Critical Context

Stanisaw Ignacy Witkiewicz was a philosopher, painter, novelist, and aesthetician as well as a playwright. In one of his most important essays, he elaborated the concept of “pure form,” a term that is referred to in The Water Hen, generally acknowledged as one of his greatest plays. Witkiewicz believes that plays should be as visual as paintings, that they should not be narratives but pictures, images of existence such as the one the Lamplighter creates with his lantern. Existence cannot be grasped rationally or logically; it can only be represented as form, which can be pure in the sense that it does not argue a message—that is, it does not come to some conclusion about the nature of things. The theater, in other words, is not a comment on life; the theater is, rather, its own world and constitutes its own shape. The Water Hen, for example, can come back to life because the return, the repetition of things, is essential to the form of the play. Thus the theater creates its own sense of order and its own rules.

Witkiewicz grew up in a world shaped by war and revolution. His own father, a distinguished artist, argued for precisely the kind of realism that his son rejected. Like one of his own characters, Witkiewicz even invented a name for himself, Witkacy, and lived a rather eccentric existence which demonstrated that he would not be bound by the strictures of his society. He was skeptical of humankind’s ability to order the world, and put all of his energies into the creation of art. He is one of the most important playwrights of the twentieth century, anticipating the absurdist drama of Samuel Beckett and others while expressing a peculiarly Polish sense of the futility of history. He committed suicide in 1939 shortly after German and Russian armies invaded Poland.