Review: Loose Screws: Nine New Plays from Poland
By Alena Aniskiewicz
Volume 6, Issue 2 (Fall 2016)
Loose Screws: Nine New Plays from Poland. Edited by Dominika Laster. London: Seagull Books, 2015.
Debates over the past, present, and future of Poland have long played out in the nation’s dramatic writings. Over the 123 years when Poland disappeared from the map of Europe – partitioned by its neighbors – the Romantic national bard Adam Mickiewicz positioned his dramatic work as a means by which to keep the nation alive. His (often unstageable) works have set the tone of Polish theatre as formally experimental and socially and politically aware. In 1901, Stainsław Wyspiański’s symbolist drama The Wedding brought together ghosts from Poland’s past with representatives of all strata of contemporary society in a cutting critique of political stagnation and social fragmentation. Wyspiański’s works again made waves in Nazi occupied Kraków – defiantly staged by Tadeusz Kantor’s underground theatre company in private homes across the city. In the subsequent decades under the shadow of Soviet domination, Polish dramatists continued to compose and stage works that critiqued the society around them. Following the end of communist power in 1989, Polish theatre has remained politically and socially engaged, now often turned inward to interrogate what “Poland” means today. What is the character of the nation – now more open to influences from the outside and no longer necessarily defined against occupying powers?
Loose Screws: Nine New Plays from Poland brings together a diverse collection of works engaged with these very questions of Polish identity. This beautifully presented volume offers nine contemporary Polish plays that “revise, rehearse, and unmake found notions of individual and national identity,” (xiii). Together with a (A)pollonia: Twenty-First-Century Polish Drama and Texts for the Stage (edited by Krystyna Duniec, Joanna Klass, and Joanna Krakowska; 2014), Loose Screws is the culmination of an international effort to assemble lively and accessible translations of Polish plays into English. The translations in this volume are the products of an international collaborative project that involved playwrights, translators, dramaturges, and scholars from Poland and America. The diversity of perspectives involved in the project underscores the plurality of voices and viewpoints at work in this volume. These wonderfully accessible translations bring to the English speaking stage a vision of Poland that is challenging, in conversations with the world outside its national borders, and critical of a monolithic view of the world inside its borders.
The work that has gone into selecting these texts, facilitating their translation, and compiling this volume positions Loose Screws not only as a valuable contribution to an ongoing conversation about the future and possibilities of Polish identity, but also as an accessible introduction to Polish theatre. Dominika Laster’s introduction to the work provides a concise and illuminating overview of the Polish theatrical tradition, as well as an insightful discussion and contextualization of the collected plays. Though the volume does not include detailed profiles of the playwrights, those looking for information beyond what is offered likely will be able to find more, given the details provided. Many of the plays in the volume are accompanied by at least one photograph of a staged performance and, where included, these help visualize the complex worlds brought to life in the text.
Organized into three thematically linked sections, the collection begins with three plays that explore contemporary Poland’s relationship to its history. The first play in this section, The Files (Teatr Ósmego Dnia, translated by Bill Johnston), reads and recontextualizes voices from the past, imbuing them with new significance in their contemporary performance. This piece of documentary theatre from Teatr Ósmego Dnia (Theatre of the Eighth Day) – a politically engaged theatre collective founded in 1964 – finds original members of the group presenting a textual collage of personal letters, literary quotation, and excerpts from the surveillance files kept on them by the secret police in the Ministry of Internal Affairs (which were made public in 1998). As the work unfolds, it not only reveals a troubling history of government surveillance and civilian informants in which the lines between perpetrators and victims are not always evident in the historical record, but also explores questions of historical and personal truth and textual representation. Though it is difficult to imagine the text performed by anyone other than the individuals whose story it tells, The Files is here presented in an engaging and accessible translation.
The veracity of historical records and memory is further contested in Eat the Heart of Your Enemy (Michał Bajer, translated by Benjamin Paloff), which travels back in time to explore the very contemporary question of how Polish heritage is created, manipulated, and exploited. Situated in Chopin’s apartment hours after the composer’s death, Bajer’s darkly comic work finds acquaintances (and sly opportunists) gathered over Chopin’s corpse, looking to claim their piece of him, both figuratively and in the final grotesque act of the title – literally. Paloff’s translation of the work retains the humor and spark of Bajer’s bawdy, irreverent critique of the “national heritage industry.”
The final drama of this section strikes a very different tone. Set in the midst of a rising tide of fascism, Helver’s Night (Ingmar Villqist, translated by Philip Boehm) evokes a tension and mounting violence that might call to mind the atmosphere of Europe on the eve of WWII – or the threat of a future where jingoistic nationalism has developed unchecked. Set within the home of a mentally disabled man and his caretaker, the emotional drama finds the domestic sphere invaded by the militarism and ideology outside its walls. With its emotional conclusion, Helver’s Night speaks to human suffering and the vulnerability imbued by otherness in a stirring drama that should resonate with English-speaking audiences.
