She was born into a family of landed gentry and received a modest home education. Her family forced her to marry a Russian military officer. At twenty four she got involved with another man, became pregnant and left her husband, and consequently shunned by her family. She worked as an actress, columnist and literary critic. In 1889 she left for Paris, where she established contacts with the theatrical and painting communities. She also befriended the socialist-oriented Polish emigré society, which influenced the forming of her social views and opinions. After returning to Poland she settled down in Kraków. She continued to play on the stage, wrote articles, stories, novels and plays. She married once again, this time a painter, Stanisław Janowski, and settled down in Lviv. It wasn't before long that this second marriage also fell apart.
Today Zapolska is best known as a playwright, but it was the stage that was her real world. With little success, she started out as a travelling actress with playgroups in Kraków, Lviv and Poznań. She later played at the Théâtre Libre and the Théâtre de L'Oeuvre Lugne-Poëgo in Paris. Although she never had a successful career, she did accumulate certain artistic experience, of which the production of Maeterlinck's "Interior" at the Théâtre de L'Oeuvre was especially noteworthy. On returning to Poland she played among others at the Lviv and Kraków theatres, which were directed by Tadeusz Pawlikowski. Her acting career, which was progressing fairly well, was hindered by her recalcitrant character. At that time actors were completely dependent on theatre directors, who formed ad hoc groups for specific plays. Zapolska, who expressed characteristics of – as it was then called – a suffragette, often fell into conflicts. In 1900 she had to give up professional acting and from time to time organised her own theatre. In 1902 she ran an acting school in Kraków on the basis of which she created the Gabriela Zapolska Independent Theatre. Stagings of Maeterlinck's works were her most interesting achievements of that time. In those days Maeterlinck was considered a difficult and misunderstood playwright. His "Interior" was previously staged at the Kraków City Theatre by Pawlikowski in 1899 to great acclaim. The success of this production put off potential followers. Undeterred, Zapolska drew on her Parisian experience and dared to stage two plays. In 1902 at her acting school she put on the only Polish production of excerpts of "Princess Malena". In that very same year she presented "The Intruder" at her own apartment and repeated this production with her Independent Theatre at the Saski Hotel a year later.
In Lviv she organised a travelling theatre under her name, which toured Galicia in the years 1907-1908. In 1912-1913 she took on the role of the literary director of the Premier Theatre. As a columnist and theatre critic she collaborated with a number of periodicals such as Gazeta Krakowska, Słowo Polskie, Nowa Reforma, Ilustracja Polska and Wiek Nowy.
She was a very prolific writer. She published stories, social problem, psychological and romantic novels as well as articles. Many of her early works were published in episodes in the press (mostly in Przegląd Tygodniowy). Her early stories were collected in a volume called "From the History of Dolour" (1980). Her most notable prose achievements amongst others are: "Małaszka" (1883), "Cathy the Caryatid", "Pre-Hell" (1889), "Human Menagerie" (1893), "The Forest Will Rustle" (1899), "Seasonal Romance" (1904), "Martha's Daughter" (1907), "What Is Not Spoken of" (1909), "Of What We Don't Even Want to Think About" (1914), "Flawless Woman" (1913). Zapolska's novels and stories have been translated into many languages including Russian, German, Swedish, Czech, Hungarian, Slovak, Ukrainian and others.
Plays are Zapolska's most valuable works. "The Four of Them. A Tragedy of Stupid People" (premiere in 1893), "Froggy" (1897), "Małka Szwarcenkopf" (1897), "Jojne Firułkes" (1898), "The Morality of Mrs. Dulska" (1906), "Miss Maliczewska" (1910) are just a few of them. Shortly after their premieres the plays were published. They have been translated into tens of foreign languages and played in many Polish and European theatres and adapted for radio and later for television.
Gabriela Zapolska's works were dominated by naturalism. She was strongly influenced by Emil Zola's writing. Her naturalism has a distinct journalistic and didactic tone. By showing life in its brutal and drastic forms she stood up for the weakest and poorest, who couldn’t defend themselves. Her works are inhabited by characters such as servants, hookers, Jewish proletarians. She didn't avoid topics that were considered uncouth at the time, such as prostitution or venereal diseases (What Is Not Spoken of). Contrary to the writers from the Young Poland movement, who exercised complicated psychological analyses, she created typical characters: a bourgeois matron, an unfaithful wife, a henpecked husband, a gilded youth, an ignorant servant… A sheer typology was presented in "Human Menagerie", where in twelve scenes she portrayed twelve characters, each resembling a different animal: a frog, a kitten, a sacrificial goat, a mongrel, a donkey, a cuckoo, a lion, a monkey, a jackal, a parrot, a cow and a pigeon.
Her few attempts at modernistic poetry weren't an artistic success. However she shared in common with the writers from the Young Poland movement a hatred for the philistine: the hypocritical, self-satisfied representative of the bourgeoisie, who above all loves money and perceives interpersonal relationships as solely a game of interests. Her best works depict the community of the "horrible bourgeoisie".
Zapolska didn't generally like people. She resented men and despised women. These feelings contributed considerably to the excellent, spiteful depictions of her literary characters. In her best known play "The Morality of Mrs. Dulska" there is everything: a hypocritical bourgeois matron, a cowed husband, a debauched son, a cousin, who is a "liberated woman", a servant, who is taken advantage of, school-aged daughters, which are meek and curios of the family's sins. "Froggy", "The Four of Them" and "Seasonal Romance" are dominated by stupid and pretentious middle-class women, who romance at their henpecked husbands' sides. In "Miss Maliczewska" respectable and wealthy family men pick up young starlets who become their mistresses out of desperation.
Beginning with her debut, Zapolska's every work provoked fierce attacks of conservative critique: she was accused of immorality, exposing the problems of the body, shocking with the dirt of life and raising taboo issues. However her plays, even after a hundred years, are still staged, exemplifying the timelessness of her message: after all philistinism isn't a product of a single era and social group, it's a state of mind.
Important editions: "Group Edition of Works" v. 1-26, Lviv 1922-27; "Selected Works" v. 1-16, Krakow 1957-58; "Plays" v. 1-2, Wrocław 1960-61; "Articles" v. 1-3, Wrocław 1958-62; "Letters" t. 1-2, Wrocław 1970.
Author: Halina Floryńska-Lalewicz, February 2004. Translated by Marek Kępa, November 2011
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