Juliusz Słowacki Essay - Critical Essays


It was Juliusz Sowacki’s desire to write a variety of plays that could form basis for a repertory of a national theater. Intimately familiar with the masterworks of Western literature, he freely borrowed themes, plots, and techniques from a host of different writers. Because of Sowacki’s overt attempts to simulate the aesthetic effects achieved by Shakespeare, Calderón, and other writers, in combination with elements derived from old Polish poetry and Slavic folklore, the eminent Belgian literary scholar Claude Backvis has referred to plays such as Balladyna and Lilla Weneda as “amazing literary cocktails.” In the view of many other critics, Backvis’s remark underscores the main weakness in Sowacki’s dramatic uvre: namely, his penchant for mixing the styles of different authors and different periods within one and the same play. Despite this excessive reliance on purely literary inspiration, however, Sowacki’s plays possess a genuine spiritual passion that will ensure their continued status as masterworks in the repertory of the classical Polish theater. Along with Mickiewicz and Krasiski, furthermore, Sowacki possessed the creative genius to write works which assured that the cause of Polish independence would never be abandoned.

Mary Stuart

Sowacki wrote Mary Stuart when he was little more than twenty years of age. Despite its obvious weaknesses, the work still has a large number of admirers. Much of the reason for its continued popularity must be attributed to the subject matter itself. The tragic fate of Mary Stuart has fascinated playwrights throughout the world from the very outset. The first drama about the Queen of Scots appeared in 1589—a play written in Latin by a French Jesuit only two years after her death. Of all the plays written on the topic since then, Friedrich Schiller’s Maria Stuart (pr. 1800, pb. 1801; Mary Stuart, 1801) is undoubtedly the most important. Sowacki had seen a Polish translation of a French version of Schiller’s drama in 1830 and completed his own play about the Scottish queen shortly before the outbreak of the November Insurrection in the same year. Although Schiller limits himself to covering the three days immediately preceding Mary’s execution in 1587, the events depicted by Sowacki extend from the autumn of 1565 to February, 1567.

The action of Sowacki’s play commences with the Queen of Scots demoting her husband, Lord Darnley, from his status as co-regent. In an apparent act of retribution, Darnley arranges for the murder of Mary’s Italian secretary and confidant, Rizzio. The killing takes place under the queen’s own eyes. Darnley also witnesses the murder by concealing himself behind her throne. Shortly thereafter, Mary succumbs to the advances of the earl of Bothwell. The ambitious nobleman, by offering her both physical protection and romantic consolation, hopes to advance his personal fortunes. He senses Mary’s inner desire for revenge and skillfully maneuvers her into expressing a wish that her husband suffer the same fate as Rizzio. When it is learned that Darnley has become ill and has taken up residence in a house on the outskirts of Edinburgh, Bothwell suggests that Mary visit her husband and induce him to take a sleeping potion that will make him more vulnerable to an assassin’s stiletto, which he himself promises to wield. The queen readily agrees to the plan.

Although somewhat distrustful of Bothwell’s motives, Mary visits her husband and feigns reconciliation. Afraid that her nervousness might betray her, she leaves before her husband drinks from the goblet. The king’s jester, however, suspects that the goblet contains poison and attempts to dissuade his master from drinking the liquid. Darnley, believing in his wife’s good faith, takes great offense at the jester’s insinuation and orders his execution. The jester quickly imbibes the contents of the goblet and dies within minutes. Unknown to Mary, Bothwell has planned to make her the agent of the king’s death. By turning her into a murderess, he seeks to attain the means of dominating Mary psychologically in their personal relationship.

Darnley’s reprieve is short-lived, however, for Bothwell has planted explosives under the king’s house in order to blow it up and thereby dispose of all evidence pertaining to Mary’s direct participation in the death of her husband. The deed accomplished, Bothwell returns to inform Mary that, as partners in crime, they are bound to each other for life. Mary, for her part, protests her innocence and refuses to accept any responsibility for the turn of events. She and her lover are, nevertheless, immediately suspected of being involved in Darnley’s death. Mary’s Scottish subjects, largely Protestant, deeply disapprove of the queen’s Catholic faith. Quick to become indignant at Darnley’s murder, the people advance toward the palace, and the play ends with Mary and Bothwell fleeing Edinburgh to escape from the mob’s wrath.

