The Play

(Survey of Dramatic Literature)

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...

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Dramatic Devices

(Survey of Dramatic Literature)

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.


(Great Characters in Literature)

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.