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    Sanctity or Sanctimony in Stanisław Wyspiański’s Akropolis: On Boundary Oppositions, Subverted Expectations, and Irony

Colleen McQuillen

The theme of animation, which constitutes one of the essential elements of Stanisław Wyspiański’s (1869-1907) poetics, manifests itself in Akropolis through the multi-faceted story of resurrection. The story resonates on a complementary array of thematic and formal levels. First and foremost, the play opens on the Night of Resurrection and closes with the resurrection of Christ on Easter. Acts 1 and 4 take place between midnight and dawn on the night before Easter and tell the story of Wawel Cathedral’s statuary coming to life to demonstrate the resurrection of Christ, who in the play is called Salvador or Salvador-Apollo.[1] Commentators have repeatedly referred to the play’s allegorical meaning, one that rests on the idea of Poland as the Christ of Nations: like the suffering Christ, Poland will rise up and once again become a sovereign state. Resurrection, however, is just one aspect of the play; another is the problem of the liminal spaces created when opposing conditions, such as death and life, meet. This threshold is productive as a site of a new synthesis. In this article I argue that liminality constitutes the heart of Wyspiański’s cryptic play and is one of the reasons why the play has baffled critics and resisted stage performance over the past century.

On the formal level, the play (written in verse) challenges conventions of the dramatic genre. With the incursion of the fantastical and disconnected plots, Akropolis is what Martin Puchner would call an “exuberantly anti-theatrical” modernist play. Puchner explains that the modernists’ penchant for writing plays for the armchair reader rather than the theater spectator resulted in plays with an excessively strong focus on the written attributes of the text. As Puchner puts it, “The modernist closet dramas seek to undo the theater and its human actors through programs that are best described by terms such as literariness, écriture, and writerliness” (18). By hovering in a liminal zone between the genres of poetry and drama, and because of the various thematic manifestations of liminality, the play cannot be easily categorized or interpreted in a consistent fashion. Furthermore, I will suggest that the delicate boundary between sincere national piety and self-referential irony that the play straddles allowed Jerzy Grotowski to stage a performance in 1962 that on the surface appeared antithetical to Wyspianski’s original text. While his production was seemingly the flip side of Wyspiański’s play, Grotowski only nudged Wyspiański’s original concept out of the liminal space and into definitive irony.

Wyspiański’s artistic output as a writer and painter and his academic training as historian, art historian, and philosopher make him one of the most fascinating and celebrated figures of the Young Poland movement. His work has frequently been likened to that of Hugo von Hoffmansthal and Henrik Ibsen, and his dramas reflect some of the primary concerns of French and Russian Symbolists. Writing at the fin de siècle, the meeting of two centuries, the Russian Symbolists expressed a certain centennial angst and apocalyptic anxiety. This real-life liminality fueled their investigations into the ontological ramifications of boundary transgressions. Symbolist theatrical experiments, with their overt attention to the fluidity of both physical and metaphysical boundaries, often used the actual and conceptual space between actor and audience, creator and participant, art and life, as forums for exploring boundaries and their transgression.

The Symbolists’ desire to remove the footlights separating actor from audience stems from Nietzsche’s theory that drama originated in ancient Dionysian rituals. In ritual there is no distinction between audience and actors: everyone participates in the performance.[2] In The Birth of Tragedy Nietzsche argues that drama grew out of the collective experience of the dithyrambic chorus that sang and danced in obeisance to Dionysus. He points to the work of Richard Wagner as a contemporary example of such Dionysian ritual. Wagner called his operas that exhibited the same all-encompassing esthetic experience of ancient Greek ritual and drama Gesamtkunstwerk, or Total Art, alluding to the fact that the performances appealed to all the senses and united sound, image, and motion. Such a totalizing experience is similar to what Wyspiański described in his letters to fellow poet and playwright Lucjan Rydel. The churches Wyspiński visited in France and Germany in 1890 seemingly came to life and performed before his eyes: statues in Strasbourg swayed to organ music, faces in the friezes at Reims ceased laughing when they were watched, and all of Amiens itself became animated as if springing to life (Taylor 199). For Wyspński, it was not just the church rituals that were performative; he experienced the physical structure of the churches as if they were performing.

