Dobrochna Ratajczakowa (born 1943) – professor at the Drama, Theatre and Performance Department of the Adam Mickiewicz University, theatrologist and dramatologist, literary scholar. Author of Fotel recenzenta (The Reviewer’s Armchair, 1981), Przestrzeń w dramacie i dramat w przestrzeni teatru (Space in Drama and Drama in Theatre Space, 1985), Komedia oświeconych. 1752–1795 (Comedy of the Enlightened. 1752–1795, 1993), Obrazy narodowe w dramacie i teatrze (National Images in Drama and Theatre, 1994), W krysztale i płomieniu, t.1–2 (In Crystal and Flame, vol. 1–2, 2006), as well as many articles published in journals including Pamiętnik Literacki, Pamiętnik Teatralny, Dialog and Teksty.
In theatre of the romantic era, nature was not a subject of reflection but a model for images created according to the art of imitation. We would find nature in them, both as a dynamic driving force (natura naturans) and as the set of images of phenomena and objects created by nature (natura naturata), together with a picture of a human being. The essence of all natural phenomena, which also required imitation, was a separate categoryAntonina Bartoszewicz, Natura, w: Słownik literatury polskiej XIX wieku pod red. Józefa Bachórza i Aliny Kowalczykowej, Ossolineum, Wrocław 1991, s. 594., since imitation was connected with the reliability factor, still playing the primary role of a category defining the horizon of the theatrical image for romanticism.
It stood for the theatre world’s basis, tailored to the needs of a contemporary, democratizing audience, resulting in the creation of simple, uncomplicated images. Although in the literal sense they remained pure fictions of nature, metaphorically they referred to realitySee: Nelson Goodman, Jak tworzymy świat, translated by Michał Sczubiałka, Wydawnictwo Aletheia, Warszawa 1997, pp. 121–124.. At the same time, they were using well-known, repeatable stereotypes, which gained the value of almost structural invariants wandering from one drama to another, yet with the power of redirecting a spectator to metaphorical structures, often archetypal, of which he often would not have to be aware. In the words of Gaston Bachelard: “the image, in its simplicity, has no need for scholarship. It is the property of a naive consciousness.” Leading a pre-thought being, “it has touched the depths before it stirs the surface and it becomes ‘a new being in our language’, expressing us by making us what it expresses; in other words, it is at once a becoming of expression, and a becoming of our being.” Gaston Bachelard, Wyobraźnia poetycka. Wybór pism, selected by Henryk Chudak, translated by Henryk Chudak and Anna Tatarkiewicz, introduction by Jan Błoński, Państwowy Instytut Wydawniczy, Warszawa 1975, pp. 363, 365. It is characterized by nature’s dynamics, unfamiliar to classical static images, by the double dynamics, as contained in the image itself and in the process of its perception.
The theatrical communication medium (not yet artistic) treated dramatic art as a kind of pictorial arrangement of the world presented, for which nature was indeed a model but not a material. The material was – as with the entire image – artificial.
It was a set designer and a stage manager who decided about the character of this image’s stage design, in which specific objectives were included (to entertain, to shock, to intimidate, to wring tears). Its form was distinguished from the true nature by dependence on theatre techniques and lack of spontaneity. Drama in images, realized for theatre purposes, accomplished another poetics than that of drama in actions. It functioned beyond the rules of poetics; it was recognized as a second-rate or third-rate repertoire that required the use of technology for the illusion of reality. It was well known then that more technology and richer images (therefore, the so-called exhibition) meant better profit and greater success. Stage romanticism was practical, after all, and converted images to money. Tickets for remarkably exquisite exhibitions sold for twice the regular price. A spectator was buying the act of releasing his own emotions integrated with the course of dramatic action in images. Its heroes were as artificial as the stage scenery was. Because theatre nature didn't hide its paradoxical nature: the more it was supposed to be “natural”, the more technical support it required therefore the more it was “not-natural”.
