Stanislaw Ignacy Witkiewicz: To the very marrow of his bones an artist by Daniel Gerould
Polish theatre has a long history going back to late medieval mystery plays and Renaissance court spectacles. During Poland’s prolonged domination by foreign powers, drama has played a special role in the cultural life of the country by serving to maintain a sense of national identity. But, although Polish dramatic literature is one of the most original in all of Europe, its very Polishness, closely tied to the vicissitudes of history, has made it largely inaccessible to audiences abroad, and only in the second half of the twentieth century have Polish plays become part of the international repertory. Stanislaw Ignacy Witkiewicz, seven of whose dramas are presented in this volume, is one of the first Polish dramatists to surmount the cultural barrier and become known to general readers and theatre-goers worldwide. The story of how this breakthrough happened is all the more noteworthy because Witkiewicz was an outsider within his own culture, existing on the margins of the theatrical life of his era and seemingly doomed to lasting failure. An account of the playwright’s confrontation with the Polish theatre in his own lifetime, his defeat at the hands of an uncomprehending public and hostile critical establishment, and his posthumous triumph is the subject of my prefatory essay which serves as a general introduction to his work and provides the context for the plays, each of which has a separate foreword.
Painter, playwright, novelist, aesthetician, philosopher, photographer, and expert on narcotics, Witkiewicz—or Witkacy, his artistic persona and the pen name by which he was known—is now recognized as a major avant-gardist of the twentieth century. A permanent outsider who could not be assimilated to any school or movement, the multitalented Witkacy brought to playwriting an extraordinary breadth of interests and depth of vision, as well as an abiding hostility to the commercial theatre of his own age. The distinctive qualities of Witkacy’s work are a powerful visual imagination evoking dream states by means of hallucinatory images, colors, and shapes, a deeply felt philosophy of man’s tragic isolation in an alien universe, and an acute sense of the grotesque and absurd that generates subversive self-mockery and parody. His seismographic reading of civilization’s fault lines have made Witkacy a classic of the avant-garde.
I. An Embryo Complex: The Formative Years
Witkacy’s story begins in the nineteenth century, when Poland did not exist as a nation, having been divided among its more powerful predatory neighbors, Prussia, Russia, and Austria, The Witkiewiczes were a large, well connected land-owning family from Polish Lithuania, related to Marshal Jozef Pilsudski, Poland’s future strongman in the interwar years, and to the Gielguds, of whom the British actor, Sir John, would become the celebrated offspring. As was the case with many Poles at the time, the Witkiewicz family suffered major losses of status and property because of their patriotic zeal, which involved them in opposition to the occupying forces. They experienced what it meant to be the colonized subjects of an imperial power.
The playwright’s great uncle, Jan Witkiewicz (1808-1839), after being arrested at the age of fifteen and condemned to death for purported anti-czarist activities (as a founder member of a patriotic student organization), was then sent as a conscript to Central Asia, where he eventually became a highly regarded Russian secret agent, prized for his mastery of Middle-Eastern languages and disguises, and engaged in conspiratorial missions against the British in the struggle between the two empires for dominance over Persia and Afghanistan. Of divided loyalties and troubled conscience, this enigmatic adventurer committed suicide or perhaps was murdered at the age of thirty-one.
The writer’s father, Stanislaw Witkiewicz (1851-1915), as an adolescent spent four years in Siberia with his father, who had been exiled and deprived of his property for taking part in the Uprising of 1863 against Russia. Stanislaw subsequently became a charismatic turn-of-the-century artist and cultural critic, who achieved the status of national sage, preaching a gospel of creative independence for Poles through a return to native arts and crafts, while they awaited inevitable political liberation.
Born on February 24, 1885 in Czarist-ruled Warsaw—and thus a Russian subject in his partitioned homeland—young Stas (the diminutive of Stanislaw) grew up and spent most of his life in Zakopane in the Polish Tatras Mountains–then a part of the Austro-Hungarian Empire–where his father had moved in 1890 because of failing health brought on by tuberculosis.
