Zygmunt Krasiński Critical Essays


(Critical Edition of Dramatic Literature)

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...

(The entire section is 3259 words.)