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Lesbian* literary icons in the eyes of theatre-creators

Lesbian* literary icons

A marginalised lesbian* culture needs its non-heterosexual icons. In the past, it even felt hungry for them. This has slowly been changing, as non-heteronormative female characters begun populating pop cultural works, especially TV series, starting with Xena. Warrior Princess (1995-2001).

However, it was literature that created the first female non-heteronormative icons, some devoted to the legendary Sappho, others not. A theatre director, actress, and playwright describe their encounters with various iconic writers. What do they mean to them personally and professionally? Was it difficult to face them? Why did they choose to pay attention to them?

Virginia Woolf. Orlando Pitfall? A dream. Director Agnieszka Małgowska.

I first fell in love with Virginia Woolf via an affective, feminist love for A Room of One’s Own. My second love, for Orlando, was more mature – still emphatic, but also gender-based. The third, exalted queer/lesbian love came when I directed Orlando. Pułapka? Sen [Orlando. Trap? Dream], under the matronage of an idea from A Room of One’s Own – the idea of transgressing boundaries.

Virginia Woolf herself also transgressed boundaries. She created the character of Shakespeare’s sister Judith, a gifted poet, whom she gifted with a biography of a woman living in an era hostile to female talents. She depicted the powerlessness resulting from the social and systemic negation of female power. In this way she inspired many women.

“[…] Yet her genius was for fiction and lusted to feed abundantly upon the lives of men and women and the study of their ways. At last—for she was very young, oddly like Shakespeare the poet in her face, with the same grey eyes and rounded brows […]

“[…] The force of her own gift alone drove her to it. She made up a small parcel of her belongings, let herself down by a rope one summer’s night and took the road to London. She was not seventeen. The birds that sang in the hedge were not more musical than she was. She had the quickest fancy, a gift like her brother’s, for the tune of words. Like him, she had a taste for the theatre. She stood at the stage door; she wanted to act, she said. Men laughed in her face. The manager—a fat, loose-lipped man— guffawed. He bellowed something about poodles dancing and women acting—no woman, he said, could possibly be an actress. He hinted—you can imagine what. She could get no training in her craft.”

Thanks to other women crossing boundaries over the next ninety years, today’s girls can read Nansa Splinger’s books about the liberated and brave Enola Holmes – the sister of Sherlock Holmes, brought up by her mother. And adult women can admire the genius of Eurus Holmes on the TV series Sherlock (2000-2017).

So, together with Monika Rak, with whom we co-create “Damski Tandem Twórczy” [“Female Creative Tandem”], we decided to stage Virginia Woolf’s Orlando – an artistic essay about transgressing gender boundaries. A singular, ironic, witty, beautiful, dynamic novel. A work that – as Archduchess Henrietta/Archduke Harry says to Orlando – is a pearl. What was the decision to face this iconic piece as a director? Challenge? Arrogance? Stupidity? How can it be staged in an off-theatre, how can it be done after Sally Potter’s film? Where did this idea come from, when no one in Poland dared to make a mainstream play based on a text by Virginia Woolf?

The project turned out to be, above all, a creative challenge. We worked in collaboration with a group of non-heteronormative women of different ages, status, sexual orientation, and gender identity. Although each participant took part in the project for different reasons, at the beginning we could all say that “we did not come to transgress each other”.

But ORLANDO slipped away from us, just like it slipped away from Virginia Woolf. And the play became a multi-level process of transgressing patterns of gender, sexual orientation, and collective action.

We intertwined Woolf’s text with our real-life relationships and lives. We made the Orlando-like, dynamic history of emancipation and transgression a part of our herstory and simultaneously we added – like Sally Potter in her film – our own fragment of the story, our vision of a gender journey. Our collective theatrical work has become an intimate female matrilineal encounter around the novel, which is sometimes referred to as a love letter to Vita Sackville-West. We created a play that was a collective body-spectacle, based upon Woolf’s and our own narratives about female relationships.