It was a Renaissance and baroque technique, based on a few variants of painted coulisse complemented with different practical necessities, hanging prospects, stage traps, harnesses, apotheoses and of course paludamentums. It didn’t matter that rooms with ceilings were well known in that century, many popular magic dramas still required ghosts, spirits or allegories (artificial representations of Wisdom or Evil) floating in from above. Their appearances imitated canonical images included in such publications as Iconologia by Cesare Ripa. Thus the theatrical baroque was becoming a basis for theatrical romanticism, especially since the project of a stage manager’s activities was also a baroque one and was included in Niccolò Sabbatini’s manual. Sabbatini developed a specific technical “syntax” of theatrical images, he taught his readers “how to make the stage seem to burn” and “how to lower a cloud, which divides into three parts, and then, rising unites back in one”, revealing methods for the birth of dawn, people transforming into rocks, representations of paradise and hell or the introduction of a ghost, and presented a number of ways to create a ship, etc. Sublime aesthetic concepts didn't count for him, as they didn't count for the practical medium of theatre. He wrote his manual for practicians who wanted to find out how to please the audience and shield it from impatience. He treated actors as instruments; he just had to “use them, set them up to a certain point, drop them from the sky and let them out from below the floor” (as Barbara Judkowiak writes). For him, they were parts of mechanisms "which he was to put in a certain movement". He demonstrated how to “cover” changing of decor with dancers’ movements while ensuring that the artists didn't interrupt machines’ operations with their performances, and that both sides – people as well as machines – were safe and that the “director of a show” could succeed in imitating nature. “The actual ‘heroes’ of Sabbatini’s manual weren't the drama’s actors, dancers or musicians, but were perspective decor with mechanisms changing them, and devices and machines evoking various effects.”Barbara Judkowiak, Czarodzieje sceny. Niccolò Sabbatini i jego „sprawa” w europejskiej i polskiej teatrologii, in: Niccolò Sabbatini, Praktyka budowania scen i machin teatralnych, translated by Anastazja Kasprzak, introduction by Barbara Judkowiak, Słowo/obraz terytoria, Gdańsk 2008, p. 21. These devices and effects – a mechanical device and an effect means almost the same thing, after all – would be added to in the 19th century by the effect of mobile light, enhanced by gas lighting and connected with the effect of spatiality, brought on by panoramas and dioramas.
The 18th century is indebted to Jean-Nicolas Servandoni for the discovery of visual performances, including performances that presented views of famous buildings, cities and landscapes. Presentations of Philip de Loutheburg’s eidophusikon were sensations in the second half of the century. The eidophusikon demonstrated nature in motion, the effects of dawn, moonrise, sea storm and shipwreck and views of the Alps with a forester attacked by wolves.See: Henryk Jurkowski, Pejzaże w fototoplastykonie, in: Przemiany ikonosfery. Wizualny kontekst sztuki teatru, Wydawnictwo Uniwersytetu Wrocławskiego, Wrocław 2009. It was an important invention for romantic staging; it created an opportunity to present the dramatic side of nature onstage, the power of action perceptible through its results. Thus the romantic image of theatrical nature could be constituted as a structure composed of four components: first of the landscape, often combined with human works (a cabin, castle or ship), second of technical effects presenting a creative character of nature that creates and destroys and that is a specific energy system, and third of acting man as actor, dancer, singer, and of an animal treated in the same categories. Both man and animal were creations of nature, though on stage they became performers. The last of the four components are spectators, as stage images were strictly integrated with their emotions.
