The Play

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Last Updated on May 9, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1067

The Madman and the Nun is set entirely in a “cell for raving maniacs” in a lunatic asylum, furnished only with a bed, a chair and table, a window protected by thick metal bars, and a creaking door. The madman of the title is the poet Alexander Walpurg, who has been confined here with acute dementia praecox; as the play opens, he is sleeping, drugged and straitjacketed, on the bed. The consulting physician, Dr. Bidello, enters with Sister Anna, a young and beautiful nun. Since all else has failed, Sister Anna is to use her feminine intuition to circumvent the patient’s defenses and shed light on the “complex” from which he is suffering. Bidello has agreed to this course of action only reluctantly, for to him it represents a tacit acknowledgment of the diagnosis of his rival, Dr. Grün, a psychoanalyst of the Freudian school. He leaves, admonishing Sister Anna not to gratify Walpurg’s Ignacy Witkiewicz{/I}[Madman and the Nun]}

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As the madman awakens, he tells the nun, in tones ranging from lustful vehemence to great pathos, of his suffering, of the “infernal machine going in [his] head.” When he introduces himself formally, Sister Anna recognizes him as a once-famous poet whose poems played a part in a romance that ended in the tragic suicide of her lover and precipitated her own retreat from the world. Walpurg, too, has lost a lover, whom he enigmatically accuses himself of having “tortured to death”—the ultimate reason for his madness. Sister Anna becomes more and more entranced with Walpurg in spite of herself, and he confesses his love for her after persuading her to undo his straitjacket. Finally, the nun, “with no will of her own,” according to the stage directions, yields to the poet’s amorous advances.

Act 2 opens in the early morning of the next day. A storm is rapidly approaching. The two lovers are transformed by the night’s experiences, Walpurg now vowing to seek “a perfectly ordinary life,” and Sister Anna (whose worldly name is Alina) promising to remain faithful to him as she gives him a cross inherited from her mother. However, Walpurg admits, “There’s some violent force in me that I can’t control. . . . There’s some higher power, above me or in me, whose orders I’m forced to follow.” Sister Anna then fastens his straitjacket again to maintain appearances.

When the two psychiatrists, Bidello and Grün, enter with Sister Barbara, the Mother Superior, Walpurg seems controlled and restored, calmly asking for books and writing materials. Dr. Grün, elated that this presumed therapy has generated such good results—which fully affirm his theories—gives in to Walpurg’s requests to remove the straitjacket, against Bidello’s warnings. Walpurg commences writing a new poem as Grün expounds at length on the madman’s supposed “twin sister complex” which he claims has been resolved by virtue of psychoanalysis. Suddenly, seeing Bidello privately conversing with Sister Anna, Walpurg flies into a jealous rage and strikes Bidello with his pencil, killing the psychiatrist. Sister Anna faints in horror, but Walpurg triumphantly declares himself fully cured, deftly twisting Grün’s analysis to prove that he is not responsible for this murderous but liberating action. Sister Barbara ushers out the remorseful Sister Anna after she revives, while attendants bring Walpurg a hearty breakfast at Grün’s behest and remove Bidello’s corpse. Grün ecstatically contemplates writing a monograph about Walpurg’s case, but the poet coldly and tauntingly rejects the doctor’s familiarity. Grün leaves, satisfied that his “complex” theory has been vindicated, as Walpurg, straitjacketed again, jeers at this “game of make-believe.”

Act 3 opens, presumably that evening, as Sister Anna, once again alone with Walpurg, undoes his straitjacket. He has slept soundly all day and now presents her with a newly composed poem, which she reads. They reaffirm their love, Sister Anna even admitting that Bidello’s murder aroused in her a perverse excitement. Walpurg suggests that they go far away, to the tropics, declaring that “the universe demanded” their meeting. As they kiss passionately, they are surprised by Dr. Grün and Sister Barbara. While the Mother Superior covers her eyes, Grün utters his disappointment at Walpurg’s betrayal, though he is confident that “psychoanalysis can cope even with this.” As he commands the attendants to restrain the madman, Walpurg (“in a ghastly voice,” as Witkiewicz specifies) commands everyone to stay where they are, in effect “freezing” them in mid-action. He then knocks out a window pane with Sister Anna’s cross, ties a sleeve of his straitjacket to the bars, ties the other sleeve around his neck, and jumps from the table, “his arms spread out like a cross,” as the curtain falls rapidly on the scene.

