The first performance of Ferenc Molnar's tragic comedy "Liliom"
(generally considered his dramatic masterpiece), at the
Gaiety Theatre in Budapest on September 5, 1909, was a flat
failure. The amiable ghouls who seem to hover about
premières in all countries hurried to the cafés to pronounce
the obsequies and to prophesy that Molnar, who was then
thirty-one, was through. (This is a universal formula. A
well-wisher of Jerome Kern's said to a similar prophet
between the acts at the opening of the original production
of "Show Boat," "Well, do you think Jerry is through
again?") For one thing, the first-night audience at the
Gaiety was shocked. The playgoers came expecting to laugh.
In this same theatre, Molnar had diverted them with farces
like "The Lawyer," his first play, and with sex comedies
like "The Devil," which had been a resounding international
success. "Liliom" permitted them to laugh only occasionally
and wryly. Moreover, the hero had the effrontery to die in
the fifth scene and saunter up to Heaven. To kill off an
actor might be all right in the Burgtheater in Vienna, where
acute mortality was a staple; in a place like the Gaiety, it
was bad form. Since that failure, "Liliom" has had two
thousand performances in Budapest and almost a thousand in
the United States; it has been played in very nearly every
country in the world, including Japan. Under the old German
system of simultaneous production in various state and city
theatres, "Liliom" sometimes was being played in two hundred
theatres the same week.
The resentment of that first-night audience in Budapest, and
of the very few others that saw the first production, had
its counterpart twenty years later in the office of a
Hollywood film executive at a full-dress story conference. A
playwright who had been imported from New York to do the
film version presented the first draft of his scenario. What
the executive had expected the playwright to provide for
Liliom at the point where Molnar has him kill himself has
not been recorded, but he was profoundly shocked to find
Liliom still dead. "You can't have a hero who dies in the
middle!" the executive protested. The director of the
picture, Frank Borzage, who had had conspicuous success with
the silent film of "Seventh Heaven," made the usual
invocation of the classic for precedent. "The hero of
'Seventh Heaven' goes blind," he said. "A blind man,"
countered the executive with some heat, "can still go to
bed!" The limited versatility of a corpse had everyone
stymied, but the writer was firm. "Liliom," he argued, was
too well known a play for him to give the hero a reprieve.
Were he suddenly to endow him with an inheritance from
America, making it unnecessary for him to go through with
the attempted holdup that leads to the suicide, or to allow
him to be startled by the evangelical influence of Janet
Gaynor into sudden reform, or to rely on any of the other
ingenious palliatives that were on file, he, the writer,
might come in for some rough kidding from the uncontaminated
playwrights who had so far been offered no contracts in
Hollywood. The argument raged back and forth, but on this
point the playwright would not yield. Finally, the
executive, one of his major principles violated, gave in,
and the conference ended. Sullen and frustrated, he
nevertheless offered to drive the stubborn stickler for the
death sentence back to his hotel. They rode in painful
silence for a long time. The executive apparently made a
frantic and futile attempt to recall a successful picture in
which the hero had died in the middle before there erupted
from him a startling remark. "You know," he shouted at the
writer, "you're new out here, and let me tell you something?
Out here you're not writing for a lot of goddam Hindus?" The
playwright, as delicately as he could, insinuated from the
movie man the background for this statement. It turned out
that he had been plowing through a book on India and had
come across the concept of nirvana. "You know," he growled,
by way of summary, "those bastards love death."
Molnar's theatre is unique in our time, because it is an
endless self-exploration. Shaw started with a fixed
idea—Fabian Socialism—which he has masterfully stuffed down
the throats of his audiences while they were agape with
laughter. Maugham, quite objectively and with dazzling
craft, describes the society he has observed about him.
O'Neill deals in cosmic symbols. But Molnar's theme is
himself and he has taken his society right along with him
over the footlights and confided to it expansively in stage
whispers. Unlike the novel, the theatre has rarely been
autobiographical; Molnar's plays are the great exception.
His Budapest was preeminently a theatre town; the cafés
bubbled with gossip, personal and professional; the
intrigues from its bohemias overflowed onto the stage from
the restaurants and boudoirs. When Molnar, who was always
engaged in feuds, lampooned some current enemy in a play,
the audience knew whom he was transfixing and watched the
victim's expression in the stalls, much as a Boston audience
stared at Alexander Woollcott during a performance there of
"The Man Who Came to Dinner." When, in a play, Molnar
allowed himself to run through the statistics of an
actress's infidelities, the audience was in on the count.
