The Play

(Survey of Dramatic Literature)

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]}

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...

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Dramatic Devices

(Survey of Dramatic Literature)

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...

(The entire section is 532 words.)


(Great Characters in Literature)

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.