PAJ: A Journal of Performance and Art 23.1 (2001) 99-104
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Too Bad To Be True
Janusz Glowacki, The Fourth Sister, Powszechny Theatre, Warsaw, 1999-2000 season. Director: Wladyslaw Kowalski.
In Act Two of Janusz Glowacki's The Fourth Sister, the reality created onstage dwells in regions of the poetic absurd. The General (played by the director), father of three daughters, sits with a bottle of vodka, immersed in childhood memories. Kolya, an orphan taken in by the General and sent to America to secure the three daughters a better start in life, has returned after just a few days, with only a few cents. Selling her wedding dress, purse, and watch, Tanya, one of the sisters, invested her entire fortune in his trip, so quite naturally she is feeling murderous towards him. Her dreams of a bright future across the ocean have disappeared irrevocably, like the vodka down her father's throat.
In an American whorehouse, Kolya learns a rather brutal lesson in life. Since this is acted out on the General's bed (a theatrical image very much in the style of Rózewicz or Witkacy), everybody takes part in the scene, not only his family but a legless, accordion-playing casualty of the Afghanistan war, and the American brothel-keeper. Where are they? In the theatre, of course. After all, they are all actors, and it is their task to lie convincingly, to "serve as a mirror of nature."
The unity of time and place of action is constantly disrupted, as theatrical conventions change rapidly in this scene. Everything develops in the open from authentic elements: from pain, sympathy, terror, violence, great disappointments and small dreams, thoughtless ranting that drowns out emotional suffering, and above all, from helplessness in the face of what life brings the characters. It is a brilliant scene. Does it contain the truth of life? Yes. The truth of art? Definitely. Higher feelings? Certainly. They cannot get any higher or any more heart-rending since they are accompanied on the accordion played by a cripple in a wheelchair. This is comic and tragic at the same time. It has truth and absurdity in it, laughter and awe. The world has lost its bearings and refuses to be tamed by any human measure. [End Page 99]
Tuning such different emotional values throughout the play into a multi-colored flow of life and the polyphonic sound of theatre is a masterstroke of directing on the part of Kowalski. That he is an outstanding actor is a well-known fact, but he has never revealed his directing talents before, so his accurate reading of Glowacki's extremely difficult poetics comes as even more of a surprise. Despite appearances, especially his mask of a mocker, Glowacki is not an easy or pleasant writer. Perhaps rather perverse, considering what we're used to. He not only skillfully combines diverse theatrical conventions--theatre with film, farce and comedy with tragedy, the grotesque with the affective, into a unique dramatic alloy--but he also fills his comic-bitter works with his own philosophy and sensitivity to human fate. It is insufficient to say that he is a modern-day moralist. This would sound too trite, too pretentious. However, it is actually the moral anxiety, the lyrical, tender attitude toward people that is the primary impulse for his "brutal" and "cynical" plays.
Already the superb dialogue proves how very aware Glowacki is of his goals and means. The different styles and levels of speech precisely define a character's personality, social status, mentality. Moreover, the dialogue, full of unexpected twists, jokes, and paradoxes resulting from careful observation of people, takes a humorous form to express thoughts and moral messages. Glowacki addresses his plays to a well-educated audience. "I like writing on the other side of an already written text," he says. "The world is one giant library. I like to relate to what has already been written: myths, archetypes, fairy tales. Nobody seems to mind." Thus, he plays with works of literature, symbols, cultural icons, and various conventions, and invites...