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Janusz Glowacki, Polish Playwright of Terror and Dark Humor, Dies at 78

By the time Mr. Glowacki returned to Poland after the collapse of Communism at the end of the 1980s, he had a measure of fame in both East and West. Thereafter he split his time between Warsaw and New York.

“Maybe I belong nowhere,” he wrote in a 1990 essay, “and I am simply dangling somewhere in the middle.”

Janusz Glowacki (pronounced YAH-noosh glo-VAHTS-key) was born on Sept. 13, 1938, in Poznan, in western Poland. His father, Jerzy, was a writer. His mother, Helena Rudzka, was a book editor. He received a master’s degree in Polish literature from the University of Warsaw.

Growing up under a repressive government left Mr. Glowacki with a lasting appreciation for how language and reality itself could be manipulated, themes he would later address in his writing.

“You go to sleep as a patriotic citizen and you wake up arrested as a Japanese spy,” he once said, describing Polish life during his youth, “though you’ve never been in Japan, don’t know anything about Japan and don’t speak Japanese.”

He said that reading George Orwell’s “1984” as a student was revelatory, and not just in a theoretical way.

“It wasn’t science fiction to me,” he said. “I was getting to know more and more about the secret police, about friends of mine who were arrested.”

Several short-story collections and his work with Wajda, the great Polish director who died in 2016, on “Hunting Flies” helped make Mr. Glowacki a prominent voice in Poland in the 1960s and ’70s. In his plays and screenplays, he became especially adept at skirting Communist censorship through allusion and metaphor, though less subtle means were not beneath him. He is said to have dropped an ashtray during one screening to try to distract censors from a dicey scene.


From left, Janusz Glowacki, Christopher Walken, Ewa Zadrzyska-Glowacka and Georgianne Walken at the 1984 opening of Mr. Glowacki’s play “Cinders” at the Public Theater in New York. Mr. Glowacki had moved to New York by then.

Barbara Kenton

“Cinders,” in which a reform-school production of “Cinderella” becomes an allegory for totalitarianism, was among his most widely produced plays. In the brief political thaw in Poland that began in 1980, five Polish theaters staged it. But then came martial law, and Mr. Glowacki and his works went overseas.

The 1984 cast of “Cinders” at the Public included Christopher Walken as a movie director who is making a documentary about the “Cinderella” production. He wants to juxtapose the schoolgirls’ life stories and the “Cinderella” fable. Meanwhile, the state authorities — the play takes place near Warsaw — try to turn the film into a piece of propaganda.

“If topsy-turvy language is the comic currency of ‘Cinders,’ ” Mr. Rich wrote in his review, “the play’s drama derives from the warping of souls as much as words.”

In 1987, the Manhattan Theater Club staged Mr. Glowacki’s “Hunting Cockroaches,” directed by Arthur Penn and starring Ron Silver and Dianne Wiest as an immigrant Polish couple — Jan, a writer, and Anka, a Shakespearean actress — living on the Lower East Side as they try to find their identities in a strange land.

A few years later, after the fall of Communism, Mr. Glowacki saw a certain irony in the way the play might come across in his native country.

“In Poland, only two years ago, ‘Hunting Cockroaches’ couldn’t make it through the censors because it was an anti-Communist play,” he wrote. “I wouldn’t be surprised if the same people who stopped it then would now attack it as anticapitalist.”

The Vineyard Theater in Manhattan staged two of Mr. Glowacki’s later plays: “Antigone in New York,” about homeless people living in a Lower East Side park, in 1996, and “The Fourth Sister,” a riff on Chekhov, in 2002.

Characters in “The Fourth Sister” include a legless accordion player, a circus employee who steals meat from a caged tiger, and a woman who has learned about love by watching the Julia Roberts movie “Pretty Woman.” Ben Brantley, reviewing the Vineyard staging for The Times, wrote, “The production has its moments of irresistible, go-for-broke absurdity in which the point is that nothing onstage can match the conjunctions of sorrow and silliness that real life dishes out these days.”

Mr. Glowacki’s novels include “Give Us This Day,” a fictional account of the Solidarity movement that was published underground in 1981 after being banned in Poland, then published in the United States in 1985. His films include a second collaboration with Wajda, on “Walessa: Man of Hope” (2003), about the Solidarity co-founder Lech Walesa.

Mr. Glowacki taught at Bennington College in Vermont when he first arrived in the United States and lectured at other universities over the years. Among his many laurels were the 2010 Czeslaw Milosz Award, presented annually by the United States Embassy in Poland to recognize contributions toward furthering relations between the two countries.

His marriage to Ms. Zadrzynska ended in divorce. He is survived by their daughter, Zuza, and his wife, Olena Leonenko, whom he married in 2015.

Mr. Glowacki approached tumultuous times with an impish eye that he attributed to growing up under a system that had often made no sense.

“For me, comedy and irony are the best ways to express tragic meaning,” he said in a 1984 interview. “It’s connected to the Polish spirit. Black humor is our way to express something.

“In tragedy, there must be a substantial position and opposition; it must have a mathematical rigor. We don’t have that in Poland. There are not substantial positions. The government shoots workers, but you can’t find anyone who gave the order.”

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