Tuesday, April 20, 2021

Theatre real and imagined.

 


Translated by Chris Hariasz


Theatre real and imagined, 

or past and future – 2020 and 2021.


The new production of Emil Varda.



Winter 2021. 


The fire in the living room fireplace is already out. The family is getting ready to go to bed. They spent an evening by the fire, reading the catechism on impending fascism in which Timothy Snyder admonishes:


Be as brave as you can.

If no one wants to die for freedom

all of us will be killed by tyranny.


But that's the end of a pleasant family gathering. Emil goes upstairs, and by the time he gets to his bedroom he will stop by the studio and there, maybe in an hour or three, he will fall asleep in a chair while reading or writing. In a moment, he will email me a picture and ask: Do you remember?


For a few seconds, before the picture appears on the screen, I assume it will be some old photo from Poland or from the 1980s in New York City. Instead, a picture from a theatre dressing-room is displayed. Two girls are sitting in front of a mirror, Angels or Erinyes – Rivers and Mia with whitened faces, next to them Eliott – Venichka. Why should I remember an event that is happening right now?


After all, every day, when we are not filming a rehearsal or performance, Emil calls to say that they are about to start, and the house is over half-full, so it’s good. Do I have to remember what I saw yesterday and I will probably see it again in two days? Of course not. It is a vision from a past dream, the dressing room in the third theater, just before the performance of "All Roads Lead To The Kurski Station", from autumn 2018. Unless ... this is a picture of the preparations for a new show, which they have not yet started... preparing.


Therefore, I must recall a photograph of a still non–existent, future performance from more distant memories. Do you remember? – so everything that’s already gone, is constantly receding, fading away. Theater happens only in the present. After all, a video made for the archives is not a performance.


Tomorrow, Eliott, or Ryan, or an actor I don't know yet, will drink two sips less than he did today, and he won't perform as well as he does right now. The future also ebbs away, recedes, and together with the past it becomes more and more unattainable, absent, untouchable. Only the present exists, the fire is going out, the faces are whitened.



End of 2020.


1.

The plague persists. This is not news or an urgent message for today, yesterday, or or tomorrow. 

I wrote this sentence with a quiet hope that some unknown day in the future, in a year equally unknown, I would read it as a memory from the past. If I live to see that unknown day.


When we were not even suspecting that this kind of global scourge would afflict our generations (ours – from the end of the 20th century and the beginning of the 21st century), Emil came up with an amazing happening with the intention to surprise and shock the viewers


, involving figures of people with huge raven or parrot beaks. It was about a year before the pandemic started. I don't remember why he wanted to show these characters in Florida after one or two stagings on the streets of New York, and I don't remember how the show was supposed to go.


It seemed to Emil that the figures in long black coats, wearing the masks with big beaks and eyes covered in white would be a surprise and a peculiarity to American viewers, because there were no such doctors and corpse collectors here in the times of the plague; we thought they were figures only from the European tradition.  We had to let go of such assumptions after reviewing the Web. In the US, this disguise is in the Halloween costume collections. The effect of surprise in the Emil's imagined performance would not pan out.


It was only when the real Covid–19 pandemic broke out that I remembered Emil's old idea and started, for my own use, secretly suspecting him of prophetic abilities. In this case, I unnecessarily concealed my suspicions, as it turned out that Emil thought the same; modestly, not exactly comparing himself to Nostradamus, but nevertheless.


Not so long ago, he told me that he had a dream in which he had been warned about a fire, and a day or two later, for unknown reasons, he felt uneasy and reluctant to close the restaurant at the normal time of the night, and suddenly he smelled smoke. He saw a fire starting in the chimney, and had he not have been lingering that night, perhaps someone else might have called the fire department, but it certainly would have been too late.


Earlier, I was writing about Emil's second production entitled “The Sickness”, staged in February 2020, that is at the last minute – just before the closure of all theaters in New York, which continues until today. The year of the Covid pandemic ends in three days, and it looks like the first half of the second year will be quite similar. In the February production,"the sickness" was a drug addiction, but if it were about a virus, Emil would’ve become the most famous director of 2020 in New York City.


2.

The first spectators arrived at the theater very early. There were four of them. They looked around the hall and picked up the program brochures. They were not interested in free coffee. They were reading, lining up just in front of the house entrance, with a clear intention take the best seats. They didn't know that the best ones were already reserved. Or maybe Emil reserved these chairs just for them? However, they certainly did not think that the performance would not start on stage, but on…



Nothing of the sort happened. There was no third performance, it is still not happening and it is not known when and if it will take place at all. The above account of a theatrical event is completely fabricated, this review is a bogus piece, that is a myth, an apocryphon, or a legend. I am not writing this text to deceive the reader, but to trick myself, to cheer myself up by thinking that everything is OK, that everything is normal, that nothing falls to ruin, does not crumble into splinters.


The show is about a pandemic, or more precisely – also about a pandemic, but it cannot take place right now, when new variants of the virus are raging and the media will soon announce that the 500,000th American has died.


You cannot see this show in any theater, on any stage, because we have to look around when we are walking, standing, or sitting; whether we maintain the so–called "social distance" and whether we are not generally too close to each other, and whether there is maybe someone not wearing the mask around.




The beginning of 2021.


3.

