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...

(The entire section is 1067 words.)