Produced for the first time on November 9, 1890, at the National Theatre in Prague, the play fuelled a fierce controversy between the advocates of realism and their opponents. It was slated by the critics, who wrote: 'Everything in it is covered by the frost of baseness, vulgarity, foolishness and contemptibility. . . ' but it was defended by the director of the theatre, who wrote to the newspaper: ' . . . it would be a fatal error, if the National Theatre were to close its doors to new movements . . . ' which ensured the debate went on and paved the way for the style of realism in Czech drama to become established. Unfortunately, the controversy led Gabriela Preissova, the 28-year-old author to give up playwriting altogether.
Based on two real but separate crimes, Preissova set out to portray 'a barren woman haunted by the longing for a child'. The Kostelnicka character provides a fascinating female role, a woman full of pride in her achievements as a widowed working parent, who has devotedly brought up her step-daughter. She is also a highly respected member of the church, who is entrusted to lead processions, cure the sick and oversee burials. Jenufa, her step-daughter who has an illegitimate child and is abandoned by the father, Steva, tests the Kostelnicka's strict moral principles in the play. The Kostelnicka's efforts to avoid the ensuing scandal lead her into deceit, humiliation and ultimately, murder. Janacek saw the play as a tragic love story and was attracted to the Slovak setting and folkloric elements. His adaptation of the play into an opera libretto, involved editing out details of characterisation and plot. Preissova's play offers us a more psychologically complex Kostelnicka as the central character in a community whose moral attitudes are implicitly questioned.