His own life became so inextricably involved in the theatre
that it was probably inevitable that he should develop,
singlehanded, a theatre about the theatre itself. This genre
has become popular with playwrights in England and in
America, but Molnar invented it. Living in a zone in which
reality and illusion overlap, he finally developed a
category of plays in which he gave up all attempt to divide
the two worlds and used as his theme their very
It may he gathered from reading his plays that Molnar loves
artists, the poor, and royalty. "Liliom," his finest play
about the poor, is also a prime example of his
self-analysis. Molnar's friends say that Liliom is Molnar.
They point out the hero's, and Molnar's, constitutional
inability to avow love, and the
hero's vacillation between cruelty and repentance,
reflecting the dualism in Molnar's own nature—the
combination of the impulse to suffer and the impulse to make
suffer. There is in "Liliom," besides, a deep feeling and
tenderness for the dispossessed. "Budapest was wonderful for
a few," Molnar says now, in his exile in New York, where he
has lived since 1940, "but for the vast majority it was
something else." He has put that "something else" into "Liliom"
and into his other proletarian plays, as well as into "The
Paul Street Boys," one of his best-known novels. A member of
a persecuted minority, Molnar has always felt a sympathy for
the underprivileged. "Liliom" had censorship trouble in
England on the score that it was sacrilegious. For that
matter, Molnar has never had—except for one play, "The
Swan," a comedy about royalty—much success in England. The
psychological reasons for the British coolness to Molnar are
perhaps traceable. The passion of love, as a dramatic
subject, went out of the English theatre after Shakespeare;
to treat seriously of love in the wide open spaces of the
proscenium, before a lot of strangers, seems to the English
a violent breach of taste. In the Budapest theatre the
audiences not only encouraged the discussion but felt
cheated if they could not identify the characters. The
Heaven scene in "Liliom" is not the best one in the play—it
is difficult to make Heaven credible on the stage or
anywhere else, and even Milton was more successful with
Satan than he was with God—but Molnar had to have it to make
his point. The Chief Magistrate sends Liliom back to earth
to see whether he can perform one good deed. He returns to
find his widow and his sixteen-year-old daughter, who was
born after he died, eating lunch in the yard of their
country cottage. Liliom, his mild kleptomania uncorrected by
his celestial visit, and eager to win his child's love,
offers her a star he has stolen from Heaven. The girl,
frightened by the stranger's insistence, rejects it. The
incorrigible Liliom, frantic, hits her, as often in his
lifetime he hit her mother. The girl goes to her mother,
deeply moved and wondering:
Mother—tell me—has it ever happened to you—has anyone
ever hit you—without hurting you in the least?
Yes, my child. It has happened to me too.
Is it possible for someone to hit you—hard like
that—real loud and hard—and not hurt you at all?
It is possible, my dear—that someone may beat you and
beat you and beat you—and not hurt you at all.
In this passage, which is the end of the play and its
emotional point, Molnar reaches a peak of tolerance in which
he vicariously forgives not only the blows he has given but
also those he has received. Now in the English theatre,
hitting a woman is a laugh-getter. The big laugh toward the
end of Maugham's "The Circle" comes when Lady Kitty says of
the young man whose elopement she has tried to prevent, "Of
course, the moment he said he'd give her a black eye, I knew
it was finished." Similarly, the big laugh at the end of
"Pygmalion" comes when Higgins threatens to let Eliza have
it. In New York, possibly because the Slavic admixture is so
considerable, Molnar has got away with it, but there has
been practically no immigration into England since 1066, and
to anatomize the passion of Love in the theatre is a thing
that nice people there no longer do.
In Molnar's day, philandering had a kind of civic status in
Budapest: it was an established institution; the cafés
vibrated with gossip, speculation, prophecy about it. Unless
a man was pursuing some married woman, his day was somehow
incomplete. Molnar hit on a dramatic device which must have
fulfilled all the wish dreams of the jealous and the
curious—to put the Devil himself on the stage, in the middle
of a sexual intrigue, as knowledgeable as if he had been
lounging under the table in every cabinet particulier
in town. Early in his career, Molnar became
aware that the Devil is good copy. He went to a performance
of "Faust" one evening and the notion drifted through his
mind that it might be amusing to put Mephistopheles in a
white tie and make him the protagonist of a comedy of sex.