Recently, rumors were being spread among actors in New York that in June, and almost certainly in September, the situation would be better, that rehearsals would begin, and theaters would open.

It's late January 2021. The current President tells the truth about what is and what awaits us. 

A previous guy in the White House was lying, talking nonsense and was only interested in his orange image, not the pandemic in America.


Does this unstageable play speak of such a plague? We will see. We will see, because if the theatrical performance about a pandemic could not take place last year, and its fate this year is also uncertain, since opening the door to the audience seems as unrealistic as pears in a willow, it will be logical to return to the four people in the hall, who read the program of the show, especially since there is already a large crowd of spectators behind them.


4.

Four young people with brochures in their hands. a strange guy in ragged clothes pushes on to them through the crowd. He looks like an ordinary New York homeless man, not very dirty, but not very clean, with rather alcoholic complexion and eyes staring at the non–existent horizon. Why exactly does he want to approach them? Is it because they are the first in line? He might be one of those guys who camp in Penn Station, Grand Central and the streets of the Big City. How did he get inside the theater?


The guy is carrying a black plastic bag, you can't see what's in it, but something big. He bumps someone and looks at that person angrily – “Hey you, be careful where you stand. You stand in my way.” But there's no fuss because the dude continues pushing his way. Yet he doesn't aim at these four young people at all. A woman is sitting on the floor next to them. Typical homeless woman with packages in plastic bags – The Bag Lady.


The dude puts his package on the floor next to her, pulls the plastic up and exposes the accordion. He bends down with difficulty, picks up the instrument, puts the straps on his shoulders. People at the door were confused because they didn't even notice when the Lady sat down beside them.


"You drive God away...," – the one with the accordion mumbles and starts to play. Someone in the crowd bursts into a short laugh.

"What god?" – the Lady asks. – "There is no God in Manhattan... there is no God."


“I have to dry my laundry... need a hot radiator...where can I find one... You, tell me where a hot radiator is around here.” – the Lady nudges the leg of a girl standing by the door to the auditorium. The girl looks at her a little amused, a little scared. Automatically, she looks around. Her friend says softly to her – “Some freak. A hot radiator at this time of year?”


"There is no god in Mahattan" is a line from the previous play "The Sickness". The "Lady" on the floor is Mia, the drug addict girl from that play. Now I barely recognize her because she's dressed in a disheveled wig, multiple skirts, two sweaters, three scarves around her shoulders and hips, while in "The Sickness" she appeared in a T–shirt and boxer shorts.


I'm not making up anything. This is how it will begin... This is how the new performance of Emil Varda begins. It has the title  “…the birds are gone and never coming back...."

Or maybe the beginning of the performance will not be exactly like that, but it will surely all start in the theater lobby, with "bums" (in New York speak), or, more politely speaking, "homeless" characters.



5.

In May 2020, Emil had written so much of the script that he could send it to Chris and me for the first reading and opinions. However, he made a stipulation that this is was not the final product, as he is still working on more scenes.


In the summer, the virus seemed to have disappeared somewhere, so the playwright imagined that he might perhaps turn into a director in the fall. I am not a chronicler of the plague, yet I cannot help but to recall that in the fall the virus returned in a new version, mutated.


The script about the plague, i.e. the birds that have flown away and will never come back, was created in the spring. Emil had plenty of time since March 16; that day they closed the restaurant. Also that day, Mia put on a face mask for the first time, and the rest of the cooking and waiting staff laughed at her pioneering zeal. After that, there was no opportunity to laugh because there was no work.


That evening, Emil was returning home from New York on an almost empty train and dared to try on an anti–virus mask. He began to write down his theatrical idea, and at the same time, following an unbridled script, the plague took off in New York City.


Emil never traveled by train again that or the following seasons.  He would go to the City a few more times by car and call me on the phone, reporting how empty the city is, how many windows and doors he sees covered with plywood, and that there are more and more large, white containers on the streets in front of hospitals and emergency stations.  


One day, without getting out of the car, he asked someone in protective coveralls what the containers were for. – “Come on, man! You know very well what for." This man was wearing a suit, like the characters in the movies about nuclear disasters. He had not had any large crow's or parrot's beak attached to his forehead. On March 17, 182 cases were reported in NYC, 1,133 two days later, and 4,970 a month later. In Emil's script, corpse collectors find the dead even in the stairwells.  In New York, terrified inhabitants of large apartment buildings summoned corpse collectors to bodies found in staircases.


The president of an entire country, making silly faces Mussolini-style, advised people to disinfect themselves intravenously with chlorine bleach.


Emil hasn't been to the City for more than a month. On the other hand, Mia, who was to play the main female character in the production, really lived surrounded by the scenery of the plague, the scenery of reality theater.  New York was declared a closed city. In late spring, after the riots in Soho, Mia walked through the neighborhood. In the photos, she captured an empty city, empty streets, windows covered with plywood, broken glass in windows not yet boarded up, closed gas stations and restaurants, empty stalls in the Chinese district, no cars on the streets. I counted eleven human figures on four dozen of her photos from the City. It was the second day of June 2020. 250 people were arrested the previous day. Some guy shot another guy in the chest. The president of the entire country spent an hour in the shelter, because stones were thrown at the police in the vicinity of the White House.



6.

