Ion Luca Caragiale Essay - Critical Essays


After a number of years spent publishing satiric pieces for various magazines, Ion Luca Caragiale asserted himself as an important playwright. He brought growth and innovation to the Romanian stage in the creation of characters, the development of themes, and the use of stylistic devices and sophisticated dramatic techniques. For example, Zia in A Stormy Night represents the end of a long line of evolution in the presentation of female characters in Romanian drama. Zia is also the culmination of a long line of mediocrities. Whereas in earlier Romanian plays the implications of the plays were mostly personal, the authors satirizing a bad marriage or a corrupt petty official, in Caragiale the author had become a surgeon whose work dissected society’s mores: Adultery, graft, blackmail, falsified elections, violence, paternalism, and many other evils were examined.

By 1880, when Caragiale’s plays were first performed, literary satire had already had a long tradition. In fables, vaudeville, and comic songs, playwrights amused audiences, poking fun at the 1848 bourgeoisie frightened by the threat of social unrest. The 1860’s saw a strong reaction against the 1840’s, especially among the more conservative audience that filled Bucharest’s summer gardens. Parliamentary debates offered endless opportunities for a writer such as Caragiale to collect pearls of malapropism and ignorance: “Gentlemen, I find myself like the sea traveller, in an oasis” or “We shall dissect this government with the chemist’s scalpel” did not escape him. Yet whereas before Caragiale, the humorous review and the amusing couplet had reflected social tendencies, Caragiale created a self-contained world of comic social types. Like Molière, he borrowed from a tradition in order to improve it.

Even allowing for potential discoveries of some new works—during the past ten years, for example, many articles by Caragiale have been discovered in old newspapers—the quantity of Caragiale’s drama is relatively limited. His small body of work is distinguished by its thematic and formal unity; all his characters, for example, are closely related. Thus, Titircǎ (A Stormy Night) and Leonida (Mr. Leonida and the Reactionaries) share an obsessive passion for their favorite newspaper and become mesmerized by the malapropisms, misnomers, mixed metaphors, and generally sloppy jargon that they find in its pages. The same style will be picked up by the characters in The Lost Letter, especially when ordinary citizens must communicate with their party leaders and other officials. Even the world of Carnival Scenes, a world of pimps, kept women, hairdressers, and small-time employees, is not immune to jargon.

Two major tendencies can be found in Caragiale’s plays: On one hand, his plays exhibit an almost classical propensity toward the unities of time, place, and action. All the misunderstandings in Carnival Scenes, for example, are created and solved during a single night. Events converge on the night preceding elections in The Lost Letter. In Nǎpasta, Dumitru’s murder, Ion’s mistrial, and Anca’s marriage to the man whom she suspects of being the real killer all occur on a single day. Furthermore, each play features a relatively small number of characters. On the other hand, however, Caragiale’s tendency toward classical concentration is opposed by the attention he pays to the process of individuation; the static vision stands against the historical vision. Hence, stage directions partake in characterization: In A Stormy Night the warden’s sword is decorated by ribbons; in Carnival Scenes, a ballroom is ready for a lower-class costume party. Visible, well in evidence, is the men’s room, in and out of which many events take place.

A Stormy Night

In his first play, A Stormy Night, Caragiale focused on the liberal bourgeoisie of the 1860’s. The central character, Dumitrache Titircǎ, is a carpenter, a man of property. A shrewd merchant, Titircǎ does not express his thoughts in public: “Well, as far as I can say, a businessman cannot wash his linen in public like a low life,” he declares. As far as he is concerned, if one is not a man of property, one is nothing, only a “paper pusher.” Only the masters of journalese impress him. He never ceases to be fascinated by the power of a jargon he cannot comprehend. One of the sources of the play’s conflict, Titircǎ’s jealousy, springs from his pride of ownership. He is vulgar and massive, but he acts with a certain gentleness toward his wife. Moreover, he never spells out his doubts to her. Even in his most doubting moments when he suspects that “his pride is gone,” he protects Veta from the brutality of words. He extends the same type of courtesy to his wife’s sister, Zia, the cause of the play’s major misunderstandings.

Although Titircǎ has reached a certain position in society, he still has far to go. Right behind him, Chiriac, his handyman, follows closely: He shares Titircǎ’s reverence for the newspaper The Past and the Future, saves money for his own business, makes love to Titircǎ’s wife, and is a sergeant in the national guard in which Titircǎ is a captain. Another character is Ricǎ Venturiano, a caricature of the aspiring poet: tall hat and...

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