Grove Press
Grove Press
Grove Press

Polish Joke and Other Plays

Four Plays: Polish Joke, Ancient History, Don Juan in Chicago, The Red Address

by David Ives

“Ives [is] wizardly . . . magical and funny . . . a master of language. He uses words for their meanings, sounds and associations, spinning conceits of a sort I’ve not seen or heard before. He’s an original.” –Vincent Canby, The New York Times

  • Imprint Grove Paperback
  • Page Count 352
  • Publication Date June 21, 2004
  • ISBN-13 978-0-8021-4130-9
  • Dimensions 5.5" x 8.25"
  • US List Price $14.50

About The Book

This collection brings together four full-length plays from the same dazzling pen that produced the one-act comic masterpieces of All in the Timing: Polish Joke, a young Polish-American’s trip through ethnic stereotypes; Don Juan in Chicago, in which a Renaissance innocent makes a deal with the devil, only to become a reluctant Latin lover; Ancient History, a comedy-drama about the holy war that breaks out when two people from two very different cultures fall in love; and The Red Address, the searing portrait of a man with a secret who is forced by tragedy into self-revelation.


“Ives [is] wizardly . . . magical and funny . . . a master of language. He uses words for their meanings, sounds and associations, spinning conceits of a sort I’ve not seen or heard before. He’s an original.” –Vincent Canby, The New York Times

‘mr. Ives is a pitcher with a great many tricks up his sleeve. He throws like an all-star . . . mixing comedic moods and styles with a dizzying assortment of changeups.” –Peter Marks, The New York Times



A driveway. ROMAN SADLOWSKI is sitting in a lawn chair with a large, decorated, ceramic beer stein in his hand. WOJTEK (pronounced “VOY-tek”) SADLOWSKI is deeply asleep in a matching lawn chair. JASIU (pronounced “YAH-shoo’) is sitting on the ground reading a large black book on whose cover we can read the words “BEING AND NOTHINGNESS.” Jasiu is played by an adult actor, but at this point in the play he is nine years old.

ROMAN Yahshoo, today is the feast of Saint Olga. And you are now nine years old.

JASIU I been nine years old for a long time, Uncle Roman.

ROMAN You know what you’re gonna be after you’re nine, Jasiu?

JASIU I’m gonna be ten.

ROMAN You’re gonna be ten. (Addressing the heavens, lifting the beer stein) Now let the great ceremony begin!

JASIU Uncle Roman, how come you always crack an egg in your beer?

ROMAN I crack a fresh egg in my beer because I’m Polish, Jasiu.

JASIU Is that why you put salt in your beer?

ROMAN Yes, the salt is also Polish. You go all up and down these driveways, you know what the men in those lawn chairs are drinking?

JASIU Beer with eggs and salt?

ROMAN Beer with eggs and salt.

JASIU Does beer taste better with eggs and salt?

ROMAN Not really. Eggs and salt is just a part of the Polish heritage. Prob”ly the only Polish discovery besides radium and the sleeveless undershirt.

JASIU Is beer healthier with eggs and salt?

ROMAN There’s no rhyme nor reason to this, Jasiu. The tradition is just passed on, like a family curse. Which brings me to a question, now that you are all of nine years old. (A pause) Jasiu, do you ever feel like life is totally meaningless?

JASIU I do sometimes, Uncle Roman.

ROMAN Are you sometimes overwhelmed by a tragic feeling of hopelessness and despair?

JASIU I am sometimes.

ROMAN Some days do you get this profound feeling of utter, total futility?

JASIU How did you know that, Uncle Roman?

ROMAN Well, Jasiu, it’s complicated.

JASIU Wow “!

ROMAN So, off-tentimes I gather you feel defeated and discouraged, disappointed for no good reason?

JASIU Yeah! Lotsa days!

ROMAN Maybe you’re doing something personal in the bathroom and a thick black cloud of gloom overwhelms you?

JASIU That happened last Saturday night!

ROMAN And I bet, times like that it’s like the universe is empty of purpose. You know that it don’t matter what you try, nothin” is ever gonna work out. You know that you’re inept. You’re a goof, you’re a clown, a patsy, a shmo. You know you’re gonna die and the great mystery of life will still be unsolved. You’ll be on your deathbed gasping out your last, you’ll still be looking through the glass darkly.

