and thirteen thousand pounds." A gust of wind blows the elephant away. As a result, children start to neglect their studies. The story ends with a sad note: "And they no longer believe in elephants."

Mrożek traveled in France, England, Italy, Yugoslavia, and other European countries. As a cartoonist, Mrozek enjoyed a huge popularity, and his plays were performed in London, New York, and Paris. In the West, Mrożek's fame spread also through Martin Esslin's book The Theatre of the Absurd, which appeared first in the early 1960s. Esslin's ground-breaking study labelled Mrożek as an absurdist for the following decades. Mrożek himself has later resisted the etiquette, saying that his plays do not fit exactly into the category. Esslin coined the concept of "the Theatre of the Absurd" to describe a group of European non-naturalistic playwrights, who dramatized the strange, meaningless nature of life, which has no certainties or purpose. According to Esslin, "the decline of religious beliefs has deprived man of certainties. When it is no longer possible to accept complete closed systems of values and revelations of divine purpose, life must be faced as in its ultimate, stark reality." (The Theatre of the Absurd, 1961, 3rd edn, 1980)

The Police, one of Mrożek's most acclaimed early works, was broadcast on television in the United States and was also produced at the Phoenix Theatre, New York, in 1961. Na pelnym morzu (1961, Out at Sea), Karol (1961, Charlie), and Strip-Tease (1961, Eng. tr. 1972) all one-act plays, dealt with relationship between the experience of an individual and impersonal, corrupted common good. Although written under a totalitarian regime, the works move beyond a particular national culture and strive for a blend of various literary tradition, beyond the concept of socialist realism. During this period, Mrożek's art was undergoing changes. "I, alone with myself; I and another human being; I and society; I and the metaphysical," Mrozek wrote in a letter. "Four basic relations, four dimensions of my being."

Already in his early dramas, Mrożek avoided explicit political or historical allusions, but his Orwellian criticism of a modern totalitarian state did not go unnoticed by his public or the censors. Referring to the history of his country, Mrożek once said: "The monster kept me imprisoned, but it fascinated me a lot at the same time." Mrożek left Poland in 1963. He lived with his wife in self-imposed exile in Italy until 1968 and moved then to Paris. Two of Mrożek's plays were seen in London in 1964 during the first World Theatre Season.

Mrożek's first full-length play, Tango, is perhaps still his most famous work. It was first performed at the Jugoslovensko Dramsko Pozoriske in Belgrade, Yugoslavia on April 21, 1965. In Poland it was produced by the director Erwin Axer at the Teatr Wspolozesny. Tom Stoppard's adaptation was first performed by the Royal Shakespeare Company in 1966. (Stoppard also revised the literal translation of the play with the assistance of a native Polish speaker.) The first performance in New York took place at the Pocket Theater in 1969. On one level, Tango is a tale about the conflict between generations, but basically it demonstrates the process, in which youthful idealism turns into unscrupulous struggle for power and paves way to despotism. Martin Esslin has argued, that the original Polish audience in Warsaw would have seen the work as a bitter and sardonic comment on Stalinism. "I am going to create a system in which rebellion will be combined with order, nonbeing with being," declares the young idealist, Arthur. "I will transcend all contradictions." "He meant well, but he was too highstrung," says Eddie after killing Arthur. "His kind never gets old." At the end, the old generation, Uncle Eugene, and opportunism, Eddie, dance together the popular tango, 'La Cumparsita', over the corpse of old traditions. "I've got the feeling, Arthur, my boy, that nobody needs you anymore," says Eugene.

After Mrożek denounced his country's part in the 1968 invasion of Czechoslovakia in Le Monde, he was immediately called home. However, Mrozek accepted his "homeless" state, his position as an outsider, and decided to stay in Paris. Authorities in Poland responded by banning his plays and stories for some time, and his books were withdrawn from libraries. In the early 1970s, Mrożek traveled in the United States and South America. In 1978 he became a French citizen. His own experiences in exile Mrożek dramatized Emigranci (1974, The Emigrants), in which an academic and a worker exchange views on New Year's Eve. These refugees from Eastern Europe, who have little in common, lose even their own individual dreams. A ban on his writings was gradually lifted and his plays Szczesliwe wydarzenie (1971, A Happy Event) and Rzeznia (1973, Slaughterhouse) were published in Poland.

When Wojciek Jaruzelski proclaimed martial law in 1981 and arrested Solidarity leaders, Mrożek protested in Le Monde, and forbade television performances of his plays and publication of his writings in Polish papers. However, his works were still performed in Polish theaters, although authorities banned Ambasador (1982), which had its world premiere in Warsaw just before martial law was declared. With several other writers, such as Czeslaw Milosz and Leszek Kolakowski, Mrożek protested in 1983 against the dissolution of the Polish Writers' Association (ZLP).

