Playwright, poet, theatre director, originator of modern Polish theatre. Born January 15, 1869, in Kraków, died November 28, 1907, in Kraków.
Wyspiański grew up in Kraków during the late nineteenth century when the city was part of the Austro-Hungarian Empire. The place and the community in which he was raised were instrumental in shaping his artistic imagination. His father, Franciszek, a sculptor, had an atelier at the foot of the Wawel hill, home to a cathedral rich with evidence of the strength of the former Polish state, and to a royal castle, by then an Austrian army barracks.
Stanisław attended St Anne's Gymnasium. Many of his schoolmates, including Jozef Mehoffer, Lucjan Rydel, Stanislaw Estreicher, were to play major roles in Kraków's cultural life. Instruction was bilingual so the students were thoroughly versed in German language, literature, and culture. A classical gymnasium, St Anne's also equipped its pupils with a thorough knowledge of antiquity - antique motifs would always be present in Wyspiański's work. A former capital city of a once powerful country, now reduced to the status of a smallish, inferior, provincial town, Kraków was a magical place, a point of reference and a challenge to the Polish consciousness of the late nineteenth century. On one hand, tradition was celebrated with pomp, and objects of the past were venerated. On the other, a group of historians emerged from the city's Jagiellonian University, challenging the Poles' vision of history, identifying the causes of national failures and the reasons for undesirable social behaviour. Kraków was also the birthplace of Polish modernism.
After his baccalaureate exam, Wyspiański enrolled at the Department of Philosophy of the Jagiellonian University, and at the School of Fine Arts to study painting under Jan Matejko, the painter of large-scale historical canvases. As a student, he and his colleagues were involved in the renovation of St Mary's Church, and, during his summer travels across the Galicia and Kielce regions, he helped to develop a register of objects from the past. His most notable contribution was the discovery, in the village of Kruzlowa, of a fifteenth-century wooden statue of the Mother of God (now kept at the Krakow National Museum and called the Madonna of Kruzlowa). This work must have encouraged him to take a more personal look at his country's heritage as well as increasing his sensitivity to detail in fine arts. Indeed, no matter whether he was looking at an object of art or creating one, his unique imagination made him view the work as a fragment of a historical event. When looking at a painting, a sculpture, or a piece of architecture, he would add a story that would make it dramatic, hence challenging the essentially static nature of fine arts. In Kraków he was able to see the finest Polish actors (including Helena Modrzejewska [aka Modjeska]), as well as taking part in amateur performances himself. Modernism, which was then coming of age, created an awareness of the co-existence of various arts. A student of painting, Wyspiański also tried his hand at writing minor lyrics as well as dramatic scenes that would often comment on his fine arts projects, like his Krolówa Polskiej Korony / Queen of the Polish Crown, which he wrote when working on a stained-glass window for the Lvov Cathedral. Years later, as a mature artist, he designed a series of (unrealised) stained-glass windows for the Wawel Cathedral and wrote poems devoted to the historical personages they depicted.
In 1890, Wyspiański travelled abroad, visiting Vienna, Venice, Padua, Verona, Mantua, Milan, Como, Luzern, Basel, stopping for a while in Paris. Having visited the cathedral of Saint-Denis, he went to the famous Gothic cathedrals of Chartres, Rouen, Amiens, Laon, Reims, Strasbourg, and then the Roman cathedrals, down to Nuremberg. He returned to Poland via a number of German towns, watching productions of plays by Goethe, Weber, Wagner and Shakespeare. He wrote detailed letters to his friends - mostly to Lucjan Rydel - which, together with the "Notatnik z podróży po Francji" [Notes on a Trip to France] were to become source material for his (unpublished) study of the French cathedrals.
In May, 1891, he went to France again, travelling across Austria and Switzerland, to continue his studies in Paris. Failing to get admitted to École des Beaux Arts, he started to paint in one of the Parisian ateliers within the Colarossi Academy. He loved the productions at Comédie Française, and frequented other theatres, too. Besides painting, he started to write dramas and opera librettos, addressing historical and mythological themes seen from the perspective of the end of the century. His studies abroad introduced him to the latest aesthetic trends, including the modern understanding of applied art and the diverse approaches of European theatre. More importantly, his studies helped him to discover Gothic and the phenomenon of the cathedral as a consummate work of art, the most perfect expression of its age. Ever since that moment, he nurtured a need to create a complete work of art, which, like a Gothic cathedral, would be able to accommodate the entire experience of history and modernity.
