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Last Updated on May 8, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 3259

Long regarded as closet dramas, Zygmunt Krasiski’s two plays The Undivine Comedy and Iridion have been staged with great success in the twentieth century by a number of technically innovative directors. One of the chief attractions of The Undivine Comedy for the contemporary reader stems from its acute analysis of...

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Long regarded as closet dramas, Zygmunt Krasiski’s two plays The Undivine Comedy and Iridion have been staged with great success in the twentieth century by a number of technically innovative directors. One of the chief attractions of The Undivine Comedy for the contemporary reader stems from its acute analysis of the role of class conflict in the process of historical change. In contrast, most of the political content of Iridion has lost its relevance. For this and other reasons, Iridion is a far less important work than its predecessor.

The Undivine Comedy

The Undivine Comedy, however, suffices to ensure Krasiski’s position as a dramatist of international stature. The Undivine Comedy, a work already completed by Zygmunt Krasiski at age twenty-two, consists of four parts, each of which is preceded by a prose poem by way of introduction. The first two parts are devoted to domestic concerns, and the last two parts deal with social revolution. The domestic and social dramas, however, are linked through the person of Count Henryk and the problems arising from his dedication to the muse of poetry.

In the opening scene of part 1, Henryk is depicted as about to enter into an earthly marriage in the belief that he has at long last found someone who corresponds fully to his poetic fancies of the ideal woman. A guardian angel flying over the house on the eve of the wedding proclaims that Henryk may yet be worthy of redemption if he should prove himself capable of fulfilling his duties in the mundane sphere of marriage. At this point, a chorus of evil spirits makes a response of its own. These demons announce that they intend to redouble their efforts to capture Henryk’s soul by operating under the guise of poetic fantasy and personal ambition. The wedding takes place as planned, and the couple live together contentedly until an evil spirit in the image of the ideal woman appears to Henryk in a dream. Upon awakening, he realizes that his wife, though otherwise exemplary, is devoid of the poetic spirit. Even the birth of a son fails to dispel the mood of boredom that has now descended on him. Henryk’s absence from the christening ceremony for his son scandalizes his wife as well as the guests who have assembled to witness the event. The rite, nevertheless, takes place without him, and his wife uses the occasion to make a formal supplication in which she urges the boy to develop the soul of a poet so as to ensure his father’s affection for him. In the meantime, Henryk has been lured into the wilds of nature in pursuit of the phantom maiden who symbolizes the spirit of poetry. Standing atop a mountain ridge, she urges the poet to soar above the abyss that separates them by means of the wings of poetry. Before he has time to respond to her bidding, her form suddenly turns into an apparition of utter deformity when a violent wind blows the garland of flowers from her head and tears her ornate dress to shreds. Recoiling from this hideous sight, Henryk hastens home to his family, only to find that his wife has gone mad and has been sent to an asylum. At the asylum, she informs him that in his absence she had beseeched God to transform her into a poet and that after three days of prayer her request had been granted. She then delivers a number of sibylline utterances, including the prediction that their son will also become a poet, and dies happily in Henryk’s arms.

The attack that Krasiski directs at the Romantic poet in part 1 is obviously intended to serve as an exercise in self-criticism. The theme involving the incapacity of the poet to function in real life is further developed in part 2. Here, however, the dramatic action revolves around Henryk’s son, Orcis. The boy not only is mentally abnormal but also is gradually losing his eyesight. The opening scene takes place in a cemetery, where the father has taken the nearly blind child on the tenth anniversary of his mother’s death. (It is by no means incidental that Krasiski himself was ten years old when his own mother died and was almost sightless while composing The Undivine Comedy.) Standing beside her tomb, Orcis is intermittently seized by a compulsion to recite verses in praise of poetry—verses he claims to have learned from an apparition resembling his mother, who comes to him in his dreams. When his son goes on to assert that these nocturnal visitations occur with frequency, Henryk becomes genuinely concerned for the boy’s sanity. In a subsequent scene that takes place four years later, a doctor who examines Orcis finds him to be totally blind and states that the boy is threatened with catalepsy. Mind has utterly triumphed over body. Although the despondent father would like to be on hand to minister to the needs of his son, he is obliged to depart in response to a call to arms previously delivered to him at a mountain pass by an eagle. The appearance of the eagle with its summons to battle serves to mark the transition from the domestic drama of the first half of the play to the social drama of the second half. Because Krasiski originally planned to publish the play under the title of “Maz” (the husband), there is good reason to believe that the decision to incorporate the question of class conflict within the framework of the plot occurred to him only after the work was already in progress.

