A Dramatic Poem from Hungary to the
Theatres of the World

It may sound like a paradox, but The Tragedy of Man, one of the most famous works of Hungarian literature which has been translated into twenty-nine different languages, was born in 1859-1860 in a small god-forsaken village (Alsósztregová/Dolná Strehová), in the backwoods of prewar, historical Hungary.

The country seat of the Madách family was not the only one in Hungary where landlords, after the daily toils of farming, found refuge in a rich library and in the centuries old documents of the family archives. The Madáches could trace their origins back to the beginning of the thirteenth century and had every right to be proud of their past: they counted generals, poets and famous free masons among their ancestors.

Our poet, Imre Madách (1823-1864), started reading at a tender age; he studied books in the German, French, Latin and Greek original, as well as, of course, in Hungarian. He was but five and a half years old when he composed his first “manuscript”: a two-line poem in French, written for his father’s name-day. The future poet was only 14 when he started his university studies. The date was 1837; the year when the best sons of the Hungarian gentry took the lead in a movement towards liberalism. Theoretical books and practical experience had convinced them of the historical necessity of progress. The movement was aimed at the defeudalization of Hungary and at raising it to the Western European level of that time. Unfettered by linguistic barriers, the youth of this generation devoured everything that promised spiritual enrichment and social development: English economics, French political science, German philosophy and, naturally, literature: the great works of the flourishing Age of Romanticism. The subject of their enthusiasm was constantly changing much like Adam’s, the protagonist in The Tragedy of Man. They searched for forms of rational human activity, for means of self-expression and self-realization. Imre


Madách lived among these enthusiastic reformers, shared their feelings and ideas. Like the other members of his generation, he also tried his hand at poetry and romantic historical drama and applauded the performances of the National Theatre. After his graduation as a lawyer, Madách experienced the difficulties of introducing into practice in local politics the liberal and radical ideas he had encountered as a university student. The members of this generation prepared themselves consciously for the great historical task of de-feudalization; they tried to shape their roles by imitating the heroes of antiquity and of the French Revolution and Lord Byron, who had died for the cause of freedom. In 1848, at the “Spring-time of Nations”, it was they who formed the Hungarian vanguard of the European revolutions, it was they who fought the battles of the Hungarian bourgeois revolution and of the National War of Independence. In vain did Victor Hugo’s, Heinrich Heine’s and Henrik Ibsen’s poems greet their struggle with enthusiasm, in vain did they enjoy the sympathy of the European people and of the American public opinion: the two great military powers of Europe at that time—the Emperor of Austria and the “Tsar of all Russians”—nipped the young Hungarian republic in the bud by their joint military force. Hungary became temporarily part and parcel of the powerful Habsburg Empire.

After 1849 Madách’s liberal generation saw its very incentive to live collapse. The Madáches—like almost every other family in Hungary—mourned their sons who had fallen on the battlefields, been carried off to captivity or been forced to emigrate. Those who remained had to cope hidden among the walls of their manor-houses, with an other, internal but no less painful task: they had to confront the recent past, pondering over their seemingly defeated ideals, almost masochistically analysing the reasons for their failure, at times casting doubt on the very judiciousness of these ideals. In Hungary, as in all of Europe, the era of romantic enthusiasm was followed by a decade of doubts.

Without this short historical survey it would be difficult to understand how a poem on Mankind could have taken shape at the writing desk of Madách, a poem, Hungarian to its very core, albeit none of the scenes depicted takes place in Hungary and the work is


completely free from self-bewailing provincialism. Both heroes of The Tragedy of Man represent the poet himself—Adam, the idealist, as well as Lucifer, the sober disenchanter.

