The Comic Frame of Sławomir Mrożek: Or, How to Tell if You Live in a Totalitarian Country

On August 15, 2013, the Polish dramatist, writer, and cartoonist Sławomir Mrożek died at the age of 83 in Nice, France, his home since 2008. Throughout his long and rich career, Mrożek created a diverse body of work, consisting of plays, short stories, and cartoons, all characterized by a very particular sense of irony, often called “styl Mrożkowy” (Mrozkesque style). Mrozkesque style blends surrealist black comedy and grotesque political satire. In his plays, absurd situations become metaphors for political circumstances and psychosomatic conditions experienced under a totalitarian regime. For that reason alone, in his 1961 book, Theatre of the Absurd, theatre critic and scholar Martin Esslin classified Mrożek with Samuel Beckett and Eugène Ionesco as a representative of the Theatre of the Absurd:

a theatre of such concretized images of psychological dilemmas and frustrations which transmuted moods into myths was extremely well suited to deal with the realities of life in Eastern Europe, with added advantage that, concentrating on the psychological essentials of the situation in a setting of myth and allegory, it had no need to be openly political or topical by referring to politics or social conditions as such.

Esslin located Mrożek in the Polish tradition of grotesque and surrealism that emerged before World War II with Stanislaw Witkiewicz, Witold Gombrowicz, and Bruno Shultz, and that developed after the war into the Theatre of the Absurd as a response to political circumstances; but this context is only one aspect that influenced Mrożek’s unique writing style.

Mrożek never saw himself as someone who actively advocated for political change; he didn’t see himself as a political playwright, not in the way these terms are used today. His works are void of the type of sacred pathos and self-righteous piety that permeates so much of today’s so-called political theatre. Mrożek’s political critique is done on the sly, casually, as if by accident; seemingly without purpose, motive, or even self-awareness. In the tradition of great jokers, the playwright constructs his authorial alter ego as someone who is too thoughtless to understand the mechanisms of power to be a real threat to it. Hence the authorial voice in Mrożek’s dramatic works is constantly focused on meta-theatrical self-erasure, sustaining the ambivalence about the playwright’s intentions. Balancing at the intersection of the absurd, comedy, and satire, Mrożek’s voice nonetheless remains distinct and difficult to classify within the existing categories of drama.

The Cold War era divided East and West along ideological lines, and, accordingly, comedy responded very differently to each system. In the United States, framed by democratic principles of freedom of speech, comedy flourished on many levels. While Broadway comedy catered to more conservative, mainstream tastes, off-Broadway comedy moved toward satire, engaging in political criticism that grew under the auspices of the rebellious 1960s. American political satire has oscillated between derision for the government and love for one’s country, functioning as a form of “moral and social therapy.”

In Communist countries, however, the relationship between comedy and politics was much more complicated. As a coping mechanism during the years of totalitarian oppression, Eastern Europeans developed a proverbial form of resistance: an intellectual distance from the oppressive ideology. One comic strategy of that time was what the modern German philosopher Peter Sloterdijk calls “kynicism”: a “rejection of the official culture by means of irony and sarcasm.” It was a peculiar form of “pissing against the idealist wind” of the ardent party apparatchiks. As Sloterdijk put it: “Cheekiness has, in principle, two positions, namely, above and below, hegemonic power and oppositional power. […] The kynic, as dialectical materialist, has to challenge the public sphere because it is the only space in which the overcoming of idealist arrogance can be meaningfully demonstrated.”

Like Sloterdijk, Milan Kundera, a Czech writer best known for his philosophical novels, notes that Eastern European humor was invariably bound to a historical and political context. In his 2009 novel Encounter, Kundera defines black humor, which is often used as a tool of struggle against oppression, as “the humor of people who are far from power, make no claim to power, and see history as a blind old witch whose moral verdicts make them laugh.” This type of humor, Kundera argues, found a particularly fertile ground in Eastern Europe: “the tragedy of Central European nations with their ‘disabused view of history that is the source of their culture, of their wisdom, of their “nonserious spirit” that mocks grandeur and glory.’” Kundera explains further: “Big nations consider themselves the masters of history and thus cannot but take history, and themselves, seriously. A small nation does not see history as its property and has the right not to take it seriously.” Or, as Adorno put it, “there is laughter because there is nothing to laugh at.”

