Credit: Courtesy Trap Door Theatre


Trap Door Productions

at the Chopin Theatre

The grotesque death of Stansiław Ignacy Witkiewicz, the great but forgotten Polish dramatist, painter, and aesthetician, could have been pulled from any of his many absurd plays. On September 5, 1939, four days after Hitler invaded Poland, Witkiewicz fled Warsaw by train with his lover of many years, Czeslawa Korzeniowska, to what is now the city of Brest in Belarus. That night the city was bombed by the Germans, so he and Korzeniowska fled again, this time on foot, hampered by Witkiewicz’s bad heart and legs. By September 17 they had reached the small town of Jeziory, where the Germans were attacking from the east and the west. According to Korzeniowska’s diary, “We went into the woods . . . Stas began to take ephedrine tablets. ‘What are you taking those for?’ I asked. ‘My blood will circulate more quickly, it will flow out of me faster,’ Stas answered, planning to slash his veins.

“He dissolved eighteen luminal tablets and two cybalgine tablets in a small pot. . . . Then we said good-bye. . . . Stas began to slit his wrist with a razor, but the blood somehow didn’t flow. He cut the varicose vein on his right leg, but there wasn’t any blood there either.

“I felt weaker and weaker. I couldn’t keep from drowsing off.

“‘Don’t fall asleep!’ Stas cried out. ‘Don’t leave me alone!'”

Witkiewicz, like so many of his fictional protagonists, tried to maintain some dignity and sanity in a hopeless, unpredictable, and almost comically cruel world. In his work as in his death, he clarified the idea of the grotesque as the collision of tragedy and farce. Although he died in near obscurity—his highly disturbing and unconventional plays were dismissed as the ravings of a madman by the critics of his day—his name resurfaced in Poland after the October revolution of 1956, sparking a new avant-garde movement that drew the likes of Tadeusz Kantor and Jerzy Grotowski.

The Madman and the Nun, written in 1923 (near the end of a prolific seven-year period in which he created approximately 40 plays), features the classic Witkiewiczian hero: Walpurg, an acclaimed poet now bound in a straitjacket in an insane asylum, his voice silenced by an even more insane bureaucracy of scientists and religious authorities. Whether Walpurg is a visionary or a hack is irrelevant, for in Witkiewicz’s view any artistic impulse “happens almost always on the very edge of madness.”

One of the few plays that enjoyed a modicum of success during Witkiewicz’s lifetime, The Madman and the Nun grew out of the many contradictory forces in his life and in the world around him. Although he was the son of one of the most prominent turn-of-the-century Polish intellectuals, Witkiewicz received no formal education. (“In our times,” his father wrote, “school is completely at odds with the physiological make-up of human beings.”) Left to his own devices, Witkiewicz became an accomplished landscape painter, following in his father’s footsteps, but he also created horrifying portraits of his friends, with titles like A Man With Dropsy Lies in Wait for His Wife’s Lover and The Prince of Darkness Tempts Saint Theresa With the Aid of a Waiter From Budapest. He traveled through Australia with the not-yet-famous anthropologist Bronisław Malinowski, a childhood friend, at one point ending up tied to a stake over an open fire by natives hoping to rid him of ticks. He even served in the czar’s elite Pavlovsky Regiment, a unit that would ultimately fight alongside the Bolsheviks and would elect Witkiewicz as its political commissar.

Madman is as full of contradictions as the author’s peripatetic life. The asylum is run by lunatics. A nun is a creature of carnal passions. Murder is a cure for a murderer’s insanity.

Throughout his life, madness held a special fascination for Witkiewicz. He even used the words of Polish author Tadeusz Miciński—”In choosing my life I have chosen madness”—as the epigraph to his 1930 novel Insatiability. It was no whim that made Witkiewicz set The Madman and the Nun in a “cell for raving maniacs” lorded over by furiously Freudian analysts Bidello and Grün. In 1913, fearing for his own sanity, Witkiewicz sought treatment from Dr. Karol Beaurian, Poland’s first Freudian psychoanalyst; but Witkiewicz’s faith in psychoanalysis was as questionable as his faith in any other institution. As he wrote in a letter to a friend while under Beaurian’s care, “If I come out of this, it won’t be due to my realizing that I have an embryo complex.”

