King Machush The First And The U.S., Part 2.

In the first part, I tried to convey a sense of Janusz Korczak’s children’s novel.  In this part, I will attempt to show why this novel has not gained acceptance in the U.S.

Polish history is a major factor in this lack of acceptance.  Towards the late eighteenth century, Poland was seized and divided into three parts by Russia, Prussia, and Austria.  It remained occupied until 1918.  Whatever Polish government there was, was regulated by the desires of the three countries.  It is not a coincidence that Korczak mentions three foreign kings in the Machush novel.  Furthermore, Korczak himself stated he would never marry, because he didn’t want his family to be prisoners.  This notion of an intruder taking over is deep in the Polish conscience, but has no parallel in American culture.  There is almost a kind of paranoia in Polish culture that any individual at any time can take over and bring the country to chaos.  In the U.S,. the individual is a sign of hope.  There is a feeling that one person can change the world for the better.  This was especially true in the 1970s.  American and Polish cultures could not be more different.  The news reporter destroys King Machush’s attempts to create a better world, but when John Merrick enters his nieces’ life, in L.Frank Baum’s series, Aunt Jane’s Nieces, he brings support and love.  Chaos in government is also a major theme in Polish thinking.  A government out of control occurs in many of Korczak’s works.  In one of Korczak’s later works, Kaitush the Wizard, Kaitush is attacked by his own government after attempting to do good.  But in the U.S., government has been relied on and it’s strength has always been emphasized.  Polish government has been seen as chaotic and weak, while American government has been seen as possessing order and stability.  The contrast is evident.  Korczak also believed in introducing children to the harsh realities of life: poverty, cruelty, injustice.  King Machush disguises himself as a peasant, so he can learn about the reality of war in his kingdom.  Machush, although a child, is never spared taunting, hunger, pain, abandonment, betrayal.  American culture has tried to protect children from such indignities.  Indeed, in the 1950s, one couldn’t mention child abuse in many schools.  Even today, certain topics are considered taboo and reasons for a teacher’s dismissal if they are brought up by the teacher.  There could not be a greater difference in outlook towards childhood.  Finally, Korczak was a firm believer in children’s rights.  He believed children should have their own parliament, their own form of government.  However, he never idealized children and emphasized that order comes from discipline and hard work.  In the 1950s and later, America was one of the few major countries to refuse to sign the United Nations Charter on Children’s Rights.  Public schools in America have been largely totalitarian in nature with strong centralization.  Corporal punishment was a given through the 1950s.  Student government was limited to one token representative who had absolutely no power.  Matters are improving, but Korczak’s manifesto of children’s rights would still strike a dagger in many a parent’s heart.  I would argue that for an American to fully appreciate Korczak, s/he would need to be aware of the many inherent differences that exist between Polish and American culture and have the desire and the openness to look beyond them.

King Machush The First And The U.S., Part 1.

King Machush the First is celebrated throughout Poland and Europe as a masterpiece of children’s literature.  However, despite at least four English translations of Janusz Korczak’s work, it has not taken hold in the U.S.  I believe there are many reasons for this.  However, before discussing them, I’d like to comment on the story itself.  Professor Suchodolski tells us that it is precisely in this novel that Korczak’s deepest hopes and disillusions find their expression.  Marek Jaworski views King Machush the First as a rare entity in world literature comparable in depth of interpretation to Alice in Wonderland, and Gulliver’s Travels.  Indeed, throughout the novel Korczak works on many planes employing humor, shock and reason to convey his thoughts.  Jaworski notes that the fantastic and unreal blend with a psychological character into a whole.

The novel begins in a whimsical, comical vein, then changes into a realistic descriptive one.  The change can be unsettling to the reader.  When Machush learns about the horror and futility of war, few details are spared.  And even when Korczak returns to a playful manner, the reader feels the presence of a dark threat that is ready to destroy King Machush’s world at any moment.  The conflict between the child’s world and the adult world becomes menacing and cruel.  However, Korczak also shows how adult behavior parallels a child’s:  the ministers are just as greedy as the children who ask Machush for gifts;  the Melancholy King’s parliament is just as ineffective and unruly as the children’s;  Machush’s construction of a doll for a girl is paralleled by the ministers’ construction of an elaborate Machush doll when he disappears in a war.  Another Korczak theme concerns civilization.  What does it mean to be civilized?  He reverses our expectations by showing that the African Kings are Machush’s true friends, and Princess Klu-Klu becomes a staunch supporter and ally in Machush’s quest for reform.  She is shown as being a capable learner, just as agile in outdoor sports as boys and willing to speak her mind without fear.  The Young King, who is jealous of Machush’s success, is shown to be more of a child than Machush.  Perhaps, the Young King is a child that has grown up “the wrong way.”  It is he who is the most selfish, and would rather cover up his loss in war time by piling up ammunition rather than help people as Machush does.  Machush learns to think about people less fortunate than himself, while the Young King never does. 

