Frigyes Karinthy


“This way, please,” said the porter, directing me to the basement door. “Just down these steps, turn right, straight along the corridor, then left all the way until you see: ‘Director’.”

I went along the narrow corridors in the basement, wondering why the director loved underground. Then I realized that the entire ground floor was taken up by the music hall itself: the organization could be run perfectly effectively from below, and it was all very economical. It was the intricate world of traps, battens, backdrops: small electric bulbs dotted the darkness. There was a smell of crude softwood and oil floating in the air.

It was hot in the director’s room. The cellar walls were covered with thick, valuable carpets. He sat me down in an easy chair and offered me a Havana. His clean-shaven face, fat and harsh, shone behind the desk, his burnt-out, sardonic eyes roved absently in their sockets. He fiddled with a row of electric buttons in front of him on the desk.

“I was about to telephone,” he said, “I thought you couldn’t find your way here.”

I nodded, remembering I had been warned to behave with circumspection.

“You were recommended by His Excellency,” the director went on, “but in any case I’ve read your stuff myself. It’s a longstanding policy of mine to employ gifted young men with ambition; one gets fresh blood that way, and as for you, you pick up something you can’t do without if you want to get on, no matter how talented you are. You get to know life a little at close quarters.”

I murmured a few compliments about how much I admired the whole establishment with all its intricate strands gathered together in a single hand.

He listened letting his double chin bulge.

“It’s only a small job now,” he said off-handedly, “but if we’re both satisfied there’ll be more to come.” He viewed me aslant, coolly, derisively, cruelly. “There’s good money here.” He laughed and patted my shoulder.

I grinned, ill at ease, then my face froze. From the corridor outside rose a long-drawn-out noise, interpenetrated with a rattling sound that might have welled up from a throat, then all was drowned in the rolling of drums. The director glanced at me with contemptuous geniality.

“Don't be afraid,” he reassured me, “they’re rehearsing.”

“How interesting,” I said, still shuddering. “It’s all a bit strange to me as yet... Well, is that the way you do it, as seriously as that?” He rose and began to pace the room before me, hands in pockets. I noticed then that he had a limp.

“Yes, my good friend, it has to be taken seriously. A big organization like this can’t be kept going without strict discipline and everyone working like hell—it isn't a game. It costs a lot of money, the audience can’t be fobbed off with nothing worth seeing. By the time of the performance everything must go without a hitch. Let the weak, those who can’t stand the pace, drop out during rehearsal and the devil take the hindmost. The whole thing has to run like a well-oiled machine. The audience mustn’t be allowed to see any of the strain, the scrapping, the niggling.”

He faced me and put both his hands on my shoulders.

“But it does no harm to a talented young man like you to have a look behind the scenes. Eh?” His voice grew over-familiar. “People like us—I hope you don’t take it amiss—are more interested in what goes on there than in the auditorium or the finished production. We who run the show. . . aren’t we?... We like to see success in the making, don’t we? To take part in it, don’t we?... And then again it does you no harm to get an inside knowledge of the technical side of things. Some of the illusion is bound to go, but you get something in return, which is worth more later: a bit of superiority, a bit of irony which helps you in learning to handle people. And perhaps,” he laughed coarsely and winked at me, “perhaps a bit of a position as well, a bit of power later on... eh, young man? Think about it. And a bit of official status possibly... as well as a few perks a few of us know about.”

He moved to the desk and pressed a button. The room darkened to a reddish glare and I was scarcely aware that the opposite wall had slowly slid away. A dusky field under a sunset sky, streaked with claret and saffron, stretched out beyond the wall. A sloping hill-side rose with a hedge along the ridge. And there was a chilly wind blowing.

“Come along, only follow me,” the director said. “Be careful you don’t trip.”

There was rumbling from afar, light-rockets shot up into the sky. We walked one behind the other across a makeshift plank, the director lighting the way with the downturned gleam of an electric torch. It was then that I saw the straggling snakes of soldiers. The guns roared again and every now and again the landscape lit up in the flare of the rockets. In these intervals I could see troops deploying, struggling along narrow rocky paths. Corpses lay scattered among the trees.

“As you can see,” the director said, as he pressed another button whereupon the whole scene was flooded with daylight, “everything is real, no money is spared. You see... real trees. Real earth and real guns. Real dead too. As if they’d died in bed. Look, you can touch any of them. That’ll be true to life if anything is, won’t it?”

He cupped his hands and shouted up into the flies, which criss­crossed above our heads at an infinite height.

“Hey, Mayer, shift the lights a little to the left, will you? Give us a battle scene here downstage, with hand-to-hand fighting if possible. And more noise, I want more noise! The way that soldier over there is standing is all wrong: shoot him.”

A terrible blast shook the hills, mines exploded; the reverberations died down slowly and were followed by shrieks and wailing sounds. Horses neighed and the mud squelched. The director turned to me.