The playwright’s vivification of these European churches reveals early on the central role that animation will come to play in his poetics, including the poetics of stained glass. Two of Wyspiański’s most famous stained-glass windows, “Lord God” (Pan Bóg) and “Apollo” (completed at the Franciscan Church of Kraków in 1904, the same year Akropolis appeared) shimmer with the sun’s vital force, seeming to animate the figures depicted.[3] “Lord God” is a particularly poignant example: the window’s subtitle, “Stańsię!” meaning “Become!” or “Rise up!” plays out its own command each morning with the rising of the sun. As the sun and clouds move across the sky, the illumination of “Lord God” changes in intensity and mood, and produces the optical illusion that it is Lord God himself rising up. The subject of Wyspiański’s other great stained-glass window of 1904 likewise resonates with the artistic medium: a stained-glass window is the quintessential homage to Apollo, also known as Phoebus, god of the sun.

Wyspiański’s fascination with boundary crossings repeatedly manifests itself as the intrusion of the fantastical into reality. In Akropolis the fantastical consists not only of the miracle of Christ’s resurrection, but also of the fact that statues and tapestry figures come to life. The fantastic, as Tzvetan Todorov suggests, depends on perceptual liminality, on what he describes as “hesitation.” The fantastic transpires in the moment when a character or reader must choose whether the event experienced is an “illusion of the senses. . . a product of imagination” or “an integral part of reality” (25). Once it is decided one way or another, the event in question falls into the genre of the uncanny or the marvelous. For an event to be fantastic, the reader must also consider it to be neither poetic nor allegorical (33). It is impossible, therefore, for us to consider the events of Akropolis fantastic in the Todorovian sense because the allegorical readings are too suggestive. Todorov’s definition of the fantastic is nonetheless relevant, in part because of its insight that perception and cognition can be suspended between two explanations of events, one that complies with the laws of the natural world and one that does not. Along with the animated statuary, Wyspiański introduces another fantastical discursive space: the world of dreams in Acts 2 and 3. Dreams are connected to Todorov’s fantastic as they coincide with the hours of supernatural events. As a reminder of night’s dark possibilities, Todorov cites the words of Alfonso van Worden in Jan Potocki’s Saragossa Manuscript: “As everyone knows, ghosts have power only from midnight till cockcrow” (28).

Wyspiański’s treatment of time presents another challenge to boundaries. Akropolis subverts the notions of linearity and causality, and shatters the conventional dramatic unities of time, place, and action. Wyspiański situates the play’s four acts in different chronotopes ranging from the Trojan War to Old Testament Israel to contemporary Poland. While most dramas move forward, propelled by one unified plot line, Akropolis cycles through time and lacks one central motivating conflict.[4] Act 1 is continued in Act 4 but the plots of Acts 2 and 3 are discrete, albeit sequenced chronologically: Act 2 tells the story of Hector and Paris from The Iliad and Act 3 relates the tale of Jacob and Esau in Genesis.[5]

Time in also thematized through the Wawel complex (Cathedral and Castle), the setting of the play’s action. Wawel is a historical and cultural palimpsest, carrying the past into the present and future. As the former royal residence and as a necropolis housing the tombs of Polish kings and military heroes, Wawel is a monument to past imperial glory and serves as Poland’s national reliquary. As the quintessential religious and cultural symbol of Poland, Wawel bridges the sacred and the secular. It is a sanctified house of worship that also fulfills the role of national museum and mausoleum by housing the tombs of generations of Polish kings, military heroes, and poets. Wawel cuts across time and existential planes and is a bridge of cultural memory. With Wawel as the place of action, Akropolis puts at center stage the relationship between performance and cultural memory. Because the Wawel complex is both a historical and mythical space where political eras and cultural legend merge, it escapes the traditional diachronic time and emerges as a synthetic artistic space akin to human memory itself. Wawel is a physical manifestation of memory’s accretions, a structure whose varied architecture bears witness to its extensive history, and whose mythical associations tell of dragons and protective karma; as such, it is the quintessential memory theater, where past and present are creatively recombined.