At first a small artists’ colony and picturesque resort rich in spectacular mountains, dramatic seasonal changes and weather, colorful highlanders, and regional folklore, Zakopane soon grew into a major tourist attraction for skiers, hikers, and vacationers. From 4500 inhabitants in 1900, the population reached 17,000 in 1937–figures which were doubled or tripled during the summer season. Poland’s international stars in the arts often visited Zakopane, where many built homes in the local architectural style promoted by the elder Witkiewicz. Although it had no permanent theatre of its own, Zakopane was in the cultural orbit of Cracow, the ancient Polish capital fifty miles to the north, which at the turn of the century became the center of a progressive new movement in the arts known as Young Poland. Throughout the nineteenth-century Polish theatre had flourished as an art of the performer, but shackled by censorship and the constraints of partition and occupation, drama for the most part stagnated. The great poet-playwrights of the romantic era had written in exile or for the drawer, and their works extolling freedom were forbidden in consequence of the uprisings and bloody reprisals.
In the 1890s the situation gradually began to change as the old imperial structures showed signs of approaching decline and disintegration. Because in the relatively tolerant Austrian sector government control of the arts was less stringent, writers and artists inspired by the new modernist trends from Western Europe—naturalism and symbolism—made Cracow their headquarters. A new municipal theatre, built in 1893, introduced the modern repertory of Ibsen, Hauptmann, Strindberg, and Wedekind. The old city itself was a kind of stage upon which a small band of writers, artists, and bourgeois bohemians lived theatricalized lives. Back from art studies and theatre-going in Paris, the painter-playwright Stanislaw Wyspianski developed a uniquely Polish form of poetic drama, based on a synthesis of the arts. Using a powerful theatrical language of metaphors and images capable of embodying complex social and political issues. Polish modernist theatre was in Wyspianski’s hands nationalist and liberationist in ideology. Zakopane was quick to adopt the new currents with which Cracow was astir. The Witkiewicz household, although modest in means, became a major center for Polish intellectual life; the talk that young Stas heard as a child was of Nietzsche, Maeterlinck, Wilde, and the latest premieres in Cracow. Taught entirely at home by tutors (prestigious friends of the family from the world of the arts and sciences), according to his father’s radically nonconformist educational principles, Stas was encouraged to develop his talents freely in many directions. The aim was to transform the boy into an independent spirit capable of standing above the herd, but dedicated to public service and the national cause. By the age of five Stas was painting and playing the piano, at seven he wrote his first play, Cockroaches, which he printed himself on his own press. In his Comedies of Family Life, the child playwright is the self-reflexive hero around whom the action revolves; when a character in the play–an admiring lady visitor reading one of Stas’s comedies–exclaims, “It’s exactly like Maeterlinck!” the young author’s creativity becomes the subject of his own drama.
Actual visitors to the Witkiewicz household included his godmother, the Polish-American actress Helena Modjeska, and the young Yiddish writer, Sholem Asch. Due to his father’s position of eminence, the boy associated with the most famous and talented people of the time. The painter-mathematician Leon Chwistek, the composer, Karol Szymanowski, the anthropologist, Bronislaw Malinowski, and a little later the pianist Artur Rubinstein were among Witkacy close friends in these formative years. Defying his father’s opposition to all formal schooling, he enrolled off and on again for three years (from 1906 to 1909) at the Cracow Academy of Fine Arts, where he studied drawing and painting with the celebrated Polish modernist Jozef Mehoffer.
There he developed a facility at the modes and mannerisms of “Young Poland.” Modernism had found a congenial setting in fin-de-siecle Zakopane, where a penchant for histrionic role-playing, artistic poses, and perverse eroticism fostered the performance aspects of life and the wearing of masks. As a precocious child and then as a psychologically riven young man, Witkacy absorbed the modernist ethos of his elders and played its abstruse games without truly being able to believe in them or in himself. The young would-be artist exhibited his paintings at local museums and galleries, had a torrid love affair with a celebrated modernist actress, Irena Solska, eight-years his elder, and wrote an autobiographical roman a clef about the affair, The 622 Downfalls of Bungo, or The Demonic Woman, which remained unpublished until 1972 because of its too gamy sexuality (which included a homoerotic episode with Malinowski, alias Duke of Nevermore). With his pen, his brush and crayons, and his camera, Witkacy parodied the Zakopane sensibility and life-style in a manner that both celebrated and mocked modernism and himself as its exponent. If we can call Witkacy’s mature work postmodern—and I think we can—here then is the storehouse of modernist props and attitudes that he will hereafter pillage and subject to deforming irony and sarcasm. Artistically, at this early point in his career, Witkacy is most innovative in his photography. With the camera–introduced to him by his father when he was still a child–he produces hundreds of photographic portraits of himself (and his many playful or sinister alter egos and doubles), as well as of his family and friends. In pictures cropped to show only the full face, Witkacy creates brooding psychic studies that reveal the metaphysical anxiety behind the social mask and highlight the terror of existence caught in the subject’s eyes.
