Dec 052011

Madness: For Witkiewicz, the play’s the thing

Photo: Gediyon Kifle

Sunday, December 4, 2011 - Not What You Expect with Mary L. Tabor by Mary Tabor

WASHINGTON, DC, December 4, 2011 — The artist is mad, insane, suicidal. In The Madman and the      Nun, a play set entirely in a lunatic asylum, we meet poet Alexander Walpurg, who’s diagnosed with “acute   dementia praecox” and bound by a straitjacket.

Theater goers, confined with him for 65 fast-moving minutes, are in for a hilarious romp as they are drawn into Walpurg’s profound commentary on creativity and madness.

Polish absurdist playwright Stanislaw Ignacy Witkiewicz (aka Witkacy), who himself committed suicide in 1939 at age 54, wrote this surreal, engaging, erotic and biting satire of psychoanalysis and the perils of the artist in 1923.

Hanna Bondarewska and the cast of 'Madman.' Photo credits: Dediyon  Kifle.

Director Hanna Bondarewska has created a spirited update of the play. The  patient’s file is handed to the viewer on entering, and it conveniently  functions as the drama’s program notes. Two live computer  screens illuminate the action on stage, transmitting real time images of the  poet Walpurg. A brand new app for the iPad is unveiled when the trendy device becomes a weapon that’s used to beat our anti-hero.

Bondarewska brings this play to a close, gloriously, lightly, and ingeniously by deploying the song “Chapel of love” and blending it into Witkacy’s surreally happy ending. This and other theatrical touches have earned for Bondarewska the attention of the current batch of literary scholars who are now giving Witkacy his belated due.

After she performed a staged reading of Witkacy’s Country House, she says, “I got phone calls from Professors Daniel Gerould and Mark Rudnicki,” experts on the playwright’s work which also includes an extensive portfolio of paintings. As a result of these conversations, “They asked me to perform at their conference last year.” That formed the seed of this new production that inspired Gerould to journey to DC to see. Clearly, Bondarewska has earned his attention, and she deserves ours as well.

Madman Walpurg (John Stange) and Nun, Sister Anna (Jenny Donovan), up close and personal.

In The Madman and the Nun, Bondarewska has brought to the fore the dangers facing the creative soul, which she describes as “misunderstanding and vulnerability.”

In Madman, Walpurg expresses the pain of creation to Sister Anna, who releases him from the straitjacket, gives him a pencil, and quickly becomes his lover:

“I’m composing poetry again now. But I think my poems are getting worse. I can’t write anymore. But then you can also use a pencil to kill yourself.”

The artist’s suffering for lack of appreciation permeates the play. It seems to parallel the trajectory of the playwright’s own life. Witkacy’s contemporaries and friends – painters, composers, and, most well-known to Americans, pianist Artur Rubenstein – eclipsed him.

One of the Madman’s many looks.


For the playwright, competition constitutes only part of the artist’s  dilemma and the play’s territory. The poet’s vulnerability to all he sees, his  own unconscious mind, his openness to the pain of others, his ability to see  what the other has been through—all these feed his art yet drive him  toward madness.

Witkacy has a lot of company. Here is an abbreviated list of just some of the  artists who have died by their own hand:

  • The poet Paul Celan
  • The painter Vincent Van Gogh
  • The poet Sylvia Plath
  • The novelist Virginia Woolf
  • The painter Mark Rothko
  • The novelist Ernest Hemingway
  • Most recently, the novelist David Foster Wallace

Vincent Van Gogh said of his own recurring breakdowns,

“And perhaps the disease of the heart is caused by this. One does not rebel against things, it does no good; nor is one resigned to them; one’s ill because of them and one does not get better.”

Must it be this way?

William Styron, author of Sophie’s Choice, describes in Darkness Visible: A Memoir of Madnesshis dependence on alcohol and his journey through depression.

Like the poet Baudelaire, he despaired, I have felt the wind of the wing of madness.

He adds:

“As for that initial triggering mechanism—what I have called the manifest crisis—can I really be satisfied with the idea that abrupt withdrawal from alcohol started the plunge downward? … Or could it be that a vague dissatisfaction with the way in which my work was going—the onset of inertia which has possessed me time and time again during my writing life, has made me crabbed and discontented—had also haunted me more fiercely …?”

