Themes and Meanings

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Last Updated on May 8, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 584

The Cuttlefish presents a dialectical battle between two contradictory worldviews and the dilemma of the individual in choosing between them. The central character, Paul Rockoffer, his very name suggesting an element of madness, is an alienated artist who finds that contemporary values no longer make dedication to art a meaningful pursuit. As professed in his opening soliloquy, Rockoffer, at the age of forty-six, must either commit suicide or make a new life for himself. His two visitors, Pope Julius II and his old schoolmate, now Hyrcan IV, champion two different positions. Pope Julius II, or Giuliano della Rovere (1443-1513), is a visitor from the past, representing both consolidation of political power and patronage of the arts in his support of such artists as Raphael and Michelangelo. His Renaissance values of strength, intelligence, and commitment, as well as the belief in the value of the individual and particularly the individualism of the artist, are contrasted to Hyrcan IV’s bleak evocation of a future created by totalitarian strongmen.

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In Hyrcania, art and all creativity are suppressed to create a systematic relativization of truth through depressant drugs. Despite his admiration for humanistic values, Witkiewicz does not present Julius II’s worldview as a valid choice for Rockoffer, since that would re-create the position of the artist as subject to aristocratic patronage. At the same time, the much more terrifying possibility of a numbing dictatorship over individual creativity is also negated by Witkiewicz in his characterization of Hyrcan, whose spluttering speech and inadvertently comic costume render him ridiculous.

The statue and Ella represent individual choices as well. The statue, Rockoffer’s former mistress, represents the choice of sensuality, a phase through which Rockoffer has passed and now finds boring, as evident in the characterization of her as a statue or monument of fossilized desire. In his characterization of Ella as the cuttlefish, Witkiewicz projects his view of middle-class values, with the ironic vision of Rockoffer in the tentacles of bourgeois domesticity, where even his vices would be meted out “in moderation.”

It is the Hyrcanian worldview that constitutes for Witkiewicz the most fearful vision, yet the Hyrcanian worldview may also be the most seductive, as Witkiewicz suggests; it offers the power to transform life at will. The Hyrcanian view is shown to be a sham when Hyrcan casts off his robes of power, beneath which he is simply another playboy about town pragmatically suiting his ideology to fit his selfish desires. Still, even after Rockoffer kills Hyrcan, the Hyrcanian view remains seductive as Rockoffer voices his belief that he will create a new society in which art, philosophy, love, and science will become “one large mishmash.” Behind Rockoffer’s mad projections about the future, Witkiewicz is voicing his own fascination with Friedrich Nietzsche’s notion of the artist as superman and simultaneously projecting Nietzsche’s contempt for complacent mediocrity. Rockoffer in his madness embodies Witkiewicz’s interpretation of Nietzsche’s belief in the role of the exceptional individual. Ultimately, though, even this possibility is undermined by Witkiewicz, as Julius II offers a final cautionary note that the actual results “may not live up to such promises,” a suggestion that power corrupts, and that although Hyrcan IV is dead, Hyrcan V may be the same. Thus everything changes, and everything remains the same. Witkiewicz’s vision of the future as expressed in the 1923 text of The Cuttlefish took on an even more ominous note in the 1933 production of the play: Hyrcan’s helmet was bedecked with a swastika.

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Characters