Dancing with Freud: Slawomir Mrozek’s Tango

Dancing with Freud: Slawomir Mrozek’s Tango

O’Connor, John

Slawomir Mrozek is one of the leading Polish playwrights of the twentieth century. His plays are generally satirical in nature and focus on political and moral issues. Tango, written in 1965, is no exception to this scheme. The play deals with the nature of power and its uses as a political tool.

The purpose of this paper is to examine Tango from a Freudian viewpoint. The reading of a basically political play alongside Freud’s theories of psychoanalysis may seem incongruous at first; however, Freud does address political issues. The particular example from which I will draw is his discussion of the position of man and society and the development of civilization out of man’s primal past in Civilization and its Discontents (1930). The connections between Tango and Freud’s later theories are noteworthy, and the play becomes much more meaningful when read in this light.

The process of applying Freudian psychoanalysis to a literary text involves finding the central fantasy in the work, which then sheds its meaning. In his book The Dynamics of Literary Response (1968), Norman Holland states that psychoanalysis probes literary works “not so much for a central `point,’ as for a central fantasy or daydream … particular manifestations of which occur all through the text” (7). The central fantasy is one that is imbedded in the unconscious of all people. Unconscious awareness of the fantasy leads to a conscious understanding of what the work means when analyzed on an intellectual plane. A critic may reach a deeper level of understanding if he can uncover the basic fantasy entrenched in the work as well as in his own unconscious. Mrozek’s Tango contains at its heart an Oedipal fantasy. One immediately may raise the objection at this point that there is only one son in the play, Arthur. Using Freudian analysis, however, we can postulate a nuclear family using all of the play’s characters, not just the actual father, mother, and son.

Holland suggests that psychoanalytic observation shows that “even as adults we tend to respond to others as we responded in our first relations with other people, in other words, as we responded to our family” (46). Certain structural elements of Tango’s script confirm this theory-especially those relating to the dynamics between family members, as represented in the diagram below:

Arthur is at the center of the diagram, just as he is at the center of the play. His father is Stomil, described as a “large, corpulent man” who scratches himself (Mrozek 20).

Eddie is a visitor in the house, but he can be considered a brother to Arthur if we keep in mind Holland’s statement and if we are open to the script’s clues. Eddie is the son Stomil and Eleanor wanted Arthur to be. They admire his naturalness and authenticity. Throughout the play, Stomil and Eleanor try to make Arthur see Eddie’s admirable qualities as they do. Eddie may be seen as a reflection of Stomil, perhaps a reincarnation of Ston-til in his youth. Both men scratch themselves-revealing a propensity to satisfy their sexual itches in an unabashed, animal-like fashion-both are sleeping with Eleanor, and both live lives of freedom unfettered by social conventions.

Eddie’s relationship with Eugenia concretizes his role as Arthur’s brother. He calls Eugenia “Grandma” (36 and 65). He and Eugenia are seen together a number of times playing cards. When Eddie, Eugene, and Eugenia are playing cards at the beginning of the play, Eugenia tells Eugene: “Eddie knows best.” She then tells Eddie: “I don’t know what we would do without you” (12). Eugenia even calls Eddie to her deathbed with her other “children” (94).

Eugenia sees Arthur, her grandson by blood, in an entirely different light. Upon his entrance in Act I, she asks, annoyed: “What are you doing here?” (12). She later asks the same question in the same manner, and even refers to Arthur as a “little twerp” (65). It is obvious that Eugenia admires Eddie more than Arthur. Eddie has established himself as a fact in the life of the household; he is a memher of the family. Eugene sums up Eddie’s position quite succinctly when he tells Arthur: “He goes around here as if he owns the place” (17).

Eleanor is Arthur’s mother by blood. Ala, although she is Arthur’s cousin, plays the role of sister-a fact reinforced by the text when Ala refers to Eleanor and Stomil as “Mother” and “Father” (79 and 107). Alas role as sister-figure becomes clearer when discussed in conjunction with the Oedipal fantasy, which will be explicated after the preliminary structure has been established.