He, like Witkacy’s poet, finds a way through the morass, depending on how the viewer chooses to read the ending of the play. That duplicity, the either/or, the to-be-or-not-to-be, is the territory of the play.

Bondarewska, artistic director of DC’s Ambassador Theater troupe, fully understands the artist’s plight. In presenting Madman here, she wants to make a difference. The play for her is the thing but not the only thing. She teaches through her program Ambassadors of International Culture and is now working with children at Hoffman-Boston Elementary school in Arlington, Virginia.

Sister Anna (Jenny Donovan) lets her hair down while an Assistant in the asylum (James Randle) looks on and exercises his imagination.

Her aim is to to build confidence, communication and hope. She wants to insulate the young mind against the vulnerability the creative soul faces. But in addition, she lives for the artist in us all. “In today’s world of technology,” she says, “the artist’s time is ever more narrowed to be free, to be devoted to their art.” Her greatest fear is that the contemporary artist, like Witkacy, will choose suicide rather than go on living and creating art.

The Madman and the Nun is a witty, lively, but extraordinarily thoughtful play. Theatergoers, artists, creative souls and anyone who wants both a fast romp and an intellectual challenge should carve some time out of their busy schedules to take in this most unusual play.

The Madman and the Nun runs through Dec. 18, 2011, 8 pm at Mead Theater Lab at Flashpoint, 916 G Street, NW, Washington, DC. Tickets: $30. Students and senior citizens $20. Buy tickets online or at the door.

The question remains, “Is the artist doomed?” For a positive take, listen to Elizabeth Gilbert who gave the following TED talk on precisely that question. This clip is on the long side, so sample as much as you wish.

Mary L. Tabor is the author of the memoir: (Re)Making Love: a sex after sixty story and The Woman Who Never Cooked. She says, “I ferret out the detail, love the footnote, am never bored and believe it all leads to story. Best advice I ever got? ‘Only connect …’ E.M. Forster” Find out more at



Sep 122011

The Ambassador Theater is delighted to present The Madman and the Nun or, There is Nothing Bad Which Could Not Turn into Something Worse by Stanislaw Ignacy Witkiewicz (aka Witkacy), a short play in three acts and four scenes.    

The Madman and the Nun

Translated by Daniel Gerould

Directed and Produced by Hanna Bondarewska

Set Designed by Daniel Pinha

Costumes by Jen Bevan

Sound and Visual Effects by David Crandall

Lights by Marianne Meadows

Assistant Director James Randle

Stage Manager Adam Adkins

Featuring: John Stange as Alexander Walpurg; Jenny Donovan as Sister Anna; Mary Suib as Sister Barbara, Ivan Zizek as Dr. Jan Bidello; David Berkenbilt as Dr. Ephraim Grűn; Ray Converse as Professor Ernest Walldorff; Jen Bevan and James Randle as Attendants


Mead Theater Lab at Flashpoint, 916 G Street NW, Washington DC

Nov. 29 – Dec. 18, 2011

TICKETS: $30 Gen. Adm.

Students & Senior Citizens $20

On line: or at the door

Media: Please e-mail or call to reserve your seats

WHEN:  November 29 – December 18, 2011

Previews: November 29, 30 at 8 p.m.

Opening: December 1, 2011, 8 PM

Thursdays, Fridays, 8 PM

Saturdays, 2 PM and 8 PM

Sundays, 2 PM and 7:30 PM

The Madman and the Nun is set entirely in a “cell for raving maniacs” in a lunatic asylum, where we meet the madman of the title, the poet Alexander Walpurg, who has been confined here with acute dementia praecox.  We are part of a scientific experiment lead by Dr. Grun and his Freudian preconception of curing the patient with the help of Sister Anna, a nun. The author flamboyantly turns everything and everybody into the confusion between the sanity and madness. The play is a strikingly funny attack on both medicine and academia and man’s futile attempt to control the “demons” of existence. Stanislaw Witkiewicz (1885-1939) was a Polish playwright, novelist, painter, photographer and philosopher. “He created a theater of the absurd twenty years before Beckett, Ionesco, and Genet. He himself was a living model of the avant-garde, advancing the frontiers of drama, fiction, aesthetics, philosophy and painting.” Daniel Gerould