With our play, we affirmed Virginia Woolf’s Orlando, and thus ourselves and the female community, playing with the irony of the text together with the author:

“So they would draw round the Punch bowl which Orlando made it her business to furnish generously, and many were the fine tales they told and many the amusing observations they made for it cannot be denied that when women get together—but hist—they are always careful to see that the doors are shut and that not a word of it gets into print. All they desire is—but hist again—is that not a man’s step on the stair? All they desire, we were about to say when the gentleman took the very words out of our mouths. Women have no desires, says this gentleman, coming into Nell’s parlour; only affectations. Without desires (she has served him and he is gone) their conversation cannot be of the slightest interest to anyone. “It is well known,” says Mr. S. W., “that when they lack the stimulus of the other sex, women can find nothing to say to each other. When they are alone, they do not talk; they scratch.” And since they cannot talk together and scratching cannot continue without interruption and it is well known (Mr. T. R. has proved it) “that women are incapable of any feeling of affection for their own sex and hold each other in the greatest aversion,” what can we suppose that women do when they seek out each other’s society?”

Virginia Woolf allowed me to make a quantum leap, both as a person and as an artist. There were/are a lot of exaggerated feelings, but I’m glad I can still speak of Woolf, like Archduchess Henrietta/ Archduke Harry spoke of Orlando: I adore you. I can say this without the feelings of guilt, without undermining the status quo, which can sometimes be altered by knowledge or insightful analysis as a result of theatre work. Woolf also inspired the idea to create subsequent plays based on the works and biographies of lesbian literary icons. Sometime later I made the play “Gertruda Stein & Alicja B. Toklas & wiele wiele kobiet” [Gertrude Stein & Alice B. Toklas & many many women].

"Orlando. Trap? Dream", dir. Agnieszka Małgowska, Sen Pszczoły Warszawa 2010, photo: Pat MIC

Agnieszka Małgowska
A graduate of Theatre Studies at the Theatre Academy in Warsaw and Gender Studies at the University of Warsaw. For a decade, she has been – together with Monika Rak – one half of Female Creative Tandem.

Theatrical coach and director, author of theatrical and film scripts, art-activist, lesbian, feminist, archivist, theatre critic.

She deliberately chooses artistic and activist undertakings devoted to non-normativity and focuses on lesbian* culture. She considers creative explorations based on personal experience of participants, improvisations and spiritual practices, transformed in the crucible of theatrical work, as particularly valuable. She also reaches for the classics: feminist (Orlando.Pułapka? Sen), opera (Magic Flute), biographical (Gertruda Stein & Alice B. Toklas & many many women), cabaret (Retroseksualni [Retrosexual], Drag King Retro Show). She sees strength not only in theatrical and performative practice, but also analytical and critical archival work devoted to lesbians* (the theatre series On Lesbian Theatre in Poland, project “LGBTQ+ Culture Won’t Wait”).

She is the a co-initiator of numerous projects dedicated to non-heteronormative women in Poland

(Non-heteronormative Woman, O’LESS FESTIVAL, Sistrum Association. Lesbian* Cultural Space).


Orlando. Pułapka? Sen [Orlando. Trap? Dream], directed by Agnieszka Małgowska, Sen Pszczoły Warszawa 2010


Orlando. W poszukiwaniu dwoistości spojrzenia. O filmie Sally PotterOrlando.[In search of a dual look. About the film of Sally Potter.] Agnieszka Małgowska and Monika Rak. (Feminoteka)


Gertrude Stein & Alice B. Toklas & Many Many Women. Monika Rak.

When your identity is constantly undermined – for example by its absence from culture – you hold on to whatever has made its way into the mainstream. The general public got to know Gertrude Stein and her The Autobiography of Alice B. Toklas – a society chronicle, a gossip journal, featuring iconic artists such as Picasso, Matisse, or Hemingway. However, I was more interested in following Gertrude Stein and Alice B. Toklas’ relationship, which – although never described in as many words – was a lesbian relationship. Non-heteronormative women, in their time and later, knew this very well. Even at the end of the 20th century, when I was given Autobiography… by my then partner, it was one of the few books where I could find homoerotic threads.

