Before 1835, the year when he was unjustly vilified in Goszczyski’s article “Nowa epoka poezji polskiej” (the new epoch of Polish poetry), Aleksander Fredro had already written some twenty plays for the theater. Fredro’s reputation as Poland’s greatest writer of comedy still rests on those works that were written and produced prior to 1835.
His first full-length play was called Pan Geldhab (a title that may be literally rendered as “Mister Has Money” or more colloquially as “Mister Moneybags”). The theme of this three-act comedy in verse manifests a strong affinity with Molière’s Le Bourgeois Gentilhomme (pr. 1670; The Would-Be Gentleman, 1675). Pan Geldhab is a rich merchant who seeks to enhance his own social status by marrying his daughter to a titled aristocrat who is desperately in need of money. Even though the daughter is already engaged to an impoverished member of the gentry who genuinely loves her, she readily acquiesces to her father’s plans. To forestall this scheme from being implemented, her fiancé challenges the aristocrat to a duel. The aristocrat, who has in the meantime come into a sizable inheritance from his late aunt, has no desire to risk his life over a woman whom he does not really love and promptly withdraws his offer of marriage. In the light of these events, the merchant is now willing to allow his daughter to marry her fiancé. The young man is, however, thoroughly disgusted with the antics of both father and daughter and therefore decides to have nothing further to do with either of them. While the play is not overtly didactic, it fully reflects Molière’s dictum that “the purpose of comedy is to correct men by entertaining them.”
Husband and Wife
Plots involving marital infidelity have been used with great frequency by writers of comedy throughout the ages, and it may seem that there is little room for novelty in works of this type. Fredro, however, takes a strikingly new approach to this theme in the play entitled Husband and Wife. Here, four persons who are both young and attractive engage in multiple breaches of trust. The scene is set in the town residence of Count Wacaw, the husband of a woman named Elwira. Finding his marital relationship with Elwira to be routine and unexciting, he attempts to find amorous titillation by engaging in a romantic dalliance with his wife’s servant, Justysia. His closest personal friend, Alfred, decides to take advantage of the disarray that prevails within the Count’s household and proceeds to seduce Elwira. Before long, however, Alfred himself comes to find his relationship with Elwira somewhat tiresome and therefore enters into an amatory liaison with Justysia as well. This soubrette manages deftly to balance the needs of her two lovers, but her duplicity is finally uncovered and she is forced to enter a convent against her will. Count Wacaw proves to be far more charitable toward Elwira and Alfred, however, and readily forgives both of them in view of their apparent repentance. The play ends with the Count, Elwira, and Alfred pledging to observe mutual fidelity in their future relations. In addition to the novelty of the plot, Husband and Wife is noteworthy for its metrical virtuosity. Whereas convention dictated the use of a thirteen-syllable line with a caesura after the seventh syllable for all lines of dialogue, Fredro composed lines of varying length so as to achieve greater expressiveness by having the number of syllables in a line match the mood of the speaker.
Ladies and Hussars
As a lighthearted comedy, Ladies and Hussars is generally considered to be at least equal, if not superior, to Husband and Wife. Ladies and Hussars is also noteworthy for being one of the few plays that Fredro composed in prose before 1835, when the first phase of his career as a writer of comedy came to an abrupt end. Being in prose, the dialogue in Ladies and Hussars presents few obstacles to the process of translation and suffers very little when recast into another tongue. The play takes place during the period when the army of Prince Józef Poniatowski seized the province of Galicia in 1809 and is set on a country estate belonging to a character designated as the Major. While on official leave, the Major plays host...
(The entire section is 1792 words.)