“This raises a simple question: If in the course of several years a person fulfills the function of a madman, is he not then really a madman? And what does it matter that I am healthy if my actions are sick?”
The Marriage is Witold Gombrowicz’s second play, written after Ivona, Princess of Burgundia (1938) and before Operetta (1967).
Witold Gombrowicz himself qualified this play as a “mystic Missa solemnis.” The play recalls Shakespeare, especially Hamlet.
Begun in Buenos Aires during the war and finished in 1948, The Marriage was first published in Spanish as El Casamiento (Ed. EAM, Buenos Aires, 1948) before appearing in Polish in 1953 in an edition by the Literary Institute, Paris, in a volume with Trans-Atlantyk.
The Spanish translation was completed by Gombrowicz’s friends Alejandro and Sergio Rússovich in collaboration with the writer himself. The translation was published thanks to financial backing from another Argentinian friend, Cecelia Benedit Debenedetti.
From 1948 to 1953, the Polish text existed only in a few typewritten copies sent by Gombrowicz to the philosopher Martin Buber in Israel, his sister, Irena, and a few other friends in Poland, such as Jarosław Iwaszkiewicz and Adam Mauersberger.
In 1949, Gombrowicz took this Spanish translation of The Marriage as inspiration for the French version, completed with the help of two French female students and a French journalist, M. Debeney of Paris-Match in Buenos Aires. This typewritten translation, published on stencil—which has never been found—was sent to André Gide, Jean-Louis Barrault, and Albert Camus, among others.
In Poland, The Marriage was first published in 1957, during a brief liberalization of the Communist regime, in the same volume as the novel Trans-Atlantyk, Ed. Czytelnik, Warsaw.
On this occasion, Witold Gombrowicz made several modifications to the text. This revised and corrected version is the one that would serve as a reference for further translations.
In 1960, the first stage production of The Marriage took place in a student theater in Gliwice in Silesia, directed by Jerzy Jarocki and designed by Krystyna Zachwatowicz. The production was closed by government censors after only a few performances.
The French version of The Marriage will not be published until 1965, in a translation by Georges Sédir and Koukou Chanska (Ed. Julliard, Maurice Nadeau’s collection “Les Lettres nouvelles”).
“Between you and me, modern man must be exceedingly more flexible; modern man knows that there is nothing permanent or absolute, but that everything is forever creating itself anew ... creating itself between individuals ... creating itself …”
“[The Marriage] is a dream, dreamt by Henry, a Polish soldier in the last war, who finds himself somewhere in France, in the French army, fighting the Germans. Within this dream Henry’s concern for his family, lost in Poland, emerges together with the more essential worries of contemporary man straddling the slopes of two epochs.”
—A Kind of Testament: Interviews with Dominique de Roux [Trans. Hamilton]
While Ivona, Princess of Burgundia is the best-known of Gombrowicz’s plays around the world, The Marriage remains his most-performed in Poland.
“The greatest difficulty is the fact that The Marriage is not the artistic expression of some sort of issue or situation (something to which France has accustomed us), but a relaxed outlet for the imagination, an imagination that is striving, it is true, to move in a certain direction. This does not mean that The Marriage does not tell us a certain story: it is the drama of a modern man whose world has been destroyed and who (in a dream) finds his home changed into an inn and his fiancée into a wench.”
—Diary, 1954 [Trans. Vallee]
“In vain do I struggle to get free of myself to reach all of you
“Yes, I’m imprisoned ...
“I am a prisoner
“Even though I am innocent”
Jorge Lavelli’s production of The Marriage in 1963 marked Witold Gombrowicz’s entry into world theater history. The play won first prize at the Concours des Jeunes Compagnies in 1963. From January 1964 on, the play was performed at the Théâtre Récamier in Paris, where it was met with great critical and public interest.
Gombrowicz’s theater made its official debut on Polish stages in 1974, when Rita Gombrowicz authorized its production, all while preserving Witold’s work from Communist censorship.
Jerzy Jarocki directed the Polish premiere of The Marriagw at the Teatr Dramatyczny in Warsaw. Jarocki had already directed a student production in 1960 in Gliwice with scenography by Krystyna Zachwatowicz, but it was banned. He will realize several other productions of The Marriage, an adaptation of Cosmos, as well as a montage performance, Błądzenie (Wanderings) based on Gombrowicz’s life and work.