In his novel The Book of Laughter and Forgetting (1978), Kundera also notes that a totalitarian system provokes two other types of laughter: One kind of laughter, angelic laughter, is an empty laughter of joy used by everyone to manipulate viewers with simulated happiness: “All churches, all underwear manufacturers, all generals, all political parties have that laughter in common; they all use the image of those two laughing lovers in the publicity for their religion, their product, their ideology, their nation, their sex, their dishwashing detergent” (60). This is the kind of laughter that is approved by the totalitarian powers because it is nonthreatening: it has no political and social purpose. The other laughter, the laughter of devils, is sinister because it is conscious of its power, Kundera argues. This second kind of laughter is the tool of oppression, as it uses humor to humiliate and degrade its victim. Devils’s laughter makes “things suddenly deprived of their putative meaning.”

Since it was impossible to laugh at the regime in a direct way, you had to learn to read and write between the lines. In Mrożek’s case, as Daniel Gerould put it: “Listening between the lines of his plays, spectators in the iron-curtain countries found pointed allusions to the tyranny of the state under which they suffered. The laughter of derision unleashed in the theatre was liberating, demystifying arbitrary power and dispelling fear by revealing its sources.”

In his work, Mrożek blends the kynical humor of the oppressed with the reductio ad absurdum strategy of the totalitarian “Devil’s laughter.” As Oleg Sus noted in 1963, Mrożek’s stylistic structure destroys the “hedonism of a safe point of resistance, the frozen world of pre-established norms and counter-norms, dialectically pushing reality to its absurd, yet logical end.” Mrożek is most famous for the iconic Strip-tease (1961) and Tango (1964), two plays that have been critically acclaimed as modern masterpieces of world drama. Strip-tease was Mrożek’s first attempt at serious political satire. The play is a tale of two men trapped in what appears to be a prison. They are trying to escape it by pretending they’re free, but eventually they end up being slowly undressed by a large, mysterious hand. Even though it is never completely clear that this is what the hand wants from them, they deduce its demands from other familiar cues. Afraid of the hand and trying to anticipate what it may do to them and what it may want from them, they try to appease it with increasingly absurd responses, ending up naked, vulnerable, and ridiculous. Unlike another absurd metaphor for totalitarianism, Ionesco’s Rhinoceros, in which the sudden transformation of the populace into rhinos is what makes the situation absurd, in Mrożek’s Strip-tease the existence of the hand and its actions is never questioned. Instead, it is framed as a matter of fact: the hand does what it does because it is a hand and it does what a hand does. It’s the men’s interpretation of the hand’s power, and of its unspoken demands, that becomes increasingly absurd, even though their response, prompted by the reality of the situation, seems also absolutely logical.

The two men in Strip-tease respond differently to the situation: Man I fulfills the expected demands of the hand in order to maintain the illusion of free choice and dignity. Man II tries to anticipate and guess the hand’s wishes, convinced that only by submitting to and confirming its power will he be able to survive and thrive under its thumb. The results, however, are the same, and both men end up naked, wearing paper hats on their heads. If the world of Ionesco or Beckett is absurd because it’s illogical — human beings behave in irrational ways in response to an irrational universe — in Mrożek’s work the world is hyper-rational, and human beings respond to it in a hyper-rational way, as delineated by the circumstances, which then, in themselves, become absurd.

Mrożek’s authorial alter ego assumes the point of view and value system of the powerful and extends it to its logical end. Małgorzata Sugiera calls Mrożek’s work an example of the “theatre of modal logic,” which creates the possibility for an alternate universe of truth-values. When used in semantics, modal logic defines the physical world according to pre-established conditions which, when changed, imply a new set of physical possibilities. By assuming the voice of the oppressor rather than the oppressed, Mrożek is able to create an alternative universe, which eventually falls apart in the deconstructive process of reductio ad absurdum. Thus, Mrożek shifts the borders of the comic frame, erasing the line between the comedic and the tragic impulses.

