Tamás Koltai

Heroism and Failure

Imre Madách: Az ember tragédiája (The Tragedy of Man) • Mór Jókai: A koýszívuý ember fiai (The Baron's Sons) • Jenoý Huszka: Mária foýhadnagy (Lieutenant Maria) • Mihály Csokonai Vitéz: Özvegy Karnyóné (The Widow Karnyó) • Zsigmond Móricz: Úri muri (Gentry Fun) • Péter Kárpáti: Díszeloýadás (Honorary Performance) • Árpád Schilling: Kicsi avagy mi van, ha a tiszavirágnak rossz napja van? (Shorty; or, What If a May Fly Has a Bad Day?)

In books on dramaturgy, tragedy is defined as a form of drama which ends with the fall of the hero. In everyday usage, heroism is equated with a desperate drive, and as long as that exists, so does failure; in this sense we cannot accept George Steiner's theory on the death of classical tragedy without some reservations. In an everyday sense we can continue to talk about failures and tragedies in the modern age, which—at least in Hungarian dramatic literature—have frequently drawn their material from classical traditions.

In The Hungarian Quarterly 147 I discussed in some depth Imre Madách's classic, The Tragedy of Man (1860), while touching on three productions of the play mounted in commemoration of the 175th anniversary of the author's birth. This verse play tells the greatest "story" of mankind so far, the creation myth, by narrating the fantasy journey of the first couple, Adam and Eve, with stops at some notable historical junctions: at the stages where man's ideas came to fruition. Somewhat in the way of a cynical university professor, the couple's guide, Lucifer, hopes to be able to demonstrate, by the end of the journey, the futility of historical and individual development. Unlike earlier productions which had interpreted it as either a passion play or a historical revue, recent productions have increasingly omitted the transcendent elements, prefering to treat the play as a drama of the crisis of modern intellectuals.

This is true too of the play's latest production by the Géza Gárdonyi Theatre of Eger. In Sándor Beke's direction, a modern-day Adam travels back to Paradise after pondering on the meaning of life. This is undoubtedly a confirmation of the Faustian motif. (In the second half of the 19th century, when the play was written and had its first production, it was fashionable to regard The Tragedy of Man as a Faust paraphrase.) It is a logical opening: at one point or another we have to ask ourselves questions about the purpose and meaning of life; yet, in order to be able to do that, we already need to possess a certain amount of life experience. As a consequence, the Tragedy soon abandons the line of a drama on rivalry, with a bid to challenge the cosmic balance of power (God versus Lucifer); it thus also departs from the direction followed in analogous works by Goethe, Byron and Krasinski. The interpretation here moves closer to lyrical works that pose questions of existential philosophy along the lines of Peer Gynt. But here a new problem lies in store for us. How should the hero play his naive and innocent younger self? In the Eger version, the main characters duplicate: a second young couple that appear on stage during the performance.

This is not entirely new in the history of the Tragedy. There have been directors who have used doubles sleeping through the changes of historical scenes, while their alter egos moved from scene to scene. In Eger, the young couple from the Paradise scene arrive on stage somewhat like a reminiscence, whenever "a belated ray of the Garden of Eden" falls on any of the historical scenes: i.e., every time that Adam and Eve faintly recall the age of innocence (for example, in Rome and London as well as in the Phalanstery). The recollections comprise some dreamlike choreography, along with a number of replicas which were moved here from their original places in the Paradise scene. Naturally, it is the "young couple" who feature in the first Paradise scene, and they are also the ones who start out on their ontogenetic sequence of dreams: by the end of the Egyptian scene, however, they trade places with the "older couple" in a dramatized fade-out.

Another problem that still has to be solved is the emergence of Adam as an intellectual, with his philosophical questions regarding existence. This required a separate scene. A modern couple in their thirties and forties—let's call them Adam and Eve, too—are moving books and bundles of periodicals to a cellar-like place. We do not know for sure what it is exactly, a storeroom or a paper-pulper. Whether they are destroying newspapers or weeding out books, this resigned and silent couple suggest a kind of disillusionment — from the Gutenberg Galaxy, perhaps? Eve curls up on the floor, while Adam is seen leafing through a book, until he, too, dozes off.

