Bogusławski came from the petty nobility and was the son of the land regent Leopold Bogusławski and Anna Teresa Linowski of the Pomian family crest. It is likely that he initially studied in Krakow before going on to attend a Piarist boarding school in Warsaw. In 1774 he traveled to the court of Bishop Kajetan Sołtyk, where he took advantage of opportunities to participate in the amateur theatre performances organized there. In 1775 he enlisted with the Lithuanian Footmen's Guard and three years later left the military having ascended to the rank of office cadet.
He embarked on his theatre career in 1778 when he joined the troupe of Ludwik Montbrum. He made his professional stage debut within this group and also adapted Franciszek Bohomolec's cantata Nędza uszczęśliwiona / Misery Made Happy, staging it as an opera in two acts to a very good audience reception. In 1781 he began performing in Lviv with Agnieszka and Tomasz Truskolaski's theatre troupe, but relatively quickly he returned to Warsaw, where he was hired on at the National Theatre (1782). He ascended to the directorship of the Polish ensemble at this institution a year later and proved a very enterprising impresario, organizing is company's tours to cities like Grodno and Dubno. Around this time, with the support of Stanisław August Poniatowski, he established his own theatre in Poznań, yet this venture collapsed quickly. He was also inducted into the Freemasonry. He founded another theatre in Vilnius in 1785 and managed it for the next five years, staging Franciszek Zabłocki's Fircyk w zalotach / The Dandy's Courtship (1785) among other plays, and also mounting the Polish premiere of Pierre Beaumarchais's famous, revolutionary Figaro's Wedding (1786). In Vilnius he assembled a troupe of accomplished actors, which he then brought with him when he returned to Warsaw and resumed his job at the National Theatre.
His second term as director of this institution, lasting from 1790 to the fall of the Kościuszko Insurrection, consisted of building a real national stage with an artistic, social and civic mission. Boguslawski saw theatre primarily as a school of good customs, treating it as a platform for disseminating national ideals. During the turbulent Four-Year Sejm, state reforms were the subject of many productions at the National Theatre. A supporter of the reformist camp, Bogusławski created a repertoire that covered the matters he saw as most important to Poles. During this period he also wrote for the theatre. After staging Julian Ursyn Niemcewicz's Powrót posla / The Return of the Deputy (1791), Poland's first-ever political comedy, he wrote and staged a sequel to this drama titled Dowód wdzięczności narodu / Proof of the Nation's Appreciation (1791) and followed this with Józef Wybicki's Szlachcic Mieszczaninem / The Noble Bourgeois (1791). He also wrote and staged Henryk vi na Lowach / Henry vi on a Hunting Excursion (1792) and his most famous work, Cud mniemany, Czyli krakowiacy i górale / The Presumed Miracle, or Krakovians and Highlanders (1794), Poland's first-ever opera, which he set to music by Stefani. Premiering on the eve of the Kościuszko Insurrection, the production was banned by censors after just three performances. However, the public immediately understood the political allusions it contained and soon everyone in Warsaw's streets was singing passages from Krakovians.
"The faces of vile traitors like Szczęsny Potocki, Kossakowski, Ożarowski, Zabiełło, Ankwicz and their henchmen exuded falseness (...)," wrote Antoni Trebicki of the production at the National. "What could be more comedic and better embody the preposterousness of all those imposed rulers of our kingdom as their collectively issued permission to play the farce 'Krakovians,' which happened to be written when it was, encouraged insurrection and publicly announced to those gentlemen what would actually happen to them imminently" (in: "100 przedstawien w opisach polskich autorow" [100 Performances as Described by Polish Authors], edited by Z. Raszewski, Wrocław, 1993).Bogusławski was due to be arrested for staging The Presumed Miracle but apparently escaped this fate through the intervention of the Great Royal Marshall Moszynski.
After the insurrection collapsed, Bogusławski left Warsaw for Lviv, taking with him a vast section of the theatre's costumes and props, as well as the theatre's library. In the city further east he founded a Polish theatre that operated there under his guidance until 1799. After extended negotiations with censors there, he once again staged Krakovians and Highlanders (1796) and followed this with a production of Shakespeare's Hamlet (1797). In Lviv he also mounted an interesting production of his own melodrama titled Iskahar, Król Guaxary / Iskahar, King of Guaxara (1797).
