The Play

(Survey of Dramatic Literature)

The first act of Metaphysics of a Two-Headed Calf opens in a room of Governor Clay’s mansion in Port Moresby, the capital of British New Guinea. Open double doors reveal a thicket of tropical plants covered with gigantic pink, red, and blue flowers swaying in the late afternoon breeze. Lady Leocadia sits reading, dressed in an unfastened white dressing gown, while close to her, in a small chair, Patricianello, dressed in crimson tights, is gluing together cubes of cardboard. Lady Leocadia expresses annoyance that Patricianelo is playing with the cubes, or “thingamajigs,” while Patricianello tells her about his dream of his “other” mother, the “real” one, young and beautiful, who held him on her lap kissing him. It is revealed that the governor, who has gone on an expedition to Fly River to add to his collection of exotic bugs, although supplied with Mikulin’s serum against tropical fever, may be dead. As Patricianello keeps reading and muttering phrases from a book on empiricism, Professor Mikulin-Pechbauer, dressed in a black coat, enters and says that the report about Governor Clay has been confirmed. Patricianello thereupon accuses his mother of being Mikulin’s mistress and Mikulin of killing his father. Prince Parvis enters, carrying a riding whip and dressed in expedition clothes and pith helmet; he is followed by King Aparura, who is naked except for his loincloth, headdress, and wild hair. Invited to make himself a drink, he stands by the sideboard, tossing them off one after Ignacy Witkiewicz{/I}}

A struggle ensues among these curious characters for Patricianello’s future as each envisions what Patricianello should become. Both Leocadia and Mikulin want him to be an extraordinary individual entirely their own, although it is totally irrelevant to them whether he is to be a criminal or cabinet minister. His cousin Parvis, however, reminds Patricianello of the potential of total freedom and independence of will and promises to whip Patricianello into shape. Patricianello is more concerned with his identity: It is revealed that he is Mikulin’s son from an affair with Leocadia. At first horrified that the governor is not his father, Patricianello soon realizes that he must create his own reality; he asserts that truth is relative.

Meanwhile, all are aware that they must leave Port Moresby as soon as possible now that Mikulin’s serum has been proven worthless by the governor’s death. Patricianello, however, expresses a desire to end up as a bug in the governor’s collection “stuck on a pin and chloroformed.” At these suicidal thoughts, Parvis starts lashing at Leocadia and Mikulin with his whip, and he tempts Patricianello back to life by promising him his half-sister Mirabella as a new “thingamajig.” Leocadia, jealous at this new complication, tells Patricianello that she will remain forever in his dreams. Mikulin produces a photograph of Leocadia as a young woman, and Patricianello recognizes the “real” mother from his dreams. Parvis, however, draws out another photograph, that of his sister Mirabella, and Patricianello sees an exact likeness of Leocadia as a young woman. At this Patricianello swoons, crying, “She’s alive.” King Aparura and Parvis make a pact to bring up Patricianello together.

In the last scene of the first act, six sailors bring in the governor’s corpse while Leocadia goes into perfunctory hysterics. At the same time six Papuans come in and prostrate themselves before King Aparura. Parvis orders Patricianello to take off his red tights and change into more proper attire. Fear of being infected by the governor’s corpse forces everyone to make a hasty retreat, and all including the king hasten to catch the boat to Sydney, while the six Papuans remove the governor’s body. Thus the first act ends with the packing off of Patricianello.

Act 2 opens at dusk in a room of the Hotel Australia in Sydney. Leocadia, in a white nightcap and with a compress covering her face, lies dying while Patricianello, now dressed in a suit, sits in an armchair reading to her. Leocadia interrupts to assure him that she loved him the most, despite her husband the governor, her lover Mikulin, and her other lover, young Parvis. Patricianello regrets that he cannot believe in Parvis’s philosophy and, bereft of all fathers, must now face growing up alone. Leocadia’s death agony is long and...

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Dramatic Devices

(Survey of Dramatic Literature)

Metaphysics of a Two-Headed Calf takes the spectator from the tropical setting of the governor’s mansion in Port Moresby, New Guinea, to the first-class chic of the Hotel Australia in Sydney, to the final dreamlike red desert of outback Australia. The tropical thicket with brilliant gigantic pink, red, and blue flowers which serves as the backdrop for the colonial parlor, with its shutters and mosquito netting, juxtaposes the natural setting of King Aparura with the corruption of his naked state by the gin fizzes of the parlor sideboard. The appropriation of the tropics is manifested in the second act as Aparura appears dressed in a stylish suit. The hotel-room setting also presents a world in transit and transformation as the characters pack themselves in or are, like Patricianello, packed in.

The first two acts, played within the walls of illusionistic rooms, confine the characters to a reality where only a hint of the mysterious world appears in the brilliant hues of tropical vegetation, King Aparura’s nakedness, or the prostrate Papuans. The third act, however, shifts the perspective of confinement to the infinite space of the desert extending to the horizon. At this point Witkiewicz increases elements of the irrational by placing a signpost pointing to Kalgoorlie to the right and the Desert—with the number 8, suggesting infinity—to the left. The misplaced telephone booth brings another touch of the surreal and irrational to the...

(The entire section is 433 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.

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

Kott, Jan. “Witkiewicz: Or, The Dialectics of Anachronism.” In The Theater of Essence and Other Essays. Evanston, Ill.: Northwestern University Press, 1984.

Miosz, Czesaw. “Stanisaw Ignacy Witkiewicz: A Polish Writer for Today?” Tri-Quarterly 9 (Spring, 1967): 143-154.

Tarn, Adam. “Witkiewicz, Artaud, and the Theatre of Cruelty.” Comparative Drama 3 (Fall, 1969): 162-168.

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