This modern-day scene terminates the Biblical frame. Adam and Eve enter their own dream, where they meet the protagonists of the play, including their predecessors from the Paradise scene. This creates the initial tension for the procedure of giving evidence: the sequence of the historical scenes. It is questionable, of course, how the narrative frame of heavenly character can accommodate all this. The rational questions of the modern-day Adam do not blend very well into the religious context. Thus it is only a white silk gown draped on him like a vestment that brings to mind the clerical aspect of the Lord, a tall and powerfully built layman with grizzled hair. With his black boots and an armour-like costume of black cotton, with a conventional cape thrown across his shoulders, eyes lightly made up and greyish-white hair plastered to his skull, Lucifer looks like a circus magician. In their divine and diabolical capacity, they are all abstract figures, crosses between the transcendent and the everyday.

The presentation is the strong point of the production: the world of images and sound, and the well-coordinated work of the large cast. At the end of the play God includes Lucifer in the eternal "family scene" of mankind. This is taken in good humour by all the characters, while Adam and Eve, after learning of Eve's pregnancy, and after abandoning the universal mission entrusted to them, resume their sleep beside the pile of books.

Madách's Tragedy was born in the early 1860s, in the lethargic mood following the crushing of the 1848 Revolution in Hungary. The Hungarian events of 1848, part of the wave of revolution sweeping across Europe, count among the heroic national traditions. On March 15 there were many commemorations of the 150th anniversary of the outbreak of the Revolution, an anti-Habsburg rebellion sparked off by a number of young intellectuals. The Hungarian theatre took part in the celebrations in a rather subdued manner. However, the National Theatre could not ignore the occasion. They called upon the nation's great tale-teller, himself a former "March Youth", Mór Jókai. Although he did write a number of mediocre plays, Jókai made his reputation as a novelist. One of his best novels, The Baron's Sons, tells the story of a family of Hungarian nobles during the Revolution with an epic sweep. The novel is about a widow and her three sons rising in defiance against the pro-Habsburg husband and father. We learn how the Austrian hussar captain becomes a Hungarian captain, and how the youngest son sacrifices his life to save his oldest brother from being court-martialled by the bloodthirsty Austrian General Haynau.

The adaptation for the stage of the novel's complicated story-line required considerable simplification and abridgement. The director Katalin Koývári used minimal stage sets that could be rapidly transformed. (The grey screens and systems of staircases and pulpits of the stage design were reminiscent of Erwin Piscator's political theatre of the 1920s.) Jókai's complex tale was turned into a rather skimpy sketch, the kind that Piscator wrote for his stage version of War and Peace, with the only difference that this production lacked the political motives behind Piscator's adaptation of Tolstoy. Nothing more is required than the telling of the story, and this was done rather dryly, so dryly in fact that the director has provided markedly strong effects—the clouds of smoke and the heavy romanticism of Liszt's symphonic poems—added to set the mood. Thirty years ago a production like this, the earlier adaptations of this Jókai novel included, would have been mounted against a colourful realistic backdrop and would have lasted from 7 p.m. to 11 p.m. The National has us outside the building by 9:30 p.m.

Instead of the historical reality of failure, it was the legend of 1848 that Jókai, a true romantic, chose to convey in his novel—heroism, rather than the painful experience of failure. The chroniclers recorded that in 1892 he paid tribute to Mária Leibstück, a legendary heroine of the Revolution, whom he had met at an exhibition held in commemoration of 1848. The old lady had fought as a lieutenant in the Hungarian revolutionary army. Forty-four years later, the writer met her as she sat behind the cashier's desk in her uniform, selling tickets for the exhibition.

The same patriotic young lady was presented in Jenoý Huszka's operetta Lieutenant Mária, conceived in the spirit of the two Hungarian figures of classic Viennese operetta, Ferenc Lehár and Imre Kálmán. In fact, it follows not only in spirit, but also in musical invention. The composer, Jenoý Huszka, was not afraid to borrow from the vocabulary of the Viennese waltz. This is somewhat surprising in a work which honours the Hungarian resolve to rise against Austrian oppression. Perhaps the director's idea when including Johann Strauss' polka "Long Live the Hungarian!" in the performance of the National Theatre of Gyoýr was to reconcile old enemies.

According to the operetta, Mária Leibstück is a young lady educated in Vienna, who enlists in the Hungarian Honvéd in order to avoid a hateful marriage with an Austrian aristocrat; once in the army, she distinguishes herself against the compatriots of her former fiancé. By an operatic stroke of fortune, her commanding officer is a law student whom she saw and fell in love with during her escape from Vienna. The disguise of her uniform stands in the way of their romance; however, during a clumsily carried out attack, the heroine wins the commander's disdainful admiration. (The two motifs show that the librettist managed to combine As You Like It and Heinrich von Kleist's Prince Homburg.) At one point, the heroine, now promoted to the rank of lieutenant, is suspected of treason, but by the happy end she has cleared her name. Naturally, her love is also reciprocated and the two can fight for freedom in sweet unison.

