Corrections or additions?

This article by Merilyn Jackson was prepared for the December 5,

2001 edition of U.S. 1 Newspaper. All rights reserved.

From Poland: Ferdydurke

Ferdydurke may not be a word you’ve ever heard. It’s

a made up word, a nonsense word that Polish writer Witold Gombrowicz

gave to the first novel of a trilogy he began in Poland in 1937.


novelist, diarist and iconoclast, he earned a reputation in Poland

as a scandalous genius, even though he lived in self-imposed exile

in Argentina for 24 years, stranded there when Hitler invaded his

native land. "Ferdydurke" was adapted for the stage a quarter

century ago.

Now on its second U.S. tour, the Polish theater company Provisorium

and Kompania is showing Americans what "Ferdydurke" means.

Considered Poland’s leading alternative troupe, Provisorium and


is comprised of two recently merged theater companies from Lublin,

Poland. Last August they won a Fringe First Award at the Edinburgh

Fringe Festival. The company began its current tour of the only


version of "Ferdydurke" at New York’s LaMaMa Theater in early

November, and went on to Swarthmore College, and University of Utah.

You can see "Ferdydurke" at Princeton University’s Matthews

Acting Theater, Friday and Saturday, December 7 and 8, at 8 p.m.

Playwright Gombrowicz (pronounced Gom-BROH-veetch) had Rabelais in

his DNA and his literary antecedents went back through Alfred Jarry’s

"Ubu Roi" to Moliere. Born in 1904, he was a leftist,


and bisexual whose writings use brutal wit and outrageous sexual


to ridicule authority and class distinctions. His themes of


and mutual debasement opposed all party lines and his books were


in Communist Poland. Although his works have been translated into

many languages, and his plays produced in 30 countries, Gombrowicz

is known in America for his Argentine diaries and for his play


Princess of Burgundia." In the early 1960s he moved to France,

where he died in 1969.

Janusz Oprynski and Witold Mazurkiewicz direct


and Kompania’s production of this satirical work. Mazurkiewicz also

plays Josef, a 30-year-old writer whose old professor, Pimko (played

by Jacek Brzezinski) forces him to return to high school. There, he

regresses to a 16-year-old, and, from an adult perspective,


agonies of adolescence that include crude schoolyard taunts and


wrestling matches.

Michal Zgiet and Jaroslaw Tomica, who performed for years with


leading post-Grotowski ensemble, the Gardzienice Theatre Association,

vigorously enact one of the story’s most hilarious scenes. As Josef’s

pals Mietus and Siphon they duel with each other — their only

weapons grotesque facial grimaces and both pious and obscene gestures.

No matter what page or stage you’re on with Gombrowicz, discovering

a mind this brilliant can make laughter explode when you least expect

it. He was rooted in satire that sometimes turned scatological. His

backsides are always up front. You could imagine him arriving at his

title, "Ferdydurke," after discarding the French excremental

expletive that would have made "merde-durke."

A few words about Polish theater: It ranks among the best in the


Actors, directors, and theater scholars flood Poland to study and

share its traditions and innovations. It can be operatic,


or Brechtian, but contemporary Polish theater frequently looks to

one of the century’s most important theorists on acting, the late

Jerzy Grotowski. Though Grotowski never did comedy, he is credited

with indirectly influencing Provisorium and Kompania group on its

acting technique.

Far from talking-head theater, this is full-body imagery in which

the highly animated actors speak as quickly as they move, but often

with deliberate artifice. Texts from the novel sometimes collide with

each other or are conflated for the stage into text and imagery,


by its four performers into a tumultuous evening of physical theater.

The tight, rapid-fire choreography among the four characters often

positions them no farther than three feet from one another. At the

same time, the movements and gestures of the actors punch the meaning

of the text home. For example, in one passage in the novel, Josef

peeps at a young girl disrobing just before being asked to recite

a poem in iambic pentameter. He declaims, "Thighs, thighs, thighs.

Thighs, thighs; thighs, thighs…" In Provisorium and Kompania’s

expressionistic interpretation of the same scene onstage, two pairs

of bare male legs framed in a window transmit the meaning, and at

the same time also upend it.

Allen Kuharski adapted the English version of the play. The director

of theater studies at Swarthmore, Kuharski first saw


in a Polish-language production in 1981 in Warsaw, where he had gone

to study on a Fulbright Fellowship. "It was a time of great


says Kuharski. "Solidarity had put a lot of pressure on the


People were anxious but purposeful."

Politics made it impossible for Kuharski to complete his Fulbright;

forced to return home, he wasn’t sure what to do next. "One thing

I was sure of, was that someday I wanted to bring Gombrowicz to


audiences," he says. "`Ferdydurke’ was one of the funniest

things I had ever seen."

"`Ferdydurke’ appeals to the nasty child in you," says


"It’s taboo because it’s about the body, but it’s not pure farce

because of its intellectual quality." He adds that German author

Gunter Grass, an admirer of Gombrowicz’s prose, wrote "The Tin

Drum" 30 years after "Ferdydurke." "Its action mirrors

that of `Ferdydurke,’" says Kuharski, "but it’s a flip side

or a response, with Oscar [the main character] who never grows


And how do Polish actors take to speaking their roles in English?

"You don’t need to speak Spanish to enjoy Mexican food," he

replies. "Polish actors are first rate and frequently


Provisorium and Kompania have no trouble performing in English."

New York Times critic Bruce Weber has described the show as "not

only funny but stunningly evocative." Over the last two years,

I’ve seen it in Philadelphia, Los Angeles, and New York. I marveled

at how how audiences in such different regions respond to it —

almost as viscerally as the acting. Adolescence grants us the freedom

to be nasty and Gombrowicz lets us love the nasty child in us.

— Merilyn Jackson

Ferdydurke, Princeton University, Matthews Acting

Studio, 185 Nassau, 609-258-1742. Advance tickets at Frist Student

Center office. $10; $8 students; Friday & Saturday, December 7

& 8, at 8 p.m.

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