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THE MADMAN AND THE NUN


by Stanisław Witkiewicz AKA Witkacy
TRANSLATED BY DANIEL CHARLES GEROULD
DIRECTED BY HANNA BONDAREWSKA
Previews November 29-30, 2011
Shows December 1-18, 2011
Thursdays – Saturdays at 8:00 PM and Sundays at 7:30PM
Matinees Sat & Sun at 2:00 PM
FLASHPOINT: Mead Theatre Lab

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“In the anthill civilization which is coming individualism will be limited like a man in a strait jacket . . . True artists . . . will be kept in special institutions for the incurably sick and will be, as vestigial specimens of former humanity, the subject of research by psychiatrists.” , New Forms in Painting, 1918.

Written in 1923 and first staged in 1924, The Madman and the Nun is one of Witkacy’s most widely performed dramas. Dedicated to “all the madmen of the world,” the play takes as its theme the tyranny of society over the individual. The author himself felt threatened by insanity–an expression of rebellious individuality–and the play may be considered an ironic portrait of the artist.
In The Madman and the Nun (the title of one of Witkacy’s paintings exhibited in 1921), the creative personality becomes victim of cultural repression when science and state, abetted by religion, form a totalitarian alliance to bring about enforced happiness and social tranquility through psychiatric confinement. Witkacy’s decadent poet and drug addict, Walpurg, exemplifies the destiny of exceptional beings who are locked in padded cells and trapped in ever-widening circles of incarceration by body, family, and society.
The Freudian psychiatrist Grün hopes to cure Walpurg by rendering him normal and restoring him to society lobotomized of the madness that constitutes his genius. The fettered poet (whose consciousness alone is free} and the psychic healer prying into the recesses of his brain are a complementary pair. Grün is both the observing self, voyeuristically watching the instinctual behavior of his alter ego, and the controlling self attempting to curb the explosive creative energy of his double. The doctor alternately provides Walpurg with paper and pencil—tools of creation—and binds his arms in a strait jacket, encouraging his art and yet restricting it. Grün reduces psychoanalysis to a mechanistic system for fabricating puppets ready for the anthill society.
As the only way out of imprisonment, Walpurg seduces his nurse (the beautiful Sister Anna), murders one of his doctors, and hangs himself. Here Witkacy introduces a spectacular coup de theatre that cancels the seemingly inevitable tragic ending. Stepping over his own corpse lying on the floor, the handsome young Walpurg—an elegantly dressed dandy—enters the cell, bids farewell to his keepers, who are now locked up as insane, and goes off to town with Anna. Witkiewicz’s favored device of the risen corpse violates the laws of both nature and conventional dramatic logic; the play subverts its own premises and calls into question the entire rational world that constructs madhouses.
Walpurg’s feat of dissociation–splitting in two and leaving behind his outer shell–is deeply ambiguous. Has the poet created a new form for himself or merely accepted society’s validation of a stereotype? Are his suicide and escape a triumph of mind over matter or a step backward on the treadmill of Eternal Recurrence, repeating the same punitive story?
Pure Form (the modality of the final act) can allow for multiple endings and accommodate contradictory meanings. In the double denouement of The Madman and the Nun Witkacy, incorporating Heisenberg’s principle of complementarity and Bohr’s uncertainty principle, plays bold theatrical tricks on the audience in order to dispose of the dead conventions of stage realism along with Walpurg’s dead body. Witkacy’s protest against psychiatric confinement anticipates strategies of the post-1968 avant-garde: creative madness, anarchic violence, liberating sexuality, and emancipation through dreams.

Daniel Gerould