Wyspiański practised a variety of arts and did so with enormous courage and gusto. He made plans for architectural restorations, in particular for the Wawel Royal Castle; worked on polychrome and monumental stained-glass windows for Kraków's Franciscan church; developed artwork for the modernist literary journal "Życie"; painted; designed furniture; wrote dramas and worked on stage designs for Kraków's City Theatre. He worked fast and with extraordinary intensity, his highly diverse output produced in a mere dozen years. Yet a number of his artistic plans were never implemented, and only some of his dramas made it to the stage.
Starting with the November 1898 première of Warszawianka [Varsovienne] - the play that marked his debut as a playwright - he always designed the sets to his works, even though they were not always faithfully followed. An early play of his, Warszawianka, reveals a thorough understanding of modern theatre production, not least in the meticulously composed space, the windows in the back wall playing a major dramaturgical part in directing the attention of both the protagonists and the audience to what is happening in the background. The production used Wyspiański's original, white, black and golden set design, its components (centrally positioned clavichord and Napoleon's bust) are involved in the plot. The Warszawianka song became a leitmotif and a protagonist of the play that was Wyspiański's voice in the debate on the role of historical memory in the consciousness of contemporary Poles. The Lvov premiere on July 2, 1901, starred Helena Modrzejewska as Maria. An actress famous for her roles in Shakespeare's dramas, Modrzejewska instantly saw in Wyspiański a great visionary of the theatre. She would later play Laodamia in the first-night performance of Protesilas and Laodamia on April 25, 1903, and it was to Modrzejewska that Wyspiański dedicated his verse on acting. Among the most beautiful and important poems of Polish literature, they were published in Wyspiański's Studium o Hamlecie [A Study of Hamlet] in 1905.
Two years after the première of Warszawianka, Wyspiański finished Legion [The Legion], a dramatic production of Adam Mickiewicz's vision of Rome. However, all attempts at staging this epic failed, partly due to the unheard-of scale of the set and partly because of the audacity of its argument with the Romantic version of history. Legion speaks strongly against the Romantic heritage of Messianism that shaped Poland's intellectual and artistic life in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. Wyspiański reveals the implications of a simplified and schematic understanding of that heritage.
The key themes of Wyspiański's dramas were best represented in Wesele [The Wedding], the drama which endeavoured to revive the symbolic language used to talk about history and the current situation of Poles. First performed at Kraków's City Theatre on March 16, 1901, the play brought instant acclaim to its author. ‘The Wedding' makes references to major poetic, theatre and fine arts works of Polish culture, most notably to dramas by Fredro and Slowacki, and paintings by Matejko and Malczewski, thus joining the debate on the role of art in shaping the collective imagination. The play shows a bitter picture of the powerlessness of a society that was triply fettered: by the political regime, by the inert national tradition and by the skepticism of its intelligentsia. Its verse was akin to that of Romantic poems: varied, changing moods to accompany plot developments, and abundant in aphoristic phrases that would soon pass into everyday language. It was the first performance in Polish theatre in which, on such a scale, sets defined the scenery, all plastic items played an important role, and the lighting built mood and dramatic tension. The finale - a picture composed without words, solely with movement and melody - was totally innovative. Wesele starred the finest actors of the time, and they played exquisitely. As soon as it was published in April, 1901 (the following edition came out in July of the same year), the play became the subject of numerous studies and discussions. On May 24, Wesele was put on stage in Lvov. By contrast, Russian censorship barred sales of the drama on the territory of the Congress Kingdom, and there was no possibility of a stage production.
