The Play

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Last Updated on May 8, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 948

The Marriage takes place in an oppressive, shadowy landscape; the ruins of a disfigured church can be discerned in the background. The notion that the scene is a dreamscape is suggested by Henry’s first speech and is reinforced by subsequent scene shifts from the battle-torn landscape of northern France to the faintly emerging structure of walls and outlines of rooms from which a country manor house in Poland comes into view. This manor house is simultaneously a cheap roadside inn. The characters who appear in this dreamscape are also subject to Henry’s dream and consequently respond to Henry’s thoughts as if he were the internal director. Since the characters are dream projections, however, they often take on a grotesque, threatening existence of their own.

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In act 1, Henry, a Polish soldier in France, sees his childhood home, his parents, and his betrothed in a dream. In the outer fringes of his dream, he is accompanied by Johnny, his childhood friend and companion at the French front. At first Johnny functions as Henry’s guide to the dream-constructed interwar Poland; later, however, he joins the other characters as a courtier in the inner dream.

As Henry and Johnny come upon what appears to be a cheap dive, Henry, through Johnny’s suggestions, recognizes the inn as his ancestral home in Poland and, in a travesty of recognition scenes, the slovenly innkeepers as his parents. A festive dinner of horse guts and cat urine is served with due ceremony, and Henry finds himself subject to old rituals and forms. The father reestablishes a semblance of authority by forbidding Henry to lift his spoon until he, as father, has commenced eating. As the shadowy inn acquires concreteness, Henry recognizes Molly, the servant, as his former betrothed. Thereupon, the Drunkard at the head of other drunkards enters and propositions Molly. The father tries to prevent him, and the Drunkard starts to harass and insult him. In terror, the father announces that he is as “untouchable as a king.” Action freezes as Henry assumes the role of the son of a king and kneels to pay homage to his father, thereby transforming him into an “untouchable king” and making him invulnerable to the Drunkard’s “touch,” or pointing finger. The father, in turn, proposes that by his sovereign power he intends to grant his son a “respectable marriage” with Molly, whose purity will thus be restored. The act closes with the arrest of the jeering Drunkard, who continues to threaten to touch the “untouchable king.”

The second act discloses a large room in semidarkness as dignitaries question the authenticity of the “respectable marriage.” Preparations for Henry’s marriage to Molly are in the meantime being made. Henry, caught in these dream events, decides that everything hinges on whether he is to regard the marriage “wisely” or “foolishly,” and in his “wise” speech temporarily convinces himself as well as the skeptical dignitaries of Molly’s purity and respectability. The Drunkard, however, has escaped from prison and soon dispels Henry’s confidence as he renews his threats to touch the king with his finger. As a countermove, Henry invites the Drunkard to high tea. By virtue of the invitation, the Drunkard acquires the status of a dignitary; he tempts Henry to overthrow his father-king. The Drunkard also attempts to convince Henry that, having assumed the throne, he will have the power to grant himself an honorable marriage to Molly. Aghast at how easily he can become a traitor, Henry rejects the Drunkard’s temptations. The king, however, terrified by rumors of treason, fears even Henry. Henry’s attempts to calm his frantic father end in his touching him, and thus the form of treason has been enacted. Transformed into a traitor, Henry dethrones his father, has his parents arrested, and proclaims himself king with the right to grant himself a marriage.

A scene follows in which the Drunkard presents a flower to Molly and asks Johnny to hold it over Molly’s head. Then suddenly the flower disappears, leaving Molly and Johnny in a highly suspect position. A ghastly conjecture forms in Henry’s mind as he accuses the Drunkard of binding the two in a base and ignoble marriage. As the Drunkard and Henry resort to name-calling, the scene ends with the laughter of the dignitaries.

In act 3, Henry has become a dictator and has arrested the entire body politic, all institutions, ministries, and the police. Once again, as in act 2, a wedding is being prepared: Henry’s marriage to Molly is to be the test of his absolute power. Doubts about Molly’s purity, however, propel Henry to have his parents brought in “by the snout”; he hopes to terrorize them into a reaffirmation of Molly’s respectability. Instead, the father reminds Henry that he retains the form of his authority as father, and both he and the mother tell tales of Molly’s sluttish behavior with Johnny and others. Reeling with jealousy, Henry now believes that his power will have no validity as long as it is not confirmed by someone who will voluntarily sacrifice his life. He sends for Johnny and Molly to prove their innocence; unconvinced by their protests, he asks Johnny to kill himself because he, Henry, wills it.

