Blesok no. 29, November-December, 2002
Theatre Reviews

The Revolt Against Order
In the plays Tango, by S. Mrożek, The Grand Brilliant Waltz by D. Jančar and Unrest in the retirement house by V. Andonovski

Nada Petkovska

    When the drama The Grand Brilliant Waltz first appeared, the question of its similarity to Mrożek's Tango was inevitable. Although the similarities are not too obvious, because Janchar’s drama has a different structure for different characters and contexts, still, the impression of their similarity remains. In Macedonian contemporary literature, the text of Venko Andonovski, Unrest in the retirement house appeared, which can also be related to the above mentioned texts.
    The similarity of the three texts occurs on the level of their deep structure, which shows equivalence of the drama functions.
    Tango by Mrożek, written 1965, already deserves the attribute masterpiece of the Polish author. It is a play that marks the avant-garde drama. In the time of its appearance, it was classified as tragic farce, (M. Esslin: On the other side of the absurdity)
[1], but if we look from today’s perspective, Tango may as well be called typical postmodern piece, rich with auto-referential and meta– textual commentaries of the contemporary state of the drama and the theatre. Hence, it is not accidental that it inspires the younger writers as well, who consider it a reference point for their observations of the government, the revolt against it, and ultimately, the meaning of that act. The similarity of the texts can be observed through several characteristic situations.

A. Initial situation: the place of act

    1. In Tango the place of act is a civil salon, which is in a state of total disintegration and chaos. This state is illustrated with abundance of furniture pieces that are useless (a child’s crib which used to belong to Arthur, who is now 25; a catafalque of an old man, who has died some 20 years ago, and many other unnecessary and dilapidated objects). The situation in the salon is a reflection of the family situation– its members are disorganized, or, to put it more precisely: their relations are in a real anarchy (Stomil is wearing pajamas all day, there’s no food, everyone eats whenever they feel like and someone is playing cards all the time)– in other words, no one respects the principles of a family and organized life.
    2. In the Grand Brilliant Waltz, the action takes place in a specialized institution for rehabilitation, which operates under the motto “the freedom liberates”, or to put it non-metaphorically, a sanatorium. At the beginning of the play, the place is described as follows: “The central area of the institution is a large study room. This is probably a hall which was a part of what used to be a large castle, with remnants of wallpaper and drawings on its walls and pieces of furniture, with characteristic alcoves and windows. Because it is now used for different purpose, there are purely white and green parts, and then modern, though underused pieces of furniture, tables and chairs. (…) The living room gradually enlarges from scene to scene, eventually turning into a large hall for dancing (ballroom)[2]. The disorganization is another indicator for the chaos of the space. If we exclude the details that define the hospital as a concrete space, we can say that it is a reflection of the state, which, terrified for its order, establishes institutions of this kind, which will protect it from the inappropriate behavior of its people. As Andrej Inkret observes “the institute the freedom liberates, which is a space of isolation, therapy and punishment, is given as the sole/unique inter-human space, where a drama may easily happen; but as an institution, it represents a symbolic model of the life in society in general.”[3]
    At the end, the nurse Vologja affirms that no one is from outside, and that everyone is “in”.
    3. In the Andonovski’s drama, the action takes place in a retirement house. The situation in the house may be described as chaotic: after the mysterious death of the house’s manager, food is missing, which provokes unrest, discontent and sense of insecurity of the people of the retirement house.
    What is common for all three plays is the setting of the scene before the culmination: the anarchy, the instability of the relationships.

