History of Western Theatre: 17th Century to Now/East European Pre-WWII

Ferenc Molnár

Ferenc Molnár presented Liliom, who after his death steals a star for his daughter. Photograph of the author, 1918

In the initial half of the 20th century, East European drama is honorably represented by the Hungarian dramatist, Ferenc Molnár (1878-1952), author of "Liliom" (1909) and "A testőr" (The guardsman, 1924).

"The life, death, and something of the after-life of the rough, or rough-neck, Liliom, is shown us- Liliom the barker and ballyhoo artist for a merry-go-round in an amusement park at Budapest. He is a citizen from the fringe of the criminal world with a personality powerfully attractive to simple-minded servant girls. Many of the young women come to ride on the merry- go-round and Liliom pockets their hearts and savings with equal impartiality. As an artist- the best barker in Budapest- he regards himself as a privileged character, and accepts his privileges as a matter of course" (Crawford, 1921 p 308). The play concerns a "tale of an amusement-park barker and bouncer who mistreats his wife, who idles while she works, and who tries to rob a cashier when he needs money for the baby she is expecting is a tragi-comic tribute to the nobility that exists in everybody. Behind Liliom’s worthless behavior and loafer’s bravura hides an affectionate human being; the trouble is only that his good angel is gauche and inarticulate. He is destined to repeat the pattern of his life even in his ghostly existence after he has stabbed himself to avoid arrest for the intended robbery. From the early scenes which bear the stamp of the naturalist school the scene shifts to the only kind of heaven that Liliom could have imagined- a celestial police court. Fifteen years later he is paroled for a day to visit his family, and to redeem himself by a good deed. But Liliom, the useless 'lily', is unchanged. Eager to bring his daughter a gift, he can think of nothing better than to steal a star for her during his descent. Hungering for affection in his gruff way, he slaps her when she shrinks from him, and the Heavenly Police, shaking their heads deploringly, take him back as a hopeless case. But his inchoate love remains a fact that his simple wife- and perhaps heaven, too!- understands fully" (Gassner, 1954a pp 479-480). The “richness of meaning is brought into relief by the quick, subtle gradations from realism to fancy. Almost every scene begins with the disarming simplicity of casual realism and grows, sometimes swiftly, sometimes leisurely, into romance or fantasy, a metaphysical heaven, or a whimsical reincarnation. Thus we have in the first scene a sordid quarrel among uncouth characters leading slowly into the romance of Juli and Liliom, as they rise out of themselves to accept their love. In the second scene, the squalor of drab domesticity is swept clean by the spontaneous, primitively noble cry of Liliom, ‘I'm to be a father.’ In the fifth scene, the few simple details of the delivery of the wounded Liliom to Juli rapidly give place to his pathetic last words, as dying he seems to express what living he could not—and the scene ends still another level removed from the realistic when two heavenly policemen take the dead Liliom away. Most striking of all, in scene seven, into the midst of the prosaically well-ordered life of Juli and her now sixteen-year-old daughter comes Liliom, neither as a ghost nor as himself, but as a beggar, whom Juli does not recognize, not objectively, yet she is touched somehow, supernaturallv, by the same sympathetic chord that brought them together when he was alive. Of such juxtaposition of realism and fantasy in the same scene, the best example is the embankment episode. Liliom and Ficsur await the coming of the cashier. As they rehearse the holdup, Liliom remarks with childlike naivete on the romance of the unending railroad tracks, of the power in the locomotive, of the secret conversations in the telephone wires, of the little bird that looks at him. Here, as elsewhere, the effect is gained by the contrast not only of situation but of the two natures within Liliom himself. The result of such interplay of realism and fancy is a continual titillation of the senses. One is never left on a dead level of the prosaic, yet every flight of fancy is established by the speech and action of real, plain, folk characters” (Gergerly, 1947 p 25). “The tone of harsh laughter that pervades this play is the work of a dramatist who knows his business every inch of the way. Liliom is one of those characters who stand for a universal human trait. And a human trait was never presented in a more engaging manner than in Molnar’s play” (Moderwell, 1972 p 236). "Molnar, like Gerhardt Hauptmann in some of his plays, fused naturalistic and romantic elements into the construction and psychology of 'Liliom', which seems like a conspiracy between ingenuity and poetry. Many were unprepared for this kind of a theatrical experience. To dramatize is to externalize, but not at the expense of the internal perspective of a conflict. Underneath Molnar's sentiments there is sentimentality; his 'transcendental' imagination has nothing to do with the naivete of an angelic spirit. His wisdom is not that of a childlike poet, but of a charitable cleverness participating in the plight of mortality and hopes of eternity” (Remenyi, 1946 p 1195). "Poor Liliom, barker for a merry-go-round in an amusement park, what is he but once more the eternal outcast, wanderer, unquiet one? He hasn't been taught a trade; he can't settle down as a care-taker; he isn't canny like the excellent Berkowitz. But he loves Julie. She weeps over his worthlessness and he strikes her out of misery, to flee from self-abasement, to preserve some sort of superiority and so some liking for himself. She is to have a child and something cosmic and elemental tugs at the bully's heart. Are love and fatherhood only for the canny ones, the treaders in the mill, the hewers of wood? This is the