|CHAPTER IX The Development of the Drama
|CHAPTER X Social Criticism and the Novel in the Age of Reform
The author was born on 11 November 1791 in the provincial centre of the Lowlands, Kecskemét. When Katona, who came from a lower-middle-class family, entered the University of Pest for his legal studies, he also found a new interest, the pleasures of which were hitherto unknown to him: the theatre. His growing addiction to the stage, (and his undeclared love for a leading actress, Mme. Déry) involved the otherwise withdrawn law student in the life of theatre in many ways: he acted under an assumed name, translated and adapted plays enthusiastically, and eventually tried his hand at writing original works.
Theatrical life gave him excellent training as a playwright; not only was he able to gain first-hand experience in acting, but he also acquired a knowledge of the technical side of the stage, and, by translating and adapting foreign works, of the rudiments of writing for the stage. His adaptations and early plays usually in the German melodramatic tradition contained occasionally a well-constructed scene, or an unexpectedly well-drawn character sketch. Still, these plays were hopelessly inferior, not unlike Molière’s early plays, which gave little indication of their author’s future greatness.
Katona’s interest in historical studies helped to turn his attention to historical themes, and when a competition organized by a Kolozsvár periodical presented a suitable occasion, with substantial financial reward, he wrote Bánk Bán and submitted it. The competition required a historical drama with a Hungarian background, and the deadline for delivering the manuscript was set for September 1815. The best drama submitted was to be performed on the occasion of the opening of the Kolozsvár National Theatre. Katona’s play met the requirements and it was delivered before the deadline (which, incidentally was extended to 1817), but when the result of the competition was announced in early 1818 it produced disappointment: no work had been found deserving of the first prize, and no mention was made of Bánk Bán at all. What happened to Katona’s drama is one of the riddles of Hungarian literature. Katona became disillusioned, but then rewrote the play and published it privately in 1820.* Meanwhile he was called to the Bar, and began to practise in Pest, with little success. When the post of district attorney in Kecskemét fell vacant, he applied successfully for the position, and returned to his native town. In the last ten years of his life he had security and a comfortable life; he amused himself with local history and hunting, but he wrote no more for the stage. Katona died of a heart-attack when walking back to his office after his lunch-break on 16 April 1830. Nobody noticed that Hungary had lost her best playwright.
The plot of Bánk Bán is based on historical facts, first narrated by A. Bonfini in his Latin history of Hungary. Many writers since the sixteenth century have turned to the story of Bánk for inspiration, not only in Hungarian but in German, French, and English literature too.* Bánk was the Palatine (Bán) appointed by King Andrew II (1205-35); while the King was away on one of his foreign campaigns, Bánk became involved in a conspiracy against the German-born Queen Gertrude, and assassinated her in 1213. Chronicles professed to know that the reason for his murdering the Queen was personal revenge: Gertrude, whose court was infected by nepotism, was involved in a plot, the result of which was the seduction of Bánk’s wife. The curious fact remains that when Andrew II returned from his campaign, Bánk was punished only lightly for his crime, and in 1217 he again held the office of Bán.
Katona treated his sources freely, and the drama he wrote is essentially a tragedy of conflicting loyalties. From his earlier works and historical studies one can see that he was fascinated, puzzled, and perturbed both by open revolt and by cloak-and-dagger intrigues against the highest authority, the royal power. In his interpretation Bánk is a loyal subject, yet he takes the royal prerogative of dispensing justice into his own hand by killing the Queen. The drama shows the psychological details of how the most loyal subject turns against the Queen, the symbol of Andrew II’s authority in his absence.
