Truth, Lies and Celebrity-Which Jerzy Do You Prefer?

The celebrated and reviled Polish novelist Jerzy Kosinski

was a fantasist in a good cause-namely, art and himself. He’s a fascinating

subject for a play, which is, of course, another good cause and fantastic

illusion.

On the one hand, Kosinski’s award-winning 1965

autobiographical novel of the Holocaust, The

Painted Bird, made him a literary celebrity but was exposed as a lie. The Village Voice claimed that he had fabricated

his childhood role in the harrowing novel and that he didn’t even write

his own books, and there’s truth-it seems-to the allegations.

On the other hand, Kosinski-born Jerzy Lewinkopfin 1933-was

also his own creation. He re-invented himself in America like many an

immigrant, including his fellow Pole, Roman Polanski. And re-invention is,

after all, the tried and true American Way. He was a mystery who understood the

fame game. But if one of his works of art was himself, he knew the cracks and

flaws in his own creation. In 1991, as if destroying the pages of a soiled

manuscript in order to begin again, he killed himself.

A bright, engaging charmer who apparently seduced women with

ease, Kosinski was a talk-show gift and one of the last celebrity writers.

Those punch-drunk prizefighters, Norman Mailer and Gore Vidal, have faded along

with Tom Wolfe’s white suit. Yet it’s astonishing how many novelists and

playwrights were famous in the really, really famous sense-Dickens, Shaw and

Wilde before television, Tennessee Williams, Noël Coward and poor old Truman

Capote, Messrs. Mailer and Vidal in the TV age. They’ve all been replaced by

celebrity chefs.

W.H. Auden claimed that Goethe of The Sorrows of Young Werther was the first writer or artist to

become a Public Celebrity. “There had always been poets, painters and composers

who were known to and revered by their fellow artists,” Auden wrote. “But the

general public, however much it may have admired their works, would not have

dreamed of wishing to make their personal acquaintance.” How quaint and

disapproving he sounds. But the need to make the acquaintance of the famous,

the need to know everything about them, is the spirit of our times and led to

Kosinski’s downfall.

Davey Holmes’ More

Lies About Jerzy goes in search of the truth about his murky, controversial

life, and the intriguing title promises big Kosinski-like whoppers. If only the

dramatist had liberated his fictionalized hero more! Alas, the drama at the

Vineyard Theatre, though it has its beguiling possibilities, proves too

virtuous to lie well. The play conscientiously covers the bases of Kosinski’s

downfall as if dutifully answering questions to a solemn term paper entitled “Fact

or Fiction: Say Which You Prefer and Why?”

We prefer fiction. We are for pretty and brutal lies in the

cause of poetic truth. So is Mr. Holmes, I assume, who’s telling his own lies

about Jerzy. He’s playing a double game. In its way, More Lies About Jerzy is as much a fabrication as Kosiniski’s The Painted Bird. It’s a fiction based

on fact, but Mr. Holmes’ game isn’t dangerous enough. Perhaps for legal

reasons, he’s coyly given all the real-life characters pseudonyms. Come out,

Jerzy Lesnewski-we know who you are! You’re Jerzy Kosinski!

Small wonder the

investigative journalist, an ambitious dope named Arthur Bausley who’s at the

center of the story, is given to prissy pronouncements about The Responsibility

of Creativity. “Creativity isn’t a gift,” he informs us like some official

censor. “It’s a privilege. There are conditions.” Oh yes? Who’s bestowing the

“privilege”? Who’s making the “conditions”? God-given talent is a gift; there

are no conditions. The second you impose conditions on creativity, it’s over.

But there’s the suspicion that Mr. Holmes has imposed a few

unnecessary restraints on himself. The action, set in 1972, is clogged with

almost 20 years of biography, and it plods. Evidence of Jerzy’s hidden past is

revealed when a childhood photo is conveniently discovered-in his own desk!

Messagesare telegraphed. Thefetching Gretchen Egolf, playing the starry-eyed,

gullible mistress Georgia, strips naked to prove some obvious point to our

goading hero about “naked feelings,” and rarely has an actress undressed

onstage with less interest in the outcome. Then again, the over-devoted

ex-lover of Jerzy, who’s a lady with her own dark secrets, concludes: “If you

say a thing is beautiful, has meaning and purpose, then it does.”

It’s a tad glib. The dramatist is saying that all truth is

personal, or relative. But the Kosinski or Lesnewski revealed onstage-played

expansively by Jared Harris in tight multi-colored shirts and leopard

underpants-is one wild and crazy guy. He’s showily neurotic rather than alluring;

obnoxious, not charming. It’s hard to see how Kosinski ever became a magnet for

such adoration and curiosity.

I must say that when I met him in the 1980’s I found him a

compelling, intellectually vivacious man, though I never got to know him. I

asked about the accusations calling him a liar. He said they were all lies! I

remember now that we talked about his 1979 script for Being There starring Peter Sellers and how much I had enjoyed it

(though it wasn’t a critical success). The film is a fable about a simpleton

named Chance who’s a gardener, and how he accidentally becomes known as Chauncy

Gardner, a revered statesman and adviser to Presidents. In truth he’s a moron,

an empty shell who loves television. In “reality,” he becomes a famous public

figure and the wisest man in America.

Jerzy Kosinski may have had his faults, but he was

prescient.

Getting Jumped

Boredom is the great danger of theater, as you know. But

don’t take my typically upbeat word for it. “The greatest guiding principle I

know of in my work, the one to which I always pay the most attention, is

boredom,” wrote Peter Brook (who often falls asleep at the theater, though

never during his own productions). “In the theatre, boredom, like the slyest of

devils, can appear at any moment. The slightest thing and he jumps on you, he’s

waiting and he’s voracious.”

I must admit regretfully that I haven’t felt jumped on so

voraciously as I did during Paradise

Island, staged by the admired New Group, which first produced Kenneth

Lonergan’s This Is Our Youth. The new

production is a mother-and-daughter play of such numbing, whining, neurotic

banality that it sinks you in blanket boredom and will not let you go. Let’s

not make matters worse by checking off the names.

“The spark is what matters,” Mr. Brook wrote, “and the spark

is rarely there …. One must never pretend that what one is doing is

automatically interesting, and never say to oneself that the audience is bad.

It is true there are sometimes very bad audiences, but one must rigorously

refuse to say so, for the simple reason that one can never expect an audience

to be good. There are only easy audiences and less easy ones, and our job is to

make every audience good.”

Amen to that. Truth, Lies and Celebrity-Which Jerzy Do You Prefer?