"The Devil" is the first of his comedies to explore this
notion. In this play, the probings into the mysteries of
sexual impulse and motive which his male characters carry on
so exhaustively in his later plays (though no more
exhaustively, his friends say, than Molnar himself) are made
by the Devil professionally, in line of duty. Even today,
"The Devil" has a striking contemporaneity; Dr. Miller,
which is Molnar's name for the Devil, is merely the
materialized subconscious of the troubled and vacillating
characters. He turns up at inconvenient moments; he mocks
them when they utter sentimental nobilities; he urges them
to go after what they really want when their timidity
cautions them to live up to the conventions.
The first act of "The Devil" takes place in the studio of an
artist named Karl Mahler. A prominent banker brings his wife
to have her portrait done. The painter and the wife had been
in love when they were both young and poor. They protest to
Dr. Miller, when he appears, that this love has long since
died, but he proves to them that this is inaccurate. He is
all-knowing and persistent, and though the characters resent
him bitterly, they cannot withstand his manipulations. At
the end of the first act, Dr. Miller and the painter are
alone. By this time the painter is deeply disturbed by his
newly aroused feelings for his old sweetheart, but he still
insists that his affection is only platonic. The Devil tells
him a story, and here Molnar uses effectively the device of
the dramatized anecdote; have a character tell an
allegorical story and then make the action of the play
follow the allegory.
Last fall, on the sixth of September—I shall never
forget the date—something strange happened to me. I put
on an old suit I hadn't worn for a long time, and as I
picked up the waistcoat, a sovereign fell out. God knows
how long it had been there. As I turned this sovereign
over to look at it, it suddenly slipped through my
fingers and rolled away. I looked and looked, but my
sovereign was gone. I became nervous: I can't find the
sovereign. I search around for half an hour,
three-quarters of an hour, still I can't find it. I get
angry, I get furious. I push the furniture about—still
no sovereign. I call my man—we both look everywhere till
it gets dark. I tremble, I perspire —I have but one
idea: to get that sovereign back. It becomes an
obsession. Suddenly a suspicion comes into my mind. I
get up from my knees. I accuse my servant: "You have
found the sovereign and put it into your pocket." The
man gets angry and answers me disrespectfully. I am
about to strike him when I see the blade of a knife
shining in his hands. I draw my revolver (takes a
shining revolver out of his pocket and rises)
and with this revolver I nearly killed a man for a
sovereign, a sovereign I didn't need and had never
missed—just a found sovereign. (He puts revolver on
(vaguely discomfited): I give found money
I would have given it away, but it slipped through my
fingers and whatever slips through our fingers is just
the one thing we want. We break our necks for it—that's
human nature. And if it once slips through your fingers,
you will run after your found sovereign. And, when it is
too late, you will discover it was worth having—the one
thing that might have made your life significant, worth
living. . . .
To draw a revolver for a found sovereign! . . . Why do
you tell me all this? Why? What do you want? Who sent
Nobody! No one! I am here! (Touches Karl's forehead.)
(almost shouting): No! Do you hear? No!
I've known her all these years, and we've been good
friends only—and we'll remain good friends, nothing
else. I don't want the found sovereign!
And if it slips away? If another man runs away with it?
(with terrified suspicion): Who?
(with calm triumph): I. Tonight. This very
night. For ten thousand years I have had no prettier
The Devil whips his victim's jealousy to a frenzy by
describing the minutiae of his impending conquest:
How you will run after your lost sovereign! Every hour
that you wonder where she is, she spends with me. A
carriage passes: your heart stands still. Who's in the
carriage? . . . You see a couple vanish around a corner,
clinging to one another. Who were they? A light goes out
in a window. Who put that light out? We sit in every
carriage, we vanish around every corner, we stand behind
every window curtain. . . .
Karl, unable to stand any more, reaches for the revolver the
Devil has put on the table. The Devil takes it out of his
hands. Karl sits down, stunned. A butler comes in, carrying
a lighted candle, then walks over to the Devil and helps him
put on his fur coat.
(with a sad smile, in a warm tone rather like that of
a father speaking to his son): You see, my
boy, one may draw a revolver for a lost sovereign.
In Molnar's Budapest, everybody was chasing lost sovereigns.
Molnar's prejudice against stockbrokers and middlemen is
revealed in an especially acrimonious passage in "The
Devil." To get himself invited to a party where he can
further pursue his occupation, Dr. Miller tells the wife he
is arranging to have seduced, "Your husband will be
delighted. I've just come from Odessa. I have good news.