B. The unrest (rebelliousness)

    1. In Tango, the nephew Arthur is the one that expresses revolt with this situation. In this case, which is characteristic for Mrożek’s act, the situation is given in inverse, because Arthur doesn’t object, as we would expect, for more freedom (which is obviously present in abundance, so the situation looks like an anarchy) but, on the contrary, he rises up for order. In this drama, the unrest, the revolution, which usually signifies breaking of the conservative rules and conquering freedom, was already accomplished by the previous generation – Stomil and Eleonore, Arthurs parents. In this established order, the third generation lives well (Eleonore’s mother and uncle). It is only Arthur who isn’t at peace with the situation that blocks his creative forces, and therefore he fights for order, for organized way of life.
    2. In the Grand Brilliant Waltz, the cornerstone, the guardian of the order in the institution is the doctor. He has a clear task, to keep the people of the institution within a certain regime, which will enable them to fit in the system, helped by the “specialists for metaphors”. By trying hard not to pressure the patients, the doctor is in a way in a mild opposition with the system, which cannot be called a rebellion in the real sense of the word. But the real rebellion begins when Simon Weber is introduced. He is a historian, who is curiously interested in a Polish rebel Drohojowski, a rebel figure from the period of the Napoleon wars. He reached Slovenia, where his leg was amputated. Because of this interest, Weber is considered a latent rebel, whose behavior has to be controlled. Weber’s rebellion consists of his emphasized self-identification with Drohojowski (On the scene this is illustrated with an external transformation as well: Weber wears a Polish uniform and speaks Polish). And so, he identifies himself with a hero from the times when battle, resistance, faith and purpose still existed.
    3. In Unrest in The Retirement House, the leaders of the unrest in the real sense of the word are the elderly. We have an inverse situation here as well, because the rebellion is started by the older generation, a generation that normally respects institutions or at least is at peace with the things as they are. They begin their protest against the change of the order of things (they even connect the hour of the death of the late manager with the change of the diner hour) and the new manager moves them into a new location, which for them is another great reason for objection and discontent. But the protest in initiated because of another thing, as well: The alteration in the text of a traditional story by young theater amateurs. (“On the Balkans a war may start because of a change of a word in a traditional story” – it is said in the text.) Thus, the rebellion takes place because of the need to protect the tradition, the commonalities of the ordinary life, a struggle to maintain the status quo. A symbolic scene of this state of things is the manager’s vision of the large refrigerator where he imagines the young amateurs, hanged as frozen meat, but all the others are there as well. The meaning cannot be other than a sign of the desire for frozen and unchanged situations, way of life, the order and consequently– art.

C. The question of freedom

    The question of freedom is, of course, crucial in all three texts, and it is not treated identically.
    1. As we already said, the freedom in Tango has already been accomplished by the previous generation. This generation fought for free love and behavior in the thirties (symbolically represented with the freedom to dance the tango, at that time a dance which was marked as immoral) and Arthur is fed up with it, because, as he says himself, when everything is allowed, nothing has a taste of real freedom. He very clearly expresses his attitude towards the inherited freedom on several occasions: “With your freedom, you have already poisoned the generations past and future”
[4]. And in another instance: “No order, no harmony with the current order, no modesty, nor initiative. One can not breathe here, cannot walk, cannot live.”[5]. “In this house lethargy rules, entropy, anarchy”.[6]