In his stage directions, Stanisaw Ignacy Witkiewicz demands that the curtain be lowered only long enough to give the actor who is playing Walpurg an opportunity to exit, while stagehands replace him with a dummy. The action resumes again seconds later. Walpurg (the dummy) is cut down, and Sister Anna throws herself on the “corpse,” Grün meanwhile comically lamenting the demise of his “guinea pig.” The Mother Superior, utterly indignant at this turn of events and at Sister Anna’s perceived depravity, rejects the young nun’s pleas for forgiveness. As they kneel in prayer and the attendants prepare to remove Walpurg’s body for autopsy, the door opens and Walpurg enters, quite alive, clean-shaven, in a formal outfit and with “a yellow flower in his lapel.” He is followed by Dr. Bidello in a frock coat, carrying a woman’s dress and hat. Sister Anna falls into the resurrected poet’s arms as Bidello declares that the dress is meant for her and that they will be “going into town.” Walpurg announces: “I’m really completely sane now: sane and happy. I’ll write something marvelous.” They leave, and to confound matters more, the institute’s director, Professor Walldorff, appears, blithely explaining to the bewildered Grün that he will henceforth give up psychiatry. He locks Grün, Sister Barbara, and the attendants into the cell, and they realize, to their horror, that they themselves are “the madmen now.” With that, a chaotic brawl ensues, each violently thrashing the other. A “blinding blue light” comes from above as the curtain falls.

Dramatic Devices

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Like other Witkiewicz plays, The Madman and the Nun is remarkably short (requiring about ninety minutes in performance) and hence of an economy that serves its native theatricality well. By confining itself to a single setting, it creates an overall claustrophobic atmosphere which mirrors Walpurg’s interior state and which can be enhanced (as in a 1967 production directed by Jan Kott) by utilizing expressionist scenic techniques and slide projections.

Startling contrasts in tone, from high seriousness to low comedy, from pathos to farce, are the most prominent hallmark of Witkiewicz’s dramaturgy. Walpurg’s first encounter with Sister Anna is by turns filled with touching passion and wry irony. The poet’s violent and stunning attack on Bidello follows almost without warning upon a sequence in which Grün comically explicates his ridiculous psychoanalytic theories. Then, literally over the body of the slain psychiatrist, Grün nonchalantly orders breakfast. Professor Walldorff’s sudden, unaccountable appearance deliberately thwarts the principle of character motivation of the well-made play. These ruptures of normality strengthen the impression that the viewer is not in an entirely rational environment—indeed, that in some way the theatrical representation reflects Walpurg’s skewed subjective perception. Apart from Sister Anna and Walpurg, whom the author fleshes out sufficiently, the characters are largely mere caricatures of hypocrisy, incompetence, and narrow-mindedness.

The play’s most radical departure from what could for the most part (in spite of its oddities) be called “realism” occurs with the suicide and subsequent resurrection of Walpurg. This scene is a veritable coup de théâtre in which a relatively credible reality is abruptly and jarringly confronted with a dreamlike vision. At this moment, the play becomes “surrealist” (or “absurdist” avant la lettre) with a vengeance, changing the rules of the game in mid-act. Thus, Walpurg is not only revived from the dead but also transformed into a suave character of the contemporary salon drama, spouting banalities. Grün, on the other hand, meets his fate in a grotesque, nightmarish cataclysm. The author manages to keep the audience quite unprepared for this turn of events, which greatly enhances the effect.

Witkiewicz shows himself acutely aware of the theatrical tradition and utilizes its assorted devices parodically. The switching of the bodies at the climactic moment of suicide, as Daniel Gerould has observed, is a stage trick adapted from the turn-of-the-twentieth-century Grand Guignol theater. The brewing storm is a favorite contrivance of Romantic drama and its melodramatic derivatives. The blinding light from above is raided from the storehouse of expressionist devices. Even the color scheme of the play betrays Witkiewicz’s eye for stage effect, as it progresses from the stark black-and-white of the beginning (nun’s habit, straitjacket) to the yellow flower, the purple dress, and the blue light, underlining the otherworldly, transcendent quality of the ending. While Witkiewicz’s self-conscious handling of the theater actively discourages “suspension of disbelief,” it defines a newfound freedom of the stage to probe the realms of the subconscious and the metaphysical and to render them with supreme theatricality. In The Madman and the Nun, theme and form are interdependent: The liberation of the characters can be accomplished only through an unfettered theatrical imagination.


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Last Updated on May 9, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 71

Sources for Further Study

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.

The Polish Review 17, nos. 1/2 (1973).

Weyhaupt, Angela Evonne. “Death and Resurrection in Witkiewicz’s The Madman and the Nun.” Polish Review 22, no. 4 (1977): 45-48.

White, Helena M. Review of The Madman and the Nun. Theatre Journal 48 (December, 4, 1996): 514-516.

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Critical Essays