Saturday, September 7, 2019


Stanislaw Ignacy Witkiewicz (1885-1939) was an artist of many talents.  He was a playwright, painter, novelist and prose author.  He belonged to no movement, ism or group.  When World War One started in 1914, Witkiewicz went to St. Petersburg, Russia and enrolled in officer’s training school. During the war he served as an officer in the renown Pavlovsky Regiment. In 1918 Witkiewicz returned to Poland, his country of birth, to continue his work as an artist and playwright/author.

It was at this time that he began to use the name Witkacy to distinguish himself from his famous father, who had the identical name. His father was an author and a renown painter, who died in 1915. Witkacy is a composite of Stanislaw’s last and middle names.

Witkacy focused on writing plays upon his return to Poland.  Over the next twenty years he was highly productive as a playwright and a painter.   It was in 1922 that he wrote The Cuttlefish, or the Hyrcanian Worldview.  Beneath the title of the play is printed “Motto: Don’t give in even to yourself.” This one-act drama was published the following year. Its premier performance was staged in Cracow, Poland in 1933 at the avant-garde artists’ Cricot theatre. This production was created primarily by painters and musicians, who interpreted the character of Hyrcan IV to look and act like Hitler.  Hyrcan, a self-created dictator, whose style of leadership is to be in complete control. The Cricot interpretation made the script and production timely.

The Cuttlefish depicts the plight of an artist in the contemporary world who is buffeted between the conflicting demands of his art and his country. He does not have confidence in either because he has lost faith in himself. The setting is an artist studio “with black walls with narrow emerald green designs.” There is a black pedestal on the left and Alice d’Or, a twenty-eight year old blonde dressed in an alligator printed tight-fitting sheath, lies on her stomach on the pedestal; she is referred to in the script as Statue. When the scene commences, artist Paul Rockoffer is pacing back and forth, clutching his head in his hands. He is a nonrealistic painter as was Witkacy. This drama has a cast of ten persons: five major characters, two minor and three incidental ones.

Paul Rockoffer is 46 years old.  His fiancée named Ella, is a pretty eighteen-year old, who is the play’s cuttlefish.  “A cuttlefish is any soft and insidious predator that, once having attached itself with sucking tentacles, will not let go.” Obviously, she is an overly possessive person. Rockoffer is in deep mourning and very disturbed since on the previous day every one of his paintings were burned and his ideas scorned by the government. Paul feels he has lost his identity.

Pope Julius II, a sixteenth century Pope, pays a visit to Rockoffer’s studio. This historic character represents past aristocrats, warriors, papal power and patron of the arts. This first section of the play is devoted to problems relating to art. Eventually Ella arrives and tries to cheer up Rockoffer. She is overflowing with plans and new items for their future home and life.

Later Hyrcan IV arrives.  He attended school with Rockoffer and he has proclaimed himself the ruler of an imaginary kingdom named Hyrcania. He is attired in a purple cloak and sports a golden garment beneath it. On his head is a helmet with a red plume.  He carries a large sword in one hand.

Eventually Hyrcan suggests that Rockoffer should accompany him to Hyrcania. Rockoffer is briefly tempted. Eventually Hyrcan is stripped of his physical pretensions and loses his sense of control/power. He kills Ella with one blow from his sword and leaves the scene muttering threats to everyone. Rockoffer proclaims he will prove that the artist is qualified to rule this world and he imagines a new life for himself as the ruler of Hyrcania.

This latter section of the play with the would-be dictator and his idea of totalitarianism was Witkacy’s vision of Europe’s future. I have simplified the plot and barely suggested the fabric of several major characters while totally omitting the minor and incidental ones. The Cuttlefish presents a complex group of characters, philosophies and surprising events that I have not addressed. 
Due to the rise of Hitler and his policies, the Cricot’s production of The Cuttlefish was the last professional production of Witkacy’s plays in the playwright’s lifetime. In 1939, Witkacy committed suicide immediately following the invasions of Poland by the German and Soviet regimes.

In 1956, when the liberation of the arts in Poland from Stalinist control commenced, the “Cricot 2” theatre company opened in Cracow with a new production of The Cuttlefish. Tadeusz Kantor (1915-1990) founded Cricot 2 with a group of visual artists, who were interested in creating an experimental theatre group.  Cricot 2 performed in many theatres throughout Poland as well as abroad. Kantor, who was a visual artist as well as a theatre director, found several of Witkacy’s thirty remaining plays to be the appropriate material for his revolutionary theatrical style. It was Kantor who introduced Witkacy’s dramas to a new generation of Polish audiences and he assured Witkacy’s work would have a significant influence in the evolving avant-garde Polish theatre.

In 1970 The Cuttlefish was translated and published in English. Daniel Gerould’s book titled Witkacy was published in 1981 and it generated more interest in this playwright. I have found mention of two productions of The Cuttlefish.  The Ensemble Studios Rep. Theatre located in Sydney, Australia presented in October, 1984 a production of The Cuttlefish.  It played every Friday night throughout the month.

In April, 2019 LA MAMA Theater in New York City presented COFFEEHOUSE CHRONICLES #153 WITKACY. This event also celebrated not only some of the works by Witkacy, but also the newly published four volumes of Stanislaw Ignacy Witkiewicz’s collected plays including The Cuttlefish. This event and the publication recognize that The Cuttlefish and its playwright continue to be meaningful in today’s world.

No comments:

Post a Comment