Stage technique for creating images was not neutral. In the first place, it was the basis for a common act of contemporary communication, which Alfred de Vigny perfectly described: “I had something urgent to tell the audience, and the machine I told you about was the quickest way to do it. It is indeed an excellent method for speaking to three thousand people who have gathered there and for forcing them to listen.”Alfred de Vigny, List do lorda… O przedstawieniu z dnia 24 października 1829, czyli o systemie dramatycznym, translated by Ewa Bieńkowska, in: Manifesty romantyzmu 1790–1830. Anglia, Niemcy, Francja, selected and edited by Alina Kowalczykowa, Państwowe Wydawnictwo Naukowe, Warszawa 1975, p. 365. Next, technique was a useful design tool to create a stage world presented and controlled by a stage manager. He designed a mimetic style of images, in comparison with reality, which created a base for various types of contemporary realism. It could have been a mystical mimetism, a marvelous one – magical and fairy-like, in the service of moral allegory – but also a generic moral mimetism inspired by couleur locale. All these worlds shown onstage were filled with sensual material being aimed to authenticate a staged presentation of reality. Henryk Jurkowski is right, therefore, when he says “what we today call ‘stage romanticism’, artists from the beginning of the century treated as pure realism.”Ibid., p. 266. Mimetism, leading to realism, was for a stage manager a very handy style, well known in theatre for ages. During the Renaissance, it was connected with the discovery of perspective – that is, with the scientifically proven “true projection” of an image – letting theatre gain “an endless source of aspects, which could be educed this way from natural objects and from their diversity of individual interpretations.”Rudolf Arnheim, Sztuka i percepcja wzrokowa. Psychologia twórczego oka, translated by Jolanta Mach, Słowo/obraz terytoria, Gdańsk 2004, p. 159. It's not without reason that Italian theatre, called a box with views, was based on realistic perspective that, even if transformed in some aspects, always remained a starting point – as in romantic theatre.
Theatre decor, invented by the theatre industry between the 18th and 19th centuries, became the most important part of a performance, contrary to the Aristotelian tradition, which found so-called opsis to be its least essential element. For such a change, audiences were also responsible, demonstrating at the beginning of the century their growing interest in a realistic approach to the settings of action, noticed not only in established theatres but also in various itinerant pittoresque theatres, which were also familiar in Poland.Jurkowski, op. cit., pp. 237, 238. By 1808, two of Warsaw leading actors, Ludwik Adam Dmuszewski and Alozjy Żółkowski Sr., authors of the humorous Dykcjonarzyk teatralny, offered a definition of “decor”: “they are a great and useful scene’s ornament. In decent theatres, they carefully try to make a perfect illusion (delusion) through decor. It was proved that a play, showing various forms and many decor, even though it’s mediocre, would attract incomparably more spectators than an excellent tragedy or comedy played in one place through all acts.”Dykcjonarzyk teatralny, in: Teatr Wojciecha Bogusławskiego w latach 1799–1814, edited by Eugeniusz Szwankowski, Ossolineum, Wrocław 1954, p. 355.
Coming from experienced stage practitioners, Dykcjonarzyk was only announcing a change. Polish romantic theatre would have to wait another 20 years for its official debut, in November 1829, when The Peasant as Millionaire, or the Girl from the Fairy World, a melodrama by Ferdinand Raimund, was staged in Warsaw. It was a great success and opened the way for a series of similar popular romantic successes: dramas including Klara von Hoheneichen by Christian Spies (1798, in Poland), and melodramas including Matki rodu Dobratyńskich by Franz Grillparzer (1824) and such operas as The Mute Girl of Portici (1830) and Robert le diable (1836). Even romanticists who qualified the plot of Raimund’s play as nonsense were delighted with the stage design by Antonio Sacchetti, the leading Warsaw scenic designer. The play took place in three worlds – magical, allegoric and earthly. On the first set, it was “a parable about vanity and the fragility of life, wealth and happiness”, while in the second it was a black-and-white representation of Manichean philosophy, and in the third a moral bourgeois Biedermeier drama. Elżbieta Nowicka, Chłop milionowy Ferdinanda Raimunda, bestseller teatralny w Polsce roku 1830, in: Zapomniane wielkości romantyzmu, edited by Zofia Trojanowiczowa and Zbigniew Przychodniak, Poznańskie Towarzystwo Przyjaciół Nauk, Poznań 1995, p. 184. Decor was also of a threefold character, separating certain scenes or juxaposing one with another. For example, in the second act, a hut in a tiny garden full of white lilies was presented, standing in a “pleasant valley”.
“The rear curtain (the prospectus) represents high mountains. Half of it is covered with flowery colourful mountain, reaching down to the valley, crossed by paths, with silver statues standing here and there (sic).” On the second half were “two magnificent Alps”, at the top of the first mountain, a figure of Wealth, on the second one, a figure of Fame (sic). The valley was separated from this mountain by a forest and a road, eternal symbols of danger. Fantasy and magic, allegory, symbolism and realism intermingled with each other, creating a romantic cornucopia.