JASIU I sometimes feel just like that!

ROMAN And this happens maybe two, three times a week?

JASIU Why does that happen to me, Uncle Roman?

ROMAN It’s because you’re Polish.

JASIU Because I’m Polish?


JASIU Because I’m Polish?

ROMAN Yes. This feeling of meaninglessness and futility? We call this condition the Polish Gong.

JASIU The Polish Gong ” (We hear a deep gong.)

ROMAN I take it you have heard the Gong?

JASIU I have heard the Gong! (We hear the gong again.) But I’m not just Polish. I’m an American, too.

ROMAN No. Basically, you’re Polish. You’re just, so to speak, in exile.

JASIU In exile. You mean like Thaddeus Kosciuszko?

ROMAN Like the great Tadeusz Kosciuszko. (Pronounced “Tah-DAY-oosh Kawsh-CHOOSH-kaw”) Who came over here and saved America in the Revolution, then went back to save Poland.

JASIU Did he save Poland?

ROMAN No. Nothing could save Poland.

WOJTEK (Waking up groggily in his chair) Okholera “!

(Pronounced “Aw-khaw-LAY-RA,” with a rolled r; means, more or less, “Goddamn it “”) What time is it?

ROMAN It don’t matter! It’s 1365 A.D.! Sleep, Wojtek! Sleep!

WOJTEK Okholera “!

Wojtek falls deeply asleep.

ROMAN Where were we?

JASIU I’m Polish.

ROMAN Jasiu, do you know what people call this neighborhood?

JASIU The Bush.

ROMAN The Bush. Here in the Bush we take pigs’ guts and garlic and raw pork and we grind our own sausages. Springtime, we hang these kielbasas in our living rooms to dry. We feast on pickled pigs’ feet, and tripe, and tongue, and calf’s brains.

JASIU Well, sure.

ROMAN Special occasions, we kill a duck and make duck blood soup with raisins and dumplings.

JASIU Sure we do.

ROMAN You’re aware, not everybody in America eats these things. Especially the duck blood soup.

JASIU I kinda wondered.

ROMAN Not even the cannibals in Borneo eat duck blood soup. And I bet you heard some Polack jokes in your day.

JASIU You tell Polack jokes all the time.

ROMAN You know the word Polack is a terrible insult. It’s a slap in the Polish face.

JASIU Dad says I’m not supposed to say “Polack.”

ROMAN Never, ever say “Polack.”

JASIU I won’t.

ROMAN So how many Polacks does it take to screw in a lightbulb?

JASIU What’s a lightbulb.

ROMAN Correct. Didja hear about the Polack who locked his keys in the car?


ROMAN Took him an hour to get his family out.

HELEN (O.S.) Roman!

ROMAN Yes, Helen!

HELEN (O.S.) Are you telling Polack jokes?

ROMAN My godson and me are philosophizing! How’s the kielbasa?

HELEN (O.S.) The kielbasa’s cooking! Shut up!

ROMAN Hey, Helen, c’mon out here, give your swatkeh a big kiss.

HELEN (O.S.) Stop talking dirty!

WOJTEK (Waking up groggily as before) Okholera “!

ROMAN And Jasiu, never say “okholera.” You know what okholera means? It means cholera. It’s what your ancestors used to say in the fourteenth century to curse somebody.

JASIU It’s bad to say “cholera”?

ROMAN No, it’s bad to talk like the fourteenth century when you’re living in this one.

WOJTEK Okholera. What time is it?

ROMAN It don’t matter. Nothing’s changed. Sleep, Wojtek!

Spotch! Spotch! (Wojtek falls back asleep.) Where were we?

JASIU Polish jokes.

ROMAN Polish jokes. Jasiu, do you know who’s the idiot in Shakespeare’s Hamlet?

JASIU What’s Hamlet?

ROMAN Polonius is the idiot. In ancient Latin, Polonius is Polish for “idiot.” Shakespeare, the world’s greatest genius, stoops to a Polish joke.


ROMAN Well, do you know where the word Slav comes from?

JASIU From Slavic?

ROMAN No. It comes from slave. Because the Slavs were always the slaves.

JASIU Of who?

ROMAN Of whoever was collecting the taxes and kicking our doopa that week. The Russians, the Prussians, the Chinese ”

JASIU The Chinese?!