Madach wrote his poem on Humanity, a favourite genre of romantic literature with which he was familiar. His library contained copies of Goethe’s Faust and Byron’s Manfred and Cain, and their influence on his work is undisputable. Madách’s Tragedy, Victor Hugo’s The Legend of Centuries and Ibsen’s Peer Gynt are not connected by the dates of their creation alone, but also by their common approach to the problem. Literary works dealing with the meaning of the acts of man and, raising the ultimate question of human existence had not been unknown in Hungary either. Romantic fairy-tales, dramas which took place in the Land of Nowhere and speculative poetry had dealt before Madách with moments of helplessness, moments which occur only in the life of men who are full of fervour and ready to act. All this was enhanced by a new trend in philosophy which, in the 1850’s, raised again the perennial question of the priority of matter over mind. In this period, new and more advanced scientific discoveries and arguments strengthened the position of materialism. Natural sciences and the philosophy of history, lyrical self-identification and positivistic ideology are fused together in Madách’s work The Tragedy of Man—as we have tried to elucidate—has values closely linked with the given period, both in Hungarian national culture and world literature, a more detailed analysis of which is left to the scholars.

Here and now, however, we are intrigued by another paradox: which are those timeless, to be more precise, theatrical values of The Tragedy of Man which have preserved its place for a century on the Hungarian stage and for more than nine decades on the stages of the world? The content of the more than 4100 lines in the work will be analyzed from the same perspective. Madách wrote lyrical poems which reflect many thoughts expressed later on in The Tragedy of Man but, frankly speaking, as a poet he was quite mediocre. He, whose other dramas could be produced only after considerable re-writing, found in the Tragedy the literary genre which suited him perfectly. Both the possibilities of a play unrestricted by time and space, and the structure of the dramatic poem, were eminently suited to his thoughts and style.


Madách based the substantial collection of thoughts in the Tragedy on philosopher’s, well-known theory, according to which the clash between contradictions leads to the birth of a new, higher quality. Adam, reviewing in his sleep the history of Mankind, is confronted with the new and earthshaking ideas of the various eras. One by one these ideas turn into their opposites and thus become the starting points of new historical epochs. Yet in the play, this does not sound didactic or tedious as history is not presented with philological accuracy but in the form of visions seen by Adam. The thoughts of the historical ages presented in Adam’s dreams in Scenes IV-XIII, of the Tragedy are worked into the biblical framework of Scenes I-III, and Scene XV. This arc is more than a mere dramatic fiction or a biblical paraphrase: it is a conflict-laden exposition; it is the struggle between God and Lucifer for the most valuable element of the newly-created world: Man. Madách preferred to leave the struggle undecided, as a full-blooded dramatic conflict. Up to Scene XV he interpreted the well-known biblical stories relatively freely, almost as poetic raw material. This interpretation distinguishes Madách's work from its predecessors, among others from the celestial prologue in Goethe’s Faust. Yet Madách had to go beyond the traditional, romantic confrontation of Good and Evil; he did not want to restrict the manifold conception of his work to ethical problems. Thus, the struggle between God and Lucifer cannot be interpreted purely statically; it is more than a theological conflict, more than the beginning of a clash between “civitas dei” and “civitas diaboli” and more than the philosophical confrontation between idealism and materialism. A brief description of the various scenes will illustrate this point. In the first scene of the Tragedy, the mechanical perfection of the order of the newly created world on the one hand is confronted by its antithesis, eternal intellectual negation, on the other:

The giant structure is completed, yes! The engine turns, while its Creator rests.
It will rotate for many million years
Before I must renew its wornout gears.  


Did You not feel a void inside Your thoughts
Which was the bar of every life You planned?
This has compelled You to create a world—
Well, this obstruction’s name was Lucifer,
The ancient spirit of negation—I!   In the story of the Fall, the second scene of the Tragedy Madách continues to follow the biblical story. In the third scene Adam and Eve, having been exiled from Paradise, settle down on the earth they will cultivate:

Just this is mine. Instead of all the world
This little spot of earth becomes my home.
I shall protect it from voracious beasts
And force its soil to yield our day bread.