    Therefore, Arthur’s task is very hard. It is because he himself doesn’t know how to accomplish new order of things that he reaches for the old forms of good behavior and order. A symbol of that order is the organization of the wedding. But soon enough, he realizes that that old form lacks substance, a sense to fulfill it. His unsuccessful effort to make a new order out of nothing, in absence of a real idea, a purpose of life, takes him to the idea of power. In a family/ society/ order like this, without a guiding idea, without a system of values, power is the only possible regulator of the relations. Arthur: “Only power can be created out of nothing. Only power exists, when there’s nothing else”.[7]
    And it seems that this is the crucial idea in this text, with regards to the question of the rebellion:
    Arthur: “ Isn’t the power also a rebellion? A rebellion in the form of order, a revolt of the heights against the valleys, a rebellion of the taller against the shorter? I am not analysis, nor synthesis, I am an act, I am will, I am energy! I am power” [8]
    With this meticulous definition of power, Arthur realizes that he is unable to execute the power he has defined, that he won’t be able to control the new order, and so as his assistant he accepts the lumpen proletarian, the cruel primitive Edek, who somehow joined the family. (At this point, we should mention some interpretations of this piece, which define it a piece of maturing, where Arthur is compared with Hamlet, but also with Oedipus.)
    2. The question of freedom in Janchar’s piece is found in the motto of the institution “The freedom liberates”. The author doesn’t indicate the time of the drama anywhere in the text, he suggests universality, although some situations and conditions sound familiar, i.e. point to the period after the WW II and the totalitarian political system, a system where there is a lot of discussion about freedom, but only about one type of freedom, a certain type of freedom– the one that is proclaimed by the system. As Andrej Inkret says, the motto “freedom liberates” very clearly tells us that freedom doesn’t exist– because if someone needs to be liberated, then that person is not free. This type of liberation is very vividly presented through the case of S. Weber, whose spiritual decay is also shown as physical (method of exteriorization of the problem, which after its exposal, may be eliminated) But in this case, a conflicting effect is reached: after his leg is amputated, he completely identifies himself with Drohojowski, which may be interpreted that the repression only strengthens the spirit of freedom and the revolt. Consequently, he, and his appearance, without a leg and dressed in a uniform of a Polish insurgent, is a living proof of the rebellion.
    Apart from the main character, through which the liberation is carried out, we can say that almost all other persons are inspired by some desire for other life, and according to Inkret, the desire itself is freedom. They all live in the empty space of desire and freedom, in the space of madness, which enables everyone to reach their wishes, to be what they think they are. Carried by this crazy vision, bewildered in their crazy wishes, they are lost in their terrible imaginary freedom.
    3. The problem of freedom is elaborated in Andonovski’s drama as well. The main leader of the notion of freedom is the new manager in the retirement house, portrayed as a typical broad-minded young intellectual, professor, who asserts this freedom to his students, through his free act on the classes, the free love, etc. In fact, he, just like Arthur’s parents, takes freedom for anarchy, without respect of the values of the order. But he also lacks system for realization of freedom, because he is burdened with the Oedipus complex, and the feeling of guilt, and at the same time– has the desire to dominate the inferior. That is why he gradually decays spiritually, and gives in to alcohol. It becomes clear, that for him, the freedom has been only a mask to hide his human weaknesses. At the end, he also struggles for a conventional order of things, blinded (like Oedipus), he sees– and becomes aware of his mistakes and wishes to marry the nurse Ana. (The act of marriage is a symbol of traditional order)