ROMAN The Iroquois prob”ly kicked our doopa for a time.

Poland over the ages got sliced and diced so bad, in 1795

Poland disappeared.

JASIU Poland disappeared?

ROMAN It vanished for over a hundred years. Like Brigadoon, but without the music. What is this cycle, Jasiu?

Why are Polacks the punchline of Western Civilization?

MAGDA enters. She is wearing a bright red-and-white dress, white shoes, bright red tights, and a rhinestone tiara. Her name is pronounced ‘mAHG-da,” and she too is played by an adult actor.

MAGDA (Pronounced “jin DAWB-rih”; means “good morning”)

Dzie” dobry, Jasiu!

JASIU Hi, Magda.

MAGDA Hiya, Mr. Sadlowski. (Pronounced “YOK-sha MAHSH”; means “how are you?”) Jak si” masz?

ROMAN How are you, Magda.

MAGDA I’m bardzo dobrze, thank you. (Pronounced “BARD-zoe DAWB-zheh”; means ‘very well”) You see what I’m dressed like today, Jasiu?

JASIU A Polish flag.

MAGDA A Polish flag. So you wanna play Polish army hospital?

ROMAN Magda, me and Jasiu are having a very important talk right now.

MAGDA On Sundays, Jasiu and me play Polish army hospital.

ROMAN That’s wonderful.

MAGDA In the garage.

ROMAN That’s wonderf–Wait a minute. Polish army hospital?

JASIU Yeah. Magda sorta breaks her footbone.

MAGDA Jasiu sorta fixes it. You see ”

ROMAN This is wonderful, Magda, but me and Jasiu are talking right now.

MAGDA You know who I’m playing in the Saint Casimir Easter pageant, Mr. Sadlowski?

ROMAN A Polish flag?

MAGDA No, I’m playing the Virgin Mary the mother of God because I got straight A’s in conduct. This is the genuine rhinestone tiara I’m gonna wear.

ROMAN Isn’t that beauty-ful.

MAGDA You know who Jasiu’s playing in the Saint Casimir Easter pageant?

ROMAN The Polish flag?

MAGDA No, he’s playing Saint Mary Magdalene.

ROMAN Hold it, hold it. Ain’t Saint Mary Magdalene a girl’s part?

JASIU I was the only one who fit the wig.

MAGDA Jasiu dresses like a prostitute and dances the “Beer Barrel Polka,” then he goes to the Crucifixion and weeps.

ROMAN Magda. Magda. Listen Magda, I’m giving Jasiu some important advice here about being Polish. Good-bye.

MAGDA Don’t forget hospital, Jasiu. I think I broke my footbone, doctor. (Pronouced: ‘dAW-veed ZEN-ya”; means ‘see you later”) Do widzenia!

Magda exits.

ROMAN Where the hell was I?

JASIU Polacks are punchlines.

ROMAN Yes. Jan Sadlowski, I’m gonna tell you something now that will guide your entire life. Alla the wisdom you ever need to know in just two words.


ROMAN Are you ready?

JASIU I’m ready.

ROMAN All Polish jokes are true.

JASIU Polish jokes are true?

ROMAN Yes they are. You know Stanley Bloshchik.


ROMAN You remember how Stasiu–(Pronounced ‘sTAH-shoo’)–tried to build his own garage?


ROMAN What happened to Stasiu’s garage?

JASIU It fell down.

ROMAN It fell down. What else?

JASIU With Stasiu inside it.

ROMAN With Stasiu inside it. Luckily, Stasiu was building it so bad it didn’t kill him when it fell. This is what they call the luck of the Polish. Which means, if the stupid bastard had built his garage right, he’d be dead today. Do you remember Florian Kozwoofski?


ROMAN You remember how Florian died?

JASIU He got hit by a bus.

ROMAN No. Florian didn’t just get hit by a bus. Florian got hit by the bus he was running to catch.

JASIU Was that the luck of the Polish?

ROMAN Oh, yes. World War Two, the Polish army fought the German tanks on horseback.

JASIU Was that the luck of the Polish?

ROMAN It was certainly testing the luck of the Polish. You remember Stepan Veetkovski? Hanged himself in his basement and left a suicide note to explain why–and nobody could read it?

