Princess Ivona

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Princess Ivona (or Ivona, Princess of Burgundia) is the first play by the influential Polish novelist, playwright, and diarist Witold Gombrowicz, whom John Updike has called “one of the profoundest of the late moderns” and Milan Kundera “one of the great novelists of our century.

Written in 1934-5, Princess Ivona was first published in the literary journal Skamander in 1938.  It received its first performance in 1957 at the Teatr Dramatyczny in Warsaw, when the Communist government in Poland briefly lifted a ban on Gombrowicz’s work, after which his work was not seen again in Poland until the 1970s (and not published until the 1980s).  In 1964 it was performed in West Germany, and in 1965 in Sweden and France; these productions earned Gombrowicz great critical acclaim, and initiated a steady stream of productions of his work throughout Europe and, eventually, the US.

The play follows the bizarre intrigues of a self-confident Royal Court, whose members enjoy an unchallenged sense of privilege, luxury, and control – over both themselves and others.  The presence of a strange, awkward, silent young woman who mysteriously wanders into their world soon throws the court into a tailspin – the King and Queen begin to unravel at the very core of their being, and the rational functioning of the court’s administrators becomes increasingly lunatic.  As the play spirals towards its ending, both the narrative and Gombrowicz’s language become more outlandish and theatrical.

Gombrowicz’s brilliant play oscillates between a dark, brutal vision of humanity and sparkling, precise wit – as with much of his work, a scathing critical spirit tangles with the effervescence of humor, rhapsodic language, and tremendous flights of imagination.  Shifting between Shakespearian parody and Existential absurdity, Gombrowicz grounds his ornate and shifting dramatic structure in an extremely simple premise:  that the elaborate construction of an aristocratic court can be threatened and undone because of an unmemorable young woman who refuses to speak.

Gombrowicz created in Princess Ivona a timeless narrative structure that is neither parable, nor allegory.  It is, rather, a theatrical fantasy that reflects on our human tendency to theatricalize ourselves to each other.  Throughout his life and work, Gombrowicz was obsessed with the ways humans use masks, or what he called form, to relate to and seduce each other.  Both necessary and terrifying, our engagement with form is always a theatricalization of our needs, often in grotesque and exaggerated ways. 

Because it is fundamentally a theatrical fantasy, the play has the capacity to comment on any context in which it is performed, and the nature of the commentary is always changing.  Is the play about the war between the sexes?  It certainly has much to say about that.  Is it about the ways in which powerful men are thrilled by controlling the speech of women? Is it about systems of conformity?  Seen within the context of the historical moment when it was written, the play evokes the decline and decadence of European aristocracy, the demonization of the figure of the European Jew, and the tentative cultural and historical position of Poland, a nation both newly created and sandwiched between East and West.

Yet Gombrowicz’s play, like those of the existential playwrights Eugene Ionesco and Samuel Beckett after him, cannot be reduced to any of these themes or ideas – it is not about these facts in the world, nor is it merely trying to hold a distorted mirror up to reality in order to critique it.  Rather, the play is like a well-built and versatile machine – depending on what you plug into it, it produces radically different outcomes, without itself being altered.

As Gombrowicz himself put it:

“A writer can, if he wishes, describe reality as he sees it or as he imagines it to be; this produces realistic works (…) But he can also apply a different method in which reality is reduced to its component parts, after which these parts are used like bricks to construct a new edifice, a new world or microcosm, which ought to be different from the regular world and yet correspond with it in some way … different but, as the physicists say, adequate.”  (Polish Memories, 93)

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published this page 2012-08-13 15:58:00 -0700
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