A compulsory self-portraitist constantly asking himself who he is, Witkacy tries to establish an identity through endless self-interrogation. The artist made a lifetime study of his own face; he was obsessed with what he called “mugs” and would eventually establish a portrait painting firm and earn his living by turning out pastel portraits in one or two sittings. “As the proprietor of a large ‘mugs-made-to-order’ firm, or in other words, being a psychological portrait painter, I have the foible of being uncommonly interested in the human mug,” Witkacy declared. “Our country does abound in mugs: profoundly mendacious, intriguingly masked and bizarre, complicated and ravaged by life—one must give Poland credit for that.” The playwright was struck by how people stare at one another and drain and suck one another with their obsessive looks and glances, and in his dramas ocular attraction and repulsion constitutes an essential element in the dynamic tension among the characters. Under the influence of The Isle of the Dead and other fantastic canvases by the Swiss-painter Arnold Bocklin, which he saw on visits abroad, Witkacy definitively abandoned faithful reproduction of nature in landscapes in favor of the macabre and grotesque. At this period he did a long series of bizarre charcoal drawings (affectionately dubbed “monsters” by his father), with titles such as The Prince of Darkness Tempts Saint Theresa with the Aid of a Waiter from Budapest, Suicide-to-be Five Seconds Before Pulling the Trigger, A Family of Pimps, and Introduction to Cruel Perversions. These cryptic mini-dramas with narrative titles, condensed casts of characters, and submerged plots reveal, in a humorous cartoon-like style, the horrors of domestic life, of sexuality, and of existence itself.
Witkacy was destined by his father to be a high-minded artist with a noble mission, but he was unsure of his vocation and consumed by ironic doubts about himself. Because he could not overcome his lower impulses or conquer his demons, he underwent a severe crisis of identity in his mid-twenties.
Through parody and playfulness he called into question the grandiose mission accorded to the artist in Poland and challenged his own artistic importance by constantly clowning before the camera, making faces, and staging hundreds of partially costumed “auto-Witkacies”—his own version of performance art. This aspect of Witkacy—the artist as prankster, displaying a fondness for jokes, tricks, and exhibitionist games—kept his contemporaries from treating him seriously.
Fearing a breakdown or incipient madness, Witkacy was analyzed in 1912 for several months by Dr. Beaurain, an artistically inclined psychiatrist living in Zakopane who had taken up Freud’s theories. According to Witkacy, the doctor told him he was suffering from an embryo complex—in other words, he felt himself to be in competition with his father as an artist. Psychoanalysis fascinated Witkacy as a theory that located the sources of human creativity in the sublimation of erotic feelings, but it failed him as a therapy, and he discontinued his sessions with Beaurain.
At the beginning of 1913 the troubled young man became engaged to Jadwiga Janczewska, whom he decided he must marry in order to salvage his wasted life. Then on February 21, 1914, Witkacy’s fiancee committed suicide, shooting herself at the foot of a cliff, after placing a bouquet of flowers nearby in a modernist gesture linking Eros and Thanatos.
If it were not for this unexpected tragic event, Witkacy might have spent the rest of his life in provincial Zakopane as a local prodigy laboring under the oppressive shadow cast by his father’s national glory. Instead he was thrust out into the larger world of social and political realities, forcing him to transform himself. Janczewska’s death—probably the result of some staged scenario or mystification involving Szymanowski—plunged the guilt-ridden Witkacy into a state of suicidal despair. Throughout his life he was gripped by self-destructive impulses, which he feared would finally overpower him. Suicide and the corpse occupy a central position in his work.
At this moment of crisis, his closest friend Malinowski (already gaining fame as an anthropologist, lecturing at the London School of Economics, and publishing in English), came to the rescue with an invitation for Witkacy to accompany him to Australia to attend the Congress of the British Association for the Advancement of Science.
The journey to the East, via the Indian Ocean with a two-week stopover in Ceylon for a change of ships, opened the painter’s eyes to the vivid colors of nature and the different hues of human skin and offered him a glimpse of a non-Western culture that was home to a ritual theatre of metaphysical dimensions. Exposure to the colonial world of the British empire with its inferior subject peoples had a profound impact on Witkacy’s understanding of power structures and the nature of otherness, leading him to write a group of plays set in the tropics that drew upon his own travel experiences conflated with his reading of Joseph Conrad, another former Pole turned Anglo like Malinowski. For Witkacy the imperialist system of domination found its microcosm in the paternalistic family where the father constantly browbeat his offspring in the name of their own self-improvement.
