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History (An Operetta): summary

“My bare foot is defenseless against History. If only I could reach the place where History is created! The fate of empires! But I’m unarmed!”

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In History, Witold Gombrowicz transformed his family members into historical characters: His father became Tsar Nicolas II; his mother became Tsarina Alexandra Fiodorovna, and his older brother Janusz, Rasputin.

Witold Gombrowicz commented on and summarized his own texts. For History, Konstanty Jeleński edited and commented upon these, shedding light on the author’s unfinished work.
This text appears in its entirety in the Polish and French versions of the text, but in the English translation by Kuharski and Bukowski, only Gombrowicz’s notes, and not Jeleński’s additions, appear, and only in the body of the text. Below, parts of this translation by Kuharski and Bukowski have been pulled together with translations of Jeleński’s notes by Lauren Dubowski.

 Act I 
The drawing room of the Gombrowicz family in Warsaw, June 28, 1914. Witold’s family—father, mother, his older brothers James and George, his sister Irene, ‘sit as if in an old photograph.’ They call: ‘Witold! Where is this idiot?’ Witold enters. He is sixteen years old and barefoot, like a stable-boy (he has just come home in the company of Józek, the ‘delinquent son’ of the watchman). Reproaches from the family. […]
The family transforms itself into an Examination Committee for the Maturity Examinations. The family tests attributes that each examiner attributes to him or herself in Witold. […]
Enter Chris, a young girl, a crush of Witold’s, no doubt: He has promised to take her to a tennis match. But what have we here? Witold, barefoot! […]


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Jan Lebenstein’s illustrations for the first French edition, Paris, 1977.

The family insists, intimidates, and transforms itself into a Draft Board: It expects Witold to undress and be examined. The Father calls the Police, who arrest Witold. There is a trial: For “shirking military duty and possessing a barefoot revolutionary psyche,” for “offense against the Sovereign Emperor,” Witold is sentenced to five years of hard labor in stocks and chains. […]
The trial is immediately followed by a long monologue by Witold. […] Next (with no scenic indication], he asks: “Whose boot is this?” Present for this monologue, the family teases Witold: “That’s the Tsar’s boot! […] This boot belongs / To a certain foot! / Whose foot is that? / You’re just about to see it. Here’s the knee— / Whose? / Can you see his ass from here?”

 Act II 
The Palace of Kaiser Wilhelm II in Berlin, August 1914.
[…] Witold asks to be admitted to the German Emperor’s presence. All of a sudden, “there enters from doors upstage the German Leader with his distinctive mustaches—in the company of two generals, von Hindenburg and von Ludendorff.” The Kaiser opens the Crown Council. There are fifteen minutes left to defer mobilization of the troops.
“Terrified, Wilhelm hears the opinions of voiced by his Ministers, who are also terrified.” Witold addresses Wilhelm directly: He wants to speak to him one-on-one. Eulenberg and Pless protest: They fear an ‘indecent proposition’ on Witold’s part.
Witold councils Wilhelm to flee. The last scene of Act II must have been the war (1914-1918).


 Act III 
The Café Ziemiańska (“of landholders”) in Warsaw (between 1933 and 1936). Witold the Barefoot, sitting at a table in the company of poets (Stefan Otwinowski, Stanisław Pieçtak, Adam Mauersberger, [among others]—all young writers of the avant-garde, friends of Gombrowicz). Mauersberger complains: “There are plenty of talents among us—but there is something rustic, something provincial, a sort of smallness and a kind of poverty. —Everything that we write is poor and barefoot!” […]
Enter General Wieniawa-Długoszewski, a cavalryman of Marshal Piłsudski and poet on his own time. He has boots and spurs. He attacks Witold: “You’re trying to contaminate our beauty, the charm of uhlans, our flags and insignias, Mr. Gombrowicz! […] Can you see The Man, sitting at the table over there with a cloak on?” It is Piłsudski himself, at Café Ziemiańska! […]


Witold advises Piłsudski to take off his boots. The marshal consents to this unexpected proposition (“I’ve done that many times, as I’ve experienced the ups and downs of life. I can take them off”). But Witold goes further, expecting Piłsudski to dance and sing a song … to scratch his head with his toe … to “try to float like a feather.“ Piłsudski refuses with indignation […] and sends him on a secret mission to Hitler.