So for me, the first meeting with Gertrude Stein was not a meeting with a sophisticated writer, but with a lesbian icon – a Sapphic sister – although she would never describe herself as such.

I met Gertrude Stein for the second time twenty years later when working on the nano-opera Alice B. Toklas and Many Many Women together with Agnieszka Małgowska, as part of our Damski Tandem Twórczy [Female Creative Tandem]. This time I had a different task, I was meant to play Gertrude. I had two things in common with her: I was a lesbian, and a good physical match. But that was not enough.

Then I reached for her poetry. I was able to see the writer and after reading it, I had the impression that I couldn’t follow. The randomly scattered letters, associations and images from Tender Buttons didn’t form any familiar shape. The poems seemed so hermetic; they amused me for a while, but in the long run. They scared me away. Uncovering the uniqueness of Stein’s work required repeated reading, and even some detective work. I had to free myself from interpretative habits, and understand her way of perceiving reality, in which objects or situations are not described directly but through contexts: their location in space, colour, texture, light.

I also had to face the experimental language of Gertrude Stein, full of repetitions, piled-up meanings concealed in single words. For example, the word “gay” in the cult literary portrait “Miss Furr and Miss Skeene”, where Stein insidiously, on the level of language, introduced a homosexual element to the text [whose ambiguity was lost in the Polish translation]:

To be regularly gay was to do every day the gay thing that they did every day. To be regularly gay was to end every day at the same time after they had been regularly gay. They were regularly gay. They were gay every day. They ended every day in the same way, at the same time, and they had been every day regularly gay.

I appreciated Stein’s literary genius, but I just didn’t like Gertrude as a person. This turned out to be the greatest difficulty in terms of acting. How was I supposed to play her in this situation, how could I defend her, throw her off the pedestal, how to find an internal source of motivation? Why, exactly, didn’t I like Stein? Perhaps because Gertrude considered herself not a female writer but a male writer, she believed that the masculine had greater value, thus discrediting women who often supported her. Maybe I felt detached because of the type of relationship Gertrude had built with Alice B. Toklas, one that was based on the unequivocal, binary opposition between the male Gertrude and feminine Alice? That was too patriarchal for me. Perhaps I was irritated by Stein’s inner conviction of her own perfection? Gertrude just felt that she was a [male] Genius. This feeling was strengthened by Alice and her circle of female friends and protectors, women looking up to her. Meanwhile, Gertrude sought male recognition. She wanted men to consider her a [male] Genius.

Two things saved my role. First, it surprised me that Stein made Alice the narrator of The Autobiography of Alice B. Toklas, in order to speak a language understandable to a wider audience. This brought her fame, while her partner – secretary, editor, cook, housewife, lover and muse – became a literary heroine. Thanks to this, the cover of each edition of Autobiography … features the names of both the narrator and the author – the actual co-authors of the work. What male writer would make such a gesture and share his fame in this way? Secondly, I was seduced by Stein’s sense of humour that shines through between the lines.

In the end, I managed to build Gertrude Stein’s character from her texts and biographies, and above all from the rhythm of the English language and the melody of Gertrude’s voice. They became the key to discovering my character. I embodied her in movement and gesture, and finally Gertrude came to life – thanks to my body. I came to portray a literary icon and, despite myself, a Genius, even if this sense of Genius did seduce me a little …

Gertruda Stein, "Alice B. Toklas and Many Many Women", dir. Agnieszka Małgowska 2017, photo: Małgorzata Dobrowolska

Monika Rak

In 2007, she graduated from the Faculty of Theatre Studies at the Theatre Academy in Warsaw, in 1997 she received her acting diploma
Actor, performer, playwright, lesbian artist, theatre expert, poet. She has worked at Teatr Szwedzka 2/4, State Jewish Theatre, Teatr Lalka i Fraszka and TR Warszawa. She played in the performances of the Female Creative Tandem: “Orlando. Pułapka? Sen”, “Czarodziejski Flet”, “Gertruda Stein & Alicja B.Toklas & wiele wiele kobiet”, and “33 SZUKA”. 

