Polish Decadence: Leopold Staff's Igrzysko in the European Context


  • Julia Przybos Hunter College and The Graduate Center, City University of New York




Poland, Decadence, Leopold Staff, Saint Genesius legend, thespian tradition in Decadence


Decadent authors writing about the past share a common artistic practice: revisionist creativity. I argue in my Zoom sur les décadents that this particular type of creativity uses as its main device recombination of legends, myths, and historical events. Historical, cultural or religious figures are reexamined and shown in a new unexpected light. I show in my book how Villiers de Isle-Adam conflates two crucial battles of the Ancient world: Marathon (490 BC) and Thermopiles (480 BC) in a
short story called "Impatience de la foule." The final result of Villiers's telescoping of separate historical events is a seamless narrative. In Hugues Rebell's "Une Saison à Baia," Saint Paul attempts to convert Roman patricians who mock his incoherent speeches. In "La Gloire de Judas," Bernard Lazare departs from the Gospels and tells the tragic story of Judas whose betrayal made the salvation of the human race possible. In Lazare's short story, Judas is a self-effacing figure who doesn't act on his own but on Jesus Christ's specific order, who sworns him into secrecy.

Common in French decadent fiction, religious revisionism was largely tolerated in the secular Third Republic. Whereas censorship was quick to punish naturalist authors writing about debauched clergy in contemporary France (e.g. Louis Deprez and Henry Fèvre's Autour d'un clocher) decadent authors reinventing ancient religious stories and retelling the life of catholic saints enjoyed a relative freedom of

It is my hypothesis that taken out of its secular context, religious revisionism of the kind practiced by French decadents may be seen as shocking transgression in a fiercely catholic country like Poland. In the country that lost its independence in 1794 and was ever since seeking to regain it, Catholic Church was perceived as an essential ally in the struggle against main occupying powers: Orthodox Russia, and Protestant Prussia. In the course of the 19th century Catholicism and patriotism had been effectively fused in Polish national conscience. In this charged political context a Polish author revisiting Church dogma or tradition was at risk of being perceived not only as a religious outcast but also as a traitor to the cause of Polish independence.

To test my hypothesis I propose to examine Igrzysko (Game), a forgotten play by Leopold Staff. Admired today chiefly as a poet, the young Staff wrote Igrzysko in Poland after a long sojourn in Paris where he had lived among the international crowd of fin de siècle writers and artists. The play was first produced in Lemberg in 1909 and after a few performances vanished forever from Polish theatrical repertoire.

Leopold Staff's play is set in ancient Rome and depicts tribulations of an actor who, while impersonating a Christian awaiting crucifixion, converts to Christianity. In his play, Staff revives the legend of Saint Genesius, an actor in Arles who died a martyr's death in 286 under Diocletian. In Spain, Saint Genesius's legend inspired Lope de Vega who wrote Acting is Believing (Lo fingido verdadero, 1607). In France, it was the source for Jean Rotrou's Saint Genest (1646). All told, the legend of Genesius is a popular theme for artists who wish to explore the distinction between art and life. An important addition to this old tradition, Staff's play contains, however, a decadent and potentially scandalous twist. Unlike in Acting is Believing and Saint Genest, the protagonist's conversion is very short lived in Igrzysko. Fearing pain, Staff's character commits suicide and is, therefore, condemned for eternity. In my paper, I will discuss the significance of Staff's religious transgression in the context of the turn of the century arch-catholic and patriotic Poland.

Author Biography

Julia Przybos, Hunter College and The Graduate Center, City University of New York

Julia Przybos is a Professor of French and comparative literature at Hunter College and The Graduate Center, City University of New York. Her L’Entreprise mélodramatique was published by Librarie José Corti (1987) and received the
Gilbert Chinard Literary Prize. For José Corti’s “Collection romantique” she edited Un Sceptique s’il vous plaît, a collection of short stories by Albert Lhermite, an unknown 19th century author she discovered and Emma ou quelques lettres de femme by Jacques de Crèvecoeur de Boucher de Perthes, a forgotten 19th century author. In her book entitled Zoom sur les Décadents (José Corti, 2002) she examines decadent fiction in the cultural context of fin de siècle France. Her publications on Naturalism include essays on Goncourts’ Germinie Lacerteux, J.-K. Huysmans’ “Sac au dos”, Zola’s Assommoir, Octave Mirbeau’s Sébastien Roch, and Paul Bonnetain’s Charlot s’amuse. She is currently writing a book on the role of physiology in realist and naturalist fiction.




How to Cite

Przybos, Julia. 2012. “Polish Decadence: Leopold Staff’s <i>Igrzysko</i> in the European Context”. Nordlit, no. 28 (March):79-87. https://doi.org/10.7557/13.2045.