By Bethsheba Achitsa
Published October 17, 2009
Despite adverse reviews and media attack on playwrights about the ‘in your face theatre’ sex, kinky and drugs have for a long time characterised theatre writing, present day writing is particularly more pitted in these themes as it is aimed at flattering young audiences rather than engaging the wider society. Hardly do theatre writers focus on the linguistic context of the plays.
In Zapolska’s Women: Three Plays, Teresa Murjas delves into the significance of the plays written by Gabriela Zapolska in their new linguistic context while also providing a detailed biography of Zapolska, relating her life story to the themes of each play; she analyses her significance within Polish and European theatrical traditions, highlighting the social and historical conditions within Poland during the time the plays were written.
An outcome of a five year translating project, Zapolska’s Women is a 400-page book that introduces an English-speaking audience to Zapolska’s important works. Three of her performance texts that focus on the economic and social pressures faced by women in fin-de-siecle Poland at the end of the 18th century have been included in the book mainly because of their thematic contiguities, for instance, preoccupation with the economic influences determining the lives and love of women.
While analysing Zapolska’s plays, Murjas also brings to light an understanding of how interactions between so-called source and target cultures and languages problematically manifest themselves as theatre, since her research productions are staged in contrasting environments in spaces occupied by the academic community and in those by what might be classified as the Polish community both in the UK.
In Malka Szwarcenkopf, Zapolska focusses on the custom of arranged marriages, while using Malka, the main character in the play, as a way of mediating between different sets of social and cultural conventions theatrically.
Malka, an educated young woman, is forced to marry an ordinary young man, Jojne Firulkes, who does not care about Malka’s well being. Malka is sick and when Jakob Lewi–the young man Malka had all along admired and longed to marry comes along–Malka is found dead.
Produced in 1897, this play is said to have catapulted Zapolska to national fame.
Mezczyzna (The Man, 1901), the second play analysed in the book, explores issues relating to gender roles where the narrative centres on the relationship between two sisters, Julka and Elka. Linking the two sisters is Karol, a married man who fathers a child with Elka but is a political, vague journalist who is reluctant to divorce his wife, Nina. The play is about feminism and love, exploring how Polish socio-political reality can be read and explained, taking account of how questions relating to gender construction, biological sex and patterns of sexuality.
The last play, Panna Maliczewska (Miss Maliczewska, 1910), is one which shows Zapolska’s tribulations as a playwright. Even before the performance the public put pressure on her to change the initial title Metresa (The Mistress) as they regarded it pornographic. But even after the change of the title, the play was still regarded as immoral and put off many people.
Through this much derided play, Zapolska explores the idea of interplay between theatre and reality. Thus in Miss Maliczewska the playwright was testing the limits of naturalism and proposing new possibilities for a realist theatre while touching on the spectator.
Theatre can be a place where many create belief though rarely is this achieved, nevertheless Zapolska provides a good example of the tribulations faced by women as indicated in the book.
Polish scholars, predominantly discussing the work of male writers, have frequently identified the unifying characteristics of native Polish literature written during the period following the brutally suppressed January insurrection of 1863 as tension between neo Romantic nationalism and compromise. It has been noted that they were forced to communicate via metaphor, allusion and subtext. This is seen as culturally-specific problem posing an insurmountable challenge to the historiographer and scholar of dramatic literature written in polish. These challenges are regarded as particularly acute for theatre translators and directors of polish texts outside Eastern Europe, including those written after World War II.
On this note it is interesting to bear in mind that in Britain only 3% of all published texts are translations while European countries are happy to publish roughly 25% of their books in translations.
One of the foremost modernist Polish playwrights, an actress and journalist, Maria Gabriela Stefania Korwin Piotrowska, who took the stage name Gabriela Zapolska and wrote under the pseudonym of Jozef Maskoff, is often dubbed by her critics as an immoral actress. However, she and her work became a site for emotive debates about the role of women in polish society.
This informative collection of groundbreaking plays on the life of Zapolska is a publication of Intellect Books of the UK and USA and is available at a price of $30 (£14.95)