The Play

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Last Updated on May 8, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 629

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The first act of Ivona, Princess of Burgundia is set on a promenade, with the king, queen, prince, and their court gathered together in conversation. While the king and queen engage their court in conventional praises of the sunset, their son Philip sets himself aside, obviously bored with the routine. Clearly he is looking for a change and is impatient with his male companions, who engage in all too typical commentary on the good looks of any woman who interests them.

Ivona catches the prince’s attention. Not only is she not attractive to men, but even her female relatives find her a trial, for she is virtually inert, rarely speaks, and has an offensive demeanor. Ivona’s aunt goes so far as to say that her phlegmatic attitude is a constitutional defect. In other words, it is unlikely that anything can be done to make her more appealing. However, this unique behavior is exactly what Prince Philip says he likes about her: She is not the kind of woman a young man should love. He is determined to act like an original and not like every other young man out to find a beautiful, charming woman. He takes pride in adopting an attitude that checks his inclinations and that defies the constricting dictates of nature and society.

Act 2 opens in the prince’s apartments, with him declaring that Ivona is the dragon he must slay, the challenge he must undertake to prove his heroic distinctiveness. His friends are appalled; his mother and father are dismayed. The court, however, tries to be agreeable by accommodating his choice of this repulsive woman. It is tough going for everyone, including Philip, who manages to extract only a few enigmatic sentences from Ivona. He has never met anyone so self-contained, so impervious to external influences. She is her own being and is virtually immune to every attempt to draw her out. At first, he finds this a remarkable, even fascinating quality, perhaps because he has resolved not to be like anyone else, too. Soon, though, a note of hysteria creeps into his speeches, which grow longer as he tries to gauge her responses.

In the third act, the prince begins to suspect that people are laughing at him. For all of his rejection of conventional social attitudes, he is beginning to weary of his idiosyncratic stance. In fact, he succumbs to the attractiveness of another woman and breaks his engagement to Ivona, even as his parents and the court have been pondering what to do about Ivona. She makes them all uneasy, including the king and queen, who begin to have feelings of inadequacy.

In the fourth and final act, everyone is plotting to get rid of Ivona. The queen loathes her, for somehow Ivona reminds her of the poetry she has kept secret from the court and from her husband. Something about Ivona makes the queen feel deeply ashamed of herself. The king is in a foul temper, saying outrageous things and plotting with his chamberlain to have Ivona killed. They start by planning a huge state dinner—just the kind of event at which Ivona (a commoner) will feel uneasy. They have noticed how out of place she seems to be in such gatherings, so they will surround her with dignitaries, disconcert her with constant attention, serve her a boney pike, and generally contrive a situation in which she chokes on a bone at the dinner.

The plot proves entirely successful, and everyone is relieved and pleased. “Ah, yes, a bone. I see,” Philip remarks over Ivona’s dead body. It is a perfect ending for the court because everything appears socially correct—a point that is emphasized when Philip joins the court in kneeling beside Ivona’s lifeless body.

Dramatic Devices

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Last Updated on May 8, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 214

The most important dramatic device of the play is Ivona herself. It is remarkable how the playwright has been able to use such a simple stratagem—a character who almost never speaks—to precipitate action. As the various characters address Ivona and try to get her to agree or disagree with their observations and advice, they reveal themselves more fully than any dialogue between characters could do. For each time Ivona does not speak, her interlocutor must speak longer and more pointedly. Not only does this device help to define the other characters sharply, but it also increases the tension in the play. Everyone wonders when Ivona will speak.

Except for act 1, the setting of the play is indoors, in various rooms of the castle. The playwright does not describe the rooms. Indeed, the play contains almost nothing in the way of stage or set descriptions, since Witold Gombrowicz is not interested in the period or in the specific social customs of the court. Rather, he presents interior scenes that are meant to raise questions about the structure of society itself and about how rigid role-playing within society must be. The court itself can be viewed as a dramatic device, as a way of emphasizing how fixed human beings are by their societal functions.


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Sources for Further Study

Gombrowicz, Witold. Diary. Vols. 1-3. Edited by Jan Kott. Evanston, Ill.: Northwestern University Press, 1994.

Jelenski, Constantin. Gombrowicz. Paris: Éditions de l’Herne, 1971.

Kott, Jan. Theatre Notebook, 1947-1967. Translated by Bodesaw Taborski. Garden City, N.Y.: Doubleday, 1968.

Miosz, Czesaw. The History of Polish Literature. New York: Macmillan, 1969.

Thompson, Ewa M. Witold Gombrowicz. Boston: Twayne, 1979.

Ziarek, Eva. P. Gombrowicz’s Grimaces: Modernism, Gender, Nationality. Albany: State University of New York Press, 1998.


Critical Essays