Stanisław Wyspiański Critical Essays


(Critical Edition of Dramatic Literature)

Stanisaw Wyspiaski was not in total agreement with his fellow representatives of Young Poland, who believed that art should not contain a political message. He was convinced that the nationalistic and ideological functions of art were as important as their aesthetic functions. In his works, he presented personal views on Poland’s political situation. According to the critic J. Z. Jakubowski, Wyspiaski was convinced that contemporary Polish society was intellectually backward, totally unaware of contemporary art, and content with the country’s political situation. Wyspiaski believed that this backward, unaware condition caused the unfortunate political situation in which the Polish people found themselves. In an attempt to liberate the dreams of the Poles, Wyspiaski satirized his own era in his dramas. He expounded a “monumental drama” that would contain an elemental moral evaluation of life and human actions. Influenced by the Greek theater, Wyspiaski created key scenes designed to frighten the audience and arouse empathy. Using rhythm, music, and lighting effects, he was able to create a type of mass hypnosis in the audience. By creating such an atmosphere within the theater, he was able to place his viewer in a world on the border between realism and symbolism. In this manner, Wyspiaski’s theater became both the past and the present.

Wyspiaski’s dramas fit into distinct groups according to their thematic content. These classifications include dramas written in the classical Greek style (The Return of Odysseus, Achilleis), Krakow tradition tragedies (Legenda, Bolesaw miay), dramas based on Polish insurrections (Noc listopadowa, Warszawianka), and two satiric plays (The Wedding, Wyzwolenie).

In his dramas there is often a unification of two conflicting philosophical thoughts. Of interest in this respect is the dual-planed construction of several of Wyspiaski’s dramas. The technique that Wyspiaski uses to “divide” the action into different planes has been called “live rocks” (ywe kamienie) or “live paintings” (ywe obrazy) by many critics. Monuments, historical figures, and characters from paintings come to life and add to the action of Wyspiaski’s dramas.


Akropolis, a four-act play written in 1904, serves as a good example of Wyspiaski’s “living rock” technique. The action of the drama takes place after midnight on the eve of Easter Sunday. It is set among the monuments and other reminders of Poland’s past in Wawe cathedral. On the main altar, the silver angels who hold the casket of Saint Stanislaw begin to move and speak to one another. They leave the casket behind and wander through the cathedral, bringing other statues to life, urging the monuments to live, to love, and even to forget their past. The culmination of act 1, and Wyspiaski’s message, is contained in the monologue of Clio, the muse of history, who exclaims that the souls of those buried at Wawe will return to earth after many years, after the cathedral is destroyed. Act 1 consists of a resounding cry of life over death: The statutes are brought to life only after they forget the past.

As the play progresses, it becomes more and more fantastic. In this parable of death and resurrection, not only do statues move about and speak, but also figures from the past step down from old tapestries and begin to engage in discourse. Mythological deities, Greek heroes, and Polish historical figures come to life and communicate with one another. Act 2 thrusts the reader into the world of Homer’s Iliad (c. 750 b.c.e.; English translation, 1611), and act 3, into the biblical story of Jacob.

Act 2 features scenes of courtship between Helen and Paris, as Hector prepares for battle. Wyspiaski presents these two episodes in a paradoxical manner in order to emphasize the primary theme of the play: the victory of life over death. In Akropolis, the trite, almost silly actions of lovers Helen and Paris are seen as morally equivalent to the heroic deed of Hector, who loses his life in patriotic battle. Life and its pleasures are contrasted favorably with heroism and death; Wyspiaski suggests that Hector’s heroic action ultimately had no effect on humankind’s destiny.

The rivalry, in act 3, between the brothers Jacob and Esau again promotes the play’s main theme. The biblical story of Jacob as presented in Akropolis tends to justify criminal actions in human beings’ quest for power as long as life is lived to the fullest, echoing Friedrich Nietzsche’s idea of the Superman, who is above judgment.

The action of Akropolis culminates in act 4 with the destruction of the cathedral and the triumphant entry of Christ, events on which the cult of life depends. Wyspiaski was in apparent agreement with the anarchists of the nineteenth century, who believed that in order to build something new, one must destroy all of the old. Wyspiaski believed that the Polish people were obsessed with their heroic past, and that this obsession led to an inability to act as a nation. The destruction of the cathedral is the destruction of a myth that prevented Poles from acting with resolve.

Akropolis was a bold experiment in which Wawe cathedral symbolizes the temple that houses the soul of humankind and from which it is freed at the end. By introducing different historical planes depicting moments of humanity’s greatness and weakness at the same time, Wyspiaski enables the reader to identify with the different symbols. He did not intend the transitions between the three different planes in Akropolis to be very smooth; the reader receives only a glimpse of the past, which is then destroyed.

The Wedding

In The Wedding, considered Wyspiaski’s masterpiece, the playwright chose to explore several contemporary issues that plagued his generation. For this work, which has been called one of the most distinguished and original works of Polish dramatic poetry, Wyspiaski exploited the extreme populist ideas that then dominated the intellectual scene. The peasant, glorified by the intelligentsia, was considered to be the salvation of Poland, the backbone of the nation, and an integral part of any movement that would restore the country’s autonomy. Wyspiaski, as did several of his contemporaries, married a peasant girl in an attempt to ally himself with the class that would ultimately be his country’s salvation. The Wedding is based on an actual event—the marriage of a fellow artist, Luejan Rydel, to a beautiful peasant girl in a village near Krakow. On a November evening in this village, guests from the intelligentsia meet with peasants who gather together to celebrate a wedding.

The setting is a room...

(The entire section is 2826 words.)