Artist-writer Stanisław Ignacy Witkiewicz travelled around Australia in 1914, in the ‘care of’ of his friend anthropologist Bronisław Malinowski, as part of the British Association for the Advancement of Science (BAAS) Congress. Tracking him down is an ongoing and fruitful task leading directly to my recent film and ongoing art installation Witkacy and Malinowski: a cinematic séance in 23 scenes. This incorporates scenes from Witkacy’s 1923 absurdly apocalyptic play The Crazy Locomotive.
The first production of Witkacy’s work in Australia was the 1973 production of Metaphysics of a Two Headed Calf: a Tropical-Australian play in 3 Acts directed by Lithuanian born Algis Butavicius with the amateur Alice Springs Theatre Group, at the Totem Theatre, Alice Spring. Butavicius’ production used a translation by US-born Roger Pulvers, then living in Melbourne, who had become fascinated by Polish theatre in general, and Witkacy in particular, during his time as a student at the University of Warsaw from 1966.
In the following year Legerdemain Theatre produced of The Pragmatists in the basement below the Experimental Art Foundation, The Jam Factory, Adelaide. Directed by Denis Moore, the company collaborated with visual and performance artist Jim Cowley to present a ‘moving painting’ faithful to Witkacy’s intentions. Originally intent on producing Metaphysics of a Two Headed Calf, they switched to The Pragmatists as it was a better fit to the company’s personnel. The members of Legerdemain Theatre had been introduced to Witkacy’s work by Polish director and actor Bohdan Trukan through his teaching at Flinders University, Adelaide. While Adelaide boasted a fairly sophisticated theatre going audience, Butavicius and Pulvers’ 1973 Alice Springs production existed within a small progressive white enclave surrounded by an openly racist white culture where the mocking and satirizing of indigenous cultures was not uncommon. At first glance, it would be easy to dismiss Butavicius’ production for its farcical use of white actors in Papuan roles and its use of ‘blackface’ – also used in the Poznań production of 1928 and many subsequent Polish productions – and, due to the farcical nature of Witkacy’s text, see it as another cultural manifestation of the ignorant racist lampooning of non-western and indigenous culture and characters. But this does not necessarily accord with the way the characters are written. The clear symbolism of this production in Alice Springs – the unofficial capital of Central Australia is immediately striking. This township (population 10,000 in 1971) at the very navel of the Australian continent, cradled in the McDonald Ranges on Arrernte land, is at the centerof the Yeperenye (caterpillar) Dreaming stories (Kimber 2011). While dominated by Arrernte culture, Alice Springs (Mparntwe) is also a cosmopolitan centre which includes Walpiri, Anangu and Pitjantjatjara peoples and languages. There is a powerful resonance in the brief words of the Papuan ‘chief’ in Witkacy’s text: ‘The fact that that damned Anglicized, incorrigible dreamer Malinowski did research on us doesn’t mean a thing. Totems are true, no matter what scholars write about them’ (Witkiewicz 1972, p. 190), particularly in the context of Arrernte culture and the Yeperenye Dreaming.
It would not be until 2009 that a Papua New Guinean based production of Metaphysics of a Two Headed Calf took place, in a larger project initiated by British artist Jeremy Millar and directed by Papuan director and playwright John Doa from Raun RaunTheatre in Goroka. The play was performed in Tok Pisin, a creole language which incorporates elements of local, English and German languages. A video of this performance was installed at the National Maritime Museum in London alongside a video of an Adelaide production of the work directed by Adrian Guthrie.
While Butavicius was working with white actors in Alice Springs, in the metropolitan center of Sydney (Warrang) in the suburb of Redfern, Indigenous theatre and dance practitioners including Bob Maza, Marcia Langton, Justine Saunders and Brian Syron were developing an Indigenous contemporary theatre, The Black Theatre. Later, Syron with Gerhard Fischer initiated The Aboriginal Protestors Confront the Declaration of the Australian Republic on 26 January 2001 with the Production of The Commission by Heiner Müller (1996). They placed The Commission by Müller as a play within a play by Mudrooroo. Directed by Noel Tovey at Performance Space, the production of this Mudrooroo/Müller text, while controversial, would be a high point in the creation of black post-dramatic theatre in Australia (Hamilton 2011), and in a reversal of racist tropes, the production featured black actors in ‘whiteface’ masks, a technique pioneered earlier by the Black Theatre.