JASIU Yeah, well, everything gets spoiled. That’s what Mom always says when something happens. Everything gets spoiled.

ROMAN You know what’s the name of the Polish national airline?

JASIU Is this a Polish joke?

ROMAN No, I’m asking.

JASIU I don’t know.

ROMAN You’re Polish, you don’t know the name of the Polish airline?

JASIU I’m only nine years old.

ROMAN Well the name is Lot. What is a “lot”?

JASIU It means ‘many.”

ROMAN No, that’s “a lot.” I’m talking about your lot in life, your destiny, your fate. Do you think Lot is a smart name, do you think people wanna fly on an airplane called fate?


ROMAN Now do you see my point?


ROMAN Okay. Who lives in alla these houses up and down the block?

JASIU Well, that’s Chester and Rita Shishlayvitch, that’s Leonard and Yodviga Pshibillchik ”

ROMAN Do you notice anything about these names?

JASIU They’re Polish?

ROMAN No. They’re unpronounceable. Jasiu, how is a person ever gonna understand life, when are you gonna think when you gotta spend twenty minutes a day spelling your goddamn name for people?

JASIU Sadlowski ain’t so bad.

ROMAN You apply for a job with the name Pshibillchik, the boss is gonna panic, he sends you home, he hires Flanagan. Flanagan prospers.

JASIU But our name is Sadlowski.

ROMAN You know Polish is the only world language in which k is a vowel? Is there a k in Flanagan?

JASIU I don’t think so.

ROMAN And what do all these unpronounceable guys do for a living?

JASIU They work in the steel mill.

ROMAN I work in the mill, your father works split shift in the mill–that’s why he’s in a coma here. What do you want to do when you grow up?

JASIU I thought I’d work in the mill.


JASIU Be a janitor?


JASIU Assistant janitor?

ROMAN No. No. No.

JASIU So what should I be?

ROMAN The question is, Jasiu: do you want to be Polish all your life?

JASIU Well, don’t I have to be Polish? Since I’m Polish already?

ROMAN Maybe being Polish is a choice. Or a habit. Or a style. Do I have to drink beer with an egg and salt? Am I helpless in the face of my ancestry, just because my parents came from Woodge?

WOJTEK (Mumbling in his sleep) Woodge “! Woodge”!

JASIU From what?

ROMAN From Woodge. That’s where the family’s from.

From the city of Woodge.

JASIU Woodge ”

ROMAN Woodge–which is spelled L-O-D-Z.

JASIU That don’t make no sense.

ROMAN So you see my point.


ROMAN Jasiu, you’re gonna find that various nationalities got different traits. Lithuanians, for example, are a loud people, maybe because their country is so small, while Latvians tend to be effeminate–except for the women. Like WASPs.


ROMAN “WASPs’ is short for Episcopalians with money.

WASPs are not brighter than Polacks, but they got connections. Polacks got no connections, so when we fuck up, we’re on our own. The Jews, on the other hand, they got big noses and flat feet but it don’t matter, because the Jews are the master race.

JASIU The Jews?

ROMAN Yes. How do I know? Because all women, no matter what their nationality–they get older, they look Jewish.

JASIU Even Aunt Helen?

ROMAN Helen looks more Jewish every day. While men as they get older tend to look more Japanese. Polish people, meanwhile, got a reputation for being backward, stupid, inept, and gloomy.

JASIU So what can I do about being Polish, Uncle Roman?

ROMAN You got to impersonate somebody who is not Polish.

JASIU How would I do that?

ROMAN A), you stop talking like a Polack. You get outa this neighborhood and go to a good school and you get some culture. Like Shakespeare and Beathoven.

JASIU Is that how you pronounce that?

ROMAN Beathoven. B), you give up the accordion.

JASIU Give up the accordion?

ROMAN Unless you wanna play Beathoven on it, which is a Polack thing to do. D), stop humming the “Beer Barrel Polka,” which is a dead giveaway. E), you change your name to something people can spell, which means G), you pick yourself a good nationality.

JASIU What nationality should I be?

ROMAN I dunno, Irish is always good.

JASIU Why Irish?

ROMAN The reputation. Everybody loves the Irish. And most important–you can spell their names.

JASIU Are the Irish smart?

