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When you ask most people what their favorite part of a play is, they’re probably not going to say “when it was over,” especially if the play was a good one. That is what makes Wislawa Szymborska’s poem “Theater Impressions” so interesting. Szymborska writes, “For me a tragedy’s most important act is the sixth:/ the resurrecting from the stage’s battlegrounds,/ the adjusting of wigs, of robes,/ the wrenching of knife from breast,/ the removing of noose from neck,/ the lining up among the living to face the audience” (140). She goes on to describe the dead characters coming back to life and acknowledging that their deaths weren’t real. In the last stanza, she describes the lowering of the curtain, leaving us with a lasting image: “Only then does a third, invisible [hand]/ perform its duty:/ it clutches at my throat” (141).

What about the end of a play causes the speaker to feel the way she does? Is the true tragedy having to acknowledge that something is over? Or is it the fact that there was no real tragedy to begin with? Perhaps the speaker has had to face death in her life, and the fact that the dead in the play can “return to life” upsets her. Given Szymborska’s life in Poland during World War II, it is probably safe to say that she witnessed a lot of death and experienced a lot of trauma in her early years. That experience surely influenced her writing of this poem. The “sixth act” of the play could represent the end of the war. Though the dead would not actually come back to life, the actors taking their bows could be a representation of the hope of better things to come at the end of the war, or it could be the speaker simply wishing the war never occurred in the first place. The hand clutching the speaker’s throat at the end of the poem serves as a reminder that the impact the war had on Syzmborska would never go away – it would be something that haunted her forever.


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