conflict that destroys him. He is, viewed in another fashion, Everyman, and the little play, which has its shoddy, sentimental patches, is a sort of gay and rough and pitiful divine comedy. Liliom did not ask to be born with those imperious instincts into a tight, legalized, moral world. Society demands so much of him and gives him nothing wherewith to fulfil those demands. The world process has not even given him brains enough to think himself beyond demands and restrictions. He struggles with his body and nerves. His mind is docile. He believes that he is a sinner, he doesn't doubt that there are police courts in heaven as there are on earth, that there are cleansing, purgatorial fires, and a last chance, maybe, to be good. But neither the fires of hell nor his belief in them have power to change the essential character with which the implacable universe brought him forth. His notion of an expiatory action is to steal a star from the sky for his little daughter. He is Liliom still, and the joke is on the order with which man has sought to snare the wild cosmos. The joke is on a man-made world and a man-made heaven, because both that world and that heaven have used force. The joke is not on Julie. Julie has used love. 'There are blows that don't hurt; oh, yes, there are blows that you don't feel.' Love does not feel the blows. Love does not demand nor coerce nor imprison. Paradise is in the heart of love. For the sake of that ending you forgive Molnar the shoddy, sentimental little patches, for the sake of that moment which is beautiful, which is indeed great" (Lewisohn, 1922 pp 68-69). “Liliom is the modern anti-hero, shiftless, arrogant, vain, stupid, and cruel. But there is a touch of the lover and poet in his proud, contradictory personality. He beats Julie on the face, arms, and breasts and refuses to go to work. Yet he is fiercely loyal to her and will not return to Mrs Muskat’s employ if he must desert her. He is a bully and a criminal, yet the sounds of the amusement park, with their suggestion of imaginative fantasy, gaiety, gentle fun, art, and artifice, provide a leitmotif that enthralls him. He refuses to settle in a mundane domestic existence and accept the stifling job of caretaker to support Julie and his new child. This pride and independence are both laudable and selfish...His natural instincts about fatherhood are those of pride, tenderness, and hope, yet he realizes that that he will become irrevocably tied to a materialistic, conventional, and demanding world. He insists that he will never become a caretaker and settle down in domestic squalor, but his desperate need to avoid the confinements of society turn him into an outlaw” (Grace, 1973 pp 262-263). “There is something about Liliom that commands admiration. He is a great lover. Apparently his conquests have been notorious for some time. But when he meets Julie, the modest servant girl, he gives her all his heart and makes her supremely happy. Although neither one of them has much gift of speech, their devotion is mutually overwhelming; and when Liliom finds out that he is become a father, his joy is ecstatic. Society and ultimately God are compelled to look with disapproval on his repeated delinquencies. But all the mean and cruel things spring from his love for Julie. He beats her because he cannot bear to see her suffering, the beating being a bully’s cry of helplessness...It is greatly to Molnar’s credit that he could imagine such a dynamic character and carry him through such homely and trifling crises” (Atkinson, 1947 p 157). "A little of Marie's spirit would have accomplished more than all of Julie's spirituality in handling Liliom. Her combativeness was a language he understood. Julie's habit of turning the other cheek increased his fury, patience being no virtue but a weakness in his eyes. She even contributed to his delinquency according to the popular theory that the other person is guilty if he hits you once, but you are to blame if he hits you twice. When Liliom struck Julie it lessened his self-respect (since there is honor, why not self-respect, among thieves?) and this reacted in another blow. Her silent presence accused him. He could not bear her stricken look" (Battey, 1921 p 8). The play “is not only a brilliant examination of the insoluble problem of who is worthy of redemption but also a study of compassion and suffering, a thorough analysis of the relation of the created character to his family, society...Though he has few redeeming qualities, [Liliom] elicits admiration. He refuses to obey society’s laws and vehemently rejects ordinary responsibility...Julie...emerges as the eternal female ideal. She loves unselfishly, with undemanding devotion and endurance, with almost supernatural insight and common sense, she grasps the realities of life and the true nature of her man. Demonstrating the finest ideals of love and wifehood, this simple woman guides their married life with primordial intuition and wins Liliom from the crafty Mrs Muskat. She is taciturn and inarticulate, but her farewell speech to her husband, inevitably a soliloquy, is genuinely moving and poetic. Her character develops before us; through her love, the ignorant, passive Julie metamorphoses into an epitome of wise womanhood. She learns all that can be learned of the cruelty and beauty of life. Instead of marrying her suitor, a well-to-do, reliable carpenter with whom she could enjoy comfort and stability, she remains faithful to Liliom’s memory and brings up her daughter alone, working in a factory… structure, though loose, is crafted with boundless inventiveness, energy, and flowing suggestiveness...The style is...eclectic, highly poetic, symbolic, colloquial, grotesque, as well as sentimental, changing swiftly from episode to episode. The dialogue is pungent with idioms and the racy folksiness of the contemporary social classes it represents. The warm emotional tone is interrupted with pathos, delicate irony, and rhapsodic passion” (Györgyey, 1980 pp 151-154).

