Themes and Meanings

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Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 498

The artist’s position in society, his often anarchic and dangerous creativity, and the desire of the powers that be to harness and subdue the uncontrollable are the main concerns of The Madman and the Nun. Witkiewicz, however, chooses to approach the familiar subject of the enmity between the forces of conventionalism and the bohème with both a more tightly constructed governing metaphor and a more surprisingly idiosyncratic resolution than are to be found in most similar works.

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The insane asylum, with its dank cell, represents the totality of a world devised purely to restrain and confine aberrant “madmen” such as Walpurg. The poet (whose name alludes to the German “Walpurgisnacht,” the Witches’ Sabbath, giving expression to his troubled and infernal, Romantic side) is a deliberate Witkacian self-portrait—like so many heroes in Witkiewicz’s plays—but he also stands for the universally impetuous, unpredictable, even demoniac creative energies which the author believed were being systematically eradicated in the modern world.

Walpurg fears nothing more than to become a cog within the senselessly whirling machinery of the social order, but his paradox is that the uncontrollable and chaotic is the imperative of the artist: “Today the greatest art is found only in perversion and madness.” The madness of Walpurg’s (and, to a degree, also Witkiewicz’s) avant-garde is a defense against the smooth functionalism of society at large, but it is finally self-defeating: Walpurg has himself become a demented, drug-ridden, poetry-producing machine.

The adversarial force is here a psychiatry which projects itself as benevolent and humane but in which dogmatic skirmishes (Freudianism versus non-Freudianism) have replaced effective therapy. The play abounds with satirical pinpricks against psychoanalysis; Dr. Grün is a caricature of the undeterrable proponent of a mechanistic, self-fulfilling Freudianism.

Sister Anna, too, is a prisoner: Stifled by an unforgiving religion embodied by the hypocritical Mother Superior, she like Walpurg is “beyond life,” living but dead to the outside world. Her torrid affair with Walpurg is the first step toward her ultimate liberation, as is Walpurg’s murderous attack on Bidello. Both acts are so antirational and in such flagrant violation of accepted codes of conduct that they become cathartic.

The Madman and the Nun is a parable of liberation through death and transcendence with manifest religious undertones. However, the moment of reversal, Walpurg’s (and Bidello’s) inexplicable resurrection, is played without gravity; it is rather a distinctly comical occurrence, an instance of unashamed wish-fulfillment (ironically, a Freudian principle) in which the author asserts the powers of imagination over the exigencies of reality. In The Madman and the Nun, Witkiewicz mirrors an ambiguous, disintegrating world, a world of chaos thinly veneered by civility, where nothing is so bad that it could not turn, as the play’s subtitle indicates, into “something worse.” Such was his vision of contemporary reality. Only in the theater, however, is the counteracting moment possible, which affirms that, in art at least, things can turn into something better as well.

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Characters