The Mother

Trap Door Theatre

By Justin Hayford

It’s impossible to watch the plays of Stanislaw Witkiewicz and merely enjoy them. But it’s also common to enjoy them. The great Polish dramatist, painter, philosopher, and aesthetician never let his audience off easy. In a burst of outrageous brilliance, he wrote over 30 plays between 1918 and 1926. And to borrow a phrase from his The Crazy Locomotive, he carried a seismograph in his head tuned to the titanic social upheavals transforming Europe. As a member of the czarist guard, he witnessed the Russian Revolution firsthand. Returning to Poland in 1918, he saw the re-creation of an independent country, which had not existed for over a century. He immersed himself in the radical modernist insurrections of cubism and fauvism, marveled as the physical certainties of Newtonian physics gave way to the quantum miasma of indeterminacy, and watched as the cultural ideal of individualism was replaced by the industrialized utility of mechanization. For Witkiewicz, 19th-century utopianism had led to destruction and soullessness; not surprisingly, he committed suicide in 1939. As he wrote in his last play, The Shoemakers, “Everything in history has to blow up and can’t move smoothly into the future along the well-greased tracks of reason.”

Witkiewicz threw grenades at everything rational, predictable, and conventional. He experimented with narcotics, writing extensively about their effects; he even opened a portrait studio where he painted under their influence–the more expensive the drug, the more expensive the portrait. He paraded about the streets of his native Zakopane in absurd costumes yet delighted in meeting guests at his flat stark naked. And he poured every ounce of his iconoclasm into his plays, believing that the theater could deliver metaphysical truths only through the perversion of forms. His plays pitch wildly from one stylistic extreme to another, and logic is for the most part thrown to the winds. Characters die in one act and return later with no explanation. Witkiewicz offers impassioned political critiques in such extreme forms that he seems to be ridiculing his own most cherished beliefs. In the words of director Jan Kott, his is a theater that is “always scoffing.”

Nowhere does he scoff quite so disdainfully as in his 1924 “unsavory play,” as he called it, The Mother–a dysfunctional-family drama that makes Buried Child look like an episode of The Brady Bunch. Set in the home of the bitter, alcoholic matron Janina Eely, The Mother presents a family–and, by proxy, a society–on the verge of total collapse, populated with self-described vampires who suck one another dry. Janina has drawn the life from her intellectually overbearing, ambitious son Leon, having raised him in a state of utter dependence. “I’ve been protecting you from [life] like a suit of armor,” she coos to him as they wrap their arms around each other in an incestuous embrace. “And I’m afraid of what’ll happen when you realize that I’m your whole life and that you don’t have anyone else or anything else.” For his part, Leon takes a sadistic delight in mooching off his mother, a knitter who works her fingers to the bone to support him and his fiancee, the “third-class tart” Sophia. Besides, his life of “intense outward laziness” allows him the time to perfect his theories of social destruction. Only in the second act does he straighten up and start bringing home a serious income–as a spy and a pimp.

It’s no surprise that few of Witkiewicz’s plays were produced during his lifetime. Not until the theatrical revolution of Beckett and Ionesco in the 50s did his bleak, grotesque view of the world find broad acceptance in Europe. The Mother wasn’t published until 1962; it was first performed in Krakow two years later. Like his spiritual allies Alfred Jarry and Antonin Artaud, Witkiewicz was several decades ahead of his time, serving up a messy, demanding, deeply cynical brand of “supercabaret”–to borrow a term from Tadeusz Boy-Zelenski, one of the few contemporary critics to appreciate Witkiewicz’s genius. The Mother exemplifies the playwright’s wish to depict the corruption, dissipation, and boredom of modern existence in a convulsion of vicious laughter.

In short, Witkiewicz is no crowd pleaser, a fact the folks at Trap Door understand. Their production of The Mother is a marvel of contradictions, as engaging as it is repugnant. Their rotting, bare-bones space provides an apt backdrop for this evening of joyous perversion. The nine cast members, directed by Beata Pilch and Sean Marlow (who play Janina and Leon), in essence balance the forces of chaos and destruction on the head of a pin, throwing themselves into this fantastic horror show with skilled abandon.

Trap Door has long been drawn to the grotesque and the hyperstylized. In fact, their debut production in 1994 was Witkiewicz’s The Madman and the Nun. But whether tackling Witkiewicz, Genet, or Gambrowiecz, the company has often been overwhelmed by considerations of style, coming up somewhat short on the intellectual and emotional depths that make even the most unrealistic choices ring true. With The Mother, however, they’ve learned to put style in service of the play rather than the reverse. For the first time they’ve created heartfelt relationships in a grotesque world and found genuine emotional stakes in deviant buffoonery. In particular, Pilch and Marlow make their monstrous characters truly pathetic, allowing us to cheer their callow self-centeredness in spite of ourselves. The world of The Mother becomes awful and real even as the actors scoff right along with the playwright.

Most important, Pilch and Marlow refuse to surrender theatricality to reverence for the text. Their production is full of wild blocking, outrageous images, even a few absurd sound effects. They show more concern for impact than accuracy, a priority Witkiewicz would have respected. At the same time, this is no free-for-all. Every explosive moment is carefully contained, as the characters struggle to suppress the volcanic antisocial forces about to boil over inside them. This sense of simultaneous frustration and release gives the evening a frantic tension. The show can’t be stopped even for intermission.

With The Mother Trap Door has reached a new level of stylistic maturity, conquering one of the modern era’s most difficult plays without reducing its complexity, ugliness, or tedium. This is an especially impressive feat considering the paucity of resources the Trap Door folks have at their disposal. Maybe it’s time for an all-Witkiewicz season.

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): The Mother theater still by Mary Flipkowski.