In parts 3 and 4 of The Undivine Comedy, Krasiski voices the conviction that members of his social class are living on borrowed time. Here, the masses of humanity are depicted as being embroiled in a general rebellion against the ranks of the aristocracy, a revolt that has already succeeded to the point where but a single outpost of the ancien régime still remains to be subdued. For reasons that are never made clear, Count Henryk has been chosen to conduct the defense of the Holy Trinity Castle. It is at this castle that the remnants of European aristocracy have taken refuge and are now awaiting the final onslaught of the masses. The leader of the revolt is named Pankracy, a man whose desiccated, bloodless face fully reflects the spiritual void within him. For all his fanatical hatred of aristocracy, Pankracy has come to admire Count Henryk and would be willing to spare both him and his son on the condition that the count concede the historical necessity of the revolution and cease his opposition to it. It is Pankracy’s view that Count Henryk best embodies the traditional virtues of the old nobility. Hence, by convincing him, Pankracy would be able to vindicate the cause of revolution beyond doubt. The survival of a single pair of aristocrats would, moreover, be of little consequence.

The two men agree to meet at the Holy Trinity Castle. On the eve of the meeting, Count Henryk decides to disguise himself as a revolutionary so he can observe his adversaries at first hand within their own encampment. There, he wanders about apprehensively among various groups of rebels, all of whom he finds to be obsessed by a desire to inflict savage retribution on their former oppressors. Within the camp, moreover, are many “liberated” women who, having escaped from the bonds of matrimony, now freely bestow their sexual favors among the rank and file. Another prominent element inside the camp consists of a group of baptized Jews who seek to ally themselves with the revolt against the old order. From a number of remarks that these converts make to one another and to the audience, it is clear from the outset that their apostasy from Judaism is but feigned and that they intend to transform the revolution into a vehicle that will advance the narrow interests of their own race. More than one critic has remarked on the similarity between this conspiracy and the one set forth in the Protocols of the Learned Elders of Zion that mysteriously surfaced in czarist Russia shortly after 1900. Krasiski’s suspicion of the Jews, it should be noted, stands in stark contrast to the sympathy for this race displayed by both Mickiewicz and Sowacki.

As day draws near, Count Henryk departs from the camp and returns to the Holy Trinity Castle. That same evening, Pankracy comes to the castle for the purpose of persuading the count to surrender. During their ensuing debate, Pankracy expounds a view of social evolution that bears a strong affinity to the philosophy of historical materialism that was to be promulgated as official Communist doctrine by Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels during the next few decades. Henryk, moreover, is surprised to hear Pankracy proceed to disparage the untutored masses who make up the bulk of his forces, asserting that their cause would be without any prospect of success were it not for the leadership provided by professional revolutionaries such as himself. (Here, Pankracy’s point of view closely approximates the theory and practice of party organization that enabled Vladimir Ilich Lenin to engineer the October Revolution.) Despite the inexorable logic of Pankracy’s contention that the fossilized institutions of the Middle Ages must be swept away for the sake of humankind’s progress, Henryk’s deep attachment to the chivalric values of his ancestors and to the picturesque rituals of Christianity precludes the possibility of surrender. The issue must, therefore, be resolved in mortal combat on the ramparts of the Holy Trinity Castle. Count Henryk’s failure to come to terms with Pankracy is a great disappointment to the other aristocrats who are trapped in the castle, and he needs to employ all of his rhetorical skills to prevent a mass defection from his ranks. His followers are obviously a thoroughly effete assemblage of noblemen who are willing to sell their birthright so long as they can save their own skins. Henryk, for his part, wishes to defend the castle to the bitter end so as to keep faith with his ancestral heritage. In short, he prefers a romantic death to life in a prosaic world dominated by the ideologies of populism and scientific atheism.

