Playwright, essayist. Born on February 10, 1886, in the town of Zegrzynek, situated along the Narew River. Died on March 16, 1970, in Warsaw.
Playwright, essayist. In his dramas, the realistic dimension intertwined with the sphere of dreams, and his subtly tongue-in-cheek plays were highly suggestive.
Jerzy Szaniawski was raised in a land-owning family that belonged to the intelligentsia. His father, Zygmunt (Sigismund), published articles under a pen name in a series of magazines, mainly in "Przeglad Tygodniowy" / "The Weekly Review." His mother was from the Wysłouch family, whose members were very active in society. Szaniawski's family often hosted writers and artists in their home. These included Klemens Junosza, Maria Konopnicka, Konrad Proszynski, and the peasant movement activist Boleslaw Wyslouch. His parents were also theatre enthusiasts.
Szaniawski completed middle school in Warsaw. He went on to study the natural sciences and proceeded to obtain a degree from the Agricultural Institute in Lausanne. Later he returned to the family estate and resided there alone; he was financially independent. A rare visitor to Warsaw, he did not maintain contacts with members of the literary community. "Szaniawski's propensity towards remaining alone and closed off, his reticence, discretion, the limited information in the interviews that he was rarely persuaded to give, essentially make it impossible to assemble his biography in terms of substantiated events and realities. (...) Although with time he gained renown and became more established, especially within the theatre community during the inter-war period, he remained something of a mysterious and enigmatic figure." (A. Hutnikiewicz, Introduction in: J. Szaniawski, "Wybór dramatów" / "Selected Plays").
He was closest to the community associated with the Reduta Theatre (Redoubt Theatre) and was often visited by Juliusz Osterwa and Stefan Jaracz. Szaniawski occasionally participated in rehearsals of his own plays.
He debuted as a writer in 1912 with a series of short, humorous, novella-like works published in the newspaper "Kurier Warszawski" / "Warsaw Courier" and the satirical weekly "Sowizdrzal" / "Scapegrace." He later assembled these stories into a volume titled Lgarze pod zlotą kotwicą / The Liars at the Golden Anchor (1928). The writer's first play - a comedy titled Murzyn / The Negro (1917) - was produced at the Teatr Polski (Polish Theatre) in Warsaw. Though the production proved unsuccessful, it did not spell the end of Szaniawski's cooperation with Aleksander Zelwerowicz, artistic director of the Polish Theatre at that time. Zelwerowicz took the play to the Teatr im. Slowackiego (Slowacki Theatre) in Krakow, and the second premiere of The Negro (1917), directed by Sosnowski and starring Irena Solska, proved a success. Theatres throughout Poland began to regularly produce Szaniawski's subsequent plays.
During the 1920s Szaniawski wrote a number of other works for the stage, including Papierowy kochanek / The Paper Lover (1920), Ewa (1921), Lekkoduch / The Idle Man (1923), Ptak / The Bird (1923), Żeglarz / The Sailor (1925) and Adwokat i róże / The Attorney and Roses (1929). In 1924 he published Milość i rzeczy poważne / Love and Serious Things, his only novel. Though he applied comedy forms in constructing his dramas, his theatre was in its essence both reflective and philosophical. He juxtaposed everyday reality with a longing for lofty goals. In his dramas, the realistic dimension intertwined with the sphere of dreams, and his subtly tongue-in-cheek plays were highly suggestive. They focused on themes like waiting, intuitive feelings, subconscious instincts. Szaniawski "created his theatre from normal, everyday observation of the world and people. He saw, as he himself admitted, 'in all of nature, and therefore in man as well, a desire to achieve a higher form, namely, perfection.' He was inclined to believe that these endeavors were often hidden, covered up, unconscious -unrealized potential to state it another way. But at times some sudden, unexpected shock - enchantment with the magic of art, 'an unusual view,' or an 'unusual person' - is enough to free these hidden qualities and spiritual capabilities in human beings, often doing so in the most inconspicuous ones." (A. Hutnikiewicz, Introduction in: J. Szaniawski, "Wybor dramatow" / "Selected Plays")
