On the morning of Sept. 18, 1939, a man and a woman walked into a woodland that was then in eastern Poland. They took a cocktail of drugs. When the woman woke up several hours later, the man was dead. He was buried the next day not far away.
Such was the ignominious end to the life of Stanislaw Ignacy Witkiewicz, playwright, novelist, artist and philosopher.
Known popularly in Poland as Witkacy (a name, pronounced “Veetkatsy,” created from elements of his last and middle names), he is now regarded as that country’s leading 20th-century playwright.
The date of this death is significant.
Nazi Germany had attacked Poland from the west on Sept. 1, 1939. Witkacy had immediately gone to enlist, but, at age 54, was rejected for service. Four days later he left Warsaw with his mistress — the woman in the woods. They traveled east to Brest, now in Belarus. When the Red Army entered Poland from the east on Sept. 17, Witkacy knew that he was caught in a vice. Had they captured him, his past would surely have condemned him to execution by the Soviets.
The author of more than 30 plays and several novels — one of which, “Insatiability,” is an acknowledged masterpiece — Witkacy was also a pioneer in experimental photography and an artist who produced hundreds of portraits of people in the interwar period. Yet though he spent his creative life putting a face on his era, Witkacy once said, “Mankind has lost its face.”
He was born in 1885 in Warsaw, the capital of a Poland largely turned into a Russian colony by the beginning of the 19th century. Hence Witkacy held a Russian passport — a document that would have great bearing on his later life.
When he was 5, his parents moved to the town of Zakopane in the Tatra Mountains south of Cracow. His father, also named Stanislaw, was one of Poland’s leading authors and intellectual forces who was instrumental in turning Zakopane into a major artistic center. He wished to turn his son into the most brilliant artistic soul of the upcoming century, and the boy was duly schooled at home.
At age 20, though, Witkacy defied his father’s wishes and left home to go and study fine arts at Cracow’s academy.
One of the primary themes running through Witkacy’s writing is the manipulation of youth. The young hero in a number of his plays and novels is torn: Should he give his heart and soul over to art and philosophy or to action and physical pleasure? Or to nihilistic despair?
But in the end, as Witkacy was all too aware, people can never be entirely satisfied (hence, “Insatiability”). Some may study the greatest books and seek out the finest art — or even wallow in physical ecstasies — yet they will still be unable to answer the simplest question: What am I doing here on Earth?
All of Witkacy’s artistic output can be seen as a black struggle emanating from his helplessness in the face of this.
In February 1914, Witkacy’s fiancee committed suicide. Afterward, his friend since childhood, the anthropologist Bronislaw Malinowski, persuaded him to accompany him to Australia to attend a world conference of the British Association for the Advancement of Science. But no sooner had they arrived in Australia in late July 1914 than World War I broke out. As they traveled from Western Australia to Adelaide, Melbourne, Sydney and Brisbane, they argued bitterly. Here is where Witkacy’s Russian passport comes into play.
Malinowski was born in Cracow, which had been under Austrian sovereignty since 1795, and so he held an Austro-Hungarian passport. Consequently, for the duration of the war his enemy passport meant he was not permitted to leave Australia, an ally of Britain. However, he was allowed to travel to Australian-administered Papua and the Trobriand Islands, where he conducted groundbreaking anthropological studies that he recorded in a book titled “Argonauts of the Western Pacific.”
For his part, Witkacy left Australia as soon as he could, sailing to St. Petersburg and enlisting in the Czarist Russian army. But in early 1917, he found himself fighting on the side of the communists — the only Polish cultural figure to take up arms for both sides during the Russian Revolution. Nonetheless, as a onetime Czarist soldier, he would surely have been executed had he been captured by Stalin’s forces in 1939.
It was after his return to Poland at war’s end in 1918 that Witkacy plunged into a two-decade-long creative frenzy — and a frenzy it was. He founded a theater in Zakopane, but it failed miserably. His novels, full of descriptive nightmares and subconscious nonsequiturs, didn’t sell. He wrote articles and essays using more than 100 pen names — one of which translates as “Barely Breathing.”
No one knew, least of all Witkacy himself, if he was a dramatist, a novelist, a painter or a philosopher. A character in a play he wrote set in Australia, “The Metaphysics of the Two-Headed Calf,” says, “You can’t get out of quicksand by pulling on your own hair”; yet that is what Witkacy was striving to do all his life.
One problem was the quicksand of interwar Poland, a country that had not been independent for more than a century and then had 36 political parties!
Witkacy saw all art as a means not to mimic or order reality, but to deform it into the eerie consistency of dreams. He was an exponent of the theater of the absurd long before it was envisaged by Ionescu, Beckett and Genet. However, Witkacy’s logic — a logic of the subconscious — was simply not “actable” in his own day. Actors need to find truth to create their characters, and Witkacy’s truths were inaccessibly deep for them with their naturalistic training.
It wasn’t until the mid-1950s that Witkacy was rediscovered in Poland, most notably by the great director Tadeusz Kantor. When I was studying in Warsaw in 1966 there was a boom in his work, and his plays that I saw then opened my eyes to theater and would later inspire me to direct the first productions of his work in Australia and Japan.
I suppose the single word best describing Witkacy’s life is “catastrophic.” Certainly, he saw all of humankind’s strivings as catastrophic. Though it was written in 1927, “Insatiability” ends with a Communist Chinese takeover of Europe — long before communism even overtook China. In that play, Poland, ironically, is the last country to hold out.
Witkacy had fought depression and suicidal feelings all his adult life; and surely, as he lay dying in the woods almost exactly 70 years ago, he would have considered his life a failure. Yet the tragic irony is that he is now the most-staged 20th-century Polish playwright in Poland and the rest of Europe.
“It is better to end in beautiful madness,” he wrote, “than in gray, boring banality and stagnation.”
Not that he ever had a choice.
“Given,” an exhibition on Witkiewicz’s and Malinowski’s trip to Australia and Papua New Guinea, runs Sept. 28 to Jan. 17, 2010, at the National Maritime Museum in London. Admission is free.
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