Bánk Bán is written in iambic metre and consists of five acts. At the beginning of the play Bánk has just returned from a tour of the country where he has found the people poor, burdened with heavy taxes, and therefore discontented. His mind is preoccupied with their complaints when he receives information about two ‘plots’ in the Royal Palace. One of the plots is a conspiracy organized by patriotic nobles, led by Bán Petur. It is directed against the Queen and her entourage; the nobles accuse Gertrude of being unwilling to curb her extravagant fellow-foreigners whose life-style is a burden on the treasury, resulting in heavy taxes. The other plot concerns Bánk’s young and beautiful wife, Melinda. Otto, a younger brother of the Queen, a playboy-type prince, is just about to seduce her. Bánk, whose loyalty to the crown is unquestionable, in spite of his own indignation uses all his authority and powers of persuasion to cool the rising tempers of the conspirators who have convinced themselves that they have a just case for rebellion; if the Queen is unable to curb the excesses of her foreign protégés, they will have to. Bánk also realizes, however, that Otto would not dare to make advances to Melinda, respected by all as the wife of the highest dignitary in the country, without the consent, if not the assistance, of the Queen.
Bánk is able to overcome the conspiracy for the time being, but Melinda has fallen prey to Otto, whose continual and artful scheming culminates in his using drugs and force to overcome her resistance. Her shame drives her mad, and Bánk, having lost all sense of security in his private life, is no longer the proud aristocrat whose integrity seems to be above human weakness, and whose business is to serve and represent the King and to defend the interest of his subjects; he is an injured husband who cannot but blame the Queen for his personal disgrace and for the wrongs done to the country.
Bánk’s outrage is bound to end in tragedy; he hastens to the Palace to demand an explanation from the Queen. In his anger, the idea of revenge also enters his mind. The Queen, a haughty and ambitious woman who despises all the Hungarians in the Court, senses the violent emotions raging in Bánk, decides on the wrong course of action, and launches a verbal attack against him. The clash of words leads Bánk, already morally injured, to self-deception; he feels he is there to judge the Queen. When Gertrude realizes the immediate danger of her situation, she seizes a dagger. Bánk snatches it from her hand and stabs her. No sooner is Bánk’s deed done than he comprehends its full horror, the representative of the royal power has murdered the Queen.
Bánk’s collapse is complete when he realizes that even the Hungarians involved in the Palace revolt, which has broken out in the meantime and has been quickly crushed, regard him as a murderer. The burden of his arbitrary act weighs heavily upon his mind. In consequence of his violent anger he has become a common criminal, a murderer. This idea cannot be reconciled with the dignity of his office and his own humanity. When the King returns the rebellious nobles are put to death; it also comes to light that the Queen has had no share in Otto’s scheme, contrary to what Bánk had assumed, and that hired assassins have murdered Melinda; this is Otto’s revenge. Since Bánk’s humiliation is total and absolute the King decides not to punish him, for he has recognized that a mightier Judge has dispensed justice on a scale he would not dare.
No description of the plot does justice to the full complexity of the characters of whom, undoubtedly, the leading figure of Bánk is the most elaborate. Bánk is basically a man of deep passions. His self-control is the product of a gigantic inner struggle, the victory of his will-power over the dark forces of his emotions. He is very often on the verge of losing his most treasured quality: self-discipline. The triumph of his reason is the assurance of his dignity, the basis of his moral stature. (He accidentally witnesses Otto’s first advances to Melinda, unseen by either of them, and draws his sword; but Melinda’s refusal to Otto stops him short of action there is no immediate danger to her, so his action would not be justifiable [Act I].)
As a statesman he is wise; his argument with the conspirators is devoid of group-interest, he represents the common interests of all subjects of the King. At first he plans to kill Otto out of revenge for seducing Melinda, but he eventually arrives at the conclusion that it is the Queen who is responsible not only for the wrongs done to the country, but for Otto’s machinations. Bánk’s two most cherished ideals are his honour and his country, and both of them are in danger. The idea of personally eliminating the chief culprit, the Queen, enters his mind (Act III). But his common sense makes him realize that private revenge provides no solution to the country’s problems. The more he considers his design, the more he calms down. His act of killing the Queen is the outcome of an unhappy coincidence of circumstances rather than the result of premeditation. Bánk is above suspicion, for his act had no witness, and furthermore at the time when he is with the Queen the rebels have already entered the palace. It is Petur, the leader of the malcontents, who is tortured to death as the assassin of the Queen by the merciless Meranians* who quell the rebellion. Bánk, however, admits the responsibility to the King, because his honesty requires it. Unfortunately, in the final collapse of Bánk’s personality (Act V) Katona fails to provide a fully convincing psychological portrait of his fallen hero.
