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Molnár, Ferenc

(1878–1952), playwright, novelist, short-story writer, and journalist. The son of a hard-working Budapest physician, Ferenc Molnár grew up in a typical assimilated middle-class household. He became an international celebrity at a fairly young age, one of the very few Hungarian writers to have achieved that status in the twentieth century. In phenomenally successful plays such as Az ördög (The Devil; 1907), Liliom (1909), A testőr (The Guardsman; 1910), and Játék a kestélyban (The Play’s the Thing; 1926), he popularized, and in a sense vulgarized, the techniques and assumptions of the naturalist, impressionist, and symbolist theater, and revitalized the conventions of the nineteenth-century French drawing room comedy. Molnár was a consummate craftsman, a master of dialogue, pacing, and plot construction. Though far more than an entertainer, he failed whenever he tried to write “serious,” morally weighty dramas. Molnár scored his greatest successes abroad as a playwright; his many prose works, including brilliant sketches and humorous pieces, are less well-known outside of Hungary, although A Pál utcai fiúk (The Paul Street Boys; 1907) remains a juvenile classic in a number of European countries.

Ferenc Molnár grew up in Budapest, a city with a significant Jewish population. Thus Jewishness was very much in evidence, and discussions and debates about assimilation, antisemitism, Jewish wealth, Jewish poverty, Jewish identity, Jewish genius, and Jewish sins were ubiquitous, inescapable. No Hungarian Jewish writer, no matter how far removed from formal Judaism, could be indifferent or oblivious to these debates, and his writings always reveal feelings, sensitivities, anxieties related to Jewishness, even if the writing never explicitly treated Jewish subjects. Molnár, like many of his fellow Jewish writers, chose not to delve into the Hungarian Jewish experience, though the “Jewish Question” does surface in his works, in a rather pronounced way in Az éhes város (The Hungry City; 1901), an early social novel for which its 22-year-old author had Balzacian, Stendhalian ambitions, mostly unrealized. Here all the ills suffered by Jews are blamed on rich Jews. A young intellectual, clearly Molnár’s mouthpiece, declares: There are good Jews, decent, hardworking members of the middle class, who helped make the country great, and then there are the “bank potentates and stock market wolves and heartless moneybags, who should be pelted with stones by the antisemites—yes, I myself would join them.”

The more mature Molnár wrote hilarious and devastating satires about the pretensions and gaucheries of the Jewish parvenus of Budapest. His self-image as a Jew oscillated between pride, even swagger, and shame. In Játék a kastélyban, perhaps his most ingenious play, Turai, the playwright, is Molnár’s idealized self, the stage magician, a modern Prospero, while Gál, his pessimistic, neurotic, kvetch of a partner can be seen as his Jewish self. P. G. Wodehouse, in his brilliant English adaptation of the play, sensed this and changed the name Gál to the more Jewish-sounding Mansky.

In 1940, Molnár left Europe for good and settled in New York, where he was recognized as a master of the modern theater. His old hits were regularly revived or made into motion pictures. One of the classics of the American musical theater, Carousel, is based on his Liliom. But the new works he wrote in this period were a far cry from his earlier achievements. A curious product of his last years, a play called The King’s Maid, can be viewed as an attempt by an assimilated Jew to reconcile religions. The play is about an old, bearded Jewish peddler who finds a copy of the New Testament in a sack of discarded books, reads it and discovers Jesus for himself—and pays the price for it with his life. Not even Molnár’s Christological Judaism could save this play. Unbearably sentimental and preachy, it was a hopeless flop on stage.

Suggested Reading

Clara Györgyey, Ferenc Molnár (Boston, 1980); Ferenc Molnár, All the Plays of Molnár (Garden City, N.Y., 1937); István Várkonyi, Ferenc Molnár and the Austro-Hungarian “Fin de Siècle” (New York, 1991).