In Memory and Literature: Intertextuality in Russian Modernism, Renate Lachmann has likened the way that memory animates cultural monuments to a theater, and she uses the phrase “theater of memory” as a metaphor for intertextuality. Her study of the role of cultural memory in modernism is relevant to a discussion of Akropolis because of the play’s deep engagement with monuments of Polish and, more broadly, Western culture. The “theater of memory” is an architectural space where texts of the past rise up and interact as if they were live beings, producing a densely coded synthesis. In reference to Russian Symbolist Andrei Bely’s Petersburg, Lachmann writes: “The cerebral game of memory calls up images from other literatures (with their respective spaces reserved for memory), images from other cultures, religions, and myths, giving them over to the reader who must decipher them” (68). The multiply coded correspondences of Bely’s memory theater are similar to those of Wyspiański in Akropolis, since their use of the city space as a cultural palimpsest and of dense intertextual allusions are clearly visible. In contrast to Bely, whose web of allusions pertains primarily to the Russian literary tradition, Wyspiański draws on the riches of Jewish, Christian, Greek, and Roman civilizations.

Just as one can speak of animating Wawel in the theater of memory, one can speak of animating the memorials that are part of Wawel (statuary and sculpture). The statues, monuments, and sculptures that come to life are integrally connected to Wawel; they are not merely fixtures, they are part of the structure and as such, metonymic extensions of the Cathedral. When the stone and marble statues awaken in Act 1, it is as if Wawel itself awakens. The animated statuary serves as a harbinger of Christ’s resurrection, which sets up the transitive association of Wawel with the body of Christ. This relationship directly recalls the New Testament’s association of Christ’s body with the Jerusalem temple. In Act 4 of Akropolis the words of the animated statue of King David to Salvador reference Jesus’ statement in John 2:19, “Destroy this temple and in three days I will raise it up.” Says David, “Before You the Church will fall as rubble onto the heads of my people. In three days a new one will rise through the great cry of Your Word” (211).[6] The Gospel clarifies that Christ was speaking of the metaphorical temple of his body, which did indeed rise from the dead after three days (Hayes 7).

This passage of Scripture highlights the fact that destruction precedes resurrection, that death is necessary for rebirth to occur-the essence of Easter. The martyred Christ of Act 1 whose “blood trickles from his hands and feet and face onto the altar” triumphantly rises up in the culminating scene of Act 4 (Wyspiański, Akropolis, 9). His resurrection (realized as the arrival of Salvador-Apollo at Wawel Cathedral) is immediately preceded by physical damage to Wawel, which serves as a demonstration of His might. The harpist King David calls on Salvador to tear off the ceiling and burst the walls to show his power (211). He then hears Salvador-Apollo arriving in his chariot; however, the sound is not of the hooves of white steeds but the hooves of centaurs, an allusion to the destructive Dionysian impulse.[7] The Dionysian force breaks down physical and metaphysical barriers, introducing an element of destruction from which rebirth can begin. The centaurs’ hooves bang against the stone columns, and the walls of Wawel crumble and pour down as a demonstration of Salvador’s might (212). When Salvador arrives, a moment represented sonically by his booming voice and the roll of thunder as well as visually by the appearance of Apollo in his golden chariot pulled by white steeds, the silver coffin of Bishop Stanisław Szczepanowski, Poland’s patron saint, shatters to pieces.[8]