Bánk’s wife, Melinda, is young and innocent; this is why Bánk is reluctant to bring her to the Court in the first instance. If Otto’s efforts to seduce her had succeeded only on account of her naïvety, she would have been a somewhat stereotyped character from a melodrama. But she is a proud wife of a passionate husband, and a loving mother. Her resistance is overcome only by Otto’s cunning (first he gives her a love potion, and then uses force). Her shame and the accusations of Bánk drive her mad; for her the dagger of the assassin hired by Otto is redemption.
The malcontents (Petur, Mikhal, and Simon) are noble lords, loyal to the King. Their spokesman, Petur, is a fierce patriot, hating everything foreign and despising women. He turns out to be a hot-headed conspirator, unwilling to listen to reason. Bánk is unable to convince him that it is possible to obtain lawful redress for their grievances, yet he is calmed down by Bánk’s appeal to his loyalty to the King. Finally when Petur is accused of the murder (Act V) and tortured to death, his last words are: ‘Long live the King!’ Simon and Mikhal are Melinda’s brothers, refugees from Spain, and share their sister’s distress. Mikhal is grateful to the Hungarians who saved and welcomed the homeless refugees. It is out of gratitude that he is a fellow-conspirator, but he also attempts to plead with the Queen to redress the grievances of the nobles. He appeals to her with the impartiality of a foreigner, but she sends him to prison: one conspirator less.
The common people, whose grievances are as important to Bánk as are those of their overlords, are represented by Tiborc, a serf. Tiborc is loitering in the palace with the intention of stealing when Bánk, deep in thought, stumbles upon him. His monologue (Act III) is one of the best in the drama, a pathetic catalogue of the plight of the lower classes erupting from a man in utter despair, who is about to steal food for his hungry family. Tiborc is introduced explicitly to convey Katona’s sense of social responsibility; he is not involved in Bánk’s tragedy, yet he is skilfully integrated in the plot, as an incidental character. Tiborc sides with Bánk in his conflict with the foreigners, although their own relationship is not without the potential for conflict, which surfaces as class hatred when Bánk and Tiborc confront each other as lord and serf. When Bánk assures Tiborc of his sympathy, Tiborc retorts: ‘You pity me, my Lord? None of the Hungarians care about us when their pockets are full.’ Tiborc’s bitterness is aroused because he senses that Bánk’s sudden sympathy is probably temporary, based on a common interest in stopping the foreign exploitation of their country.
On the other hand, the rest of the characters, unlike their Hungarian opponents, have apparently no interest in common. Otto’s advances to Melinda create a precarious situation for the Queen. Izidora, a lady-in-waiting, betrays Otto’s secret schemes to Bánk out of jealousy; Biberach, a vagrant knight, or rather a soldier of fortune, assists Otto only for financial reward and detests the Prince’s cowardice and childish irresolution, yet all of them united in usurping power. Gertrude quietly approves Otto’s plan; pleasure-seeking is wrong only if the consequences are dangerous. Biberach, stabbed by Otto in revenge and as an act of defiance, in his last words comes to the defence of the Queen; Otto’s adventures were plotted without her consent. Izidora, whose only reward has been humiliation in the Royal Court, demands revenge for the Queen’s murder, although the King is inclined to allow events to take their natural course, for it is not revenge but reconciliation he finally wants with his subjects, and he believes that justice has already been done.
Gertrude is intoxicated by the pleasures of power. Only her vanity is greater than her desire to dominate. She knows no other way to reign but to give orders and to demand unconditional service and respect. She takes no one into her confidence, and is unwilling to compromise, when she has the opportunity, with Mikhal; and she finally challenges fate when she underestimates Bánk’s fury. The Queen lacks human compassion as far as her subjects are concerned: but this proud and ambitious woman, on the threshold of death, suddenly forgets about glory and dignity and is transformed into a human being; her last words betray her concern for her children.
