Słobodzianek, Tadeusz

Tadeusz Słobodzianek, fot. & © by Kasia Chmura

One of the key playwrights in post-communist Poland.Born in 1955, he graduated from the Jagiellonian University in Cracow in Theatre Studies. He has worked as a theatre critic, a dramaturge and a director before he started to write plays. He debuted in 1980 with a play for children Historia o żebraku i osiołku [The Story of A Beggar and A Donkey].

Słobodzianek gets his dramatic material from different sources. His plays are inspired by the baroque theatre, Polish Romanticism, the tragic history of the 20th century, and the mythology of the Polish-Belorussian borderland, where he grew up. Car Mikołaj [Tsar Nicholas] (1987) and Prorok Ilja [Prophet Ilya] (1991) are based on the real history of the Orthodox prophet Eliasz (Ilya) Klimowicz, who was active in Eastern Poland in the 1930s. Merlin (1993) retells the tale of King Arthur and the Knights of the Round Table. Kowal Malambo [Malambo the Blacksmith] (1993) was inspired by an old Argentinian fable of Jesus and a blacksmith. Sen Pluskwy albo towarzysz Chrystus [The Bedbug's Dream, or Comrade Christ] (2000) is a sequel to Vladimir Mayakovsky's Bedbug, set in modern-day post-communist Moscow.

Most of his early plays take place in the rural area near Polish-Belorussian border, where religions, cultures, and languages are mixed. Słobodzianek believes that the most important things happen in the fringes of culture and society. It has to do with his origin: he was born to Polish parents in Siberia, where they were expelled during World War II. After the family came back to Poland he grew up in the borderland town of Białystok, in a mixed, Catholic-Orthodox family. There, together with director Piotr Tomaszuk he founded the theatre company Wierszalin, which explored the borderland traditions. Their first production Turlajgroszek [Roll-a-Pea], based on the old Belorussian fairy tale, won The Fringe First Award on The Fringe Festival in Edinburgh, UK in 1991.

Although Słobodzianek is critical of dogmas and the institution of the Catholic Church, faith occupies a special place in his art. In his plays he seeks answers to fundamental questions about the nature of man, God and sin, about the division line between good and evil. He writes about the eschatological void, in which mankind has found itself after the Holocaust and GULAG horror.

The Wierszalin Duology is about peasants, desperate to find a new savior. In Car Mikołaj they find him in the last ruler of Russia, miraculously saved from the hands of the Bolsheviks. In Prorok Ilja the peasants believe that the leader of the local religious sect is the Messiah, so they plan his crucifixion to let him rise from the dead again and save the world. Kowal Malambo is a tale of a folk Faust, who three times tricks the Devil and three times regains his youth, only to get disappointed with the world in which good old rules and principles have died.

Besides metaphysics, Słobodzianek is also fascinated by the 20th-century history, particularly with the phenomenon of Communism as the antithesis to Christianity. This is what Sen Pluskwy deals with. It is a response to Mayakovsky's famous drama, Bedbug. Mayakovsky closed his hero, Prisypkin, the last Russian bourgeois in a zoo cage. Słobodzianek releases him onto the street of capitalist Moscow, where Prisypkin discovers that the Soviet Union doesn't exist any longer and the new order is as unjust as the old one. Obywatel Pekosiewicz [Citizen Pekosiewicz] (1989) deals with fear and haterness created by authorities to unite the nation. The action takes place during the March 1968 events – a fight between rivaling fractions within the Communist party turned into an anti-Semitic campaign resulting in several thousand Polish Jews leaving the country.

The power of Słobodzianek's writing lies in the variety of theatrical forms which he employs: Merlin is structurally based on the Latin mass, Prorok Ilja and Car Mikołaj are multi-layer stories bound together by the unity of time and place, Kowal Malambo, initially written for the puppet theatre is a simple, poetic fable, with animals playing along with humans, while Sen Pluskwy is full of quotations and allusions to Russian literature. All the plays are very theatrical, there are theatre-within-the-theatre episodes, as well as talking statues and animals. The playwright also refers to the Bible, uses elements of dance, ritual and even authentic religious songs.

Słobodzianek works in close contact with the theatre. Since the early 1980s he has collaborated with several Polish theatres (incl. Poznań, Łódź, Białystok and Warszawa-based companies) as playwright, director and dramaturge. He often develops his plays and works on them until the very opening night. He also writes parts for particular actors he has in mind.

In 2003, Tadeusz Słobodzianek founded Laboratorium Dramatu [Drama Laboratory] in Warsaw, a Polish equivalent of the Royal Court Theatre in London – a combination of theatre-studio and drama workshops held throughout the year. Some of the most successful Polish playwrights today such as Magda Fertacz, Tomasz Man, Robert Bolesto, Joanna Owsianko, Paweł Jurek, Małgorzata Sikorska Miszczuk developed their plays there. He also opened The School of Drama, where he teaches playwriting to young students.

His latest play Nasza klasa [Our Class] was inspired by the tragedy of Jedwabne in Eastern Poland, where in 1941 the Polish community took part in a massacre of their Jewish neighbors. The play tells the story of  classmates from a little town, Poles and Jews. We follow their life from 1935 till now, in Poland, United States and Israel.