This final scene is often read metaphorically as the shattering of Poland’s past political oppression: Poland’s military rising will enable it to emerge once again as an independent nation. The Polish Romantics, Mickiewicz in particular, articulated a national myth of Poland as the Christ of Nations in which they juxtaposed Christ’s two opposing roles as Martyr and Savior. They held that Poland’s suffering as a politically oppressed nation (the memories of the failed rising of 1830 were fresh) would ultimately lead to its deliverance. Like Christ, Poland would have to suffer and die in order to be reborn, and once resurrected, it would show the world the path to salvation (Miłosz 226).[9] Wyspiański challenged this messianic view of Poland in his two satirical plays, The Wedding (Wesele, 1901) and Liberation (Wyzwolenie, 1903). In The Wedding, Wernyhora (a mythical figure who prophesied the rebirth of Poland) gives a special golden horn to Gospodarz who in turn gives it to the peasant boy Jasiek. The horn is to be used to summon the Polish people to action and to call forth an insurrection, and the play’s characters expectantly await this clarion call. However, Jasiek loses the horn and thus the rising cannot and will not take place. In Liberation it is the people who are not yet ready for deliverance. The hero Konrad is a playwright (and a semi-autobiographical figure of Wyspiański) who wants to establish a new modern Polish theater, one that will represent the nation. He condemns the esteemed poet Genius (a Mickiewicz figure) for having an outdated messianic attitude, one that fosters false hopes and glorifies death as the only path to salvation and eternal life. Konrad believes that the people’s redemption can come without them having to play the martyr. At the end of the play, Konrad attempts to lead the people away from the danger of messianism, but they are not ready to follow.

The metaphorical reading of Christ’s rising as Poland’s uprising is justified by the dual meaning of powstanie as both resurrection and insurrection. King David the harpist reveals this lexical ambiguity in Act 4 when he declares, “The dead will rise up (powstanà) when you beckon with your hand” (204). David addresses Salvador with this declaration, recalling Salvador’s power to restore life, as he (Jesus) did with Lazarus. Additionally, the words from King David in the play have a military-political resonance because the biblical King David made Ancient Israel an independent state through his martial victories. In Akropolis David welcomes Salvador as his people’s liberator: “You will put an end to the captivity of the years. . . and crush the fetters,” suggesting physical as well as spiritual liberation (206). Finally, David likens the cacophony of Salvador’s violent arrival to a military uprising: “And the horns rumble like cannons, like fires on those fields; as if all of Poland has already risen up” (217). The insurrection that will ignite the dawn of a newly independent Poland is thus coded in the messianic terms of Salvador’s resurrection.

Among Wyspiański’s four plays that deal with national problems (the theme of independence), Akropolis stands out for its seeming optimism.[10] The triumphant resurrection of Christ at the end of the play, read metaphorically as the successful political liberation of the Polish nation, presents a view of Poland’s potential for deliverance that is atypically messianic for the playwright. It has been suggested by scholars such as Tadeusz Sinko that Wyspiański’s attitude towards Poland’s liberation became increasingly optimistic over the period of time during which he wrote The Wedding, Liberation, and Akropolis (Romańska 5). He likens these plays to Dante’s Divine Comedy: Poland’s nationhood progresses from hell to purgatory to heaven. Does this hopeful ending represent an evolution in Wyspiański’s thinking, or does it represent a new artistic strategy, namely one that relies on irony to convey his skepticism?

