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  • A Translator’s Introduction
  • Allen Kuharski (bio)

The road from the writing to the staging of Witold Gombrowicz’s plays consistently has been a torturous one. Princess Ivona (Iwona, Ksieçzæniczka Burgunda) made its debut in the prestigious Polish literary review Skamander in 1938, and yet waited until 1957 for its first professional production in Warsaw. The critical and popular success of the Polish premiere was repeated in Paris in 1965, and the play has since become not only Gombrowicz’s most frequently staged work, but one of the best known works of modern Polish drama around the world. The Marriage (Slub, 1944) similarly waited twenty years for its professional theatrical premiere in France, and another ten for its professional premiere in Poland.1 Operetta (Operetka, 1966), which Gombrowicz spent at least ten years writing, was not staged until its world premiere in Italy a few months after the playwright’s death in 1969. Though belatedly, these three works established Gombrowicz as Poland’s most cosmopolitan playwright, with performances of Ivona, for example, now as frequent in Germany as in Poland itself.

If Gombrowicz’s plays resemble a nest of ugly ducklings, the runt of the litter would seem to be his unfinished posthumous play History (Historia), available here for the first time in English translation. In its content, form, and theatrical history, the play has proven itself both typical and exceptional as part of Gombrowicz’s theatre. Drafted between 1951 and 1954, the play was lost among the playwright’s unpublished papers until years after his death. Konstanty Jelen;ski discovered the text in 1975, and published it that same year in Polish in Paris in the emigré journal Kultura. The appearance of the text accompanied by Jelen ski’s detailed and daring introduction 2 immediately drew attention in Poland, where an abortive workshop production of the play was initiated by director Jacek Zembrzuski at the Warsaw State Drama School in 1976. The text appeared in a French edition in 1977, with illustrations by the Polish emigré artist Jan Lebenstein. 3 Following the pattern of Gombrowicz’s other plays, History’s professional premiere took place abroad in translation, in this case in West Germany in 1977, and has since been staged in Vienna, Cologne, and Paris. 4 Its Polish professional premiere took place in Gorzów Wielkopolski in 1981 under the direction of Kazimierz Skorupski, and the play has since had almost a dozen productions by Polish theatres, now enjoying an established place in the Polish repertory alongside Gombrowicz’s other three plays. [End Page 91] The Polish stagings of the play have been remarkably varied in production style and handling of the text. It has been staged as a satirical political cabaret sketch, a play with puppets, a period costume comedy, and adapted for television. Its fragmentary text has been collaged with other writings by Gombrowicz as well as staged essentially true to the version printed here. Jacek Bunsch’s effective adaptation and staging of the text at Wroclaw’s Teatr Polski in 1985 was later presented for an international audience of critics and theatre artists at the Festival of Contemporary Polish Plays in Wroclaw in 1987.

History is both Gombrowicz’s most explicitly personal play and also his most Polish in detail. His earlier works set a precedent for younger Polish playwrights such as Slawomir Mrozæek in their avoidance of any specifically Polish references. History begins with a witty and concise satire on the mores and complexes of the Polish gentry at the turn of the century, and ends (at least in the manuscript that remains) with a no less pointed satire of the literary and political culture of Pilsudski’s Poland. 5 Jelen;ski aptly suggested that the play revealed the autobiographical basis of the typology of characters consistently found in Gombrowicz’s other plays. Thus the transformation of the family into the courts of Tsar Nicholas II, Kaiser Wilhelm, and Pilsudski in the play makes theatrically explicit the analogous transformation of the Gombrowicz family into the theatrically conventional figures of a fairy tale court (Ivona), a Shakespearean court (The Marriage), or the aristocratic Viennese setting of Operetta. In one of his boldest dramaturgical...

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