As the ceremonies for the wedding proceed, Henry sees himself in a world of fiction, lies, and empty forms. The Drunkard’s pointing finger, intended to disclose Molly and Johnny behind a curtain, instead reveals Johnny’s body. Henry recoils, horrified by the reality brought about through the imposition of his will, and he submits to his new role as prisoner. The act ends with a funeral procession.

Dramatic Devices

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Last Updated on May 8, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 599

The Marriage directs the spectator’s attention to Henry’s dream experience through a variety of devices that create an awareness of the illusory quality of the events represented. Even this dreamworld is put into question as Henry’s opening words, “The curtain has risen . . .,” remind the spectator of the theatricality of the events to follow. From then on, the theatrical and dream worlds merge, as an awareness of Henry’s dream state is projected through both scenic metaphors and textual allusions. Henry is pulled into the dream as the initially shadowy forms of the Polish manor house become more concrete; although aware that he is dreaming, he accepts the dream as a form of reality.

Henry’s oscillation between his desire to play out the form of the events he is dreaming and his desire to stop the dream at will is foregrounded as occasional artillery shooting is heard throughout the play from what the audience takes to be the reality of the wartime French landscape of the opening scene. The dreamworld and the real world collide as well when Henry compliments Johnny on the watch Johnny bought in Brussels, thereby merging Johnny his friend and companion in France with the dream Johnny. This confusion brings out the horror of the reality of Johnny’s suicide as Henry, despite his dream state, assumes responsibility for his act of will.

To emphasize the dreamlike nature of the action, the actors are instructed to express themselves artificially, dramatically, and theatrically. Frequent repetitions, echoes, and exaggerated exclamations emphasize the artificial nature of Henry’s constructed reality. Tonal differences in these utterances lend a musical element; as Gombrowicz instructs, the “various themes, crescendos and decrescendos, pauses, sforzandos, tuttis and soli should be executed in precisely the same manner as a symphonic score.”

Since the external world presented onstage is subject to Henry’s dream, sudden scene changes occur. When Henry kneels to pay tribute to his father, the inn changes to the reception room of a grand castle and dignitaries in opulent clothing merge with the leering drunkards. Like Henry’s dreamworld, which lacks fixed dimensions, none of the characters has fixed traits; instead, they shift abruptly from role to role. Consequently, it is impossible to identify with any of them as they progress through all the changes taking place from battlefield to inn to court to high tea to a funeral procession.

Actions, too, take on a theatrical quality. The gesture of the Drunkard’s pointing finger, for example, becomes more vulgar, more coarsely physical with each repetition. This finger takes on an ominous significance, as if it were a character in its own right, as everyone looks to it to touch the king, to reveal Johnny and Molly in the artificially constructed obscene pose, and then to reveal Johnny’s body.

Intent on representing Henry’s dream state, Gombrowicz pays no heed to Aristotelian concepts of time, space, logic, or action; he also refuses to surrender to the tyranny of probability or the psychological depiction of characters. The irrational world of artificial constraint is projected through the decor, costumes, and masks of the actors, creating a world of “eternal artifice, eternal imitation, falsity and mystification.” This constant awareness of the theatrical nature of reality is present even when reality intrudes and Henry realizes that Johnny is dead: “It’s only a dream. It’s even extremely artificial. And yet he’s lying here.” Even this tragic realization is theatricalized through repetition. In the end, Henry submits to the artificial forms of this theatrically constructed world by joining the funeral procession.


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Sources for Further Study

Baraniecki, Maria. “Gombrowicz’s Drama Within and Without the Absurd.” Canadian Slavonic Papers 27 (September, 1985): 241-247.

Brodsky, David. “Gombrowicz and the Theatre.” Theatre in Poland 23 (1981): 18-23.

Goldmann, Lucien. “The Theatre of Gombrowicz.” Tulane Drama Review 14 (1970): 102-112.

Gombrowicz, Witold. Diary, 1961-1966. Edited by Jan Kott. Evanston: Northwestern University Press, 1994.

Kott, Jan. “On Gombrowicz.” In Theatre of Essence and Other Essays. Evanston, Ill.: Northwestern University Press, 1984.

Thompson, Ewa M. Witold Gombrowicz. Boston: Twayne, 1979.

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Critical Essays