Tamás Koltai

The Tragedies of Man


Imre Madách: Az ember tragédiája (The Tragedy of Man) *
Paul Foster: Tom Paine; Kornél Hamvai: Körvadászat (The Battue) * Matiné

Despite Steiner's proclamation that tragedy is dead, playwrights do write plays and theatres do perform them. The great classic tragedies are still in the repertoire; leading directors seek in them valid formulations on the mystery of human existence independent of any given time.

The classic of the Hungarian theatre is Imre Madách's Az ember tragédiája (The Tragedy of Man). Best described as a dramatic poem, it has always been the subject of scholarly, ideological and political debate, as well as being constantly in the repertoire, except for a number of years during the communist dictatorship. Since its first performance in 1883 it has received many thousands of performances in Hungary, it has been translated into virtually all European languages and produced in several countries, despite the difficulties its thinking caused or the complexities of the staging. In August this year it was put on at the Edinburgh Festival Fringe, in Iain MacLeod's English translation, with a mixed cast of British and Hungarian actors and directed by John Carnegie.

Madách finished the final version of The Tragedy in 1860. After disappointments in both his private and public life, at the age of 37 and in financial difficulties, he withdrew to his country estate. He could not realistically expect to win literary recognition for his work, let alone to see it produced on the stage. A full year later, as a newly elected member of the Diet, he took the manuscript with him to Buda and sent it to János Arany, the great poet, who was well known for his Shakespeare translations (his translations of Hamlet and A Midsummer Night's Dream are still unrivalled). Arany first saw a poor Faust imitation in The Tragedy (as it is always referred to in Hungary). Later Arany revised his opinion and even offered Madách help with improvements in some lines he had thought were infelicitous, which affected about one tenth of a work that is approximately four thousand lines in length.

The disparaging comparison to Faust was to crop up again in German criticism in the 1930s and 40s. It stems from the fact that the first and last scenes of the play, which frame the story, are set in Heaven and the plot starts with an agreement made between God (The Lord) and Satan (Lucifer). In Madách's work, the subject of the agreement are two trees in Paradise—the Trees of Eternal Life and Knowledge—which Lucifer demands from the Lord as his due for his role in the Creation. Lucifer is presented here as a rebel against despotism, making him closer to Lucifer in Byron's Cain rather than to Goethe's Mephistopheles. Once in possession of the accursed and forbidden trees, and outside Paradise, Lucifer tries to gain control over Adam and Eve's souls and thereby destroy them. (The interpretation at this point has always been somewhat uncertain as to whether Lucifer intends to destroy Adam and Eve physically or to devise the annihilation of mankind.) Lucifer casts a spell on them in which, at their request, he leads them through the history of Mankind—with Adam appearing in the guise of historical personalities, such as a pharaoh in Egypt, Miltiades in Athens, Sergiolus in Rome, Tancred in Byzantium, Kepler in Prague, Danton in Paris, etc. As history progresses, Adam first enthusiastically embraces the ideas of each new age, only to become disappointed in them. By the time he reaches the present, Madách's age—which is summarized in the urban bustle of London, English capitalism in the second half of the 19th century—he is no more than a walk-on figure, a minor observer. Then comes the future—the uniformity of the Phalanstery offered by contemporary utopian socialists, a pre-Orwellian nightmare. It was this scene that caused the ban on the play between 1949 and 1954, the ideological grounding for which was being provided by one György Lukács. This is followed by a transcendental experience which overcomes gravity, a trip into space, and finally, the end of life on the Earth as the Sun cools and an encounter with the last degenerate human survivors. All these lead Adam, now awakened from his dream, to a decision to commit suicide, only to be frustrated by Nature's eternal trick: a new life has been conceived. Eve, his companion throughout the scenes in various guises, is with child. Adam submits to his family instinct. The Lord declares Himself victorious over Lucifer, yet He also gives Lucifer's sometimes usefully sceptical intellect a mandate alongside the family model of the threesome: they are to go together on the road assigned to them, with the motto "Man [...] have faith, and do your best!"