She performs gender in the role of drag king Maryjan Obły vel Baer in the play “Retrosexual. Drag King Retro Show “. She also starred in the series ““Duża przerwa”, dir. M. Bork and the film “Twarze i maski” dir. F. Falk. She took part in performative readings: “Portret lesbijek z kotem” [Portrait of lesbians with a cat], Nie/subordynowane/czytanie/sztuki/Jolanty Janiczak” [Un / subordinated /reading/of a play/by Jolanta Janiczak]. She conducts theatre workshops, for a decade she has been co-creating – together with Agnieszka Małgowska – the Female Creative Tandem.


Gertruda Stein & Alicja B. Tolas & Wiele wiele kobiet [Alice B. Toklas and Many Many Women] directed by Agnieszka Małgowska, Teatr Druga Strefa Warsaw 2017


Jak popsuć pozowaną fotografię [How to ruin a posed photography]. An interview with Agnieszka Małgowska.


About brave Pietrko and orphan Marysia. A fairy tale for adults. Jolanta Janiczak

What would Maria Konopnicka write about if she were alive today? What did the letters burnt by her daughters contain? What is inscribed in the rhythm of her poems? What unnamed desires and longings can be read between the lines?

In the era of positivism, a woman who wanted to write, make a living by writing, bypass censorship and still be heard, had to face dozens of limitations, compromise her expectations, self-censor, write about “important matters”, contribute to the struggle of national liberation. She would have to hide her own affairs, everyday problems, and relationships with children, oppressive marriages, disappointments in relationships, poverty, and refer to herself only when it could serve a larger cause. Relationships had to be kept hidden, especially those that did not fit the “norm”. She could only dream about free self-expression.

I got interested in Maria Konopnicka by coincidence, while researching the activist activities of Maria Dulębianka. It was Dulębianka who led me to Konopnicka. Konopnicka spent the last twenty years of her life with a woman two decades younger than her, traveling around Europe, writing, trying to free herself from the control of experts and obligations of her homeland, and on the other hand working on the future image of a literary bard. Konopnicka did not even allow anyone to photograph her, she ordered the addressees to destroy all her letters, and she wanted to have complete control over everything that concerned her. However, in the archives that I searched in the museum in Lviv, I found a letter from Konopnicka’s friend, who describes Konopnicka’s last wishes – she asked that she and Dulębianka would be buried together, and that a monument depicting two women reading the same book would be erected on their grave. Unfortunately, this wish was not fulfilled. Perhaps my play “O mężnym Pietrku i sierotce Marysi” [About brave Pietrko and orphan Marysia], will be the foundation for such a monument.

This text is a fantasy about Konopnicka breaking away from appearances and expectations and, through an experiment, finding out what desires, goals, outlooks, and longings constitute her existence. In my play, she reconstructs those burnt letters, those marginal notes, those unmentioned decades spent arm in arm with Dulębianka, who she calls “Pietrek with faded elbows.” He also recreates timidly the desire and tenderness that was between them.

I wrote “O mężnym Pietrku i sierotce Marysi” thinking about my neighbours whom I remember from my childhood, from the village where I grew up. These neighbours lived together all their lives until old age, and it never occurred to anyone that they might be a couple. They were called aunts – as in: “aunts live there”. How many pairs of “friends”, “aunts”, “sisters” in villages and towns, could not even whisper about their love, because they had no words, images, and a faintest idea that their reflections lived in the village nearby. How many forgotten, hushed kisses, feelings, travels and being together in death, which no one will ever describe, how many empty houses where girls and women lived together as couples. Could Konopnicka become the patron of such silent, forgotten loves?


