Themes and Meanings

(Survey of Dramatic Literature)

The Water Hen is a play about the arbitrariness of life and of theatrical conventions. Stanisaw Ignacy Witkiewicz is at pains to undermine notions of chronology, of plot development, and of the stability of human character. His characters are confused about life and death and about the extent to which they can have any influence on their lives or on the lives of others. Neither life nor art, in his view, comes to a tidy conclusion. The conflicts between human beings and within families are not resolved as they often are at the end of plays. Thus the arguments between Edgar and his father, Albert, are continued in the relationship between Edgar and his son. Alice’s concern with the Water Hen, who won her dead husband away from her, is repeated in her concern that Edgar Wapor, too, will go off with the Water Hen.

In most plays, the death of a major character changes the plot, and a revolution means a new beginning, but in The Water Hen several characters suggest that nothing really changes and there is no such thing as a new life. For example, Edgar speaks of living “another life”—but not a new life. However, the play implies that people go on behaving as though real change is possible. Subtitling his play a “spherical tragedy,” Witkiewicz is at pains to demonstrate that people actually move in a circle and keep repeating themselves. That is why the Water Hen has to die twice and why Tadzio must become obsessed with her just as...

(The entire section is 502 words.)