And I shall build a bower like the one
We had before; and so I shall bring back
Our lost Garden of Eden.

At the end of Scene III Lucifer—upon Adam’s request—cause Adam and Eve to fall asleep and shows them the future of humanity. In Scene IV-XIV Madách enables and requires the three leading actors to make full use of their potential acting ability by having them retain their major characteristics while donning various historical and imagined roles. As a counterpoint to the unceasing fighting spirit of the aging Adam, Eve retains her many-hued, vibrant femininity to the end. Though she stands at Adam’s side, throughout all the labyrinths of history, it is almost as if he has dreamed her—the personification of “the lost Eden”—as well.

The actors potentials and responsibilities in the Tragedy are considerably enhanced in the supporting characters in Scenes IV-XIV. These are partly historical persons, partly the results of Madách’s poetic imagination, but all of them require true character


actors. At this point a special feature of the casting possibility can be pointed out: by a judicious distribution of the many parts in the episodes, by entrusting several roles to one and the same actor, the director can always transform this liability into an asset. This can be aptly illustrated by an example from a later scene. At the end of Scene VI (Rome) Adam is captivated by the new ideal of Christianity, only to be disillusioned by the events of the Crusades in Scene VII, which takes place in Byzantium. The significance of this conflict can be greatly influenced by the casting of the role of Peter the Apostle, who in the Roman scene proclaims the virtues of Christianity, is played by the same actor in the Byzantine scene who demands the burning of the heretics at the stake, this reversal and mockery of the former ideals strengthens Adam’s feeling of disenchantment. Another approach would be to entrust Peter’s role to the same actor who plays the heretic burnt at the stake in Scene VII, emphasizing the survival of the new ideal, as a contrast to Adam’s disenchantment.

In scenes IV-XIV, for example, Lucifer appears, so to speak, as the director of Adam’s visions, not merely by inducing him to sleep, but also in the various scenes themselves. The script—reduced to the length of an average theatrical performance after the necessary deletion of various narrative parts—still contains more than 4100 lines of poetry. Brilliant possibilities abound for the director’s interpretation, for the scenic visualization and for the exploitation of the already-mentioned actors’ potential.

In the various historical scenes, the drama revolves around the great ideals of Mankind—liberty, equality, fraternity—as seen throughout history: their antecedents in antiquity, their synthesis in the 18th century and their annihilation in the 19th century and in the vision of the future. Having drawn on the works of French romantic historians for depicting the ancient antecedents of this trinity of ideals, Madách develops it on three levels. The ethical problem involved in the actions of the individual is seen through Adam’s concrete, historical personalities of ancient Egypt, Athens and Rome. A higher level of collective interests is represented by the former slaves turned influential citizens of Athens. And finally, the masses appear in the form of the mute multitudes of early


Christianity. The picture that Madách paints of the popular masses, and the emphasis he places on their gullibility can, beyond doubt, be explained by the events of his personal life and of the historic period in which he lived. Without question, profound disappointment experienced by Madách and his progressive-minded contemporaries in 1848-1849 in the masses who misunderstood and at times even attacked the prophet of their age had taught him a bitter lesson. Thus, although the three scenes from ancient times deal with one of the favourite themes of romanticism—the conflicts of the lonely Titan—Adam remains also a Man and a representative of Mankind.

Disappointed by the liberated slaves and by the institutions of ancient Athens he had hoped to be democratic, Adam casts himself into the frenzy of imperial Rome. The same desire to escape is repeated after Scene VII containing the vision of the “bloody cross”; in the next scene Adam, in the role of Kepler, seeks to withdraw into the ivory tower of science. Scenes VIIl and X, which both take place in Prague in the imperial court of Rudolph Hapsburg, serve as a setting for the ideological climax of the work: the French Revolution of Scene IX, in which Adam appears as Danton. Although the noble idea of liberty, equality, fraternity is dashed to the ground by a revolution which would destroy its own (Danton is condemned to death under the pressure of the masses, by Robespierre and Saint-Just), fits into the chain of ideas destroyed throughout ages, yet it proves to be the only ideal which Adam does not repudiate on awakening:

What mighty visions were before my eyes,
All but the blind could see and realize
The godly spark, covered by blood and mire:
How great they were in virtue, sin and ire!
It was amazing how they put the brand
Of giant forces on their fatherland.