Less than a year later, a rumbling and smoking all over America volcano of fascism erupted on the Capitol. This is a parallel pandemic, an old but mutant virus.  This old, familiar pandemic is lurking in the nooks and crannies along with the plague, just as Camus had warned.


At the beginning, Emil gave his script the title "The Pestilence”.  In the sixth and the seventh scene of the play, things happen simultaneously – in a hospital, which is a prison, or in a prison, which is a hospital. It is one place that exists twice. A metaphor of the City or of the entire State?


It is supposed to take place in one space, but as if on two stages, with double scenery, and yet on a single set. I am not sure that I understand the director's sketched, unfinished intention; that is, I understand the message, but I cannot imagine how this is going to play out in his theater.


This of course is what happens in real theater, and it is clear and obvious. However, it is beyond my imagination, that the tea and orange–colored ideas, misgivings, and mental impairments, or the politics of returning to the so–called greatness that was as beautiful as hell – exist in parallel with the American Dream.


I suspect that the metaphor of a multifaceted plague, viral and ideological at the same time, made the author tired of the very title "The Pestilence," which confuses everything despite apparent obviousness, just as the metaphorical "Plague" once tired Camus, as he struggled to untangle the plague from politics and natural catastrophes from human ideas.


In the summer of 2020, Chris came up with a song to be sung in the production, based on Emil's idea that "...the birds are gone and never coming back..." I think Emil was relieved when he saw that this new poetic line can be used as the play’s title, and he abandoned the previous one .*



7.

"I didn't have time to think about this show," said Mia.


She is supposed to be one of the three Yurodivies. These three are not literally American "bums", they are also not Polish "homeless" or "tramps", also not Parisian "clochards". Yurodivy is a Russian word, it means a crazy figure, religiously haunted, acting madly and against all accepted rules; he is a madman of God, sometimes prophesying, sometimes performing miracles, who begs, does not wash, he talks fiercely but makes no sense, sometimes he is completely silent.

They were a nuisance to the community but also half–saints. Accepted, as long as they did not begin to threaten social peace; then they were often chased away or even killed.


This is how the Yurodivies were described in the Middle Ages. In more recent times, the title of jurodivy could have been achieved by people of high society, such as, for example, Prince Myshkin in Dostoevsky's novel. Professor Wodziński claimed that all Karamazovs are yurodivies. Venedikt Yerofeyev was also a yurodivy, like  Venichka from his poem "Moscow-Petushki".


The character played by Mia is called Babcia Szamcia (Shamtzia) in Polish. Mia doesn't know Polish, she has to assume she is Grandma Imbibe. Wait, that's what she was called in the May production, in the September show her name was Theckla O'Munchin. Grandma Szamcia is an authentic figure from a university campus in Lublin fifty years ago. In the student café, she would take a table, spread her junk around, and it was not permissible to sit in empty chairs next to her, because they were not really empty. There were occupied by some “Them,” with whom Grandma was having conversations. Only unaware first–year students were trying to get through to Grandma. To the amusement of the entire café, they were chased away by her. Grandma was a part of and being tolerated by the cafeteria community.


A lot of tickets had been sold that day and the foyer is getting crowded. The crowd will not fill the all the seats, but the vestibule is not big. Grandma is the first to shove her way into the crowd. We already know that she is excessively dressed, we already know that despite the wig, one can recognize the actress Mia Vallet. She already shouted back the Accordionist. Suddenly she stops, surrounded by spectators, looks at their faces, looks up for no more than three seconds, but her eyes disappear under her skull and the absence of pupils is so terrible it seems to last forever. She sways. A girl beside her, fear in her eyes, but courageously stretches out her hand in a helpful gesture. Grandma begins with a terrible voice: "If He, if He..." She looks very closely into the brave girl's eyes and continues: “If He has left the earth forever, but still sees every one of us, I know that He never looked this way..."  She pauses and pushes the young man standing too close away. "...but if He never left, if He has passed the whole of it, barefoot, dressed as a slave...then He bypassed this place...” 


The accordionist answeres her: "Drink, screw, until you drop, this pestilence will have to stop."

At the beginning, Grandma repeated a line that Venichka spoke three years ago at the end of the production entitled "All Roads Lead To The Kurski Station"; driven to the walls of the Kremlin, he realized that he had not reached Petushki at all, and that two sweet Guardian Angels were in fact cruel Erinyes. Grandma is a yurodivy and perhaps the whispering of the wind suggested her this question, or ,maybe it was a voice she heard in the silence of the night.

"Your eyes were extreme today," someone said after the performance. 

"Tomorrow everything will be different," Mia almost chuckled. 

"Oh, I wonder how?"

Mia, like a real theater diva, was mysterious and haughty, she tapped her smartphone without a word. The next day, Grandma said her line with a devilish laugh. 

"It's interesting how we will see our old selves from the time before the show now." –That's what Mia wondered a few weeks earlier during the first rehearsal of "The Birds" and she came on stage dressed in a multilayered costume, still as Grandma but with name Theckla O'Munchin. What was, is, or will be this date in the calendars?


Emil didn't have much time to think about "The Birds" in the fall. Restaurants were beginning to open their sidewalk tents. They had to deliver heaters at the tables in the November chill. One day, while waiting for the next delivery of heaters or some other devices that were supposed to allow his customers to eat a cutlet in the yard, Emil took out a bunch of papers and together with Mia they held a read-through rehearsal, the only real attempt at "The Birds" so far. Here, I don't have to make anything up. Then they did not have time for imaginary theater again.