I used to think that suffering– taking on the role of a martyr with commitment, integrity, without batting an eyelid – is dignifying. I believed that only as a viciously hurt, mad, or suffering individual I could count on adoration, respect, rewards, even hagiographies. I believed that by suffering I could propel the world forward, because suffering allows all means to an end. Being a victim is the perfect condition to find some compassion, affection, and acceptance. Suffering softens the hearts of superiors, turns enemies into allies. They might even comfort you; pat you on the back. 

It took me many years to break free from this memorial to suffering. Today, I no longer need a pat on the back. I don’t need permission or an invitation to the bards’ table. Neither the disguise of Matka Polka [trans.: Polish Mother – shorthand for mother that will sacrifice all, even herself, for her children]. But I can clearly see that the existing tables and altars need to be dismantled. We need access to all those overlooked materials, muffled voices, ridiculed styles, mundane everyday life, and desires around which we can meet. 

Where are you aunts, sisters, peasants, servants, nuns, female labourers, intelligentsia, professors, midwives, embroiderers, weavers, nurses, waitresses, singers, simultaneously despised and adored actors, cleaners, social workers, policewomen. Prostitutes who – with your very existence! – gnaw at the façade of the ‘real’ family life of the privileged. Let’s not be ashamed! Our time has come! We have the right to express ourselves! We have the right to live, not to fill out their templates! No more meeting someone else’s expectations! Down with mimicry! 

Please bring your fragments, snapshots, scraps, sentences, photos, kisses, and souvenirs to the newly founded Maria Konopnicka and Maria Dulębianka Archive. We need your testimonies, your underground and aboveground whispers, your dialects, colours, trivialities, various pleasures, goods, souvenirs, all traces of the presence and activities of women who love women. 

I also propose an initiative to create a foreign artistic scholarship for non-heteronormative writers and artists, and a medal named after Maria Konopnicka and Maria Dulębianka, along with a cash prize for the most effective activists for non-heterosexual women. I hope that the city authorities will actively support our initiative and that next year I will not have to repeat these demands from the stage. 

Finally, I would like to add that it is with great pleasure that I agree to be the co-patron of the Civil Partnership Act proposed in 2012 by Grzegorz Gauden, whom I would like to thank, together with Maria Dulębianka, for this honourable proposal. Maria, please quote the preamble proposed by Mr Gauden, which – I hope – will soon sound be heard in a more suitable place.

"About brave Pietrko and orphan Marysia", dir. Wiktor Rubin 2018, photo: Magda Hueckel

Jolanta Janiczak
Graduated in psychology at the Jagiellonian University and acting at Lart Studio, a theatre playwright. She is the author of several plays. Since 2008, she has been working with Wiktor Rubin, co-creating an original theatrical language. Their joint plays are performed at all important festivals in Poland. 

At the 4th International Divine Comedy Festival in Krakow (2011), she received a distinction for the drama JOANNA SZALONA; KRÓLOWA [Joan the Mad; Queen], which also reached the final of the 2012 Gdynia Drama Award. 

In 2013, her text CARYCA KATARZYNA [Empress Catherine] was included in the finals of the Gdynia Drama Award. Winner of the Polityka Passport 2013, winner of the Young Poland 2014 scholarship programme of the Minister of Culture and National Heritage, winner of the Gdynia Drama Award in 2016 for SRAWA GORGONOWEJ [Gorgonowa’s Case]. Her plays have been published in Poland and abroad. The themes she discusses primarily concern women and their place in history, the relationship between the body and politics. She is one of the most expressive and radical feminist voices in the country.


“O mężnym Pietrku i sierotce Marysi. Bajka dla dorosłych” [About brave Pietrko and orphan Marysia], reż. Wiktor Rubin, Teatr Polski Poznań 2018



“Mam dość oglądania bohatera maczo, który kolonizuje świat. (Teatr lesbijski w Polsce)”. [I’m sick of seeing a macho hero colonizing the world (Lesbian theater in Poland)]. Interview with Jolanta Janiczak


Jolanta Janiczak, O mężnym Pietrku i sierotce Marysi. Bajka dla dorosłych [About Brave Pietrko and Orphan Marysia. A Story for Adults] [fragment]. (Rainbow Books) 


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