Scene XI, which takes place in London, can be considered the symbol of the 19th century. Here Madách catches up with his own era. This explains the Dance of Death at the end of the scene


which passes judgement, as relentlessly as the mystery plays of the Middle Ages, on all characters of the “Vanity Fair” but Eve:

Why are you, whirling depth, before my feet?
Your night can frighten me to no retreat;
Mere dust, the earth-born falls into this pit,
And I, in glory, saunter over it.

One of the unique features of this poem on humanity is that in Scenes XII-XIV Madach extended the patterns of the past into the future. For today’s readers this future has become the present. The text of the Tragedy is given, but the combination of the past and the present can lead to new and exciting possibilities and problems for directors, actors and stage-designers alike. In Scene XIII Madách depicts the model of technical society, based on the ideas of F.M.Ch. Fourier, well-known also in Hungary. Disillusioned with this world as well, in Scene XIII Adam again attempts to escape—this time into space. Once more Madách goes beyond the great romantic visions of flight speaking through the Earth’s Spirit, he formulates the earth-bound nature of all human problems:

For your every concept,
Your sensations are mere radiations
Of that same mass of matter that you call
Your earth. Yet, if the earth were something else,
Then it could not exist—neither could you.

In Scene XIV Adam returns to the Earth and finds a frozen almost totally depopulated world of ice. The annihilation of the liberty-equality-fraternity ideological trinity, which had started with the ruthless free competition in the London scene and which had continued in the Phalanstery that mocked equality by destroying the individual, is achieved with the appearance of the last men on Earth: Eskimos debased to an almost subhuman level. This is the final bitter blow aimed at the ideal of fraternity.  It is unnecessary to point out that Madách could depict the future only through the poetic reformulation and systematization of theories


and speculations known to him. The various scientific theories of the 19th century (such as Galileo’s cranology or the contemporary theory of entropy) swiftly became obsolete and are of interest today only as the history of science. For the readers of today, they must be explained in footnotes and can either be dispensed with entirely on the stage or interpreted symbolically. At the same time, these scenes are rich in philosophical and ethical questions, new and exciting even for our time.

By the end of Scene XIV, the ideas of the various ages have, without exception, met their dialectical fate: the theses have proved to be empty and have turned into their own antitheses. Adam’s intention to commit suicide is thus not entirely unfounded. Still, The Tragedy of Man is not a pessimistic work. All the ideas of previous epochs have turned to ashes, but out of the romantic heroism of the 19th century, one and only one al-embracing ideal remains valid for the waking state: that of the struggle. Adam formulated it for the first time in the scene in space:

And am aware I'll often miss my goal.
But never mind! What is life’s goal, indeed?
Goal is the end of all triumphant fights,
Goal is mere death—existence is all strife.
The ambition of man is strife itself.

In the final scene of the dramatic poem Adam is not saved by his hard-won knowledge alone, but also by the revelation that Eve is with child and by the words of the Lord. This Lord, however, is not identical to the one in the first scene who looks down with the pride of the successful artisan on the world created by him. Here he gives a dialectical synthesis of Lucifer’s destructive doubts and Adam’s insecurities by determining their places in the universe. Using the thought that became a structural element in Hegelian dialectics, he addresses Lucifer:

And, Lucifer, you also are a link
In my creation. Strain yourself and think
That your cold knowledge and negation will


Become the yeast to make man’s spirit still
Ferment and deviate!—But never mind,
Man shall return to me; and if you find
The very man you wanted to destroy
Will keep on bearing beauty, greatness, joy—
Your punishment will then become eternal.

