History of Western Theatre: 17th Century to Now/East European Pre-WWII

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Ferenc Molnár[edit]

Ferenc Molnár presented Liliom, who after his death steals a star for his daughter. Photograph of the author, 1918

In the initial half of the 20th century, East European drama is honorably represented by the Hungarian dramatist, Ferenc Molnár (1878-1952), author of "Liliom" (1909) and "Testőr" (The guardsman” (1924).

Remenyi (1946) opined that "Molnar, like Gerhardt Hauptmann in some of his plays, fused naturalistic and romantic elements into the construction and psychology of "Liliom", which seems like a conspiracy between ingenuity and poetry. Many were unprepared for this kind of a theatrical experience. To dramatize is to externalize, but not at the expense of the internal perspective of a conflict. Underneath Molnar's sentiments there is sentimentality; his 'transcendental' imagination has nothing to do with the naivete of an angelic spirit. His wisdom is not that of a childlike poet, but of a charitable cleverness participating in the plight of mortality and hopes of eternity” (p 1195). The play concerns a "tale of an amusement-park barker and bouncer who mistreats his wife, who idles while she works, and who tries to rob a cashier when he needs money for the baby she is expecting is a tragi-comic tribute to the nobility that exists in everybody. Behind Liliom’s worthless behavior and loafer’s bravura hides an affectionate human being; the trouble is only that his good angel is gauche and inarticulate. He is destined to repeat the pattern of his life even in his ghostly existence after he has stabbed himself to avoid arrest for the intended robbery. From the early scenes which bear the stamp of the naturalist school the scene shifts to the only kind of heaven that Liliom could have imagined- a celestial police court. Fifteen years later he is paroled for a day to visit his family, and to redeem himself by a good deed. But Liliom, the useless 'lily', is unchanged. Eager to bring his daughter a gift, he can think of nothing better than to steal a star for her during his descent. Hungering for affection in his gruff way, he slaps her when she shrinks from him, and the Heavenly Police, shaking their heads deploringly, take him back as a hopeless case. But his inchoate love remains a fact that his simple wife- and perhaps heaven, too!- understands fully" (Gassner, 1954a pp 479-480). "Poor Liliom, barker for a merry-go-round in an amusement park, what is he but once more the eternal outcast, wanderer, unquiet one? He hasn't been taught a trade; he can't settle down as a care-taker; he isn't canny like the excellent Berkowitz. But he loves Julie. She weeps over his worthlessness and he strikes her out of misery, to flee from self-abasement, to preserve some sort of superiority and so some liking for himself. She is to have a child and something cosmic and elemental tugs at the bully's heart. Are love and fatherhood only for the canny ones, the treaders in the mill, the hewers of wood? This is the conflict that destroys him. He is, viewed in another fashion, Everyman, and the little play, which has its shoddy, sentimental patches, is a sort of gay and rough and pitiful divine comedy. Liliom did not ask to be born with those imperious instincts into a tight, legalized, moral world. Society demands so much of him and gives him nothing wherewith to fulfil those demands. The world process has not even given him brains enough to think himself beyond demands and restrictions. He struggles with his body and nerves. His mind is docile. He believes that he is a sinner, he doesn't doubt that there are police courts in heaven as there are on earth, that there are cleansing, purgatorial fires, and a last chance, maybe, to be good. But neither the fires of hell nor his belief in them have power to change the essential character with which the implacable universe brought him forth. His notion of an expiatory action is to steal a star from the sky for his little daughter. He is Liliom still, and the joke is on the order with which man has sought to snare the wild cosmos. The joke is on a man-made world and a man-made heaven, because both that world and that heaven have used force. The joke is not on Julie. Julie has used love. 'There are blows that don't hurt; oh, yes, there are blows that you don't feel.' Love does not feel the blows. Love does not demand nor coerce nor imprison. Paradise is in the heart of love. For the sake of that ending you forgive Molnar the shoddy, sentimental little patches, for the sake of that moment which is beautiful, which is indeed great" (Lewisohn, 1922 pp 68-69).