Wheat is rising—this year's crop turned out worse than they
thought it would." The Devil derives a certain satisfaction
from the speculator husband's joy that conditions which
cause starvation in Russia will enable him to turn a profit,
and he later refers to the husband as Mr. Wheat.
In Italy, the part of the Devil was played intermittently
for thirty years by Zacconi, the greatest Italian actor of
his time. Molnar's favorite theatre story concerns Zacconi.
The two men first met in a dressing room in a theatre in
Turin, when the actor was fifty years old. Molnar had gone
there to give him some suggestions for a production of "The
Devil" in which Zacconi was soon to open. The actor was
sitting in his costume for the play in which he was then
appearing, an old war horse he had been playing for years,
called "La Morte Civile." He was in seventeenth-century
costume—buckled shoes, white stockings, short velvet
trousers—and a brilliant red wig that he always wore for his
part. On visits Molnar made to Italy in the course of the
next several years, he saw Zacconi a number of times, and
then there was a lapse of twenty years. One day, Molnar was
walking with some friends along a street in Cannes when he
saw a poster announcing the appearance of Zacconi for one
evening in "La Morte Civile." He was very moved, sent a
message around to the actor, and immediately got an
emotional note of welcome and an offer of a stage box for
that evening. Molnar attended the performance with his
friends. In the intermission, he went around to see the
star, who was sitting in his dressing room, in his
seventeenth-century costume and flaming red wig. Zacconi was
now nearly eighty. The greeting was fervent; they sat and
talked for a bit, and then Molnar saw tears forming in
Zacconi's eyes and rolling down his painted cheeks. Molnar
was distressed. "This is a happy reunion, Zacconi," said
Molnar. "Why do you weep?" "I weep, Molnar," he answered,
"to see that since last we met your hair has gone gray."
Molnar is fond of the story because it epitomizes the world
of the theatre, in which reality becomes merely a wavering
reflection of illusion. The old actor, sitting in his
dressing room in his flaming red wig and weeping over
Molnar's white hair, had forgotten completely that for him,
too, time had passed; his wig was young and so was he.
The interpenetration of life and the theatre in Budapest
reached some sort of incestuous climax when Molnar's theatre
began feeding upon itself and he wrote his series of theatre
plays, among them "The Guardsman," "The Play's the Thing,"
"The Violet," all three eventually produced in New York, and
"The Prologue to 'King Lear,'" which has not been done here
and is probably the best of the lot.
"Is there anything," says the Critic to the Actor in "The
Guardsman," "that you can't believe if it's necessary?" The
Actor has just allowed his wife, the Actress, to persuade
him that the Russian guardsman was not at her apartment the
afternoon before, although, since the guardsman was actually
the Actor himself in a disguise, he knows very well he was
there, and the Critic's rhetorical question serves as still
another illustration of the half-world between reality and
fantasy in which actors live. Later, when the Critic
upbraids the Actor for crying over his wife's willingness to
be unfaithful with the character he has impersonated, he
whimpers, "I can't help it. I'm so used to shedding real
tears on the stage that I can't always restrain them at
In Molnar's "The Prologue to 'King Lear,'" one of the
characters is an actor cast in the role of Lear. He cries
when the husband of the wife he has been pursuing comes
backstage to accuse him of dallying with her; the husband is
unconvinced by his tears, and the actor says:
Anyone can cry. But to us it is like the
throat to the man who swallows knives. We practice
crying so long that it no longer pains us; else acting
would destroy us. Do you know where the fault lies? In
that crying fails to move us even when we might relish
the pain of tears. That is why I find no relief—in
When Molnar wrote "The Guardsman," he was told by friends
that no one would accept the fact that a wife wouldn't
recognize her own husband, no matter how ingenious the vocal
and physical makeup. Molnar brushed this argument off; he
said, "The theatre exists to lie—except in essentials. If an
audience will accept a bit of painted canvas as a forest,
they'll accept this. They'll believe she didn't recognize
him because I say she didn't." Technically, "The Guardsman"
is a model of dexterity. Molnar tosses off this thin and
perilously unbelievable story with great
ease. In the midst of a quarrel between the Actor and his
wife, Molnar innocently introduces a theatre-loving creditor
who comes to the Actor's home to dun him for a bill. The
Actor puts him off with a couple of passes for the following
night to the show in which he is playing. The Actor's
quarrel with his wife rises in intensity. The creditor
departs, but a few minutes later sends back a message; he
has found out that the Actor won't be appearing the next
night and is returning the tickets because he doesn't want
to see someone else in the role. The message is tossed into
the Actor's rising spiral of emotion, and at the top of it
he hears himself declaring, "I say, you know it's mighty
decent of a simple fellow like that to refuse to go to the
theatre when I'm not acting. Believe me, that makes me feel
good." A moment later he is back writhing in his
The theatre in Budapest was evidently not respectable; it
was truly bohemian. Actors didn't write political columns or
address their publics over the radio in the manner of elder
statesmen. And their café society was quite separate from
society. Eleanor Perenyi, in her recent book about Hungary,
"More Was Lost," tells how shocked her noble husband was
when, newly arrived from America some ten years ago, she
asked to meet Molnar. "Molnar does not go into society,"
said Baron Perenyi apologetically. "Neither does Bartok or,
I'm afraid, most of the people you would like to know." The
writers and artists were content to lead their own café
life. A passage in the first act of "The Guardsman"
indicates the relaxed atmosphere of theatrical Budapest. The
Actor is discussing with the Critic—an old family friend,
mildly and vainly in love with the Actress—the background
for his suspicion about his wife:
I can't keep it to myself any longer. I've got to tell
What's the trouble?
