The Snow Palace


Tricycle Theatre, London (1998). Cast included: Kathryn Pogson (Stanislawa), Kenn Sabberton (Robespierre) and Robert Willox (Danton/Father). Directed by Janet Suzman.

In the early 1980s I was asked by the RSC to look at a script written by a Polish writer Stanislawa Przybyszewska (her name, she wrote, was the butt of jokes in her own country). It was intriguing. A woman playwright, that rare species, working in the 20s. Facts revealed a unique story. Stanislawa, it turned out, was the illegitimate daughter of Stanislaw Przybyszewsky, avante-garde writer, wild man, drinker, reputed Satanist, friend of Strindberg and Edvard Munch. Her mother, Aniela Pajak, was a painter, who lived unconventionally. In later girlhood Stanislawa lived with her Aunt, Helena.

     As a girl, she conceived a passion for the French Revolution and, in particular, Maximilien Robespierre, Marat’s ‘Sea-Green Incorruptible’, the man of ‘vertu’; the man who believed in the civic imperative, of the absolute need for human beings to care for one another. It is possible that the rackety nature of her own background attracted Stanislawa to the notion of balance and decency as the ethics for life. At all events she shortened her skirts, cut her hair (the Great War having killed off the men, girls were no required to have boyish haircuts and no breasts), embraced communism and began to write. She tried a book, then switched to a dramatic version of the French Revolution. This ran to 600 pages. It is a strange piece of work, rambling, passionate, more of a film than a stage play. The focus is uncertain, the writing in parts abreactive, probably because she was on morphine. The lack of experience shows. Playwriting is a practical craft, shaped, sometimes released, by exigency. She became increasingly reclusive, eventually choosing to live in an unheated school hut in Gdansk. When it became clear that production of her play was unlikely, she began to write long letters to people such as Thomas Mann, people she felt to be her intellectual peers. Most of these letters were never sent, and are regarded nowadays as the best and most interesting of her oeuvre.

    The RSC said to have a look, that Andrzej Wajda had clawed a movie out of the material. The film was wonderful, a dangerous tilt at the then regime in Poland, with a Polish actor, Pzoniak, who looks like General Jaruzelski, as a repressive Robespierre, and the young Gerard Depardieu incomparable as Danton. A hard act to follow. It was suggested that I might prefer to write a play of my own on the French Revolution. Perhaps, after all, that would be the better artistic solution. Which, of course, was impossible. This was Stanislawa’s, not mine, although coincidentally, I’d had a weakness for Danton for years, and a picture of his ugly mug hung halfway up the stairs. I went to Warsaw, where Solidarity was alive and vibrant, saw the grave of Father Popieluszko - recently murdered by the regime - where mass was played on tape 24 hours a day, and you could smell the flowers, as at Kensington Palace, streets away. The shops were empty of food and consumer goods, people queued in the streets for a few withered oranges. I came back and cut the play from 600 to 100 pages and it was produced at the Barbican in ‘85.

     But. During the cutting, carving and shaping, what became intriguing, dramatically beguiling, was the shadowy figure of Stanislawa herself. She wrote of her isolation, and of the ecstasy of creative work. The parallels between her life - lived, as an artist, to the utmost - and the lives of the revolutionaries Robespierre and Danton, prepared to commit everything, each with a fervent political agenda (the notion of Left and Right began with the Revolution) - these parallels seemed so cogent. Where do we strike the balance between the hedonistic and the ascetic? Where there are two possible rights, problems arise. Which path to take for the civic good? All decision to act is a gamble. Radical politics, connoting change, can only offer promise, pledge. And change can be fatally easy. Simplicity itself to dismantle, less easy to reconstruct. Should a reforming government go hell for leather, the whole hog? Or temporise, treat softly. Do we accept as constant the ‘realities’ of realpolitik... the domination of the market... concede that the world is run by the gamble of the stock market and the relationships cemented around the banqueting table? Or do we, if in government, see our function as holding in tension, in balance, the rights, responsibilities and privileges of citizens, of the people? Danton says give them peace and prosperity and no government interference - power of the periphery, true democracy. Robespierre, the man of ‘vertu’, stands for the absolute necessity of responsible citizenship. For the maintenance of a conscious sense of community, based on the notion of service. A life shaped only by commerce and self-interest, he says, ‘leads to bestiality and the rape of children.’

   I became fascinated with Stanislawa’s fascination. And by her. She died, in the end, of hypothermia, in her thirties, in her unheated hut, leaving notes of her travail as she began to freeze to death. ‘To the utmost’ killed her, as it did Danton and Robespierre. Nonetheless, despite reaction, they gave the world an incomparable push forward from medievalism and the despotic to the rule of law and the rights of man. Not an unimportant subject to be obsessed by. Passionately misguided? Foolishly self-destructive? I would say a brave, lonely woman. A pathfinder. Pathfinders get picked off. They command our respect.

                                                                                                                                Pam Gems

                                                                                                                               London, 1998