“The greater my wisdom, the greater
My stupidity ...”
As with his other works, Witold Gombrowicz himself offered a summary of The Marriage. His presentation of the text can be found in A Kind of Testament: Interviews with Dominique de Roux.
In his dream, Henry sees the house where he was born in Poland, his parents, and his fiancée Molly. The house has gone to a seed. It has now been transformed into an inn: Molly is a serving maid working at the inn, and the father is an innkeeper.
The father is pursued by drunkards. This is the key scene. In order to defend his human dignity before the drunkards’ onslaught he claims that he is ‘untouchable.’
“Untouchable—like a king!” laugh the drunkards.
And Henry pays homage to his father, while his father becomes king. And not only does that father-king elevate Henry to the rank of prince, but he also promises him, by virtue of his royal power, a worthy religious marriage which will restore the purity and former integrity of Molly, the maidservant. […]
In the second act we see preparations for this worthy and religious marriage, which must be celebrated by a bishop. But doubts begin to pervade Henry’s dream. This whole marriage ceremony begins to vacillate, as if threatened by stupidity—as if Henry, aspiring with all his soul to goodness, dignity, purity, lacked confidence in himself and his dream.
The drunkard-in-chief again enters the room, as tight as a tick! Henry is about to come to blows with him when suddenly (as happens in dreams) the scene changes into a court banquet. The drunkard has become the ambassador of a hostile power. He incites Henry to treason. […]
This is the key to the metaphor of The Marriage, the transition of a world based on divine authority, divine and paternal authority, to another world, where Henry’s own will must become the divine, creative will ... like the will of Henry or Stalin.
Henry yields to the drunkard’s insistence. He deposes the father-king and becomes ruler himself.
A scene follows in which the drunkard asks Johnny, Henry’s friend, to hold a flower over Molly’s head. Then he suddenly conjures the flower, leaving them in a false position, which no flower can justify. And a ghastly conjecture forms in Henry’s mind that Molly and Johnny... .
“Priest-pig, you have bound them in a base and ignoble marriage!” he exclaims. […]
In the third act Henry is dictator. He has dominated the whole world, including his parents. And once again the marriage ceremony is prepared, but it is a marriage without God, with no sanction other than that of Henry’s absolute power.
But he feels that his power will have no real validity as long as it is not confirmed by someone who voluntarily sacrifices his blood. That is why he urges Johnny to volunteer to kill himself for him.
This sacrifice will both appease his jealousy and make him powerful and formidable enough to perform the marriage ... and reassert Molly’s purity (as well as to make the dream come true ... which is his purpose from the start). Johnny agrees.
In the last scene Johnny kills himself. But Henry steps back. He recoils, horrified by his act.
The marriage will not take place.
“This drunkard has a pretty clear head on his shoulders.”
He’s mimicking me, he’s mimicking me so as to make a fool out of me. A moment ago he was talking sense, but now he’s talking nonsense ...
Nonsense. I thought he was more clever ...
Now I shall tell you something and cleverly, too
About that religion whose priests we both are. Between ourselves
And through ourselves is our God born
And not to heaven, but to earth does our church belong
We create God and we alone, whence does arise
That dark and terrestrial, ignorant and bestial
Inanimate and inferior, humanly human mass
Whose priest am I!
Both PRIESTS begin making wild and pathetic gestures.
Whose priest I am?
But ... I don’t understand.
You don’t understand
And yet somehow you do understand. You understand
Because I understand.
Because I understand. You? Me? Which of us
Is speaking and to whom? I don’t quite see ...
No, I don’t exactly see ...
Witold Gombrowicz, The Marriage, Act II [Trans. Iribarne]
“To me, the interest in Gombrowicz’s remarkable play resides in the fact that in order to pose a number of fundamental problems about the human condition today (purity and compromise; youth and entry into life; imminence and transcendence; authentic value and degeneration of values), the author has created an imaginary world in which—whether he wanted this consciously or not—the unfolding of the action becomes a sort of grotesque chronicle of the great social upheavals that happened in Russia since 1917 and in certain countries in Central Europe since 1945 and of the repercussions of these events on the condition and conscience of mankind.”