On a superficial level, The Madman and the Nun is about an artist’s struggle to maintain his sanity in an insane world, and it is on this level that Trap Door Productions focuses its energy, even dedicating the production “to all the struggling artists in the world.” Grün and Bidello are portrayed as grotesque, maniacal zealots oblivious to their own disruptive complexes. Bidello, for example, sports a red pair of women’s bloomers under his lab coat, worn backward. It’s as if, in the tradition of expressionism, we see these characters through Walpurg’s eyes—and they’re his worst nightmare. Walpurg keeps himself sane by writing verse in his head and by winning the undying affection of Sister Anna, who’s been sent to cure him. Walpurg also takes several opportunities to declaim directly to the audience in somber tones that society is a soulless machine.

Much of the Trap Door production effectively evokes the hostile, unpredictable environment of the asylum, though often the “craziness” is laid on at the expense of intelligibility. And the unvarying fever pitch begins to lose its immediacy by the second half of the play. Certainly Madman needs to be fueled by an explosive mixture, but the ensuing chaos must be so tightly focused that it rises above confusion. Madman is the kind of play that the New Criminals, with their electrifying precision, could tear to shreds. Trap Door, working without a director, have trouble picking their way through Witkiewicz’s minefield.

More problematic is the fact that Trap Door focuses so heavily on Walpurg’s dilemma, reducing him to an individual, psychologically realistic character, that their production fails to achieve a higher, metaphorical significance. For one thing the romanticized tribulations of the insane artist have become somewhat hackneyed in the latter half of the 20th century. But also Witkiewicz’s outrageous drama, in which it seems almost commonplace for a nun to pull off her wimple and hump a madman, is concerned with more than the fate of an individual poet, or even the fate of society. Madman is written on a truly cosmic scale.

Witkiewicz was deeply influenced by the revolution in the physical sciences. Einstein had shown in his special theory of relativity in 1905 that time and space were no longer eternal and absolute but fluid and personal. Experiments in quantum physics revealed light waves acting like particles and electrons acting like curious constructs called probability waves. Recently discovered phenomena like radioactivity showed that certain naturally occurring events had no discernible physical cause whatsoever. They could only be defined according to their statistical likelihood of happening.

This is the universe in which Walpurg finds himself, a universe full of inexplicable uncertainties. The absolutes of the past, science and religion, are here highly subjective systems in the hands of irresponsible, self-serving individuals. Even death holds no dominion in Witkiewicz’s drama; after Walpurg hangs himself, he reappears within moments in a fancy new suit, a bright yellow flower in his lapel, free at last from his psychological prison. If light can be a wave or a particle depending upon an observer’s measurements, Walpurg can be dead or alive depending upon which part of the play an audience happens to be watching. In fact in several of Witkiewicz’s plays characters who’ve died return to the stage without explanation.

But Walpurg’s ultimate triumph does not provide a hopeful ending to The Madman and the Nun. His victory over his captors is of course ironic, for it comments upon the impossibility of a happy ending without the intrusion of the playwright (the famous arrival of the Mounted Messenger carrying Macheath’s pardon at the end of Bertolt Brecht’s The Threepenny Opera, written five years later, functions the same way). In Witkiewicz’s view, the world is without hope, heading toward disorder, decay, and destruction. His Walpurg embodies nothing less than the force of entropy—which, according to the second law of thermodynamics, must always increase, bringing the universe ultimately to its demise. Any expenditure of energy, including the creative act, contributes to that entropy. The artist by definition is self-destructive on a cosmic scale.

This notion is at the core of The Madman and the Nun, as it is in most of Witkiewicz’s later plays. Walpurg, the apparent savior of a muddled world—he even hangs himself with his arms extended in Christlike fashion—ultimately destroys that world, rendering it absurd through his incongruous resurrection. Witkiewicz felt the rumble of the titanic forces of his age, and these energies drive his plays beyond their hopeless pessimism. It’s encouraging to see a new company grappling with a playwright this important and overlooked, but they must also rise to the challenges his powerful work presents. v