It is obvious that the idea and the dramatic conception are modern, even though the solution (or rather absolution) does not really follow from the logic of the plot and the historical pessimism that permeates the play. ("The ending Madách gave it is as if Shakespeare had at the last minute taken the sword from Hamlet's hand, in case princes coming after him learn the art of killing from him," a Hungarian poet said in the 60s.) The problems of The Tragedy's conception, however, concern dramatic theory and philosophy and have not much to do with how it has fared on the stage. Strangely enough, the first commentators did not even consider the possibility of staging the Tragedy and viewed it as a dramatic poem. Its first peformance, in the Budapest National Theatre under the direction of its then manager Ede Paulay, took place 23 years after it was written, long after the author's death. Thus commenced the theatrical history of The Tragedy, and a history of ideological explication and manipulation and successive changes in style.

The first performance was conceived in the spirit of the Meiningen school, then dominant in Europe. After the turn of the century, however, the abstract, symbolic, mystery play, expressionist elements were given priority. Directors in general go to either of the extremes of a spectacular costume play or an ascetic philosophical play—a duality that produces the greatest dilemma of the work in production. It has been performed on huge open-air stages and in tiny workshops; it was turned into a film, into a television play, a radio play and an opera. From the 70s onwards, the Christian-mythological interpretation of the framing scenes has been relegated to the background and the political content has been accentuated by the metacommunication made possible by the theatre. Lucifer has ceased to be an archetype of Evil; on the contrary, he is a friend, instructor and guide to a human couple vulnerable in the face of the omnipotence of the Lord; he is a dissident of sorts who urges citizens to think, be sovereign and rebel against a received world order which they have to accept unconditionally, in faith and with a compulsory devotion. Interestingly enough, this line of interpretation was initiated by a magnificent guest performance in Budapest by an Estonian company. It has proved a liberating influence, which has urged directors to ignore fossilized traditions and tackle the Tragedy freely in both the intellectual and the dramaturgical sense—much as Shakespeare's plays have for long been reinterpreted in keeping with the demands of every particular age.

With the 175th anniversary of Madách's birth due in January 1998, three Hungarian companies, one in and two outside Budapest, have recently put The Tragedy on their repertory. The National Theatre, on every previous occasion except for once before the war had done this in their principal theatre of the time, this time they used the Várszínház, their studio theatre. Thus all three productions are in relatively small theatres. This indicates a need for intimacy and a concentration of the intellectual content rather than a spectacle. It also indicates a certain skepticism on the part of the management as regards The Tragedy's popularity with audiences; they seem to fear that audiences are bored by what is "required reading". This also reflects how times have changed—from the mid-50s onwards the Tragedy was for a long time a sure box-office hit.

The Budapest National Theatre production is beautiful and conventional. Some call it bad, I'd be more inclined to say it lacks character. The historical scenes are given as a shadow play behind a tulle curtain hanging in an arch; the plot trudges on in respectable boredom. Talented young actors and actresses appear in the crowd scenes, declining in pairs gracefully (as is customary) in the danse macabre of the London scene or rattling their tin bowls in the Phalanstery scene. Since there is no clear purpose, intellectual vistas remain unopened. Adam recites his lines as an enthusiastic neophyte amateur, Eve in her various guises offers minutely realistic depictions which have little to do with Adam. That noted veteran, Dezsõ Garas plays his customary theatrical self as Lucifer, a frustrated, destructive grudge who looks on sneering since he knows the outcome from the start, and gives signals to the other performers as if he were the director in an amateur production. At the very end when, on a divine injunction Adam and Eve repeat the enthusiastic words they had uttered in the Paradise scene at the beginning of the play as though they had learnt nothing, he lifts his eyes upwards, shaking his head in disapproval: not quite right, colleagues. And this is the most original moment in István Iglódi's direction.

The director of the Debrecen production, György Lengyel, was still at secondary school when he first directed The Tragedy in 1954 with his schoolmates as actors in a production that won them considerable acclaim. He clings to The Tragedy's interpretation as a mystery play. Mysteries have tended to be divested of their transcendental content. Lengyel builds up his production from elements of the ritual theatre. The actors are clothed in uniform, neutral robes, with various complementary elements, primarily masks, serving to indicate the successive scenes, and what they perform is a mystery of existence juxtaposing man's "tiny life span", the conflict of the individual, in the dialectic of eternal annihilation and renewal, in eternal movement and eternal rotation. The Angelic Host and the Spirits praising the Lord are but masked idols with human qualities, and Adam and Eve too, their historical consciousness awakened, eventually stand in humankind's endless line of masks—which is also a dance of death. All through the actors criss-cross the auditorium, while some of the audience is seated amid the sets widened towards the rows of seats, on a "historical stand", in a Lebensraum shared with the actors.