The fateful battle begins a few days later, and the count’s forces actually succeed in holding the enemy at bay for a while. During a lull in the fighting, Henryk is confronted with the sins of his forefathers, as well as his own sins, when Orcis lures him into visiting the underground dungeon that is located in the castle. There, his blind son is able to conjure up the voices of those who had died in torment within these vaults. Unlike his sighted father, he can also see the forms of these victims in his mind’s eye by virtue of his vatic powers. The vision that Orcis subsequently describes to his father is that of a man being tortured as punishment for his indifference toward the welfare of others. Presiding over the imposition of these penalties is Satan himself. Orcis goes on to reveal that it is Henryk himself who is fated to suffer these torments. The boy further claims that it was his dead mother who summoned him to persuade his father to visit the dungeon. Utterly dismayed by the experience, Count Henryk hastens back to his feckless followers and exhorts them to muster the courage to meet the final assault of the masses. When the fighting resumes, Orcis is struck by a random bullet and dies on the spot. The castle is finally overrun by Pankracy’s troops, and the count retreats to a remote bastion situated along a precipice. Seeing that his capture is imminent, he utters a curse against the spirit of poetry and leaps into the gorge below. By taking his own life, Henryk has violated one of the cardinal prohibitions of Christianity and thereby demonstrated the emptiness of his claim to be the defender of the faith.

Pankracy learns of the count’s suicide as he is dispensing summary justice to the last remaining members of the aristocracy. On hearing the news, he decides to take a stroll along the ramparts of the Holy Trinity Castle in the company of one of his closest confederates. Just as Pankracy is disclosing his plans for transforming society, he sees an awesome vision in the sky. It is nothing less than the figure of Jesus Christ leaning against a cross. Completely overwhelmed by this apocalyptic vision, Pankracy falls into the arms of his befuddled companion and promptly expires. He does, however, have time to reiterate the last words allegedly spoken by the anti-Christian Roman emperor known as Julian the Apostate (331-363 c.e.): “Galillee vicisti!” (“Galilean, thou hast conquered!”). This utterance on the part of Pankracy should not be interpreted as an indication that he has finally come to recognize the moral superiority of his adversaries. If the situation is viewed in terms of the dialectical principles espoused by Georg Wilhelm Friedrich Hegel, a philosopher whose writings exerted a profound influence on Krasiski, it is clear that the meaning of the final scene is far more complex. In keeping with the nature of the Hegelian triad, the struggle between the aristocracy and the masses depicted in Krasiski’s play is similar to the dialectical relationship of thesis and antithesis. Out of this opposition, a synthesis is to emerge. It was Krasiski’s belief that humankind’s progress toward a higher form of civilization required an amalgamation of the competing ideologies respectively embodied by Count Henryk and Pankracy. Pankracy’s attraction to Count Henryk is, in fact, based on a subliminal need to transcend his differences with the aristocracy. It is also the reason why Krasiski chooses to grant Pankracy, rather than Count Henryk, the privilege of perceiving the image of the Savior that emerges from behind the rays of the setting sun.


Iridion differs from The Undivine Comedy in many important ways. First, its length is more than three times that of The Undivine Comedy, and its prolix style contrasts sharply with the economy of language employed in the earlier play. Whereas the setting of The Undivine Comedy is left indeterminate, Iridion has a precise locale. In Iridion, the plot unfolds against the background of ancient Rome, during the reign of the emperor Elagabalus (218-222 c.e.; Heliogabalus in the drama). The protagonist is a young Greek named Iridion who is bent on destroying the despotic power of Rome that has kept his homeland in bondage for so many centuries. The destruction of Rome had also been the ruling passion of Iridion’s father, Amphilochus Hermes. The extensive prologue to the play relates how Amphilochus migrated temporarily to a region in Scandinavia and married a woman named Grimhilda. By entering into wedlock with a priestess of the Norse god Odin, he hoped to be able to sire offspring that would combine Hellenic intellect with Germanic vitality. Back in Greece, his wife bore him a son and a daughter, Iridion and Elsinoe. Both children were reared to be implacable enemies of imperial Rome and were sworn to dedicate their lives to its destruction. Assisting Amphilochus in indoctrinating his offspring was a mysterious tutor of advanced age who called himself Masinissa. After the death of Grimhilda, Amphilochus departed from Greece together with his children and their tutor, as well as with an urn containing his wife’s ashes, and took up residence in a palace situated in the heart of Rome.

