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Poland sends in 'clowns' - and a measure of cultural freedom

''Clowns'' is more than a sellout. It is a mirror of Polish culture. In a hilarious succession of scenes, half a dozen versatile young male actors switch costumes and roles in response to orders over a loudspeaker. All the while, attendants steadily surround their stage with a tall iron grill.

When the last bars are up and the ring is complete, the loudspeaker tells them (and the audience) that the show is over and everyone is now free to do as he pleases.

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In a way, this play symbolizes the cultural outlook in Poland - and official attitudes about it since martial law was imposed two years ago. Although military rule was lifted in July, strict guidelines for culture remain.

Polish Communist leaders indignantly reject charges that the creative arts are being stifled by censorship. And despite all the consequences of the crisis, the arts still have some substantive freedom here, however qualified.

''Clowns'' supports this. Andrzej Strzelecki's play had its debut in 1980, the year of Solidarity. It has survived - and has been packing the Powszechny Theatre for months. Every night the play attracts capacity audiences: intent youths in blue jeans, serious middle-aged theatergoers, intellectuals - and government officials.

The government is there in another way, too - mirrored implicitly as the incontestable ringmaster in the circus that is acted out on the stage.

For nearly two years, the government has tried to mold the nation's artistic groups to recognize that - as a state committed to the Soviet alliance and to an orthodox East-bloc socialism - Poland's Communist Party is constitutionally recognized as having the leading role.

To this extent, culture has been placed in an ideological cage. But in practice, this seems to preclude only what is either implicitly or directly anti-Soviet, or what takes too many liberties within an officially acknowledged ''creative freedom,'' given Poland's internal and external political situation.

Poland's cage is still far less restrictive than the rigid cultural controls applied in most of the East bloc. ''Clowns'' might be staged in Hungary, but it could not be in the Soviet Union, Czechoslovakia, or Romania.

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''Clowns'' is not specifically anti-Soviet or anticommunist. It mocks the way Poles see things just now. But it might be just as relevant anywhere people are thinking of George Orwell's celebrated book ''1984.''

There was ambiguity in the recent founding meeting of a new filmmakers' association. Its predecessor voted itself out of existence after a long conflict with the government over its pro-Solidarity stands and opposition to martial law. Andrzej Wajda stepped down as chairman and, for the time being at least, may not make movies in Poland. He has been working in the West instead.

But this month Wajda is to produce Sophocles' ''Antigone'' in Krakow.

The new association's chairman, Janusz Majewski, also epitomizes these Polish contrasts. He made several notable films about historical Poland. Yet after martial law was imposed, two of his scripts based on 19th-century events were blocked. The censors said they implied criticism Moscow would likely view as anti-Soviet.

But in the same period, censors cleared a script about Marek Hlasko, the ''angry young man'' of the 1950s who became an outright rebel and later emigrated to Israel. That script was critical of the regime of those years.

The first movie explicitly about martial law gained official sanction, but had played only a few times before being canceled. Its treatment of ordinary Poles' reactions to martial law was perhaps too candid for Moscow.

On the whole, the regime seems to have gained in the movie community what still eludes it with writers and the stage: Some acceptance by members of former associations for the new ones.

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