After Raimund’s play, Warsaw theatres began to stage magical plays that for the past few years had already been fascinating audiences in Lviv’s theatres. The director Jan Nepomucen Kamiński translated Viennese magical comedies, in particular the famous Danube Mermaid by Ferdinand Kauer (1814), and also wrote his own magical plays based on this pattern (Twardowski na Krzemionakch, krotochwila czarodziejska – derived, as romanticism suggested, “from folk tales”, in 1825) and historic-fictional romantic comedies (Książęta mazowieccy czyli Dolina Czarów, 1824). During the first act, spectators could admire a hall “in the early Gothic style”, decorated with golden deer heads(!), and during the third, a cave with a weeping willow at the entrance and “pillars of crystallized rock”. In the background, one could see blooming bushes, hanging wreaths, flowers and cages with birds. “The whole scene was supposed to make a romantic impression”, says the author. The paradox of our theatre lies in the fact that the success of the first romantic stage design by Antonio Sacchetti, the most famous Warsaw designer, was fulfilled in a play inspired by the Biedermeier style, because that's exactly what The Girl from the Fairy World was. Therefore throughout the entire romantic era we had popular theatre combining moral Biedermeier plays and romantic melodrama. Melodrama would then determine a staging standard, also for “higher quality” plays.
In general, nature images in this popular theatre were divided into two basic types, deeply rooted in the European topos tradition: locus amoenus integrated with bucolic tradition and locus horridus enabling contemporary horror drama. While watching Skalmierzanka (1828), a comic opera by Kamiński, the audience could admire a picturesque village “somehow in a romantic style”, with a bell tower overlooking peasant huts and a palace surrounded by gardens with mountains in the background, with other plays presenting gloomy landscapes: in Ralph le Bandit, ou les Souterrains de St. Norbert (1845), a melodrama by Charles Desnoyer (in which a choir of bandits sings “Let’s drink, Lucifer’s children”) and Żywi umarli czyli Bandyci w piekle (1853), a melodrama by Stanisław Krzesiński, the same atmosphere is depicted – along with a dark forest and a bandit cave, audiences could appreciate a night scene of a castle on fire. Unfortunately, the same audiences couldn't see Cztery żywioły czyli Podróż podwodna, ogniowa i napowietrzna by Guilbert de Pixerécourt, Nicolas Brazier and Teophile Dumersan, “a great magical, fantastic, phantasmagorical, romantic and comic melodrama” in four acts and eight images, in which action took place on Earth, in the underground kingdom of gnomes, in the kingdom of ghosts of the air and in Salamandra’s kingdom of fire. It wasn't possible because there was only one theatre in Poland in 1833 able to produce a genuine romantic set design, the newly opened Grand Theatre in Warsaw (on February 24, 1833). It wasn't until 1842 that the Skarbek Theatre in Lviv was opened, supplied with appropriate stage equipment, then in 1843 Hilary Maciszewski became director in Kraków and provided the theatre there with new equipment and decor. The divided country during the Partitions of Poland was being interconnected by itinerant theatres operating under difficult circumstances, often starting their activities from scratch by constructing a theatre – in a stable, a guesthouse, a deserted church – yet despite these obstacles staging romantic plays, mostly melodramas, of course. It’s difficult to imagine what sort of decor they were able to produce, though some actors recollected that scythes, for example, were made of cardboard covered with tinfoil and a forest would not always show up onstage, sometimes stopping halfway there.
