13 October 2021
The Emigrants, a one-act play by Sławomir Mrożek is a story that takes place on New Year’s Eve in the lives of two immigrants – an intellectual (a political, ideological migrant) and a manual worker (an economic migrant). In the course of their dialogue, two radically different worldviews are confronted, and the denouement leaves the two strangers left to their own devices and bereft of a happy ending illusion.
The Emigrants is undeniably based on the author’s personal experience. He left Poland in 1963 and went first to Italy and subsequently to France. It is therefore not unusual that the straightforward political interpretation of the play which saw it primarily as a story of dissidents fleeing to the other side of the Iron Curtain (and thus a critique of the lack of freedom in the Soviet Union), gave the first semi-legal performances of The Emigrants a cult status in theatrical circles in Moscow. However, the play encourages also a completely different reading, as demonstrated by many productions in smaller European, and especially American, theatres. No doubt this is also related to the fact that the playscript is very witty and brilliantly written, and above all to the fact that it suggests a rather modest production setting, featuring only two actors in the everyday, clearly defined space of the play.
The characters act as parasites in each other’s lives, although their constant conflict creates a symbiosis. They have opposing views of their situations, but from our perspective they belong to the same community. They are both excluded from society, which gives them the same symbolic value. They embody the role of social parasite, renegade, immigrant. It is precisely in the lowest strata of the social ladder that the comic genre does very well. Comedy, making use of the banalities of concrete bodies in precisely defined actions, is conducive to enabling reading on two levels, the concrete and the abstract, whereby the concrete action does not remain merely metaphorical, but can hold a massive political and emancipatory potential.
Nina Ramšak Marković