Stanisława Przybyszewska: A Brilliant Playwright Preoccupied With Revolution
default, Stanisława Przybyszewska:
A Brilliant Playwright
Preoccupied With Revolution, Stanisława Przybyszewska, photo: Wikimedia, przybyszewska_wiki.jpg
‘I know that you have suffered a great deal because of me,’ the Polish writer Stanisław Przybyszewski wrote in a letter to the painter Aniela Pająk – the mother of their illegitimate child, Stanisława.
But just think […] I appeared and gave you a child. Isn’t that a stroke of good fortune: to be a mother and know that the father of your child is not just anybody – but me?
Trans. Daniel Gerould
Stanisław Przybyszewski was a famous Polish dramatist, poet and essayist. He played a major role in Polish cultural life as a thinker and taboo-breaking provocateur at the beginning of the 20th century. While his career seemed a lot more important to him than his children, he had no idea that one of his daughters was going to follow in his footsteps, both intellectually and artistically.
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Stanisława Przybyszewska grew up without her father. The first time she saw him was at the age of five, and she was not bequeathed his last name until she turned 13, after her mother Aniela’s death. He refused to acknowledge her before that, fearing how his wife, Jadwiga Kasprowicz, would react to it. Przybyszewski sent letters to Aniela often, making her believe that they were always attached to each other.
When discussing the education of Stanisława, he wanted her not to be pampered:
Make her proud and strong […] I’d like to see Stasia grow up to be someone who would spit the world in the face and say, ‘Don’t touch me! My father is Stach Przybyszewski’.
Aniela, on the other hand, was proud to have a child with him and wanted his daughter to be his as well. However, she only really ever served as a confidante and money-lender, to whom Stanisław would always turn if he was in need of help. Aniela taught Stanisława to respect and admire her father and never spoke about him not contributing to the household, nor did she mention his absence. Przybyszewska learned from her mother that women had to be self-sufficient.
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Born in Kraków in 1901, Stanisława was just one of the many children he had with different women. However – and perhaps because of this lack – she did everything to become a recognised dramatist, just like him. Unfortunately, she also shared an addiction with his father, which later also became not only her cause of death cause but that of her father and her husband: morphine.
Przybyszewska also admired her mother, a painter who was only able to continue her career and raise her, thanks to the support of a wealthy family which sponsored her. They moved many times all around Europe – first to Lviv, later to Berlin and Paris.
After her mother’s death, Stanisława was left all alone at the age of 11. She moved to Switzerland to live with a family Aniela had chosen to take care of her once her mother knew she was dying of pneumonia.
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The family that supported her mother also took care of her studies until she turned 19 years old. From a very young age, she showed interest in the sciences, music, languages and literature. Sometimes she even slipped technical terms into her writing. She was very competitive and disciplined and always strived to be better than other students.
In 1914, the family she was living with left Switzerland. The situation forced her to move in with her mother’s younger sister, Helena Barlińska. She lived with her husband and children in Vienna. There, she spent most of her time on her own, writing essays, poetry and stories or reading. Two years later, in the middle of World War I, the family moved back to Kraków.
Przybyszewska spoke and wrote in four languages: German, English, Polish and French. Multilingualism was key to her success – not only because she could read more writers’ work, but she could also reach a wider audience with her own work. She knew that she had a message that she wanted to share. She studied teaching in Kraków and did her teaching apprenticeship in Nowy Sącz, at a school run by the Order of the Sisters of the Immaculate Conception.
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A father & a fatherland suddenly return
It was not until the age of 18, in 1919, that Stanisława’s interactions with her father intensified. He had resettled in Poland after spending 10 years in Munich. She attended a lecture he gave in Kraków on The Enigmas of Life and Death. Przybyszewski was then ready to be an influence in her life and career, and they began a correspondence. Stanisława was not only getting her father back, she was also gaining a fatherland – this was one year after Poland had regained its independence. Some say that their relationship became somewhat too close: that there was a sort of incestuous attraction between them.
Two years later, Przybyszewski got a job in Poznań at the post office and was in charge in supervising of the preparation of a new Polish-German dictionary. He got the job thanks to one of his admirers, Wacław Dziabaszewski, who was the assistant director.
