John Guare’s Three Kinds of Exile at the Atlantic Theater Company, directed by Neil Pepe
The ultimate impression John Guare’s Three Kinds of Exile left on me was that, although the selection of three subjects was pertinent, varied, and effective, the series could have been carried on indefinitely. Perhaps the different kinds of exile that have been experienced are not infinite, but, like the ocean floor, exile has not been fully explored, and, if there is a limiting number to its variation, we do not know it. Mr Guare’s trilogy includes three exiles—all Central Europeans—who were actually displaced physically from the countries in which they were born and grew up, and that is the most obvious kind of exile…but what about the people who are exiles on their own native soil? So many of us today travel with relative ease—as much as immigration and airline regulations will permit—from country to country—wherever there is work or amusement—while others, who lack that opportunity, languish in their native countries or even their home towns, yearning for displacement to places where they believe they will find more of what they most value, freedom from some oppressive condition, or simply from the mindless destructiveness of governments to which they pay taxes but whose actions they do not support. Think of any Hardy hero or heroine, Camus’ Meursault, Richard Wagner, James Joyce, Hart Crane, Charles Demuth, and so many others. The recent performance of John Harbison’s wonderful opera, The Great Gatsby, reminded me that this “Great American Novel” is a story of exile—one of midwesterners who have earned or inherited money, driven by that money to New York—the prime arena to spend it in. Between the United States, Australia, and various European contries, our family includes double and triple exiles… Enough said.
John Guare, in a valuable panel discussion sponsored by the Atlantic Theater Company and held in the rare book room at the Strand, chatted about his fascination with exile and nations which have been forced into exile, focusing at length on his late friend, Elżbieta Czyżewska, the legendary Polish actress. Her marriage to a prominent American journalist, who wrote critically of the Communist regime, led to her exile to the United States, and, more importantly, her being blackballed from the Polish entertainment industry. Mr. Guare contrasted himself, who grew up as a New Yorker and has never lived far from the city for long, and of his own volition. Omar Sangare, one of the leading actors in the performance, is a Pole now a resident of the United States for several years. Since his father is African, he stood out as a child growing up in one of Poland’s smaller cities—preparing the way, he said, to a career on the stage, where one is also exposed as an object of attention. The world of the stage can be a place of exile anywhere on the globe—equally for Omar Sangare, who now works more often in English than in Polish, and for John Guare, who has chosen to people his stage with two Poles and a Czech Jew.
The performance of Three Kinds of Exile I attended looked for all intents and purposes sold out. I could see there was a healthy contingent of Poles in the audience, and there was a rumor that Omar Sangare’s fans came in droves to see him wear a white suit—a duty he bore with dignity and good cheer. (Privately he confessed it was an agony, and, as elegant as he looked in his white suit, I could only think of Lon Chaney in his Quasimodo outfit.) No, in fact it was obvious enough that there was a great night of theater in this trilogy, and the word had gotten around.
In term of produced work, the only part of this which has been seen before is a ten-minute version of the middle piece about Elżbieta Czyżewska, called “Erased/Elżbieta.” It is likely that the other two plays have been brewing in Guare’s mind for some time, but we can only assume that “Erased/Elżbieta” was the origin of this particular project. It is likely that he heard the story on which the first part was based some time ago, and in the discussion at the Strand, he seemed to indicate that he became interested in the work of the subject of the last play, Witold Gombrowicz, many years ago, before he made the acquaitnance of Czyżewska. Even people who know only Guare’s most famous play, Six Degrees of Separation, will not be surprised to learn that he has been thinking about exile and exiles for many years.