Rather than unequal rivals in the myth of creation, Adam and Lucifer are the thesis and antithesis in a dialectic of ideas; Eve, instead of the eternally changing sexual servant, is a woman fired by a single passion, with an autonomous personality and many a hidden face. Lucifer is refined, a university lecturer who gives his dispassionate addresses; he has not much to do with the Creator and is not really bothered when, in the end, he is made part of the system. Adam does not seem to have acquired manners in Paradise, he could have been raised in the streets or in a reformatory. He is of solid build and has a pure, questing mind, strength and faith; one believes he longs for knowledge and is born to struggle.

The Miskolc production is the one which goes farthest in reinterpreting Madách and theirs is the most exciting too. Director András Schlanger does not concern himself with any (pseudo) reverence due to the classics. He takes the play out of the museum showcase and gives us Madách our contemporary. This version is about what "the struggle in itself", as Madách puts it, entails today. Adam lives in a prefabricated block of flats, with a bookshelf, a sofa, a kettle and a coffee cup around him—"these are mine", he could no doubt rightfully say, "outside Paradise" where he has to face everyday life. The Adam of the Miskolc production lives in the present. If he goes out, he sees "wild capitalism" in the street, with the bustle of beggars, money changers and vendors—Madách's present time in the London scene. The performance then starts in "London", with a closing-down sale of ideas and values. Body and spirit are for sale, entertainers at the fair parrot the romantic rhymed epitaphs of the original context; the Bible is turned into opera. The hosannas for the Lord in the opening scene are a put-on, the Lord with his cotton beard bellows out his report on the conclusion of Creation, and timid little angels place their hands on their ears when the devil as bogeyman growls. The scene in Paradise is a cheap puppet-show: Madách too refers here to the commercialization of Christian ideas. Lucifer steps from behind his own puppet figure and follows an intellectually fatigued Adam to home and puts him to sleep—only to wake him up to his fate.

The dream scenes, the anxieties of an intellectual, become really engaging from the medieval Prague scene onwards. This is only predictable for a modern Adam who in the earlier historical heroic roles merely recites his lessons as though taking part in some intensive course, and the director facilitates this by adding a few stylized motifs. However, Kepler's problem is already a personal and modern one—the plight of a scientist kept at bay by the powers that be and by financial exigency. The Danton of the French Revolution is a disillusioned revolutionary toing and froing with black sarcasm between faith and cynicism—surrounded by flags with the holes cut out of their centre, a reference to the 1956 Hungarian Revolution. The sudden break in the London scene, which is started for a second time now in its proper chronological place, is a revelation—Adam wakes up to the sound of the kettle and rushes out, quite obviously with suicidal intention, into the same reality which had appeared in his nightmare, but not before reciting his soliloquy on free will that defies predestination. He then jumps into the gaping abyss. The next scene is set on the boundary between existence and non-existence in a surgical theatre rather than in Space. Adam is having visions in his coma and elects to die. The reply to his defiance—the Spirit of the Earth summoning him back—is heard in the voice of the doctor resuscitating him. The scenes in the Phalanstery and Space are dropped; one is not yet, the other is no longer topical.

Schlanger's interpretative attempt is justified in that he confronts us with the everyday existence of a rational man broken loose from the transcendental. The justification, however, for Adam's statement in the bustle of the present-day "London" scene to the effect that he is still alone in the world is questionable. But if we discard doctrinaire thinking and accept John Donne when he says that each man stands for mankind, then the suicide of an individual is the suicide of mankind on a small scale. The significance and novelty of the Miskolc production of the Tragedy lie precisely in the direct, personal touch offered to the contemporary viewer by an impetuous, raincoated Adam and a clever Lucifer cynically exaggerating his disillusioned observations.

The Miskolc production of The Tragedy has not received the acclaim due to its significance. Its director bitterly remarked that had it been in the Budapest Katona József Theatre or in the Kaposvár theatre the production would now be the talk of the theatre world. There is something in this—both the audiences and the profession tend to pay greater attention to theatres where the plays, whether classical or modern, are always confronted with present reality with a provocative, even "subversive" purpose.

