The Play

The play begins with the Water Hen scolding Edgar Wapor for not shooting her promptly. They have discussed the whole matter and decided on this course of action, but Edgar has trouble taking aim and firing. He dreads the consequences—no one to talk to—and believes that she is only using him to accomplish her purpose. She replies that he is being cowardly and that this is his opportunity to perform a unique deed. Finally convinced by her argument, Edgar does in fact shoot her Ignacy Witkiewicz{/I}[Water Hen]}

Edgar is not sure he has achieved anything by this death. It is rather all of a piece with his feelings that his life has had no meaning and that he is without convictions—even though he is pressed by Tadzio to explain the significance of death. Edgar is not willing to acknowledge Tadzio as his son and suggests that he is not even sure of his own existence.

Edgar’s father, Albert, is not at all surprised to learn of the Water Hen’s death, and he does not believe that it makes much difference in the total scheme of things. Still, a killing is an impressive event, Albert admits, and he concedes that his son may yet make something important of his life. Edgar, meanwhile, falls under the spell of Lady Alice, the Duchess of Nevermore, whose husband, Edgar, has just died, and who is slavishly served by the scoundrel Korbowski (also her lover), who resembles Edgar Wapor. The relationships between characters becomes even more complicated when Lady Alice reveals that her dead husband Edgar was an intimate of the Water Hen and was much affected by her letters to him. Except for Korbowski’s disturbing presence, Edgar feels (by the end of act 1) that he has created a family for himself by adopting Tadzio (perhaps the Water Hen’s son) and marrying Alice, his friend’s wife.

However, at the beginning of act 2, Tadzio confesses to Alice that he forgets why Edgar is his father. As usual in this play, no relationship, no idea, remains intact. Alice counsels Tadzio that it does not make much difference—that it does no good to...

(The entire section is 849 words.)

Dramatic Devices

The character of the Water Hen is itself a dramatic device. It is Witkiewicz’s parody of Henrik Ibsen’s great realistic and symbolic play Vildanden (pb. 1884; The Wild Duck, 1891). In Ibsen’s play, the wild duck, which is shot, is a symbol of human emotions, which are also destroyed. By changing the symbol to a water hen, Witkiewicz not only indulges his sense of humor—reducing the pretensions of art to a rather prosaic symbol—but also calls attention to the tricks of art, to the way art embellishes life and makes it seem more significant than it actually is. Witkiewicz is not so much against this symbol-making as he is dedicated to showing it for what it is—not a reflection of life’s meaning but a substitute for the absence of meaning. Thus in act 3 of The Water Hen, the Water Hen is transformed from a pretty but not sensuous woman into an irresistible sexual object. Art has, in other words, triumphed over the reality of what the Water Hen was in the first two acts. This is laughable, even absurd, but such is the power of art.

Since the human personality is not solid or individual, Witkiewicz delights in giving different characters the same name or giving a single character several names. Thus, both of Alice’s husbands are named Edgar, and Richard de Korbowa-Korbowski is referred to as the scoundrel and Tom Hoozey. He also resembles Edgar Wapor, even though he is his romantic, demoniac opposite. The Water Hen is...

(The entire section is 427 words.)


Sources for Further Study

Gerould, Daniel C. Witkacy: Stanisaw Ignacy Witkiewicz as an Imaginative Writer. Seattle: University of Washington Press, 1981.

Gerould, Daniel C, ed. and trans. The Witkiewicz Reader. Evanston, Ill.: Northwestern University Press, 1992.

Gerould, Daniel C., and C. S. Durer. Introduction to The Madman and the Nun, and Other Plays. Seattle: University of Washington Press, 1968.

Miosz, Czesaw. “The Pill of Murti-Bing.” In The Captive Mind, translated by Jane Zielonko. 1953. Rev. ed. New York: Octagon Books, 1981.

Miosz, Czesaw. “S. I. Witkiewicz, a Polish Writer for Today.” Tri-Quarterly 9 (Spring, 1967): 143-154.

Puzyna, Kostanty. “The Prism of the Absurd.” Polish Perspectives 7 (June, 1963): 34-44.

Tarn, Adam. “Plays.” Polish Perspectives 8 (October, 1965): 8.

Toeplitz, Krzysztof. “Avant-Garde with Tradition.” Poland 4 (April, 1965): 28-31.