Random Thoughts

14 years have passed since I closed Medford Education International, Inc.(MEI,Inc.).  It is curious that the last proposed project was a symposium devoted to the work of Polish educator, and children’s writer, Janusz Korczak.  Recently, I completed a three act play based one one of Korczak’s novels, King Machush the First.  So life repeats itself or reappears in different guise.  Also, I have written fragments of plays, but have not completed one since childhood.  Two musical plays were performed at Murietta and Highland Hot Springs and Riverside Drive Elementary School.  There was also a performance in Grandma Lillian’s backyard.  Afterwards, the cast enjoyed a glorious swim in her swimming pool.  However, Jonathan Micas, and One Week in a Policeman’s Life were distinctly juvenile efforts, and until now I haven’t given them a second thought.  I did write a series of short plays, including an unfinished one about Native Americans, a subject my father held dear.  The others represented the interests I had:  reading, baseball, minerals(The Pacoima Canyon Mystery).  I adapted Roald Dahl’s Charlie and the Chocolate Factory into play form, which was given a reading by my 7th grade English class.  And my fascination with mysteries led me to adapt The Mystery of the False Fingertips into a play.  So, many years later I’m looking at a play manuscript of 51 pages, double-spaced of another adaptation.  What is strange is that the work touches on the recent history of MEI, and childhood memory at the same time.  The play is like a bright light that is illuminating dark, forgotten passages of my mind.  Janusz Korczak reawakens my interest in foreign educators, which was so important to MEI.  He also reacquaints me with the play form, which invigorated, and watched over my childhood.”Curiouser and curiouser.”

Another Look At King Machush The First By Janusz Korczak

King Machush the First is regarded in Poland as one of the noteworthy contributions to Polish children’s literature.  It has been translated into many different languages, has inspired an opera, plays, and much criticism.  Korczak was one of the leading children’s rights activists of his day, and his book about the psychology of the child, Jak lubic dziecko, is as applicable today as it was when he completed it.   King Machush becomes a kind of philosopher-king as he learns about other children’s impoverished lives and struggles to bring about reforms.  Perhaps the character that most resembles Korczak is the Melancholy King, who is sad, reflective, and all too aware of the obstacles one must face to bring about reform.  The following excerpt from Act 1 Scene 8 gives some idea of the major theme in the work.

Machush:  And why is one King?

Melancholy King:  Not just to wear a crown.  But to give happiness to the people of his kingdom.  And how do you give happiness?  You introduce different reforms.

Machush(aside):  Oh-ho!  This is interesting.

Melancholy King:  And reforms–they are the most difficult.  Yes, the most difficult.(Melancholy King plays a sad melody on his violin.)  You are surprised, because you think that Kings can do anything they want.

Machush:  I don’t think that at all.  I know that protocol forbids many things, and so does the law.

Melancholy King:  Oh, you know already.  Yes, we alone issue bad laws, and then we have to follow them.

Machush:  Isn’t it possible to issue good laws?

Melancholy King:  It is possible, and one should.  You are still young, Machush.  Learn, and issue good, wise laws.(King takes Machush’s hand, and places it on his own, stroking it very tenderly.)  Listen, Machush.  My grandfather gave people freedom, but the outcome was bad.  They murdered him, and afterwards the people weren’t happy.  My father raised a great monument to freedom.  It is beautiful, but wars go on.  Then there are the poor and unfortunate to consider.  I ordered this great parliament building to be built, but what of it?  Things are the same as before.(Suddenly, he remembers something.)  You know, Machush.  We have always done badly when we have given reforms to adults.  If you try with the children, maybe you will succeed.  Now sleep, my dear child.  You came here to have fun, and I’ve disturbed you.  Good night.

King Machush And Lerner And Loewe’s King Arthur Provide Some Interesting Parallels

King Machush, the hero of Janusz Korczak’s Machush novels, and Lerner and Loewe’s King Arthur from their musical Camelot provide some interesting parallels.  Although King Machush is a child, and later adolescent, and King Arthur is an adult, both are kings that try to bring about reforms that will better their kingdoms.  Both kings have their tutors:  King Machush learns about parliament from the Melancholy King, and King Arthur learns about the natural world and its consequences from Merlin the Wizard.  Since the Melancholy King must take care of his own kingdom, Machush must make decisions on his own.  In King Arthur’s case, Merlin is abducted by Nimue to live “in a cave by a sapphire shore.”  Thus, his educational mentor has been taken away, and he is left to ponder his own decisions.  In both the Korczak children’s novels and in Camelot reform is not easy.  The Ministers oppose many of Machush’s reforms for children, and they arouse the ire and envy of other kings.  King Arthur comes to realize that what is important is not might is right, but might should be used for right.  Based on that conclusion, he forms the notion of his Knights of the Round Table.   Ultimately, both kings are destroyed by forces outside the kingdom and within the kingdom.  In Machush’s case, it is the newspaper reporter from the Young King’s realm that introduces anarchy to bring the ruler down.  Machush’s closest friend, Fellek, follows his own greed and selfish desires to betray and finally destroy Machush.  In King Arthur’s case, it is the arrival of Mordred, a kind of evil genius and Arthur’s abandoned son who causes ferment between the knights that breaks out in a war, destroying both Arthur and Mordred.  The illicit relationship between Queen Guenivere and Sir Lancelot serves to humiliate, and, eventually, destroy Arthur.  In both King Machush’s and King Arthur’s situations, passions interfere with the heroes’ rational intentions.