Given these preliminaries, the Lord’s last sentence—now immortalized in Hungarian—does not seem a meaningless appendage, a cheap slogan uttered out of sheer pity:

I told you, man,
Struggle and trust! . . . Be always confident!

To sum up the reasons for the Tragedys undiminishing success on the stage, it can be stated that this dramatic poem, bound in time and yet eternally topical, presents a permanent challenge to directors, scenery designers and actors which outlasts centuries. Studying the responses to this challenge, that is to say, the Tragedy’s history on the stage, a short history of culture or history of styles is obtained, focusing on the many different interpretations of the work. It must be remembered, however, that the Tragedy is, above all, a director’s drama, even if the audience—

quite understandably—remembers first and foremost the faces of Adam, Eve and Lucifer.

Masterpieces can be read in many different ways. This is attested to by the stage history of the Tragedy as well. When the Tragedy was presented for the first time, for instance, it’s visual aspect was emphasized; this dramatic poem was presented as a production of the typical folk theatre.

Imre Madách was still alive when in 1863 a popular illustrated weekly informed the public that the second theatre in Hungarian intended to stage the Tragedy. In those times everyday practice made little distinction between the work of the director and that of the actor. György Molnár, the director mentioned in the announcement, had started his career as a strolling player but later worked as a stagehand in Paris. There he learned tricks of the


director’s trade and familiarized himself with the use of modern possibilities of staging. This very first announcement already contained one aspect common to the Tragedy's entire history on the stage, both in Hungary and the world. The Tragedy has only been staged successfully when a director has risen from the ranks who is able to and willing to undertake the adaptation to the stage of a work which has already been accepted by literary circles, using means particularly suited to the stage. For this reason, all attempts taken by actors before 1883 are valued as mere curiosities. The first real staging of the Tragedy was undertaken by Ede Paulay (1836-1894), manager and director-in-chief of the Budapest National Theatre.

By the time this former strolling player became the manager of the National Theatre in 1878, he was already well known as a translator of literary works from several languages and had acquired first-hand knowledge of theatrical life in England, France, Germany and Italy. Paulay was a follower of the theatrical company of George the Second, Prince of Meiningen. This company, which had given performances three times in Budapest before the staging of The Tragedy of Man, introduced new objectives to the theatre throughout the world; it introduced the school known as “meiningenism”, advocating historical authenticity. Paulay shared the Meiningenists’ endeavors to stage works of high literary value; he also followed them by ensuring the artistic and historical authenticity of the scenes, and in the careful elaboration of the crowd scenes. All these means, taken from the arsenal of Meiningenism, were great assets in the success of the Tragedy. Yet, Paulay did not forget the characteristics peculiar to the development of Hungarian theatrical art either: Influenced by these individual characteristics, he represented a unique variant of Meiningenism. [x] The Hungarian theatre, which came into being at the end of the 18th century, was aimed at preserving and popularizing the Hungarian language. Even in the second half of the 19th century, in the era of stonebuilt theatres and the professional training of actors, exemplary elocution on the stage was still deemed the most effective means of achieving this goal. In

[X] One such Hungarian peculiarity has its roots in the history of the theatre in Hungary.


the early decades of its existence, the Hungarian theatre went in search of the audience itself, sending strolling players to small, faraway places. In the course of such wanderings, the terms and circumstances of the daily performances changed almost from one evening to the next. The only fixed point, the guarantee of a large audience and a good performance, was the actor himself. So, even in the second part of the 19th century, the performance was built around great actors. In this respect, Paulay was fortunate to have assembled a company whose members had received regular and systematic professional training, which had first been introduced in 1865. Paulay’s company exhibited a uniformly high standard of elocution and of general familiarity with the dramatic arts.

