The Cuttlefish

by StanisławIgnacy Witkiewicz

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The Play

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Last Updated on May 7, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1369

The Cuttlefish, a one-act play, opens in a black-walled room with narrow, emerald-green designs. A light behind the red-curtained window at the center of the stage goes on or off during sections of the dialogue. On a black pedestal Alice d’Or, the statue, lies on her stomach leaning her head on her arms. She is voluptuous and dressed in a tight-fitting dress resembling alligator skin. Paul Rockoffer, dressed in mourning, paces back and forth clutching his head while expressing the isolation and futility of his existence as an artist. He calls on God, knowing that he does not exist but needing someone to give him reassurance now that his paintings have been destroyed by the Council for the Production of Handmade Crap. He also bemoans his lack of recognition. While the statue reassures him that he still has her, Rockoffer continues to deplore the grayness of his existence, which he envisions will continue into “galloping, raging boredom.”aw Ignacy Witkiewicz{/I}[Cuttlefish]}

The statue continues to entice him with the promise of fulfillment in sensuality, but Rockoffer protests that not even her love matters, “since the light of Sole Mystery” has been extinguished for him. The entrance of Pope Julius II, a figure from the sixteenth century, dressed in the Renaissance robes of his portrait by Titian, introduces a discussion on art, culture, and religion. The pope offers Rockoffer the hope that he may be a great artist despite his doubts, suggesting that the burning of his work is proof of his greatness; only great art disturbs society enough to incite destruction. The pope cautions Rockoffer against “pursuing the absolute in life” and suggests that only art transcends all ideological absolutes. In despair, Rockoffer replies that he no longer knows what to believe—he has no formidable enemies to oppose but is surrounded instead by the “sickening jelly fish mess” of society.

Ella, Rockoffer’s young fiancé, dressed in a sky-blue dress, enters carrying a pile of multicolored packages, followed by Grumpus, a footman in livery, laden with even larger packages. It is clear from the ensuing scene that she does not see the statue and notices Julius II only when Rockoffer calls attention to him. Both the statue and the pope look on skeptically as Ella cuddles up to Rockoffer. Soon the discussion of art continues, and the pope’s assertion that “art is truth” undermines Rockoffer’s position that his art was a “carefully planned hoax.” Ella reassures him that once they marry and move into their little apartment with its small gold sofa with tiny rose stripes and with the sideboard in the dining room where Rockoffer can keep his drugs, he will be happy and able to work; she will let him do everything he wants, “only in moderation.”

The pope and the statue question this vision of domestic bliss, and in turn, Ella, who still does not see the statue, begins expressing her doubt as if some other voice had taken her over and placed a shadow on her vision of the future. Rockoffer further undermines her belief in love by describing it as an endless ritual of morning coffee, then a little bit of work, dinner, walks, tea, supper, a little serious discussion, and finally sleep with, perhaps, not too fatiguing sensual pleasure “to conserve strength for the next day.” Ella turns to the pope for affirmation since he has come “from heaven,” only to have her beliefs further undermined as Julius II describes heaven as a “symbol for the most awful renunciation” of one’s identity.

Heavy, commanding footsteps announce Hyrcan IV, who enters carrying a sword and dressed in...

(This entire section contains 1369 words.)

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a purple coat and red-plumed helmet. Hyrcan, once a schoolmate of Rockoffer, invites the latter to come to Hyrcania, his self-created kingdom, where by discarding art Rockoffer will have the opportunity to make himself into “someone new and different.” Hyrcania, Hyrcan explains, is a state the reality of which consists of the incarnation of Hyrcanian desire, which Hyrcan defines as the desire to put the absolute into effect.

In the ensuing debate between Hyrcan IV and Julius II, Rockoffer is presented with two opposing worldviews—the Renaissance belief in the power of humanistic values versus the Hyrcanian belief in the ruthless power of the individual. Hyrcan insists that in Hyrcania the individual has a right to create his own reality. A modern superman improvising his own values, Hyrcan plans to rule the inert masses of society, likened to cattle, and invites Rockoffer to savor the fruits of tyrannical power. Frustrated and bored, and well aware of the potential banality of his marriage to Ella, Rockoffer is tempted by Hyrcan’s proposition, yet he expresses doubt as well: Is there not an irreconcilable contradiction between the truth of art and humanist values and the truth of ruthless power? Hyrcan convinces Rockoffer that the Hyrcanian worldview accepts “a plurality of realities” or the systematic relativization of all truth.

At this point Rockoffer questions the seriousness of Hyrcan’s assertions by referring to his pretentious costume, and Hyrcan admits that he dressed that way because he thought Rockoffer might be “more impressed by scenery.” Beneath his purple coat is a golden garment, which he discards in turn to reveal a well-tailored cutaway. Despite the realization that Hyrcan IV is a fraud, Rockoffer decides to join the Hyrcanian dream express, for “it’s always worth abandoning the foreseeable for the unknown.” Julius II and the statue also recognize the possibilities of ultimate pragmatism and decide to become travelers as well. Ella begs to join Rockoffer too, since she cannot envision life without him, but Hyrcan, calling her a “cuttlefish,” tells Rockoffer that he must forget his former life, and Ella is denied permission. “All creative impulses must be stifled in embryo,” Hyrcan insists, and instead offers depressant drugs as a means of suppressing the creative urge.