And this is exactly what happened again to the Kaposvár production of Tom Paine. Paul Foster's play was originally a playful persiflage, with the figure of the 18th-century English thinker and revolutionary, a key figure in the birth of the United States, placed in the centre of an ironic group theatre, in order to confront the lofty ideals of the Enlightenment with everyday reality, primarily, of course, that of the 60s, the years of plexiglass and plastic, Coca Cola cans and Andy Warhol's pop art. The director, János Mohácsi, has naturally brought forward the sarcastic critique to our day. Though a good part of the original text fell victim to this far from tender shift, a series of occasionally brilliant improvisations are offered instead, and this is not far from the author's intentions. Nothing is naturalistic in the tiny studio theatre. Probably the funniest scene is the great crossing on a boat suspended like a swing on which the actors are packed on two decks—one for the aristocrats, one for the lower classes—only to show the absurdity of history with various verbal and visual jokes. While we laugh at the protagonist bumbling around, we never for a moment forget that what we see is, in a sense, a tragedy—about the destruction of the redeeming ideas of the past.

The recent past, however, is still with us and we have our reckoning to do with it. The Kaposvár company also produced a play about the 1956 Revolution. A competition was earlier held on the 40th anniversary of the uprising, to which all major contemporary Hungarian playwrights had been invited. It was a risky undertaking, for many of us still have vivid memories of the ceremonial protocol of incidental dramas. Such fears proved to be unfounded. The winner of the shared first prize, Körvadászat (The Battue) by 28-year-old Kornél Hamvai, who already has a successful first novel behind him, is a bizarre allegory on how in the 50s Communist Party apparatchiks systematically decimated game—as well as one another. If only because of his age, Hamvai rightfully feels himself relieved of the obligations of either sober documentation or emotional anniversary solemnity. Instead he surveys the fathers' acts in the past fifty years with the shocked incredulity that those producing absurdity with their lives deserve.

The idyll of the surface male bonding of the communist county leadership is clouded over in the play by the political trials of the late 40s. The apparatchiks who till then had enjoyed their power at peaceful battues start, at the instructions of the state security chief, shooting at one another. Telescoping the showcase trials of the Rajk type—the systematic decimation of cadres started with the conviction and execution of Interior Minister László Rajk—into the great autumn shoots is not without some philosophical and historical piquancy. Yet this is sarcasm rather than cynicism. At the climax of the play, when all the victims of this unending shoot—hare, deer, boar, as well as those who have fallen in political trials or without any trial—are laid out on a common bier, he commemorates the most successful popular rite, an attempt at atonement, in the past forty years—the Great Hungarian Reburial. (One of the events leading to the 1956 Revolution was the ceremonial reburial of the executed Rajk two weeks before its outbreak. The executed Prime Minister of the Revolution, Imre Nagy, was reburied in 1989. The earthly remains of Regent Miklós Horthy were brought home and reburied with semi-official pomp; as were those of the last Prince Primate, Cardinal Mindszenty—and this list is by no means complete.)

The basic situation is allegorical, on which are built a number of not easily compatible episodes involving meticulous realism, stand-up comedy and the theatre of the absurd. In their content they are all equally emphatic—one sketch has wives and lovers flirting around within the political clan according to the dominant wind and in the final analysis they counterbalance one another. For its thought and passion, density of metaphor and theatricality, The Battue is not just a promising first play by a youthful writer; it is a mature work.

László Babarczy is sober, ironic and rational enough to direct the piece with substantial historical and theatrical experience. The key to his production lies in the proportionate doses of objective judgment and ironic distancing, at certain moments the mixture of the two, which results in "painful semi-close-ups", at least to the eyewitnesses of the original version of events. The designer has put a black astrological chart, imitative of numerological systems, over the stage, as though the story is taking place under the aegis of an unpredictable occultism. There is something to it too, for the ideological shoot had a degree of irrationality in it, indicated somewhat maliciously by the events being started by a not quite unambiguous reading by a palmist. All these tragic-grotesque episodes are crowned by the bizarre allegory of the great day of the burial when the catch is laid out for public view to the sounds of solemn funeral music.

It so happened that when I saw the play schoolchildren were present too. They laughed at the scene—today's teenagers find it difficult to take the blood sports of the past fifty years seriously.

