"I read this play last spring, 24 hours after it hit our shop. I recognized it right away as an important work by an internationally significant writer. It deals with political hero-worship and the manipulation of a human being as symbol. Its language and complexity appealed to me; so did its vision of how the modern state is out to destroy the individual."
Producing-director Bill Bushnell had leaped into the breach created by playwright Slawomir Mrozek's reluctance to discuss his "Alpha," which has its English-language premiere tonight at the Los Angeles Theatre Center.
Not that Mrozek had presented himself as too above it all to part with a few pearls of revelation for the oily masses. His taciturnity on the subject was in part due to the knowledge that, as he put it, "I want to avoid saying I'm a Polish playwright writing about Polish conditions. It's the surest way to kill this play."
Another part, however, is Mrozek's intellectual scrupulousness--as much an affliction as a virtue--which stops him in his tracks like a policeman with the question, "Are you explaining or are you interpreting? Can you explain without interpreting? And if you can't, what right have you to take this moral position vis-a-vis your play and your audience?"
For handy reference sake, "Alpha" is the name of a leader of a small union, gifted with intelligence and conviction, who is swept into national prominence through a vortex of political events and then detained by the powers-that-be. Any link between Alpha and Lech Walesa, the leader of Poland's Solidarity union, is neither maintained nor discouraged.
"He became a leader through his strength and intelligence," Mrozek said. "Now the state is going to work on him. Visitors are screened by the police. We start with a love story and end with a classic situation of impossible choices. The world comes to him and he cannot respond."
As you become more familiar with Mrozek, this last note in retrospect takes on an autobiographical tinge, an expression of deadlock that often grips the features of this big, gentle man who slouches at the dinner table. If conversation veers away from the matter at hand, his expression glazes over with introspective gloom, as if recalling some slate-gray weather that chills from within. There's a delicate, almost comical rue to him, befitting the refugee who is beyond refuge, and who wears a copper bracelet on his left wrist because he has tennis elbow on his right arm.
Mrozek, who is 56, is a product of the collapse of European culture in the wake of two world wars. He left Poland 23 years ago and now lives in Paris.
"I was born in a small town not far from Krakow," he said. "When Hitler came through, everything was destroyed. My father disappeared. He went into the army and came back a long time later with a beard and a strange look in his eye. For five years there was no country, no life. Since then, nothing is real, nothing is sure.
"After the war, Poland was taken over by the Communists. By that time, the young people there had been very much used and abused, though they had hope. The old people were already thinking it was all hopeless. I worked a bit as a journalist. Eventually I was recognized, even though I was stupid, worthless, my work worth nothing. My real writing started when I was 30, coincidentally at the end of the Stalinist era. Writing came naturally to me. I was opportunistic. I eventually broke with journalism and did stories, cartoons, theater.
Mrozek, whose well-known works include "Tango," "Immigrants" and "The Police," has made a life in the theater for psychological reasons that surpass economic considerations. "Being a permanent stranger, an expatriate, the theater is home," he said. "It provides a sense of life. I suffer from a lack of being attached to anything. Theater offers the freedom to be substantial, to be real, without attachments. I'm a product of our age. I accept the condition of being a permanent stranger. I don't make a fuss."
Mrozek's bleak tone echoes Albert Camus' longing for the day when "We (meaning Europe) would be free from history." Like a prisoner who becomes a jailhouse lawyer, Mrozek has a strong intellectual grasp of the historical elements that turned the children of Europe, like Kafka or Jerzy Kosinski, loose into an unconsoling, inconsolable world.
However, "it doesn't do any good to deal in generalities. That's one of the things pointed out in 'Alpha,' where he not only struggles against the generalities of the church and the politicians, but of the revolution as well."
The United States holds a lure for Mrozek that goes a bit beyond his observation that "Nobody's envious of the Soviet Union, but nobody's afraid of it; nobody's afraid of the United States, but everybody's envious of it.
"I have the feeling about the States, especially about California, that nothing is connected with anything else--everything is loose. It's a crazy way to live.
"My hotel is in the middle of the Mexican quarter. They make the impression of being crazy in their own way, but on Sunday I see the families together. The family structure preserves them, keeps them from going to pieces. Society needs some sense of its own."
It's very easy to visualize the pale, bespectacled face of Mrozek staring alone out the window in a foreign place on a Sunday, with the voices and people under his window culturally removed once more. When Mrozek jokes, he doesn't laugh; he smiles and no sound comes out.
Maybe this was a joke, maybe not: "The theater protects me from the absence of a sense of necessity for doing anything," he said. "Maybe I'm a private Californian."