D. Final result

    If we take that the final result is the realization of the aim of the rebellion, we come to the following situation:
    1. Arthur’s rebellion, imagined as a wish to make order, for strictly portioned freedom, which won’t be anarchical, is completed by Edek.
    Mrożek’s Edek, according to the understanding of the other persons (Eleonore) is a natural man, as we would all like to be. This naturalism means that he is not burdened with principles, theories and philosophies on aspects of the purpose of life. As he says, he knows what he needs to know. And so, he will create order out of the sudden, as Arthur thought, through power. To accomplish totalitarian power, one doesn’t need an idea, nor value, nor meaning, because it is an aim in itself. As Esslin says, if the rational and ideological foundation of one code of conduct is ruined, only brutal force can make people adjust to one model, regardless of what model that is.
    The drama ends with the vulgar Edek and the aunt Eugen, gentleman from the old generation, dancing the tango over Arthur’s dead body. This last tango is not just accidentally taken from the title, because it shows the “alliance of the brutal force, freed from the whole culture of the whole society, with authoritativeness that encircles a feudal order, where the brutal force governs under a thin layer of good manners and aristocratic kindness.”
[9] M. Esslin interprets this intricate family condition in the drama as a direct allusion of the situation in the USSR, where Arthur represents the revolutionary intellectuals, ideologists like Lennin and Trocky, i.e. those who struggled to make a new order, for introducing new order in the relationships among people. However, the ideological intellectuals turned out historically too delicate to bear the ultimate consequences of their own ideas, which didn’t exclude brutal force. But, what Arthur couldn’t do, was done by the primitive Edek (i.e. Stalin, Berija, etc.) because he was not possessor of any principles except cheap movie phraseology and gamblers’ terminology, and he says so in the drama: “he knows what he needs to know”.
    2. The Grand Brilliant Waltz ends with Chopin’s waltz, on a dancing party organized by Vologja. At the end, he concludes that the party has to finish finally, because everything is set up, everyone is inside, they understand each other well. But he admits that the path to that situation was not an easy one: “Difficult and nasty work is behind me. I admit, I am a bit tired”. [10] Vologja is a character very similar to Edek, according to his position and characteristics. He is a primitive that takes up the situation in his own hands. It seems to him that what is going on in the institution is not all right, and decides to establish the order according to his understanding of it. He wants to establish order, to bring things to their end, so that there isn’t any chaos anymore, and so that people aren’t crazy, like they are here. He is not content with the reasoning and uncertainty of the doctor, and thinks that he can accomplish the doctor’s potential ideas much better. Vologja is the one who cuts off Weber’s leg, believing that with that method he externalizes the problem and therefore it would be easier to eliminate it. At the same time, according to him, he freed the doctor of the wish to be a surgical doctor. So, as Inkret says, Vologja translates the metaphors into direct meaning and immediate action, and by a surgical cut, he solves the situation. The situation here is similar to the one in Tango: here it is only suggested that the ultimate possibility for the intellectuals, that they oppose to implement, is accomplished by the primitives, because in their (primitives’) outlook of life things are much easier, they are not burdened with subtle meanings, with analysis of the consequences, with the “metaphors” which are hidden in every word. The symbolism of the waltz is that everyone dances it without exception, which means that it manages to erase the difference between the madness and the desire, and ultimately, there’s no freedom, only madness– with all the meanings that can be attached to this metaphor: dictatorship, loss of identity and individuality, creation of a chorus of subordinate people who will be subdued to a government lead by the primitive forces. At this point, the motto of the institution is actualized: the freedom liberates.
    Just like in Mrożek’s drama, here also only the primitives realize their hidden agenda. They use their own freedom and the weakness of the intellectuals in order to take matters into their own hands, to grab power. (As A. Inkret says, apart of the similarity with Edek, this character is closer to some characters in Slovenian literature– they are replicas of Francelj, power without qualification, by Dusan Jovanovic, and also a character from The golden shoes by Dominik Smole. Obviously, the primitives are never lacking, neither in life, nor in literature.
    4. Order is established in the retirement house as well. After the fall of the manager, lead by liberal ideas, an alcoholic who is sent to a sanatorium to be treated, his place is taken by Mutle. We should note at this point that this character is the weakest in comparison to the two previous ones, but the three share one common feature: in this case too, it is a primitive person, uneducated, but cunning (he pretends to be deaf) who comprehends things and successfully takes over. His name is a reflection of his character in the drama, Mutle (Silly), a name that signifies a person who cannot speak, and even more common as an incapable, simple man. Obviously, the author accounts for this meaning. But, apart from these external images, in the play he is portrayed as sly, he tries to comprehend matters, carefully observing everyone’s behavior, and at the right moment imposes himself as the manager of the retirement house.
    If we agree that the environment of the three plays: a civil salon in decay, institution for rehabilitation of the politically inappropriate and a retirement house– is a metaphor of the world, or more concretely, of one civil society, we can conclude that all three dramas imply harsh social criticism.
    That is why, the moment of revolt is common for the three of them, as a desire to change the social circumstances. This is the main idea of all three compared texts. A revolt for a decent order of things as opposed to anarchic freedom which certain groups of people are plotting for (parties, systems) who guided only by their own interests, lead towards total chaos. (Arthur’s parents, the manager, partly the doctor, as representatives of wider social classes). The revolt is based on examples of the past (Weber – Polish insurgent, Arthur– behavioral models from the previous century, the former order in the retirement house) and is directed towards the prohibitive limits of a certain regime. A revolt because of the abundant liberalism of the intellectuals, who demand radical changes in all areas of life.
    The rebellion ends in the same way for everyone– using the weakness of the intellectuals, their insecurity with regards to accomplishing their own principles of freedom, the situation is used by the primitives to impose their understanding about the order of things. In other words, the noble revolutionary motifs of the idealists (intellectuals) are always misused by someone else, someone primitive interpreter who will simplify the situation to the maximum and thus, will conquer power.

