In this work, Dr. Kraszewski has undertaken the analysis of the dramatic currents in the writings of Zbigniew Herbert, something that critics have up until now busied themselves with but slightly in comparison to the other genres in which the poet worked. There are relatively few works dealing with Herbert's dramas, while those touching upon his lyrics or essays are legion. Charles S. Kraszewski, the author of this book, has undertaken the analysis of the dramatic currents in the writings of Zbigniew Herbert, something that critics have up until now busied themselves with but slightly in comparison to the other genres in which the poet worked. There are relatively few works dealing with Herbert's dramas, while those touching upon his lyrics or essays are legion. Kraszewski has been fascinated with Herbert's writings for many years. The path he followed in order to embrace the literary output of this poet is industrious, moving, and worth our recognition. He first came across Herbert's poetry in the English versions of Czeslaw Milosz, after which he moved on to the Polish originals.
Then, he himself began translating Herbert's poetry into his mother tongue, and finished by bringing over into English all of the plays mentioned in this book. The book which we now put into the reader's hands is the fruit of this work. Its six chapters treat the dramatic and theatrical works of Zbigniew Herbert. What differentiates this book from earlier treatments of the same topic is that Kraszewski understands that it is not only Herbert's works expressly written for the stage or the radio which possess dramatic elements and the possibility of realisation on stage. In the first chapter of his work entitled "The Phenomenon of Herbert on Stage", he seeks to introduce the reader to the other, non-dramatic texts of Zbigniew Herbert which have been exploited theatrically. Up until now, critics have passed over this characteristic element of Herbert's dramatic opus. Herbert was a poet, an essayist, and a playwright. But it is actually quite difficult to separate and differentiate his lyrical poems, essays and plays from each other according to their problematics and the themes they explore.
For all of Herbert's writing constitutes one whole, and particular works differ amongst themselves only in a formal sense. Each lyric poem, essay, or play is one part of a larger whole. In each particular work we find the author's guiding principle unchanged. Likewise, each lyric poem, each essay, contains some drama, some human suffering. Hence arises their theatricality, their dramatic potential, which demands expression, demands transfer in a living contact with living people. The strength of these works operates with special force when the transfer takes place between a living actor and an audience of living spectators. A special type of theatre is created, which authenticates the theatricality of seemingly un-dramatic letters, in something like the realisation of T.S. Eliot's words when he claims that the most ideal medium of expression for poetry, and its best means of social usefulness, is the theatre. The very time in which the creator of Don Cogito was fated to live was dramatic. One had to choose a position and stand up for one's values. He expressed himself on this matter most fully in the verse "Przeslanie Pana Cogito" ("Don Cogito's Envoi").
Herbert remained a free man, independent malgre tout, as he himself put it when asked about his life's motto. "The sense of suffering, the sense of collision with reality is all." One must "invest one's life with significance and make the sense of significance a general principle." And in art, to which he devoted himself all his life long, the most important thing was to help the human being find his own road through the artist's presenting him with his own spiritual experiences. Not only his poems, but his essays as well have their dramatic potential and these too were exploited for the stage. One such example is the "Obrona Templariuszy" "In Defence of the Knights Templar" of which Kraszewski speaks in detail in chapter one. I myself, in my long years as actor and director, have many times experimented with theatrical adaptations of Herbert's work not originally written for the stage, and from the "heap of broken images" dramatic works have arisen.
Lately I have had the occasion to add one more work to the list of adaptations given in chapter one of this book: a play staged at the Stary Teatr in Krakow made up of poems, interviews and sung musical compositions based on Herbert's work entitled Przyjaciele odchodzq (My Friends are Passing Away). This play has enjoyed great public interest as well as positive critical reviews. However, the present book, in the main, is made up of penetrating essays dealing with all of the theatrical works per se of Zbigniew Herbert, that is, those which were written expressly for stage or radio production. These are five, and a separate chapter is dedicated to each. These essays constitute an overture to a fuller understanding of the problems contained in these dramas, from the author's critical point of view. Charles S. Kraszewski presents us with analyses of individual scenes, fragments, and entire dramas, engaging us as it were in a conversation, in which he expresses his understanding of the themes and associations found in Herbert's work. He insightfully studies and analyses the characters of the protagonists, and searches for a connections to the overarching thought and envoi of the poet.