The subplot is made attractive by the three stage appearances of Lajos Kossuth, Regent of Hungary during the Revolution. In all three acts he stands where he should be: at the side of the lovers and by the cause of freedom. On the altar of the latter, he even has the strength to sacrifice his own passion for another Hungarian belle of similar patriotism.

Huszka composed some sweet melodies, carefully counter-balancing the waltzes with a Hungarian palotás and a version of the famous Kossuth March. Perhaps this was what the Minister of Culture objected to during the premiere in 1942, when, according to the memoirs of the composer's wife, he frequently shook his head in disapproval. The memoir suggests that the minister was worried about the emphasis on Hungarian patriotism, which was counter to the interests of allied Germany after her recent annexation of Austria. Rumour has it that there was talk of banning the piece the following day. In the end the censors were content with the removal of a few sentences. (Today's production is in no danger of similar censorship.) Directed by the actress Éva Almási, the play has been produced under the aegis of female solidarity. Only another woman is able to understand a patriotic lady, whose love can only have two objects: her country and a handsome hussar captain. The play ends where the couple, now united in their love, set out on their fight for freedom. There is no mention of failure here.

There is some talk of the French Revolution in Mihály Csokonai Vitéz's classic comedy The Widow Karnyó and the Two Scatterbrains. The poet, who was a Jacobin sympathizer, submitted to the recently formed first Hungarian theatrical company several of his own works, along with a number of translations from Molière, Goldoni, Metastasio and Schikaneder, none of which were accepted. Csokonai (1773–1805), the greatest poet of the Hungarian Enlightenment, was never to see any of his plays performed by a professional company. The Widow Karnyó was no exception: the only production he ever saw of it was that directed and performed by his own students. Thus did the village school of Csurgó, where the poet held a teaching post, take its place in theatrical history.

The Widow Karnyó is a comedy of the Molièrian kind, with tragicomic overtones. The main character is an elderly woman, the wife of a shopkeeper who has not returned from the wars against the French. Her husband missing, presumed dead, she consoles herself with the money-grubbing "scatterbrains" seeking her favour. Her passion for men and her desperate efforts to appear younger in both dress and behaviour, makes her a prime candidate for benefit performances given by great actresses. However, the poetic and surreal awkwardness of the archaic language has stood in the way of performing the play and it is rarely billed. Even when it is, the emphasis is invariably on the comedy of its archaisms. The young Iván Hargitai, who directs this version in the Új Színház, tries a different approach. For him the characters are real people and not caricatures. The comic story, with its plethora of the nonsensical, is given a workable frame. The shop looks like the corner of a modern wholesale store. Instead of being presented as a comic witch or a man-hunter, Mrs Karnyó is a matron longing for love, stricken by panic at the thought of being out of it. Comical without a doubt, it is also very human. The actress Kati Lázár makes the most bizarre and most outlandish sound familiar or stylized. When the grieved widow Karnyó wants to commit suicide, hallucinating about Heaven under the influence of a drug thought to be poison, the actress gives us a coloratura aria—in middle tonal range. Not all the actors reach this level of perfection. In any case, the closing scene gives us some idea about the relativeness of heroism and sacrifice. When, after many years of absence, the husband suddenly returns from French captivity, we see him in a state of confusion, circling around his deeply sedated wife, who is lying on the catafalque. Then we discover that he is only looking for a bottle of wine he had once stashed away.

One of the most successful stories about failure is Gentry Fun, written and adapted for the stage from his own novel by Zsigmond Móricz, an outstanding author of social novels of the first half of the twentieth century. While I would hesitate to call the stage adaptation a failure, it is well-known that Móricz was forced to make several concessions, quite often in accommodation of middle-class taste, by easing up on the harshness of his novels and short stories. Sometimes he turned the original tragic conclusion into a happy ending. In the case of Gentry Fun, no such atrocity was committed; the modifications here were confined to the inclusion of a few comic inserts, such as the scene of a lavish breakfast for the poor peasants waiting for their wages.