You know who—what Marie was before I married her?
I know—I mean I suspect, at least.
We both knew whatever there was to know. Why should we
be ashamed to speak of it? She had many lovers—very
many. If I should count merely those whom I knew
personally—Hartung, Zellenberg, Krauss . . .
Don't bother. I made the inventory long ago. There were
Pardon me! There were seven.
You haven't counted Hochberg.
And why should I? That was only malicious gossip. Then
there was Kohazy. He was madly in love with her, but she
couldn't endure him.
Very well, then—seven real cases—one gossip—and one she
couldn't endure—nine altogether.
I cannot allow anyone—not even you—to cast aspersions
upon my wife —there were seven.
Very well, we'll say seven. And even those seven we
can't be sure about. The only thing we can be sure about
is that I wasn't one of them.
I'm sorry. I'm sorry, old man, but don't weep over it
now. There are more important things to talk about.
During this passage, the Budapest audience was presumably in
a mathematical fever, supplementing breathlessly with its
own additions and subtractions.
One afternoon, in a hotel in Vienna, where Molnar was then
living with his third and present wife, the actress Lili
Darvas, he was entertaining a male visitor in their suite.
Darvas was in the next room, from which there presently
emanated violent protestations of love, in German. Molnar's
visitor pretended not to hear them, but they soon became too
obvious. "My wife is rehearsing a love scene with Dr. Hock,
the German director," Molnar explained. The visitor,
evidently thinking that Molnar had pulled this explanation
out of thin air, still looked embarrassed. Molnar saw that
he would have to do something drastic to put the man at his
ease—to show not only that his wife was innocent but that he
had absolute confidence in her. Molnar suggested that the
visitor and he join Darvas and Dr. Hock in the next room,
then threw open the door without knocking. Among
Budapestians, entering your wife's room without knocking was
the highest possible tribute. The incident gave Molnar the
idea for "The Play's the Thing." Adapted into English by P.
G. Wodehouse, it was produced in New York by Gilbert Miller,
with Holbrook Blinn as Turai, the playwright, and was an
enormous success. In addition to instructing his audience in
how to get out
of such an embarrassing situation in case
they should find themselves in it, Molnar offers in this
play a living manual of playwriting; the secrets he confides
this time are not only erotic but professional. The action
takes place in a castle on the Italian Riviera. It is 2 A.M.
when the play begins. Turai, his collaborator, Mansky, and
Adam, a young composer, are standing at an open window,
looking at the sea and smoking:
I was just thinking how extraordinarily difficult it is
to begin a play. 'The eternal problem of how to
introduce your principal characters.
I suppose it must be hard.
It is—devilish hard. Up goes the curtain, there is a
hush all over the theatre, people come on the stage.
Then what? It's an eternity—sometimes as much as a
quarter of an hour—before the audience finds out who's
who and what they are all up to.
I never saw such a fellow. Can't you forget the theatre
for a single minute?
No. That's why I'm such a successful dramatist.
Life isn't all theatre.
Yes, it is—if you write plays. You know what Alphonse
Daudet says in his Memoirs? When he stood by his
father's deathbed, all he could think of was what a
wonderful scene it would make for the stage.