On the surface the triumphant return of Salvador seemingly expresses optimism regarding Poland’s national revival. Akropolis culminates in Salvador’s dramatic arrival from on high: the Sun-Christ crashes onto stage in his luminous chariot pulled by white steeds. Salvador’s rapturous, grandiose deus-ex-machina arrival is showy and stagy in a naive way that recalls medieval miracle plays. Such spectacular exuberance and artifice of art, far from the realism of nineteenth-century social criticism, suggests an ironic ending. The deus ex machina tradition so vividly evoked in this scene symbolizes a simplistic solution to an intractable problem: the Polish nation will overcome its oppression by means of a miracle. While deus ex machina, literally “god in a machine,” referred in ancient Greek drama to the lowering and raising of an actor on stage by mechanical means such as a pulley or crane, over time it has acquired a more generalized meaning relating to its role as a device of artistic convenience. Greek tragedians like Euripides used this device to resolve impossible or hopeless situations, earning the ire of Aristotle who believed that a plot should be resolved naturally through its internal logic rather than though a convenient device. In Akropolis the coming of the Savior, a providential intercession, is a convenient end to a play that has no consistent plotline and that consequently lacks the potential for a logical denouement. The contrived convenience of this ending suggests a corollary of political skepticism. Rather than intending Salvador’s showy arrival as an unabashed declaration of Poland’s special status as a chosen nation, Wyspiański may be expressing doubt in such a convenient answer.

The staginess of Salvador-Apollo’s entrance is echoed by the ascension of King David on stage. In Act 4, scene 6 David physically rises on stage in a similar deus ex machina fashion, his head and harp bathed in the dawn’s light, at precisely the moment of Salvador-Apollo’s arrival, suggesting his own parallel role as savior. Among the many doublings and allegorical correspondences in Akropolis (Wawel as Acropolis as Jerusalem temple as Christ’s body; the river Wisła as Skamander as the River Jordan), Wyspiański sets up the correspondence of the Polish Savior (Christ) with the Greek Savior (Apollo) and King David, savior of the Israelites.[11] Like Apollo-Phoebus and the Sun-Christ of Słowacki, the gilded sculptural figure of David in Wawel emits a golden luminosity. David acknowledges his chosen status, singing, “You gave me a golden garment so that I would be extolled” (192).

In keeping with his biblical character, King David is celebrated as a harpist and singer in the play. His creative capacity is that of a poet, suggesting on the level of a national metaphor that it will be the poet’s duty to lead his people and to catalyze the miracle of liberation. The power of the poet’s word to create is demonstrated in King David’s invocation of Salvador-Apollo as well as in the dialogic nature of Wyspiański’s poetic drama. Drama relies on dialogic exchange, a synthetic act of negotiating meaning that is rooted in dialectics. This dialogic-synthetic creative process is seen in Act 4, scene 6: the exchange between the harpist and Salvador sounds like an incantation, the generative power of which calls forth and affirms the existence and immediate presence of Salvador.[12] In response to Salvador’s declarations “I am!” and “Strength, power!” the harpist replies, “Come”; this exchange is repeated three times, a number that signifies the Holy Trinity and also has mystical significance in pagan cultures (as demonstrated by the fact that both Christian Salvador and pagan Apollo arrive).[13] While powerful as a creative force, dialogue doesn’t necessarily result in synthesis: sometimes it occupies a middle ground between speakers. As Jan Swearingen has suggested, dialog is “programmatically liminal: interstructural, between two states or conditions, essentially unstructured rather than structured by contradictions”(47). As Akropolis explores the tensions and moments of intersection between opposing existential states (living versus dead, waking versus dreaming, past versus future), Wyspianski’s choice of the dramatic genre can thus be seen to complement his probing of liminal spaces.

As I have already suggested, it is difficult to know whether to read Akropolis as ironic or sincere. The drama walks a tightrope between these modes of expression and creates hesitation in the reader/viewer similar to what one experiences when confronting a fantastic experience. Does it express patriotic optimism, or does it mock Polish writers’ propensity toward messianism? Does the staginess and overwrought spectacle undermine the otherwise pious and uplifting view of Poland’s political destiny in Europe and its cultural position in Western civilization? In a play that engages to such a high degree the question of existential and perceptual oppositions and the liminal spaces between them, it is not surprising that irony should win out. After all, the interplay of opposite meanings is the very definition of irony: in the words of the Oxford English Dictionary irony is “a figure of speech in which the intended meaning is the opposite of that expressed by the words used.”

