Theatre Journal 54.2 (2002) 187-202
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Poised on the Border
Just over one hundred years after its premiere at Stary Teatr in Krakow, 16 March 1901, Stanislaw Wyspianski's classic drama Wesele (The Wedding) finds itself poised on the border of Poland, awaiting entry into the canon of world theatre. A key work in the Polish theatrical tradition, Wesele transformed Wyspianski from a moderately successful visual and verbal artist associated with the "Young Poland" movement 1 into a national dramatist-visionary whose significance in Poland is comparable to Yeats's in Ireland, O'Neill's in America, or Maeterlinck's in Belgium. As distinct from these towering figures of the Western canon, however, Wyspianski's fame remains largely confined to his home culture, his work bound by perceptions of incomprehensibility and provincial hermeticism. Poland's entry into NATO and pending inclusion in the European Union have encouraged attempts in recent years to explode such myths and reconsider the place of Polish culture in the broader European context. A series of productions of Wesele in the 1990s outside of Poland 2 demonstrates the possibilities as well as the perils inherent in attempts to accord this Polish play the attention it deserves elsewhere in the world.
Wesele depicts the celebration of a wedding that actually took place in November 1900 between the poet Lucjan Rydel and the daughter of a peasant, Jadwiga Mikolajczyk. This union of intelligentsia and peasantry took place at the St. Mary's Church in Krakow. The young couple and their guests celebrated in the bride's home village of Bronowice on the outskirts of Krakow, in the house of her sister and brother-in-law. The host was a painter from Krakow, Rydel's friend, who had married his peasant bride ten years before. The first act presents paired interactions of the guests [End Page 187] from the city with those from the village. At the end of the act, the newlyweds playfully invite inside to the wedding the Chochol, the straw figure protecting a rose bush from the November cold in the garden. At the beginning of the second act the Chochol arrives and in turn invites "Whatever plays in someone's soul, whatever he sees in a dream," to come to the wedding and dance. In the second act, individual wedding guests meet fantastic visions in the shape of legendary, historical and literary figures embodying the hopes and fears for Poland's future. The visions climax with the appearance of the legendary Ukrainian seer Wernyhora to the Wedding Host, to whom Wernyhora hands a golden horn (figure 1), charging him to gather the people for an uprising. Wernyhora is seen by others and leaves his horn and a horseshoe behind. So the guests and audience wonder, are these spectres merely alcohol-induced delusions or visitors from another world with crucial messages? In the third act the Host gives Wernyhora's horn to the groomsman Jasiek, ordering him to ride out and call people for the uprising. The guests wait in anxious anticipation, but the Host has fallen asleep and become confused and Jasiek loses his golden horn. Jasiek returns alone to see the Wedding guests dancing passively in an endless circle, in thrall to the music of the Chochol (figure 2). 3 [End Page 188]
Wyspianski's play illustrates the painful hesitation characterizing liminal states. It captures the uncertainty felt at the cusp of two centuries in a Poland lacking sovereignty since its final partition by Austria, Prussia and Russia in 1795. The romantically charged history of the previous century's uprisings for freedom, and the feelings of distrust and betrayal plaguing relations between the peasants and the upper classes complicate the aspirations and apprehensions of the society depicted in a symbolist mirror for its audience. The dramatic structure of the play echoes this anxious uncertainty—the meeting of realistic and marvelous planes and the uncertain provenance of the visions represents the essence of the "fantastic" and fantastic hesitation described by Tsvetan Todorov. 4 These fantastic visions function as a [End Page...