Ferenc Molnár’s literary career bloomed at a time when Hungary was experiencing a social and cultural renascence after having achieved a relative independence within the Dual Monarchy. As Budapest became a lively, industrialized metropolis where the arts began to flourish, Molnár emerged both as a lionized dramatic spokesperson of the new class and a leading figure in the international theater world.
Molnár had no significant links with any fashionable literary movements of his time, but he used the tenets of particular trends when and if they suited his purpose. In his graceful, whimsical, sophisticated drawing-room comedies, he provided a felicitous synthesis of naturalism and fantasy, realism and romanticism, cynicism and sentimentality, the profane and the sublime. He delivered his plots with accurate dramatic timing, using witty, sparkling, spicy dialogues. He wrote elegant satiric dramas on manners, human frailties, and illusions; he portrayed suave, lovelorn gentlemen and perfumed, cunning women, or thugs and servants, even princes and princesses, all engaged in the battle of the sexes. Molnár was an undisputed expert of stagecraft. The inextricable fusion of his life with the theater gave him a theatrical versatility along with a vast knowledge of the tricks of the stage. The ease and vigor of his innovative talent, the ability to construct plays faultlessly, the discipline and sense of dramatic proportion, make Molnár one of the finest theatrical craftsmen of his era. He has, however, been criticized as being too superficial and glib in his treatments, tending to rely on wit and charm rather than attempting to delve into the substance of the themes he addressed.
Molnár’s turbulent life was one of hard and incessant work. He wanted primarily to be an entertainer, not a preacher or propagandist, and he succeeded. By his special skill, he provided the public with escape, festivity, and an illusory world in which conflicts were fun and amenable to solution. A true artist, he contributed prodigiously to the literary heritage of the world by spreading truth and joy among his public.
The first comedy to attract notice to him was The Devil, which after its production in Hungary was translated into all major languages. It had a long, spectacular run in the United States. At one time in New York, four companies were playing it simultaneously. The story concerns the pretty young wife of an elderly, jealous banker and an artist, her old beau, whom the husband hires to paint her portrait. After their initial innocent encounter the devil appears, eager to make the two young people happy by rekindling their old flame. They virtuously resist the temptation, but in the end, because of the Devil’s clever tricks and manipulations, the wife leaves her husband to join the painter while the Devil smiles diabolically. The importance of this play is in its theme, rather than its plot. In The Devil, Molnár launched his theories about women and jealousy, topics he would expand in later works. His female characters seem to be distorted versions of George Bernard Shaw’s Life Force—cunning, unfathomable, fickle, and illogical. Men, forever intrigued, baffled, and ultimately defeated, are at their mercy. Introduction of a negative supernatural element is also related to Molnár’s theme of the relativity of truth as applied to women, but it goes beyond that. As a protagonist of duplicity, temptation, and malignancy, the Devil becomes a symbolic Jungian shadow, or Freudian Id. The play can thus be interpreted as an allegorical study of the evil instincts inherent in humankind. The characterization is subtle and colorful, the dialogue inventive and sparkling—showing some influence from Oscar Wilde, especially in the Devil’s monologues, which are rich with epigrams and paradoxes.
From powdered dandies and scheming ladies, Molnár turned to thugs and simple servants in his next play, Liliom, doubtless his most famous drama. Staged and filmed worldwide, both the play and its musical version, Carousel (1945), are classics. Liliom, a tough barker at an amusement park, marries Julie, a naïve servant. Failing in his efforts to steal and kill for money to provide for his pregnant wife, he commits suicide. At a celestial court, he learns that after purging himself for sixteen years, he could gain salvation by one good deed. Having served his probation, Liliom returns to earth, but his daughter refuses his gift: a star he stole on the way. In exasperation, he strikes the young girl. As a result, the incorrigible sinner is escorted back to Hell as unredeemable.
This touching allegory examines the questions of redemption while portraying human suffering in Budapest’s contemporary underworld. It also provides a thorough analysis of the relation of the hero to his family, to society, and to his playwright; the last, by extension, may also reflect the relationship of human beings to God. Most people view Liliom as a tender, romantic love story, others as a fable of humankind’s dual nature. Some emphasize the sociological message: the destruction of a downtrodden,...
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