The theatre world under consideration here was run by laws of metaphor. These functioned in thematic series created and realized by many authors speaking various languages, which remained a basic characteristic feature of popular theatre based on second- and third-rate literature. Action might take place in ruins, representing a symbol of transience and terror, while in bandit dramas the action descended into cellars and caves, referring to the “soul’s dungeons”, to an archetypal metaphor of subconsciousness, pointing out the dark side of humanity. Among the wide range of bandit stories, the first Polish bandit, Janosik, had appeared by the mid 18th century in Przymuszone związki czyli Herszt opryszków karpackich, a melodrama by Jan Nepomucen Kamiński. Spectators were seduced and terrified at the same time by night landscapes and vampires emerging from their graves (the most famous piece in this thematic series was The Phantom by Charles Nodier), where two elements, water and fire, played a particular role indicating the destructive force of nature. In Maria, the famous poem by Antoni Malczewski adapted for the stage by Konstanty Majeranowski as Córka miecznika czyli Domy polskie w XVII wieku, flames consumed a swordsmith’s mansion, while in many others, castles were similarly set on fire. Fire became such a theatrical component that a widely known anecdote said that The Mute Girl of Portici, the opera by Daniel Auber, was composed for the final scene of Vesuvius’ eruption. This eruption was a clear image of the relationship between nature and humans. The metaphor of “the mountain of fire”, originating from the ancient allegory of fire and the forge of Vulcan, was at the same time an expression of purification with fire, as well as a metaphor for the outbreak of revolution, coinciding with the hero of the opera’s affections: “the sky darkens and, in the distance, Vesuvius starts erupting with flames”, “it thunders and cracks, expels lava from its interior”, while Fenella throws herself into the abyss from the palace terrace. The purifying and destructive function was also assigned to the sea, represented by plays where part of the action took place onboard a ship. The dramatic vision of hazardous nature resulted in images of storms and shipwrecks, expressing the age-old metaphor of a human journey – destiny, indicated already in the modern era of early globalization.
In Warsaw, in the maritime series, The Sailors, an opera by Friedrich von Flotow, was staged in 1858 (“towards the end of the second act, when a dreadful storm arises, this constant motion, this hum and cry, deckhands climbing the masts – it all so vivid, full of life and truth”). A year earlier, audiences could see The Corsair, a ballet by Joseph Mazillier and Adolphe Adam, with a diorama depicting a sinking ship and rescued lovers standing on a rock in moonlight.Antonina Bartoszewicz, Natura, w: Słownik literatury polskiej XIX wieku pod red. Józefa Bachórza i Aliny Kowalczykowej, Ossolineum, Wrocław 1991, s. 594. Among the various settings of action in Monaldeschi (1845), a tragedy by Heinrich Laube, there was a view in the first act of the harbourside in Stockholm (a key point made in various records of the decor) and in the fourth act there was a ship's deck with a prospect of the sea and ships sailing in the distance. As one reviewer noted, the illusion was heightened by “particularly sombre and charming singing of a deckhand, sitting at the top of the mainmast, whose voice was falling down while reaching up to the soul.”Gazeta Krakowska 1845, no. 10, in: Teatr krakowski pod dyrekcją Hilarego Meciszewskiego 1843–1845. Repertuar, recenzje, dokumenty, edited by Jerzy Got, Wrocław 1967, pp. 77, 87. This saturation of theatrical nature with emotionality, perceived immediately by the audience, gave it a particular character, romantic indeed, as human emotions experienced by a viewer placed the stage image into a particular frame of trilateral empathy: between nature embodied in the vastness of the sea, a lonely human and an audience sensing this loneliness. Romantic set design was adjusted both to the content of plays, filled by authors with various settings for the action, and to opening viewers’ emotions and imaginations. General Karol Frankowski, when he lived in exile in Paris, noted the words of his concierge’s son, a Porte-Saint-Martin theatre admirer, in expressing his enchantment: “There was so much blood, so much poison – not to mention stilettos! It was such a delight.”Karol Frankowski, Moje wędrówki po obczyźnie. Paryż, część druga, introduction by Janusz Odrowąż-Pieniążek, edited by Wacław Zawadzki, Państwowy Instytut Wydawniczy, Warszawa 1973, p. 42. If, as Yuri Lotman says, classicism built a wall between art and reality, and if neoclassicism broke this wall and made art a pattern of social behaviour, then romanticism inverted this experience, building the world presented in a play on the empirical world.Jurij Łotman, Teatr i teatralność w kształtowaniu kultury początków XIX wieku, translated by A. Bogusławski, Nowy Wyraz 1974, no. 11. Thus the stage frame became the frame for reality.
