S. N. Behrman
The New Yorker
 June 1, 1946: 32-46

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 indivisibility.

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:

LOUISE: Mother—tell me—has it ever happened to you—has anyone ever hit you—without hurting you in the least?

JULIE: Yes, my child. It has happened to me too.

LOUISE: Is it possible for someone to hit you—hard like that—real loud and hard—and not hurt you at all?

JULIE: 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.

DEVIL: 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 the table.)

KARL (vaguely discomfited): I give found money away.

DEVIL: 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. . . .

KARL: To draw a revolver for a found sovereign! . . . Why do you tell me all this? Why? What do you want? Who sent you?

DEVIL: Nobody! No one! I am here! (Touches Karl's forehead.)

KARL (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!

DEVIL: And if it slips away? If another man runs away with it?

KARL (with terrified suspicion): Who?

DEVIL (with calm triumph): I. Tonight. This very night. For ten thousand years I have had no prettier mistress.

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.

DEVIL (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 home."

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 crying privately.

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 unhappiness.

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:

ACTOR: I can't keep it to myself any longer. I've got to tell someone. Listen!

CRITIC: What's the trouble?

ACTOR: You know who—what Marie was before I married her?

CRITIC: I know—I mean I suspect, at least.

ACTOR: 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 . . .

CRITIC: Don't bother. I made the inventory long ago. There were nine.

ACTOR: Counting me?

CRITIC: Without you.

ACTOR: Pardon me! There were seven.

CRITIC: You haven't counted Hochberg.

ACTOR: 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.

CRITIC: Very well, then—seven real cases—one gossip—and one she couldn't endure—nine altogether.

ACTOR: Seven!


ACTOR: I cannot allow anyone—not even you—to cast aspersions upon my wife —there were seven.

CRITIC: 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.

ACTOR: 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:

TURAI: I was just thinking how extraordinarily difficult it is to begin a play. 'The eternal problem of how to introduce your principal characters.

ADAM: I suppose it must be hard.

TURAI: 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.

MANSKY: I never saw such a fellow. Can't you forget the theatre for a single minute?

TURAI: No. That's why I'm such a successful dramatist.

MANSKY: Life isn't all theatre.

TURAI: 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.

MANSKY: It's silly to let your job become an obsession.

TURAI: 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.

MANSKY: Well, why not?

TURAI: 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:

ERNO (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?

LEAR: Never had the pleasure

ERNO: 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 dying.

(This is the second of three articles on Mr. Molnar.)

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