Upon the outbreak of World War I, two weeks after arriving in Australia, Witkacy volunteered for military service in the Russian Army, despite the fact that as an only son he was exempt from conscription. Even though Witkacy felt that he was defending Poland against the Germans, his decision to fight in support of the Czarist empire was deeply upsetting to his father, who died in 1915, without ever seeing his son again.
Witkacy underwent a metamorphosis as the result of his experiences in Russia, where after completing officers training school he was commissioned second lieutenant. “Calm, almost joyful, he holds himself straight with his head raised high,” an aunt in Petrograd wrote to his mother; “he has completely shaken off the despairing state of apathy in which we first saw him when he arrived.” Sent with his regiment to the Eastern front, Witkacy was seriously wounded in 1916 and decorated for bravery. On convalescent leave for the rest of the war, he experienced the final days of the Russian Empire in Petrograd and witnessed both the February and October Revolutions at close hand. All the while he painted actively and was introduced to narcotics, orgies, and other decadent pastimes by the white Russian aristocracy in its death throes. At one point Witkacy thought of joining the Polish Legions that were then being formed in Russia after the fall of the Romanovs in anticipation of Poland’s gaining its independence.
Before returning to independent Poland in July 1918 with a heavy load of his paintings and portraits, he spent eight uneasy months in post-revolutionary Russia. This was a period of his life about which the playwright talked only enigmatically. As a former Czarist officer, his life was constantly at risk, and he lived in fear of the Bolsheviks from then on.
II. Plans for the Theatre
From 1918 until his death in 1939, Witkacy lived in Zakopane, painting compositions in oils as a member of the vanguard group of artists called “Formists,” while earning his living as a portraitist (in pastels) and writing prolifically in many genres. He traveled throughout Poland by train pursuing commissions for portraits, but never went abroad again. The rest of his life was largely consumed by a routine of hard work both as the “old portrait-painting prostitute” (his own words) and as a highly disciplined creative artist and thinker.
The impetus for Witkacy’s torrential creative outpouring in the 1920s was concentrated in the adventures and traumas of the previous decade. In short order he had been exposed to Freudian psychoanalysis, imperialism and colonialism, cultural anthropology, non-Western civilization, war, revolution, and communism—fundamental twentieth-century ideologies, viewpoints, and experiences that soon became woven into the texture of his dramas.
Paradoxically, Witkacy’s theory of the theatre–Pure Form—asserts that the experiential, discursive content of drama is of only incidental significance and that the sole element of enduring value is the formal, which alone creates the metaphysical feelings that are the goal of art, Artistic practice, he felt, should find its basis in theoretical principles.
Strongly drawn to philosophy and aesthetics since adolescence, the former officer had returned from Russia not only with a bundle of paintings, but also with a completed treatise, New Forms in Painting, which he published in 1919. In it he maintains that religion, philosophy, and art have traditionally attempted to ease the pain of existence, but that art now is the sole means of confronting the horror and absurdity of contemporary life, since religion has long since ceased to be a living force and philosophy is in the process of committing suicide through overspecialization. But by the end of the 1920s the playwright had lost belief in the efficacy of art as an antidote to the “atrociousness of our existence,” and turned to philosophy, to which he devoted the remaining years of his life.
In philosophy a biological monadist (with an affinity for Leibnitz), Witkacy recognized the Individual Existence of each and every monad, including those of animals (to whom he was particularly attached), and even of trees and plants. From his point of view, the central philosophical issue was ontological. The problem of the one and the many (or unity in plurality in Witkacy’s formulation) took its characteristic shape from the directly given feeling of the unity of the personality on the part of each Individual Being (the “I” or self) as it confronts the plurality of all that lies outside (the “non-I” or other).
These existential premises lead to a tragic sense of life, comprised of feelings of loneliness, consciousness of the accidental character of everything, recognition of the menace of nothingness, and bewilderment vis-a-vis an alien universe. Each of us is assailed by unanswerable questions, such as: “Why am I precisely this being and not some other? In this place in infinite space and at this instant in infinite time? In precisely this group of beings, on this planet? And why do I exist? I could just as well not exist. Why does anything exist?” These are the ultimate philosophical dilemmas posed in Witkacy’s dramas, which portray what he calls “the experiences of a group of degenerate ex-people in the face of the growing mechanization of life,” who suffer from loss of “the metaphysical feeling of the strangeness of existence.”