Liliom played by Joseph Schildkraut (1896-1964) wooing Louise played by Evelyn Chard, Garrick Theatre, New York, 1921

Time: 1900s. Place: Budapest, Hungary.

Text at http://www.gutenberg.org/ebooks/48749 http://www.archive.org/details/liliomlegendinse00molnuoft https://archive.org/details/liliomalegendin00molngoog https://archive.org/details/twentyfivemodern001705mbp https://archive.org/details/theatreguildanth00thea

Mrs Muskat, owner of an amusement park, has caught Julie flirting with one of her employees, the one responsible for the carousel, Liliom. She warns Julie never to come back. Julie denies having done anything wrong, Liliom being in the habit of taking many a girl by the waist and flattering them. She is defended by her friend, Marie. When Liliom hears of their argument, he is offended. "I suppose I am to ask your permission whenever I touch another girl," he comments sarcastically to his boss. "I permit no indecency in my carousel," she counters. But Liliom defies her. They quarrel until she dismisses him. Julie is dismayed at this turn of events. Intending to retrieve his clothes, Liliom asks Julie and Marie to wait for him. "Why are you waiting for him?" Marie asks her friend. "He said we were to wait for him," Julie answers simply. When Liliom returns, he specifies what he said. "I meant that one of you was to wait." Julie and Marie look at each other and it is Marie who leaves. The conversation between Liliom and Julie is interrupted by two policemen, one of whom warning her about Liliom's habit of taking advantage of women and absconding with their money. When Liliom asks her whether she is afraid about what the officer said, she answers: "I pay no attention to what he said." "Suppose you had some money and I took it from you?" Liliom further asks. "Then you could take it, that's all," she replies. A few weeks later, Liliom and Julie marry and live in a dilapidated hovel owned by Mrs Hollunder, who complains of this lazy and shiftless man, out of work, without prospects, and liable to take his wife's money for his own purposes. Julie defends him, though she admits to Marie he hit her once. "He's a bad one," comments Marie. "He's not really bad," replies Julie. Having to her cost noted Liliom's value at the carousel, Mrs Muskat asks him to return, specifying he must abandon his wife, since a married man would never be so popular with the women there. Liliom accepts the offer, but, on learning of his wife's pregnancy, he hopes for larger gains by other means. Indeed, he and a friend, Ficsur, plan to commit a robbery. Ficsur suggests that he should take a knife along. Julie suspects Liliom and Ficsur are up to no good. She is horrified on learning that a knife is missing from Mrs Hollunder's kitchen. Liliom and Ficsur await the arrival of a paymaster rumored to be carrying the considerable sum of 16,000 kronen. To pass the time, they play cards and Liliom loses his part of the haul. Aftre being accosted by the two would-be robbers, the paymaster deftly seizes Ficsur's arm, points a gun at Liliom, and laughs at them for attacking a man carrying no money. As policemen approach, Ficsur breaks loose from his hold as both attempt to escape. The paymaster aims at Liliom as the better target. Fearing prison, Liliom plunges the knife in his own breast and falls. On his death-bed, he admits to Julie he never gave her anything positive and requests her to tell their child he was not much good. After his death, two men in black identify themselves to him as heaven's policemen, commanding him to get up and follow them to a magistrate, who, after interrogating him, pronounces that he will burn for 16 years, at the end of which his future will depend on whether he can do at least one good deed after returning to earth for a single day. At the end of the 16-year period, Liliom approaches Julie and their daughter, Louise, as a beggar. He tries to speak to them, but they give him little chance to express himself. He also tries to do at least one good deed but is unable to. The two policemen remonstrate while taking him away, yet Julie continues to speak favorably of him to her daughter. "Someone may beat you and beat you and beat you and not hurt at all," she concludes.

“The guardsman”[edit]

Time: 1900s. Place: Budapest, Hungary.

Text at ?