"The guardsman", "a pungent, frivolous comedy, an apotheosis of jealousy, presents the predicament of a man who feel he is not loved for what he thinks he is and needs to masquerade as what he believes his wife wants. Since he schemed not only to prove himself as a man but to demonstrate his acting ability, he traps himself into a compromise no matter how she reacts. The critic warns him: ‘it looks bad, my friend, she’s in love with you as a guardsman. You wont be able to control yourself; you’ll seduce your own wife’. And he almost does. Except that the wife is also masquerading, pretending to be ignorant of the guardsman’s identity, only to reveal at the end that her responses were also play-acting to prove her worth as an actress. Thus, the actor’s self-revelation is voided of meaning by his wife’s pretense of pretense. Molnár contrasted relative and absolute truths before Pirandello. He did nor deal simply with lies; he dealt in illusions of the truth that are made true only because people believe in them...The style is gracious and poetic. Molnár tosses off his thin and perilously unbelievable story with great ease. The conspiratory tone, interwoven with irony, lends the play an urbane sophistication. The dialogues are swift and full of sanguine exuberance even when dispersing Molnár’s philosophy” (Györgyey, 1980 pp 94-96). At the end, “she claims that she has recognized him from the first and has merely- played her part. Thus he has to choose between the wounding of his professional pride as an actor and the loss of faith in his wife. The husband in him wins out—he believes her. But the play ends on a note of doubt, a touch of cynicism” (Gergerly, 1947 p 49).


