Go Deeper

Getting to Know Witold Gombrowicz

Posted July 21st, 2009

The name Witold Gombrowicz doesn’t tumble off the tongue, and chances are you couldn’t pick him out of a lineup. But Gombrowicz was one of the 20th century’s most unique dramatists and authors. His work has also been a favorite of Live Arts and Fringe Festival artists, performed by Pig Iron and Theater Exile, amongst others (for a run down on Philly theater’s Gombrowicz bona fides, click here). His plays are produced throughout the world, but somehow awareness of Gombrowicz still simmers below the surface.

Witold Gombrowicz was born in Poland in 1904 to a wealthy family. He studied in Poland and France, and published his first novel Ferdydurke in 1937. After traveling to South America in 1939 aboard a Polish cruise liner, Gombrowicz decided to wait out World War II in Buenos Aires. But he was never able to return to Poland, and his works were censored in his native country due to their political and social content. Gombrowicz lived a modest life as an Argentine, publishing his fiction and plays in Western Europe, South America, and, through a dissident publisher, in Poland.

In 1963, Gombrowicz returned to Europe, and he spent the last six years of his life mostly in France. At this stage, Gombrowicz enjoyed a modicum of fame and prosperity, which would only grow posthumously. He was a finalist for a Nobel Prize in 1968, and he died shortly after, in 1969. Since that time, Gombrowicz’s works have taken hold in Poland and Eastern Europe, becoming required reading for Polish high school students. The exile has finally returned home.

After the jump: a brief history of Gombrowicz on stage and on the page, and a video preview of this fall’s production of Operetta, directed by Michal Zadara.

Gombrowicz’s oeuvre consists of drama and prose works. There are four plays: Princess Ivona (performed by Theater Exile in 2002); The Marriage (which Gombrowicz considered his most important work); Operetta (which will receive its Philadelphia premiere at the 2009 Live Arts Festival); and Historia (written 1962). These plays are often compared to the absurdist works of Ionesco and Beckett, but Gombrowicz was equally inspired by classical tragedy and Shakespeare. The plays depict social upheaval, political instability, and hypocrisy of every sort.

Gombrowicz was also an accomplished novelist. His first novel, Ferdydurke, a cracked coming of age story, ridicules Polish social mores and revolves around a cast of schoolboys and other tormentors, frequently employing the Gombrowicz-coined term “pupa,” which is, of course, untranslatable.

In his next novel, Trans-Atlantyk, Gombrowicz retraced his journey from Poland to South America. The protagonist, Witold, experiences many of the same events that the author faced, but soon the text moves on to fanciful turns of events. Check out Yale University Press’s zany English translation, written in a faux 17th-century English dialect.

The last two novels, Cosmos and Pornografia, showcase Gombrowicz’s insight and voice at their most evolved. The former explores paranoia and conspiracy as organizing principles of reality; the protagonist reorders his “cosmos” around a series of seemingly random events. Eventually, he becomes part of this warped reality. Pornografia explores the cooperation of the elderly and the young in enacting cruel erotic fantasies. Neither book is for the faint of spirit. This is dangerous territory, but incredibly rewarding.

If you are looking for Gombrowicz bonus points, seek out Possessed, or, The Secret of Myslotch, which Pig Iron adapted into the stunning Hell Meets Henry Halfway. Or dive into Gombrowicz’s Diaries, published in a rare three-volume English translation. The Diaries are seen by some as Gombrowicz’s greatest achievement. As his legacy continues to grow, we can look forward to more releases, and more sophisticated translations, of work that never saw the light of day during Gombrowicz’s lifetime.

But whatever you do, don’t miss out on Operetta, premiering September 10th at the Wilma Theater.

–Andrew Zitcer