Death and dying Euthanasia Literary Treatment Literary Treatment

Frank Zapatka on “The Other Room” by Zbigniew Herbert

Here are some relections from Frank Zapatka (Emeritus, American U.) on “The Other Room” by Zbigniew Herbert.

Zbigniew Herbert (1924-1998) was a highly regarded Polish poet, dramatist, and essayist. Praised by Nobel Literature prize laureates, Czeslaw Milosz and Wislawa Szymborska, Herbert has been favorably compared to T.S. Eliot.  Among Herbert’s dramatic works is a play in seven scenes, titled “The Other Room” (Drugi  pokoi). Milosz in his History of Polish Literature described it as “the best of” Herbert’s “miniature theatre forms.”  Written ca.1958, anonymously translated into English sometime in the 1970s, it treats what can be described, in part, as euthanasia by omission.

The cast consists of:  “He… She…” and “That which is on the other side of the wall.” The other room is on the other side of the wall where for three years, an unnamed woman “seventy or perhaps eighty” has lived.  The couple’s apartment is presumably in Communist Poland, which place and time however, are never explicitly mentioned.

“He” and “She,” we learn, are annoyed by little things the woman does, so annoyed, that they wish the woman dead. Foreshadowing reference to the fatal ending, the death of the elderly woman, begins early. Discussing their exasperation some fifty lines into scene 1, “She,” the Lady Macbeth of the piece, says she wants her husband “to find a way out.”  His angry reply, morbidly echoing Raskolnikov’s  murder of the old woman pawnbroker in Dostoevsky’s Crime and Punishment, is: “Do you Want me to brain her with an axe”?  In scene 2, after sending the woman a false official  letter ordering her “to leave the premises” the woman doesn’t come out of the room and the couple think she was so shocked that “ She” says  the woman “could die and we wouldn’t even know.” At the end of scene 2, “He” recalls that as a boy, he put a hedge-hog  he had caught in a shoe-box and  tied the box with a string. He would talk to it and knock on the  box till it moved and then after a while it stopped moving.  To this, “She” asks: “What are you driving at? Nothing,” “He” replies, “It’s just something I remember.”  But in the play’s present, the elderly woman is the hedgehog, the box, her room.  Then in scene 3, “He” comments, “Too many people in the world.”   “She” seconds his comment adding, “Not even standing room.”

Subsequently, they count the hours that they hear no noise coming from the woman’s room. After 40 hours of silence, “He” knocks and they hear nothing. Eventually, “He” says, “nothing is happening there any more” as was the case with the hedgehog.  Effectively, they conspire not to go into the room until the woman has died. After “He” does and says, “It’s all over,” “She” replies: “We must open the window straight away.” In sum, selfish and merciless, the couple do nothing to help the woman and let her die.  The play would not be recommended by the Kevorkians or Derek Humphrys of the world.

Frank Zapatka 11.30.11


posted by Richard M.

Richard Myers

Richard S. Myers, the Vice-President of UFL, is Professor of Law at Ave Maria School of Law, where he teaches Antitrust, Civil Procedure, Conflict of Laws, Constitutional Law, and Religious Freedom. He is a Phi Beta Kappa graduate of Kenyon College and earned his law degree at Notre Dame, where he won the law school's highest academic prize. He began his legal career by clerking for Judge John F. Kilkenny of the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit. Professor Myers also worked for Jones, Day, Reavis & Pogue in Washington, D.C. He taught at Case Western Reserve University School of Law and the University of Detroit Mercy School of Law before joining the Ave Maria faculty. He is a co-editor of St. Thomas Aquinas and the Natural Law Tradition: Contemporary Perspectives (Catholic University of American Press, 2004) and a co-editor of Encyclopedia of Catholic Social Thought, Social Science, and Social Policy (Scarecrow Press, 2007). He has also published extensively on constitutional law in law reviews and also testified before Congressional and state legislative hearings on life issues. Married to Mollie Murphy, who is also on the faculty at Ave Maria School of Law, they are the proud parents of six children - Michael, Patrick, Clare, Kathleen, Matthew, and Andrew.