In the course of eight years—from 1918 to 1926–Witkacy wrote over thirty plays, but many actually remained unpublished and unperformed. Of the seven plays in this volume four were not performed in Witkacy’s lifetime, and three were not even published.
The launching of Witkacy’s career as a playwright coincided with the reconstitution of Poland as a nation. Although his family name may at first have been an asset, Witkacy remained a lonely and misunderstood figure whose flamboyant individuality created an adverse legend, In the course of a few years he aggressively attempted to impose a radical new concept of the theatre and to put his own dramas on stage as illustrations of his theory of Pure Form. He sent his plays to directors, visited companies, corresponded with theatre artists, and wrote provocative articles for the press. His campaign was vigorous, and in the early 20s the playwright did achieve a certain notoriety as an eccentric outsider. But the obstacles that Witkacy faced were immense, the result of social, political, and cultural conditions that arose in the aftermath of the war.
When in 1918, as a result of the Treaty of Versailles, Poland regain its independence, the country and its arts were no longer under foreign domination for the first time in 123 years. Once the occupying forces were withdrawn and the country recovered its identity as a self-determining nation, Poland became post-colonial and, in the abstract, was free to develop its culture as it wished.
The Czarist bureaucracy, which had maintained and controlled all the theatres in the largest sector of the partitioned country (including Warsaw), suddenly dissolved overnight. During twenty years of precarious existence before disaster struck in 1939, Polish theatre enjoyed a brief but unstable interlude in which it was allowed to stand on its own and survive as best as it could. Since the government was too poor to subsidize theatres, the burden of financing fell on the municipalities, but after the world-wide crisis of 1929, the situation grew desperate. The 1920s was a period of instability, financial crisis, and mounting danger and menace from political extremism.
The brief war with the Soviet Union in 1919-20, successfully waged by the strongman Marshall Jozef Pilsudski, intensified Polish fears of Russian Bolshevism. Censorship and government interference in the arts, previously wielded by foreign oppressors against an occupied nation, were now directed by Poles against other Poles, who could be accused of being Bolshevik or anarchist for simply engaging in any form of artistic experimentation. As the government grew increasingly authoritarian, perceived leftist writers were harassed, magazines confiscated, and theatres raided.
Despite the general hostility to innovation in the arts, there were serious attempts to break the mold of a conventional theatre of entertainment. The leading director of the period, Leon Schiller created a “monumental theatre,” using Shakespeare, the Polish romantics and neo-romantics, and Brecht, to create large scale works, composed in dynamic images, with huge crowds, choruses, choirs, music, song, and rhythmic movement. Soviet-style proletarian theatre, promoted by Bruno Jasienski and Witold Wandurski was not tolerated, and both writers went in exile to the USSR where they were eventually liquidated.
Juliusz Osterwa, an actor who had spent the war years in Moscow where he became acquainted with Stanislavsky’s work, founded an actors’ studio in 1919 which he called the Reduta (Redoubt), an outpost in the battle against falsity and conventionality. Monastic dedication to truth in art was the company’s credo, which Osterwa felt could be implemented by scrupulous psychological realism and selfless communal acting. Witkacy accepted none of these models, but it was particularly in reaction to the psychological realism of Stanislavsky and the Reduta that he formulated his theory of Pure Form in the Theatre, which he published in 1920. Pure Form is a radical theory of non-realistic drama, according to which the performers and their words, gestures, and actions should serve as sounds, colors, and shapes in a total composition independent of any reference to the outside “real” world. Witkacy wished to free drama from conventional psychology and story-telling and give it the formal possibilities of modern art and music.
“Artistic creation,” Witkacy wrote in New Forms, “is an assertion of life in its metaphysical horror,” its task to be achieved not by an imitation of reality or the propagation of ideas, but through the purely formal arrangement of component elements, which would reflect the structure of the universe. In this way, he hoped to arouse in the spectator the metaphysical feeling of the strangeness of existence which would be lost forever in the mechanized routine of the perfect anthill society of the future. Art, for Witkacy, meant the creation of form, and theatre should be not a means of expression, but a construct in which the actor could function as a pure instrument rather than as a register of “experiences,” as was the aim of Stanislavsky and his disciples
Both the conservative critical establishment and the left-leaning Futurists (the largest Polish avant-garde formation) refused to accept either Witkacy’s plays or his theories. The theatre critics claimed that his plays made no sense at all, while the Futurists found, on the contrary, that they made far too much sense.
