#language & literature
‘The Wedding’ is a 1901 symbolist drama written by Stanisław Wyspiański, a multi-talented artist from the turn of the century. At the end of his life, thanks to the tremendous success of ‘The Wedding’, Wyspiański achieved the status of a ‘Wieszcz’, one of Poland's poetic prophets who forecasted how the defeated nation could regain independence and glory.
Wyspiański’s field of work included poetry, drama, architecture, drawings and furniture design. He was bit like a Polish John Ruskin. His most famous work, The Wedding, is like a magical cauldron, full of ghosts and demons, in which Wyspiański brews a powerful distillate of Polish identity and soul. The play was inspired by real events, which the author witnessed; its characters are also partially inspired by real people. It takes place during the wedding party of Lucjan Rydel, a Cracovian poet, and Jadwiga Mikołaczykówna, a peasant girl from the Bronowice village near Kraków. It starts as a sharp satire but eventually turns into a prophetic drama about Polish culture, the nation’s past and its aspirations of independence. The marriage bond between individuals symbolises the current transition and a forming of new relations between peasants and nobles, at the time two separated castes of Polish society.
The artistic bohemia of Kraków had established friendly contacts with villagers from the nearby Bronowice, because they would meet at the same church in the city. The artists were fascinated by the rich folklore from the region, with its gorgeous costumes, peacock feather hats and other decorations. Artists would often paint the village and its inhabitants. And then came affairs and marriages between the two groups.
First, painter Włodzimierz Tetmajer, brother of the famous decadent poet Kazimierz Tetmajer, married a village girl named Anna. It was a great scandal because of the class divisions, but it also birthed a new trend. Stanisław Wyspiański married a village girl, too, so he was well acquainted with the whole topic. Rydel followed in the footsteps of his friends and married the younger sister of Anna, presumably trying to increase his popularity with another big scandal. Unfortunately for Rydel, the novelty had worn off, and this time the provocation was warmly welcomed by the public. So, the poor man tried even harder.
According to writer and translator Tadeusz Boy-Żeleński, who witnessed the whole affair, Rydel was comical in his attempts to become a ‘self-made peasant’ himself. He was like a rich, well-born rapper, a gangsta wannabe, clumsily adopting an ‘authentic’ style. For example, he became obsessed with walking bare foot, even into a church. Some peasants did the same to protect their precious footwear, or because of their lack, but nobody made a show of it. Of course, such a ‘peasant wannabe’ attitude offended Rydel’s new neighbours.
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The encounter of Kraków’s elite and Bronowice’s people during the wedding was important because it predicted the birth of a new Polish nation. Until the early 20th century, it was only the nation of the szlachta – nobles. Peasants were enslaved and exploited for centuries and didn’t consider themselves Poles, rather ‘locals’. During patriotic uprisings of the 19th century – caused by nobles – the ‘locals’ would sometimes join the fight on the side of Polish patriots, like the famous ‘kosynierzy’, a militia armed with scythes that fought for Tadeusz Kościuszko.
However, in other cases, the peasants would hunt the rebels and ally with foreign occupiers. The most tragic situation of that kind took place in 1846, in the region near Kraków and Tarnów. The Austro-Hungarian authorities became aware of Polish nobles plotting another uprising, so they convinced local peasants, lead by Jakub Szela, to butcher their overlords during the winter. It was, according to some, a slave rebellion, since the region was especially poor and the social conflicts extreme.
Those bloody events are often mentioned in The Wedding and the haunting, bloodthirsty weight of Jakub Szela’s actions are mirrored in one of the historical guests, who attends the party and reminds the attendees about past injustices, violence and guilt.
As we can see, the situation at the party is interesting and sensitive. Social groups play together, but everything is still uncertain. Various biases manifest during small talks and flirtations. Wyspiański was considered a very witty, venomous and sharp-tongued observer, but this part of The Wedding didn’t age well, in my opinion. The author’s intention was to sketch real characters and human types. For example, the comical character, the Nose, is an always-drunk artist, who sings melodies from Chopin. It was a well-known habit of the popular decadent poet of the era, Stanisław Przybyszewski – who is said to have inspired Munch’s iconic painting The Scream. I’m sure that the audience in 1901 found it hilarious and funny. Today, the satirical first part of the play is a tough nut to crack. And it doesn’t help that the characters use various dialects: the high, cultural Polish of educated people from Kraków, a cant from surrounding villages and some even more difficult historical variations of the Polish language.
