Death, Drugs, and Art

From one Pole to another, how Zbigniew Kaspruk is keeping a giant of the avant-garde alive.

By Justin Hayford

On September 19, 1939, Stanislaw Ignacy Witkiewicz, the great Polish avant-garde playwright, painter, philosopher, and narcotics expert, killed himself in an act of ludicrous redundancy.

He’d spent several days fleeing the invading Nazis with his longtime paramour, Czelawa Korzeniowska, when his legs simply gave out. Evening was falling, so the two went into the woods and sat under a tall oak. Witkiewicz began popping pills–nothing unusual for a man who had spent years experimenting with drugs in an ongoing attempt to push his art into the realm of the hallucinogenic and irrational. In fact, hundreds of his portraits bear cryptic inscriptions that indicate exactly which drugs he was on while painting; the more expensive the drugs, the more he would charge the sitter. But on this day the 18 tablets of luminal, chased with two cybalgine pills, served an utterly rational purpose: to make his blood flow faster when he slit his wrists.

He said good-bye to Czelawa, pulled out a razor, and began cutting–but the blood wouldn’t flow. Then he slit open his right leg. Still no blood. To all appearances, he was already dead. It was a moment as grotesque and absurd as any he’d scripted in his numerous grotesque and absurd plays. To cap it off, Czelawa fell asleep on him. The playwright whose furious antibourgeois “comedies with corpses” had been met with derision and contempt, when they were acknowledged at all, lost his final audience. Sometime during the night he found a vein in his neck with some blood left in it and managed to make his death permanent.

It was a fitting end for the man who’d spilled copious amounts of ink dramatizing the plight of the visionary individual crushed by a mechanized, militarized, desensitized death-loving culture. Witkiewicz may have been one of the greatest innovators in world theater, laying much of the groundwork for high modern European playwriting, but he’s been almost completely forgotten, at least in America. “Witkiewicz is very well-known in Poland by name,” explains Zbigniew Kaspruk, who’s just completed a film adaptation of Witkiewicz’s 1920 play They. “Everyone knows him. But most people describe him as a psycho, like a sick man.”

Kaspruk is out to redeem Witkiewicz’s name and introduce him to a broad American audience through his new foundation, Arts for Free Spirit. Its mission is to promote Polish literature through film in the English-speaking world. Kaspruk founded Arts for Free Spirit in December, and They is its first product. “I’m trying to bring Witkiewicz a bit closer to people,” he explains, “trying to make Witkiewicz logical, which is very difficult for American actors.”

They is set in the drawing room of art collector, dilettante, and sex addict Callisto Balandash who, like his fiancee, the aspiring actress Countess Tremendosa, is trapped in the clutches of a secret government committee, the League of Absolute Automationism. It seems the league aims to bring about the total collapse of art, just as Callisto is inadvertently bringing about the total collapse of his own heart through his sexual and aesthetic decadence. He and the countess, trapped in a perverse relationship of degradation and objectification, slowly destroy themselves as the league closes in.

In his film version Kaspruk has condensed the “drama in two and a half acts” to just 50 minutes, focusing on the complex interrelationship between the two lead characters, jettisoning the play’s lengthy art-historical debates. “Leaving all that in would be a little bit too out-of-date, a little bit too boring,” he says with a laugh. “But relations between a man and a woman, 80 years ago or today, it’s exactly the same.”

Kaspruk grew up in Warsaw, where he dreamed of becoming a film director. But in the 1970s, when he was going through school, his prospects were slim. The market was tiny, with only 30 or so feature films produced in the country each year. In addition, there was only one film school in all of Poland, the National Film School, and it let in exactly eight directing students each year. “There was a reason behind this,” Kaspruk says. “A socialist country had to give you a job after you graduated, so you couldn’t have many directors. From the political point of view, to create more directors you create people who eventually will be against the state and against the system. So they didn’t want to create enemies. A trickle can be controlled.”

He pursued a degree in history, graduating from college in 1978. With little hope of fulfilling his dream, he knew he had to leave his native country. “People ask me why I came to America,” he says, “and I just have one answer to that. Boredom. There was not much happening in a socialist society. Always gray, always dark, very few lights after darkness, too much alcohol going on.”

Fortunately one of his college friends had moved to Chicago, and she invited him for a visit, a prerequisite for an American visa. He told the government officials he was taking a two-week vacation. “It’s been a while,” he says.

He landed in Chicago in 1980 and spent the next 16 years avoiding his dream. He started his own cleaning service, published a small Polish newspaper, hosted a Polish-language radio program, did a bit of concert promoting, and by 1991 ended up as a technician at Motorola. He learned that Motorola had a program to pay for its employees’ education, so in 1996 he entered the film-directing program at Columbia College. He’ll get his degree next June.

With Arts for Free Spirit he’s invented a vehicle for his own work. This Saturday at 7 PM the foundation will present “Witkacy,” a celebration of Witkiewicz’s art and life, at the Polish Museum of America, 984 N. Milwaukee (admission is $20, $10 for students; call 847-394-4742). In addition to the premiere of They, Kaspruk will present readings of various Witkiewicz texts as well as a short lecture by Frank Kujawinski, professor of Polish literature at Loyola University.

Witkiewicz’s work, with its furious pacing and exaggerated emotions, typically invites bold, outlandish, hysterical productions. Yet Kaspruk’s They is as well behaved and sedate as a soap opera, putting the filmmaker at odds with 80 years of performance tradition. But perhaps Kaspruk is the true traditionalist: just before his death, Witkiewicz left instructions for his plays, asking for “as unemotional, straightforward, articulate a delivery of the lines as possible.”

“I think Witkiewicz says important things,” Kaspruk says. “So I want people to really listen. Maybe you’ll find something important for yourself.”

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photos/Robert Drea/Z. Malinowski, courtesy National Museum of Cracow.