"He did not depict the world, but constructed it; he did not describe situations, but created models thereof; he did not describe his characters in all their psychological complexity, but sketched attitudes and stances instead. He was a typical creationist." (K. Nastulanka, "Jerzy Szaniawski" in: "Slownik wspolczesnych pisarzy polskich" / "Dictionary of Contemporary Polish Writers")
The Teatr Reduta (Redoubt Theatre) put on three of Szaniawski's plays: Papierowy kochanek / The Paper Lover (1920), Ewa (1921) and Lekkoduch / The Idle Man (1923). "When we sat down to memorize each of Szaniawski's plays," recalled Juliusz Osterwa, "each word seemed to us to be a very deliberate, very coordinated musical phrase; at the same time, none of us had the feeling of dealing with something artificial, conceived, or imposed." (W. Natanson, "Szaniawski")
Often the satirical or bizarre nature of his plays presented difficulties. While the Redoubt was working on Papierowy kochanek / The Paper Lover, Szaniawski recorded that "Above all, everyone questioned whether this type of play elicits 'feeling.' In working on getting to know the play, the Redoubt has thus far rejected the colorful, stylized clothes in which I dressed my figures and chosen instead to search for real people. They even sought currency, that is, rejecting the play as 'separate from life.' (...) After giving it some thought, I concluded that this approach to my play was correct and possessed a deeper sense." (W. Natanson, "Szaniawski")
Actors created often outstanding performances in Szaniawski's plays. The world premiere of Ptak / Bird, directed by Juliusz Osterwa in 1923 at the Teatr Rozmaitosci (Variety Theatre) in Warsaw, proved extremely successful. The scenery for the production was designed by Wincenty Drabik and Mieczyslaw Frenkiel played the character of the Mayor. Many of Szaniawski's plays had their world premiere productions at the National Theatre, which at the time was not an experimental theatre, focusing instead on maintaining the high quality of Polish comedy, primarily through strong acting. Among the plays mounted there was Zeglarz / The Sailor (1925), directed by Stefan Jaracz, designed by Wincenty Drabik, with Mieczyslaw Frenkiel appearing in the title role. Most / The Bridge (1933) was produced according to the conventions of Realism. Directed by Karol Borowski, Kazimierz Junosza-Stepowski put in an extraordinary performance as the character of the Driver. Aleksander Zelwerowicz directed the premiere production of Adwokat i roze / The Attorney and Roses (1929) at the Teatr Nowy (New Theatre) in Warsaw, putting in an exceptional performance himself in the title role. The production was a tremendous success and Zelwerowicz's performance proved one of the best in his career. "Following several years of silence, Szaniawski has once again spoken from the stage," wrote Boy-Zelenski. "A peculiar thing: those years have proved very valuable to him. He has matured in his technique; one could say he has mastered the skill of arranging halftones, the ability of playing with subtle insinuations, the art of extracting surprises from situations and characters." (W. Natanson, "Szaniawski")
In 1930 Szaniawski received the National Literary Prize for Adwokat i roze / The Attorney and Roses and was distinguished with the Officer's Cross of the Order of Polonia Restituta. In 1933 he became one of the first members of the Polish Academy of Literature. In the 1930s he wrote two more plays titled Fortepian / The Grand Piano (1932) and Most / The Bridge (1933). He also produced stage shorts for radio, among them Zegarek / The Watch (1935) and W Lesie / In The Woods (1937), which later served as a starting point for full-length plays titled Dwa Teatry / Two Theatres, Sluzbista / The Official (1937), Srebrne lichtarze / Silver Candlesticks (1938) and Dziewczyna z lasu / The Girl from the Forest (1939).