The first play, “Karel” (referring to the British film director and producer, Karel Reisz), is a monologue, a solo play, which hits the subject right at its center—brutally, if tempered by pervasive strands of wit. Karel tells the story of a friend who suffered from a particular ailment, one producing a fierce red rash over his entire body, which he could not cure for decades of his life. He had emigrated to Britain from his country of origin as an adolescent. His mother put him on a train on the eve of the Second World War, telling him he was off to summer camp in England. This continued longer, for years, as the war carried on, and he found himself settled in Great Britain. He enjoyed a successful and rewarding career in business, until the disease broke out. It worsened and tormented him, with physicians offering little effective help, until he had to quit his job and live in isolation, because of the pain and embarassment of his condition. Concerning his emigration, which later appears as a life-saving escape from a situation in which his mother and other family members met their ends, he remembers sharing a compartment with an obnoxious boy roughly his own age, who taunts him about his crying over his separation from his mother. He elaborates on this, and it becomes the central incident of the play. Early in his exile, he grew eager to meet this person again to settle things up—peacefully—but he failed to get his name. Much follows upon that, both concerning his rash and his mysterious travelling companion.
The many layers of this simple, but deep and complex parable have been unravelling in my mind over the past few weeks, potentized by my own recollection, as an émigré to the UK, when I suffered a similar widespread rash. Either I had a milder case of it, or one of the retellers of the story I witnessed on stage—three, I am told, including Guare—greatly exaggerated the redness and the pain of it. I was cured, when my NHS doctor referred me to the Radcliffe. The examining physician asked me if I minded if he used me as a teaching subject, which made me feel vastly important, and, as he explained the exczema to the students a few kind words effected the cure within hours. In others ways Guare’s work has touched me closely—in a personal way. I have also worked as a private art dealer in the past, and I have been amazed at how fully and accurately he portrayed that world in Six Degrees. This opening section, brilliantly played by Martin Moran, with endless nuances of color and meaning, as his narration revisited various moments in the character’s biography, started the evening off with a serious and solid foundation.
With the second play, “Elżbieta Erased” Guare, writing for two actors, Omar Sangare and himself, in his stage debut in a play of his own, turns to Elżbieta Czyżewska. Only Poles, perhaps only older Poles, will immediately understand what a powerful figure Czyżewska was on the stage and screen in her native country. Omar Sangare’s United Solo Festival recently presented solo plays about Elizabeth Taylor and Grace Kelly. Czyżewska was taken much more seriously as an artist than either of those, perhaps combining the artistic genius and instability of Vivien Leigh, the acid of Bette Davis, and the open sexiness of a Vitti or Bardot…and in later life one might have taken her for Helen Mirren, who, as the daughter of a Russian exile, shares some remote Slavic blood with her. When Elżbieta met David Halberstam, who, as many will remember did his turn in the spotlight as an American pundit on Eastern European affairs in the New York Times, etc. back in the Cold War era, at a cocktail party, and was, according to the play, charmed, because he was the only person she had met in some time who didn’t know who she was. (Evidently cultural matters weren’t on Halberstam’s beat.) Their involvement grew and they married in 1965. Halberstam two years later wrote an extremely unflattering article about the life in Poland, soured his relations with the Poles, and was expelled. Elżbieta followed him to New York, where they lived at a prominent address. Polish officials, seemingly striking a chord with popular sentiment, rose in furor against her defection, and she was excommunicated from Polish stage, screen, and television, where Polish actors customarily work interchangeably. She was never able to reduce her Polish accent sufficiently to find more than small character roles in the United States, her relations with Halberstam deteriorated, and they divorced in 1977, bitterly. After that she was on her own. Her heavy drinking, during the marriage, if not before, developed into alcoholism, she put on a significant amount of weight, and behaved in an erratic and arrogant way, which cut her off from many opportunities. Eventually she gave up drinking, trimmed down, and did her best to build a career, but without success. The key image of the play is an over life-size portrait, which hangs in the office of a Lincoln Center adminstrator, a venue where she never performed. My summary is unequal to the bitter ironies of Elżbieta’s life.
This was presented as a fireworks of dialogue and interchanged narration between the playwright and Omar Sangare, who in fact played together with Czyżewska in Poland—in Six Degrees of Separation! Sangare adopts both her voice as well as those of her friends and critics over the course of the play. Guare himself provided a loose narrative structure, as well as a more involved sort of commentary of an ambiguous tenor. At least it kept a certain distance beween himself and his subject. This was, given what we know of her behavior in Wszystko na sprzedaz, Andrzej Wajda’s film, in which it seems fairly obvious that she is playing herself, a nightmarishly demanding, draining friend to those who bore that responsibility. On the other hand it is inspiring to be close to such people, even if one is busy producing a film or a play…This film, made in 1969, was intended to be her international come back, but the Polish authorities blocked its export to the US, where her career was based, and her intense performance did her no good there.