Eugene, although he is actually Arthur’s great-uncle, plays the role of grandfather by virtue of his age. Eugene represents the older generation, as does Eugenia. The similarity in his name to the actual grandmother’s reinforces Eugene’s position as grandfather. Eugene is a substitute for the father, Stomil, whom Arthur has never respected. Stomil has destroyed everything that Arthur holds sacred. Eugene represents the old order that Stomil has destroyed and that Arthur wishes to reconstruct.

The nuclear family Tango portrays undergoes an upheaval and restructuring over the course of the play. The upheaval is caused by both the sons’ Oedipal desires. Holland points out that, in literature, “the basic oedipus [sic] fantasy is the boy’s longing to become his father and make a child in his mother; or the girl’s to take her mother’s place and have a child by her father” (49). The Oedipus complex is accompanied by a feeling in the son that Freud calls “castration anxiety.” The young boy fears that his sexual desire for his mother will lead his father to harm him physically-specifically, that his father will castrate him. This fear is heightened when the boy sees the anatomy of a naked woman. He looks upon her as a castrated male. His anxiety causes the boy to suppress his sexual desire for his mother and his antagonism toward his father (Hall 114-5).

In Totem and Taboo, Freud explains the nature of the Oedipus complex as it manifested in one of his younger patients:

He [the son] admired his father as possessing a big penis and feared him as threatening his own. The same part is played by the father alike in the Oedipus and castration complexes-the part of a dreaded enemy to the sexual interests of children. The punishment, which he threatens, is castration, or its substitute, blindness. (130)

Freud further explains that the son’s conflicting feelings of admiration and fear/hatred for his father lead to an “ambivalent attitude,” which also affects his feelings toward his mother: “He [the son] is constantly wishing to perform this [Oedipal] act, and looks on it as his supreme enjoyment, but he must not perform it and detests it as well” (T and T 29). According to Freud, the process plays out as follows:

The child finds relief from the conflict arising out of this double-sided, this ambivalent emotional attitude towards his father by displacing his hostile and fearful feelings on to a substitute for his father …. The conflict is resumed in relation to the object on to which the displacement has been made: the ambivalence has been extended to it. (129)

The son’s ambivalent emotions also apply to his mother, and he will make a substitute for her as well: “It is regularly found that he chose his mother as the object of his love, and perhaps his sister as well, before passing on to his final choice” (16).

Freud’s theories on the nature of the Oedipus complex may be applied to Tango as illustrated by the diagram on the following page. The diagram illustrates a major difference between Eddie and Arthur that is manifest throughout the entire work: Eddie succeeds in everything he attempts and Arthur fails. The play ends with Eddie in control and Arthur dead.

The Oedipal pattern with regard to the mother is very clear. Eddie desires Eleanor and sleeps with her on a regular basis. Arthur displaces his desire for Eleanor onto Ala. His strong superego will not allow him to fulfill his desire for Ala-the ambivalence is transferred onto the substitute object. Arthur’s id impulses for her are defended against through reaction-formation, rationalization, and projection. Reaction-formation is a defense mechanism that substitutes one id impulse for its opposite. This particular defense is characterized by an exaggeration of the outward show of the substituted impulse (Hall 94-95). Arthur desires Ala, but he outwardly acts as if he hates her. This is most strikingly seen in the following dialogue:

ARTUR: I’ve been thinking about you a lot, Ala.

ALA [loud and coarse]: Go on.

ARTHUR: I thought about meeting your

ALA: Go on.

ARTHUR: And sitting down beside you …

ALA: Go on.

ARTHUR: … and talking with you …

ALA [gradually growing excited as though watching a boxing match]: Go on.

ARTHUR: … about one thing and another.

ALA: Go on.

ARTHUR [louder]: About different kinds of things.

ALA: Go on! Go on!

[Arthur picks up the book that Eddie has left on the chair and throws it at Ala.] (31-32)

Arthur later rationalizes his sexual aggression toward Ala by referring to it as “an exercise in scientific pragmatics” (46). He reveals the projection of his desires onto her in statements like, “All you care about is your sex appeal. You’re so primitive” (43).