Otto’s main characteristic is his lack of will-power. He seems to be aware of this and constantly tries to prove himself; this is his main motive for seducing the wife of the highest official in the country. For his first failure he is humiliated by his sister: Gertrude’s sharp tongue does not spare her own brother. Therefore seducing Melinda is not a mere adventure for Otto; he may have as many adventures in the Court as he wishes, but he pursues Bánk’s wife with childish stubbornness; for his warped mind it is the only deed worthy of a bold knight. His success, however, provides him with little gratification in comparison to the damages his ego suffered from Gertrude and Biberach while he was scheming to ensnare Melinda.
The King, Andrew II, is a controversial figure. As a husband, his loyalty is naturally reserved for the murdered Queen, but as a ruler, his duty is to protect his subjects even from his own wife. If Gertrude had been the victim of Bánk’s personal revenge only the King might have reacted differently, but her misuse of the country’s resources in his absence is unpardonable. Andrew’s tragedy springs from this clash of loyalties; he cannot blame his own wife unreservedly, yet neither can he exonerate her; the victims of her abuse of power are his subjects, and it would be politically unwise to embitter them further. After all the relevant facts are disclosed to him, he can only comment on the situation with resignation, as he does in the last lines of the play: ‘Hungarians! I know them well they love me, they are mine! It is sad that you were unable to get along well with their noble hearts, my poor Gertrude!’
Katona succeeds in maintaining dramatic tension throughout the whole play; he excludes from the drama anything that might seem like an author’s explanation of events or which might go beyond what is absolutely necessary to grasp the details of the tragedy. Ever since Shakespeare one dominant passion has been seen to be the mainspring of the action; it eventually supresses all other motivations. Katona creates a precarious balance in the clashing loyalties of Bánk; this balance naturally topples towards the passion which is most purely human. The same dilemma faces the King in his passivity; he is only a witness to the drama, which saves him from the choice Bánk has had to make, although not from the consequences of Bánk’s deed.
Katona’s language is powerful and terse; his diction is that of the eighteenth century, unaffected by the recent nyelvújítás (reform of the language): For this reason alone modern readers may occasionally feel his language is clumsy, but never that it is lacking in dignity and power. His dialogues are characterized by numerous exclamations, and violent eruptions of words, unfinished sentences signs of romantic excess in characteriztion through speech. At the same time, Katona manages to convey the idea that his heroes are reluctant to speak, as if they were afraid of the irrevocability of what is being said. The dialogues are very often monologues running parallel (the best example is Bánk’s dialogue with Tiborc), although Katona’s characters are not altogether unaware that they are listening only to their own soliloquies. This somehow seems to be appropriate in the world of Bánk Bán where everybody appears to be on his own.
‘József Katona came too soon and wrote for posterity’, claimed one of his critics, and not inappropriately. While it is certainly true that censorship had its misgivings about the play (officialdom reasoned that it made royalty appear in an unfavourable light) and thus prevented its public performance, when the Székesfehérvár Theatre Company, which had had great success with Kisfaludy’s plays, proposed to stage Bánk Bán, the fact remains that it was not censorship which barred the drama from success. The dilemma King or country faced the Hungarians in an acute form only a generation later, on the eve of the War of Independence. Then the message of Katona’s drama was immediately recognized, coming as it did at a time of growing resentment against the foreign establishment, whose interests were totally at variance with the desires of the champions of an independent Hungary. Yet the dilemma had no easy solution; the Hungarian nobility were sincerely loyal to the King, whom they accepted as their legitimate sovereign.
History, however, gave an answer to the dilemma in the autumn of 1848; Katona’s drama was, as it were, acted out in reverse. The national Honvéd army defeated the King’s Croatian troops and was pursuing them towards Vienna. The Honvéds had every chance of a quick victory, for the Imperial Army was in disarray, and the revolutionaries of Vienna eagerly awaited the Honvéd army as their would-be liberators: in fact they were holding out on the barricades in the solitary hope that the Honvéds would come. At this critical moment the council of generals abruptly decided to stop pursuing the fleeing enemy, reasoning that they had no legal power to enter Austria proper, and were beaten at Schwechat after battle had been half-heartedly joined.
