Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1015
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 of expectation to move the action forward demonstrates Molnár’s mastery of dramatic technique.
The play dramatizes twin themes: the inability of accepted Judeo-Christian standards of morality to accord with human nature and the fact that the ruling classes use those standards to control—to police—the masses of working men and women. This theme is initially expressed in the contrast between the deep and true love of Liliom and Julie and the relationship between Wolf and Marie. Julie somehow can withstand Liliom’s verbal and physical abuse, as well as the sixteen years of widowhood and poverty his criminal lack of judgment and impulsive suicide force on her and his daughter. In contrast, the love that Wolf and Marie share is portrayed as emotionally shallow. They begin by holding hands and sitting silently on park benches together and end by formally calling each other “Mr. Beifeld” and “Mrs. Beifeld” to keep from quarreling so they can “get along with society folk.” By conforming to the moral guidelines laid down by society, Wolf and Marie are socially and economically successful, but they cannot experience life or love fully, as Liliom and Julie do. This double theme is extended through the pervasive presence of the police—in both earthly and heavenly forms—who observe and regulate the morality of the actions and activities of the characters of the play from beginning to end.
Within the framework provided by the opposition of Liliom and Julie’s relationship to Wolf and Marie’s, and by the parallel of earthly and heavenly police, the play moves ahead swiftly through a series of increasingly severe reversals. The unexpected marriage of Liliom and Julie solves the problems created by their being in love, but that solution creates a new problem: It leaves them both unemployed. Mrs. Muskat’s offer to rehire Liliom convinces him to abandon Julie for his old life until Julie’s news that she is pregnant catalyzes both Liliom’s rejection of Mrs. Muskat’s offer and his ill-fated try at thievery, which in turn leads to suicide and then to a heavenly court that duplicates the order of the world below. In contrast to expressionist drama, the fusion of realism and the fantastic that dominates the play from this point forward does not externalize interior, psychological, or emotional states. Rather, it is a metaphysical extension of the real world, a kind of transcendent realism, presenting the afterlife in a simple, matter-of-fact manner rather than by means of distortion or exaggeration. The rules, the moral guidelines, and the power to punish those who flout them are symbolized here, as in life, by the courts and the police.
Despite Liliom’s undeniable effectiveness in the theater and the brilliance of its dramatic technique and the craftsmanship of its design, the play’s greatest achievement is the character of Liliom himself. Unpredictable, brash, rough, funny, proud, tender, stubborn, violent, unhappy—he transcends the ordinary limits of theatrical characters. His personality is so complex and contradictory, so true to the inconsistency of judgment and impulse that mark all human beings and their actions, that, like Hamlet and King Lear, he cannot be reduced to a symbol. The difference between William Shakespeare’s great theatrical characters and Molnár’s, however, is that Hamlet and King Lear can live outside the plays that bear their names, while Liliom cannot. Hamlet and Lear simply exist, contradictions and all, without enduring any authorial attempt at shaping our opinion of them, whereas Molnár tries to justify Liliom’s moral ambivalence and to “damn the police,” thereby confining his greatest character to the limits of the argument he makes in his play.
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