Witkacy maintained that the wrong people were writing for the stage; not professional men of the theatre, but children and painters should become playwrights, he argued. Through the theory and practice of Pure Form, Witkacy hoped to restore to the overly rationalized stage of realism the magical perceptions of childhood and the modern painter’s sense of color and shape. The theatre would thus become an autonomous art with a scenic language of its own.
For the materials of his dramas, Witkacy was wildly eclectic in his borrowings and appropriations. He constantly blurred the borders separating popular culture and high art and had recourse to the low genres of melodrama, farce, and science fiction, and he utilized the materials of popular entertainments, such as adventure stories, pulp romances, spy thrillers, and “yellow peril” tales of horror. He frequently turned to the classics—Shakespeare—as well as to modernist literature—Conrad—and also showed a fondness for children’s literature—Stevenson’s Kidnapped and Treasure Island. His favorite dramaturgical device was the “risen corpse,” which sabotaged the rules of drama by allowing the dead to return to life nonchalantly, as though nothing had happened. He treated theatre, including his own irreverently, and he self-parodied the shibboleths of modernism on which he had been nurtured, Because his idiom was utterly idiosyncratic, Witkacy has had no followers or imitators.
In 1923 Witkacy entered into marriage with the aristocratic Jadwiga Unrug according to a pre-arranged plan guarantying each complete freedom, Although they lived apart—she in her Waraw apartment, he with his mother in Zakopane—Jadwiga proved a good friend and intelligent helper. During the sixteen years that they were married, Witkacy wrote to her three or for times a week and was totally dependent on her for the organization of his literary career.
The year 1924 was a turning point in Witkacy’s career. After having spent more than six years attempting to provide models for Pure Form in painting and theatre without having any impact on the artistic community, he now abandoned painting as a pure art and devoted himself exclusively to portraits as a commercial or applied art. In 1925 he established the Witkiewicz Portrait-Painting Firm, a mock capitalist enterprise designed to distance the artist from the demeaning hack-work he was compelled to do for money, and he published the Rules of the Firm in 1928. The Firm’s motto, “The customer must be satisfied. Misunderstandings are ruled out,” indicates the proprietor’s ironic attitude toward the public. Prices varied according the degree of deformation requested and the kinds of drugs the artist had taken. Witkacy was a pioneer in his experimentation with drugs and their effect on the creative process; he indicated on the canvas the dosages of narcotics and alcohol that he had used. His most interesting—and most distorted portraits—were of friends done at private parties he called “orgies.”
At the same time that his playwriting slackened off in the mid-1920s, Witkacy embarked on a new career as a novelist, and in literature he turned to impure genres and activities in which he could express his ideas directly. He wrote two long dystopian novels, Farewell to Autumn (1927) and Insatiability (1930), and in 1932 he published his book on drugs, Narcotics: Nicotine, Alcohol Cocaine, Morphine, and Ether.
A lonely and eccentric figure out of step with his age, Witkacy rejected abstraction and maintained an ironically skeptical attitude toward Polish Futurism inspired by Mayakovsky. Having experienced the Revolution of 1917 in Petrograd as a Polish officer in the czarist army, he was under no illusion that the political and artistic revolutions were working to achieve the same goals. He could not partake of the utopian belief in the future characteristic of the 1920s avant-gardes; his own views of what awaited humanity were profoundly pessimistic.
At a period in European history when writers and artists were enrolling under various political banners and joining parties, Witkacy resisted all ideologies of either right or left. He saw the danger of mass movements fueled by slogans, and the picture of modern totalitarian regimes and demented dictators in his dystopian fantasies proved prophetic.
The critical incomprehension and animosity that greeted his work lured Witkacy into endless polemics, in which he strove to refute the objections of his enemies, but finally tired and discouraged, he abandoned playwriting and devoted the last ten years of his life to philosophy, attending philosophical congresses, corresponding with professional philosophers and writing his own philosophical articles and treatises.
III. Death and Resurrection
Witkacy’s last years were full of apprehensions of disaster. In 1937 he saw the coming world catastrophe and predicted his own death at fifty-four during the war. He knew the end was near, and that fascism and communism meant the demise of art. “I live in the half-shadow between life and death,” he wrote to his friend and mentor, the German philosopher Cornelius in 1938. In poor health and horrified at the fate of civilization, killing himself now seemed inevitable.
