Time Pressure and the Meaning of Existence in SI Witkiewitcz’s “The Crazy Locomotive”

The Crazy Locomotive is an existentialist play that in highly refined philosophical manner searches for an explanation of human existence in constructed society and offers a glimpse into the Absolute. Witkiewicz confronts the audience with a type of drama which is disturbing, grotesque, modern and nevertheless extrapolating on knowledge from the past, such as his admitted admiration for the dream plays of August Strindberg, the Apollo-Dionysian conflict in Nietzsche and the suspension of the ethical in Kierkegaard.

The author looks for the reasons that account for a meaningful human existence; he questions all conventional explanations of the necessity to exist and finds the realm of true essence to reside on the border of madness or death. His drama, created in opposition to emerging cinematography, unfolds in style that does not follow logic and reason, but speed–the only constant quantity throughout the play. Speed becomes the agent of liberty that breaks the mode of conformity and mediocrity of social existence which the two protagonists Prince Trefaldi and Travaillac are left to try out.

Speed and experience are the only categories that could lead a person to the dimensions of the limitlessness and the absolute. Technology as the ultimate opportunity to quest the thirst for truth in human beings, the progress and the still unseen consequences it will bring the people and the world in general. Prince Trefaldi who is an engineer begins the journey of accelerating speed and madness and Travaillac as his locomotive fireman follows his orders, though the tempo will obviously cause their destruction as well as of the machinery.

The trip is towards the infinity of existence filled with Angst, despair and the compelling time-condensed need for knowledge of the truth about oneself. Witkiewicz not only scandalizes his contemporaries with a drama that is full of philosophic rhetoric which develops its arguments in permanent inconsistency, but also breaks the accepted gender roles in patriarchic society by placing not one, but two women in the men’s Mecca the Locomotive. Young Julia is Travaillac’s fiance and Erna Abracadabra is Prince Trefaldi’s wife and partner in crime- the two are juxtaposed not only as attractive women, but as the diametrically opposite views on the notion if one should live within the social frame or set oneself free though the inevitable crush with destiny. Erna is representing the viewpoint of the normal people majority: “Close the throttle: Put on the brakes! I still have so much to live for! ” but immediately confronted with the pretty and ecstatic Julia: “Oh-how perfectly marvelous!

I’m so happy! I’ve always dreamed of something really extraordinary happening to me, like in the movies! ” Soon after the verbal clash between the two women, Erna Abracadabra, the name brings the association of a Shakespearean witch, is thrown out of the train and killed by the “innocent” young Julia and the obedient fireman. Witkiewicz rapidly introduces the accelerated development of the emotional state of the heroes-Julia falls in love instantly with both the Prince and her fiance the Prince loves her also immediately forgetting his murdered wife and Travaillac’s jealousy is overridden by the increasing speed and hastily elapsing time. The ethical frame of honourable and degraded is deformed by Witkiewicz’s heroes, they love, they kill, they are about to face death and they do not judge anyone’s actions, because are already transcended into the state of the inexplicable– the metaphysical.

Then Witkiewicz tries to bring them back to the mundane world by introducing the other passengers attempting to put the locomotive on hold, so they would continue their meaningless existence and be content with it. But the speed of the locomotive keeps on increasing; the time is reduced to the tiniest unit and the heroes are reminded by the demonic Prince Trefaldi of the “mathematically inevitable” collision ahead of them. This need for destruction is for Witkiewicz the eternal precondition for the understanding of the material world and the venturing to peek into the metaphysical one.

The immense time condensation pressures the heroes to live to the fullest, their perceptions are so heightened that the clarity with which they see their existence and choices made is not human, but unworldly, the veils of morality and social conformity are torn and the pure responsibility for one’s actions are vividly crystallizing. Speed and time pressure are equated with ravaging madness and death, the ultimate experience of life, which may be it is not given to humans fully to know and understand. But Witkiewicz is challenging the whole human construction of society and values and even the notion and perception of death.

He throws not only his heroes, but the entire society into the experience of destructive force of the modern technology rushing head over heels into the direction of the unknown and the unpredictable. And then as abruptly as Witkiewicz accelerated the locomotive and the journey towards the black abyss of the metaphysics, he ends it mercilessly-the aristocratic Prince Trefaldi is dying, the ecstatic Julia is delirious, the jealous Travaillac is saved and then all the minor characters in the play, as it usually happens in real life, take over the situation and start issuing orders and evading responsibility.

Dr. Riftmaker is trying to establish socially confined justice and rehabilitate the categories of good and evil through punishment: “First of all, let’s save this one! He’s the greatest criminal in the whole world, the famous Prince Trefaldi, king of murderers. At least he’s got to live so he can atone for his crimes and be an example to others”, then he goes on and with his prophetic words Witkiewicz lets the curtains fall down: “Just a minute, just a minute, my good man. Justice first, then the wounded, and the mentally ill last of all, because there’s absolutely nothing we can do to help them.

In The Crazy Locomotive Witkiewicz genius is revealed manifold– from the masterfully depicted small number of characters and their condensed experiences and ponderings in the presence of inevitable physical destruction as a theatrical play to the heightened sensitivity of a painter and philosopher. Witkiewicz belongs to the overarching spirit of the genius artists, who could not be categorized and pigeon-holed; he is an example of creating energy that is submissive solely to its inner power of creation.

Witkiewicz works through his heightened consciousness and addresses the issues of human existence and structuralism with furious disagreement towards the constraints of established social order in thought and living. Being a true artist Witkiewicz through his fragmented rhetoric seduces the logical mind with images, colours and motion that delude and confuse it. Witkiewicz masterfully contradicts the logic in life and ridicules sanity in society.

His play The Crazy Locomotive is not only a journey into the unknown undertaken by a few characters in a surrealistic theatre performance, but a deep critique on the blind belief in progress, the lack of critical thinking and the stupefaction of people, as well as the end of pure, non commercially oriented art. Witkiewicz’s speed and rapid elapse of time are expressions of his tremendously fast rising anger and inability to find a sensible resolution to the pressure of conformity with dogmatic society.

The Crazy Locomotive is a work of universal validation, because its microcosms summarizes the large scale tight, almost totalitarian grip of madness that rules the world and human inability of coming out of this mode. Witkiewicz lays out the facts and lets each individual decide for himself, he does not draw an ultimate conclusion of what is right or wrong in life, his genius consists in offering a glimpse into the Absolute, which on its own terms will suspend the universal value judgment system and will establish the infinite relation between human existence and itself.