Another, and by no means unimportant, reason for Paulay’s own variant of Meiningenism was one born of necessity: the National Theatre was very poor. Though the 1875 reconstruction did provide a back stage to accelerate the change of scenes and though in 1883, the year of the Tragedy’s debut, electric lighting was introduced in the theatre, the fact still remains that the building was constructed in 1837 was intended to serve as a purely temporary abode for Thalia. Besides, again for financial reasons, existing scenery, props and costumes had to be used and reused as often as possible in all new productions. This practice is clearly illustrated by the director’s copy in which Paulay’s new scenery designs mingle with clearly distinguishable old elements adapted from former plays. All these particularities and differences became very conspicuous in 1888, when the Meiningen company, again gave guest performances in Budapest. Mr Cronegk, the manager of the company, saw a performance of the Tragedy, which already had a glorious past of five years, but at the end abandoned the idea of staging it. Madách's vision of history, the relatively short scenes and the partly historical, partly fictitious characters were not in agreement with the orthodox views of Meiningenism.

Paulay’s staging of the Tragedy was in keeping with the two aims of his theatrical policy. He searched, with the true director’s and dramaturge’s passion, for “stageable” plays in Hungarian literature, but worked just as consistently on the spectacular staging of the great dramatic poems of world literature. In 1887 the Tra-


gedy was followed by Goethe’s Faust and Lord Byron’s Manfred and in 1883, as the last link in this chain, by Lessing’s Wise Nathan. Paulay himself admitted that it was the Vienna Brugtheater’s performance of the Faust trilogy in January 1883 which convinced him that it was indeed possible to stage the Tragedy.

However, before Madách’s poem could be squeezed into a three and a half hour performance on the stage, the text had to be greatly adapted—Paulay kept only 2560 of the more than 4100 lines in the original and eventually divided them into a Prologue and five parts. The Prologue consisted of the three first scenes and was staged in the wings; tulle curtains, representing clouds, were pulled up to signal the changing of the scene. Part I comprised the Egypt and Athens scenes, Part II the Rome and Constantinople scenes, Part III the London scene. Part V consisted of the Phalanstery scene, the Eskimo scene—complete with the most important lines from the deleted space scene—and the closing scene, set outside Paradise.

Some parts of the original Tragedy had to be deleted not due to length but due to staging difficulties, as for instance the procession of the created world in front of the Lord. The Lord was represented by a triangle—the symbol of the Divine Eye in the first scene and whose lines were spoken in the last scene by the archangels. It was due to this same reason that the display of Pharaoh’s power and the destruction of Rome and the Space scene were omitted. The eighth scene however was conceived by Paulay in an interesting and unique way. True to Madách’s liberal ideas, Paulay thought the deletion of Kepler’s drunken dream, the shortening of the scene and the combining of the two Prague scenes (Scenes VIII and X) justified, because, as he wrote: “I did not deem it necessary to show Adam-Kepler dreaming the great French Revolution in a wine-induced, drunken sleep. It would have been dangerous to make him appear as an old cuckold who, while seeking consolation in wine, is confronted by a dream of the loftiest ideas.” And so the Prague scene ended the act, and the very first night showed the correctness of Paulay’s calculation: the success of the Marseillaise surpassed everything else.


In adapting The Tragedy of Man to the stage, Paulay became the author of a new, supreme creation. This, by the way, was acknowledged even by Madách’s son and legal successor. Paulay even revealed his plans to the press and gave a reading of the script at a meeting of a Budapest literary society prior to the long-awaited premiere, another first in the history of the Hungarian theatre.

As to the casting, Paulay assigned the roles following the traditional practice. Adam was played by Imre Nagy, the 34-year-old leading hero of the National Theatre who later also played Faust. Eve was played by the then 33-year-old Mari Jászai—the greatest tragedienne of the National Theatre—and of the whole Hungarian theatre. Lucifer’s role was entrusted to an up-and-coming “villain”, the then 26-year-old László Gyenes, who played this role for 41 years until his death. These early actors were confronted with the same difficulties which have never ceased to be a challenge for all the main characters in the play: how to safeguard the unity of the role while adopting new features as demanded by the ever-changing scenes of history.