Kenneth Burke (1897–1993), an American sociologist and philosopher, argued that human beings function within the system of symbols that guide their social and cultural lives. In political and rhetorical analysis, which he called “dramatism,” Burke suggests that the symbolic systems that men create eventually come to dominate their actions, behaviors, and thought processes. According to Burke, frames are “symbolic structures by which human beings impose order upon their personal and social experiences. Frames serve as perspectives from which all interpretations of experience are made.” In his book Attitudes Towards History (1937), Burke defines different approaches to symbolic frames; they include, among others, the comic, the tragic, the satirical, the grotesque, and the transitional attitudes. For Burke, comedy functions as a social and political critique whose aim is to subvert the oppressive political and economic frames: “the comic frame of reference also opens up a whole new field for social criticism.” Burke notes that comedy can “provide a rationale for locating the irrational and non-rational.” Comedy can give one perspective on oneself and the world: “the comic frame should enable people to be observers of themselves, while acting. Its ultimate would not be passiveness, but maximum consciousness. One would ‘transcend’ himself by noting his own foibles,” The tragic frame operates within the structure of guilt, redemption, and sacrifice; the comic frame, on the other hand, provides relief and escape from the totalitarian narrative of the tragic frame. Burke warns that “humans should especially be on guard for the implications of the sacrificial principles for major world powers. As was the case with Hitler (and the Allies) the sacrificial principle can lead antagonistic world powers to the brink of mutual self-destruction.” Because it allows men to recognize the hidden workings of power, the comic frame can save them from the tragic frame of the sacrificial narrative demanded by totalitarian regimes.

Tango, Mrożek’s first full-length play, published in 1964 in Dialog, after the author emigrated from Poland, illustrates Burke’s thesis about the comic anti-dialectical nature of the comic frame. The play reverses a typical generational conflict: in the Stomil family, the elder generation has disintegrated into utter chaos and moral entropy, while the youngest members of the family desperately cling to traditional values and rituals, no matter how vacuous and outdated they appear. The absurdly exaggerated intergenerational contrast, and the victory of brute, vulgar force over fragile and idealistic youth, symbolizes the triumph of totalitarian ideology over humanistic ideals. The main character, Arthur, a son of Stomil and Eleonor, struggles with his parents’ bohemian lifestyle, attempting to re-establish old-world rituals by marrying his fiancée in a ceremonious wedding. In returning to traditional order, Arthur is trying to reclaim his right to rebellion, which he believes has been taken away from him by his parents’ lackadaisical attitude. But as Arthur and his father engage in philosophical discussions about intergenerational conflicts, Eddie, the butler and Eleonor’s lover, takes over, killing Arthur and bringing a new system of values to the family, one free from intellectual anxieties and the confines of tradition, and based only on physical force. For Eleonor, the return of a primal frame of reference is comforting, as it’s free of ambivalence and simple enough to understand and follow. “Eddie is not touched by any philosophical or moral codes; he likes order and clearly defined hierarchy. Eleanor sees in him an ideal embodiment of pure force, free from culture and tradition.” In Tango, Mrożek questions the premise of the Hegelian dialectic that sees history as a form of dialogue that always eventually finds its resolution in the synthetic reconciliation of opposing concepts. Eddie’s victory over Arthur’s naïve idealism reveals in some way a collapse of Hegelian thinking and also, in a broader historical context, a failure of the concept of revolution. The black humor of Tango, however, is different from that found in Brecht, where the dialectical structure of drama functions to provide critical perspective.

