Imre Madách Essay - Critical Essays


Imre Madách’s dramatic works testify to his keen interest in history and in social and political problems, to his acquaintance with traditional and contemporary trends in Western philosophy, to his concern with religious questions, and to his familiarity with world literature and with recent scientific discoveries and theories. His work is deeply personal and at the same time broadly universal. It reflects the culture of a country that had always considered itself part of the Western tradition while fiercely fighting any attempt from the outside to dominate or change its unique national character. The experience of a linguistically isolated people who over the centuries had continued to defend their political and cultural independence against overwhelming odds finds its philosophical expression in the ending of The Tragedy of Man: After a deeply pessimistic interpretation of world history, humankind is nevertheless encouraged to hope, to have faith, and to continue its struggle.

Madách’s first dramatic ventures re-create episodes from the history of Hungary, as in Mária királyn (Queen Mary) or Csák végnapjai (Csák’s last days); try to give a modern interpretation to an ancient myth, as in Férfi és n (man and woman), his Heracles drama; or castigate the injustices and shortcomings he had observed in contemporary society, as in Csak tréfa (only a joke). The plays demonstrate the immaturity of a twenty-year-old writer with no stage experience, fascinated by the European Romantic movement. Yet they also give evidence of his ability to bring history to life in dramatic scenes and to focus on important human concerns. The relationship between the sexes is one of his prominent themes.

A civilizátor

A civilizátor is the first of Madách’s plays in which form and content blend well. Aristophanic satire is cleverly applied to Hungarian conditions. Stroom, the Hegel-spouting “civilizer,” trying to bring the blessings of Germanic culture and of Austrian-style bureaucracy to Uncle István, the small landowner who represents the Hungarian people, is ultimately defeated. His army of cockroaches is no match for the fury of István and his farmhands, symbolizing the various ethnic minorities in Hungary who had initially succumbed to Austrian attemps at dividing the nation. Madách’s talent for satire and irony, already apparent in some of his poetry, is given an appropriate dramatic vehicle in this play. Thus, A civilizátor is also important in view of the characterization of Lucifer in The Tragedy of Man.

The Tragedy of Man

In his most ambitious literary project, The Tragedy of Man, Madách attempted to present in fifteen dramatic scenes an overview of the history of humankind from the creation to the final days of the human race. Madách’s iambic pentameter flows fairly easily, in part as a result of stylistic and metric corrections by Arany, and the drama’s structure is clear and logical.

The exposition of the play appears to have been inspired by the biblical Book of Job and by the “Prologue in Heaven” of Goethe’s Faust: The Lord has completed the noble task of creation and now accepts the praise of his angels. Only Lucifer refuses to join in. Instead, he mocks the Creator who made humankind as an act of self-admiration. Lucifer defiantly demands his share of the world that he helped create through his negativity. The two trees in Eden, scornfully granted him, will become his foothold in the effort to bring down the divine order just established. By persuading Adam and Eve to eat from the Tree of Knowledge, he begins to realize his plan. The first human beings lose their happy state of oneness with God. Outside Paradise, they will build their own world. In order to demonstrate his power, Lucifer conjures up the Earth Spirit but proves incapable of controlling the positive forces of nature that the spirit symbolizes. When Adam wants to know the future of the race whose founder he is to be, Lucifer shows him, in ten dream visions, selected phases from the history of humankind. Each one is designed to emphasize that all human progress is only an illusion, that all great ideals are bound to fail. In this way, Lucifer hopes to lead Adam into despair and to a renunciation of God.

Madách’s ingenious idea to make Adam, the Faustian seeker for knowledge, the protagonist in each of the historic scenes gives the dramatic poem a unity and consistency lacking in another work written at almost exactly the same time and closely paralleling the aims of Madách’s play: La Légende des siècles (1859-1883; The Legend of the Centuries, 1894), Victor Hugo’s five-volume poème d’humanité. In each scene, Adam encounters Eve, Woman Eternal, in a different disguise, either inspiring him to reach for new ideals or attempting to pull him down into the dust. During his journey through history, he is accompanied by Lucifer, whose sarcastic comments provide a striking contrast to Adam’s naïve idealism. Despite his devastating experiences, Adam continues to believe in a better future, spurred on by hope which is, quite in agreement with Arthur Schopenhauer’s philosophy, a gift of the Devil.

The historical periods depicted are arranged in a dialectic pattern that appears to echo Georg Wilhelm Friedrich Hegel’s view of the development of humanity. Adam as Pharaoh represents despotic one-man rule. Through the encounter with Eve, he is persuaded to set his slaves free, and he moves into an era in which common interest supersedes the will of the individual. As Miltiades in Athens, however, he falls victim to the excesses of a degenerating democracy. Madách’s political experiences and his encounters with corruption and demagoguery are thus translated into a critical look at ancient Greece. In decadent Rome, Adam then tries to enjoy a life of leisure and luxury at the side of Eve, a beautiful courtesan. He remains dissatisfied until an encounter with Saint Peter inspires him to pursue a new ideal. He hopes for a better future in a world where all people see their noblest task in loving and serving...

(The entire section is 2544 words.)