History of Western Theatre: 17th Century to Now/East European Post-WWII

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Sławomir Mrożek[edit]

Slawomir Mrozek describes a young man who resents his father's liberal views, 2006

Of interest in the East European theatre after WWII is the Polish playwright Sławomir Mrożek (1930-?) and his family saga, "Tango" (1964). As described by Esslin (1968, p 321), "the tango here is the symbol of what the original impulse to revolt was about. For when the tango was a new and daring dance, the generation of Arthur's parents was fighting for their right to dance the tango. At the end of the road, when the revolt against traditional values has destroyed all values and nothing is left except naked power- Eddie's power, the power of the brainless mass- the tango is being danced on the ruins of the civilized world."

O’Neill (1983) summarized the historical context of the dramatic characters. “Stomil and Eleanor once created meaning for themselves by destroying form in art, and thus paved the way for absurdist art. In the play, they are victims of the very formlessness they helped to create. Moreover, each of the characters exists in the allegory that Tango em bodies. Eugenia represents the old generation, once shocked by people like Eleanor and Stomil who made love "in the first row of the orchestra at the opening night of Tannhauser, but now bored and cynical, having lived too long and seen too much to do anything more than fritter away existence in useless activities like poker. Uncle Eugene, with his memoirs and his nostalgia for the order of the past, stands for the aristocracy displaced by the cultural and political events of the twentieth century. Eleanor and Stomil, married in 1928, are the aging, now ineffectual, artists who once achieved their goal of destroying all tradition and consequently all form, 'all those fetters, those rusty chains of religion, morality, society, art'. They embody an entire way of thinking and acting that characterized the avant-garde in the first quarter of this century. Arthur represents the lingering spirit of romanticism in the contemporary world, the visionary desperate to have the world conform to his idealized concept of it. Ala functions as a representative of the apolitical, personal liberation movement which began to spread into all social strata in the 1960s. Eddie, with his gross habits and his small square moustache, represents the ignorant but powerful mob that resorts to Hitlers and Stalins to assert itself. As in medieval allegory, these forces are incompatible with one another and engage in a struggle for the soul of mankind...Eddie, who uses the pistol to overpower Arthur with two swift blows to the back of his neck at the end of Tango, asks during Stomil’s play, 'Where's the snake?' Although Stomil replies: 'The snake is in our imagination', the snake in the household, the agent of the family's fall from disorganized ‘grace’ into the hell of tyranny, is the only person who asks about the serpent, Eddie himself.” (pp 46-47)


Tango dance maneuver

Time: 1960s. Place: Poland.

Text at ?

Arthur is angry at seeing his great-uncle, Eugene, play cards instead of writing his memoirs. To punish him, he places a bird-cage over his head. He also commands his grandmother, Eugenia, to lie inside a coffin with lit candles beside it. Arthur next scolds his father, Stomil, for walking about with his pajama bottom improperly buttoned up, but he ignores him. The father reminds him it is thanks to his generation that he is so free, but Arthur regrets such freedom, "in this brothel where nothing works because everyone can do whatever he pleases". But to Stomil, "every man is entitled to his own kind of happiness". Arthur continues to speak of this theme to Eugene. "Don't you realize that, precisely because everything is possible, nothing is possible anymore?" he asks. The loss of tradition and convention have made revolt impossible. Considering himself an artist, Stomil presents to the family a puppet-play on Adam and Eve. After a few exchanges, the lights go out and a gun-shot is heard, with the result that he is the only one amused. Arthur challenges his father by announcing that a supposed friend of the family, Eddie, sleeps with his wife, Eleanor. But after Stomil proposes to shoot him, Arthur discovers his father playing cards with both. Having failed to do anything with his father, Arthur next attempts to turn the clock back by convincing Ala to marry him. She hesitates but finally accepts. When he asks for Eugenia's blessing, she hesitates. Glad of this turn of events, her brother, Eugene, threatens to shoot her unless she does. She finally yields. On the wedding day, there is a newly discovered order in the household, though Stomil remains doubtful as to whether it can be maintained. "Formalism will never free you from chaos," he prophesies to Eugene. Eleanor is also glad of this turn of events, still enthusiastic about Eddie acting as both her servant and lover. But at the last moment, Arthur no longer wants to go through with the ceremony, empty of any meaning, still looking for an idea to build an entire life on. A sick Eugenia enters the coffin a second time, but this time to die. This gives Arthur the idea that death is the best idea of all. He begins by condemning Eugene to death and is about to enforce it when Eddie kills him from behind. In view of the family's weakness to decide on anything, it is now Eddie's turn to command. To celebrate the coming of a new family order based on old traditions, he dances a tango with Eugene.