—Lucien Goldmann, “La critique n’a rien compris” (“The Critics Haven’t Understood Anything”), France-Observateur, February 6, 1964 [Trans. Dubowski]
Witold Gombrowicz himself
“Goldmann makes the Drunkard into the rebellious masses, Henry’s fiancée into the nation, the King into the government, and me into a ‘Polish squire’ who contained the historical drama in these symbols. I timidly protested, yes, I do not deny that The Marriage is a wild version of a crazy history; in the dreamy or drunken becoming of this action is mirrored the fantasticality of the historical process, but to make Molly the nation and Father the state ... ?? Nothing doing. Goldmann, professor, critic, broad-shouldered Marxist, decreed that I did not know that he knew better! Rabid Marxist imperialism! They use that doctrine to invade people! Goldmann, armed with Marxism, was the subject—I, deprived of Marxism, was the object—a few people, not at all amazed that Goldmann was interpreting me and not the other way around, listened to the discussion.”
—Diary, 1965 [Trans. Vallee]
“The greatest difficulty is the fact that The Marriage is not the artistic expression of some sort of issue or situation (something to which France has accustomed us), but a relaxed outlet for the imagination, an imagination that is striving, it is true, to move in a certain direction. […]
On the stage, therefore, The Marriage should become a Mount Sinai, a place full of mystical revelations; a cloud, pregnant with a thousand meanings; a galloping work of imagination and intuition; a Grand Guignol, full of play; a puzzling missa solemnis on the threshold of time, at the foot of an unknown altar. This dream is a dream and it moves in darkness, by right it should be illuminated only by bolts of lightning (forgive me for expressing myself in such lofty terms, but otherwise I would not be able to get you to understand how The Marriage should be staged).”
—Diary, 1954 [Trans. Vallee]
“I can still admit it today: The reading of this text hit me painfully. I was struck by the grandeur, the acuity and the madness of this play. I knew I had to transform it into theater.
—Jerzy Jarocki, Dialog, 1991, n°2 [Trans. Dubowski]
“Where I myself end, there begins
My wantonness ...”
Jerzy Jarocki was The Marriage’s first director, but his production in Gliwice in 1960 had only four performances before it was forbidden by censors.
In 1963, Jorge Lavelli, a student at the time, directs the play in France. This production wins the first prize in the Concours des Jeunes Compagnies.
From January 1964 on, the production played professionally at Paris’s Théâtre Récamier. This represented a chance for the critics and public to discover the little-known Polish author, who had just returned to the Continent after twenty years in Argentina.
Although he was unable to see the production, Witold Gombrowicz followed the debate that centered around it attentively, considering his polemic with Lucien Goldmann, a French intellectual and critic who was very well-known at the time, and who attended the production each night with his students.
Sweden is another country in which Witold Gombrowicz’s work has found prestigious support: Alf Sjöberg and Ingmar Bergman. The former directed The Marriage in 1965, a year after Ivona, Princess of Burgundia; this contributed to Gombrowicz’s renown and his promotion as a candidate for the Nobel Prize in Literature.
From the 1970s, it is on German stages that Gombrowicz is most frequently performed.
The Marriage became part of the repertory of the Comédie Française with Jacques Rosner’s 2001 production.
Witold Gombrowicz was banned in Poland from 1958 on. His theater debuted on Polish stages in 1974, when Rita Gombrowicz authorized its production, all while preserving the work from Communist censorship.
Since then, Witold Gombrowicz has become the most-performed Polish playwright, with The Marriage as his most popular play in Poland.
In 1974 in Warsaw, with a production of The Marriage directed by Jerzy Jarocki at Teatr Dramatyczny, that Gombrowicz’s great career in Polish theater began.
Jerzy Jarocki has directed the greatest number of plays of Gombrowicz’s, of which six have been full-scale productions of The Marriage, and of which many have been productions of fragments of the text with students of Warsaw and Kraków’s theater academies.
Another great name in Polish theater, Jerzy Grzegorzewski, was also fascinated by Gombrowicz’s work. He directed two productions of The Marriage, one at Wrocław’s Teatr Polski in 1976 and one at Warsaw’s Teatr Narodowy in 1998.