Pulvers reprised his translation of Metaphysics of a Two Headed Calf, this time also directing it, in the final season of the influential Pram Factory in Melbourne in 1981 and soon after in Adelaide. A radio version of this production was produced by Stan Corey for the Australian Broadcasting Corporation (the state broadcaster).
In the play, Witkacy’s sarcasm toward colonists and colonial types through the technique of caricature, shows a strong affinity with his caricature-like drawings. His boorish and crude business and mining barons are still totally recognizable in the Australia of the 21stcentury. While Witkacy would have met many of these colonial types in 1914, it is extremely unlikely that he would have met anyone of Papuan heritage given Papua’s non-status within the new Commonwealth of Australia. This new nation, still an integral part of the British Empire, shared the region with French, German and Dutch Empires. The growing presence of Japan and the United States further north demonstrated their own imperial ambitions, having recently ‘seized’ and invaded territory in China, Korea, Taiwan, The Philippines and the Pacific islands. Australia itself took over the colonial administration of Papua from Great Britain in 1905. Many white Australian nationalists saw this event as a possible template for a greater Australian empire in the Asia-Pacific. Papua had effectively become a colony of Australia as the then Territory of Papua until its independence in 1975 as the enlarged Papua New Guinea (PNG). The White Australia Policy and in particular the racially discriminatory Immigration Restriction Act of 1901 effectively stopped any possible movement of Papuans into Australia proper and many Pacific Islanders and Asians with long family connections to Australia were expelled. It was a conceptual line drawn deeply in the Australian collective mind that continues to resonate.
In a shambolic invasion in September 1914, Australian forces attacked New Guinea – then part of the German Empire – incorporating it into its colonial system. At the same time Bronisław Malinowski, after his acrimonious split with Witkacy, was sailing to Papua to begin his anthropological work in the Trobriand Islands, with the full support of the Australian government (Young 2004). This was extraordinary given that he was a subject of the Austro-Hungarian Empire, an enemy empire. The Australian government had good reason to want more study of the diverse peoples it controlled.
In the pre-WW1 period, legislation had been passed that further restricted indigenous people’s property, movement and association rights. In South Australia, Aboriginal people lost the right to vote in elections as voting rights were extended to all non-Aboriginal women across the nation. Australia was destined, right from the beginning to be a nation built on an eternal paradox, being both progressive and reactionary at the same time. As Mikuliniabsurdly pleads In Metaphysics of a Two Headed Calf when he explains to Patricianello why he should not kill him, ‘we are in one of the most democratic countries on our globe’ (Witkiewicz 1972, p. 198).
So, if Witkacy is extremely unlikely to have met any Papuan, let alone a ‘chief’, he may very well have witnessed what was reported in The Argus, Melbourne on Thursday 13thAugust 1914:
ADELAIDE MEETING ENDS
ABORIGINES' HEADS (By Our Special Reporter)
During the few days devoted to the Adelaide portion of the meeting of the British Association there have been no meetings of sections, which will begin in Melbourne, but full advantage has been taken of the leisure thus provided to visit many of the places of interest in South Australia. Within a few hours of the arrival of the overseas party on Saturday parties of scientists left Adelaide again for Broken Hill and Port Pirie. On Monday there were four excursions, of which the more interesting were the visit to Angaston and the anthropological excursion to the aboriginal station at Milang, on the shores of Lake Alexandrina. Australia offers exceptional opportunities for anthropological research and the number of anthropologists attending the meeting is in consequence large. Those who made the journey to Milangincluded Sir Everard Im Thurn (president of the section), Mr Balfour, Dr Haddon, Professor Von Luschen, Dr Malinowski, Dr Graebner, Professor Symington, Professor Herdman, Professor Jusgergen, Professor Netchajoff, Professor Griffiths, Professor Stirling, Professor Barber, and many others. These were the guests of the South Australian committee, and travelled to Milang in a departmental railway car attached to the ordinary train. After lunch the experts of the party spent an hour examining a number of natives, taking measurements and casts of their heads, while others found much to interest them in the bird life of the district. For the entertainment of the visitors a small daylight corroboree had been arranged, and the scientists heard for the first time the ‘drone of the lubras' song, the beating of the drums and the clacking of the waddies in the weird Australian native dance. An aborigine acted as master of ceremonies, and his announcement of the various figures was clear and complete. The performers who were painted in the traditional manner went through their work very rhythmically while the gins encouraged them by their crooning. In addition to the dances, a patriotic rendition and song were given by a native. The words had been written by himself, and he won much applause, the whole party joining him in the chorus as they also did in the singing of the National Anthem, which brought the ceremony to a close. Today is filled with the bustle of departure for all the visitors will leave Adelaide this afternoon by the three special trains for Melbourne where the serious work of the meeting will begin.
