Updated: Jul 14
The year 2021 will mark the two hundredth anniversary of the birth of Cyprian Norwid. The jubilee of the nativity of this great writer and artist is an important occasion - important for Polish literature, Polish theatre and generally - for the national culture and national consciousness.
Cyprian Norwid was born on September 24,1821 in Masovia, in Lasków-Głuchy near Radzymin. As his 199th birthday approached, it is time to prepare for the 200th anniversary.
Norwid was a poet, playwright, prose writer and thinker, as well as an artist of fine arts. He started a brilliant literary career early, in order to create masterpieces in the following years of his life, such as the poem Chopin's Piano, considered by many to be the most outstanding poetic work written in Polish, and the drama, Behind the Wings, which is a masterpiece of political narrative, social criticism and universal philosophical reflection.
In Promethidion, a poetic treatise, he wrote:
“Thus I see the future art in Poland:
As a flag on the tower of human labor.
Not as an amusement or a harangue,
But as the highest apostolic trade,
Or as the lowest prayer of an angel.”
In Actor, however, he gave a fundamental definition of theater:
"As far as we know, theater is an atrium of heavenly affairs - and hence we call it so."
In Norwid’s literary output we find hundreds of shorter and longer poems, over a dozen dramas, several prose works and an abundance of letters. He also created works of fine arts: drawings, paintings and engravings.
In his works, Norwid referred to the national and European tradition being, at the same time, a bold innovator. Norwid's phrases, such as "homeland is a great collective duty," entered the collective consciousness forever. The greatest value radiating from all his works is freedom - freedom of an individual, freedom of the nation, artistic freedom and political freedom.
Norwid’s novelty and inventiveness, coupled with uncompromising verdicts and statements in the domains of literature, politics, and morality, were met with gradually mounting condemnation of the critique and moved him away from average readers. Not many of his works were published during his lifetime. Some perished. Some were found posthumously in the 20th century.
Cyprian Norwid lived his youth in Poland. He spent his mature years as an emigrant living in Western Europe, America, and again in Europe, finally settling down in Paris. In 1855, he was recognized by the partitioning Russian authorities as a political "refugee," which prevented him from ever returning to his country - except directly to Siberia. He died in Paris in poverty and abandonment in 1883.
Zenon Miriam-Przesmycki introduced Norwid into the bloodstream of Polish literary life by publishing many of his works in the journal Chimera, which was published in Cracow (1901-1908). He then published all the Pisma do dziś odszukane (Found Works) by Norwid (in the years 1930 and 1940). The next edition of Norwid's Collected Works was made by Juliusz Wiktor Gomulicki (in 1971-1976), adding to it an invaluable compendium: Norwid. A Guide to Life and Work (1976). The third edition of the Complete Works by Norwid was made by Julian Maślanka (starting in 2013). Numerous great scholars have studied the works of Norwid: Wacław Borowy, Juliusz Wiktor Gomulicki, Karol Górski, Mieczysław Inglot, Irena Sławińska, Wiesław Rzońca, Kazimierz Wyka and they were seconded by French, Dutch, Hungarians and many others.
The most outstanding Polish poets followed Norwid's trail, including Krzysztof Baczyński, Zbigniew Herbert, Tymoteusz Karpowicz and Tadeusz Różewicz.
His greatest admirer was young Karol Wojtyła, who later as Pope John Paul II,
repeatedly referred to Norwid in his speeches.
Stanisław Wyspiański, the genius poet, playwright, director, set designer, and painter was the first theatre artist who wanted to produce Norwid’s play. Wyspiański included the tragedy Cleopatra into the list of plays he proposed when he applied for the management of Cracow’s City Theatre in 1905. He did not succeed in getting the management—and Cleopatra was not produced. However, The City Theatre managed by Ludwik Solski, staged another of Norwid’s play, Krakus, in 1908. It was the very first presentation of Norwid’s dramatic work on stage, directed by Józef Sosnowski with unforgettable roles of Andrzej Mielewski as Krakus and Józef Sosnowski as Rakuz. The set was designed by Franciszek Siedlecki. Later, the greatest merits in introducing Norwid to the stage were made by Wilam Horzyca, the producer of Cleopatra (Lviv 1933) and Behind the Wings (Toruń, 1946, Warsaw, 1959) as well as Juliusz Osterwa, who first staged The Ring of a Great Lady (Warsaw, 1936) in his Redoubt.
The most prominent Polish actors performed in these and the ensuing productions of Norwid’s plays-Irena Eichlerówna, Maria Nowotarska, Aleksandra Śląska, Tadeusz Białoszczyński, Leszek Herdegen, Mariusz Domochowski, Zbigniew Zapasiewicz. Sets and costumes for Norwid’s plays were designed by some of the greatest masters—Otto Axer, Andrzej Pronaszko, Krystyna Zachwatowicz.
As for me, I became familiar with Norwid as a boy. My mother, Elżbieta (nee Szymanowska), who was my teacher in our home school during World War II, spoke a lot about Norwid and gave me his poems to memorize. At the same time, I learned that the family of my father Juliusz cherished a memory that doctor Konstanty Miller, his grandfather, was Norwid’s friend in Paris.
I had an extremely important formational experience participating at the Poznań University in the master seminar on Norwid taught by a great scholar, Professor Zygmunt Szweykowski. Later on, I was lucky to have an opportunity to talk about Norwid with Wilam Horzyca, the subtle connoisseur and director of Norwid’s plays. I also had an invaluable chance to consult my productions of Norwid’s plays with editor and best expert in “Norwidology”, Juliusz W. Gomulicki.
There were many of these productions. Over the years I directed - both in theaters and at the Polish Television - all major plays by Norwid: The Ring of a Great Lady, The Actor, Behind the Wings, and Cleopatra, in addition to a one-act, Chaste Love at a Spa. I also directed my own scenarios based on Norwid’s works. I dedicated my doctoral thesis to him. In order to pave and enlarge the way, leading readers to Norwid, I published articles and books about him and his dramas, including: Norwid’s Theatre without Theater and My Norwid’s Theatre. I have prepared Four Dramas by Cyprian Norwid (introduction and study) for the National Library, and my Guide to Cyprian Norwid's dramatic work (Publishing House of the University of Rzeszów) is to be published soon. In this way, I tried to recall his work and include it in the current Polish theatrical, literary and scientific life.
The two hundredth anniversary of Cyprian Norwid birth is approaching. It is time, and there is still enough time, for theatres to plan productions of Norwid’s plays or medleys, composed of his poetry, for scholars to prepare conferences and publications on Norwid and for teachers to organize contests of Norwid’s poetry recitations. There are certainly many ways to remember Norwid, to draw from the treasury of his work.
Norwid’s creative contribution to Polish culture is extremely important. On many fields it is decisive. The 200th anniversary of his birth provides an excellent opportunity to remind everyone of the merits and the significance of this great poet and his work.
Translated by Magdalena Moszczyńska-Pętkowska