Mandragora op. 43 (1920)

The ballet Mandragora was Szymanowski’s first dramatic work to be staged in a theatre. The idea developed during a conversation on a warm April day in 1920, in a garden café next to the Polish Theatre in Warsaw, between two new arrivals from post-revolutionary Russia, Ryszard Bolesławski and Karol Szymanowski, and Leon Schiller, then literary secretary of the Theatre, as well as director and author of musical background to a number of productions. All three later became artists of the highest rank, and not only in Polish culture. Bolesławski (1889-1937), with his theatrical and film experience gained in Russia, achieved in Hollywood the position of one of the most prominent creative artists in the American cinema. Szymanowski’s (1882-1937) rich and varied output undoubtedly belongs to the European panorama of twentieth-century classics. Schiller (1887-1954), as stage designer of Romantic drama, contemporary plays and original musical spectacles, exerted decisive influence on the development of Polish theatre. None of them at any later period created anything similar to Mandragora. Seemingly a trifle, born out of a joke, it did, however, fulful various important dramatic functions in the staging of Molière’s Le bourgeois gentilhomme.
The hero of the comedy, a bourgeois, M. Jourdain, attempting to imitate elegant society, wants to learn how to dance, how to understand music and philosophy, to have fashionable clothes and to organise concerts and spectacles at his home. Mandragora, presented by M. Jourdain for the invited guests at the end of Molière’s plot, is such a spectacle. It takes the form of a ballet grotesque in the convention of the Italian commedia dell’arte; the authors of the script, Bolesławski and Schiller, called the morceau “a pantomime in three movements”, what might be called three little acts. Various characters trace their lineage to commedia dell’arte: Columbine, kidnapped and brought to the court of King Sinadab, who is bored with his wife; the cowardly Captain Cocodrillo and the Doctor from Bologna – Harlequin’s companions as he folllows his beloved Columbine. He even sings a tenor arietta in the style of Donizetti “Notte e di t’amo…” (“By night and by day I love and adore you. I wait for your ‘yes’ but your voice says ‘no’. Oh woe is me! Beautiful ingrate, I die!”). The galery of theatrical figures is completed by Queen Gulinda, the Eunuch and the Parrot. The title is the name of a Mediterrenean perennial plant regarded as an aphrodisiac; the Doctor medicates the King with mandragora, which restores his passion for his wife, and Columbine is set free.
Szymanowski composed the music for a chamber orchestra with 15 instruments; in the recording (the only existing one) for the Naxos company (1996) it lasts 23 and a half minutes. Above the notes he entered the amusing text of the script. Ideas for instrumental parts fit the situations, in which the King yawns, grinds his teeth or produces smoke from his pipe, the Parrot screeches, the Queen shakes her fists, the Captain trembles with fear, Colombine dances seductively, etc. The result is a score in the style of a light parody, full of musical wit. Earlier elements of such a style were introduced by Szymanowski into his operetta Loteria na mężów [Lottery for a Husband] and later into the piano layer of some of the songs from the cycle Rymy dziecięce [Children's Rhymes]. After this collaboration, Leon Schiller described the composer as an “exquisite musician for the theatre”.
Mandragora, while being a completely original work, is firmly rooted in European culture and tradition. Molière’s comedy Le bourgeois gentilhomme, staged in the autumn of 1670 at Chateau de Chambord with music by Jean-Baptiste Lully, also ended with an extended ballet scene. There was a resurgence of interest in Molière’s dramas, and those of their forms interwoven with music, during the period of the Great Theatre Reform at the turn of the nineteenth and twentieth centuries. The prominent writer Hugo von Hofmannstahl, who collaborated with Richard Strauss, produced an adaptation of Le bourgeois, in which in the finale M. Jourdain invites the guests not to a ballet, but to the opera Ariadne on Naxos. As in Mandragora, it introduces characters from the Italian commedia dell’arte. Strauss’s piece for the Molière comedy had been performed in a variety of versions (in 1912, 1918 and 1920). Since the premiere of Ariadne by itself, in a somewhat extended version, in Vienna in 1916, it has been appearing in the repertoires of opera theatres as an autonomous work by Strauss. The old score by Lully contains a very significant scene in which the Dance master, singing “la la la”, teaches M. Jourdain the steps of the minuet and elegant posture. After over two centuries, M. Jourdain’s Minuet was quoted in his music by Strauss, who was followed by Szymanowski.
The Warsaw premiere of Le bourgeois gentilhomme and Mandragora, which took place on 15 June 1920, gathered probably the most interesting Polish artists of the day. It took place at the Teatr Polski [Polish Theatre], founded, built and directed by Arnold Szyfman. The translation of Molière’s play was an excellent version by Tadeusz Boy-Żeleński. Scenic design was the work of Wincenty Drabik, a great artist of the Polish stage. In accordance with the plans of the directors and Mandragora’s scriptwriters, Bolesławski and Schiller, the dance and pantomime roles were undertaken by actors, among them such prominent artists as Janusz Strachocki, Aleksander Węgierko, Stanisława Umińska. M. Jourdain was played by one of the most famous Polish actors, Stefan Jaracz. At the climax, during Harlequin’s fight with the King in Mandragora, Jaracz-Jourdain entered onto the stage in order to resolve the disastrous situation, to the sound of Lully’s Minuet, quoted by Szymanowski in the flute part.
Szymanowski’s ballet, like Strauss’s Ariadne on Naxos, immediately began life as an independent work. Its stage history, though not very rich, is quite varied, as the performing ensembles were constituted both by dancers and actors. Mandragora was staged as a ballet in New York (1922) and in Chicago (1925). After the Second World War, Kazimierz Dejmek used the work as musical illustration to his staging of Kruk [The Raven] by Carlo Gozzi (1960). Janina Jarzynówna-Sobczak staged it in the Baltic Opera, where it was performed by excellent dancers (1961). An interesting interpretation of Mandragora was produced by the Polish Television (1963), which brought together on the screen excellent actors (Barbara Krafftówma, Wiesław Gołas, Wojciech Pokora) together with dancers (Stanisław Szymański, Barbara Olkusznik, Krystyna Mazurówna). A replica of the performance produced by Bolesławski and Schiller, i.e., of Le bourgeois gentilhome and Mandragora, was staged by Teatr Polski in Wrocław (1964). Apart from the impressionistic version by Jan Dorman at the Teatr Lalki i Aktora “Ateneum” in Katowice (1981), all the other productions staged Mandragora as a ballet, in Warsaw (1966, 1982), Kraków (1978, 1983), Gdańsk (1979), Wrocław (1982). And yet, as Bohdan Pociej pointed out “Mandragora is not a ballet sensu stricto; it is a pantomime, a dance joke and a musical joke, born in an atmosphere of improvisation. The music is light and effortless, as if with a degree of nonchalance or a wink at the public. This joke played by Szymanowski and Schiller is born of the spirit of commedia dell’arte, it simply finds here one of its innumerable incarnations” (“Ruch Muzyczny” 1963 No. 8).