Mrożek married in 1987 the Mexican theatre director Orario Rosas. He received the Franz Kafka award, but refused to accept the Polish Fundacja Literacka award. In 1989 the Mrożeks moved to Mexico, settling on a ranch called La Epifania. There Mrożek composed the first part of his diary, Dziennik powrotu, which he later finished in Poland.

Like many Eastern European writers, Mrozek regularly made use of allegory instead of openly criticizing society and speaking of its faults. In his later plays, Mrozek expressed his ideas in a more concrete manner. Kontrakt (1986) Portret (1987) and Miłość na Krymie (1993, Love in the Crimean), which focused the fall of the Russian empire, mirrored this development. Mrożek wrote this play in French for a competition for the best play by a French playwright, and received Crdit Industriel et Commercial Paris Thtre award for staging the play in the Thtre de la Colline in Paris. Piekni widok (1998, The Beautiful Sight) was about two European tourists, whose vacation is ruined by the Balkan War.

In 1990, a festival dedicated to Mrożek was arranged in Cracow. The ancient city-hall tower in the middle of the main square was wrapped in Mrozek's trademark - a large natty tie. In 1994 Noir sur Blanc started to publish his works in Polish. Mrozek moved with Orario Rosas to Cracow in 1997. His 70 years birthday was widely celebrated in Cracow and Borzecin. From the late 1990s, his cartoons and columns have appeared in the largest daily newspaper, Gazeta Wyborcza. In 2003, Mrożek received the highest French national distinction, Chevalier de la Lgion d'honneur. His last years Mrożek lived in France. He died on August 15, 2013, at a hospital in Nice. 

For further reading: 'Slawomir Mrozek: Jester in Search of an Absolute' by E.J. Czerwisnki, in Canadian Slavic Studies, 3(4), (1969); 'Mrozka dialektyka magiczna' by M. Piwinska, in Legenda romantyczna i szydercy (1973); World Authors 1950-1970, ed. by John Wakeman (1975); Mrozek by Jan Klossowicz (1980); McGraw-Hill Encyclopedia of World Drama, Vol. 3, ed. by Stanley Hochman (1984); 'Slawomit Mrozek: From Satire to National Drama' by Halina Stephan, in Polish Review, 34(1), (1989); 'My Autobiography' by Slawomir Mrozek, in Mrozek Festival (1990); Mrozek by Halina Stephan (1996); Transcending the Absurd: Drama and Prose of Slawomir Mrozek by Halina Stephan (1997) Encyclopedia of World Literature in the 20th Century, Vol. 3, ed. by Steven R. Serafin (1999); 'To Escape From History One Day' by Malgorzata Sugiera, in Perspectives on Modern Central and East European Literature, ed. by Todd Patrick Armstrong (2001). Note: Sławomir Mrożek's date of birth in this calendar: 29 June, 1930. The official date of birth, 26 June, is a result of sa mistake in the transfer of record from the parish books.   

Selected works:

  • Opowiadania z Trzmielowej Gry, 1953 (short stories)
  • Płpancerze praktyczne, 1953 (short stories)
  • Maleńkie lato, 1956 (novel)
  • Polska w obrazach, 1957 (cartoons)
  • Słoń, 1957 (short stories, illustrated by Daniel Mroz)
    - The Elephant (translated by Konrad Syrop, 1962)
    - Elefantti: satiireja (suom. Kristiina Kivivuori, 1964)
  • Policja, 1958 (play)
    - The Police (translated by N. Bethell, 1967)
  • Meczenstwo Piotra O'Hey'a, 1959 (play)
    - The Martyrdom of Piotr Ohey (translated by N. Bethell, 1967)
  • Wesele w Atomicach, 1959 (short stories)
    - The Ugrupu Bird (translated by Konrad Syrop, 1968)
    - Ht Atomilassa (suom. Pirkko Pesonen, 2003)
  • Indyk, 1960 (play)
  • Postepowiec, 1960 (cartoons)
  • Na pełnym morzu, 1961 (play)
    - Out at Sea (trans. N. Bethell, 1967)
  • Karol, 1961 (play)
    - Charlie (translated by N. Bethell, 1967)
  • Ucieczka na południe, 1961 (novel)
  • Strip-tease, 1961 (play)
    - Striptease (translated by Teresa Dzieduszycka, Ralph Manheim, in Three Plays, 1972)
  • Deszcz, 1962 (short stories)
    - The Ugupu Bird (translated by Konrad Syrop, 1968)
  • Zabawa, 1962 (play)
    - The Party (translated by N. Bethell, 1967)
  • Kynolog w rosterce, 1962 (play)
  • Czarowna noc, 1963 (play)
    - Enchanted Night (translated by N. Bethell, 1967)
  • Śmierć porucznika, 1963 (play)
  • Jelen, 1963 (play)
  • Tango, 1964 (play)
    - Tango (translated by Tom Stoppard, 1968; Ralph Manheim, in Nine Plays of the Modern Theatre, 1981)
  • Krawiec, 1964 (play)
  • Dom na granicy, 1965 (play)
  • Racket-baby, 1965 (play)
  • Testarium, 1967 (play)
    - The Prophets (translated by Teresa Dzieduszycka, Ralph Manheim, in Three Plays, 1972)
  • Poczwrka, 1967 (play)
  • Six Plays, 1967 (The Police, The Martyrdom of Piotr Ohey, Out at Sea, Charlie, The Party, Enchated Night, translated by Nicholas Bethell)
  • Drugie danie, 1968 (play)
    - Repeat Performance (translated by Teresa Dzieduszycka, Ralph Manheim, in Three Plays, 1972)
    - Toinen er (suom. 1969)
  • Przez okulary Slawomira Mrozka 1953-1968 (cartoons)
  • Profesor, 1968 (play)
  • Dwa listy i inne opowiadania, 1970 (short stories)
  • Szczęśliwe wydarzenie, 1971 (play)
  • Vatzlav: Sztuka w 77 odstonach, 1972 (play, written in 1968)
    - Vatzlav: A Play in 77 Scenes (translated by Ralph Manheim, in Three Plays, 1981)
  • Three Plays, 1972 (Striptease, Repeat Performance, The Prophets, translated by (translated by Ralph Manheim, Teresa Dzieduszycka)
  • Rzeźnia, 1973 (play)
  • Utwory sceniczne, 1963-73 (plays, 2 vols.)
  • Emigranci, 1974 (play)
    - The Emigrants (translated by Robert Holman, in New Review, 1979; Norman Beim, 1984)
  • Garbus, 1975 (play)
  • Wyspa rż, 1975
  • Utwory sceniczne nowe, 1975
  • Serenada, 1977 (play)
  • Lis filosof, 1977 (play)
  • Polowanie na lisa, 1977 (play)
  • Lis aspirant, 1978 (play)
  • Parabellum, 1979 (fiction)
  • Amor, 1979 (teleplay, includes Amor, Krawiec, Polowanie lisa, Serenada, Lis filozof, Lis aspirant)
  • Pieszo, 1980 (play)
  • Opowiadania, 1964-1980 (short stories, 3 vols.)
  • Striptease; Tango; Vatzlav: Three Plays, 1981 (translated by Ralph Manheim, Teresa Dzieduszycka)
  • Małe listy, 1981 (short stories)
  • Ambasador, 1982 (play)
  • Rysunki, 1982 (drawings)
  • Letni dzień, 1983 (play)
  • Moniza Clavier, 1983 (fiction)
  • Donosy, 1983 (denunciations)
  • Alfa, 1984 (play)
  • A Summer's Day, 1985
  • Opowiadania, 1985 (stories, samizdat)
  • Kontrakt, 1986 (play)
  • Portret, 1987
  • Wybr dramtw, 1987 (selected drama)
  • Dramaty, 1990
  • Male prozy, 1990 (short stories)
  • Widowy, 1992 (play)
  • Miłość na Krymie, 1993 (play)
  • Powrt, 1994
  • Wielebni, 1996 (play)
  • Dziennik powrotu, 1996 (diary)
  • Piekni widok, 1998 (play) 
  • Przez okulary: 1965-1968, 1999 (ed. by Stanislaw Rosiek)
  • Człowiek według Mrożka. Rysunki 1950-2000, 2000 (ed. by Stanislaw Rosiek)
  • Wybr dramatw, 2000 (2 vols., ed. by Miroslaw Grabowski)
  • Piękny widok, 2000
  • Małe listy, 2000
  • The Mrozek Reader, 2003 (ed. by Daniel Gerould)
  • Das Leben fr Anfnger, 2004 (ed. by Daniel Keel, Daniel Kampa)
    - Elm aloittelijoille (suom. Pivi Paloposki, 2006)
  • Epoka "Szpilek": 1974-1982, 2005  (ed. by Stanislaw Rosiek)
  • Mrożek, Skalmowski: listy, 1970-2003, 2007 (ed. by  Andrzej Borowski)
  • Sławomir Mrożek Adam Tarn Listy 1963–1975, 2009
  • "Listy 1965-1996", Erwin Axer i Sławomir Mrożek, 2011 (ed. by  Tadeusz Nyczek)  


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