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But things do get better when one of the guests, the Poet, based on Kazimierz Tetmajer, invites spirits to join the wedding. The comedy turns into a night of shamanism.
The whole motif of visiting spirits resembles Adam Mickiewicz’s Forefather’s Eve (originally: Dziady), one of the most revered, visionary texts of Polish literature. Wyspiański was consciously playing with tradition, both verbally and visually. The spirits were inspired by well-known paintings by Matejko and Jacek Malczewski. But who are those visiting spirits?
Today we would say that the guests ‘confronted their inner demons’. It has become a cliché, but in Wyspiański’s era, the whole idea was much more original, inspiring and fresh. The spirits personalise the leading features, traumas, obsessions and hopes of the people they approach, in a psychedelic manner similar to the much later Steppenwolf by Herman Hesse.
For example, a girl who lost her fiancé to pneumonia departs from her new fiancé and dances with her undead lover, who tries to touch her with his grave-cold hands. Another character, the Journalist, talks to Stańczyk, the famous jester from 16th century, the ‘Golden Era’ of Poland. Stańczyk, the worried jester, was painted by Jan Matejko and became a symbol of the futile warnings about the country’s condition, a bit like the mythological Cassandra. In the late 19th century, a school of historians took his name and preached that the egoism and lack of responsibility of nobles had led to Poland’s agony. Fortunately, Wyspiański doesn’t use his characters as just an excuse to preach political ideals and programs. The Journalist is one of the most interesting characters of the play. Based on a real political writer and politician, who later died of suicide, the Journalist expresses the suffering of a sensitive, idealistic individual, who had turned into a bitter cynic because of the political situation at the time.
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The most important spiritual visitor is Wernyhora, a musical prophet from Ukraine, the lost Kresy, borderlands of the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth. He symbolises the heroic, imperial pasts and prophecies about the nation’s revival and resurrection. Wernyhora talks to the Gospodarz – the Polish word for ‘host’ – and orders him to start the uprising, gather peasants and nobles and fight together. He is not a demon or wight, but a real messenger from Maria, Mother of God and Queen of Poland. But how do you recognise a true messenger among so many spectres and ghosts?
Wernyhora gives Gospodarz a precious, magical artefact, the Golden Horn, which must be played by dawn to make the miracle happened. But Gospodarz is already too drunk to act. He also gets overly excited and talkative. As a result, he falls asleep, but before he does he hands the Horn over to a young village boy, Jasiek, in order to awaken the locals. The miracle and its glorious possibilities butt against reality. This hopelessness is somehow supported by the vicious Chochoł, the scariest and most mysterious of the supernatural characters in the play.
Chochoł didn’t come from any established, national myths and that makes him even more unsettling. He comes from reality; he comes from the limitations and defilements of the mind. Technically, a chochoł is a kind of a straw man, a bunch of dried crops, used to protect orchards from the frost. Awakened, he becomes a spooky, evil trickster, who undermines Wernyhora’s call. He looks like a golem or marionette. His motivations are, like any decent demon, capricious and unclear. He seems to support entropy and ignorance, lack of courage and hope. He brings true horror qualities to the play. Chochoł plays slumberous music and hypnotises the guests into dancing zombies.
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The oblivious Voodoo dance, chocholi taniec became part of the Polish language and culture. We often use it when our politicians fight each other in more ridiculous ways than usual, when necessary reforms don’t happen and so on.
Another famous quote is miałeś chamie złoty róg – ‘you had the golden horn, you boor’. Jasiek loses the horn of awakening at the crossroads before dawn, to possibly be picked up by the devil.
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You had the golden horn, you boor,
And a hat full of feathers, what a dope.
You had the golden horn, you boor,
And now you’ve got only the rope.
This expression refers to a situation of lost possibility and wasted potential, a lost vision. People use it when some high hope dies and shrieking reality regains its grip. It’s time to go back to the straw man’s dance.
In the play, this line is sung to a popular folk tune. Wyspiański wrote it so well that the song was widely adapted and some began to mistake it for a real, traditional folk song. The usage of such motifs was one of the strong points of the play, together with the colourful folk fashion and dances. It’s worth watching The Wedding; it was successfully adapted by one of Poland’s best movie directors, Andrzej Wajda.
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