Vaclav Havel[edit]

Vaclav Havel described turmoils suffered by a professor of philosophy under the unknown threat of state authorities, 2000

Czechoslovakian drama achieved notoriety with "Largo desolato" (1984) by Vaclav Havel (1936-2011). Havel also wrote "The memorandum" 1965) and "Redevelopment" (1987). The mixing between anxiety with humor in these plays approximates the theatre of Harold Pinter. In particular, "Largo desolato" has some affinity with Pinter's "The birthday party" (1957) in which two individuals hound a victim at his home.

Carey (1992) summarized the play as follows. “Professor Leopold Nettles, an existentialist philosopher who has been under police surveillance and harassment for writing a paragraph 'disturbing the intellectual peace', can escape from his dilemma by declaring that he is 'not the same person who is the author of that thing'. Nettles is so tortured by the expectations of his friends and by his own self doubts, however, that he has virtually imprisoned himself within his own apartment and his own mind...Nettles has been the vicarious moral voice upon whom all his friends, who have surrendered their own voices, depend. He is their excuse not to be. Their vague expectations and dependence contribute to his identity crisis: is there a split between who he is and the roles others expect him to play? The dichotomy between Nettles's current internal torment and the image he has projected in the past is revealed through the other characters. His friend Bertram notes 'I can't escape the awful feeling that lately something inside you has begun to collapse... that you are tending more and more to act the part of yourself instead of being yourself.' In fact, Nettles in his desperation increasingly acts the roles that others project on him, using the same phrases they have addressed to him. Urged to put his philosophical ideas to some practical use, he ironically does just that: he uses his reputation and writings to seduce Marguerite, a young student whom he sees as 'in mid-crisis about the meaning of life'. Before the seduction is complete, however, the agents of the authorities appear." (pp 207-208)

In the play as a whole, Trojanowska (1996) pointed out that “the doorbell always interrupts a conversation at its most important moment and the disrupted sentences are left unfinished"...On one hand, the interrupted business leaves Leopold alineated. On the other, the repetitions and circularity of the scenes give us a “feeling of enclosure or entrapment” facing the central character." (p 422)

"Largo desolato"[edit]

Time: 1980s. Place: Czechoslovakia.

Text at ?

Leopold Nettles, a professor of philosophy, is sick with anxiety about receiving a visit from state authorities; he dares not even leave his house in fear of the consequences of being found missing. He often looks through the peep-hole of the main door. His friend, Edward, can find nothing to say to calm him down. One day, Leopold receives the visit of two men named Sidney, but these are not the men he fears. On the contrary, they work in a paper mill and arrive to express their admiration of his stand. They believe that everything will work out well in the end provided he remain firm. They also specify that considering many people look up to him, he should be doing more than he does. Their talk is interrupted by Leopold's friend, Lucy. When the two men leave, she soon initiates love-making. "You need love," she affirms, "real love, mad passionate love, not that theoretical one you write about." He submits to her blandishments. Another of Leopold's friends, Bertram, expresses fears that he will crack under the strain and let all his friends down. "What happened to your perspective on things?" Bertram wonders, "your humor, industry, and persistence? the pointedness of your observations, your irony and self-irony, your capacity for enthusiasm, emotional involvement, commitment, even sacrifice?" Impatient to hear Bertram speak, Lucy appears covered only in a bedspread and so he goes away. To her, Leopold admits that he has fallen apart under the pressure just before two men expected to show up at last appear and order two assistants to remove the woman from the premises. The main purpose of their visit is for Leopold to deny having written a book he wrote: "Ontology of the human self". He hesitates, asks for time to think. On learning of this matter, his wife, Suzana, is surprised at his hesitation. "If you can't take it, you should never have gotten into it," she avers. The two Sidneys return to offer encouragement and carry suitcases containing office supplies and files of information he can use to write more books. Bertram wants to support him but is useless as a friend, Suzana is baffled at to what he need consider, Lucy is hurt that he seems to turn away from her. He next receives the visit of a philosophy student, Marguerite, an admirer who looks to him for help in life. In his crisis, she also wishes to help him. "You need love, mad passionate true love," she concludes, as did Lucy. After spotting the two men he must answer to, Leopold advises her to leave the room and head for the balcony. Leopold tells his visitors that he refuses to comply. The two men retort that his answer is irrelevant. "Your case has been adjourned indefinitely," the first man announces. "Indefinitely for the time being," the second man specifies. "I don't want an adjournment," Leopold cries out. "I want to go there." After the two men leave, Leopold continues to look through the peep-hole of the main door.