Arthur sublimates his sexual desires into a high moral stance that runs all throughout the play. His need for order, form, and tradition is a substitute for the id impulses that are repressed by his strong superego. There is ambivalence here in that Arthur really would enjoy the sexual freedom that his ideal society prohibits. He satisfies his repressed id impulses through an aggressive stance against the family members-putting Eugene in the birdcage and Eugenia in the catafalque. His aggression is acceptable to his superego because it is directed toward a threat to its survival.

The same pattern of success and failure is seen in the sons’ relationship to the father. Eddie succeeds in castrating Stomil by sleeping with Eleanor and by taking control at the end of the play. He essentially becomes the father-or leaderof the nuclear family. Arthur fails in his attempt to overthrow Stomil. He tells Stomil: “I used to have a father. Not anymore. I’ll have to make myself a father” (36). Arthur hates Stomil because of the world Stomil has created. He hates him because Stomil has sexual relations with Eleanor and because he is a threat to Arthur’s relationship with Ala: “I don’t leap all over you like my artist father and everybody else does” (42).

However, Arthur also admires Stomil because he has everything that Arthur desires-a large penis (represented by his constantly open pajamas), Eleanor, and sexual freedom. Arthur’s ambivalence toward his father is clear. Arthur displaces his Oedipal desires toward Stomil onto society, which his father has created, and onto Eddie. The ambivalence in Arthur’s feelings toward society has already been made clear. He wants to destroy society, an outgrowth of his father: “At long last my father will be forced to button his fly” (52). He admires society in that it affords the sexual freedom he desires. The connection of society with Stomil is made clear when Arthur gains control at the end of Act II. He gets the revolver-a phallic symbol of power-from Stomil’s pajama pocket and forces Stomil to button his fly-both castration images (66 and 71).

The same ambivalence is shown in Arthur’s feelings for Eddie. He hates and admires Eddie because he is sleeping with Eleanor, and he admires Eddie for his physical strength. His admiration manifests itself at the close of the play when Arthur allies himself with Eddie in order to become the father. He literally sees himself as Eddie: “I am as pure as nature. I am free. Free!” (101). Eddie overthrows Arthur by hitting him on the head with the gun, which blinds him-another castration image-and kills him. Eddie’s takeover is made complete when he puts on Arthur’s jacket.

Arthur allies himself with Eugene when he sets his plan into action because Eugene represents tradition. Eugene is actually interested in nothing more than saving his own skin. He will ally himself to anyone who happens to be in control at any given moment. When Arthur enters in Act I and breaks up the card game, Eugene blames his own transgression on Eugenia: “It’s her fault. Entirely her fault. I didn’t even want to play” (13). When Arthur first backs down from his attempted coup, Eugene derides him. He is all too willing to take up the new cause once Arthur finally regains control, indicated by his dancing the tango with Eddie at the close of the play (90, 100), and thus shifting his allegiance to the new leader.

The fantasy construct in Tango is made apparent by the many images of Greek tragedy in the play, including some obvious connections with Sophocles’s Oedipus. Arthur, the hero of the play, is blinded, just as Oedipus is. Stomil suggests to Arthur that he may have an Oedipus complex (60). Eddie sleeps with his “mother” and “kills” his “father.” Arthur wants to create a tragedy by talking Stomil into killing Eddie, a peculiar twist on the Oedipus story. Stomil cannot succeed because “tragedy is not possible anymore” (61). His failure is made evident in the “discovery” scene in which Arthur opens both doors of Eleanor’s room to reveal the group playing cards (64).

There is irony in the connection with Greek tragedy in that Eddie, the real “Oedipus,” is rewarded while Arthur is killed, reinforcing Stomil’s claim “that tragedy is not possible anymore.” Eddie’s lack of guilt prevents him from being a tragic hero. The hero is Arthur, whose guilt and flaw-his inability to fit into the existing society-are heroic in their proportions.