E. The question of the theatre (the auto– referentiality of the texts)

    All three texts, as we already said, are metaphorical, with multiple meanings and so it would be wrong to connect them to certain concrete events. As a result of the multiplicity of meanings, especially in Mrożek’s text, the whole situation may be interpreted as a discussion on the theatre. The Arthur’s revolt and the demand for order and rules, may also apply to the drama and the theatre itself (as he is told in the drama– he wants a tragedy, but the tragedy is dead, it is impossible in our situation, only the farce is of people’s interest) On the other hand, Stomil favors the experimental theatre, whose purpose is to surprise, to shock, and so he manages to do that. On one hand, the situation may be interpreted as a revolt against the anarchy in art, a fight for the old forms, and then victory of the primitive taste, which will create the art using old clichés, brutally changing them, and then simplifying them to a trivial form.
    Janchar mentions the theatre only once (as an institution, where everyone is crazy– that’s why the doctor wouldn’t like to be a manager there). If we interpret it more generally, although the text doesn’t imply that, we could draw a parallel: in the theatre everyone is crazy, as they are in the institution the freedom liberates (the state), with accidental managers– primitives, who determine the repertoire. (Analogy with Madman by Dusan Jovanovic)
    The question of the theatre is present in the text of Andonovski as well. That is the scene when two artists– amateurs, arrive in the retirement house and offer to play a text by the well-known collector of Macedonian traditional texts and songs from the nineteenth century, M. Cepenkov. The play is a dramatization of a legend about the custom to leave exhausted elderly people in the mountains, to die. The play is one of the reasons for elderly’s rebellion– because the text is altered – there are interventions.
    (“On the Balkans a war may start because of a change of a word in a traditional story”– it is said in the text) The traditionalism and conservatism of the environment if emphasized. This fact will be symbolically presented through the refrigerator– it is a space where everyone can fit, and the young amateurs are hanging as pieces of frozen meat. The symbol is clear: it is a wish for conservation, for freezing the situation in general, but also of the theatre, which is obstructed by forces like this. So, the experiment for a creative approach towards tradition (the folklore inheritance) according to Andonovski, is unsuccessful. The creativeness of the younger generation is frozen by the traditionalism. (In this text there is a line by Stevo: this kind of theatre has no chances. The society imposes rules that must be respected– in order for someone to start a theatre, one must graduate at the Academy (an institution), which on the other hand requires minimum of certain grade. All these are rules, that are enforced by the system, that model the young generation and make them similar to one another, and therefore their creativity and freedom is smothered.

Instead of a conclusion

    The three texts that we analyzed originate from three different environments– Poland, Slovenia, Macedonia, from three different periods in time, 1965, 1985 and 1996. But as we said, several crucial problems that are the foundation of all three are obvious: the discontent with the situation in the society, revolt, rebellion of the intellectuals; all desiring to change the situation in the state (and the theatre). The rebellion fails, because as a rule, the revolt is used by the primitive forces, who establish new order, guided by their own primitive comprehension.
    We should emphasize that Tango has the most coherent structure, consistent and precise expression of the attitudes of the author, successfully included in the problems of one family. Each new reading stirs admiration and revelation of new subtle meanings. Therefore it is not surprising that the text inspires the younger writers as well. But this interest is creative, inspiring for discovery of new, and different ways to express one, essentially eternal theme about the non-freedom, for the revolt and the wrong implementation of the outcomes of the fight for it. Although metaphorical, the pieces by Mrożek and Janchar still refer to the totalitarian systems, their establishment and operation, while the drama by the youngest of the three, V.Andonovski, the totalitarianism means respect of the authoritative figures and the tradition. At this point we have to say that in his play also, the firm and consistent structure which leads to the defined aim, i.e. idea is not adequately achieved.

Translated by: Panorea Buklevska


1. М. Esslin: Au dela de l'absurde. Paris, Ed. Buchet – Chastel, 1970.
2. Drago Jančar: Veliki briljantni valček. Ljubljana, Cankarjeva založba, 1985, 7.
3. Andrej Inkret: Drama o norosti in slobodi. In: D. Jančar: Veliki briljantni valček, Op. cit., 89.


4. S. Mrožek: Tango. In: S. Mrožek: Drame. Beograd, Nolit, 1982, 87.
5. Ibid. 84
6. Ibid. 84
7. Ibid. 141
8. Ibid. 142


9. M. Esslin: Au dela de l'absurde, Op. cit, 189
10. D. Jančar: Veliki briljantni valček, Op. cit. 72

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