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Slawomir Mrozek, 83; Polish playwright

Mr. Mrozek’s plays presented preposterous situations derived from  exaggerated versions of everyday realities.

Andrzej Rybczynski/AFP/GETTY IMAGES

Mr. Mrozek’s plays presented preposterous situations derived from exaggerated versions of everyday realities.

NEW YORK — Slawomir Mrozek, a Polish dissident playwright widely considered his country’s foremost author for the stage, died Aug. 15 at his home in Nice, France. Mr. Mrozek, who had spent much of the past half-century in exile, was 83.

His French publisher, Noir sur Blanc, announced his death, the news agency Agence France-Presse reported.

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Mr. Mrozek, who began his career as a journalist and cartoonist, was known for mordant allegorical plays whose absurdism lampooned the political and social climate of the postwar Eastern bloc nations. Critics often mentioned his work in the same breath as that of the renowned Romanian playwright Eugene Ionesco.

Periodically banned in Poland, Mr. Mrozek’s plays were staged in cities around the world, including New York, where they were produced several times off-Broadway and at the La MaMa Experimental Theater Club in Manhattan.

Some US reviewers criticized Mr. Mrozek’s plays as windy polemic. But others argued that Westerners simply lacked the education in totalitarianism that revealed his preposterous situations as merely slightly exaggerated versions of everyday realities.

In his one-act play “Striptease,” for instance, two prisoners are shorn of their clothing by a giant hand that enters from offstage. In another one-act, “Out at Sea,” three starving castaways choose which of them will be eaten by the others.

Reviewing a double bill of “Striptease” and “Out at Sea” at La MaMa in The New York Times in 2004, Margo Jefferson wrote: “Every culture needs to think about language and power. These plays have a lot to teach us.”

Mr. Mrozek’s best-known play, “Tango,” was first produced in Warsaw in 1964. A three-act dark comedy that is often likened to “Hamlet,” it concerns the ideological conflict between a bohemian couple, who lead lives of cheerful unregulated licentiousness, and their young adult son, who comes home from college determined to impose a rigidly traditional order on the household. Disaster ensues.

“Let us say it is a bit of a paradox,” Mr. Mrozek, asked to explain the play, told The Times in 1969, “about the will to revolt in a permissive society which ends in dictatorship. It is a mixture of the grotesque and the serious and the sad.”

“Tango” was staged in London in 1966, in a Royal Shakespeare Company production directed by Trevor Nunn. It was produced off-Broadway at the Pocket Theater in 1969.

Mr. Mrozek — who spoke English, Italian, and French, but continued to write primarily in Polish — was also widely known for “Elephant,” a book of short fiction published in Polish in 1957 and later translated into English.

The volume’s title piece, translated by Konrad Syrop, concerns a backwater zoo in Poland that at long last is slated to get an elephant. (“Three thousand rabbits were a poor substitute for the noble giant,” Mr. Mrozek writes.)

Wishing to curry favor with the government authorities, however, the zookeeper suggests that they send him a far less costly inflatable rubber elephant instead.

“In the notice on the railings,” he tells them, “we can state that this particular elephant is particularly sluggish.”

When visiting schoolchildren discover the deception, Mr. Mrozek writes, they “soon started neglecting their studies and turned into hooligans.” What was more, he adds, “They no longer believe in elephants.”

Because his work did little to endear him to the Polish Communist authorities, Mr. Mrozek left the country in 1963, living first in Italy and later in France.

In 1968, after he published an open letter in Western European newspapers condemning Poland’s involvement, with the Soviet Union and other allies, in the invasion of Czechoslovakia, his Polish passport was revoked. Polish productions of his plays were canceled, and his work was purged from bookstores and libraries.

Slawomir Mrozek was born in Borzecin, a village outside Krakow. After the Nazis invaded Poland in 1939, his father, a postmaster, disappeared.

“He went into the army and came back a long time later with a beard and a strange look in his eye,” Mr. Mrozek told the Los Angeles Times in 1986.

As a youth Slawomir studied art and architecture in Krakow, and as a young man he contributed articles and satirical cartoons to Polish newspapers and magazines.

His first play, “The Policemen,” originally produced in Warsaw in 1958, concerns the police force of a totalitarian state that has been so successful that it has eradicated dissent. As a result, the force must convert one of its own members into a dissident to justify its continued existence.

In 1961 “The Policemen” was staged off-Broadway at the Phoenix Theater, in a production starring Lionel Stander and Jack Gilford.

Mr. Mrozek, who became a French citizen in the late 1970s, lived for some years afterward in Mexico before moving back to Poland in the 1990s. He later returned to France.

His first wife, Maria Obremba, died before him. His leaves his second wife, Susana Osorio Rosas. Information on other survivors could not be confirmed.

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