Strange world of Witkacy
ROUSING from his drug-induced slumber, 54-year-old Witkacy found himself slumped against a tree, deep in a forest. Suicide, it seemed, was not easy.
To the east, Russian tanks were entering Poland, his homeland, intent on countering the Nazi invasion. Whoever triumphed, a totalitarian regime would ensue.
Unable to accept any loss of personal freedom Witkacy, the man who in death would ultimately be recognised as a cultural hero of Poland, produced a razor from his pocket and, slitting each wrist, kept his last promise to himself: "I won’t go on living as less than myself."
It was September 18, 1939 - the Second World War had begun.
Nearly five decades later the Polish government finally acknowledged their pioneer of the avant garde when, in 1988, his remains were brought back to his hometown Zakopane and honoured with a state ceremony . . . but more of that later.
Tonight, at the Roxy Art House, the Lazzi Experimental Arts Unit (Lazzi) will endeavour to lift the veil from the life of this almost forgotten eccentric, a man who fiercely believed in individual expression and whose work predates that of Genet, Beckett, and Brecht in the surrealist movement of the European theatre.
Witkacy Idiota delves into the dark, drug-fuelled and often bizarre world of the dramatist and poet, novelist and painter, photographer and art theorist.
"During his life people regarded his art with less worth because he was such an eccentric character. He believed in the individual and parodied everything. There was a great quote about him that went: ‘He treated serious matters like trifles and frivolous things with the greatest of importance’," says Sandy Grierson, who plays the young Witkacy in the Lazzi production.
"At the same time he did care greatly about what he saw as the world becoming an ever more mechanical place and about people becoming ever more soulless. Art, he felt, was the last place where ‘the individual’ could be celebrated."
The son of an eminent artist, Witkacy was born Stanislaw Ignacy Witkiewicz in 1885. Educated at home by his father he soon showed signs of genius.
At the age of seven he started writing short comedies imitating the works of Shakespeare and a year later wrote his first play, Cockroaches.
By 17 he had written his first philosophical dissertation. However, on leaving school in 1903 and against his father’s wishes, he enrolled at the Academy of Fine Arts in Cracow to study painting.
"Although Witkacy’s father was a stalwart of realistic painting - the Andrew Lloyd Webber of the art world of his day - he wanted his son to retain his individuality," explains Grierson. Perhaps in a bid to do so, Witkiewicz first adopted the name that he would become known by, Witkacy, in 1912.
"He played around with his name all the time. It was part of the game he played, in the same way that he would wear different masks and costumes. He would walk about Zakopane dressed as harlequin," says the 26-year-old.
"But while the aristocracy loved his father’s work, many just thought of Witkacy as the crazy son of a famous artist. Now he is seen as the more exciting of the two."
Researching his role led Grierson to conclude that Witkacy used different names and costumes as a means of hiding his true nature.
"He played the buffoon, the fool, but he did care passionately about things and I think he did care passionately about the fact that he wasn’t recognised. Behind all the masks and costumes I think was a sensitive wee boy who was completely dominated and isolated as a kid by a famous father," he says.
After the suicide of his fiance in 1914, Witkacy travelled the world before joining the Russian army as an officer at the outbreak of the Great War. Posted to St Petersburg he survived the Russian Revolution, and while there visited an exhibition of works by Picasso.
Both left lasting impressions on the artist who, on his return to Poland, often allowed his work to reflect his fear of social revolution and foreign invasion.
Settling back in Zakopane, Witkacy became the main theorist of Poland’s avant garde art movement, championing theatrical initiatives including "avant garde Formist theatre".
Grierson explains: "Witkacy wanted to do for theatre what Picasso had done for painting and what people like Arnold Schoenburg had done for music. He wanted to pull it out of any naturalistic world, but without being abstract for abstract’s sake.
"So although he would use a lot of autobiographical material in his plays he would put the composition of the piece before plot and narrative. He wanted his audience to come out of the theatre having had ‘an experience’ where normal life is left behind as they are taken on to another plane."
In Witkacy Idiota, directed by Lazzi’s artistic director David WW Johnstone, the company try to capture the essence of the man as a creative artist and "the delirium he got from creating".
Witkacy wrote 28 plays during his lifetime, the best known being The Madman and the Nun, in which a troubled poet is subjected to cruel therapy in a mental asylum.
By extracting images from his works - particularly The Madman and the Nun - Lazzi have created a collage of the man and his work, or as Johnstone, who also plays the psychiatrist and the older Witkacy in the show, puts it: "An auto-biographical sketching in the stylistic spirit of Witkacy himself".
Over three acts, the piece charts Witkacy’s life, not in a linear or realistic way, but in the "absurd" manner of an abstract painting.
Act One, Surreal Therapy, is directly influenced by The Madman and the Nun and appears to portray the young Witkacy and his psychiatrist in a mental asylum.
In Act Two, Tropical Fantasy, the action moves to the Tropics where Witkacy revels in the nonsensical delirium of the senses and the ecstatic happiness of drug addiction and experimentation.
Finally the silent third act, Crazy Death, takes place in a darker, moodier zone. A place of shadows in which Witkacy appears to have returned from the dead.
"Hopefully it won’t be what audiences expect. Witkacy saw art as being like a drug, the more you take the less effect it has. That is why he went to such extremes in his work. So I guess we hope people find Witkacy Idiota odd and unsettling but not alienating. We want them to be intrigued by it because he was certainly an intriguing character."
Indeed, even now, more than 60 years after his death, intrigue and mystery continue to haunt Witkacy. When the order was given to exhume his body and return it to Zakopane in 1988, the coffin was delivered, unopened, as planned by the Soviet authorities. However, when genetic studies were carried out on the remains contained in the coffin they revealed that the body was not that of Witkacy but of an old woman.
A final absurd twist to bring the curtain down on a surreal life. Witkacy himself would no doubt have approved.
Witkacy Idiota, Roxy Art House, Roxburgh Place, 8pm, tonight to Saturday, 7 (5), 0871 750 0077
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