Brecht’s black humor “invites us to look for a defensible Weltanschauung; there is nothing guilty or shamefaced about it; it does not snigger, bur roars, as befits the magnitude of its disappointment.” Brecht’s black humor is not satirical, as it implicates the viewers in the affairs it attempts to mock, unlike satire, which “offers a moral high ground where the reader feels delightfully exempt from blame, and a vantage point from which the castigation meted out to others seems peculiarly deserved.” Brecht’s black humor “removes the hope of reform that satire can offer”; however, in its nihilism, black humor can shake viewers from their apathy. It acts almost as a shock therapy meant to reveal the inner workings of power and the despairing condition of the individuals caught in its cogs. Drawing on Marx’s economic and political theory, Brecht suggests that capitalism (as a product of a totalitarian regime) creates internal contradictions that are ripe for mockery. Bourgeois theatre “always aims at smoothing over contradictions, at clearing false harmony, at idealization,” writes J.E. Elliot in Schlegel, Brecht and the Jokes of Theory. However, the dialectic of humor can turn on itself, rendering Marxism itself a farce. For this very reason, black humor can open the space of social and political freedom that allows for a clearer perception of reality: “Joking with the rope around one’s neck creates the split-second diversion, the critical loss of attention, through which the roles of master and slave are spectacularly reversed, cultural materialism living to ride another day.”

Mrożek’s black humor, however, doesn’t share Brecht’s political or social aims. In political terms, its objectives are unclear, and can be interpreted as nihilistic. Certainly, Mrożek mocks the sacrificial impulse of the tragic frame, in Burke’s sense, by making Arthur’s death both absurd and pathetic. Taking himself so seriously, with all the weight of self-importance, Arthur is the ultimate caricature of the political activist, a Beautiful Soul, pure but incapable of survival in the harsh reality of his world. His quasi-heroic attempt to strike Eddie physically in a way confirms Eddie’s right to power: only a fool would challenge him in the way that Arthur does. This is a horrifying statement that presents no viable historical alternatives.

This ultimate nihilism, however, might also be Mrożek’s strongest political statement. As Daniel Gerould noted, placing Mrożek either in the tradition of the theatre of absurd or in the tradition of Eastern European dissident writers is outdated and limiting. The fact that Mrożek’s plays survived the time and continue to be performed globally shows the timeless appeal of his work: “In their obsessive concern with conspiracy, terrorism, and paranoia, and their exposure of the hidden links between culture and power, his plays seem strikingly contemporary.” Blending kynical reason, satire, grotesque, black humor, and comic reframing, Mrożek created a stage language that grapples mercilessly with enduring questions of human history and its consequences. That his conclusions can be viewed as both optimistic and pessimistic might be the very essence of Mrozkesque style.

In her 1931 book American Humor: A Study of the National Character, Constance Rourke makes a poignant observation on the role of humor in American life:

Humor has been a fashioning instrument in America, cleaving its way through the national life, holding tenaciously to the spread elements of that life. Its mode has often been swift and coarse and ruthless, beyond art and beyond established civilization. It has engaged in warfare against the established heritage, against the bonds of pioneer existence. Its objective — the unconscious objective of a disunited people — has seemed to be that of creating fresh bonds, a new unity, the semblance of a society and the rounded completion of an American type. (231–32)

Rourke’s point rings as true today as it did in 1931. One need only has followed the last few presidential elections to notice that having a sense of humor and being able to laugh at oneself is as much a requirement for the American presidency as is knowledge of foreign policy. One candidate after the next, from Clinton to Bush, Kerry, McCain, Palin, Obama, and Trump, had to pass the Saturday Night Live test: to be deemed worthy of the highest office in the nation, a politician needs not only to withstand mockery but also to join in the fun of mocking him- or herself. A sense of distance toward oneself, a nonchalant self-awareness of one’s faults and limitations, is essential in a leader of a democratic country.

Americans almost intuitively understand the curious, though little-analyzed, phenomenon: totalitarian leaders and dictators are unable to make fun of themselves. In 1948, Ludwig Wittgenstein noted that there was no humor in Nazi Germany: “Humor is not a mood but a way of looking at the world. So if it is correct to say that humor was stamped out in Nazi Germany, that does not mean that people were not in good spirits, or anything of that sort, but something much deeper and more important.”

Since dictatorial power is grounded in fear, and fear is disarmed with laughter, dictators fear humor, or, as Sloterdijk put it: “An essential aspect of power is that it only likes to laugh at its own jokes.”