In the after life as in real life, Liliom is the cause of women's suffering, including his daughter and wife, played respectively by Joseph Schildkraut (1896-1964), Evelyn Chard (?-?), and Eva Le Gallienne (1899-1991) in the Theatre Guild production, New York, 1921

Time: 1900s. Place: Budapest, Hungary.

Text at http://www.gutenberg.org/ebooks/48749 http://www.archive.org/details/liliomlegendinse00molnuoft https://archive.org/details/liliomalegendin00molngoog https://archive.org/details/twentyfivemodern001705mbp https://archive.org/details/theatreguildanth00thea

Mrs Muskat, owner of an amusement park, has caught Julie flirting with one of her employees, the one responsible for the carousel, Liliom. She warns Julie never to come back. Julie denies having done anything wrong, Liliom being in the habit of taking many a girl by the waist and flattering them. She is defended by her friend, Marie. When Liliom hears of their argument, he is offended. "I suppose I am to ask your permission whenever I touch another girl," he comments sarcastically to his boss. "I permit no indecency in my carousel," she counters. But Liliom defies her. They quarrel until she dismisses him. Julie is dismayed at this turn of events. Intending to retrieve his clothes, Liliom asks Julie and Marie to wait for him. "Why are you waiting for him?" Marie asks her friend. "He said we were to wait for him," Julie answers simply. When Liliom returns, he specifies what he said. "I meant that one of you was to wait." Julie and Marie look at each other and it is Marie who leaves. The conversation between Liliom and Julie is interrupted by two policemen, one of whom warning her about Liliom's habit of taking advantage of women and absconding with their money. When Liliom asks her whether she is afraid about what the officer said, she answers: "I pay no attention to what he said." "Suppose you had some money and I took it from you?" Liliom further asks. "Then you could take it, that's all," she replies. A few weeks later, Liliom and Julie marry and live in a dilapidated hovel owned by Mrs Hollunder, who complains of this lazy and shiftless man, out of work, without prospects, and liable to take his wife's money for his own purposes. Julie defends him, though she admits to Marie he hit her once. "He's a bad one," comments Marie. "He's not really bad," replies Julie. Having to her cost noted Liliom's value at the carousel, Mrs Muskat asks him to return, specifying he must abandon his wife, since a married man would never be so popular with the women there. Liliom accepts the offer, but, on learning of his wife's pregnancy, he hopes for larger gains by other means. Indeed, he and a friend, Ficsur, plan to commit a robbery. Ficsur suggests that he should take a knife along. Julie suspects Liliom and Ficsur are up to no good. She is horrified on learning that a knife is missing from Mrs Hollunder's kitchen. Liliom and Ficsur await the arrival of a paymaster rumored to be carrying the considerable sum of 16,000 kronen. To pass the time, they play cards and Liliom loses his part of the haul. Aftre being accosted by the two would-be robbers, the paymaster deftly seizes Ficsur's arm, points a gun at Liliom, and laughs at them for attacking a man carrying no money. As policemen approach, Ficsur breaks loose from his hold as both attempt to escape. The paymaster aims at Liliom as the better target. Fearing prison, Liliom plunges the knife in his own breast and falls. On his death-bed, he admits to Julie he never gave her anything positive and requests her to tell their child he was not much good. After his death, two men in black identify themselves to him as heaven's policemen, commanding him to get up and follow them to a magistrate, who, after interrogating him, pronounces that he will burn for 16 years, at the end of which his future will depend on whether he can do at least one good deed after returning to earth for a single day. At the end of the 16-year period, Liliom approaches Julie and their daughter, Louise, as a beggar. He tries to speak to them, but they give him little chance to express himself. He also tries to do at least one good deed but is unable to. The two policemen remonstrate while taking him away, yet Julie continues to speak favorably of him to her daughter. "Someone may beat you and beat you and beat you and not hurt at all," she concludes.