It's silly to let your job become an obsession.
Well, that's the theatre. Either you master it or it
masters you. And of all the brain-racking things in the
world, beginning a play is the worst. That's where your
technique comes in, my boy. Take this scene here, for
instance. We three—curtain goes up on three ordinary men
in ordinary dinner jackets. How is anybody to know even
that this room we're sitting in is a room in a castle?
And how are they to know who we are? If this were
a play, we would have to start jabbering about a lot of
thoroughly uninteresting things until the audience
gradually found out who we were.
Well, why not?
Think how much simpler it would be if we were to cut out
all that stuff and just introduce ourselves. (He
rises and addresses the audience.) Ladies and
gentlemen, good evening. We arrived tonight to spend a
couple of weeks at this castle. We've just left the
dining room, where we did ourselves remarkably well with
some excellent champagne. My name is Sandor Turai. I am
a playwright. I have been a playwright for thirty years.
I make a very good thing of it. I bow and step back,
leaving the stage to you.
Molnar leaves it to them for only a minute; then he takes
charge again, and ends by writing a play within a play to
get his heroine out of her dilemma.
In "A Prologue to 'King Lear,'" Molnar gives the shadow
characters created by Shakespeare so much authority that the
so-called actual characters have to acknowledge their own
lack of substance
and scramble off, beaten, into the dim makeshift of reality.
It is a long one-act play, which has become standard in the
Central European repertory; it is usually presented with
Molnar's one-acters "Marshal" and "The Violet," as a triple
bill called "Theatre." The scene is the empty stage of an
august state playhouse, an hour before the curtain time of a
performance of "King Lear." The situation is also standard:
the star, Banati, who plays Lear, arrives in a panic because
he knows that the angry husband and a friend are pursuing
him. The actor who plays the Duke of Burgundy, already in
his makeup when the panicky star arrives, summons the
stagehands, the fireman, the costumer, and the electrician
to protect the star from his pursuers when they rush in. But
the husband, a Dr. Erno, and his friend, a Dr. Kiss, break
through the cordon. It is a piquant detail that Dr. Kiss is
also after Dr. Erno's wife. The husband was just about to
have it out with him when he was diverted by the more
immediate threat of the actor, and Dr. Kiss joined in the
pursuit in a sort of abstract indignation. The husband is a
bespectacled pedant who teaches literature in a university.
By the time he and his friend come onstage, Banati is
already in his King Lear costume and makeup, and the idea of
the play is that the benign majesty of the makeup, and the
implicit evocation of the spirit of Shakespeare, make it
impossible for the husband to vent his anger on the actor.
The actor, too, once his beard and crown and costume are on,
transcends his mundane personality and treats the fuming
husband with the Olympian dignity with which he ordinarily
deals with his stage daughters. Even when he risks
dispelling the aura by telling the husband how he met the
wife in the zoo (what is there about zoos that makes
playwrights think that they are incubators of flirtation?),
Dr. Erno cannot disabuse himself of his awe. He attempts to
whip up his anger and fails:
I am trying to analyze this unique situation into which
I, a civilized being, have been swept. My wife's seducer
hides from me behind a mask and stands before me in the
guise of a majestic figure, an unhappy mythical king and
father, whose fate has so often stirred me. And above it
all, over and above my comparatively specklike grief;
hovers the tremendous Shakespearean sorrow that verges
on madness. Over both of us the spirit of that giant
British poet holds relentless sway. It is Shakespeare of
whom Taine said that he was overshadowing and creative,
unfathomable, overbearing, immoral, and
extraordinary—the greatest figure that has ever
revealed the whole gamut of form and has conjured living
characters into our ken.
To this Burgundy replies:
I consider Shakespeare an ordinary drunken actor and
theatrical director. His plays were written by Bacon.
This irreverence diverts the unhappy professor into an
impassioned denunciation of the Baconian theory, in the
course of which he spouts an array of authorities. He keeps
trying to whip up his anger against the actor, and he keeps
failing. Finally he gives up:
(advances menacingly but is repulsed by Lear's
majestic gesture): Oh, how dreadful to be so
restrained by culture. Terrible! Are you familiar with
Sir Thomas Lucy?
Never had the pleasure
Sir Thomas Lucy was the English nobleman who gave
Shakespeare a beating. Think of it, sir! Shakespeare
himself! You are merely the image of King Lear—just
hair, cosmetics, tin, mask, and actor ... but that was
Shakespeare himself! As a historian, I thoroughly
despise and brand Sir Thomas Lucy, but, as a man, I envy
at this moment his objectivity.