Tango’s inherent fantasy structure contains many ironies-for example, Eddie’s somewhat fascist takeover of the nuclear family. The son, who has no conscience, no guilt for his impulsive actions, is the one who eventually gains control, and he does so through force. Arthur-the morally upright son who is rejected by his parents, the brother who arrives at the revelation that the only thing that can be created out of nothing is force-is killed. The irony is furthered by the fact that Arthur is ultimately destroyed by Ala, who gave herself to Eddie, effectively castrating Arthur: “You’re a coward, that’s all you are. A child and a coward and impotent!” (88). Ala controls Arthur throughout the play by toying with him, tempting and then rejecting him. Her sexuality is a powerful force in the play: “Women have been the ruin of kingdoms and empires” (69). Her force runs counter to the traditional idea that women are generally passive and men active. Arthur’s entire plan hinges on Ala, and she becomes the active force to which he must react.

Mrozek’s anti-traditional handling of the female role in the play is similar to Freud’s view of the sexes with regard to activity and passivity: “For psychology the contrast between the sexes fades away into one between activity and passivity, in which we far too readily identify activity with maleness and passivity with femaleness …” (Civilization 53, my italics). This contrast between the sexes is seen in Eve’s speech during Stomil’s play:

Adam was first, but he

Did not exist until

I came to be.

He walks so proudly still.

Doesn’t the poor man see

For all his intellection

That there is no perfection

Except in what is not? (34)

Perfection lies not in what is seen-the penis-but in what is unseen-the vagina. Man did not exist until woman was created. The woman becomes the perfect, motivating force both in the world and in the play.

The concept of woman as motivator is clearly the impetus behind the entire Oedipus complex. If it were not for the son’s desire for his mother, the complex would not exist and would not need to be defended against. Freud postulated this idea in terms of the outgrowth of civilization out of the primal horde. The earliest form of “society” consisted of the nuclear family, or primal horde. The father of the horde would banish the sons out of fear that they would sleep with their mother and usurp his authority. The sons wander, gain strength, and return to kill the father and take control. Freud points out that, according to Darwin, the sons would struggle among themselves for absolute control. Since none of them would be powerful enough to accomplish this feat, the sons would destroy each other, and the horde would disintegrate. Freud postulated that none of the sons would be able to take control-become the father-so they developed the incest taboo to insure the horde’s survival (T and T 142-44).

Mrozek has taken Freud’s theory and turned it upside-down. The sons in the play do struggle, and one of them does prove to be the stronger. Mrozek does this same twisting with other of Freud’s postulations, and the irony in his treatment of taboo restrictions and punishments is striking. Freud defines a taboo in the following way: “The basis of a taboo is a prohibited action, for performing which a strong inclination exists in the unconscious” (T and T 32). The violation of the incest taboo in primitive societies is punished by death (4-5). Eddie violates the taboo and gains control. Arthur does not and he is killed. Freud continues his discussion of taboos: “Anyone who has transgressed one of these prohibitions himself acquires the characteristic of being prohibited” (22). Eddie is accepted by everyone; Arthur is rejected.

The irony in Mrozek’s topsy-turvy view of taboo restrictions offers a clue to the play’s implicit political viewpoint. The incest taboo presumably was created by primitive societies to insure their survival. We may conclude that the violation of the taboo would lead to a breakdown of the society, which is essentially what occurs in Tango. Eddie’s usurpation of power does not lead to a disintegration of order, for he makes it very clear that he will have order (106). It does lead to a loss of individual freedom at the expense of one man’s id impulses. Eddie’s control is absolute: “Don’t go too far, and be ready to come running when I call” (106). The society of the nuclear family in Tango, although not destroyed, has suffered a severe blow.

Freud outlines his theories on the development of societies in Civilization and its Discontents. The connections made between Freud’s work and Mrozek’s will lead us to an explication of Tango that includes the Oedipal fantasy and the intellectual theme of destruction of society through force and its implications. Freud says, “the impulse of cruelty arises from the instinct for mastery” (Civilization, 8), an impulse that both both Eddie and Arthur possess. Arthur’s cruelty is basically ineffectual-the birdcage and the catafalque. Eddie’s cruelty is much more forceful, and it is his cruelty that helps him achieve his mastery over the others.