Two matrons and two elegantly dressed old men enter; one of the matrons, Ella’s mother, introduces the old men as Ella’s uncles, who are to finance the marriage. When Ella tells her mother that the marriage is off and that she wants to die, the mother mournfully envisions the empty last days of her old age. Despite the pleas of her mother, Ella begs Hyrcan to kill her, which he does without compunction, striking her on the head with his sword. The mother falls on Ella’s corpse and remains there almost to the end of the play.

Julius II is horrified by Hyrcan’s “pragmatic crime”; nevertheless, when Hyrcan reminds the group that the Hyrcanian Express is due to leave in an hour, all begin to ready themselves for departure. At this point the second matron addresses Hyrcan as her son and pleads with him to take her along. Hyrcan tells her that having a whore as a mother with the possibility of either an idiotic aristocrat or an obese Semitic banker as father would undermine his power in Hyrcania. Julius II observes that even the strongest, most self-willed individuals have something to hide, and at this Hyrcan leaves the room with the matron running after him crying “my son!” as Rockoffer and Grumpus follow.

Behind the scenes a shot is heard, then a dreadful roar from Hyrcan; Rockoffer runs in with a revolver in hand, followed by the second matron. He explains that he has killed Hyrcan because of his treatment of his mother and asks the matron to consider him as her second son. When Julius II wonders what they will do without Hyrcania, Rockoffer explains that he will become Paul Hyrcan V and create a reality in which art, philosophy, love, science, and society will become “one huge mishmash.” Rockoffer asks the pope to accompany him because the pope’s “inner transformations were sincere” and expresses his regret that Ella is not alive to accompany him. At this point Ella springs up, and in a tearful reconciliation, Rockoffer invites his new mother and his mother-in-law to accompany him, the statue, the pope, and Ella to catch the Hyrcanian Express. They all leave, followed by Grumpus. Only the packages and the pile of Hyrcan IV’s clothing remain in the middle of the stage.

Dramatic Devices

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Last Updated on May 7, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 313

The Cuttlefish theatricalizes Witkiewicz’s philosophical concerns through a variety of dramatic devices. The setting may represent the interior of the artist Rockoffer’s mind as he is buffeted by the conflicting demands of art, ideology, and society. A light behind the red curtain in the middle of the back wall goes on randomly, at times at significant assertions in the dialogue and at times simply shedding an ominous glare. Indications of the switching on and off of this light are designated in the text by (X) for on and () for off, and its arbitrary use reaffirms the absurdity of the assertions and actions onstage, as when Rockoffer says in despair “the light of the Sole Mystery has been extinguished for me” and an (X) indicates that the light goes on at that point.

The plot in this one-act chamber play is not presented linearly but rather uses anachronistic simultaneity—past, present, and future—as a Renaissance pope, the modern artist Rockoffer, and Witkiewicz’s vision of the dictator of the future are brought together onstage. The debate of ideas in Witkiewicz’s presentation hardly resembles the elegant and purely intellectual exchanges of George Bernard Shaw’s discussion plays. Instead, the ideologies espoused by the characters are acted out passionately and sometimes violently, as at times the contenders are ready to assault and even kill one another.

Witkiewicz’s images never remain static and logical, with each character consistently maintaining the same point of view, as is common in traditional drama. Instead, ideas are in constant flux and the alogical action is exaggerated to such a degree that even death becomes subject to reinterpretation and dramatic intervention. By presenting a world projected through Rockoffer’s mind, Witkiewicz presents the spectator with the breakdown of morality and values, questions about the stability of the universe, and even questions about the absolute power of death.


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Last Updated on May 7, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 115

Sources for Further Study

Aisenman, Leslie. “Aspects of Society in the Plays of Stanisaw Ignacy Witkiewicz.” Polish Review 18, 121-135.

Degler, Janusz. “Witkacy Worldwide.” Polish Perspectives 20, no. 12, 29-37.

Dukore, Bernard F. “Spherical Tragedies and Comedies with Corpses: Witkacian Tragicomedy.” Modern Drama 18 (September, 1975): 291-315.

Gerould, Daniel C. Witkacy: Stanisaw Ignacy Witkiewicz as an Imaginative Writer. Seattle: University of Washington Press, 1981.

Kott, Jan. “Witkiewicz: Or, The Dialectics of Anachronism.” In The Theater of Essence, edited by Kott. Evanston, Ill.: Northwestern University Press, 1984.

Miosz, Czesaw. “Stanisaw Ignacy Witkiewicz a Writer for Today?” In Emperor of the Earth: Modes of Eccentric Vision. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1977.

Tarn, Adam. “Witkiewicz, Artaud, and the Theatre of Cruelty.” Comparative Drama 3 (Fall, 1969): 162-168.


Critical Essays