8.

In the summer of last year, the plague hypocritically and falsely subsided, and the atmosphere around the production was filled with a whiff of hope that something could begin in the autumn. Chris wrote a ghastly and at the same time lyrical ballad which he sang first with a guitar, and in the second version he added an accordion on which he also played. Everyone liked the ballad.


This landscape is hurting, bound with barbed wire 

Here even children don’t cry
Is it a duty or maybe it’s desire
To laugh, then lie down and die 

Reason and hope are under attack
For the birds are gone, and never coming back 


An empty can stumbles in utter confusion 

The wind is wrestling with the reeds
Is it a memory or maybe an illusion
My wound, wide open, still bleeds 

We forgot our goal and we lost our track
For the birds are gone, and never coming back 


The air is putrid and heavy with soot 

Doors shut, and the windows are blind 

Once rich and fragrant is now destitute 

The legacy this plague left behind 

The days are grey and the nights are black
For the birds are gone, and never coming back 


"A sensational, great song, but why are there reeds in the city? They are too lyrical. This wind is supposed to blow garbage, dirt, papers, plastic bags, , used and discarded masks." – said Emil.


"There are a lot of reeds in Central Park," was Chris’ response. "And certainly next to some houses and squares in the City," I added in defense of the text. We didn't really convince Emil. Whenever he enters the city, he does not see the reeds, but a half–story "housing estate" of the homeless under the viaduct loops. The freezing New York yurodivies live in blankets, in duvets, in cardboard boxes, in furniture scraps, sheltered by umbrella tents. 


Chris made a music video for his song walking around Akron, Ohio where he lives. The contrariness in this idea is based on a juxtaposition of the distopian content of the ballad and the lyricism of the catchy melody. Similarly, his film is interlaced with pictures of a gloomy "wasteland," views of the wilderness – an empty park, torn asphalt roads, barbed-wire fences next to them, scattered trash. Clouds and circling birds cut out of the sky as if with a knife, and the only dynamic element in the frozen landscapes are the reeds shaken by the wind. In some strange way, perhaps due to the lack of colors in the black and white video, it all seems both distant and close to the reality of New York, devastated by plague, and to the phantasms of the hospital–prison in the play.


Probably out of perversion, Emil sent a short video showing a hideously littered street in NYC and thus devastating our lyrical "reedsness".


9.

Grandma's two yurodivy companions are Copernicus and Accordionist, the latter known half a century ago as Mr. Rysio.  It doesn't matter that the audience in the foyer has to endure sales pitches of Mr. Rysio, who tries to peddle a sip of booze from his bottles for five bucks – because here is Copernicus with a tirade.

I remember him accosting us half a century ago in the hall of the university library and telling us in a conspiratorial whisper that it would be enough to buy one plane with an atomic bomb, send it to fly over Moscow and – "then we'll talk."  His arguments about the concave Earth followed the idea of the bomb. 

Well, the Earth, says Copernicus to the people waiting in the hall, is neither round nor flat, because the shoes wear off on the toes and heels, which means that it is concave. Just like the real character in the past, the one in the play expects a Nobel Prize for overthrowing Copernicus' theory.

The difference between them is that the real one was going to buy a plane with an atomic bomb with the Nobel prize money. The one in the play convinces the audience that his real name is Boris Pasternak. Mr. Rysio, not willing to wait for the Nobel Prize, tries to charge five bucks per person for his friend's story.

I slowly retreat to the wall and sneak up the stairs, because in a moment there will be a macabre in this tight lobby. 

The accordion opens wide, elbows to the ribs, bass in the ears, and Boris Pasternak starts going crazy, singing: Scythe... Scythe... Cut! Scythe... Scythe... Cut! Scythe... Scythe... Cut! 

He pretends to be Death that cuts people unfairly, methodically and absurdly in a dance, a Dance Macabre. People instinctively retreat; a little blindly, without looking around, they step on each others’ feet. They all want to escape from the center of the room to the farthest corners. The macabre mower moves away from the front door.

I know that the performance in the theater hall should start now, I know that in a moment two strange Doctors will open the entrance door. They will be dressed in huge gas masks, military style, but maybe instead of hanging filters, they will have beaks protruding from them, like those of the medieval doctors and corpse collectors in the plague. ("Those beaks were stuffed with dried herbs and fruit," Emil reminded me one evening.)

Those two will open the door and, shushing yurodivies, they will invite the people to come in, but not only the tickets will have to be shown to them.

Everyone will have to empty their pockets of items which, God forbid, could carry the virus, i.e. passports, wallets, loose change, valuables, bracelets, rings, wedding rings, and first of all Swiss watches (if you have a Russian watch, you’re fine, because the virus does not stick to the Russian junk).

Grandma, Copernicus and the Accordionist should make their way to the stage, from where they will greet those who enter with a song about birds that have flown away and will never come back. But the door doesn't open.

Copernicus and the Accordionist do not leave the lobby. One doesn't mow anymore, the other doesn't play. They both slowly push their way towards me. They came up.

"We don't know what to do next," – says Copernicus.

"It's not written," – says the Accordionist.

"I understand," – I say. – "Emil completed only seven scenes so far."