But the great success of this impressive and dramatic scenery of nature – an interior of a house was, after all, nothing new – came in productions of dramas dependent on and dedicated to nature. It wasn't only in provincial theatres that repertoire was chosen according to existing decor. A similar situation occurred in plays with animals that were “stealing the show” from actors. One of the two most famous animals of the period was the hero from The Dog of Montargis, or Murder in the Wood by Guilbet de Pixerécourt (1814), helping the judge find the murderer of its master and consequently freeing the mute boy accused of the crime. Another famous animal, whose career was even greater yet shorter, was the hero of Jocko or the Monkey of Brazil, by three authors – Jules Lurieu, Edmond Rochefort and Jean Merle (1828). Jocko was imitated several times, in Der Affe und der Bräutigam (1836), a burlesque melodrama by Johann Nestroy, Żoko na maskaradzie, an anonymous English farce (played until 1900), and Dwie małpy czyli Spalenie osady brazylijskiej (1830), a melodrama by Kajetan Nowiński. This last piece was written for the provincial troupe playing in Lublin and it obviously benefited from the first Jocko’s popularity. A performer who played Jocko “was wearing a vicuna’s costume in such a way that he looked like a monkey and he was also wearing an artificial head – a mask of a monkey, on springs, that could chatter its teeth as desired. It was natural but at the same time it disturbed a performer’s easy motions.” When the troupe was poverty-stricken, its director took up the challenge and wrote a new play, similar to Jocko, though of course somehow different (the previous play was quite well known) – which is how Dwie małpy was created. The set design was modest but “charming”. “On one side was a huge coconut tree. On the other, a house of a plantation owner, in American style, covered with climbing plants.” There was a wall along the house; behind the wall were huts of blacks and a palm grove. Blacks are rebelling; they burn the settlement and the house and kidnap the owner during the fight. His little son is left alone, crying. A monkey appears out of nowhere, saves the boy and disappears in the flames. “Artificial flames, gradually increasing and covering the entire stage with one huge circle of fire, always caused great sensation and cries of fear could often be heard from the audience. People watched breathlessly as the monkey made dangerous jumps holding the fainting child, whose loose hair seemed almost to be burning in the flames.”Stanisław Krzesiński, Koleje życia czyli materiały do historii teatrów prowincjonalnych, edited with an introduction by Stanisław Dąbrowski, Państwowy Instytut Wydawniczy, Warszawa 1957, pp. 119–120. In fact, the play was a combination of several well-known images: exotic idyll, slave rebellion and battles with their owner, fire, unexpected rescue. A child also “stole” the show from actors. This was similar in Anna Bell czyli Trzydzieści lat cierpień, a melodrama by Stanisław Krzesiński. In this play, the heroine’s oppressor, dying at midnight in a cemetery in the mountains, asks Anna’s son for a sip of water. The child hands him water in a skull found nearby. Though the woman forgives him, the spirits of the dead aren't willing to stop chasing him, then a thunderbolt hits the malefactor and he falls into the abyssIbid., p. 123..
Romantic set designs from nature used emotional effect in order to come alive by generating a reaction of the audience, projected in the image. A spectator was mostly watching; watching and experiencing effects of the dramatic actions of nature. Theatrical nature came alive in scenes including storms, foundering ships, abductions, vampires rising from their graves, fights, battles, sunrises and moonrises, sunsets and moonsets, rainbows, flames and houses on fire, crime, animal leaps and their frolics. Jarosław Komorowski provides a vivid example of such staged life-motion, quoting the director’s note from Kamiński’s production of Macbeth (Kamiński also translated the tragedy and played the lead in 1805, in Kamieniec Podolski):
“While the curtains open, there is thunder and lightning en coulisse – then clouds slowly begin to move and reveal witches in the sky – clouds fall then soon go up again to show the whole neighbourhood […] when the king leaves, there is thunder, clouds descend – the neighbourhood behind clouds raises up – when it’s gone up the clouds raise and the witches disappear – and the neighbourhood returns.”Jarosław Komorowski, Piramida zbrodni. Makbet w kulturze polskiej 1790–1989, Instytut Sztuki Polskiej Akademii Nauk, Warszawa 2002, p. 30.
