Critical Context

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Last Updated on May 14, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 429

Stanisaw Ignacy Witkiewicz (or Witkacy, as he liked to call himself) was trained as a painter but maintained truly universal interests. He wrote more than thirty plays, the greater part of these between 1918 and 1926. Few were published or even widely produced during his lifetime, and recognition of his importance as a playwright did not come until after World War II, when the rediscovery of his works fortuitously coincided with the vogue of the Theater of the Absurd. Within his oeuvre, The Madman and the Nun is perhaps the most accessible work, and it has therefore enjoyed far more performances outside Poland than any other Witkacian text.

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The Madman and the Nun, with its surprising structural discontinuities, in many ways embodies the new type of drama that Witkiewicz had postulated in his 1919 essay, “Wstep do teorii czystej formy” (“An Introduction to the Theory of Pure Form”). Here, he posited a fantastic psychology and action unhampered by rational motivation or probability, a purity of dramatic plot that he had elsewhere called “non-Euclidian.” The play is a highly successful exercise in stretching and ultimately breaking the conventions of realism and asserting the autonomy of the theater to formulate its own laws.

The Madman and the Nun must be described as a play of Witkiewicz’s maturity as a playwright. It was preceded by largely experimental dramas such as Tumor Mózgowicz (pr., pb. 1921; Tumor Brainiowicz, 1980), a phantasmagoric exploration of science and imperialism the title character of which is a vitalistic counterpart to Walpurg, and Kurka wodna (pr. 1922; The Water Hen, 1968), a “spherical tragedy” in which conventional logic is suspended throughout in favor of “pure form.” In Matka (pb. 1962; The Mother, 1968), written the year after The Madman and the Nun, Witkiewicz continues along the structural lines of the latter, contrasting Ibsenian domestic realism with the visionary frenzy of a cocaine dream.

Although he is utterly original in his dramatic voice, which was aptly characterized by the Polish critic Tadeusz “Boy” eleski as “metaphysical buffoonery” and “supercabaret,” Witkiewicz partakes strongly of the theatrical enterprise of some of his better-known contemporaries—August Strindberg’s destruction of naturalism from the inside; Antonin Artaud’s search for an immediate, absolute theater; the surrealists’ épater le bourgeois; Luigi Pirandello’s metatheatricality; Vsevolod Meyerhold’s satirical grotesquerie—and sets the tone for things to come, particularly the absurdism of Eugène Ionesco or of Witkiewicz’s compatriot Witold Gombrowicz. While Witkiewicz is still ranked with the minor deities in the pantheon of modern drama, there is a growing awareness of his unique stature and original contribution to the theater.

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