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Dziabaszewski also found a job for Przybyszewska, something that she could stand only for a few weeks – she felt that she was not meant for any routine job. The best thing she could do was to think and write. Stanisława then resumed her teaching and continued to study languages and music.
Moving to Gdańsk
Her father was one of the founders of the famous bimonthly Zdrój (Spring). At the magazine, she had the opportunity to meet intellectuals, artists and painters that gathered there. At one of those meetings, she met her future husband: Jan Panieńśki, a painter and student of science.
Later on, due to the ongoing jealousy of Przybyszewski’s wife Jadwiga, she severed ties with her father and was not willing to see him again. The initial enchantment had faded. She moved back to her aunt’s house in Warsaw and found a job at a library that was linked with the communist regime, which also functioned as a meeting place. She ended up being imprisoned and interrogated under the suspicion of being the organiser of clandestine activities – but she was freed after just one week due to lack of evidence.
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The last city where Przybyszewska lived was Gdańsk. She moved back there after her husband got a job as a teacher at a Polish secondary school. By that time, Poles were only a minority in Gdańsk. It was a city that she never liked, but that she would never leave.
In 1925, her husband died of a morphine overdose in Paris, where he was on a scholarship. As a widow of one of the teachers, she received help from the wife of the secondary school’s principal. However, she had to move into a tiny room in the barracks that were used for summer camps. She was living in very primitive conditions. Her room was humid and lacked heating, something unimaginable during winters at the time. She managed to get some coal from the parents of one of her pupils.
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However, not even the cold could stop her. She worked long hours into the night and went to bed at 5:00 or 6:00 in the morning. She claimed that during the day, she was completely unable to bear her anxiety. Due to the cold, she had to periodically put her hands in a basin of hot water in order to be able to continue writing.
The main motif of Przybyszewska’s work was the French Revolution. She insisted that all the revolutions of the 19th century ended in failure because they did not have a genius at the helm. Maximilien Robespierre was a different story due to his ‘inner harmony and equilibrium that are the marks of a true genius’. She was convinced that only with a genius-leader, a movement could have a direction and drive. ‘The thought, the will, the energy of a single human brain has to penetrate an entire society and decide its every movement’, she wrote.
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Stanisława was very strict and disciplined. According to her life philosophy, artists needed to make sacrifices and even work against their own will in order to succeed. She gave up on working altogether in order to become a writer. Even four-hour shifts took up too much of her precious time. She preferred to starve and live in very precarious conditions, just to have the time to write.
She was living like a hermit. Since she had no one to talk to, she began to have speech problems. The only way she could exchange ideas and have a dialogue with others was through letters. She wrote very long letters and corresponded with exceptional figures such as Thomas Mann, Leon Schiller, Jean Cocteau and Georges Bernanos.
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Writing letters was a cathartic experience for her. She would right up to 80 pages, and would often give up on sending them in the end. She wrote:
I am frightfully alone, my encounters with the Gymnasium directors have practically come to a stop. Their son, whom I taught languages – has been sent to Poland.
Trans. Daneil Gerould
Although she criticised capitalism and preferred to study and write, money always was a big issue for her. She was conscious that money was an important part of life. ‘Money is a life ingredient just like blood, air and water’, she wrote in a letter to Iwi Bennet, one of her half-sisters. However, the path she chose led her to debts, illness and solitude. Whenever she had money, she would buy morphine, and she suffered terribly each time she ran out.
She survived thanks to money she received from her aunt and from the government. The latter was taken away after Przybyszewska refused to go to drug rehabilitation, so all she had left was the food and the room she was given by the school in Gdańsk. She argued:
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A true friendship would have been possible if it weren’t for this abject poverty I live in, which builds an invisible barrier between me and people living normal lives.
Trans. Daniel Gerould
Eventually, Przybyszewska was living in a parallel world – her own world. Although she avoided reading newspapers, she was always sure that something terrible was about to happen. The dramatist and co-author of the translations of her letters into English, Daniel Gerould, points out that ‘the great depression, mass unemployment and the rise of fascism coincided with her own deteriorating health and fortunes’.