After the Nazis invaded Poland on September 1, 1939, Witkacy fled to the east with Czeslawa Korzeniowska, a much younger woman who was the great love of the last decade of his life. They had reached the little village of Jeziory (now in Ukraine) when word came on September 17 that the Soviets had attacked and the Red Army would soon arrive. There was no way out. During the night of September 18, 1939, Witkacy killed himself by slashing his wrists and cutting his throat after first taking pills to make the blood flow faster. Czeslawa, who tried unsuccessfully to kill herself, described how she found Witkacy’s corpse.
When I woke up again it was already morning. His jacket was under my head, he must have put it there. He was lying beside me on his back, with his left leg drawn up, he had his arm bent at the elbow and pulled up. His eyes and mouth were open. . . . On his face there was a look of relief. A relaxing after great fatigue. I started to yell, to say something to Stas. We both were wet from the morning mist, acorns from the oak had fallen on top of us. I tried to bury him by raking dirt over him with my hands. With water from the mug for the luminal I washed his face and covered I it with ferns. I felt frightfully weak. I saw double. Then there were two Stases . . . and I crawled away from him on my hands and knees to get some manuscripts that had to be saved, but I didn’t know how, then I returned and sat helplessly on the ground. It was Tuesday, September 19, 1939.
Throughout the war and during the immediate post-war communist take-over of Poland, there could be no possibility of reviving Witkacy’s work. For nearly six years of Nazi occupation, no open theatre existed, except for collaborationist light entertainment. An underground home production of The Madman and the Nun by students at the Clandestine Warsaw University went into final rehearsals in the spring of 1942, but never was actually realized. After 1945 there seemed no place for an extreme individualist like Witkacy in the triumphant anthill society against which he had warned. In January 1949, socialist realism was proclaimed the only acceptable style in the arts, and later that year a Festival of Russian and Soviet Drama was instituted to teach Polish playwrights how to write in the Moscow-approved style. All theatres were put under centralized bureaucratic control, Polish romantic dramas were banned, and for the next five years of Stalinism, Witkacy seemed doomed to oblivion.
But the playwright demonstrated uncanny skill in predicting his own posthumous rediscovery. On a striking portrait all in dark red, done in 1931, there is the inscription: “For the posthumous exhibition in 1955.” It was in 1956 that Tadeusz Kantor opened his theatre Cricot II in Cracow with The Cuttlefish, the first post-war production of Witkacy’s work.
With the bloodless October revolution of 1956 following Khrushchev’s speech denouncing Stalin, Poland acquired an autonomous policy in the arts. Socialist realism was quickly scuttled; formally the arts were now free, but censorship of content continued, ruling out truthful presentation of everyday social reality or any criticism of the USSR or the communist party.
The liberalization of 1956 made possible the gradual recovery of Witkacy, although there were constant battles with the censor over publication and performance of his plays. His flamboyant life and uncompromising suicide in 1939–to evade Nazis and Bolsheviks–made him a hero to postwar artists and intellectuals, and his work became a major influence on the formation of the new post-war theatre. His bizarre, colorful plays and anti-ideological theory of Pure Form were the perfect antidote to five dreary years of enforced socialist realism, and his sardonic humor and prophetic insights into the workings of history made him, posthumously, a truly subversive and untamable author who attracted the most daring and imaginative directors and designers. The rediscovery of Witkacy—producing a long series of premieres of previously unknown and unproduced plays and frequent clashes with the censor—was one of the most exciting aspects of Polish cultural life from the later 1950s to the 1970s.
First discovered by the theatrical elite in their battle against Soviet-imposed socialist realism, Witkacy’s “non-Euclidean dramas,” his novels, and even his doggerel verse gradually became accessible to the broad public and was assimilated into popular culture in jazz, cabaret performance, songs, and rock musicals. With the fall of communism, he has become a classic avant-gardist and the most important Polish playwright-theorist of the twentieth-century. No longer forced into an anti-regime mold, Witkacy—with his self-referential parody of modernism, pastiche of different styles, blending of theory and practice, and mixture of high and low genres—now can be regarded as one of the first postmodern playwrights. Although a product and victim of the historical forces that shaped his life, he is a writer more for our time than for his own. In his plays, novels, and essays, he dealt not only with politics and the totalitarian menace, but also in new and daring ways with sexuality and gender, human cloning, identity theft, drugs, pills, and narcotics, colonialism, science and the arts, and many other aspects of the postmodern world Witkacy slowly won fame and acceptance in the sort of leveling mass society that he had said would mean the death of art. Like one of his own dramatic heroes, Witkacy rose from the dead to enjoy a triumphant second life in communist Poland, where he successfully battled censors and commissars. The year 1885, the one hundredth anniversary of his birth, was declared the “Year of Witkacy” by UNESCO, and the Polish People’s Republic issued commemorative postage stamps bearing his self-portraits. Was this official recognition the long overdue vindication of his embattled life as an artist, or the ultimate realization of his worst fears?