After the success of Wesele, Wyspiański was entrusted with the staging of Adam Mickiewicz's Dziady [The Forefathers' Eve]. The première took place on October 31, 1901 and was the first instance of a creative staging of a Romantic drama. Wyspiański adapted Mickiewicz's masterpiece, setting it within a single, uniting framework, reducing Messianistic motifs and emphasizing the drama of the main character, played by Andrzej Mielewski, one of the best actors of the young generation and Jasiek from Wesele. In December, Wyspiański published his adaptation under the title of Adama Mickiewicza "Dziady" sceny dramatyczne. Tak jak byńy grane w teatrze krakowskim dnia 31 paźdz. 1901 [Adam Mickiewicz's Dziady. Dramatic Scenes. As They Were Played in the Kraków Theatre on October 31, 1901]. Next the adaptation had its première in the Teatr Polski in Poznan on November 1, 1902 and was played in theatres all over Poland for the following twenty years. One could say that this staging marked the birth of modern adaptation and, perhaps more importantly, was a reference for all adaptation trends appearing in Poland throughout the twentieth century. Quite naturally, all subsequent premières of Mickiewicz's drama would be compared with Wyspianski's. For him, Dziady was a starting point for his own production that entered into a dialogue with Mickiewicz's work while being an expressive example of his artistic method. Indeed, Wyspiański keeps asking questions - of his predecessors and of himself - hence so many intertextual references. He processes the works of others, includes them in his thinking, while continually changing and re-writing his own texts. Everything is in constant motion; a never-ending review is necessary.
Wyspiański's key theme was freedom of the individual. His dramas and adaptations tested and ultimately denounced all freedom-curbing mechanisms. The theatre proved the medium best suited to his artistic temperament, every première probing a text torn from an out-of-date context.
Wyzwolenie [Liberation] was another step in Wyspiański's dialogue with Mickiewicz. Published in January 1903, the drama boasted Konrad, the hero of the adaptation of Dziady, as its main protagonist (played by the same actor, Andrzej Mielewski, in the first performance on February 28). Set on the stage of the Kraków theatre, the plot is about the role and tasks of theatre art in the shaping of modern society. Wyspiański renounces stage illusion, exposing the "naked stage" stripped of deluding sets. Equally, he unveils the tragedy of theatre unable to get out of the vicious circle of play and pretence.
On May 7 the same year, the première of Boleslaw Śmialy [Boleslaus the Bold] took place, Wyspiański's drama which came out in print a month later. The plot goes back to the origins of Polish statehood and asks questions about aspects of Polish history. The staging presented a symbolic outline of the events of the twelfth century as well as of the legend that grew around them. Wyspiański designed sets that were styled in the vein of Kraków and Zakopane folklore, and costumes that made the protagonists look monumental, imposing a certain way of acting. Such an approach to the characters' appearance would have a major impact on later experiments in the Polish theatre and would, years later, be adopted by Tadeusz Kantor's theatre.
Wyspiański took up the theme of the conflict of Boleslaw Śmialy and St Stanislaus again in Skałka / The Rock, a drama published in 1907 and not staged in his lifetime.
In July 1903, a bilingual edition of The Iliad came out. Wyspiański designed and illustrated it; Juliusz Slowacki's paraphrase was used as the Polish version. In December, Wyspiański finished Achilleis, a drama alluding to Homer's epos.
Wyspiański received a painful blow when he was not allowed to work on the restoration of Wawel after the Austrian army vacated the Royal Castle in 1904. After all, Wawel was Wyspiański's fascination, a symbolic place that embodied not only the essence of Polish history and culture but also of European civilization, a place that combined Biblical and antique traditions. Wyspiański devoted a prophetic drama to the site, Akropolis (1904) as well as a redevelopment scheme, Akropolis. Pomysl zabudowania Wawelu [Wawel Redevelopment Concept] (Kraków, 1908), prepared in collaboration with the architect, Stanislaw Ekielski, and envisaging the hill becoming a spiritual, political and cultural centre for Polish people. Akropolis caused controversy and led to a conflict between Wyspiański and the Kraków theatre; it ended with Wyspiański banning the staging of his works.
Noc listopadowa [November Night], Wyspiański 's last drama, and devoted to the uprising of 1831, was published in November, 1904. In December that year, influenced by conversations with Kazimierz Kamiński (the actor who played the part of Stańczyk in Wesele), Wyspiański wrote, Studium o Hamlecie [A Study on Hamlet], a treatise on the tasks of the theatre. Published in 1905, the Studium incorporates fragments of poems testifying to Wyspiański's fascination with the art of acting. It includes an example of the reading of a drama with regard for the society in which the staging is produced, as well as some detailed staging ideas, including the use of the Wawel hill as the setting for one of Shakespeare's tragedies. Indeed, views of Hamlet are intertwined with thoughts on the mystery of producing a play and on the implications of the double status of the actor whose powerful art is able to lay bare the falseness and hypocrisy of the world. The Studium inspired other authors, including Stanisław Brzozowski and Tadeusz Micinski, to write about the role of modern theatre, and proved a major reference to succeeding generations of theatre makers.