“The guardsman”

In trying to mystify his wife, the guardsman is mystified in return. Claire Wallentin (1879-1934), Alfred Abel (1879-1937), and Max Adalbert (1774-1933) as the actress, the actor, and the critic at the Kleinen Theater, Berlin, 1912

Time: 1900s. Place: Budapest, Hungary.

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An actor worries that his wife, Marie, also in the acting profession, no longer loves him. He speculates that she may one day love a soldier, so that he has made himself known to her disguised as a general of the Russian imperial guards and regularly sends her flowers. One day, he promises to visit her should she give him a signal at her window. She does, and he enters, her own husband disguised as a lover. In the midst of polite conversation, they agree to meet at the anteroom of the opera house during the performance of Puccini’s “Madame Butterfly”, where the guardsman confesses he loves her. To his joy, she specifies that she will never deceive her husband. Yet when he asks her whether she would allow him to come to her drawing room the next day, she accepts. The following day, the actor pretends to have hired a spy who saw her with a soldier at the opera. She denies it and proposes a divorce for suspecting her. He denies suspecting her. As they speak of a fellow actor, he presents himself suddenly before her in the guardsman’s uniform. She appears glad to see him and assures him he had been recognized from the first minute. The actor is unsure whether that statement is truthful, but is nevertheless glad to act as if it were so in any case.

Milán Füst

Füst presented various conflicts between a man and his two mistresses, his mother, and his sister. Pastel of the author by István Pal (1888-1928), 1923

A second Hungarian dramatist, Milán Füst (1888-1967), presented less cheerful matter in "Boldogtalanok" (The wretched, 1923).

"The wretched"


Time: 1914. Place: Hungary.