In Act 1 the conflict of oppositions already appears in a surprising and potentially blasphemous way, indicating that the sanctity of what transpires is threatened. The act equates lusty passion with vitality and interposes worldly love and bodily pleasures into the realm of the sacred on the Night of Resurrection, which compromises the solemn sanctity of Easter. The four angels supporting the silver sarcophagus of St. Stanisław in Wawel Cathedral feel the return of power (moc) and strength (siła) as “the blood flows into their silver bodies” (12).[14] Once invigorated, the angels seduce and express their love for the stone statues in the cathedral, thereby bringing them back to life as in scene 3 between the Second Angel and Cupid:[15]

Second Angel:
Sumptuous am I, and abundant!
Embrace my waist.
I want to feel your hands
Near my chest
And your face before mine.

Fire is burning in your eyes.
The heat in your eyes is glowing.

Second Angel:
I am in love.-

You are beautiful, oh lily!
Why are those garments covering you?
Those silver raiments, the clinging cloth.

Second Angel:
Your chest is bared;
Hold me to your bosom;
O joy, in your eyes is the sun (27-8).

This scene associates the reawakening of the life force among the statuary with the quickened pulse of romance, and emphasizes the statuary’s return to flesh as the figures crave the intimacy of kisses and caresses. The sexual impulses that motivate several scenes in Act 1 seem oddly dissonant with the solemnity of Easter, the holiday celebrating the resurrection of Christ, son of the Virgin Mary. The torments of Christ’s Passion are jarringly opposed to the pleasure of carnal earthly passions: the crucified Christ on the cathedral’s great altar terrifies the angels.

The dissonance of these scenes in Act 1 is not of the same magnitude as that which separates Wyspiański’s ostensibly pious and seemingly optimistic play and Grotowski’s 1962 production of it. Grotowski undermined Akropolis’s life-affirming Catholic vision by presenting the contrasting Jewish experience of the Holocaust: in contrast to Poland, which the play ironically predicts will find salvation, twentieth-century history proved that the Jews will find no such salvation. Grotowski replaced Wyspiański’s focus on life, love, and creativity with death, destruction, and stasis by relocating the play’s scene of action from Wawel to a Nazi concentration camp, and by having the actors-prisoners build their own crematorium in front of the audience during the performance. The crematorium is built out into the audience, as shown in James MacTaggart’s 1968 video recording. The audience becomes trapped in the performance, thereby suggesting the complicity of idle spectators from abroad. Grotowski’s interpretation of the play shocked viewers both because of its raw depiction of camp life and because it seemed antithetical to Wyspiański’s Easter parable. Whatever the merits of Grotowski’s interpretation, it strongly suggests that the play’s cargo of irony and ambiguity is substantial.

Wyspiański’s play exists outside of chronological time, inhabiting instead the time of imagination and cultural memory. The playwright’s palimpsestual layering of historical epochs contrasts with the way Grotowski traps Akropolis in the concrete historical moment of the Second World War. Wyspiański’s acropolis becomes Grotowski’s necropolis as the latter reduces the stage to a cemetery when the actors climb into one large black box at center stage that represents a mass grave, and the play ends with complete silence and emptiness. In the twentieth century Poland’s savior never materialized, and no modern-day King David appeared to save the Jews. In this way Grotowski cynically points out that Wyspiański’s uplifting vision of a universally liberated Poland was one of historically unjustified optimism. The baroque monuments and elaborate sarcophagi of Wawel that are celebrated in Wyspiański’s Akropolis stand in contrast to the mass graves of the Holocaust’s victims.

