Nytheatre Voices Interview with Jeff Lewonczyk
Your play, The Water Hen, is by the Polish writer S.I. Witkiewicz. He is known as a theorist of the theatre, responsible for the concept of 'Pure Form'. Could you explain this as to what it means and also as to how he used it in his plays? And why is this important?
Witkiewicz's theory of Pure Form is both jaw-droppingly simple and mind-bendingly complicated. His main intention in creating it was to divest the theatre of his time of the bothersome naturalism that he felt was squelching its true nature: connecting audiences with a communal and individual "metaphysical feeling." The methods with which he proposed to accomplish this were many and varied, but set a precedent for the works of figures as diverse as Jerzy Grotowski and Richard Foreman, along with many others. Essentially, the idea is to create works of theatre based primarily on certain formal elements - both simple elements like color and sound and more complicated elements such as themes and leitmotifs, and, most importantly, the combination of action and utterance that is the primary element of theatre. It is the writer's job to create a structure for his play that represents an aesthetically pleasing concatenation of these elements, regardless of their literal relation to real life. It was Witkacy's (as he was known to his friends and the public) belief that all the great works of art of the past were based upon this principle but that modern creators, as a result of their quest for the perfect reproduction of reality, had lost sight of it. Therefore, in order to be brought back to its roots, the revival of Pure Form would have to initially take a flamboyant and intentionally bizarre shape, in order to wake audiences out of their stupor. Pure Form, looked at this way, opened the back door for all sorts of bugbears and demons that the Stanislavsky-influenced theatre of the early 20th Century had been trying to keep out, and Witkacy embraced them with open arms.
Tell us a bit about this play and how you believe it will be interpreted by modern American theatregoers.
I think American theatregoers today, especially patrons of much Off-Off-Broadway theatre, will find Pure Form much less alienating than it sounds on paper. Richard Foreman's work, if looked at properly, is a crystal-pure distillation of Pure Form, almost more so than Witkacy's himself, since Witkacy the playwright could never quite shake off the lingering ghosts of plot and character that Witkacy the theorist had rendered obsolete. However, having seen something closer to Pure Form's nth degree in such aggressively avant garde works as Foreman's, today's audiences are able to focus more freely on Wikacy the playwright, who, like Brecht, is often at odds with his theoretical alter ego. Witkiewicz's plays are full to brimming with all sorts of games and in-jokes and references. For instance, The Water Hen is a play on both The Sea Gull and The Wild Duck, and contains winking references to those plays as well as works such as Strindberg's Dance of Death. In addition to his firm standing in the theatre of the past, his plays, The Water Hen in particular, tend to condense and rearrange time and space in strange shapes and patterns more redolent of postmodernism. With one foot in the 19th century and another in the 21st, Witkiewicz's work is going to be more familiar to today's audiences than they may expect.
Coincidentally another play by Witkiewicz is being performed now. Do you have a theory as to why the sudden interest?
Well, when we (my partner Hope, who plays the Water Hen, and I) discovered this play, we were like, "This is the playwright we've been searching for without even knowing it!" and I can't imagine that a great number of people over the years haven't done the same. In fact, I'm surprised that Witkiewicz hasn't undergone a resurgence sooner. There's something very immediate about his work, and a type of self-awareness and humor that is very in tune with the current cultural moment. Even the comic-ironic way he deals with wars and revolutions and conflicting ideologies (all constant motifs in his plays) relate well to the tenor of much current pop-culture discourse on similar subjects. Then again, there's also the possibility that it's a sheer coincidence.
Incidentally, it's been a great help that the translator and primary American scholar on the subject of Witkiewicz, Daniel Gerould, teaches at CUNY. His insights, both on paper and in person, have been invaluable. I don't think Witkacy's work would be remotely as approachable if the translations weren't so crisp and accessible and - and I mean this in the best possible way - American. If Witkiewicz's primary English translator were British, I think the works would still be fascinating, but in a very different way. Plus, we wouldn't have had the chance to meet him and talk to him. Under his guidance, I think a Witkiewicz festival could be a tantalizing possibility...
American audiences are not familiar with the works of Eastern European playwrights. What will we learn/understand by becoming more familiar with these writers?