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Having been separated from him for 5 years, Mrs Huber steps into a miserable-looking apartment looking for her son, Vilmos, only to discover Roza ironing clothes, his fellow worker at a printing shop for religious books, a woman she has never heard of who has been living with her son for 3 years. Even more surprising, Roza avers that she is the one who pays for the apartment, since Vilmos spends his money on other girlfriends, despite being the father of her 2-year boy kept by a nanny. In reality it is Roza’s admirer, Ferenc Sirma, a butcher, who lends his apartment rent-free to her in exchange for sexual favors, in addition to sending food over, which she shares with Mrs Huber. Roza suggests that Mrs Huber may apply for a job as governess at Sirma’s house, since, to the mother’s astonishment, another girl is set to live with the couple. By chance, Vilmos’ sister, Rozsi, steps in, pretending to be unaware of her mother’s presence, but also looking for her brother and unaware of who Roza is. She leaves a message that she wishes to speak with him. The nanny steps in with the 2-year-old sick with fever, for whom Vilmos, as he enters, promises to send a doctor. His mother complains how Rozsi beats her and that her ears hurt, resulting in partial deafness. Out of pity, Roza hands over her shawl to protect them. After Mrs Huber leaves, Vilmos tells Roza that his mother has more money than she has. Ferenc notices Roza’s distress as soon as he steps in, but is rudely dismissed by Vilmos. His co-worker and Roza’s friend, Vilma, enters to go to the theatre with the couple, but Roza refuses. Vilma announces that a stranger accosted her on the street, a physician who knows Vilmos since high school days, at a time when Vilmos tried to kill himself. While Roza steps out to offer Vilma dinner, Vilmos takes hold of her hand, which she indignantly removes. The shop being already closed, Roza returns empty-handed, notices Vilma’s distress, and recognizes the reason. Believing to have left a package behind, Mrs Huber returns and, Roza having changed her mind, joins all three for the theatre. One week later, at the printing shop, Mrs Huber informs her son that since Rozsi continues to beat her, she wants him to take her up, then suddenly exits after seeing her enter. Likewise, Rozsi has had enough of a mother unable to hold a job, lazy and liable to steal. She insists that Vilmos take her up. He angrily declines, but tries to soften her up by offering a dress already wrapped in a package. She notices that the address is incorrect and abruptly leaves when the stranger Vilma mentioned, Doctor Beck, comes over to greet his old school chum, as Roza advances to thank him for examining her son. Doctor Beck wants Vilmos to help him start a new journal. Vilmos will think it over and in the meantime would like him to examine his mother’s ears. The doctor accepts, but when Mrs Huber returns, she looks anxious and reluctantly follows him. Soon after, the doctor returns to report that her mother escaped from him. Vilmos laughs, more out of shame than amusement. He informs Vilma about his intention of quitting his job and wants her to follow him. Roza interrupts their talk, rapidly appraising their troubled state. She discovers that Vilma is pregnant. Pretending to care for her, she counsels Vilma to avoid following Vilmos. Both women burst with laughter on seeing Mrs Huber arrive with a young woman’s dress meant for her daughter. Two weeks later, Ferenc tells Roza that he wants to take back his apartment, intending her to live with him. He is particularly disgusted to watch Vilmos living with two women. Mrs Huber enters to say she has lost her job again, blaming her deafness. She nevertheless bought a bottle of cognac for 60 kreutzers from a poor man in the street, which Roza pays back, but is disappointed that the old woman failed to bring over something to abort her baby. Vilma tells Roza that she met Doctor Beck, who recommends that Roza go over to see her still ailing 2-year-old, which she does, followed by Ferenc. When the doctor finally examines Mrs Huber, he discovers that her deafness is faked: no surprise for Vilmos who always knew she hates work. For his part, he rejects the doctor’s offer. Ferenc returns reporting that the boy is very sick. When he takes out the bottle of cognac, he discovers only water. The doctor refuses to play cards, so that Ferenc and Vilmos play together. In financial difficulties, Vilmos asks Ferenc to borrow 5 florins. The latter refuses because the man already owes him 150 florins. But when Vilma re-enters, Vilmos pretends that it is Ferenc who owes him 5 florins and so the latter yields them to him to avoid shaming him. Roza re-enters with the news that her child is choking as a weak Mrs Huber re-enters admitting that she has consumed rat poison. Vilmos runs over to find Doctor Beck, who, by chance, comes back after leaving behind his medical bag. However, he arrives too late to save her. One month later, her 2-year old dead, Roza has a single thought: ridding herself in any way of Vilma. She starts reading her a letter from a third woman Vilmos is involved with, but Vilma refuses to hear. Her pregnancy being more advanced, Vilma wonders nervously what will happen to her. Roza proposes Ferenc as a way out, but Vilma is horrified at the thought and refuses meat when his apprentice comes over. The two women’ talk is interrupted by Rozsi, only to say that she is leaving town and that her brother will no longer see her. The apprentice returns because Ferenc wishes to know whether Roza wants food, but Vilma turns him away again after Roza gives him money. But yet he returns, because Ferenc refuses any money from her. Roza takes the opportunity to send the boy to the inn where Vilmos entertains the third woman and ask him to come home. Seeing Vilma appear more desperate, Roza takes out a revolver and places it on the table, but hides it after hearing Father Szekely’s voice, Vilmos’ superior at the shop, who deposits an urgent manuscript for Vilmos’ attention. The apprentice returns with wine from Vilmos, set to come home only when he will feel sleepy. Out of pity for the women, the priest heads for the inn to take back Vilmos. Vilma is ashamed at being found out living under such conditions, especially by a priest. Taking advantage of her distress, Roza hands her a revolver behind a curtain. Vilmos enters unconcerned and then steps out again without noticing the women. Angry that Vilma failed to shoot herself, Roza pulls at her hair, scratches her, then pulls her back behind the curtain. Vilmos returns to pick up the manuscript and hears a shot. Roza comes out to say that Vilma has killed herself.