As the play formally opens, Amphilochus has already expired. To fulfill his oath to destroy Rome, Iridion has now devised a plan to undermine the empire from within, one that requires him to ingratiate himself with Emperor Heliogabalus (Elagabalus). To this end, Iridion deems it best to induce his own sister to become one of the emperor’s concubines. With great reluctance, Elsinoe agrees to the scheme and is thereupon taken to the emperor’s palace. Heliogabalus is duly grateful for this favor, and Iridion actually assumes command of the Praetorian Guard before long. The emperor is a degenerate youth who is in imminent danger of being deposed by a group of high-minded patricians led by his cousin Alexander Severus. Iridion is thus faced with two sets of enemies. In many respects, the patrician party poses a far greater obstacle to Iridion’s plans than does the effete emperor himself. The Roman state would surely be rejuvenated and its decline halted in the event that Alexander Severus and his followers were ever to come to power.

To augment his own forces, Iridion solicits support from various disgruntled segments of Roman society such as the plebeians, slaves, gladiators, and barbarians. Masinissa, however, informs him that the combined strength of all these groups is insufficient for the task at hand. He therefore urges Iridion to seek recruits among the Christians. These followers of Jesus would, however, need to be persuaded to abandon their commitment to nonviolence if they were to be of any use in the struggle. For the sake of making inroads among them, Iridion pays court to a Christian maiden named Cornelia Metella; he also permits himself to be baptized into the faith under the name of Hieronimus. Many Christians do, in fact, prove receptive to Iridion’s exhortations to take up arms against their mutual foe. At the moment of crisis, however, they are dissuaded from coming to his aid by their bishop. Cornelia herself dies when the bishop subjects her to a rite of exorcism aimed at restoring her Christian orthodoxy. All of Iridion’s machinations, consequently, end in failure. Heliogabalus is deposed by Alexander Severus, who then becomes emperor; Elsinoe, although in love with Alexander, commits suicide because she cannot reconcile herself to betraying her brother’s cause.

Iridion, whose troops have abandoned him in favor of Alexander, now attempts to summon death by throwing himself on his sister’s funeral pyre. Masinissa, however, restrains him. At this point, Iridion learns that his former tutor is actually the Devil himself. On top of a mountain overlooking Rome, Masinissa offers to grant him the privilege of seeing the ancient city reduced to ruins in exchange for his soul. Iridion’s thirst for vengeance is still unquenched, and he eagerly accepts Masinissa’s offer. Because that fateful day is far off, Iridion must spend the intervening period in a comatose state within a mountain cavern. Masinissa awakens Iridion in 1835 and takes him on a tour of the landmarks of ancient Rome, all of which now lie in ruins. When Iridion enters the Colosseum and sees a giant crucifix standing in isolated splendor within its walls, he is overwhelmed by emotion. Having fulfilled his part of the bargain, Masinissa wishes to lay claim to Iridion’s soul. At this moment, the spirit of Cornelia Metella appears and argues for her former suitor’s redemption. She asserts that while Iridion hated Rome, he loved Greece. The competing claims of Cornelia and Masinissa are finally resolved when God condescends to grant Iridion an opportunity to atone for his former obsessive hatred of imperial Rome. He is instructed to go northward in the name of Christ until he reaches “the land of graves and crosses” and to work for its national liberation through the spirit of love. Krasiski, thus, repudiates the doctrine that the end justifies the means, a principle that appears to have been embodied in the person of Masinissa.

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