"We can play through the seventh scene. Don't pretend. You haven't written anything about us since mid–December. You finished the story about us with "Scythe... Scythe... Cut".  And what next? What's next with the show? It's already March of the following year. The show must go on."


10.

I do not intend to throw my three cents into the theory of theater, so just for the sake of these trivial notes, I will posit that a theater that perhaps had a rich past, or that may even have a bright future, but is not equipped with the present, at least a bit of the present - does not exist.

In these notes, I am not recording the troubles of a director who is unable to stage his play in a theater; I am also not waiting for further developments in order to chronicle Emil's third production.

I am trying to attribute to "Birds" at least a shadow, a haze, a phantom of a suspiciously constructed present.  I try to reach the "now" of this performance with not artful imagination, but rather a coarse memory, in order to remember it, but also to remember how it is woven into the present of the great scenery behind it in a barely visible weave, with a faint stitch.

I use the director's script not to correct the actors' mistakes, like a prompter, and not to check whether what is happening on stage is in line with the parameters of the project. This copy is my lorgnette through which I watch the show unfold, what it is like tonight; through theatrical binoculars I look at details that are not very clearly visible from a distant theater box.

The action of the play is getting closer and closer to the double scene, actually two parallel scenes, written as the sixth and seventh.

The third scene has passed, in which two jewelry collectors, the Plague Doctors, that is, the corpse collectors, found dead effigies of yurodivies, Grandma and the Nobel Prize winner. In the course of events, both of them have already managed – Man One a bit better, Man Two not so well – to get used to the increasing number of victims of the plague, but they are shocked to see that also the free, mad, half-holy figures could not escape her.

The Accordionist, somehow a survivor of the pandemic, shows up on the stage, but he seems to be such an unreal, artificial figure that Man Two dreams up an idea of writing a treatise on the success of "Frankensteinism" in medicine in the 21st century.

The fourth scene has also concluded, in which both Men/Doctors construct something resembling a hospital or a jail; on one side – a prison cell, and on the other... perhaps a hospital room, or maybe the rest of the world?

Actually, I am not interested in the names of these places, because in this fragment of the production, other periods are woven into its own present time - two of them are clearly taken from the past of Emil's theater.

Another past tense, seemingly goes back to the above-described events from half a century ago, but is mixed with a much closer past. So the sixth and seventh scenes are mixing and multiplying the chronology, not the locations.

All this together may suggest that Emil Varda's main achievement (intention?) is the metaphorization of time in the theater.

Metaphorization, or maybe a different meaning of the present of events, where there is an interference of the still not closed past, and where the future of unrestricted changes in the old and current scripts is constantly inscribed?

The disrupted flow, or rather the stumbling or disability of time (ideas by Leśmian and Schulz), is impossible to report in the traditional chronology, which is treated ironically, almost mockingly.

Such poetics of ironic metaphor was already visible in the productions "All Roads..." and "The Sickness".

I would not like to go beyond the subject of theater, but I think that the director complicates and confuses (allusively? self-ironicly?) the whole matter by adding time from his own personal calendar to the theater time. What is allowed in poetry is not forbidden in the theater.

The new show is about the pandemic as much as it is about the time in which the pandemic has happened.

If you look at the efforts to combat the present plague, it is clear that what matters most is time - When did it start? When will vaccines be ready? Will we make it? How much longer? Until July 4? Until autumn? Before winter? Will it also be around next year?

The metaphor of time in his own theater is the intention of the creator of the play "The Birds": Venichka's time from his unfulfilled journey and the would-be meeting with his beloved in Petushki and the time of the conversation between woman X and man Y from "The Sickness" –  both of these events are prolonged in the dialogue between Woman and Man characters in the cell. She and He appear in the sixth scene, while in happening simultaneously seventh, the Second Man/Doctor/Gravedigger with the Accordionist who claims that in Poland he listened to professor Wodziński's lectures on medieval Russian yurodivies. 

The uncertain present tense of this performance that I see through binoculars is assisted by the past tense taken from bygone productions in order to create an uncertain future for the theater that will arrive after the pandemic. After all, I can also see that this time Venichka once again hardly experiences love fulfillment. It means - I can't see anything: She allows him to climb down to her bunk, but what is really going on there, it is impossible to see through the tight curtain of the bedsheet. It is probably again a fantasy in a breathless monologue, because her existence is as unproven as was the existence of the Angels-Erynies.

The irony of the times is that this play about time does not have a good time to be staged.

I have to stop my twisted meditations because someone is entering my box. It is Copernicus, who was replaced by a puppet and never appeared live on stage again.  "You see, we somehow managed to get to the seventh scene,"  he says.

"Until six," - I correct. – "The sixth scene, in the cell, continues long after the final, seventh."

"I do not deny it," – says Copernicus.

"Emil is still working on this part of the script,"  I add in an insider's tone.

"You know anything about it or are you just guessing?"

I didn't even hear my own answer, as it gets muffled by the applause of the audience at the end of the performance.


*



*I do not want to go into too pompous associations on this occasion, but the new title seems to me to change a theatrical script into a poem; the mysterious duality of scenes in one play, which is troublesome for the viewers, would be obvious and appropriate for the readers of the poem. The possible loftiness of the idea is reduced to the lowlands by the simple fact of the literary existence of the text, in the face of the ephemeral future of drama. Emil does not challenge the concept of the poem, but as a theatre person, he listens without conviction to my  supposition about the instrumental advantage of literature over theater, although I have already suggested to him that he should publish a book of a poetic character, even with illustrations.


