The most prominent Polish author who lived during the interwar period in Gdańsk. She was a daughter of Stanisław Przybyszewski and painter Aniela Pająkówna. Author of the loud play The Danton Case, made famous through Andrzej Wajda’s film Danton from 1982.
Stanisława Przybyszewska, married name Panieńska, occasionally using the pen name Andrée Lynne, was born on 1st October, 1901 in Myślenice, died on 15th August, 1935 in Gdańsk. Stanisława was born out of wedlock, which impeded her mother’s position on the Lviv art market.
That is why Aniela and her six year old daughter left Poland. In 1909, she settled down in Paris. Thanks to studying at a French boarding house, Stanisława was fluent in French, German, and English. After her mother died in 1912, she was taken under the custody of her aunt Helena Barlińska. In 1914, her relatives helped her retrieve her father’s surname.
Przybyszewska spent the first years of the First World War in Vienna, and in 1917 she moved to Kraków, where in 1920 she graduated from a pedagogical school. She later moved to Poznań, where Stanisław Przybyszewski was staying at the time with his wife Jadwiga, Kasprowicz by her first marriage. In Poznań, Przybyszewska worked at the main post office headquarters, and later at a school, simultaneously studying at the Faculty of Philosophy of the University of Poznań. She networked with the circles associated with the Zdrój magazine, in which she debuted in 1922 as a translator.
After moving to Warsaw, in 1923, she married the painter Jan Panieński, a Zdrój collaborator. Her close contacts with activists from the Communist Party of Poland brought upon her accusations of belonging to the Party. She was arrested.
Having been released from prison, she moved to Gdańsk to be with her husband, who taught at the Polish Gymnasium. She lived with him in marginally difficult conditions in an employee barrack no. 12, form which she never moved out. After her husband’s death, she was left without any living resources. She initially lived on money from private language classes, to later rely entirely on scholarships and allowances from the Ministry of Religious Beliefs and Public Education.
She was engaged in literary work and painting, and collaborated with the Gdańsk Society of Friends of Sciences and Arts. She lived in a complete abnegation and isolation from the world, containing her reflections in abundant correspondence from those years. She exchanged it with her father, as well as with the key artists and intellectuals of that time, such as Leon Schiller, Antoni Słonimski, Mieczysław Grydzewski, and Stanisław Helsztyński. Being completely devoted to literary work, she was, in spite of the hardships, happy in her own way – excited by the literature she read and wrote.
She printed articles and excerpts from her plays in such magazines as Zdrój, Wiadomości Literackie, Pologne littéraire, and Pion. Her interests focused on political and social issues, as in her literary work she described the historical processes and how they affected the fates of people and outstanding individuals, who made or contributed to history. Ever since childhood, she was fascinated with the French Revolution, especially with Robespierre.
The mechanism of revolution became a subject of her studies and readings for many years, as well as a source of intellectual reflection over the ideological and practical sense of all military coups. She elaborated on this topic most in her dramatic works.
Przybyszewska wrote three plays in Gdańsk. In the one-act play, The Ninety-Third, she illustrated a family tragedy caused by a revolution. Her five-act The Danton Case (she published excerpts from the 240-page typescript in 1929 in Wiadomości Literackie) was dedicated to an analysis of a political struggle over power within a revolutionary camp.
Stanisława Przybyszewska’s third play – Thermidor – has survived in the original German version (it was translated into Polish by Stanisław Helsztyński). In it, the author tackled the image of a collapse of a dictatorship as a consequence of the political rules being incompatible with social changes.
Her output also includes several less known short stories and novels. Her micro novel The Last Nights of Ventôse, partially structured as Robespierre’s internal monologue, turned out to be a thematic supplement to The Danton Case. In her prose works, Przybyszewska highlighted economical and social issues of the 20th century, especially the subjectively approached problems of the role of money and the point of paid employment, as the background to the melodramatic themes.
She was a novelist. The Works of Gerard is for instance a travesty of her father’s novel The Scream. It is a story of a painter saving a suicidal woman from drowning, to soon afterwards share an apartment with her, and later… consider her a burden which he needs to get rid of, in order to avoid getting stuck in a petit bourgeois cosiness and malaise. She also wrote micro novels (including Wybraniec losu / Born Under a Lucky Star), as well as short stories referencing the modernist tradition of psychological prose.
Przybyszewska did not think highly of her early writing efforts or novellas, short stories, and novels.
That is not what I specialise in – she declared. – Playwriting is my kingdom.
Other playwrights who touched on the subject of the French Revolution during that time included Georg Büchner (Danton’s Death, 1835), Romain Rolland, who wrote a series of eight plays titled Theatre de la Revolution (1898–1938), and after Second World War – also Peter Weiss (Marat/Sade, 1964).
Przybyszewska’s play The Danton Case revolves around a group of important historical figures which includes the key politicians of the French Revolution, the symbolic figures: Georges Danton – the founder of the Revolutionary Tribunal from 1793, executed in 1794 by Jacobins during the period of implementing the reign of terror, and Maximilien de Robespierre, a lawyer and Jacobin leader, abolished and beheaded in the same year. Przybyszewska’s views were inspired by French historian Albert Mathiez’s propositions, contained in a three-volume monograph La Revolution Française. Contrary to the previous opinions, Mathiez glorified Robespierre and his dictatorship, at the cost of Danton’s appraisal. Przybyszewska was more interested in portraying the mechanisms of struggling for power – the cold-hearted laws of the revolution devouring its own children – rather than historical theories.
Przybyszewska’s plays revised views on the French Revolution, and most of all rehabilitated Robespierre. During her lifetime, her writings were hardly known to the audience. She dreamed about theatre. Before dying, she saw two stagings of The Danton Case, however neither was a success, even though in Lviv her play was directed by Edmund Wierciński (upon the initiative and with the support of Leon Schiller, 1931), while at Polski Theatre in Warsaw – by Aleksander Zelwerowicz. Antoni Słonimski wrote about the latter performance in 1933, strongly mocking the impromptu political reading of the piece.
The tumultuous events of the last decade of 18th century in France, as interpreted in the dramas of Stanisława Przybyszewska, were introduced to the stage by Jerzy Krasowski. ‘This analysis exposes, anatomically, so to say, prepares the nerves of that phenomenon, provides an image not only of that Revolution, but of any social revolution ever’ – the discoverer of her works claimed. The staging of The Danton Case realised by Andrzej Wajda in 1975, on the occasion of the opening of the new headquarters of the Powszechny Theatre in Warsaw, was a triumph. In 1982, Wajda directed the film Danton based on this play, where the lead role was played by Gerard Depardieu, while Robespierre – by Wojciech Pszoniak.
Przybyszewska was a morphinist, she suffered from nervous breakdowns since early years. She died prematurely, at the mere age of thirty four, as her body had been destroyed by extreme poverty and drugs. She was buried at a non-denominational cemetery. Her grave was damaged during the war operations in 1945.
Przybyszewska’s literary works are stored at the Polish Academy of Sciences Archive in Poznań.
Author: Janusz R. Kowalczyk, November 2016, transl. AM, January 2017