The then absurd pseudo-science of phrenology sought to classify and categorise peoples in relation to head size and shape, so as to confirm hierarchies of racial and class superiority. This equally disturbing and fascinating news report, a mixture of casual racism and praise requires further research into the circumstances of this particular corroboree and to locate it clearly within local Ngarrindjeri histories.
Maryrose Casey writes ‘Australian Aboriginal cultures are probably the most performance-based in the world – in the sense that explicit, choreographed performances were used for a vast range of social purposes from education, through to spiritual practices, arranging marriage alliances, to judicial and diplomatic functions’ (Casey 2015, p. 2). It would be wrong to simply dismiss as exploitative this type of performance for the BAAS at this particular time from a newspaper report such as this. There was a long history of many highly skilled Indigenous performers with considerable entrepreneurial acumen, crafting performances for paying white audiences, particularly in the Adelaide region but also around Australia (Parsons 1997). It is not clear though what the exact arrangements were for this particular performance in relation to the BAAS and who the particular performers were, as they are unnamed in this article.
It is intriguing to think what effect this performance may have had on Witkacy’sconception of drama, if indeed he was there. Witkacy had witnessed Theravada Buddhism priestly ritual in Ceylon, but here with Ngarrindjeri performance was music, song, dance, body art and narrative all given equal importance within an often mimetic but also highly coded and possibly virtuosic performance form. It also incorporated elements of Variety with a master of ceremonies and the singing of patriotic song. Variety was then the most popular theatrical form in the general population before the dominance of cinema. Could the experience of this performance on this day, on the shores of Lake Alexandrina, be possibly one of the roots of Witkacy’s Pure Form in the theatre’? To a European, the strangeness of its movement and sounds, and its abstraction – so alien to the European sensibility – producing an unfathomable and unknowable strangeness, a quality also inherent to Witkacy’s later theatrical texts. To Dadaist Tristan Tzara who later used Arrernte texts in performances at the Cabaret Voltaire, and the Surrealist maestro André Breton who wrote the forward to the first serious publication on Australian First Nation’s art, Un art à l' état brut (1962) by Karel Kupka, Australian Aboriginal art in all its forms, even if totally misunderstood, was a source of inspiration.
But Witkacy may not have been at this performance at all, so all of this is speculation. He is not mentioned by name in the news article, but this may be because he was not officially one of the delegates of the BAAS, but merely ‘under the care of Dr Malinowski’, a ‘hanger on’ so to speak. It is likely though that Malinowski would have discussed the details with him on his return to Adelaide even if he was not there.
A radical and inexplicable spatial dislocation between characters and acts is evident in Metaphysics of a Two Headed Calf, which takes place in Port Moresby (PNG), the desert near Kalgoorlie and in Sydney. Witkacy’s ‘Papuan Chief’ is a ‘bohemian savage’ (McLean 2013). He has agency; able to transport himself between Papua and Australia in a flash; he is a culture crosser capable of existing in multiple worlds as an apparent equal. However, this character could quite easily also be turned into a racist caricature. There is a fine line between caricature and racial stereotype. In a similar way the Ngarrindjeri master of ceremonies in The Argus report acts as a go-between and possibly impresario between the performance and the white (possibly paying) audience.
