Witkiewicz was reared at the family home in Zakopane. In accordance with his father's antipathy to the "servitude of the school," the boy was home-schooled and encouraged to develop his talents across a range of creative fields.
Witkiewicz was close friends with Karol Szymanowski and, from childhood, with Bronisław Malinowski and Zofia Romer. Following a crisis in Witkiewicz's personal life due to the suicide of his fiancée Jadwiga Janczewska, he was invited by Malinowski to act as draftsman and photographer on a 1914 expedition to Oceania, a venture that was interrupted by the onset of World War I. A happen-stance citizen of the Russian Empire, Witkiewicz went to St Petersburg and was commissioned as an officer in the Imperial army. His ailing father, a Polish patriot, was deeply grieved by the youngster's decision and died in 1915 without seeing his son again.
Witkiewicz witnessed the Russian Revolution while stationing in St Petersburg. He claimed that he worked out his philosophical principles during an artillery barrage, and that when the Revolution broke out he was elected political commissar of his regiment. His later works would show his fear of social revolution and foreign invasion, often couched in absurdist language.
Stanisław Ignacy Witkiewicz, Multiple self-portrait in mirrors, 1915–1917
He had begun to support himself through portrait painting and continued to do so on his return to Zakopane in Poland. He soon entered into a major creative phase, setting out his principles in New Forms in Painting and Introduction to the Theory of Pure Form in the Theatre. He associated with a group of "formist" artists in the early 1920s and wrote most of his plays during this period. Of about forty plays written by Witkiewicz between 1918 and 1925, twenty-one survive, and only Jan Maciej Karol Hellcat met with any public success during the author's lifetime. The original Polish manuscript of The Crazy Locomotive was also lost; the play, back-translated from two French versions, was not published until 1962.
After 1925, and taking the name 'Witkacy', the artist ironically re-branded his portrait painting which provided his economic sustenance as The S.I. Witkiewicz Portrait Painting Company, with the tongue in cheek motto: "The customer must always be satisfied". Several the so-called grades of portraits were offered, from the merely representational to the more expressionistic and the narcotics-assisted. Many of his paintings were annotated with mnemonics listing the drugs taken while painting a particular painting, even if this happened to be only a cup of coffee. He also varied the spelling of his name, signing himself Witkac, Witkatze, Witkacjusz, Vitkacius and Vitecasse — the last being French for "breaks quickly".
In the late 1920s he turned to the novel, writing two works, Farewell to Autumn and Insatiability. The latter major work encompasses geopolitics, psychoactive drugs, and philosophy. In 1935 he was awarded the Golden Laurel of the Polish Academy of Literature for his novels.
During the 1930s, Witkiewicz published a text on his experiences of narcotics, including peyote, and pursued his interests in philosophy. He also promoted emerging writers such as Bruno Schulz. Shortly after Poland was invaded by Germany in September 1939, he escaped with his young lover Czesława to the rural frontier town of Jeziory, in what was then eastern Poland. After hearing the news of the Soviet invasion of Poland on 17 September 1939, Witkacy committed suicide on 18 September by taking a drug overdose and trying to slit his wrists. He convinced Czesława to attempt suicide with him by consuming Luminal, but she survived.
Witkiewicz had died in some obscurity but his reputation began to rise soon after the war, which had destroyed his life and devastated Poland. Czesław Miłosz framed his argument in The Captive Mind around a discussion of Witkiewicz's novel, Insatiability. The artist and theater director Tadeusz Kantor was inspired by the Cricot group, through which Witkiewicz had presented his final plays in Kraków. Kantor brought many of the plays back into currency, first in Poland and then internationally.
In the postwar period, Communist Poland's Ministry of Culture decided to exhume Witkiewicz's body, move it to Zakopane, and give it a solemn funeral. This was carried out according to plan, though no one was allowed to open the coffin that had been delivered by the Soviet authorities.
On 26 November 1994, the Polish Ministry of Culture and Art ordered the exhumation of the presumed grave of Witkiewicz in Zakopane. Genetic tests on the remaining bones proved that the body had belonged to an unknown woman — a final absurdist joke, fifty years after the publication of Witkacy's last novel.
James Fleming, Lee Taylor-Allan and Linda Chambers in Brad Mays' production of Witkacy's The Water Hen, Theatre Off Park, 1983
Two New York premiers of Witkacy plays: The Madman and the Nun(Wariat i zakonnica) in 1979 under the direction of Paul Berman and The Water Hen(Kurka Wodna) directed by Brad Mays were staged by the Theatre Off-Park, in 1983. Broadway producer / Theatre Off-Park managing director Patricia Flynn Peate produced both plays, which were well received by critics and audiences alike. Future New York Times theatre critic Mark Matousek, then writing for the theatrical journal Other Stages, praised The Water Hen for "masterful comic direction," and the piece was videotaped for permanent inclusion in the Lincoln Center's Billy Rose Theatre Collection.
The New York première of The Shoemakers(Szewcy) was presented by the Jean Cocteau Repertory under the direction of Włodzimierz Herman in 1987.
The Madman and the Nun was presented in 1989 by The Cosmic Bicycle Theatre at the Summer Music from Greensborough, a Classical Music Festival in Greensborough, Vermont, and in Boston, at The Charlestown Working Theatre. Directed by Jonathan Edward Cross [a.k.a. Jonny ClockWorks]. The production used Actors alongside Life-sized Puppets. Two of the original Puppet Figures are in the collection of the Witkacy Teatre in Zarkopane' Poland.
The New York première of Witkacy's Tumor Brainiowicz presented by La MaMa ETC was performed by The Theatre of a Two-Headed Calf (named after the Witkacy play Metaphysics of a Two-Headed Calf), under the direction of Brooke O'Harra. This production was followed by Witkacy's The Mother in 2003, also under O'Harra's direction and also a New York premier. The production featured puppets and video.
^"...Przeprowadzone badania wykazują, że szczątki kostne, przywiezione w 1988 roku ze wsi Jeziory na Ukrainie należą do kobiety w wieku 25–30 lat, o wzroście około 164 cm. ..." ("the tests conducted indicate that the bone remains, brought in 1988 from the village Jeziory in the Ukraine, belong to a woman 25–30 years old and about 164 cm tall...") from the protocol of the commission called by the Ministry of Culture and Art after the exhumation on 26 November 1994 of the presumed grave of Stanisław Ignacy Witkiewicz at Pęksowy Brzyzek" cemetery in Zakopane. From: Maciej Pinkwart, "Wygraliśmy" at the Wayback Machine (archived January 20, 2010) in: "Moje Zakopane" dn. 21 February 2005. (Source: Komunikat Komisji powołanej przez Ministra Kultury i Sztuki do spraw pochówku Stanisława Ignacego Witkiewicza. Prof. dr hab. Tadeusz Polak). Retrieved 11 November 2012.