This book will be of value to all persons, casual readers and researchers, men and women of the theatre, all who hold dear and understand the value of the literary opus of Zbigniew Herbert, who is certainly one of the greatest names of XXth century literature, well deserving of a place beside T.S. Eliot and R.M. Rilke. This work also serves as an introduction to the content of the five dramas, and will certainly be welcome to a wide audience, especially those to whom Polish is a barrier to the original texts. For the author includes in his essays many key fragments of the plays themselves, citing them in both the original Polish and in his own English translation. This allows the reader a deeper entry into the structure of the plays, and should encourage him to approach the entire texts directly. Herbert's dramas differ from typical plays written for stage performance. They differ not only in their poetics, or their inimitable semantics and allusions. Herbert strives for maximum compactness; he is sparing, even severe. The plays are also short. Various "stage professionals" have complained that this makes their presentation in the normal two-hour theatrical timeframe impossible.
Herbert answered such criticism with the following words: "The author is under no obligation to write a lot, to write profusively, but there does exist the obligation of writing to the point." In a 1991 television interview, he spoke thus of his dramatic works: They are quite peculiar as plays go...I have met with stage professionals (in Poland we have quite a few professionals: camera professionals, stage and film professionals, poetry professionals) and they told me, "Well, you know, the things you write are...first of all, short. Will you ever write a full-fledged production?" And I ask, what is a "full-fledged production?" They reply, "Well,...one that is two hours long, with two intermissions. And besides that, you don't have to start from important, serious topics - you have the tendency to begin with a sermon...'Cos you know, people are arriving from the cloakroom, they've got their candies, right? and the husband starts complaining to his wife that it's her fault they're late...So the first ten minutes, that's got to be about the weather, and then after that you can get the ball rolling..." And that's not the way I write.
It is also interesting to note the reasons behind Herbert's decision to speak of various topics in a dramatic form. The plays often arose - as is the case with all of the poet's work, probably - as reactions to events, his own life, the lives of people close to him: Lalek was inspired by a very concrete event. The victim's mother approached me for help, and at her request I even began to write letters to the Tribune of the People1; I visited the /Home/ Ministry, told them that whoever killed the boy got off scot-free, with no result. The mother felt that a "writer" from Warsaw should be able to do anything. From my feelings of injustice, unrighteousness and my own inability to help arose this little play, for which I was paid. That's how it happens sometimes. I don't feel any moral absolution, but I couldn't do anything more...The Other Room deals with problems of living space...2 In a letter to young actors published in Teatr (Nr 4, April 1995), Herbert writes that the theatre is obliged to "stir up uneasiness."
We must "force our neighbours to reflect on human fate, to the difficult love which we are obliged to devote to matters of great import, and also to contempt for all who, with a stubbornness better spent on more dignified matters, strive to beat down mankind and strip away his intrinsic value." Herbert once said that what intrigues him about theatre is its "strangeness": I arrive at the theatre with my own, manifold worries, and there on the stage I see: three sisters wandering about, moaning, complaining...it's Chekhov's Three Sisters. And I say to myself: what the hell do I care if they're going to go to Moscow or not? Let 'em go, or let 'em stay home! It's none of my business, right?...And then, suddenly, after about ten minutes or so, the fate of those three sisters becomes my business, frightfully so, and I do care, and in the process I forget about my own worries and cares. This is the catharsis of art, which works by adding misery to misery...And how does a work of art come to be created, according to Herbert? "Art is created by talent. Josef Brodski, standing in a filthy courtroom in Leningrad, testified quietly, that it comes from God."