Witold Gombrowicz

Witold Gombrowicz mixed fantasy and realism in the fictional kingdom of Burgundia. Photograph by Bohdan Paczowski

Also of note in this period is the Polish dramatist, Witold Gombrowicz (1904-1969), author of "Iwona, księżniczka Burgunda" (Ivona, princess of Burgundia, 1935).

"Ivona, princess of Burgundia" "may be treated as a grotesque fairytale somewhat in the style of Büchner's 'Leonce und Lena' (1836), Jarry's 'Ubu the king' (1896) and, from a somewhat later date, Schwartz's stylized 'Kunstmarchen'...The setting is the world of the court, situated in some vague fairytale-like kingdom, with all its stultifying conventions, class prejudice and arrogance, moreover with its strictly defined hierarchy of power and status, its despotic king all the way down to the most destitute beggar, and this would explain, it seems to me, Gombrowicz's fascination with this milieu, the model of a society whose behavior is solely governed by form. But the world of form, as opposed to authentic existence, is disrupted when the prince, in defiance of a time-honored convention, introduces into the court the woman he has chosen as his fiancee, a commoner by the name of Ivona, the 'flower of the lowest social strata', whose strange debilitating condition thrusts the entire court into panic...In the end, the refusal of the court and by extension, of society to acknowledge the ugly truth about itself, its refusal to become identified with the inferior and vegetable-like Ivona, causes the unwelcome intruder to be murdered and 'normalcy' restored...When the members of the court begin to feel threatened by Ivona's presence and conspire to do away with her by causing her to choke on a bony pike, each reverts to the role prescribed by convention: the prince becomes more conscious of his 'princeliness' and sexuality; the king's dictatorial reign now begins to assume a sinister and paranoiac character; the queen regains her grace and composure as 'befits a lady of her position'" (Iribarne, 1971 pp 62-70).

The play “exemplifies the deadly entrapment of the attempt to maintain appearances at all costs. While on one level it is a relatively recognizable ironic fairy tale (deconstructing the Cinderella version of acceding to the aristocracy and exposing the grasp, voracity and murderous retentiveness of those in power), it adds the particularly Gombrowiczian analysis that this behaviour is bolstered and justified by the insistence on adherence to good form…The rhythm of the play follows the classic escalation of farce, as the royals lose all dignity in their increasingly ludicrous machinations. The black hole of Ivona seems to exert an increasing velocity of chaos upon the established order. She serves thus as a sign of the power of the Absurd itself in the absurd constellation of events visited upon Poland by a whole succession of powers between the eighteenth and twentieth centuries. The Absurd is apparently misbegotten, ugly, incomprehensible, inarticulate and unapproachable, but resolutely present, the materialization of a subaltern, outsider, discordant and disruptive energy which works not to maintain but to destroy” (Yarrow, 2015 pp 118-119).

“Despite her timidity, Ivona turns out to be self-contained and independent of others whom she does not try to impress. This lack of concern irritates, angers and makes them hostile and aggressive towards Ivona...She does not play the social game...She immobilizes other characters’ social selves, exposing inner selves which they carefully guard from the gazes of those around them. Prince Philip feels that Ivona’s indifference is a way of pointing out that he is not the forceful and decisive person he should be as the crown prince. The courtiers detect in Ivona‘s behavior an illusion to their own secret defects...The maids of honor, for example, suddenly remember that they wear wigs and false teeth. The queen fears that the mawkish poetry she writes has been found out” (Thompson, 1979 pp 46-47). “The real question of the play arises as a truly ambiguous one: who is the fool and who is normal? Which one the beast and which the all too human” (Biró, 2000 p 102).