The staging of The Tragedy of Man in the “Meiningen style” proved that this dramatic poem could indeed be performed on the stage. Yet, the consistent application of the principles of historical authenticity was at times contradicted by the text itself. For instance, Lucifer appeared before the first couple on Earth as a black- and-red-clad devil straight from a fairy tale, wearing bat’s wings and a feather’cap. In contrast, Adam exclaimed seeing him:

You seem the image of ourselves, like men.

In the Phalanstery scene in which Madách had envisioned that all members of society had been robbed of their personalities and reduced to mere numbers, Plato’s Greek tunic and Luther’s minister’s habit distinguish them from the others. Eve’s costumes were chosen by Mari Jászai herself. She had two well-known painters design eleven dresses according to her own suggestions and all these costumes remained in her possession. In the Paradise scene, for instance, she wore a sleeveless, close-fitting knitted white shift and a long blond wig. Expelled from Paradise, she was later clad in


a crude goat’s skin with—an original touch—a peacock feather in her hair: Eve had “discovered” fashion.

The opinion in Hungarian literary circles was that Paulay’s endeavor was doomed to failure. The first critics received the project with many misgivings and their writings offer a summary of the charges (from scenic unsuitability to exaggerated showiness) which even today’s directors may have to face. The public, however, was of a different opinion. The Tragedy proved to be a truly popular play—a play for the people—as well as a financial success. In 1894, after eleven years, it reached its one hundredth performance.

Paulay’s version determined the theatrical career of the Tragedy for many decades to come. As a play it reached even those audiences who would never have read it in its written form. During the three calendar years following the first performance it was played in 50 towns in Hungary.

This first epoch in the Tragedy’s career on the world stage was also determined by the characteristic features of the Meiningenist style. This was reinforced by the series of illustrations created by Mihály Zichy, a Hungarian painter and illustrator working in the court of the Russian Tsar. His 20 drawings, which later inspired many scenery designers, were first published in 1888 in the form of an album. Outside Hungary the Tragedy was first staged on February 15, 1892 by the Hamburg Stadttheater under the direction of Robert Buchholz. In the very same year the Hamburg Company performed the play sixteen times at the Vienna International Theatre Exhibition, where the Budapest National Theatre also gave one performance of the Tragedy. For this exhibition a Hungarian aristocrat, Count Miklós Esterházy, contributed 40,000 forints (twenty times the amount spent by Paulay) to the Hamburg Stadttheater to help cover the costs of the scenery which, based on Zichy’s drawings, were made in the famous Kautzky ‑ Rottonara work-shop in Vienna. This scenery (13 backdrops painted to give a three-dimensional effect) contributed in many variations to the success of the Tragedy, both in Eastern Central Europe and in Hungary itself. Records show this scenery was used for the last time in the Hungarian town of Debrecen in the year 1911. This,



however, was not the only case of borrowed scenery. The adherence to the principles of Meiningenism demanded a sumptuous stage setting and, for financial reasons, this expensive scenery often had to be borrowed from a previous production. Due to the success of the Vienna Exhibition, the same scenery was used in 1892 when the Tragedy was put on by the National Theatre in Prague, then again in 1893 in the Lessing Theater in Berlin. Later theatres in Plzen and Bmo (1904, 1905) borrowed the scenery of the Prague revival of the Tragedy while Cracow borrowed its scenery from the Vienna Kaiserjubiläums-Theater after its 1903 run.