The “instinct for mastery” applies to the Oedipal fantasy in the play. Both of the sons want to seize control from their father. The Oedipal fantasy in the play and its realization in the life of the primal horde may be extended to a view of revolution in modern society. If the group of sons takes joint control and institutes an incest taboo, then a democracy of sorts will be developed. If one son is forceful enough to gain total control, a fascist government will develop. If there is no group of people strong enough to maintain control and order in a society, then that society, as Freud suggests, surely will fall under the control of a leader who is cruel enough to gain mastery:

The last, but certainly not the least important, of the characteristic features of civilization remains to be assessed: The manner in which the relationships of men to one another, their social relationships, are regulated relationships which affect a person as a neighbour, as a source of help, as another person’s sexual object, as a member of a family and of a State…. the element of civilization enters on the scene with the first attempt to regulate these social relationships. If the attempt were not made, the relationships would be subject to the arbitrary will of the individual: … the physically stronger man would decide them in the sense of his own interests and instinctual impulses…. Human life in common is only made possible when a majority comes together which is stronger than any separate individual and which remains united against all separate individuals…. This replacement of the power of the individual by the power of a community constitutes the decisive step of civilization. (Civilization 41-42)

Eddie’s acquisition of control of the society essentially moves it out of the realm of civilization and into a regressed and primitive state. He will control the relationships in the society based on his own instinctual impulses.

Why does Eddie succeed where Arthur has failed? Because Eddie has the force with which he can gain control, and Arthur has only the idea of it. Arthur fails because he cannot reconcile his ideal view of society with the reality that he faces:

… one can try to re-create the world, to build up in its stead another world in which its most unbearable features are eliminated and replaced by others that are in conformity with one’s own wishes. But whoever, in desperate defiance, sets out upon this path to happiness will as a rule attain nothing. Reality is too strong for him. He becomes a madman…. (Civilization 28)

Why does the revolution take place at all? It occurs in part because of Arthur’s and Eddie’s natural propensity to revolt against their father, the existing order. It occurs because of the society’s failure to reconcile its needs with the needs of one of its members:

A good part of the struggles of mankind centre round the single task of finding an expedient accommodation-one, that is, that will bring happiness-between the claim of the individual and the cultural claims of the group; and one of the problems that touches the fate of humanity is whether such an accommodation can be reached by means of some particular form of civilization or whether this conflict is irreconcilable. (Civilization 43)

Our awareness of the Oedipal fantasy inherent in Tango leads us to an understanding of the political questions Mrozek raises in the play. His politics are rooted in a very humane view of the individual and society. Tango is Mrozek’s attempt to make us aware of the need to be sensitive to the needs of all members of society and not simply to our own. He implies the necessity for inspired leadership that will move civilization ahead but not at the expense of the individual. He calls for a progression from the primitive lack of civilization of the primal horde to a sense of the dignity of all men in a developed and coherent society. Freud might want us to believe that Mrozek is an idealist and that we cannot deny the natural aggressive tendencies in man. But if it were not for Mrozek and idealists like him, where would our civilization be today?

Fairmont State College


Freud, Sigmund. Civilization and its Discontents. Trans. James Strachey. New York: Norton, 1961. -. Totem and Taboo. Trans. James Strachey. New York: Norton, 1950.

Hall, Calvin S. A Primer of Freudian Psychology. Cleveland: World Publishing Co., 1954. Holland, Norman N. The Dynamics of Literary Response. New York: Oxford UP, 1968.

Mrozek, Slawomir. Tango. Trans. Ralph Manheim and Teresa Dzieduscycka. New York: Grove Press, 1968.

JOHN E. O’CONNOR is Associate Professor of Theatre at Fairmont State College, West Virginia, He received his M.A. in Theatre from Miami University, Oxford, Ohio, and his Ph.D. from the University of Washington, Seattle. He has contributed to “British Playwrights, 1956-1995” (1996) and has published in Theatre Symposium, Theatre Survey, and the New England Theatre Journal. He has presented papers at conferences for the International Society for the Study of European Ideas, the Association for Theatre in Higher Education, the Mid-America Theatre Conference, the Southeast Theatre Conference, and the Midwest Modern Language Association.

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