The second section in the collection examines ideas of domesticity, interpersonal relations, and the ways in which these concepts are rehearsed and performed in everyday life. In Daily Soup (Amanita Muskaria, translated by Margarita Nafpaktitis) a television serves as the main conduit of the outside world into the domestic life of three generations of Poles. As voices from the screen punctuate the routine of home life and meals, even the most essential act of eating is subject to incursions from outside influences. American audiences will no doubt see themselves in some aspects of this Polish family’s interactions.
Though set in a distinctly post-Socialist bloc of identical concrete apartments, The First Time (Michał Walczak, translated by Benjamin Paloff) similarly illuminates the recognizable practice of social performance – of perfecting our “roles” in everyday life. As “She” and “He” “rehearse” the scene of their first sexual encounter – one that “She” has plotted, but is unable to achieve in real life – Walczak’s sparse text explores the ways in which narration, performance, and revision shape not only the theatre, but lived experience.
Like The First Time, Let’s Talk About Life and Death (Krzysztof Bizio, translated by Mira Rosenthal) is highly conversational and performs the language of daily life. Organized as a montage of telephone conversations, we learn about the lives and domestic dramas of a father, mother, and son through their conversations with those on the other end of the line. Closing this section on domesticity, Bizio’s work offers a look inside a Polish home that focuses not so much on the narrative of the family, but on the ways in which those in the home communicate with the world outside. In all three of these plays, “home” and interpersonal relations are permeated by social and cultural forces.
In the trio of plays in the volume’s final section – “Unmaking Poland” – each interrogates the character of “Poland” in a contemporary context, pushing on entrenched notions of what it means to be Polish. In her introduction to this volume, Dominika Laster describes the first play in this section, Made in Poland (Przemysław Wojcieszek, translated by Dominika Laster), as a “punk manifesto in dramatic form,” (xxix). This “manifesto” finds Boguś – a 19-year-old, newly tattooed with “Fuck Off!” across his forehead – rebelling against anything and everything. Both his character and his rebellion have been “made in Poland,” yet for all their brutality and vulgarity, have no real direction forward. Presented as a series of short vignettes – some without any spoken dialogue – the work is highly cinematic and ripe for creative staging (a 2004 Polish production was staged in an abandoned supermarket within a 1970s housing complex and opened with its star destroying a car parked in the adjacent lot).
The vulgarity and ruthlessness of Wojcieszek’s work is also evident in A Couple of Poor, Polish-Speaking Romanians (Dorota Masłowska, translated by Benjamin Paloff), which follows two Poles masquerading as “Romanians” (representative of the ultimate “other”) on a drug fueled ride through the countryside. As their journey progresses, characterizations based on nationality, class, sexuality, and religion become entangled and increasingly fraught – who are these people other than the labels given to them by society? Are these Poles – by virtue of their poverty, drug use, and poor hygiene – also somehow excluded from that label? The text presented here maintains Masłowska’s frenetic and idiomatic style, offering a tragicomic work that critiques Polish fantasies of ideological and national purity, while also making us question our own.
Closing out the volume, Loose Screws (Małgorzata Sikorska-Miszczuk, translated by Benjamin Paloff) is a highly associative, at times dreamlike text that paints various elements of contemporary society in broad strokes – the typical politician (Mr. Blah, who does not say anything meaningful), the idealized woman, the threatening other (terrorists who are little more than living stereotypes). Here, the terrorists threatening Poland are a domestic separatist group – thus recasting the threat of the Other as internal. Though the specific references to Polish territory may be foreign to English speaking audiences, the discussion of internal threats, vapid politicians, and blurred lines between public and private spheres should certainly resonate.
This diverse collection of works illuminates the questions and contradictions facing Poland today. Funny, heartbreaking, violent, and introspective, these provocative and challenging plays represent an excellent sample of the work being done in Poland’s dynamic theatre community. Bringing together voices that represent a range of perspectives, identities, and literary styles, Loose Screws provides the English speaking world with a look into the complexities of Polish social and national identities and rejects a traditional monolithic view of the nation. In so doing, it also provides a trove of immensely entertaining and relatable dramas. A number of these plays were staged in New York in conjunction with the assembling of this volume, and one hopes that the fine translations collected will find a place on stages and in classrooms across the United States. They have a lot to tell us about Poland – and about ourselves.
Alena Aniskiewicz is a Ph.D. candidate in the Department of Slavic Languages and Literatures at the University of Michigan, Ann Arbor. Focusing on 20th century Poland, she is interested in the ways in which literary history and cultural heritage are maintained and manufactured in contemporary popular culture. She is currently working on a project that explores the relationship between Polish hip-hop and the nation’s poetic tradition.