Although Witold Gombrowicz wrote only three theater pieces and fragments of a fourth and had no professional connections with the theater, his plays are held in high esteem because of their union of compelling dramatic interest with intense theatricality. Like traditional dramas, his plays are carefully constructed, with well-defined plots, conflicts, and characters, and the texts—language, speech, and the human voice—are essential to their effect. The innovative aspect of his plays is found in their multidimensional theatricality. Theatricality is typical not only of his dramas but also of the rest of his writing, in which dramatic conflicts, mime, gestures, grimaces, masks, façades, role-playing, and the recurrent figure of the regisseur are prominent. Gombrowicz had some acquaintance with interwar theatrical experimentation and movements, such as expressionism and Symbolism, in Poland and abroad, but he learned his craft by reading the classics of European drama and attending performances, mainly of light, popular genres, such as operetta, vaudeville, cabaret, and film. As a boy he so thoroughly assimilated the dramas of William Shakespeare that he knew many long passages from memory, and the fruits of his reading are evident in his own dramas: for example, the main model for both Ivona, Princess of Burgundia and The Marriage is Hamlet, Prince of Denmark (pr. c. 1600-1601).
While spectacle, lighting, sound effects, and scenic and costume design are significant elements in Gombrowicz’s dramaturgy, the core of his theater is the actor, both individually and in disciplined ensemble work. Ensemble work is important in all his plays, but it is raised to the status of a formal organizing principle in The Marriage and in Operetta, where the drama is conceived not only in theatrical but also in musico-theatrical terms. He describes The Marriage as a symphonic score (actors are instruments, the regisseur the conductor) and Operetta as a libretto. Both plays contain solos, duets, choruses, leitmotifs, and stage directions indicating tone and dynamics. The musical appeal of his plays is reflected in the fact that they have inspired two operas (both by German composers): Boris Blacher’s Yvonne, Prinzessin von Burgund (1972) and Volker David Kirchner’s Die Trauung (1975; the marriage).
All of Gombrowicz’s plays are tragicomedies characterized by artificiality and the grotesque. None conforms to the convention of realism, and their atmosphere resembles that of fables or dreams. The author warns, however, that stylization should never become so intense that his characters lose their recognizably human traits, and the plots concern familiar family themes and conflicts. Each play is a family drama cast as a royal or princely drama, and except for the unfinished fragment Historia (history), the main plot incident, reflecting the theme of ambivalent sexuality, concerns a failed attempt at marrying or mating. The main characters always include a Father, Mother, and Son who are simultaneously King, Queen, and Prince (in Operetta, Prince, Princess, and Count), and these royal families caricature the author and his parents (in Historia he audaciously casts his entire family in the main roles under their own real names with personalities caricaturing their real traits). Because the speech and behavior of the fictional royal families are often below the norms of their high social status, the result is travesty.
Theatricality and drama are essential components of Gombrowicz’s vision of the world, which is based on the conflict of two core ideas, Form and Immaturity. Form is associated with order, cultural superiority, seriousness, and maturity, and its negative aspects include a tendency to rigidification, painful constriction, stagnation, and declining vitality (biological inferiority). Immaturity is associated with disorder, cultural inferiority and subculture, mockery, and vulgarity, and its positive aspects include flexibility, resilience, energy, creative potential, relaxation, and rising vitality (biological superiority). Humans are caught in a dilemma in that they desire the advantages of both Form and Immaturity without their disadvantages, but this desire can never be fulfilled. Gombrowicz offers several methods of coping with this dilemma. One is to gain distance from Form by viewing it as theater. A person always wears a mask and acts a role in a world that resembles a stage set. Yet if roles are regarded as temporary expedients, the individual can maintain his or her “immature” flexibility, resilience, and adaptability and thus avoid the main pitfall of Form. A second, more effective method of coping with the dilemma is to descend into the realm of Immaturity by engaging in subversion, degradation, and mockery of Form—in other words, through the artistic attitude and technique of parody. Parody satisfies both the need for distance and flexibility and the desire to demonstrate cultural superiority through formal mastery, and it prevents the Form, or game, from becoming an end in itself.
A particular kind of parody to which Gombrowicz was partial and which is conspicuous in all his plays is parodia sacra (sacred parody), a medieval tradition associated with Carnival, in which monks and clerics during special holidays were given the license of parodying any and every aspect of Church ritual and doctrine. Parodied rituals and ceremonies are important in all of Gombrowicz’s works and are central to all of his plays, in which they constitute the crux of the plot. The point of sacred parody was not to destroy the objects but to relax their unrelieved solemnity and thus renew them through laughter. Similarly, Gombrowicz’s parody of familiar traditional models, once thought moribund, gives them a new lease on life and endows his works with unusual creative energy.
Ivona, Princess of Burgundia
Ivona, Princess of Burgundia concerns the disintegration and restoration of order, or the struggle between inferiority and superiority, Immaturity and Form. Immaturity fights from below by means of subversion, while Form retaliates from above by means of intimidation. The heroine, Ivona, represents Immaturity and inferiority; the royal court, Form and superiority. Ivona is unusual in Gombrowicz’s work in that she is an almost completely negative embodiment of Immaturity. She is characterized as unappealing, apathetic, and anemic, and her subversive power is peculiar in that it is primarily passive and silent. Ivona’s sluggishness “relaxes” the tension on which the social superiority of the royal court depends. Her unresponsiveness provokes the courtiers’ irritability and frustration, and this negative energy is then turned against them, resulting in personal and social decomposition. Ivona also acts as a catalyst, or enzyme, causing chemical changes in others without being essentially changed herself. In addition, she produces the effect of alcoholic intoxication. The correct translation of the play’s title is “Ivona, Princess of Burgundy Wine,” for the Polish word Burgund refers to the beverage, and only as a distant pun does it allude to the Kingdom of Burgundia. The name of Prince Philip, however, recalls two famous dukes who presided at the opulent court of the Kingdom of Burgundia, where Form had taken on a Byzantine rigidity during the decline of medieval civilization. Gombrowicz’s modern royal court turns out to be equally brittle beneath its self-assured exterior, reflecting an analogous decline on the eve of the collapse of interwar European order.
Prince Philip proposes marriage to Ivona, because her defects intoxicate him, but alcohol acts as a stimulant only briefly, while its long-lasting effect is that of a depressant. Thus, prolonged contact with her, like alcoholic overindulgence, is demoralizing, and the court is transformed into a brood of comic monsters. Each member of the royal family, as well as the Chamberlain, tries individually to kill Ivona while she sleeps but fails because the deed lacks formal justification. The murder succeeds only as a collective enterprise arranged by the play’s regisseur, the Chamberlain, in which the entire court unites in its...
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