It is more than amply clear that John Guare wants Elżbieta to be remembered, and remembered as she was, in her full brilliance, thorniness, and vulnerability, without sweetening, pathos, feminist doctrine, or political correctness, and bless him for his honesty! The originality of his technique in this virtuoso turn for two performers, will, I think take time for imitators to digest and understand, if they are actualy interested in that. If this is Guare’s late period, it’s quite a frisky one.
The final play, “Funiage,” tells the story of Witold Gombrowicz’s early career and his transportation (certainly not in the Australian sense!) to Argentina, where he worked away at his writing for years in isolation and poverty, only occasionally receiving spells of recognition. The story is this, after some years of limited success in pursuing a literary career by cultivating themes, like sex and immaturity, antithetical to the proud Romantic patriotism with which Polish writers were traditionally identified, Gombrowicz, aged thirty-five, embarked on a goodwill voyage on the new Polish steamship, Chrobry (=”Intrepid”). While the ship was docked in Argentina, along with its passenger list of Polish artists and intellectuals, the Nazis invaded Poland, bringing all concerned into the war. Gombrowicz, instead of embarking on the Chrobry to sail to Scotland and fight the war there, opted to remain in Argentina. There began an initially painful, later productive exile, in which the writer had to come to terms with his relation to Polishness and the duties it placed on the Polish literary man. Guare shows the transition in the form of a forced marriage to “Poland,” based on Gombrowicz’s Iwona.
As I mentioned, Gombrowicz seems to go the furthest back in Guare’s experience with Central Europeans and exile, a literary connection through Gombrowicz’s writings, which are hardly abundant in translation in this country. (The many allusions and quotations from Gombrowiczian sources in “Funiage” are based on literal translations by Omar Sangare.) In yet a third leap over a vast stylistic abyss, John Guare decided to create an hommage to this Polish writer he so greatly admires by presenting his experiences in the most immediate way possible—in the form of a review with music and dancing, reflecting the style of the subject’s own plays. The Playbill mentions The Marriage and Trans-Atlantyk as sources, but Princess Iwona, which was available in a published translation, therefore not requiring Dr. Sangare’s services. This is about the hottest theatrical medium there is, bringing us close to some of the wilder, Foreman-influenced entertainments concocted by the youngest generation in theater on both sides of the East River. This was both tempered and enriched by a primary reliance on acoustic instruments, basically an upright piano at the back of the stage (played with spirit and style by Timothy Splain, who unsurprisingly had to do justice to Chopin at several junctures). Pretty much the entirely gamut of stage and circus skills, short of tightrope walking and lion taming, was required of the cast, who met the production’s many challenges most impressively—above all David Pittu, who played Gombrowicz, and Omar Sangare, who followed his tour de force in “Elżbieta Erased” with a spirited and imaginative Gonzalo—the aforementioned ordeal of the white suit. This extremely complex performance, which suggests chaos without ever actually entering into it, was virtuosically directed by Neil Pepe. Peter Maloney also stood out as the hero’s censorious father and the captain of the Chrobry.
Three Kinds of Exile is an infinitely rich and involving staging of the endless topic, which has been at the center of concern for artists and writers of all origins for over a century. It deserves to become a classic (My only real criticism is that I found “Funiage” a bit long and relentless after a while.). While it has some of the superficial trappings of what was once called “experimental theater (and perhaps stil is, for all I know), Guare’s experimental spirit goes far deeper than that. The poetic and psychological ramifications of his technique are even richer than the immediate experience from the stage. Since other tasks delayed the writing of this review, I’ve found that much has revealed itself after the performance.
As I said, there is no end to where our meditations on exile can take us. More please, Mr. Guare!