A despondent Witkacy had written to his friend Bronisław Malinowski in London in March 1914, before the Australian trip and after the suicide of his fiancée in Poland, ‘Only the thought of travelling to some savage country offers any hope. A change so radical that everything would be turned upside down’ (Witkiewicz 1992, p. 81–82). Ian McLean writes, ‘Australia in particular was a site of such disappearance, a vanguard of fragmentation. What is the modernist flâneur if not a type of exile, someone who seeks redemption in the oceaniaof alienation? In this respect Australia is an ideal site for modernists seeking subversive and liberatory texts. Perhaps, in being cast into the ocean, the ideological cement of the Old World was loosened and the very structures and semiological basis of identity were glimpsed’ (McLean 1998, p. 7).
In the European imagination Australia and its ‘alien’ landscapes are often perceived as ‘savage’ or ‘wild’, however much of its unique vegetation forms were created by continual Indigenous husbandry over countless millennia (Gammage 2011), just as surely as the landscape of Europe was created by the grazing of sheep, cattle and agriculture over a much shorter time. Possibly 1.6 billion people have lived on the Australian continent (Stell 2001, p. 4) over an extended time period of a least 40,000 years.
While Witkacy had pressing existential reasons for escaping Europe, this desire for ‘savage’, ‘original’ or ‘vital’ experience was common to many modernist artists as a mode of escape from aesthetic conservatism and as a way to break through to a new kind of universal language based more on abstract or concrete form. For Braque and Picasso it was Fang and other West African sculpture; for Igor Stravinsky the ‘savage’ music of the Russian peasants; for Australian composer Percy Grainger it was Melanesian choral singing as a template for the first aleatoric music (Random Round 1912–1914); for Antonin Artaud, Balinese gamelan and dance at the 1931 Paris Colonial Exposition; for white New Zealand artist-filmmaker Len Lye possibly Yeperenye Caterpillar Dreaming for his animated film Tusalava 1929, and for Gauguin the religion and culture of Tahiti. Modernism did not emerge pure from Euro-America, but also came from the friction between the cultures and worlds of the colonizers and the colonized, both within the nation state and beyond. The cultural intelligentsia and artists of the colonizer – the west – saw something more in the forms that the colonizing project desired, or was intent on destroying, either by accident or design. This process continues today.
It was in this world and this conflict that Witkacy partially found himself and his work, literally at the very moment that it was about to start falling and tearing itself apart with such brutality. Out of the chaos generated by World War One, its policies of racial extermination were imported back to Europe. In Namibia (then German South West Africa) the German State had perfected its extermination policies on Herero, Nama and Sam peoples 30 years or more before they reprised it on the Jewish, Romani and Slavic peoples of Europe. But these genocides also extended across the Australian and American continents, and to the Belgians in The Congo, all embodying Joseph Conrad’s terrible phrase spoken by Kurtz in Heart of Darkness, ‘Exterminate all the brutes!’.
Witkacy read Conrad’s Lord Jim on the boat to Australia and walked the Australian cities quite literally in the footsteps of Conrad, Robert Louis Stevenson and Paul Gauguin, all of whom had varying degrees of influence on Witkacy’s developing oeuvre. Act 2 of Metaphysics of a Two Headed Calf is set in a room in the Hotel Australia in Sydney. In 1914 the then palatial multi-story Hotel Australia, with ornate Italianate style verandahs, dominated the city at the top of Rowe St. It was near the centre of Sydney’s bohemian and cosmopolitan life, and the home to the city’s first gay bar. The hotel and its bars were frequented by wealthy squatters and graziers and their families from the country, who would stay there while they were in the city, rubbing up against journalists, writers, actors and artists. Perhaps the persona of the Hooded Figure/Murphy/Kala-Azar – ‘Most attractive boy in all of Sydney, and of all the clubmen in the colony the most bored’ – (Witkiewicz 1972, p. 234) was inspired by Witkacy’s time there.
Witkacy very wittily identifies those Australians and British-Australians who have aspiration to aristocracy. In Australia these were jokingly referred to as the ‘Bunyip Aristocracy’, but also British lords and ladies who paraded about the ex-colonies. In TumorMózgowicz, the character Lord Arthur Persville is the ‘future Duke of Osmond, Marquis of Broken Hill, Viscount of Durisdeer, Master of Takoomba-Falls’ [sic].