An ironic answer to this question came in 1988 when the Polish Ministry of Culture decided to act on the repeatedly deferred plan (first initiated by the Writers’ Union many years earlier) to bring Witkacy’s “mortal remains” back to Zakopane. There, it was decreed, the playwright would be given a state funeral accorded only to Poland’s greatest writers.
In 1939 Witkacy had been hastily buried in the old Orthodox cemetery of Jeziory in a coffin made of simple planks of wood. A pine cross bore the writer’s name carved with a penknife. Neglected for many years, the grave and marker had become effaced. In the 1970s a tombstone and plaque were secretly placed on the site by a former Polish resident of Jeziory whose parents had sheltered Witkacy for several days in that distant September and who returned illegally to pay tribute to the playwright. Before Glasnost, the USSR would not permit Poles to travel to their former lands.
All that had radically changed by April 11, 1988 when the body of the revered author was publicly exhumed at Jeziory before the assembled Ukrainian and Polish party dignitaries. After the panegyric speeches by the bureaucrats, the sealed coffin was officially handed over to the Polish delegation along with an x-ray photograph of its contents. When a Witkacy scholar traveling with the Polish delegation took a look at the x-ray, he immediately pointed out that the skull contained a full set of teeth, whereas the playwright had had many extractions. The photograph mysteriously disappeared, and the ceremony proceeded as scheduled.
When the body of the “false Witkacy” arrived in Zakopane on April 13, a week of festivities began at the Witkiewicz Theatre (an outstanding private theatre established in 1985). There were eulogies, lectures, concerts, films, and theatrical performances throughout Poland. On April 14 “Witkacy’s remains,” draped in national colors and decked with mounds of flowers, were displayed in the lobby of the theatre. An honor guard composed of leading Zakopane citizens, actors, and relatives led the funeral procession. The coffin was transported to the cemetery on a local peasant wagon drawn by horses caparisoned in black, followed by a huge crowd of fifty thousand. The Minster of culture spoke at the grave, as did the Deputy Minister of Culture from Ukraine, and a solemn funeral mass was celebrated. The body of the “false Witkacy” was placed in his mother’s tomb, a few steps from where his wife is buried (his father’s grave is at the other end of the cemetery). A large tombstone proclaims the return of the author to his native land.
The fraud was exposed almost immediately, and the ensuing scandal led to accusations and recriminations as to who was responsible for the grotesque farce. All true admirers of Witkacy rejoiced that the playwright—famous for his “risen corpses”—had succeeded in evading the authorities once again. The author had staged yet another posthumous triumph. The communist hierarchy, which for years had suppressed his work, censored his books, and tried to keep his plays off the stage, could seize possession of neither his body nor his spirit. The officials and bureaucrats who honored the author by burying an anonymous skeleton (which turned out to be that of an unidentified young woman) in his mother’s grave have now faded into oblivion. Witkacy’s corpse enjoys its lonely freedom no one knows precisely where.
Fascinated by the strange fate of his friend, the poet and playwright Tadeusz Micinski, who had been killed in Ukraine in 1918 without leaving behind a trace, Witkacy often said that he too would like to have no grave. How splendid, he exclaimed, that all the world knows a writer and finds him everywhere, even though there are no material remains.
Witkacy’s death—his last hours, suicide, burial, and then his rebirth, reburial, and final escape—has become a legend that is now the subject of many novels, plays, and films dealing with these events in either a documentary or fictional mode. As a young man, the thought of experiencing, or watching, one’s own death had fascinated Witkacy, and throughout his career he talked of “taking a posthumous look at oneself.” He was self-haunted, observed by his own ghost. New generations continue to be fascinated by Witkacy’s elusive specter and attempt to find him in his plays, novels, paintings, and photographs.
by Daniel Gerould from the introduction to Witkacy’s life and career from Witkiewicz: Seven Plays (N.Y.: Martin E. Segal Center Publications, 2004)
Used with permission