Móricz was a writer of the Hungarian soil, or to use the words of his friend, the poet Endre Ady, of the "Hungarian fallow": a metaphor in reference to the backwardness of the country's economic and social conditions. The tragic hero of Gentry Fun wants to make the Hungarian soil, and the Hungarian economy, prosperous by setting up a model farm on his diminishing estate. However, he is surrounded by primitive people—provincial landowners and army officers throwing away their money and lands, either in wild carousals or in card games, all despising and ridiculing his ideas of reform. He needs money for his plans, but his wife, Eszter Rhédey, the haughty, wealthy and beautiful descendant of an old noble family who understands him neither as a man nor as a reformer, turns down his plea for help. The deeply frustrated Szakhmáry tries to find refuge in the arms of a calculating peasant girl, one of his day-labourers; finally, after a wild night of wining, carousing and Gypsy music, he sets his farmstead on fire and shoots himself.

Gentry Fun established a tradition in Hungarian theatrical history forty years ago when it was produced in the classical style of "high realism" in the National Theatre. Its latest production comes as a surprise from the Merlin Theatre, which is known for its fresh, frolicsome and teasing performances. The director, Tamás Jordán, had to take into account his location, for the theatre is confined in space, providing no room for realism in design—or full-blown emotions. The great carousal in the "Puszta" turns out to be more like a "goulash party" in a roadside inn. The characters are given a contemporary resemblance: Szakhmáry is like a bankrupt small-time entrepreneur, the peasant girl would evidently feel more comfortable in jeans than in peasant costume. Still, the spirit of the play has not lost its power, as today, too, we are witnessing great ambition and great disillusionment around us. It is only the manner of performance to go with that which has gone out of style in the contemporary theatre.

Péter Kárpáti's play Honorary Performance, which is the first production of a recently formed alternative theatre group, is a story of modern failure. Its main character is a scientist slowly going berserk, a certain Endre Hoýgyes, who, as head of the Pasteur Institute of Budapest, informs the public of the opening ceremony ("played" by the theatre audience) of the calamities surrounding his new invention, a powerful antiserum for rabies. The play is one enormous, crazy monologue, in which we find out what lies in store for the great Pasteur's follower in Hungary. (Although the setting is the beginning of the century, the theatrical present, of course, directly actualizes the story.) The strange visions of the speaker's deranged mind appear with a grotesque realism in the course of the monologue: the autopsy in the hospital, the influx of rabies sufferers, the scientists holding a conference in a cage reserved for experimental rabbits. The deliberate stylistic hodgepodge comes complete with burlesque and audience participation, all combined, in Balázs Simon's direction, to erect a bizarre monument to Hungarian provincialism. In other words, the central theme here is the same as in Zsigmond Móricz's play, the tragedy of the obsessed do-gooder.

Coming full circle, the formula for stories of failure returns to the mythological interpretation, almost to the point of Madách's The Tragedy of Man, in the direction of an extraordinary talent of the youngest generation, Árpád Schilling. Schilling, who is currently studying directing at the Budapest Academy of Theatre and Cinematography had his own alternative theatrical group already before his enrollment, and is still working with them. He rehearsed the play Shorty; or, What If a May Fly Has a Bad Day? for nine months with the Krétakör (Chalk Circle) company. (He is also the co-author of the script in the sense that he cast the dramatic material into shape during improvisational sessions at rehearsals.)

Shorty is a young man of twenty-three, who takes us into his confidence. "He is a naive young man, who believes that order rules the world, and that nothing is without a purpose, explanation and consequence," a critic writes about the play. From his soliloquy, and from the events portrayed, we can track the development of his personality, equally influenced by the false ideologies of his family circumstances and the outside world. Shorty's situation parallels both Hamlet's and Christ's—he has to discharge a mission. Yet, he lives in a confused age which fails to guide him when caught between good and evil, between what to follow and what to reject. We can trace his development as a child, his gasping for air in the whirlpool of sexuality and politics, of lifestyle and career. Finally, like Adam in Madách's Tragedy, he, too, becomes disillusioned with everything, and decides to blow up the whole world, himself included. But he cannot set the fuse on fire. He is still trying to throw away his life in a heroic manner, when the spotlight slowly loses him at the end of the performance.


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


SOURCE: Koltai, Tamás. “Heroism and Failure,” The Hungarian Quarterly, VOLUME XXXIX * No. 150 * Summer 1998.


The Tragedies of Man” by Tamás Koltai

Tragedies and Comedies” by Tamás Koltai

Futurology, Science Fiction, Utopia, and Alienation
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From Eden to Cain: Unorthodox Interpretations & Literary Transformations:
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