This objectivity is beyond Dr. Erno; he eventually goes
away, reconciled with his wife and fairly happy, though he
realizes that his experience with the actor is still too
poignant to permit him to see that evening's forthcoming
performance of his favorite tragedy.
Molnar remembers wistfully the reign of Franz Josef. His
affection for the Emperor was not snobbish; it was a matter
of temperament. He loved the imperial climate because it was
exceedingly mild. Franz Josef, so Molnar seems to feel, was
an amiable monarch who had no prejudices and who believed in
living and letting live. "Why shouldn't men of my generation
be monarchists?" Molnar has inquired. "The first time we got
drunk, the first time we made love, the first time we
painted the towns of Vienna and Budapest red, there was an
emperor on the throne. What is more natural than that we
should believe we would again be able to make love, again
get drunk with impunity, again he able to paint the town
red, if only there was an emperor back on the throne?" This
is to regard the Emperor as a kind of Voronoff and is
perhaps expecting too much of him.
Molnar's infatuation with royalty is responsible for a
series of plays, the most famous of which is "The Swan," a
satire on the mechanics of dynastic marriage. The head of a
dethroned family, an energetic and frustrated woman whose
passion it is to get her family back in the royalty
business, is entertaining
in her household the young heir apparent to a throne, in the
hope that he will marry her young daughter. The young man is
maddeningly indifferent. In the household is an attractive
young man who has been engaged as tutor for the princess.
The dowager mother conceives the idea of having her daughter
flirt with the tutor in an attempt to make the visiting heir
apparent jealous. Once this banality has been stated (Molnar
even allows one of his characters to comment on it), it is
treated with remarkable freshness and feeling. The attitude
of the mother toward the tutor is exactly the attitude of
Higgins toward Eliza Doolittle in "Pygmalion"—that the
subject's own feelings about the experiment are not to be
taken into consideration. No one will ever see a more
dehumanized scene than the one in "Pygmalion" in which
Higgins and Pickering come back home with Eliza after her
successful debut at the Duchess's garden party. They never
speak to Eliza; they simply discuss her as if she were not
in the room and, between yawns, tell each other what a bore
the experiment was. Such a scene could have been written
only by a man temporarily crazed by a passion for phonetics.
Molnar's princess is far more human; when she sees the
suffering in the eyes of her guinea pig, she forgets her
bargain with her mother, breaks down, and tells all. She
loves the tutor, who loves her, too, and the memorable
second-act curtain comes down with her kissing him publicly.
This was also Molnar's kiss, blown to a princess who was as
susceptible to unpremeditated love as were his own plebeian
friends in the cafés.
Every playwright writes the same success twice, but the
second time it is usually a failure. Molnar tried to repeat
the success of "The Swan" with "Olympia," and the second
play was one of his poorest. "Only a mediocre writer is
always at his best," Maugham
has said, and many of Molnar's plays are tenuous or
strained. Even his failures, however, contain at least one
scene that is notable and that only he could have written.
"The Delicate Story," the last play by Molnar to be produced
here, and an unsuccessful one, contains such a scene. A
delicatessen keeper is given a police summons for his wife.
Distressed, he goes to the police station to find out the
reason. The scene is in the office of the police captain.
The storekeeper's calling card is brought in, and when the
captain reads the card, he says angrily:
Henry Cristof. Henry Cristof—nothing else. No
occupation, no address, nothing. How am I to know what
kind of man he is? A bootblack? A banker? He simply
prints his name—as if everybody was expected to know.
Just like that: Henry Cristof. As if he were Henry Ford.
This world is full of strange people.
The delicatessen man is ushered in, and the captain berates
him for the lack of detail on his card. Cristof explains
that it is a visiting card, not a business card. But the
captain, while the poor storekeeper simmers anxiously,
wondering what his wife has done to get a summons, insists
on rewriting the card. He fills it in with Cristof's
occupation, address, and telephone number. He gets a
creative satisfaction from this. Then he tells the
delicatessen owner that his wife and a man were caught
making love in a parked car, and finally, before dismissing
the distressed husband, orders him to have his card
reprinted according to his specifications. "You're not Henry
Ford," he says. "You must resign yourself to that."