This analogy between life and literature might be overdrawn, yet the fact remains that Katona’s play presented his contemporaries with alternatives, and the choice between them turned out to be an issue for the next generation and has retained a certain amount of timeliness ever since: how should Hungarians divide their loyalties between their compatriots and an establishment which, as it happened, always had foreign support for its control of the country; in other words, were they to seek a remedy for their national grievances within the framework of the law, or were they to revolt?
To be sure, historical drama has frequently presented issues with timely messages, not only in national literatures where social or political relevance have been the rule rather than the exception, but in countries with little tradition of any direct interaction between life and letters. This is true of modern times also: T. S. Eliot’s Murder in the Cathedral is not only the story of Thomas à Becket, it is also a thinly veiled protest against authoritarian rule at a time when totalitarianism was looming over Europe, prior to World War II.
With Katona’s untimely departure from the literary scene, nineteenth-century Hungary lost her only playwright capable of attempting a tragedy of Shakespearean dimensions. There has been much futile scholarly speculation as to why no great drama was produced by an otherwise thriving literature after Katona; some critics have suggested that dramatic insight was lacking in the national character. The answer might be simpler than that: the Romantics’ adulation of Shakespeare was bound to lead to a cul-de-sac for dramatic literature all over Europe, it would be difficult to find great playwrights after Schiller and before the renewal heralded by Ibsen.
So, although theatrical life was blooming in Hungary, there were no great native tragedies to be performed; not that there was any lack of playwrights. Considering that Hungarian theatre was very young indeed, it is surprising how many reasonably good craftsmen were producing work for the theatre.
Public taste, which previously could not have been satisfied with anything other than a heavy, Romantic treatment of the national past (régi dicsőség), suddenly grew tired of gloomy and heroic subjects and demanded theatrical amusement in a lighter vein. Comedy containing political satire the days were long since past when adapted foreign plays with unfamiliar themes could entertain the public was the key to success. Ignác Nagy (1810-54), a clever journalist, who also tried his hand at writing novels, set an example in the new fashion. His County Election (1843) scored a great hit with the Pest public. The plot was simple: there were three suitors fighting for the hand of a fair widow, each of them representing an easily recognizable type in political life: the outgoing conservative alispán,* who expected to be reelected; the second candidate, a cunning lawyer with no political conviction whatsoever but a great social climber; and the third candidate, an honest, liberal-minded, progressive magistrate of the county (szolgabíró). Aranka, the widow, promised to marry the duly elected alispán. The plot provided a good opportunity for satire not only on the main characters, but on the whole machinery of a county election. Ignác Nagy’s lucky choice of subject-matter induced other playwrights to follow in his footsteps, and most probably influenced József Eötvös’s ambitious portrayal of Hungarian provincial society in his novel The Village Notary. Comedy of contemporary society was setting the trend now, and historical comedies, written in the fashion established by K. Kisfaludy, were declining in popularity.
In the same year as County Election was first produced, the son of a country protestant pastor, Károly Obernyik (1814-55) wrote a play entitled Aristocrat and Serf (1843). Obernyik received an Academy Award for his play, which dealt with an important social issue of the day: the injustice caused by the largely feudal class distinctions. The censor found his play too derogatory of the upper classes for public performance; Aristocrat and Serf was indeed an open revolt against social privileges, not without romantic excesses. Most of his other plays also dealt with social inequalities, and thus he is usually regarded as a champion of liberalism in the 1840s.
Plays by a promising young author, Zsigmond Czakó (1820-47), who committed suicide at the age of twenty-seven, were received warmly. A visiting English playwright, P. Simpson, saw proof of his talent in the original way Czakó employed dramatic effects in The Will (1845). Written in the French Romantic fashion, the conflict in The Will is caused by the mistaken identity of the main character who, when his real identity is revealed (he turns out not to be the son of Count Táray as he was brought up to believe), not only loses his position in society, but his sanity as well. Czakó’s ability to create psychological background and his ingenious use of special effects contributed to the success of the play. Of his other dramas, Leóna (1846) has unusual features, being an overtly romantic revolt against organized religion, with pantheistic overtones. Its subdued, poetic pessimism and resignation seemed to foreshadow the tragic end of Czakó. The language of his dramas, however, did not match the boldness of his imagination.