* * *

transl. C. Hariasz

Saturday, January 23, 2021

A fairy tale about the year of the pandemic.

 


Three Baba-Yagas and the Dragon-Plague

A fairy tale about the year of the pandemic



Behind the mountains, beyond the forests and beyond one great river, in a palace built a hundred miles from New York City, three happy Baba-Yagas sat around  the table in a colorful kitchen. On the round table top, a large glass jar shone with sugared fruit, and from inside it spread, like memories of July, the scent of raspberry wine. The end of Fall was near. The three Baba-Yagas sipped the sunny liquid from their tall-legged goblets, and with each sip they grew more and more cheerful and ruddy. 


One was Ania, the other was Rebecca, the third was Cait. None of them were a hundred years old yet. In fact, other, older Baba-Yagas, who were four and six hundred years old, treated Ania, Rebecca and Cait like teenagers. But they envied their beauty and talents.


Ania could speak Polish and paint fairy-tale pictures beautifully, Rebecca was a shaman and knew Russian, Mongolian and Costa Rican shamanic spells, and Cait sang sweetly, wrote books about the elements, and was a Tarot master. Older, more grown-up Baba Yagas considered themselves to be superior witches, but all they could really do was dance. Ania invited them to dance in her palace several times a year, but only her closest friends were allowed to enter her kitchen. And this was the room full of secrets of the witch Ania, who was the mistress of this palace.


But there was no dancing this year.


The palace stood among meadows like a thousand spreading green tablecloths. There was a very wide, deep river behind the meadows. Behind the river there were bulbous misty mountains, and on the mountains there were thickets of forests and bushes. The windows in the palace were higher than the door, and there were many great rooms there. In the halls and corridors there were stairs, some straight and some winding, that led to the attic. The colorful kitchen, tucked away at the end of the entrance hall, was cozy and small. 


While Ania, Rebecca, and Cait were merry with wine, slicing and eating a large loaf of bread, and sharing gossip about grown-up Baba Yagas, there was a dragon standing in front of the palace.




And now it must be said that this year was different from other, better years, because now a terrible plague was raging all over the world. The plague was spread by very small viruses, and since last winter people were sick in every country on Earth, and many sick people died. Ania, Rebecca and Cait did not know for sure whether the plague was dangerous for them or not, whether they would get sick like other people, and whether they could die from the virus before they lived even a hundred years.


Adult Baba-Yagas survived more than one plague, but spoke reluctantly and sparingly about why not all of them survived. After every plague, cholera, flu, tuberculosis and other diseases raging through the centuries, several of them were never seen anymore, but only Baba-Yagas who was a thousand years old knew what really happened to their missing friends. Baba-Yagas were witches, but not doctors.  They knew witchcraft, magic, spells, fortune-telling, curses and charms, but they knew no cures for any plague. They knew what the conjunction of Jupiter and Saturn meant, but they didn't know how to completely kill bacteria and viruses, so they couldn't disenchant the world from the plague.


The dragon stood in the courtyard in front of the palace. From the scales on its back, from its webbed tail, from its terrible muzzle, from its belly as big as a drum, but covered with wings, and from its clawed paws, water kept dripping.


The sun had already set behind the mountains above the river, so it was almost dark around the palace, but in the courtyard and on the sandy road to the river, a long, wet streak gleamed in the last flashes of light. The evening, although without wind, was as cold as it is in late autumn. The dragon breathed a small flame of fire from its horrible maw to dry its front paws, but drops still dripped from its belly and tail.


It was almost an ordinary dragon, but it had strange eyes, quite different from the eyes of normal dragons. This monster's eyes looked like red balls, and there were a lot of little sucker tentacles like an octopus's, or like the snail's horns that the snail puts out when you promise to give it cheese for pierogies.





Out of these eyes flew and flew little balls that looked quite like them, but much, much smaller, and they floated through the air in every direction the dragon looked. They were the plague viruses, fleeting like streaks of steam or smoke. Some flew quite far through the air, and some fell almost immediately to the ground.


The dragon had ears like a bat and it moved those ears in all directions, but at one point it turned its head towards the river, pricked up its ears, listened, and heard a disturbing noise. It jumped under a big tree. The dragon did not hide there for long, because the noise was coming closer and closer. The monster jumped out from under the tree, stomped its huge paws on the grass, tore it with its claws, tripped over a fence, shattered the protruding poles, and stepped into the stacked garden tools until the rake whirled in the air and hit its tail, but it did not even look back. It smashed another picket fence and disappeared into a thicket of autumn-yellowed bushes.


From the side of the river, the noise grew louder. It sounded as if a hundred feet were stamping along the way, and as if many people were panting loudly.

Finally, you could hear the muffled voices of people speaking in a strange language, as if issuing commands, orders, and warnings.


Flushed and happy from the effects of the raspberry wine, the three Baba-Yagas didn’t hear anything. 


They were happy because they were never sad with each other, but also because they were seeing each other for the first time after many, many months. It was a wonderful meeting, although they often sadly mentioned people they knew who had been infected with the virus and even some that had died of it.