In early 1905, Wyspiański competed to lease Kraków's City Theatre, devising its repertoire and production plans, and writing a scene, Smierc Ofeli [Death of Ophelia] ("Nowa Reforma" 1906 no. 114). The Kraków City Council rejected his bid; Ludwik Solski was appointed director of the Theatre. This new appointment encouraged Wyspiański to lift the ban on the staging of his plays; he did not, however, stage another première. In May, 1905, he was elected to the City Council, but, in December that year, his health started to deteriorate rapidly. Nevertheless, he continued to work on the dramas, Sedziowie [Judges] (1907) and Powrot Odysa [The Return of Odysseus] (1907), and on the translation of Corneille's Le Cid (1907, first performed on October 26, 1907). In mid-1906, he moved to Wegrzce near Kraków and spent his last months writing the drama, Zygmunt August, published in magazines. There remained manuscripts including fragments of dramatic scenes devoted to historical personages.
On the anniversary of Wyspiański's death, the Kraków Theatre put on Legion. The production had nothing to do with Wyspiański's modern thinking and only proved the importance of his staging concepts and skill in conveying the meaning of his works.
Soon after his death, Wyspiański's friends and literary experts set out to edit his manuscripts and to publish a complete critical edition of his works. Adam Chmiel and Tadeusz Sinko, in association with Leon Płoszewski, prepared the first edition of "Dziela" [Works], vol. I-VIII, Warsaw, 1924-32. Shortly afterwards, another publication edited by Płoszewski - "Dziela zebrane" [Collected Works], vol. I-XVI, came out. The latter included a bibliography as well as a "Kalendarz życia i twórczosci" [Calendar of Life and Work], Kraków 1958-1995. This edition is complemented by "Listy zebrane" [Collected Letters], vol. I-IV, Kraków 1979-1998. Researchers of Wyspiański's work were aware of the uniqueness of his stage concepts, hence the publication of "Wesele. Tekst i inscenizacja z roku 1901" [Wesele. Text and the 1901 Staging], ed. J. Got, Warsaw, 1977 - a book documenting the première of the drama, published irrespective of subsequent editions of the play. The role of Wesele in Polish culture is also emphasized by a publication that no other work of Polish literature ever boasted, namely "Encyklopedia 'Wesela' Stanisława Wyspianskiego" [The Encyclopedia of Stanisław Wyspiański's "Wesele"] by Rafal Wegrzyniak, Kraków, 2001.
Although it was written at the very start of the twentieth century, Wesele is considered not only the most important but also the best Polish drama of that century. Its symbols gave rise to expressions that have passed into the language describing the collective behaviour of Poles, such as the "golden horn" (a metaphor for lost hopes) and the "Straw Man dance" (a symbol of overpowering enchantment with illusory ideas). They have been alluded to in literature, theatre and film – see, for example, the scene of the polonaise in Andrzej Wajda's Popiol i diament [Ashes and Diamonds]. Wajda also turned Wesele into a film (in 1973), thus enabling a larger audience to become acquainted with Wyspiański's work.
Wyspiański's vision of theatre has in different ways inspired major twentieth-century Polish theatre directors. To Leon Schiller, Wyspiański was, alongside the Polish Romantics, a patron of the concept of monumental theatre. In 1909, Schiller published an essay entitled "The New Theater in Poland: Stanisław Wyspiański" in the journal "The Mask" edited by Gordon Craig. By doing so, he introduced Wyspiański's accomplishments to the European theatre reform. Schiller laid down his views on Wyspiański in a "policy statement" paper, "Teatr ogromny", delivered in 1937. Prior to that, in 1929, he had used the director's copy and set design plans to re-create the première staging of Bolesław Smialy, which he considered an excellent example of modern theatre. Earlier, in 1925, Schiller put on Achilleis using Formist sets designed by Andrzej and Zbigniew Pronaszko. Wyspiański's thoughts on the role and dignity of the art of acting were studied by Juliusz Osterwa. "Studium o "Hamlecie" was read and analysed in his Reduta Theatre, inspiring its student, Jacek Woszczerowicz, to stage it a few times. Wyspiański was also one of the key patrons of Tadeusz Kantor's theatre. Kantor would refer to themes from Wyspiański's clandestine 1944 production of Powrot Odysa in his manifestos and theoretical works as well as including them in a number of his performances, most notably in Nigdy tu już nie powrócę [I Will Never Return Here], the première of which took place in Milan on April 23, 1988.