Well, we'll learn to be less America- and Anglo-centric, that's for certain. Throughout the 20th century there was all sorts of amazing work going on in a number of countries that Americans tend to think of as small and obscure. Eastern Europe in particular was such a political and cultural hotbed during that time that it's no wonder that impressive and groundbreaking art was being squeezed out of it. The mainstream study of art and theatre history doesn't seem to like to stray too far east of Germany. But even in this context, Witkacy was very much the outsider. He was primarily known as a painter and photographer (he called himself Witkacy in order to distinguish himself from his father, another Stanislaw Ignacy Witkiewicz, who was a well-respected landscape painter). His shenanigans were the cause of all kinds of scandals in Poland; for instance, he was a bold and unapologetic experimenter with all sorts of drugs, everything from caffeine to cocaine, and he produced art while under their influence in order to see how, say, hashish would produce different effects from opium. And yet, for all his eccentricity, he, like Kafka, eerily predicted all of the most nefarious political trends associated with totalitarianism. In fact, he killed himself when the Russians invaded Poland at the beginning of WWII, right after the Nazis entered from the other side; he knew that his country was in for deep trouble, and he was right, as history has shown.
Are there other foreign writers that you would like to see performed here? Do you have plans to do any others?
Oh, there are hundreds. It's hard to even begin, and I'm not the person to do it. Witkiewicz fell into our laps like an unexpected gift, and I confess to much slimmer knowledge of world theatre than I like.
How difficult is it to direct and star (you also are playing the lead) in a play? What is your vision as the director? How do you interpret this vision in your performance?
Directing yourself in a play is the most narcissistic way I can think of to learn humility. You find that you lean on the judgments of your cast and other collaborators much more than you would if you were only directing. I've done it a number of times, and every time I learn something new. I enjoy it, though - with the right group of people, it makes the entire experience more supportive and collaborative, since it's nearly impossible to pull rank on someone and then ask, "How did I look while I was jumping around like a monkey in that one scene?" Everybody looks out for each other, and there's nothing better.
As far as my "vision" goes, that's a tough question to answer. In my opinion, the only genuine "vision" a director needs to set forth is the play itself - what is the playwright trying to accomplish? Nevertheless, a personal element is inevitable, and in this case it's in presenting the type of theatrical experience that Hope and I and our many collaborators have been trying to create over the years with various Piper McKenzie productions: a kind of comical, metaphysical, ironic, deeply heartfelt, deceptively simple, highly presentational, Brechtian, slapstick, self-conscious, rough, formal, intellectual-geek, ridiculous, silly, maudlin experience, if that makes any sense. How many of these things we've actually pegged so far is open to debate, but we're trying, at any rate. In this case, we have Witkiewicz to guide our way, who is already many of these things, and also many more.
As far as performance goes, the beautiful thing about Witkacy is that he both embraces and eschews character. He can't get over the idea of presenting his ideas in the guise of living, flesh-and-blood human beings, but at the same time he undermines the reality of these people by having them do completely ridiculous and irrational things, which make sense in the overall context of the piece but often not from moment to moment. In order to accommodate this, the characters undergo many transformations, while also remaining more or less the same. We actors find ourselves jumping back and forth from style to style, reacting broadly and overdramatically to tiny things, and calmly and rationally to things of abject horror. For instance, halfway through the Third Act someone announces that there's a revolution going on, and the rest of the play is overshadowed by this political upheaval that hasn't even been hinted at previously. Yet the characters blithely carry on with their own personal dramas in the face of it, ignoring completely the sounds of angry mobs and bullets emanating from without.
While I'm at it, I'm going to say a few more concrete things about The Water Hen in particular, because I feel like I've been very abstract and general up to now:
I play Edgar, who is ostensibly the main character of the play, but who doesn't really DO anything - he repeatedly laments the uselessness and futility of his existence, preferring impotent philosophizing to any form of action. At the beginning of the play, he dithers about shooting his mistress the Water Hen, who thinks that, by sacrificing herself for him, she will help him to be great. His father, who insists that he is going to become a great artist (a possibility that Edgar loathes with all his being), does everything in his power to manipulate his son's life into action, including arranging a marriage between Edgar and the Duchess of Nevermore, who just happens to be the widow of Edgar's late best friend, whose name also happens to be Edgar. But if you think that the Water Hen is going to stay dead just because Edgar killed her, you're sorely mistaken. All sorts of strange characters appear, but are they actually characters, or just prismatic reflections of various aspects of Edgar's psyche? But if they are in fact separate manifestations of various aspects of his being, why do they keep shooting off into strange and unexpected directions, undermining Edgar's wishes in the process? The concept of what is real and what isn't is both the question and the answer of the play; as the Water Hen herself says at one point, "Truth is what is really happening."