Critical Context

The plays of Stanisaw Ignacy Witkiewicz—or Witkacy, as he was known—reflect his multifaceted career as artist, philosopher, novelist, and dramatist. In his theory of Pure Form for the theater, Witkiewicz attempted to free dramatic form from the confines of Aristotelian notions of action and character, as well as from the deterministically oriented conventions of naturalism. Witkiewicz postulated that if cubism in art represented no more than the tensions of line and color, eschewing traditional subject matter, dramatic form, too, could attempt to render metaphysical states and violent emotions welling up from the subconscious through a projection of simultaneous actions or “unity in plurality.” Pure Form would free drama from the demands of consistency of plot, continuity of time, and all laws governing psychology and logic. As in The Cuttlefish, Witkiewicz’s characters exist on two simultaneous planes, both as projections of the mind of the central artist figure, frequently standing for Witkiewicz himself, and as characters in their own right, violently definding their positions against the artist antihero.

The Cuttlefish belongs to a series of loosely related plays in which Witkiewicz sought to bring to the theater abstract and geometrical qualities analogous to modern mathematics and Einsteinian physics. These plays also share certain thematic concerns: the mechanization of life, lack of metaphysical direction, and the prospect of society as an anthill under totalitarian tyrants. In plays such as Metafizyka dwugowego cielȩcia (pr. 1928; Metaphysics of a Two-Headed Calf, 1972) and Kurka wodna (pr. 1922; The Water Hen, 1969), Witkiewicz views the future dehumanization of humankind through totalitarianism as a world of indeterminacy and endless transformation; frequently, as in the transformation of Rockoffer into Hyrcan V, the possibility of real transformation or change is questioned. Witkiewicz’s efforts to extend the possibilities of the theater through purely formal means established him as a precursor of the Theater of the Absurd and other movements in contemporary drama. In Poland, his influence is particularly evident in the work of the playwright and director Tadeusz Kantor.