“Iwona's pathological shyness creates formlessness in the most formal of all societies, the court, by preventing her from giving appropriate reactions to those around her. She thus breaks the action-reaction cycle, creating chaos and releasing everyone's carefully hidden ugliness...The genre of the fairy tale...is twisted by the central character, who should be a beautiful princess, preferably in some kind of distress, but who, in fact, is an ugly, silent, and sullen commoner, totally unable to perform her role...The prince tries to free himself from Iwona's love by simply refusing to treat her seriously: ‘I’ve changed. I changed my tone and suddenly everything has changed!...Ha, ha, ha!...even if you stand here for a year, your gloominess and difficulty won't overcome my light-heartedness and ease.’ Laughter is presented as one of the most powerful weapons against form. Unfortunately, no action of the prince's can prevent Iwona from thinking about him, nor, more importantly, prevent him from thinking that she is thinking about him, and so he is forced into returning to seriousness...The fact that Iwona's shyness eventually threatens to destroy the society demonstrates the surprising power of the individual” (Baraniecki, 1985 pp 241-244).

"Problems of identity, facelessness, and man's utter loneliness are frequently interwoven into the fabric of Gombrowicz' dramas, most particularly in Ivona, princess of Burgundia (1935) and Marriage (1946)...Ivona is the focal point of the drama. She symbolizes the negative aspects of the three main protagonists: Philippe's weaknesses, the queen's past orgies, and the king's previous murders- the guilt to which these characters and their acts have given rise. She is, in effect, their shadow. Disturbing, provocative, her role is as important in disrupting the status quo (peace and harmony which reign at court and which, symbolically speaking, create a static climate, impeding the growth process) as is evil's or the devil's presence in society. Like Lucifer, the light bringer, the irritant, vonne, the creator of turmoil, ushers in renewed energy and with it the possibility of creativity...Prince Philip is a typical adolescent who wants to strike out on his own. In his attempt to achieve independence, he rejects his parents and his entourage...He seeks to transform her; to mold her into the likeness of the others at court. Then he becomes dazzled by the deeper significance of his act...The king and queen bear no personal names. They exist in this play as functions only, with little or no rapport to anyone, even to their son- who could be anybody's son. They are certainly troubled by Philip's act, which amounts to a questioning of their authority. Yet they are endowed with a certain amount of wisdom, and rather than enforce their will, which they feel might lead to misunderstanding between parent and child as well as to the cementing of a bad relationship between Philip and Ivona, they stand aside acquiescing to his caprices. They seem to know their son well: his lack of perseverance, his cowardliness, his fickle and unfeeling nature" (Knapp, 1971 pp 75-79).

"Ivona, princess of Burgundia"


Time: 1930s. Place: Fictional country of Burgundia.

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Two among Prince Philip's friends encourage him to enjoy himself in amorous relations, one of whom blurting out enthusiastically: "Let us function functionally as a function of our jubilant animal youthfulness." Instead, the prince's eye is attracted by Ivona, an ugly woman with a silent disposition. To his friends' astonishment and dismay, he proposes marriage to her. She appears apathetic, no one able to make her even curtsy before the king and queen. The prince proposes to draw her out, but is unable to, not even in the form of a smile. "Do you believe Christ died for you on the cross?" he asks. "Yes," she answers contemptuously. At last, Philip notices Ivona staring at him, as he thinks, in an unbecomingly voluptuous manner. Exasperated, he threatens to cut her throat, but then specifies he was only joking. Innocent, a courtier, shows up with the surprising news that he, too, though in a humbler way, loves Ivona, who angrily tells him to go away. The chamberlain opines it is up to the king to discover her feelings. The king first hesitates, and then accepts, but the more he approaches her, the farther she backs away, making him quite angry. Philip decides on another tactic: he pretends to have slept with another woman and to repudiate her. Her sole response is to lift a stray hair from her rival's head and leave the room. Seeing everyone at their wit's end, the chamberlain has an idea: inviting Ivona to a brilliant banquet with many people about, so that, intimidated and flustered, she would perhaps choke herself to death on a fish-bone. The king and prince agree, but during the banquet, they change their minds, reminding her how dangerous it is to eat perch. Despite their warnings, she chokes herself to death on the fish-bone.