An actor worries that his wife, Marie, also in the acting profession, no longer loves him. He speculates that she may one day love a soldier, so that he has made himself known to her disguised as a general of the Russian imperial guards and regularly sends her flowers. One day, he promises to visit her should she give him a signal at her window. She does, and he enters, her own husband disguised as a lover. In the midst of polite conversation, they agree to meet at the anteroom of the opera house during the performance of Puccini’s “Madame Butterfly”, where the guardsman confesses he loves her. To his joy, she specifies that she will never deceive her husband. Yet when he asks her whether she would allow him to come to her drawing room the next day, she accepts. The following day, the actor pretends to have hired a spy who saw her with a soldier at the opera. She denies it and proposes a divorce for suspecting her. He denies suspecting her. As they speak of a fellow actor, he presents himself suddenly before her in the guardsman’s uniform. She appears glad to see him and assures him he had been recognized from the first minute. The actor is unsure but is glad to act as if it were so.

Witold Gombrowicz[edit]

Witold Gombrowicz mixed fantasy and realism in the fictional kingdom of Burgundy. Photograph by Bohdan Paczowski

Also of note in this period is the Polish dramatist, Witold Gombrowicz (1904-1969), author of "Iwona, księżniczka Burgunda" (Ivona, princess of Burgundy, 1938).

Iribarne (1971) wrote that "The princess of Burgundy" "may be treated as a grotesque fairytale somewhat in the style of Büchner's 'Leonce und Lena' (1836), Jarry's 'Ubu the king' (1896) and, from a somewhat later date, Schwartz's stylized 'Kunstmarchen'...The setting is the world of the court, situated in some vague fairytale-like kingdom, with all its stultifying conventions, class prejudice and arrogance, moreover with its strictly defined hierarchy of power and status, its despotic king all the way down to the most destitute beggar, and this would explain, it seems to me, Gombrowicz's fascination with this milieu, the model of a society whose behavior is solely governed by form. But the world of form, as opposed to authentic existence, is disrupted when the prince, in defiance of a time-honored convention, introduces into the court the woman he has chosen as his fiancee, a commoner by the name of Ivona, the 'flower of the lowest social strata', whose strange debilitating condition thrusts the entire court into panic...In the end, the refusal of the court and by extension, of society to acknowledge the ugly truth about itself, its refusal to become identified with the inferior and vegetable-like Ivona, causes the unwelcome intruder to be murdered and 'normalcy' restored...When the members of the court begin to feel threatened by Ivona's presence and conspire to do away with her by causing her to choke on a bony pike, each reverts to the role prescribed by convention: the prince becomes more conscious of his 'princeliness' and sexuality; the king's dictatorial reign now begins to assume a sinister and paranoiac character; the queen regains her grace and composure as 'befits a lady of her position'" (pp 62-70).

"Ivona, princess of Burgundy"[edit]

Time: 1930s. Place: Fictional country of Burgundy.

Text at ?

Two among Prince Philip's friends encourage him to enjoy himself in amorous relations, one of whom blurting out enthusiastically: "Let us function functionally as a function of our jubilant animal youthfulness." Instead, the prince's eye is attracted by Ivona, an ugly woman with a silent disposition. To his friends' astonishment and dismay, he proposes marriage to her. She appears apathetic, no one able to make her even curtsy before the king and queen. The prince proposes to draw her out, but is unable to, not even in the form of a smile. "Do you believe Christ died for you on the cross?" he asks. "Yes," she answers contemptuously. At last, Philip notices Ivona staring at him, as he thinks, in an unbecomingly voluptuous manner. Exasperated, he threatens to cut her throat, but then specifies he was only joking. Innocent, a courtier, shows up with the surprising news that he, too, though in a humbler way, loves Ivona, who angrily tells him to go away. The chamberlain opines it is up to the king to discover her feelings. The king first hesitates, and then accepts, but the more he approaches her, the farther she backs away, making him quite angry. Philip decides on another tactic: he pretends to have slept with another woman and to repudiate her. Her sole response is to lift a stray hair from her rival's head and leave the room. Seeing everyone at their wit's end, the chamberlain has an idea: inviting Ivona to a brilliant banquet with many people about, so that, intimidated and flustered, she would perhaps choke herself to death on a fish-bone. The king and prince agree, but during the banquet, they change their minds, reminding her how dangerous it is to eat perch. Despite their warnings, she chokes herself to death on the fish-bone.