“The production hangs together pretty well, doesn’t it? You’ve got to remember that the play my theatrical hacks rigged up didn’t add up and in a lot of places was sheer nonsense. We took the material from several sources—Caesar and Hannibal and Napoleon. There’s not much of a plot, but it’s full of dramatic situations and scenes. And we move masses of people about on the stage that’s always a sure draw.”

As I found nothing to say to that, he launched into a meditation:

“Now of course as a young idealist you must be wondering what’s the use of all those old plays rehashed over and over again, when there wasn’t even much point in them a thousand years ago. You don’t have to remind me of that, young man. I read your things even if I don’t seem to. Of course I know perfectly that it would be more worthwhile to start something new, something finer, something which would combine talent and spirit and energy, a youthful mood, new points of view, a new morality for regenerate mankind—that on this huge field around here under our glittering chandeliers the sun, a new drama ought to come to birth in a new setting, drawing fresh lessons from fresh beauties; that we ought to try our hand at something else, to see if we can write and act as well as the men of old. Or even better? More beautifully? With greater truth? That perhaps what they did was neither beautiful nor good and that we may well have been admiring them up to now out of sheer unreasoning habit. That’s what's in your mind, young man—but what can we do? This is what the public wants, take it from an old hand in the theatre. The public wants to be given the classics, there’s nothing one can do about that, and I’m a businessman, which means I like to live well. Come this way, let’s go back to my office.”

The door closed behind us, and the director leaned back in his chair.

“To get back to business,” he said absently inspecting his fingernails. “What I want is a prologue to this play. You know, something not too long, easy to speak, and of course in verse. The subject shouldn’t give you much difficulty, it’s all there. I don’t think you need to tell them in the prologue what it’s about—let them be surprised for the thousand and first time at the ending they’ve seen a thousand times before. What I have in mind is something—well—‑soul-stirring, you know what I mean. Some central idea which the authors have somehow forgotten to put in. Something as if the director himself were addressing them, warmly, enthusiastically: this is what he wants—to inspire lofty feelings in you, ladies and gentlemen, character, selflessness, love of country. Which, as far as I remember, after all is quite true, because there really are such things in the play. But as I’m saying, it must be written to sound as if the director were putting the play on the stage because it expressed these sentiments, and not because he wanted a box-office success. Well, you know best how to do it. And then I’ll have the text of the prologue printed in the programme.”

He looked at me expectantly, but without wanting to hurry me.

“Look,” he said, suddenly, “you can write that prologue in a jiffy. Why put it off? There’s a cosy little room here with a soundproof leather door shutting out the sounds of the stage, you just sit down in an armchair at your leisure, with a few nice cigars on the desk in front of you—do you fancy this brand?—a bottle of liqueur, go off into a daydream as you poets do, and

in a couple of hours there’s the prologue down on paper. I’ll hang around till eleven, come in with it and we can do a deal right away. The first person I’m going to show it will be His Excellency of course. And it never does a young man harm if they know about him at the Academy. A little immortality, by George, let alone if you can get an advance on it as well. What does it take a young man like you do to it? A couple of ringing rhymes, a few pretty smiles—and Bob’s your uncle.”

“Really,” I said to myself, sitting in the green armchair in the adjoining room, cigar in mouth, staring into the smoke, “really, what does it take? I know my trade, I’ve got my metaphors.”

I put my pen to the paper and fixed my eyes on it. And lost in wandering thoughts I wrote “Oh,” and wrote “My God,” and again “Oh,” and then again “My God”... and the minutes and hours dragged on... and the lines went on filling the sheet with one and the same word, following one after the other a hundred, a thousand times: “Oh... Oh... Oh. . .” in ever larger letters, ever more insistently, stubbornly, endlessly... and behind my clouded eyes and drooping lips my poor agonized mind was slowly revolving an image. How lovely it would be if they came for me this minute, lifted me gently—they wouldn’t push me around like the scenery outside—they spoke gently to me, calmed me down, carried me off in a car... and how lovely it would be to stare endlessly at the white walls in the cool cell of the asylum . . . and to know they couldn’t touch me, couldn’t speak to me... because I should no longer be a man and should no longer have to answer for my soul.

SOURCE: Karinthy, Frigyes. “Prologue” (Prológus), translated by László András T., in Grave and Gay: Selections from His Work, selected by István Kerékgyárto, afterword by Károly Szalay, binding and jacket by István Bányai, 2nd ed., (Budapest: Corvina Press, 1973), pp. 48-53.

Frigyes Karinthy, Humorist and Thinker” by Miklós Vajda

Frigyes & Ferenc Karinthy in English

Frigyes (Frederiko) Karinthy (1887-1938) en Esperanto

Futurology, Science Fiction, Utopia, and Alienation
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