They exchanged ideas for withstanding the plague, and when the level of wine in the jar had lowered significantly, they even began to plan the next magical meeting to be held in the hut which stood on the chicken's leg, maybe this winter, maybe in the spring.


Cait broke off pieces of white bread, Ania poured more wine into glasses, Rebecca collected crumbs from the table and snapped her fingers at the candle to light it. There was an autumn silence in the kitchen for a moment. Then they heard noises outside the main door, on the other side of the long hall beyond the kitchen. Ania, who, as a resident of the palace, knew all the usual sounds of palace bustle, looked at Cait with the same surprise as Cait looked at her. Then they both glanced simultaneously at Rebecca, who, with eyes as round as wheels and as large as Ania's red hat, stared out the window where a lush pelargonium stood. Both of them followed Rebecca's gaze at the night-black panes and saw a short, vague flash of something outside the window, like rows of white teeth in a great maw, and red glowing eyes.


"Did you see it?" – Rebecca asked in an icy whisper.

"Did you hear it?" –  Ania and Cait whispered with a shudder.


The vision outside the window disappeared, but the noise outside the door grew louder and louder until they heard a distinct knock on the main door of the palace.


The atmosphere of fun went out like a blown candle.


It was Rebecca who grabbed her wand most quickly, since she kept it attached to her white hat, an ornament hidden among the curls woven of wool, lace, and bird feathers. Cait reached under her bright apron for her wand, which lived in a canvas bag strapped around her waist.  The apron covered the front of the black skirt, and under the black one you could see three others: navy blue, brown and red, each inner skirt was slightly longer than the outer ones. In a flash, Ania opened the drawer in the dresser behind the table and she took her wand out from under a dozen neatly-folded, colorful tablecloths.



"Magical Sticks!" Cait shouted. The three Baba-Yagas simultaneously tapped their wands on the floor, and they instantly turned into thick sticks at least two yards long. The Magical Sticks took their positions next to the witches, where they stood at attention, vibrating slightly.  


"I feel dizzy with wine," – said Ania, and Rebecca nodded.

"Three beautiful, tipsy Baba-Yagas will be the salvation and decoration of the world" – Cait solemnly announced and wrapped a large scarf around her head.  Rebecca grabbed her long jacket lined with navy blue silk. Ania wrapped a long colorful scarf on her shoulders like armor.


"It's not the monster knocking on the door," – Rebecca said.


"There are fifty-two men standing there, but a tall man in a long caftan is knocking on the door" - said Ania, and Cait looked at her appreciatively and ordered - "Let's go!"



"Let's go!" – Ania and Rebecca shouted back.


They left the kitchen and marched with their Magical Sticks in hand into the big main hall.


When the three Baba-Yagas reached the door, the Magical Sticks slipped from their hands and stood next to them, vibrating.  Ania turned the key in the lock and pulled the handle. Just in front of the threshold stood a tall man in a jacket that reached down to the tops of boots. They could see his dark face, and slanting eyes that gleamed from under the great cap, and everyone behind him looked Asian too. The leader bowed deeply, and the others followed suit.



Only twelve entered the palace, while the rest of the visitors stayed behind on the terrace. Ania, Rebecca and Cait sat down on a couch and listened to his explanation.


"...so that black dragon is on your property now."


The leader said these final words in his own language and was about to correct himself, but Rebecca cut him off in the same language and translated.

"These are the Mongolian Shamans that I told you about this summer" – she explained to her friends. If she looked at them, she would see from Cait and Ania's expressions that she didn't need to explain. But she didn't look.


In the summer, when the plague had receded somewhat from its winter/spring attack, the Mongolian Shamans who now stood before Ania, Rebecca, and Cait were sending out news. It read more or less like this: 


"We Mongolian Shamans want to defeat the raging virus by action in an invisible spiritual world to save humanity, not only in America but on the entire planet. The Sun kills bacteria and viruses, but this year the Sun isn’t reaching the Earth in full force, firstly, because it is further away than usual, and secondly, it has weakened due to industrial smog and smoke from fires in California, Australia, Amazon and elsewhere on the Earth. The spirits of our shaman ancestors told us that they saw a great black dragon hovering over the Earth and the whirling of its tail engulfs the Americas. The swirling cloud from its tail is getting stronger and bigger."


The twelve learned shamans explained that the Earth's orbital cycle around the sun is Jaran, or five times twelve years, and contains five elements: stone, water, air, plants, and fire, and the worst year is the Year of the Rat, which is right now, because then the Earth is farthest from the Sun.


In the summer, Rebecca had persuaded Ania, Cait, and others to join in an action along with the Mongolian Shamans, to light fires and candles, and beat the drums in the Valley of the Great River, and to do it in different places, at a safe distance, separately but together, for two weeks.


Rebecca had worked hard, persuading others to join in the action. She had directed it, synchronized it, and controlled everything—but she had finally stopped. Somehow it hadn't worked out. Nobody knew why the action had failed. But then, because of the plague, this year so many different intentions and plans did not work out that it wasn’t surprising that the shamans' action with the three Baba-Yagas didn’t either. They couldn't even meet each other. Only now they dared to drink raspberry wine together. And now, what a nuisance: a dragon-plague on the property and an army of Mongolian Shamans.


