Polish garden theatres in the 19th Century

At the time that Reymont wrote The Comedienne, Warsaw was experiencing tumultuous growth; emancipated peasants, ruined gentry and Jews from across Poland and Russia abandoned the countryside. The masses sought work in the cities and in their free hours, inexpensive diversions. On warm summer evenings crowds flooded the streets and frequented a new entertainment, the so-called garden theatres in the courtyards of restaurants and cafes.
There were about thirty such theatres in Warsaw. They initially catered to artisans and their families but soon to a more upscale audience as well. Seating reflected class divisions, with wealthier patrons in armchairs and the poorer clientele standing behind wooden barriers.
The State Theatre, in response to the growing popularity of garden theatres poached the more gifted actors. Plays which premiered in the State Theatre were revived in the garden theatres and sometimes a popular garden theatre hit made to the State Theatre. All the while the press decried the immorality of garden theatres and its stars, like those of today, became objects of public fascination.
Impresarios and entrepreneurs who ran the theatre companies were motivated by profit and maintained overworked, underpaid troupes. The actresses were often chosen more for their physical appeal than talent and were expected to entertain wealthy merchants after the show.

This excerpt is from the introduction to The Comedienne. Writing in 1875 one of Poland's Nobel Laureates, Henry Sienkiewicz, reported on Polish garden theatres thus;

These theatres are peculiarly enticing and seductive to our public. How much freedom there is in all this and how colourful! Theatre and bazaar, dreams and cigarettes, scenic enchantment and starry night overhead-what contradictory elements. In the chairs, patrons with hats pushed to the back of their heads; behind the barrier, the public, artless, impetuous, fascinated, constantly calling: "Louder! Louder!" at interesting moments not stirring from their places even in a downpour, prone to applause and impatient. Finally, what a mixture! Young gentlemen who have come expressly for the radiant eyes of Miss Czesia (a contemporary heartthrob). They converse of course in French, while Prince Lolo, unrivalled in the realm of chic, wipes his opera glasses, and the "divine" Comte Joujou grasps one leg and crosses it over the other, thereby permitting the rabble to marvel at his genuine fil d'Ecosse stockings; then several gentry of the bronze faced and serene glance "my-dear-sir" each other about the price of wool instead of the play, crops instead of actors. Further, a group of counting-house clerks in collars which can only be seen in the Journal Amusant converse softly, and only occasionally can one overhear in the 'national language' the phrases; "zewu zasiur, Michasz" or "antrnusuadi, Staszu!"1 Behind the barrier one hears the dialect of Franciszkaner Gasse.2 There too ladies of the demi-monde swish their dresses, and chattering, dart flashing looks from darkly painted eyes. Elsewhere several artisans argue with a Jew about a spot near a pillar; overhead the leaves of trees rustle, from the snack bar threatening exhortations; in a word: a mixture of voices, languages, social classes, manners, moods, a veritable Tower of Babel of people linked only by the hope of relaxation, freedom and entertainment.
1A parody of polonized French:"Je vouse assure," "Entre nous soit dit." ("I assure you, Michael", "Between you and me, Stan")
2Germanizing or yiddishizing the name "Franciszkanska" a main street in the Jewish quarter, to drive home the point

Steven Wlazly
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