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Editor: Frederick Wilkins
Suffolk University, Boston

Vol. III, No. 1
May, 1979


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O'NEILL'S PLAYS IN POLAND

Although theatre historians in Poland have long considered Eugene O'Neill one of the foremost playwrights of the twentieth century, Polish theatres have been very slow in introducing his plays to their audiences. This reluctance stems from a number of stereotypes. As Elzbieta Zmudzka suggests, "We, the Poles, cannot play Americans because this peculiar blend of lyricism, psychological defenselessness and brutality, typical of O'Neill's characters, for example, is alien to the Polish national temperament" (Teatr, 1976/24). [The number following the year of publication in every parenthetical citation is that of the issue in which the quoted material appears. --Ed.] Another stereotype is based on the belief that O'Neill's plays are, as Eugeniusz K. Wawrzyniak maintains, "cultural documents" which cannot be fully comprehended outside the United States (Teatr, 1977/22). Hence Jerzy S. Sito argues that the psychological motivation of O'Neill's characters, formed by the Protestant ethic, "is difficult to understand by someone whose sensibilities have been shaped by the Catholic tradition" (Teatr, 1963/7).

There have also been other reasons. Some Polish critics find O'Neill's formal experimentation naive and outdated. Others attack the shallowness and triviality of his psychological observation. To Bohdan Drozdowski, for example, such plays as Long Day's Journey into Night are a perfect example of, to use his term, "grandma's theatre" which "does not enrich much our knowledge of human nature" (Teatr, 1972/20). Ludwik Flaszen, literary advisor of the avant-garde Laboratory Theatre in Wroclaw, wonders in his review of A Moon for the Misbegotten "why Polish theatres must import bad plays from overseas." He goes on to say: "With a little effort, similar plays, boring and talky, pompous and sentimental, can be found closer to home" (Echo Krakowa, 1961/45). Zygmunt Gren believes that A Moon for the Misbegotten is so "shallow" and "banal" that it should be played only as a parody (Zycie Literackie, 1961/7). And Michal Misiorny points out that the character of Abbie in Desire Under the Elms is built from all the possible clichs about so-called femininity (Teatr, 1974/24).

Although critics such as mudzka, Sito, Wojciech Natanson and Irena Kellner recognize "the tremendous psychological depth" of O'Neill's characters and admire the playwright for having created "such excellent roles" for actors and actresses, Drozdowski's and Flaszen's statements are quite symptomatic (Kellner in Teatr, 1963/17). Predominantly poetic and non-realistic in form, Polish theatre has been traditionally and chiefly devoted to national and political issues rather than to psychological analysis. Therefore, in a culture which has developed a concept of theatre as the nation's conscience and which has produced S.I. Witkiewicz's "theatre of pure form" or Jerzy Grotowski's theatrical and paratheatrical experiments at the Laboratory, O'Neill's dramas of souls have not been readily accepted.

O'Neill's first play to be produced in Poland was Anna Christie. It opened on 22 November 1929 at Warsaw's Teatr Nowy. In the 1930's, Polish audiences could also see The Emperor Jones, All God's Chillun Got Wings and Desire Under the Elms. All God's Chillun was particularly successful, since it was staged as a proletarian drama on the oppression of ethnic minorities in Poland. To mislead the censor, the original lyrics of black spirituals were substituted by Polish revolutionary poems. But the censor refused to believe that the poems were translated from English and crossed out the most critical lines.

After the Krakw production of The Emperor Jones in 1937, O'Neill's plays disappeared from the repertory of Polish theatres for over twenty years. During the period of socialist realism, his work was taboo because of its alleged "nihilism and extreme pessimism" (Teatr, 1954/2). After the thaw, in the mid- and late 1950's, when Polish theatres were flooded with West European and American plays, O'Neill's work was still virtually unknown in Poland. Natanson explains that Carlotta Monterey refused to grant translation and production rights to Poland (Teatr, 1961/6). But Karl Ragnar Gierow of Stockholm's Royal Theatre helped to overcome the difficulties and in 1960 the first post-war production of an O'Neill play in Poland took place. On 29 October A Moon for the Misbegotten premiered at the Teatr Wybrzeze in Gdynia. A few months later, on 10 February 1961, Desire Under the Elms opened at Warsaw's Teatr Polski, with one of the best Polish actresses, Nina Andrycz, as Abbie. And on 19 February Long Day's Journey into Night had its Polish premiere at Katowice's Teatr Slaski. During the crucial 1960/61 season A Moon for the Misbegotten was produced by four other theatres, while Desire Under the Elms and Long Day's Journey had one more production each. As a result, O'Neill was third (after Shakespeare and Max Regner, a French author of fourth-rate comedies) on the list of foreign playwrights whose plays were most often produced in Poland during 1960/61. On the list of best attended foreign plays, A Moon for the Misbegotten was tenth and Desire was sixteenth.

After the sudden rediscovery of O'Neill, however, the interest in his work has since gradually diminished. The 1961/62 season brought three productions of Anna Christie and the Polish premiere of Mourning Becomes Electra, which opened on 33 June 1962 at the Juliusz Slowacki Theatre in Krakow. That season O'Neill was eighth on the list of foreign playwrights, while Anna Christie was fourteenth on the list of plays. Then, after a production of Anna Christie in January 1963, O'Neill was ignored for almost six years until Long Day's Journey and A Moon for the Misbegotten were staged in 1968. After another extended hiatus, Desire and Long Day's Journey opened in 1972. Since then these two plays have almost entirely represented O'Neill's work to Polish theatregoers, with six productions of Long Day's Journey and two productions of Desire between 1973 and 1978. The only exception was the 1975/76 season, when the Polish premiere of The Iceman Cometh was the sole play by O'Neill to be produced in Poland. It opened on 16 June 1976 at Warsaw's Teatr Dramatyczny. The cast included such outstanding Polish actors as Gustaw Holoubek, Zbigniew Zapasiewicz and Andrzej Szczepkowski.

O'Neill's plays have also been broadcast on the Polish Radio and on TV Theatre. On 28 November 1961 the Radio Theatre aired an adaptation of Long Day's Journey. In the fall of 1971, the TV Theatre showed A Moon for the Misbegotten, and in the spring of 1978, Long Day's Journey was presented.

Among the thirty post-war productions of O'Neill's plays (including radio and TV), none was a theatrical hit. The premiere of The Iceman Cometh and the TV presentation of Long Day's Journey had very good reviews, but most productions have been quite mediocre, with directors and actors desperately struggling with O'Neill's text. And the Polish premiere of Mourning Becomes Electra was so unsuccessful that no other theatre has dared to stage it. Yet, in spite of these failures and many critics' reservations, the O'Neill repertory in Poland continues to be dominated by three of his best-known psychological dramas: Desire Under the Elms, A Moon for the Misbegotten and Long Day's Journey into Night (twenty-four productions out of thirty). Polish acting companies seem to be attracted to O'Neill's "excellent roles," but they do not quite know how to play them. At the same time, no one has attempted to stage O'Neill's non-conventional works such as The Great God Brown or Lazarus Laughed, although excellent translations by Maciej Slomczynski are avail-able. Unlike the plays of Arthur Miller and Edward Albee, O'Neill's work is still largely terra incognita to Polish theatregoers.

--Halina Filipowicz-Findlay

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