Study Guide

The Madman and the Nun

by StanisławIgnacy Witkiewicz

The Madman and the Nun Themes

Themes and Meanings (Survey of Dramatic Literature)

The artist’s position in society, his often anarchic and dangerous creativity, and the desire of the powers that be to harness and subdue the uncontrollable are the main concerns of The Madman and the Nun. Witkiewicz, however, chooses to approach the familiar subject of the enmity between the forces of conventionalism and the bohème with both a more tightly constructed governing metaphor and a more surprisingly idiosyncratic resolution than are to be found in most similar works.

The insane asylum, with its dank cell, represents the totality of a world devised purely to restrain and confine aberrant “madmen” such as Walpurg. The poet (whose name alludes to the German “Walpurgisnacht,” the Witches’ Sabbath, giving expression to his troubled and infernal, Romantic side) is a deliberate Witkacian self-portrait—like so many heroes in Witkiewicz’s plays—but he also stands for the universally impetuous, unpredictable, even demoniac creative energies which the author believed were being systematically eradicated in the modern world.

Walpurg fears nothing more than to become a cog within the senselessly whirling machinery of the social order, but his paradox is that the uncontrollable and chaotic is the imperative of the artist: “Today the greatest art is found only in perversion and madness.” The madness of Walpurg’s (and, to a degree, also Witkiewicz’s) avant-garde is a defense against the smooth...

(The entire section is 498 words.)