Following the earlier productions there have been only very sporadic productions of Witkacy’s work in Australia. In his 1980 production of The Madman and the Nun, Nicholas Tsoutas, director of Adelaide’s All Out Ensemble, developed a style between visual art and experimental theatre. Tsoutas had been in Poland in 1977 at the invitation of Jerzy Grotowskiwhere he first became aware of Witkacy’s work. He was also impressed by the work of Józef Szajna, and by his and others example of working across the visual arts and theatre. Artist-director Tadeusz Kantor had also presented The Dead Class at the Sydney Opera House and Adelaide Festival in 1978 and exhibited in the Biennale of Sydney.
Tsoutas’ production, crosses over from theatre to performance art, with its art installation-like setting, consisting of a giant ‘brain’ woven from videotape, abandoning the stage completely. It was one of the works that prefigured much of the work during what Jane R. Goodall calls the Sydney Renaissance of the late 1980s to mid 1990s, when a stage was almost never used. It embodied the fusion of avant-garde theatre and performance art (Hamilton 2011) that underpinned much of the work created at Performance Space in that time. Performance Space was founded in Redfern, Sydney, close to the Black Theatre in 1980 by performance artist Mike Mullins. Mullins had worked for Jerzy Grotowski in Australia and for the Teatr Laboratorium in Wrocław 1974–1975. Tsoutas was invited to become Performance Space’s first director.
In 1984 Robert Klenner directed a student production of The Cuttlefish at the Ensemble Studios, Sydney. On the opposite side of the continent in Perth, Kristof Kaczmarekdirected The Madman and the Nun for his Theatre Zart in 1989. Klemner and Kaczmarek were part of the second wave of Polish migration to Australia following the imposition of martial law. Another 1980s migrant, Lech Mackiewicz, wrote and directed Madness: Life as a narcotic vision, A performance of living paintings and scenes from the aberrant life of Stanisław Ignacy Witkiewicz known as Witkacy at Sydney’s PACT theatre in 1990. In a witty transposition, Mackiewicz adapted Witkacy’s Rules of the S. I. Witkiewicz Portrait Painting Firm to become a contract with the audience entering the theatre. The work included characters from a number from Witkacy’s plays and others based on Witkacy’s family. For the 2014 centenary of Witkacy’s time in Australia, he organised readings of Witkacy’s plays at La Mama, Melbourne and was consulting producer and a translator on Witkacy & Malinowski: a cinematic séance in 23 scenes. Mackiewicz continues to work as an actor and director between Poland and Australia. Jolanta Juszkiewicz, a graduate of the National Academy of Dramatic Art in Warsaw, founded Kropka Theatre in Sydney in 1997. With Anatoly Frusinshe adapted and directed her own monodrama performance of The Mother (1924) at the East Sydney School of Arts in 1999 and at Monash University, Melbourne in 2003. Juszkiewicz reprised her adaption as The Mother Again, with child actor Eryk Lenartowicz, at a number of Sydney venues in 2005 and subsequent versions internationally. In 2000 Bogdan Kocadirected an accomplished Sydney production of The Mother utilising a promenade stage. Koca had been an actor in the Teatr Polski in Wrocław and played Walpurg in The Madman and the Nun before migrating to Australia in 1982. He became an influential director, actor, teacher and voice coach in Australia. With a large and mostly female student cast, Caitlin Newton-Broad directed Country House at the University of New South Wales, Sydney in 2003. In muted tones the production utilised long hanging scrims, puppets and shadows. The sound design by Gail Priest was built on a collage of 78rpm recordings of jazz and ragtime.
One of the appeals of Witkacy’s plays are their rich adaptability. I use scenes from The Crazy Locomotive (1923) performed by Craig Meneaud and Richard Hilliar inside Witkacy & Malinowski: a cinematic séance in 23 scenes (2018). In the work, Robert Klenner voices Bronisław Malinowski, played by Matej Busic; Polish-Australian actor Tom Pelik plays Witkacy and Pollyanna Nowicki the presence of Jadwiga Janczewska. While in active dialogue with historical fact, in the spirit of Witkacy’s ‘Pure Form’, the film aims to leave the impression of having woken from a dream, as if the ‘dead communicate to the audience through the medium of cinema’ (Patterson, 2019).