"Bogusławski Polonized 'Hamlet' and other dramas," Anna Kuligowska writes, "because the theatre of the Enlightenment, following a practice as old as the world, adapted works by the world's great geniuses to its own tastes. The works were Polonized because it was believed that viewers would not be stunned by the strangeness and exoticism of foreign customs only if they saw themselves as if in a mirror on stage" ("Rzeczpospolita" daily, 18.11.2005).Bogusławski introduced Classical tragedies to the Polish stage, and did the same for Shakespeare, mounting productions based on translations of various adaptations of the Bard's works. Bogusławski also wrote several original plays and also translated, adapted, modified and adjusted to Polish realities many French, German, English and Italian plays. All told, he authored more than eighty tragedies, comedies, dramas and opera librettos. Bogusławski was a proponent of classical French principles initially, but later shifted his focus to moralizing German dramas that he saw as being closer to life. He directed the plays of Jean Racine, Molière, Voltaire, Pierre Beaumarchais, Denis Diderot, Friedrich Schiller and Gothold Ephraim Lessing. His interests not being limited to the ambitious repertoire, he also staged melodramas and vaudevilles that drew sizeable audiences, as well as operas and ballets.
Bogusławski would almost immediately establish a Polish stage wherever he traveled, and these new theatres would continue to function as independent institutions after his departure.
"To erect a theatre wherever it was possible to perform in Polish and to perform in Polish as far as this was possible, and in performing what was necessary and when it was necessary, to proclaim and always remember that one had emerged from Warsaw and to Warsaw one would return" - this was his creative and organizational credo (in: Z. Krawczykowski, "Wojciech Bogusławski", Warsaw, 1954).Actors who emerged from his "school" also founded new theatres. He taught his collaborators gesture and diction while constantly promoting greater naturalness in acting. Bogusławski helped many actors to develop their talents, his protégés including Kazimierz Owsinski, Alojzy Żółkowski, Agnieszka and Tomasz Truskolaski, Franciszka Pierożyńska, Bonawentura Kudlicz, Józefa Ledóchowska, Ludwik Dmuszewski and many others. As an actor, he himself began by playing leading men, but he experienced his greatest acting triumphs later, during his second term as director of the National Theatre, playing Old Dominic in Taczka Occiarza (1793 - his own adaptation of Sebastian Mercier's play La Brouette de Vinagrier), Ferdinand Kokiel in Henry VI on a Hunting Excursion and Bardos in Krakovians and Highlanders. Though all these roles were common folk, Boguslawski was just as convincing as elderly characters, rulers or tyrants, and he played King Lear in Shakespeare's tragedy (1805), King Axur in Axur, a drama set to music by Antonio Salieri (1793), and Old Horace in Pierre Corneille's Horace (1793). As a stage director, Bogusławski was adept at working with designers and musicians. He cooperated frequently with painters Antoni Smuglewicz, Jan Bogumił Plersch, Innocento Maraino and Antonio Scottio, and with exceptional musicians like Józef Elsner and Karol Kurpiński. Bogusławski most interesting productions were those of which he shaped multiple aspects - as their writer and director, and often as the actor appearing in the leading role.
In 1799 Boguslawski returned to Warsaw and became director of the National Theatre for the third time, retaining this position until 1814. During this period he also performed in a number of other Polish cities, including Poznań, Kalisz, Łowicz, Krakow and Gdańsk. He remained a favorite of vast segments of the audience, but critics increasingly accused of manifesting "vulgar tastes".
In 1811 he organized Poland's first School of Drama, simultaneously writing a textbook titled Dramaturgia, czyli nauka sztuki scenicznej dla Szkoły Teatralnej napisana przez Wojciecha Bogusławskiego w Warszawie 1812 / Dramaturgy, or an Instructional Stage Art Program for a Theatre School Written by Wojciech Bogusławski in Warsaw in 1812.
In 1814 he handed over his National Theatre "enterprise" to Ludwik Osiński but remained linked to the theatre. Initially, he performed with his own troupe at the National Theatre, but later also appeared on other stages, including that in Vilnius. Toward the end of his life he wrote and published his Dzieje Teatru Narodowego / Annals of The National Theatre, and also compiled and printed his Dzieła Dramatyczne / Dramatic Works. Wojciech Bogusławski made his last stage appearance in 1827.
Author: Monika Mokrzycka-Pokora, September 2006.
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