A special ritualistic evocation of the past is to be seen in the avant-garde production played in the cellar of an old house in central Budapest before an audience of ten to fifteen at a time, no admittance fee charged. The performers of Matiné are a couple, Miklós B. Székely and Lili Monori, who made their name in a number of Hungarian films and alternative theatrical productions, and their 15-year-old daughter and a duck. The cellar is a labyrinth of adjacent corridors, brick walls, tubes, wires and bright lights hung on hooks. The audience is received with ear-splitting music, the marching song of the World Federation of Working Youth, first in Hungarian, then in Russian and German. The actors wear the communist youth uniform of white shirt, blue skirt or shorts and red tie, and fly the duck, also in a red tie, as some symbolic "pigeon of peace". We see unsmiling, haggard and apathetic adults whose movements are compulsive, awkward, walking with an indifferent daughter and a duck in a basket. The duck flaps its wings, toddles on stunted feet, then flops down, its head is pressed into a bowl with feed and water in it.

Lili Monori's mother was in fact run over by a train when she tried to shoo a duck off the rails. The accident is repeated here with a model train and a photograph. The photo is buried in a matchbox, then the mother's figure is ritualistically re-created from pieces of clothing and a letter written to her daughter. Another ritualistic act is the eating of a grilled chicken clad in the communist youth uniform. A short version of the text of Samuel Beckett's Endgame lifts the social end-situation into the transcendental sphere—the barren, hopeless situation of "the last couple" suddenly becomes familiar, personal, strangely quasi-realistic. At the end the three of them turn their bodies, their physical strength to labour, ploughing the land while the marching song blares on.

As the audience emerges from the cellar into the street, they are met by disco music blasting from the upper floor. The contrast between tragedy and the super- ficialities of existence appears too keen.


Tamás Koltai,

Editor of Színház, a theatre monthly, is The Hungarian Quarterly's regular theatre reviewer.


SOURCE: Koltai, Tamás. “The Tragedies of Man,” The Hungarian Quarterly, VOLUME XXXVIII * No. 147 * Autumn 1997.


Heroism and Failure” by Tamás Koltai

Tragedies and Comedies” by Tamás Koltai

Imre Madách’s “The Tragedy of Man” by István Sőtér

Imre Madách kaj La Tragedio de l’ Homo” de István Sőtér

The Tragedy of Man by Imre Madách, translated by George Szirtes
Scene 13

The Tragedy of Man: Essays About the Ideas and the Directing of the Drama:
Full Text of the Drama

La Tragedio de L’ Homo kaj Imre Madách” de Kálmán Kalocsay

La Tragedio de L’Homo (Kritiko) de Sándor Szathmári

Al horizonto de la historio de la homaro — pri “La Tragedio de L’ Homo”
de SHI Chengtai

La Tragedio de l' Homo de Imre Madách tradukita de K. Kalocsay (Librokonigo)

La Tragedio de l’ Homo: Kovrilo
de Imre Madách, tradukis Kálmán Kalocsay, bildo de Mihály Zichy (1924)

Kompara analizo de tri tradukoj el La Tragedio de l’ Homo de Márton Fejes

Adamo kun Madách de Oszkár Gellért

La tragedio de l’ homo—la eterna lukto” de Vilho Setälä

Futurology, Science Fiction, Utopia, and Alienation
in the Work of Imre Madách, György Lukács, and Other Hungarian Writers:
Select Bibliography

Johannes Linnankoski (Pseudonym of Johannes Vihtori Peltonen, 1869-1913):
Literature in English & Esperanto

From Eden to Cain: Unorthodox Interpretations & Literary Transformations:
Selected Bibliography

De Edeno al Kaino:
Malkutimaj Interpretoj & Literaturaj Pritraktoj en Esperanto:
Bibliografio

Sándor Szathmári (1897-1974): Bibliografio & Retgvidilo / Bibliography & Web Guide

Pessimism as Philosophy: A Jaundiced Selected Annotated Bibliography

Science Fiction & Utopia Research Resources: A Selective Work in Progress

Sciencfikcio & Utopia Literaturo en Esperanto /
Science Fiction & Utopian Literature in Esperanto:
Gvidilo / A Guide

Alireteje / Offsite:

Imre Madách - Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia

The Tragedy of Man - Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia

The Tragedy of Man by Imre Madách
translated by George Szirtes

Imre Madách @ Ĝirafo


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