His pursuit of the essence of theatre and of a new understanding of acting led Jerzy Grotowski and his Laboratorium Theatre of Opole and Wrocław to the experience of the Reduta and, through it, to Wyspiański. Drawing on Wyspiański's Studium, the Laboratorium Theatre put on Hamlet in 1964 and, before that, Akropolis (first version in 1962, fifth and last in 1967). Grotowski drew more inspiration from Wyspiański's idea that drama represented the most important elements of European tradition as uncovered at the Wawel. Having lived through World War II, Grotowski set the plot in the Auschwitz-Birkenau death-camp. Like Wyspiański, he did not create a closed work, but continually changed and processed his initial ideas.
Wyspiański's work found an accurate and revealing interpreter in Konrad Swinarski. He put on Klatwa [The Malediction] and Sedziowie [Judges] at Kraków's Stary Theatre as one performance, premièred on December 1, 1968. Later, a year after his original 1973 staging of Dziady, he put on Wyzwolenie at the same theatre (the part of Konrad in both performances was played by Jerzy Trela).
Wyspiański was also a key inspiration for Andrzej Wajda. Wajda put on Wesele a few times, also in German, with German actors - this performance had its première during the Salzburger Festspiele on July 27, 1992. He also twice staged Noc listopadowa, first at Kraków's Stary Teatr in 1974 then at the open space of the Warsaw Lazienki Park, filming the production for the TV Theatre. This way he fulfilled Wyspiański 's dream of a theatre made in real, meaningful places. Wyspiański was also Wajda's inspiration for several productions of Hamlet, especially the latest one, first performed at the Stary Theatre on June 30, 1989, with Teresa Budzisz-Krzyzanowska in the title role.
A Wyspiański-derived way of thinking about tradition and staging space was also taken up by Jerzy Grzegorzewski, who, like Wyspiański, included in his performances references to his most cherished works of literature, fine arts and film. Directing Dziady on two occasions, he interpreted them through images derived from Wyspiański. He also made three stagings of Wesele, the last one at the Warsaw National Theatre on January 30, 2000.
The same theatre was home to Jerzy Grzegorzewski's première of a moving stage adaptation of Studium o "Hamlecie" on September 28, 2003. Grzegorzewski's last production, On. Drugi powrot Odysa [He. The Last Return of Odysseus] (January 29, 2005) was also a dialogue with Wyspiański 's ideas about art, the fragility of life, and death. As director of the National Theatre, Grzegorzewski demonstrated that Polish theatre should be founded on what is most creative and vital. In other words, Wyspiański proved to be the fundamental pillar of Poland's twentieth-century theatre.
O. Ortwin, O Wyspianskim i dramacie, ed. J. Czachowska, Warszawa,1969;
S. Kolaczkowski, Wyspianski. Kasprowicz. Przeglady, ed. S. Pigon, Warszawa, 1968;
T. Makowiecki, Poeta-malarz. Studium o Stanisławie Wyspianskim, Warszawa, 1969;
T. Terlecki, Stanisław Wyspiański , Boston 1983;
"Pamietnik Teatralny" 1957, no. 3-4;
Stanisław Wyspiański. Studium artysty, ed. E. Miodonska-Brookes, Kraków, 1996;
Magia "Wesela", ed. J. Michalik and A. Stafiej, Kraków, 2003;
M. Prussak, Wyspiański w labiryncie teatru, Warszawa, 2005.
Author: Maria Prussak, April 2006
Stanisław Wyspiański: A Calendar of Wyspiański's Life and Work
Author: Marta Romanowska, part of a larger paper "Stanisław Wyspiański 1869-1907", 2001