Károly Hugó (1817-77) was a flamboyant, colourful, not to say eccentric figure in the theatrical world. Of middle-class origin and a qualified doctor, Hugó wrote in Hungarian, German, and French. Hungarian drama might have gained a celebrated author in Hugó, had his overconfidence not rendered him a victim of his first success. His Banker and Baron (1847) was not only a hit, it caused a minor revolt in the night life of Pest (the wildly enthusiastic crowd carried the author bodily from the theatre to his favourite Café after the first night). Banker and Baron was a good play, based on a French short story and constructed with the strict application of the classic unities of time, place, and action. The play, which is a love triangle, has only three characters, and Hugó presented the common human virtues and vices, affections and passions with power and intrinsic dramatic qualities. The play gained added piquancy by being the first theatrical representation of a woman’s extramarital relationships. None of his other plays surpassed either the success or the artistic qualities of Banker and Baron, although Hugó had moderate success with them in the theatres of Paris, Hamburg, and Vienna, as well as his native Pest. He was also a popular lecturer on varied subjects (e.g. his own philosophy which he called ‘hugosophy’), and was interested in new methods of stage-management and direction. Hugó may be regarded as a forerunner of the theatrical renewal that took place in the late nineteenth century (Meiningen and H. Laube). His death was as sensational as his life: he was about to go on stage in Milan to deliver one of his amusing lectures, when he collapsed and died.
1843, the year noted for the huge success of County Election, also marked the turning point in the career of Ede Szigligeti (1814-78) with his play The Deserter. Szigligeti, like Katona, became addicted to the theatre while studying at the University of Pest. His aspiration to become a great actor came to nothing, but in his case too, experience in acting proved an asset in his career as a playwright. His intimate knowledge of stagecraft and skilled use of effects are apparent in all his plays. His background knowledge of the life of the provincial lesser nobility, whose traditional way of life suffered numerous conflicts as the slow process of modernization changed Hungarian society in the middle of the nineteenth century, provided him with ample material for his ever-increasing output.
He started his career by writing historical dramas in the 1830s, and soon established himself as the leading author of the National Theatre. (In the first thirty years of the history of the National Theatre one-third of all Hungarian plays performed were the work of Szigligeti.) His epoch-making influence was marked, however, not only by his output of original plays, but by his creation of a particular type of play which was to shape the development of Hungarian theatre in the second half of the nineteenth century.
This play is népszínmű.* The qualities of népszínmű are primarily determined by its subject-matter, which is drawn exclusively from incidents in the lives of common people, almost always peasants. The treatment of the subject-matter is in line with the social ideals of the Age of Reform, a desire first to popularize and then to improve the lot of the underprivileged peasantry. The warm reception of Szigligeti’s first népszínmű, The Deserter, illustrates the genuineness of this desire in the educated classes. (The fate of peasants who formed the larger part of the country’s population had been a matter of concern to the intelligensia ever since the Englightenment, if not from earlier times; the origins and growing popularity of the népies trend proved this point.) The key to an understanding of this outlandish genre is the acceptance of an emotional commitment in the author to the treatment of the subject-matter. Emotional commitment includes not only the glorification of ‘the people’, and a penchant for their values, but also a Weltanschauung whereby the author, although he may be unable to redress the social maladies of ‘the people’, is at least able to present social conflicts from their point of view and thereby serve poetic justice and arouse sympathy for their sufferings. To be sure, being a spokesman of a stratum of society traditionally believed incapable of self-expression involved not a few hazards. First of all, the unsolicited spokesman tended more often than not to be patronizing, and secondly, the danger of false sentimentality was always present in both author and public.
