PAJ: A Journal of Performance and Art 27.2 (2005) 99-105
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Daniel C. Gerould
Almost fifty years after his death in 1957 at the age of twenty-five, Andrzej Bursa remains a cult figure and marginal presence in the history of Polish literature, although the emotions that his work arouses have changed over the years. The hopes and fears of the post-Stalinist thaw in Poland half a century ago are now distant memories and no longer of vital interest to present-day Polish readers. Yet Bursa's poetry, fiction, and drama have not ceased to fascinate because all his creative works spring from the artist's angry protest against the fraudulent world in which he found himself. His disillusioned response was both lyrical and grotesque, denunciatory and cynical, marked by an acute awareness of the senselessness of everything, including himself, a total rejection of the accepted social norms, and an obsession with impermanence and death.
The Stalinist period in Poland from1949 to1955 was one of political repression and censorship, fear and conformity, isolation from the rest of the world, cultural stagnation, provincialism, and boredom. Feeling hopelessly behind the times and out of touch with the new currents of European thought, Polish youth was intellectually curious and ready to shake off Soviet imposed socialist realism and rejoin the "avant-garde." After the thaw of 1956 the Polish arts exploded and began to attract international attention in the fields of music, film, theatre, and literature. Like Bursa, Krzysztof Penderecki, Jerzy Grotowski, Slawomir Mrozek, Marek Hlasko, and Stanislaw Grochowiak—all in their early twenties—came of age as artists at this time.
This was a period in which there sprang up literary cabarets, poetry readings, jazz clubs, and young people's art associations. A new style of writing took shape in which Polish heroics were ridiculed and ugliness, poverty, and suffering became objects of infatuation. Irony and the grotesque came into fashion. A reaction set in against the big institutional, state-run theatres in favor of the alternative student theatres like Bim-Bom, STS, and Kalambur (which in Poland existed within universities, but enjoyed a certain freedom and independence from adult control and had no connection to professional theatre training). Bursa was a member of an immensely talented generation and a highly creative milieu; many of his contemporaries have become much better known, but he shared their concerns and sensibility, [End Page 99] and if it had not been for his premature death, he might have achieved the same kind of fame. Seen in this context, his work is exemplary but kindred in spirit to that of his peers.
Andrzej Bursa was born in Cracow in 1932 to well-to-do parents from the intelligentsia. Despite the war and occupation, he completed his secondary schooling and went on to the Jagellonian University where he was an indifferent student at languages and literature; he briefly switched to art school and then abandoned his formal education. He worked as a journalist for Cracow newspapers; he had married at twenty and had a wife and son to support. He was for a short period a member of the communist party, as were many of his contemporaries. He made his literary debut in 1954 with the short poem of some 100 lines, "A Voice in the Discussion about Our Youth," a sweeping condemnation of the hypocrisy and lies of the Stalinist era and an attack on the older generation for their deceit and moral cowardice. This was a daring and controversial opening statement on the part of an unknown twenty-two-year old.
Bursa's promise seemed great, but it would remain unfulfilled. In 1957 he died of an inoperable heart disease. During his lifetime a few of his poems appeared in the press. A volume of his poetry was published posthumously in 1958, causing a sensation and giving rise to a growing legend, but it was only in 1969 that a comprehensive collection of his work in all genres, including his plays, finally came out. His brief creativity, condensed essentially...