Grotowski used Akropolis to present his own version of events. While the subtext of Wyspiański’s script can be and frequently is viewed as a political allegory, the plot contains no such explicit agenda. The original play’s fantastical content and unconventional structure make it an unwieldy instrument of social criticism. The disconnect between the likely political agenda and the unlikely experimental modernist packaging, viewed together with the other oppositions and dissonances already discussed, points to the possibility of reading Akropolis with a sense of irony, an approach that has sometimes been discounted because of Wyspiański’s abiding love and respect for culture. However, Liberation, written and published just one year before Akropolis, ironically treats the messianic vision of Poland as the Christ of Nations articulated by the Romantics. Scholars such as Wilhelm Barbasz have attempted to reconcile the antimessianic satire of Liberation with the triumphant arrival of the Savior at the end of Akropolis by suggesting that Wyspiański had no interest in the martyred Christ, and for him Poland was not a victim. Barbasz argues instead that Wyspiński departed from Romantic messianism in his view of Poland as capable of rising up without first having to suffer as the martyr. Barbasz’s reading, however, does not address the play’s hyperbolically stagy ending.

By recognizing that the play’s pathos and sublimity are actually subverted by its outsized staginess, and that Wyspiański’s vision for Akropolis was actually more cynical than Dante’s Paradiso, one begins to see that Grotowski’s Teatr Laboratorium staging of Akropolis was not so shockingly iconoclastic as might appear at first. Grotowski expressed in bolder and more contemporary terms Wyspiański’s own ironic stance toward national salvation. Rather than being reversed in Akropolis, the playwright’s skeptical view of Poland’s readiness for deliverance that emerges in The Wedding and Liberation finds here a more complicated expression. Perhaps instead of interpreting Grotowski’s production as a radical departure from the playwright’s original vision and intention, we should commend him for his insight.


1. Meaning savior in Spanish, Salvador is a name commonly used in reference to the resurrected Christ.

2. Richard Schechner, Ritual, Play, and Performance (New York: Seabury Press, 1976).

3. Wyspiański submitted a series of sketches for stained glass windows to be included in the renovation of Wawel, which was begun in the 1890s. His sketches were rejected in favor of the plan proposed by Sławomir Odrzywolski.

4. The absence of a discernible logical sequence between Acts 1, 2, and 3 reflects the influence of the Polish folk theater (szopka) on Wyspiański. The szopka (Christmas crèche) has multiple levels on which puppets can play out different stories simultaneously. Barbara Niemczyk has stated that such structural qualities in Liberation suggest the influence of the szopka. The szopka was highly influential in the Kraków cabaret “Green Balloon” hosted by Tadeusz Boy-Zeleński and frequented by many Young Poland artists. See also Mark F. Tattenbaum, “A Good Show: Traditional and Nontraditional Puppet Theater in Poland,” Sarmatian Review, vol. XXVII, no. 1 (January 2007), 1257-61 (

5. These two middle acts are based on seventeenth-century Flemish tapestries that hung in Wawel, the figures from which come to life in Akropolis in what seems to be a dream. The tapestries are called “The Trojan War” and “The History of Jacob.”

6. All translations are mine unless otherwise noted. Ewa Miodońska-Brookes pointed out the allusions to the New Testament in her extensive annotation to Akropolis.

7. Along with satyrs, bacchantes, and maenads, centaurs are mythological figures associated with the orgiastic celebrations of Dionysus. The Dionysian motif recalls Russian Symbolist Vyacheslav Ivanov’s theorization of a Dionysian Christ. Whereas Nietzsche had completely estheticized the complementary roles of Apollo and Dionysus, stripping them of their early cultic significance, Ivanov sought to revive the religious aspect of Dionysus and to reconcile the ancient Greek rites with those of Christianity. Holding that Nietzsche had wrongly reduced Dionysus to a symbol for unbridled excess, Ivanov sought to balance the figure of Dionysus by calling to attention his experience of suffering. Ivanov found in the ancient pagan rituals of the cult of Dionysus (and specifically his torment and resurrection) the prefiguration of the story of Christ.

