Known primarily as a playwright outside his native Hungary, Ferenc Molnár was the most prolific and versatile Hungarian writer of the first half of the twentieth century. Educated in Budapest and Geneva, Molnár early deserted the study of law for journalism and, in a short time, was publishing novels, essays, poetry, and short stories. His second play, Az ördög (pr., pb. 1907; The Devil, 1908), was a great success, launching him on a theatrical and dramatic career that lasted almost forty years and brought him international recognition as a master of ingenious light comedy. His penchant for juxtaposing realistic, often urban and lower-class, characters and situations with the fantastic placed him at the cutting edge of avant-garde theater in the 1920’s and 1930’s, and his admirers saw in Molnár a genuine, if quixotic, champion of the common person. Although he continued to write until his death in 1952, his reputation suffered a rapid decline in the 1940’s, from which it has not recovered. Critics generally agree that most of Molnár’s plays exhibit a flair for comic dialogue and dazzling theatrical technique but lack substance, all too often substituting cleverness and the shock of the unexpected for serious engagement with social and moral issues.
A product of the earliest period of Molnár’s career, Liliom has long been regarded as his finest work. Not only does it showcase his gift for developing comic situations, it also makes startlingly effective use of his characteristic and innovative blend of realism and fantasy. In these respects, it strongly resembles many of his less well regarded dramas. Although the writing here may be a bit finer, Molnár is often funnier and wittier elsewhere. What sets Liliom apart is a seriousness of purpose that is lacking in almost all of his other dramas. It is not merely an exercise in cleverness or an excuse for light entertainment but a sincere attempt to grapple with difficult moral and ethical questions without settling for an easy answer—a point that is emphasized by its ambiguous ending. Nowhere else in his oeuvre is Molnár so nearly serious, so seriously in earnest, as he is in Liliom.
Subtitled A Legend in Seven Scenes, the play proceeds according to the intuitive logic of an Eastern European folktale. By turns whimsical and violent, realistic and fanciful, dramatic and sentimental, its brilliant use of sudden and increasingly shocking reversals...
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