Ania, Rebecca and Cait sat silently on the couch, their faces furrowed with worry and sadness.  


Rebecca was the first to rally.  She nodded at her Magical Stick, turning it back into a wand, and waved it—and suddenly a long table stood in front of the couch. Next, Cait nodded at her Magical Stick, waved her wand in the air—and fifteen long-legged goblets tumbled onto the table in a row. Then forty more cups flew through the air and out of the open door to the terrace. Then Ania waved her wand and a large jar of raspberry wine floated into the hall from the kitchen. Gracefully tilting, it filled the fifteen goblets. At a whisper from Ania, she, Rebecca and Cait, all waved their wands simultaneously, and three jars of raspberry wine came out of the palace's cellar. Floating like heavy Zeppelins through the hall and out the door to the terrace, the jars gracefully filled the forty glasses of the Mongolian delegates waiting on the terrace. Everyone raised their glass and made a toast. To the action plan! 


Like an invincible platoon of military guards, the fifty-two Mongolian Shamans stood shoulder to shoulder on the banks of the Great River. As she looked around the yard, Ania noticed the overturned fence in her garden, the scattered rakes, shovels, pitchforks, and other tools, and above all, the huge paw prints under the bushes, leading first to the window to her kitchen, and then across the property to the Great Barn.


"I know where the dragon is," – she said.

"Magical Sticks!" – Cait shouted.


The three Baba-Yagas walked towards the Great Barn. They gently nudged their Magical Sticks from time to time, and these, vibrating slightly, glided past the witches to go on ahead of them.


High up in the barn’s attic was a strange storage room, a huge storehouse for puppets, gathered for years after the Halloween parades held in the palace courtyard. Gargoyles, monsters, skeletons, huge skulls, giant worms, giant birds, terrible masks, paws, arms, legs, wings, tails and of course - twisted, very scary, toothed and large-eyed dragons.


Three Baba-Yagas opened the wide gates to the Great Barn. They knew the dread dragon of viral plague was hiding here among fake dragons, pretending to be a puppet too. Its footprints on the dusty floor led to the ladder that reached to the storeroom under the roof of the Great Barn.


"Magical Sticks! Action!!!" – shouted three Baba-Yagas in chorus.


Three huge Sticks rattled on the floor, then flew up the ladder. There was silence for a few seconds. The three Baba-Yagas held their breaths and listened. Suddenly there was such a thud, such a noise, that the Great Barn shook, and three Baba Yagas covered their ears with their hands!


There was a rumble under the roof, and a tremendous thum-clunk-clonk-crash-smash-smack-bang-boom-thunder-wallop-stomp-clump-wham. Dust poured from the ceiling planks, the whole structure creaked and shuddered. Then everything went quiet. Tup-tup-tup, the dragon's feet in the attic patted. Tup-tup-tup, the dragon's feet rattled on the ladder. Tup-tup-tup, the dragon's paws slapped on the floor of the barn.  One Stick glided along the dragon's mouth, the other Stick nudged its bulbous belly, the third Stick pushed its tail.


The Sticks stopped the dragon in front of Ania, Rebecca and Cait. The dragon lay silent and humble, only its tongue sticking out of its mouth and its red eyes shining.



"Get off my property immediately," – said Ania.

"Get out of the Great River Valley and America immediately," – Rebecca said.

“Get out of all the Earth, get out of all the whole planet, right now – Cait said.


The dragon grunted and muttered something.


"It's speaking in Russian-Mongolian-Costa Rican slang," – Rebecca explained, – "and says will go to the Moon."


"Don't you dare! No way!" – Ania and Cait shouted.


The dragon muttered indistinctly.


"It's asking where it should go," – Rebecca translated.

"On the asteroids!" – Cait shouted. –  "Mars or Jupiter or Saturn! Far away!"

"But not like you are here now" – said Ania. – "Take all mutations of your virus with you."


The dragon shook its wings. Immediately the Sticks nudged it in the mouth, stomach and tail, but the dragon did not take a single step. Instead, its skin lit up with colored balls, similar to its eyes until it was covered with changing lights in various shades of orange, pink, purple, green. The eyes of the three Baba-Yagas flashed red from these colors, like those of the mythical Amazons.





"And you're dressed up," – Rebecca sneered.

The dragon muttered something.

"This scarecrow says he won't reach the asteroids," – Rebecca translated.

"Oh yes you will," – Cait said.




Ania beckoned to her Magical Stick and it obediently flew into her hands. Then she bent down to the dragon, nudged it in the teeth, and said an indecent slang phrase in Polish: "Wyp...laj!"*


The dragon huddled in sudden fear. It kicked off the ground with its paws and soared into space. It flew and flew and flew, farther and farther away, and from the bank of the great river, three Baba-Yagas heard – “Hooray! Hooray! Hooray!”  shouted by fifty-two shamans.


It was already late at night. Ania, Rebecca and Cait returned to the palace.


"Do you still have raspberry wine?" – Rebecca asked.

"I have" - Ania replied.

"Three beautiful and tipsy Baba-Yagas… ” – Cait began.

"...are the salvation and decoration of the world!" – finished Rebecca and Ania in chorus.





– – 

* "F..k off"


* * *

Written by Bronek Kowalski

Illustrations taken from the paintings of Ania Aldrich

English version corrected by Friend

January 2021