Staged natural life belonged to popular theatre’s topos theory, with even Macbeth staged at that time as if it was a drama in which set design, lighting and movement effects depended on theatre technique. This technique “liked” some genres – melodrama and féerie most of all, but also historical and romantic drama, ballet and pantomime, as proven by the great success of the anonymous play Rynaldo Rynaldini, pantomimiczny obraz w 30 przemianach. On the other hand, this technique definitely didn't suit bourgeois drama, which was often content with a single living-room set design. Realism, developed within this latter genre, wasn't interested in a theatre technique point of view; rather, it destroyed the attractiveness of a romantic image of theatricalized nature.
And this image had important consequences. First of all for romantics themselves, who – as Zbigniew Raszewski said – “even true nature […] perceived as if beyond the frame of a stage.”Zbigniew Raszewski, Słowacki i Mickiewicz wobec teatru romantycznego, Pamiętnik Teatralny 1959, nos. 1–3, p. 16. Second, theatre of the era seemed to fulfil aspirations among former writers to exploit the stage as a memory theatre. Audiences watched an enormous quantity of images; all-purpose ones such as “a village with views of a forest”, “three caves with views of a forest and flowers”, “Chinese gardens”, “a big ship” with cannon, six jolly boats and “with a mast and props” – but also concrete images, for example the harbourside in Stockholm, vistas of the Kozienicka WildernessThe list refers to Warsaw scenes, see: Barbara Król-Kaczorowska, Teatr dawnej Polski. Budynki, dekoracje, kostiumy, Państwowy Instytut Wydawniczy, Warszawa 1971, pp. 137, 151., a “view of a road outside Golędzinów” or the view to the Vistula River from Leszczyńska Street “until the eye reaches down” (decor used for The Raftsman by composer Stanisław Moniuszko).Ibid., p. 145. On the other hand, from the theatrical and technical point of view, there were long lists of ready-made theatre sets available, ordered from workshops in Wroclaw (then Breslau) or Berlin.
Among twelve basic sets submitted for purchase in Kraków in 1842, seven represented images of nature.These were: free surroundings, romantic surroundings, the forest (the entire depth), rock with natural caves, waterfalls, a rustic house, sea environs with a harbour, see: Jerzy Got, Negocjacje teatralne. Korespondencja senatora Kopfa, Pamiętnik Teatralny 1962, no. 2, p. 265. Among all sets ordered by the Kraków theatre from the Berlin workshop of Carl Wilhelm Gropius, we find the image of the open sea on six coulisses, mentioned for the staging of Monaldeschi by Laube, and a “snowy Alps’ neighbourhood” on eight coulisses and “the area of the equator” on six coulisses, with all the necessary props.Specification of decorations and props, that (as fundus instructus) should be provided for the government’s theatre , in: Teatr krakowski, op. cit., p. 282, also p. 290; I do not give technical details and prices, which are listed. While copying plays at that time, separate rubrics were added to include notes about stage design for particular scenes; the list of props, backstage actions such as thunder, cries of the crowd, “entrances and exits” and other situations.Krzesiński, op. cit., p. 300.
It’s not surprising that theatre, so connected with images of real spaces, appeared to be an autonomous world full of life, places and people. A building turned out to be only a shell for the medium of theatre that provided, thanks to drama and stage technique, all aspects of life: birth and death, politics, passion, holidays and misfortunes. Theatre became again – as during the era of Shakespeare – a metaphor of the world, though it was a metaphor determined by technology. Settings of action became more of an exposition (thus they were called “an exhibition” of drama), similar to nature and human achievements treated as the exposition, and presented in public during the Crystal Palace Exhibition (the first World Expo, in 1851), “the emblem of modernity’s final ambitions”.Peter Sloterdijk, Kryształowy pałac. O filozoficzną teorię globalizacji, translated by Borys Cymbrowski, Wydawnictwo Krytyki Politycznej, Warszawa 2011, p. 219. Straight from within this modern metaphor, connected with technology, came playwright Juliusz Słowacki’s dream of a stage “which should have, at the poet’s disposal, all possible palaces, towns, woods, landscapes and should be able to change decor so quickly that a viewer would not have to feel the void caused by breaks in a performance; of the stage that could fit in at least twelve changes in set design, without any breaks”.Quotes from: Zbigniew Raszewski, O teatralnym kształcie „Balladyny”, ibid., p. 174. He acknowledged the importance of theatre technique, as he knew that a stage image lay between metaphor and the artificial nature based on this technique.
