Baxtinian Elements in Andrzej Wajda’s Dramatic Adaptation of The Devils

Alexander Burry, Northwestern University

Andrzej Wajda’s 1971 production of The Devils for the Stary Teatr in Cracow exemplifies the capacity of a transposition to argue fruitfully and provocatively with its source. Drawing on Camus’ 1959 dramatic adaptation as well as Dostoevskij’s novel, Wajda makes radical departures from both. His emphasis on creating dialogues, both with his audience and with the original texts, suggests the influence of Baxtin’s theory of polyphony. This influence can be seen in Wajda’s directing style as well as his treatment of the novel.

Although Baxtinian theory has been applied to Wajda’s film by Janina Falkowska and mentioned briefly as an influence in his 1984 adaptation of Crime and Punishment (Maciej Karpiński), it has not been explored specifically in relation to The Devils or used more generally to analyze his directing techniques. However, Wajda’s methods as a theater director display various parallels to Dostoevskij’s works and creative process as interpreted by Baxtin. Wajda’s favored procedure is to control the casting and staging for a production meticulously, but to allow the actors maximum interpretive freedom in their rehearsals and performances. This method parallels Dostoevskij’s manner of carefully orchestrating scenes by putting the proper characters together and allowing the dialogue and plot to unfold autonomously, as it were, according to the various personalities involved. Wajda shows a tendency to submerge his directorial voice and avoid dictating the actors’ performances, much as Dostoevskij’s authorial voice, according to Baxtin, coexists and interacts with those of this characters without subordinating or synthesizing them.

Wajda’s choices in recasting Dostoevskij’s material similarly show the influence of Baxtinian theory. He adapts The Devils in such a way as to capitalize on and add to its multivoicedness and ambiguity. For example, his use of black-clad stagehands derived from Japanese Bunraki puppet theater offers what could be seen as a concrete representation of devils, thus adding another interpretation of a title that already has several possible points of reference in the novel. The black figures also allow him to create resonances between the historical contexts of the novel and Communist Poland. They conspicuously control and censor the action of the novel, preparing a noose for Stavrogin and cutting off the last lines of the narrator as he informs us of the protagonist’s sanity. This last example reinforces the play’s open-endedness; Wajda emphatically avoids giving any kind of “finalizing word” that would reduce the dialogues and ambiguities of the original. His placement of the suppressed chapter “At Tixon’s” as the first scene of the play (Camus inserts it in its original position at the end of Part II in his version) constitutes an even more significant departure from Dostoevskij, putting other parts of The Devils involving Stavrogin in a very different light. It further complexifies rather than resolves the long-standing critical debate regarding the question of the chapter’s inclusion, as Wajda goes far beyond Camus and other commentators in arguing for its centrality in the conception of the original.

Through such changes, Wajda reinforces and furthers the polyphonic texture of The Devils. His adaptation thus testifies to a Dostoevskian influence based not only on choice of material, confluence of ideas and the applicability of the novel’s material to Wajda’s historical context, but also on a similarity of creative method that contributed greatly to the director’s personal artistic development.