The external paraphernalia of the népszínmű (the characters speaking in dialect, the inclusion of folk-songs and folk-dance in appropriate scenes) were bound every now and then to produce undesired side-effects; tragedy was often lost in the spectacular trappings of local colour, and strange dialect words on occasion detracted from the effectiveness of otherwise tragic situations when the original romantic novelty of the genre began to wear off in the later part of the century. The limitations of the genre were bound to create stereotyped characters and situations, particularly at the peak of its popularity as more and more authors turned to népszínmű, with less and less first-hand knowledge. By the end of the century the cult had begun to decline, although a new theatre the Folk Theatre was established in 1875, specially for the production of népszínmű. This decline was indicated by the dominance of the comedy type of ‘folk-plays’, which had more in common with the English music-hall than with the original purpose of the népszínmű. Finally, when critics became annoyed and the public grew tired of the fanciful excesses of the authors, the decline was complete; all attempts to revive népszínmű in this century have invariably ended in failure, although certain stylistic elements a mild imitation of dialect speech and mannerism peculiar to népszínmű in acting survived the genre and became firmly embedded in the familiar stock-in-trade of show-business, particularly as far as cabaret, the film industry, and later television were concerned.
The origins of the népszínmű can be traced to various sources. Character-sketches of peasants and other népi figures were already employed in Csokonai’s or K. Kisfaludy’s plays. Fairy-plays, which were popular in the 1830s, besides containing supernatural elements also made use of motifs based on popular beliefs (e.g. Vörösmarty’s Csongor and Tünde, the singing of folk-songs in popular comedies also became standard practice. József Gaál’s adaptation of Gvadányi in The Notary of Peleske owed its success not only to folk-songs, but to the novely of local colour: scenes like the merry-making of the betyárs in the csárda on the plains of the Hortobágy were praised by the critics and loved by the public. In addition, the Viennese Volksstück, which in turn was influenced by the French vaudeville, also contributed to the development of the Hungarian népszínmű.
The merit of recognizing the potentialities of the various components undoubtedly belongs to Szigligeti. He wrote The Deserter for a competition. Its hero, a journeyman working at a village smithy who is forcibly enlisted in the army, is the eventual deserter, and his fate provides an opportunity for Szigligeti to air the social grievances of ‘the people’. Curiously, the liberal intelligentsia unequivocally praised the first népszínmű, although as a concession to contemporary taste Szigligeti chose a romantic cliché to conclude his play: his journeyman-blacksmith turned out to be the son of an aristocrat.
His other népszínműs included The Csikós (1847), The Gipsy (1853), and The Foundling (1863). The plot of The Csikós revolves around a murder of which the csikós* is falsely accused, and again Szigligeti had ample opportunity for social criticism in this skilfully-constructed play. The Gipsy, despite its sentimental overtones, has the merit of being the first attempt in Hungarian literature to describe the life of an ethnic minority. The Foundling indicates a new stage of népszínmű. The lack of folk-songs and dances stressed the tragic aspects of the conflict, which was largely psychological; the set of social norms which owed its existence to the social division within the village was largely responsible for the pattern of behaviour in the characters. When the heroine, an unmarried mother accused of murdering her own child, meets her former lover, now her judge, she keeps her secret to spare his family. She is cleared of the accusation by a lucky coincidence, but a sense of social injustice lingers on in the conclusion.
An entirely different side of Szigligeti’s talent manifested itself in his drawing-room comedies, based on well-constructed situations. On account of changing social relations, however, much of the humour in these comedies is dated now. Of his other plays, critics still consider Liliomfi (1849) not only his best comedy, but also the peak of his achievement in utilizing comic situations with sparkling dialogues and well-observed minor characters. At the same time Liliomfi is a tribute and epitaph to the early, heroic days of the Hungarian theatre, full of self-irony, but not lacking nostalgia for the days when Liliomfi and other travelling players led a life in which the comedies they presented on stage were nearly always contrasted with tragic events in their personal lives backstage.
|CHAPTER IX The Development of the Drama
|CHAPTER X Social Criticism and the Novel in the Age of Reform