Following the outbreak of World War II, his hometown of Zegrzynek was incorporated into the Third Reich. Szaniawski relocated to Warsaw. He was an active member of the resistance movement. Arrested by the Germans in 1944, he was released on the day preceding the outbreak of the Warsaw Uprising. Following the fall of the uprising, he was forcibly resettled. He lived in Krakow after the war. In 1946 he wrote Dwa teatry / Two Theatres, which proved to be his most famous work for the stage. The second part of the play consists of two stage miniatures, Matka / The Mother and Powodz / The Flood. The play is simultaneously realistic and fanciful. Everyday events, "changing situations usually hide facts that are internal 'events' - ideas, dreams, human longings that in essence constitute the deeper level of what is perceivable on stage." (A. Hutnikiewicz, Introduction in: J. Szaniawski, "Wybor dramatow" / "Selected Plays")
This principle is reflected in the character of the Director, who though a realist simultaneously devotes himself fervently to his passion of studying dreams. The world premiere of Two Theatres was held at the Teatr im. Zolnierza Polskiego (Polish Soldier's Theatre) in Krakow. Irena Grywinska directed the production while Tadeusz Kantor designed the scenery. Karol Adwentowicz took on the great role of the Theatre Director. Two Theatres remained the most frequently produced of Szaniawski's plays until 1957. In 1962 a radio station in Geneva presented the play. After its premiere broadcast, Swiss playwright Walter Weideli wrote, "We saw the structures we believed break down during the last war. We know that human capabilities are limitless in both the domains of good and evil. Man, who we thought of as a simple, logical and understandable entity, provides us with surprises every day. There are chasms under the surface. It is into these that Szaniawski delves. 'Because we,' says one of the characters in 'Two Theatres', 'lift our masks.' All of Szaniawski's theatre is contained in this statement. He depicts current, everyday events. At first glance, his theatre seems innocent. Suddenly, the mystery thickens. We begin to doubt truths that we thought we were in the process of mastering. (...) In spite of all facts, traces that are hidden, forgotten and buried are revealed. They remain in the souls of those who lived the experiences. (...) This theatre that also embodies the dimensions of dreams and probabilities is something that Szaniawski arrived at instinctually, before Dürrenmatt did the same." (W. Natanson, "Szaniawski")
Dwa teatry / Two Theatres received the Krakow Municipal Literary Award and Szaniawski was granted the Golden Cross of Merit. During this time he wrote two other plays: Kowal, pieniadze i gwiazdy / The Blacksmith, Money and the Stars (1948) and Chłopiec latajacy / The Flying Boy (1949). He also published miniature prose works titled Opowiadania profesora Tutki / The Stories of Professor Tutka in the press.
With the imposition of Socialist Realism as the reigning aesthetic doctrine, his entire oeuvre was declared ideologically hostile. His plays were neither published nor produced for five years. The situation changed with the advent of the post-Stalinist thaw. Theatres revived productions of his plays and during this period Szaniawski wrote his final dramas, including Łuczniczka / The Woman Archer (1959) and Dziewiec lat / Nine Years (1960). He also wrote a scholarly sketch titled "Juliusz Osterwa" (1956) jointly with Jozefa Hennelowa. Publications included his "Collected Plays" (1958), "Nowe opowiadania profesora Tutki" / "The New Stories of Professor Tutka" (1962), and a volume of memoirs titled "W pobliżu teatru" / "Near the Theatre" (1956). He received a torrent of awards, including the Warsaw Municipal Literary Prize (1958), an award from the Voivodeship Council in Warsaw (1959), and the Włodimierz Pietrzak Literary Prize (1962).
During the last years of his life, the author retreated almost entirely into the shadows of public life. At the age of 76, Szaniawski married Anita Szatkowska, but continued to live in isolation in spite of this. He died on March 16, 1970, in Warsaw.
Since 1933 Szaniawski has been a member of the Polish Academy of Literature.
Author: Monika Mokrzycka-Pokora, January 2003