In the period that followed the French Revolution – the Napoleonic period – resulted in a powerful and long stimulation of nationalism. She was convinced that the gains of the French Revolution would be lost with the rise of nationalism and capitalism that was sweeping over Europe in the first half of the 20th century.
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‘The Danton Case’
‘I have never been loyal to anybody as long as I was to Robespierre’, Przybyszewska wrote. The Revolution and Robespierre were the central figures in both of her surviving plays. She even used the months of the revolutionary calendar as descriptions in her letters.
She studied the Revolution and was inspired by it since her visit as a child to Parisian museums with her mother. She also was inspired after reading Danton’s Death by the German dramatist Georg Büchner. She adopted the so-called Neue Sachlichkeit or ‘new objectivity’ that was a reaction to expressionism in German literature at the beginning of the 20th century.
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Przybyszewska’s most important work is The Danton Case. The book shows the conflict between Maximilien Robespierre and Georges Danton. She literally brought the past into the present by using analogies from revolutionary France to write about the political and social situation in Europe at the time.
Gerould explains that the play is a ‘brilliant study of the mechanisms of political power and the inevitable drift of revolution toward totalitarianism by a writer deeply sympathetic to the cause of radical social change.’
Her other play, written in German, was named after one of the periods of the revolutionary calendar: Thermidor. It shows the downfall of her hero. Robespierre ‘predicts that national hatreds and wars along with the growth of capital, will seat the Revolution and corrupt 19th-century man’, writes Gerould.
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Stanisława was a rebel and was very committed to revolution. Both Brüchner and Przybyszewska are described by Gerould as people who wanted to ‘tear down old structures, injustice and change the world’.
During her lifetime, her work remained mostly unknown. Only The Danton Case was staged by Edmund Wierciński in 1931, at the insistence of Leon Schiller. It was revived 40 years later by Jan Krasowski at the Polish Theatre in 1967. In 1983, the story was moved onto the big screen by Andrzej Wajda. Her literary work can be found in the archives of the Polish Academia of Science in Poznań.
Paradoxically, Stanisława never got used to solitude. In a letter to Thomas Mann, she emphasised that she was tired of it. Belonging to the proletariat, one could say that she had great difficulty integrating into society. On the one hand, she was self-educated; on the other, she always belonged to the lower class. Two months after Hitler came to power in 1934, she wrote to Mann:
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I’ve had enough, more than enough of this world – a world in which I can only survive if I hide from it.
Trans. Daniel Gerould
She continues her letter saying: ‘Master: obtain death for me! Have mercy on me: do not let me be given over to those people!‘
In another letter to him dated November 1934, she wrote:
No, I can’t any longer. I’ve run out of bread and I can’t go on without it. The cold is torturing me. Every object in my room is heavy with pain; in each ‘bent’ muscle lurks more pain. Unimaginable spiritual and physical pain. And nothing and no one can provide any answers. And no love to be found […] Had I known that such suffering is possible – I simply would have refused to come into this world.
Trans. Daniel Gerould
Przybyszewska died of malnutrition, morphine use and tuberculosis on 15th August 1935. She was buried in a cemetery for atheists. The British writer Hilary Mantel famously said she could easily be diagnosed: ‘the woman who died of Robespierre’.
Only three people attended her funeral, a very modest funeral compared to her father’s, whose funeral procession three-quarters of a mile long and included state and Church dignitaries, chancellors of colleges and universities, writers and journalists.
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Sources: ‘A Life of Solitude: Stanisława Przybyszewska, a Biographical Study with Selected Letters’ by J. Kosicka and D. Gerould (London 1986); ‘Ćma: o Stanisławie Przybyszewskiej’ by E. Graczyk (Warsaw 1994); ‘Przybyszewska S.: The Danton Case + Thermidor, Two Plays’, Translated by B. Taborski (1990); the article’s title alludes to Hilary Mantel’s article in the ‘London Review of Books’, published in March 2000.
20th century polish theatre
the danton case
Written by Alexis Angulo Feb 2017; edited by NR, 28 Feb 2017, edited by LD, Nov 2020