It is likely that Sowacki based his characterization of the young Mary on the disclosures contained in the final act of Schiller’s play about the Queen of Scots. Here, quite daringly, Schiller depicts an authentic Roman Catholic confession on the stage. Mary bares her soul to her confessor and fully admits to the acts of illicit sex and premeditated vengeance perpetrated in Scotland. Although about to be executed for her complicity in plots recently directed against her cousin Elizabeth I, she resolutely denies her guilt with respect to these charges. Mary transcends her tragic fate by regarding her impending execution as a means of atoning for the transgressions of her youth and thus attains spiritual freedom. Elizabeth, in contrast, refuses to acknowledge that she herself must bear ultimate responsibility for Mary’s execution and contrives to make it appear that a minor palace official implemented the execution order prematurely. Elizabeth’s vacillations and evasions, as depicted by Schiller, are strikingly similar to those ascribed to Mary in Sowacki’s play. Thus, Sowacki owes a twofold debt to the German dramatist. Unlike Schiller, however, Sowacki was content to use poetic prose rather than verse for his own drama about the Queen of Scots.


Even though several historical personages appear among the dramatis personae of his next play, its plot is wholly invented by the author. As originally conceived by Sowacki, Kordian was to be the first part of a dramatic trilogy that would cover the history of the November Insurrection. The other two parts were never written, however, and it is uncertain how the problems raised in the first play would subsequently have been resolved. Written in Switzerland in 1833, the play is subtitled “A Coronation Conspiracy” and consists of three acts together with a prologue. Because Sowacki’s previously published books had not been received favorably, he thought it best to publish this verse drama anonymously so that it could be judged on its own merits.

In the first act, the fifteen-year-old Count Kordian agonizes over an unhappy love affair as well as over Poland’s tragic loss of independence. Believing himself to be incapable of heroic action, he decides to end his existence and duly makes an unsuccessful attempt at suicide. The second act depicts Kordian’s journey through Europe in search of self-knowledge. He visits both England and Italy. While in Rome he has an audience with Pope Gregory, whose negative attitude toward Polish independence is excoriated. Then, atop Mont Blanc, the young count resolves to consecrate his life to patriotic activity on behalf of Poland. The third act is set in Warsaw at the time of the coronation of Czar Nicholas I as king of Poland. Kordian now wears the uniform of a Polish military cadet and attempts, with limited success, to persuade other cadets to join him in a conspiracy to kill the czar. By chance he is assigned the duty of standing guard outside the bedroom of the Russian monarch on the eve of the coronation and resolves to carry out the assassination single-handedly. As Kordian enters the czar’s bedroom with drawn bayonet, his strength mysteriously deserts him and he falls to the floor unconscious. The authorities place him in an insane asylum in order to determine his mental competence as well as the true intent of his action. While incarcerated in the asylum, Kordian goes through much romantic soul-searching. Meanwhile, he is judged to be responsible for his behavior and is sentenced to death. The czar’s viceroy in Poland, Grand Duke Constantine, who was known to be sympathetic toward the Poles, wants Kordian to be pardoned and finally convinces his brother to rescind the death sentence. The final scene of the play takes place at the site of execution, but it is unclear whether the czar’s reprieve will arrive in time to spare Kordian’s life.

In the view of some critics, the protagonist’s name is derived from the Latin word for heart (cor) and thus symbolizes the romantic malady of a young man who is unable to translate feelings into action. Other critics view the name as being an anagram of Konrad, the central character in part 3 of Mickiewicz’s Forefathers’ Eve; in this reading, Sowacki’s play constitutes a repudiation of the notion that the fate of Poland would be determined by the acts of a “providential man.” Since Mickiewicz strongly implied that he himself was this exalted savior, Sowacki was bound to be doubly opposed to this romantic solution to the problem of Poland’s plight. In a larger sense, he was also criticizing the revolutionary ardor of his generation for its readiness to sacrifice itself in heroic, but ill-starred, ventures.


From the historical concerns of Kordian, Sowacki entered the realm of folklore with the dramatic work entitled Balladyna. Reduced to its basic plot, the play is a dramatized ballad about a poor woman who has two beautiful daughters: Balladyna and Alina. A rich and powerful nobleman named Kirkor falls in love with both of the sisters to an equal degree. Because he is unable to decide between them, Kirkor accepts the mother’s suggestion that the choice be left to fate and that he marry the one who first succeeds in filling a pitcher with raspberries from an adjacent wood. When Alina appears to be on the verge of winning the contest, Balladyna kills her in the wood and appropriates her sister’s berries for herself. In this way she becomes Kirkor’s wife. Before long, however, Kirkor leaves on a military expedition aimed at overthrowing a usurper of the Polish throne. The usurper is promptly slain, but Kirkor is unable to locate the royal crown and refuses to return home without it. Thus the quest continues.


(The entire section is 4426 words.)