ROMAN No. But they’re crafty. For smart, you gotta go to the Jews. If Einstein had been Polish, he woulda been a janitor all his life. But Einstein was smart enough to be born Jewish.

JASIU So shouldn’t I be Jewish?

ROMAN That may take powers beyond your control.

JASIU It’s hard to be Jewish?

ROMAN To be Jewish is an art. To be Irish is a social skill.

But to be Polish, Jasiu–that is a destiny. And can you escape this destiny? Can you accomplish anything or become somebody in spite of being a Polack? Or will you just get hit by the bus you’re running to catch?

JASIU You mean, maybe there is no escape?

ROMAN Maybe being Polish is like the human condition itself. And if you’re human–how do you escape the human condition?

JASIU How, Uncle Roman? Tell me.

ROMAN This will be your investigation. But always, Jasiu, whatever you do–always serve God.

JASIU I will.

ROMAN I’m acting as your godfather now. Three days after you were born, I held you in my arms at the baptismal font. I abjured Satan on your behalf. The rest is up to you.

HELEN (O.S.) Roman! The sausage is on the table! Get yer fat doopa in here!

ROMAN When you get married, Jasiu, always be lovable to your wife.

JASIU I will, Uncle Roman.

ROMAN As off-ten as you can. Being lovable is the whole secret of marriage.

WOJTEK (Waking) Okholera “! Is there sausage yet?

ROMAN Alley-oop, brother, it’s on the table. (Wojtek exits.) So Jasiu, you remember what I told you today on the feast of Saint Olga.

JASIU I will. Thank you, Uncle Roman.

ROMAN Now let the great ceremony begin!

Roman exits. Lights change.


An office with two chairs. PORTIA enters.

PORTIA (Reading from a clipboard) “John Saydler”?

JASIU John Sadler.

PORTIA Excuse me?

JASIU John Sadler. That is I.

PORTIA So it’s pronounced ‘sadler,” not ‘saydler.”

JASIU Sadler.

PORTIA Let me see. S-A ”




PORTIA ” L-E-R. ‘sadler.”

JASIU Just think melancholy. Sad, sadler, sadlest.

PORTIA So there should be two Ds in ‘sadler”?

JASIU No, just one. S-A-D ”

PORTIA Do you mind if I just call you John?

JASIU Please.

PORTIA Phew! That was a workout! How do you do.

Welcome to The World Corporation. I’m Portia Benjamin Franklin Hamilton Yale.

JASIU Do you mind if I call you Portia?

PORTIA Actually, I prefer ‘miss Yale.”

JASIU Ms. Yale.


JASIU Sorry.

PORTIA Just a quirk! Sit down. Anyway, I’m head of human relations here at The World.

JASIU And you’re looking for a bright young person, which is I, for a spectacular entry-level position.

PORTIA I have to say the job is fairly spectacular. You–or whoever gets the job–would be our liaison with important international figures representing power, politics, money, power, and money. You would be given a six-figure salary, an office sheathed in Carrara marble, a personal assistant of any gender and sexual orientation you choose, eight weeks’ vacation, a fabulous pension plan, and a bag of golf clubs.

JASIU Whew. What about free golf balls for life?

PORTIA Sorry. You have to buy those yourself.

JASIU No thanks!

They laugh politely.

PORTIA What’s the matter? Not generous enough?

JASIU Oh, all right, I’ll take it.

They laugh politely.

PORTIA Your r’sum” certainly is wildly impressive. A famous and well-chosen school.


PORTIA Yale. A four-point-one grade average. How did you do that? Degree in literature and philosophy, special study in Shakespeare and “? Pronounce that.

JASIU Beethoven.

PORTIA Summa cum laude, Phi Beta Kappa, National Honors Society. Mensa.

JASIU Listen, Mensa asked me.

PORTIA Wow. You don’t need a job, you need a genius grant.

JASIU All in good time.

They laugh politely.

PORTIA So, John.

JASIU What else can I tell you about myself?

PORTIA What is your nationality?

Jasiu has a sudden prolonged coughing fit.

JASIU I’m sorry. Where were we?

PORTIA “Sodler.”

JASIU Sadler.

PORTIA Sadler. What is the nationality of that?

JASIU Why? Do I not look like a Sadler?

PORTIA Why don’t we say ethnicity interests me.

JASIU Ethnicity is the national pastime.

They laugh politely.