It was a time of great triumphs of theatre technique. Only theatre technique was able to imitate realistic images of nature, images the audience longed for, as they wished to see what was distant in time and space but at the same time familiar and known. Especially that images “imitated from nature” seemed to be “far more beautiful than in real life” (as with the case of Leszczyńska Street, cited above). Along with the expected illusion of authenticity, settings of action were to be just beautiful. Therefore a reviewer of The Bronze Horse, an opera by Daniel Auber, noted that it wasn't obvious that “the nice area in the province of Chatong was indeed created by nature”. In another example, The Fairy Lake by Auber provided a set of “delightful experiences for the eye of the beholder” with decor designed in a style of magical mimetism. When “the blue residence of the fairy queen rises”, it is replaced by earthly views, among them “a magnificent view of Cologne. Albert’s house adorned with verdure forms and rises before our eyes and Zelia, who has chosen his love instead of immortality and heavenly dwelling, is floating down from the clouds. The use of artificial light increases the effect of this magnificent diorama, which we insatiably watch and adore in amazement. […] the effect made by this wonderful image accompanies a spectator long after leaving the auditorium […]”.Quotes from: Szczublewski, op. cit., p. 46.
When Konrad – the hero of the classic romantic drama by Adam Mickiewicz, left incomplete in 1860 – cried out in the Great Improvisation scene, “You God, you nature! Listen to me”, he wasn't addressing the kind of nature mentioned in the dramas above. He was addressing cosmic nature, the one reflecting human existence in microcosm. Therefore the question arises: if Mickiewicz's Forefathers’ Eve had been staged at that time (let’s try to imagine that for a moment), I'm afraid it might have been treated – like Macbeth was – as melodrama, in the style described by Alfred de Vigny, who had the best theatres of that era at his disposal: “Tragedy is a thought that suddenly turns into a machine. […] Crowds of people arrive to watch. When the evening comes, someone presses the spring and the machine runs for about four hours: words resound, appropriate gestures are made, pieces of cardboard move in both directions, canvas rises and falls, thoughts do their best to cope with all that; and if luckily enough nothing breaks down meanwhile, after four hours someone again presses the same spring and the machine stops. People slowly leave and the show is over. Next day, the crowd is half the size and the machine begins to break down. […] After another few days, with the machine constantly losing quality and the crowd losing quantity, movement suddenly stops in the void. This is the fate of all thought reduced to dramatic machinery […].” de Vigny, op. cit., p. 364.
Would that be the fate of Forefathers’ Eve by Mickiewicz, if it had been staged at that time? It’s quite possible, since romantic theatre’s machinery was mostly designed for second-rate repertoire. I'm afraid it wouldn't have been capable of interpreting and fully presenting the quality of Mickiewicz’s poem, and that the poem would have been assimilated and presented as a melodrama, both in terms of actors’ performance and of stage design. Unlike plays by Victor Hugo, associated with melodrama, Forefather’s Eve was too immersed in poetry, too far from melodrama.
Therefore it's quite easy to understand the 1844 anti-decor protests of theatregoers in 1844 – enacted in the middle of the romantic era, during the period of prosperity for a performance’s decorative aspect – when the Kraków theatre company of Hilary Meciszewski performed in Poznań. Theatre lovers, hidden behind initials G.Z.W.S.H.A.B., expressed their doubts in The Newspaper of the Grand Duchy of Posen (“Gazeta Wielkiego Księstwa Poznańskiego”) – probably inspired by a literary tradition – regarding benefits of excessive efforts in stage design. “[…] beautiful exhibition will entertain a spectator for a short moment but if we are to watch only decor for several hours, we would probably fall asleep – it’s the artist who is the body and the soul of a stage, while exhibition should be considered as an inanimate decoration and a gorgeous robe, which without body and soul lose their charm and becomes useless.”Teatr krakowski, op. cit., p. 77.