Although Molnar does not, like the bastards in India, love
death, he saw so much of it as a correspondent in the first
World War that he felt he had to take it into account. He
put it on the stage in a series of fantasies. In "Heavenly
and Earthly Love," adapted by Edna St. Vincent Millay and
produced here by Arthur Hopkins under the title of "Launzi,"
the heroine, after an episode which has shattered her
emotionally, spends the rest of the play pretending to be a
corpse. She has her father build her a catafalque on which
she lies during Act II, and in Act III she puts all the
other characters to the inconvenience of also pretending
that she has died and is an angel in Heaven. At the final
curtain, she commits suicide, which seems redundant. In "The
White Cloud," a play not yet produced in America, several
soldiers in the first World War are killed on the Galician
front. The play shows what effect the news of their deaths
has upon their families.
The children of the dead soldiers, who had been neighbors,
become obsessed with the idea that their fathers are on a
white cloud at the top of a nearby mountain, and the rest of
the play takes place on the cloud. "Mima," another fantasy,
gave David Belasco a field day; for its production here, he
transformed his theatre into a Plutonic machine shop. The
play concerns the operations of the Magister, described in
the stage directions as "a super-devil, an engineer and
inventor who has just completed a machine which is intended
to wipe out all goodness in the heart of every man and woman
in the world above." Privately, Molnar, as he is careful to
point out, is an excessively timid man, but in these
fantasies he takes enormous chances.
In Molnar's novels and plays, people on the fringes of
misery clutch at the hope of love, the hope of happiness,
but there is always the intimation of mortality. Since
Budapest was the capital city of the borderland between the
East and the West in Europe, a borderland in which bitterly
opposed ideologies have often clashed and in which there has
always been war or the threat of war, it is no wonder that
Molnar has divided his attention between gaieties now
vanished and death. In his serious plays, the characters are
irked by love, but they are also beckoned by death. In many
of his amorous triangles, the third figure is hooded.
In this country, Molnar is scarcely known as a novelist at
all, but in Europe he has a considerable reputation.
Possibly his most celebrated work there is a novel, "The
Paul Street Boys." In it, too, death plays an important
role. It is a story of juvenile street-gang warfare. Molnar
is vastly interested in children. He has said that of all
human beings, children are the most cruel, but "The Paul
Street Boys" is no "Innocent Voyage." For one thing, these
children are mostly very poor. They are nevertheless cruel
enough, especially to one of their number, a boy who is
terrified by the fighting in which his companions are
engaged. This boy, eroded by the sense of his inadequacy, by
his loss of face with his comrades, embarks on a daring
adventure beyond his physical equipment. He falls ill as a
result of it. The book is populated only by children until
the final chapter, when the boy is brought home mortally
ill. The boy's father, Nemecek, is a tailor. As the boy lies
on his deathbed, an impatient customer comes into the shop
to try on a suit. From the next room, the boy's final
delirium, as he lives over again the
titanic battles fought in a vacant lot, comes through to the
father while he is trying to please the fussy customer. This
is the kind of counterpoint that occurs over and over in
Molnar's plays and with which, when he is at his best, he
manages to convey a sense of the erratic, grotesque, and
comic interplay of ordinary life. Molnar's awareness of
poverty is intimate and personal, just as Shaw's is
abstract. Shaw is undoubtedly justified in bracketing
himself with Shakespeare as the other great playwright of
the English language, but Shakespeare is a bit more
realistic with his poor characters than Shaw is, and so, for
that matter, is Molnar. The poor in Shaw's plays have never
missed a meal; they are like his well-off characters except
that they drop their aitches. But Molnar's have a salivary
reality; you feel their glandular reflexes while they stare
through plate-glass shop windows at the confectionery. It is
the difference between "Das Kapital" and Dickens. The tailor
in "The Paul Street Boys" goes to work at once on the brown
jacket his customer orders; the thought comes into his mind
that the money he gets for it will pay for his child's
coffin. While he sews, he does not permit himself to look at
the bed in the next room, because "he was afraid that a
glance in that direction would discourage him and would make
him fling everything—Mr. Csetneky's brown jacket—to the
floor, and then throw himself beside his darling child."
When the child has died, the tailor goes to the bed and
sinks beside it, weeping. "But even now," Molnar writes, "he
was not unmindful of Mr. Csetneky's handsome brown jacket;
he slipped it off his knee, so as to prevent it from
being stained by tears." Molnar understands the pressure on
people who have to go on making a living even when they are
(This is the second of three articles on Mr. Molnar.)