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Theatrical Landscape of Poland

A Century of Awakening

by Thomas Irmer

In 2000, the Frankfurt Book Fair chose Poland as their theme country, and it was expected and hoped that at least a few new playwrights would be discovered. Ten years after the end of communism, Poland too was waiting for an appropriate continuation of the four great playwrights who had made poetic grotesqueness a kind of trademark of Polish drama and thereby internationally known: Stanislaw Witkiewicz, Witold Gombrowicz, Tadeusz Rozewicz and Slawomir Mrozek (of whom the last two are still amongst us).

The hopes were set too high, especially if one considers that theatre authors don't fall from the heavens and are not bred (in retort). Theatre has to be attractive and supportive to give a reason for writing, which simply wasn't the case ten years ago. After the turn-around Polish theatre was dedicated to the restoration of traditions and little interested in social friction. This was obviously an unfavourable situation for new drama.

The new brutal
On the other hand, there was an impulse from outside: the wave of the new Brits Mark Ravenhill and Sarah Kane. The Polish reception of Marius von Mayenburg's plays also belonged to this category – it was named "nowy brutalisty" (the new brutal) and evoked an echo amongst the younger theatre generation. A kind of friction arose, which demanded the development of a new Polish drama, in particular from stage directors who intended on displaying the country's contradictory reality on stage. But in order to actually be able to give impulses, the stage directors first had to be promoted to a leading position.

The artistic director Pawel Lysak of the Teatr Polski in Poznan was a pioneer in this matter. He presented issues of the country with readings and some productions of new drama in his theatre from 2001 onwards. In the course of this work Lysak also decided to assign a play to Ingmar Vilquist (Vilquist is the invented Scandinavian pseudonym of a Warsaw author, who displayed promising talent with his play "Helver's Night" at the beginning of the century and has worked on controversial topics in Poland such as homosexuality). The development of the assignments of plays through theatres was to shape the situation of a new Polish drama.

Flagrant realism far from the cities
An important example for this symbiotic relationship is Michal Waczak's play "Kopalnia" ("The Mine", 2004), which was first seen in Silesian Walbrze (Waldenburg), as it takes place there. The author also did some research on the social distortions of the former mining town. "Made in Poland" by Przemyslaw Wojcieszek is a similar case: it was performed in Legnica in 2004 and was practically made the generation image of the "disappointed boys" phenomenon. Far away from the theatre cities Warsaw and Cracow a flagrant realism developed, which explored the many flaws of the transitory society and opened up new realities for theatre. These were then eagerly taken up by many other stages in the country.

The spectrum of topics was able to differentiate: From the war home comer from Iraq to the RAF and to formerly untouched topics like the problem of displaced persons (Jan Klata's "Transfer") or the critical questioning of the Walesa Biography (Pawel Demirski) – what had hesitantly started as "nowy brutalisty" has penetrated through Polish topics and is now an exciting theatre of political and historical self-image.

One can therefore indeed say that Polish theatre has created its own new authors. Poland is aware of the importance of play markets, author days and workshops to support new drama in Germany, but young Polish authors have been denied such systematic efforts. However, they have had the theatre on their side right from the beginning, and the monthly magazine "Dialog", which prints several plays in each issue, offers a publication forum, even if it is limited (the first issue which documented the wave of anthology, came out under the catchy name of "Porno Generation" and therefore sold well.) The re-enactment of newly, world premiered plays is a seldom occurrence even in Poland. The theatres prefer to rely on the next plays of their bound authors.

The prose writers are coming
The development of authors being invited by theatres continued to some extent on a higher level, as famous prose authors were also wooed into writing plays. Andrzej Stasiuk – the most famous Polish writer of the mid-generation in Germany – wrote his first play "Noc" ("Night") in 2004 for a coproduction of the Stary Teatr in Cracow and Düsseldorf Theatre. It is a "Slavo-German medical tragic farce", which the cunning essayist revealed in dramatic metier.

Dorota Maslowska, the young star of Polish literature, was also talked into writing for theatres by the renowned stage director Grzegorz Jarzyna: In 2006 her play "A Couple of Poor, Polish-Speaking Romanians" had its world premiere in Warsaw, the following year the German premiere took place at the Vienna Festival by means of Armin Petras. The production is still in the repertoire of his Maxim Gorki Theatre. Maslowska's second play, "We get on well with each other", even had its world premiere at the Berlin Schaubühne before it was shown at the TR Warszawa by Jarzyna.

Stasiuk ans Maslowska are amongst the Polish authors that are known in Germany, which they mostly owe to their images as prose writers. The other one, Michal Walczak, who was born in 1979 and was trained at the Warsaw Faculty for stage direction, chose the single path of theatre. He started in the difficult province of Walbrze, where artistic director and stage director Piotr Kruszczynski first brought out "Kopalnia", then "Sandbox" and "The Man with God In His Closet" with great admiration and secured the not quite 30 year-old playwright – it has a happy symbiosis for both. If this century of awakening merely arose from a kind of political and social critical use of drama, or if it is actually the new Polish drama Michal Walczak will be observing the development along with others.

Back to the beginning

Read more about Michal Walczak.