8. Wyspiański’s reiteration of the Romantic myth of the Sun-Christ is embodied in the appearance of Apollo at precisely the moment Salvador arrives. He emphasizes Apollo’s connection to the sun by identifying him as a double of Phoebus, whom Aurora, the personification of dawn, calls her lover. In Act 4 Apollo-Phoebus arrives in a golden chariot pulled by white steeds, ushering in Day and alluding to nature’s cycles of light and dark, life and death, to accentuate the theme of resurrection. Thus while Wyspiański does not conflate Apollo and Salvador/Christ into one Sun God, he clearly draws on the parallels between them, such as their images as radiant sources of light and the fact that Apollo was also called Savior in ancient Greece. As Wyspiński would have known, Polish Romantic poet Juliuszłowacki also used the metaphor of the sun to present Christłowacki presented Christ as the ideal manifestation of the King-Spirit (Król-Duch). His unfinished poem King-Spirit (Król-Duch, Part 1, ‘Rhapsody,’ 1847) describes how the divine Spirit roams the earth and inspires its chosen hosts, who have included leaders, kings, and saints from different ages. The King-Spirit had two missions: first, to guide earthly spirits to their final goal; and second, to serve as a model towards which they could strive (Barbasz 377). Słowacki’s Sun-Christ (Chrystus Słoneczny) was in turn influenced by Polish scholar Karol Dupuis whose 1794 work The Origin of All The Cults contained the chapter “An explanation of the myth of the Sun, Celebrated under the name of Christ” (“Objaśnienie mitu o Słońcu, czczonem pod imieniem Chrystus”).

9. Mickiewicz depicted Poland as the Christ of Nations in his Books of the Polish Nation and of the Polish Pilgrims (Księgi narodu polskiego i pielgrzymstwa polskiego, 1832). In Genesis from the Spirit (Genesis z ducha, 1844), Słowacki suggests that the King-Spirit (a noumenal essence that wandered from body to body, inspiring leaders and visionaries) could infuse not only individuals thereby bring them closer to Christ, but the entire nations. Poland was thus inspired by the King-Spirit (Młosz 241).

10. Miłosz has used this rubric to group The Wedding, Liberation, Akropolis, and Legion (355).

11. Wyspiański follows nineteenth-century philosophers and historians who likened Wawel to the Athenian Acropolis. One influential example was Józef Kremer’s Grecja starožytna: jej sztuka, zwłaszcza rzeźba that looked at the topographical as well as functional affinities. Also see Leon Zienkowicz (Miodońska-Brookes 104-5).

12. The harpist’s role in calling forth Salvator, an act that spurs the Savior’s crossing from death into life, recalls Goethe’s trope of a harp string. In Zueignung (1797), he uses the harp string to evoke an apparitional body (Volker 155). When the harp string is still, it is a dividing line between past and present; when in motion, however, such divisions are erased (Volker 162).

13. The frequent echo-like repetition in the dialog of Acts 1 and 4 recalls a well-known satire of mystical Symbolists: Aleksandr Blok’s Balaganchik, a play staged in 1906 and based on Blok’s 1904 poem of the same name. While I am not suggesting a line of influence in either direction, I do wish to underscore the satirical value of repetition as a sign of unthinking devotion.

14. Salvador proclaims the same words (power [moc] and strength [siła]), as he rides into Wawel Cathedral in Act 4, echoing the angels’ erotic awakening and thus infusing Salvador’s holy resurrection (his return from the Passion) with the memory of profane earthly passion.

15. On the sarcophagus of Count Stanisław Aleksander Ankwicz (d.1840) are two figures Wyspiański has named: Niewiasta (Bride) and Amor (Cupid). Cupid is the “naked boyish angel in a crown of small flowers and who with one hand holds an extinguished torch-an attribute of death-and with the other hand he makes a gesture of consolation to the Bride” (Miodońska-Brookes n.174, p.14). Ankwicz was likely not of interest to Wyspiński except for his sarcophagus.


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