The path of a play in the theatrical world is never without its darker moments. Its fate is strongly influenced by the traditions, including theatrical and literary traditions, and political atmosphere of the country in which it is performed. The Tragedy of Man is no exception to this rule. In Vienna, for example, Madách was accused of treating the biblical story too freely, although it was the Hamburg theatre company which, when showing the play in Vienna, did not stop at the Lord’s last words, but added one more visionary scene to the Tragedy in which the Virgin Mary appeared on stage promising redemption. Again in Vienna, the censor made it clear that the Marseillaise, the anthem of the French Revolution, could be used only as a means to depict the atmosphere of the times. In 1892 the Marseillaise provoked demonstrations, first in the theatre and later in the streets of Prague, then part of the Austro-Hungarian Monarchy. After lengthy deliberations, the Minister of Internal Affairs decided to ban the performances. The success of the Cracow production, on the other hand, was greatly jeopardized by the many excellent dramatic poems of Polish literature. The greatest resistance in the history of the Tragedy—the traces of which can still be felt today—was met in Berlin and, in general, in German speaking countries where Madách was considered simply an imitator of Goethe. It was unfortunate that the productions in Hamburg, Vienna and Berlin were all based on Lajos Dóczi’s German translation. Dóczi had previously translated Goethe’s Faust into Hungarian and it was inevitable that the text of the Tragedy echoed Goethe’s spirit and style.

At the turn of the 19th and 20th centuries, new trends in


scenery and directing made themselves felt, which deviated radically from the principles of Meiningenism. Gordon Craig and Max Reinhardt, for example, switched from naturalistic to symbolic or stylized representation on the stage. Scenery designs developed in the direction of abstracted, mere symbolic indications, with strong architectural features, making deliberate use of the elements of asymmetry and disharmony as well. According to our present knowledge, the first to tear himself away from the rigid traditions of historical authenticity was Jaroslav Kvapil, who directed the Tragedy in 1909 in Prague. Armed with his experience gained in directing Shakespeare, Kvapil placed Madách's work in a symbolic conceptual sphere in the spirit of the new theatrical trends.

In Hungary it was Sándor Hevesi, the first, great representative of modern trends in play-directing, who approached Madách and the theatre not with an actor’s experience but with modern theoretical knowledge. He was only 24 years old when he critisized the “pictoral” interpretation of the Meiningenschool. In 1900, (at the age of 27), he analyzed in a lengthy article the way in which up to that date directors had conceived the staging of the Tragedy. Hevesi acknowledged Paulay’s pioneer efforts and stressed that the Tragedy could be and should be staged. He considered the greatest deficiency of Meiningenisin to be the fact that all the scenes in the Tragedy were equally spectacular and offered because of this no contrast between the biblical framework and Adam’s historical dream.

It is the irony of fate that when in 1908, at the age of 35, Hevesi first received the opportunity to direct the Tragedy, he also inherited the scenery financed by Esterházy, more than fifteen years earlier. This scenery adhered closely to Paulay’s interpretation and limited Hevesi in the realization of his own conceptions. Nevertheless, his interpretation did enrich the stage history of the Tragedy, primarily in the area of acting. In his interpretation, Lucifer, the former “raisonneur”, commentator and explainer of events, became the motivator of the plot. Another innovation was the detailed portrayal of the crowd scenes, which revealed a new element in Madách’s conceptual world: the relationship between the individual and the masses, a new source of tragedy. The role of


Adam was played by Oszkár Beregi as a guest performer. Beregi was at that time a member of the company of Reinhardt, a pioneer in modem theatrical endeavors.

The next opportunity for a final break with the traditions of the Meiningen school presented itself in 1923, when Hevesi was the manager of the National Theatre. The Tragedy of Man is not an exhibition of historical portraits, not a series of spectacular pictures or a documentary description of historical ages. It is much more, much greater and much more poetic than all these. It is Man’s eternal struggle seen through Adam’s dreams in ever-changing visions. . . Accordingly, the new Tragedy of Man consists not of a series of mirrors reflecting various ages. No, the theatrical framework and the individual scenes derive from Adam’s soul, his dreams and his visions.”—declared Hevesi on the eve of the premiere. In his attempt to accomplish this on the stage, Hevesi introduced many new elements. He found an excellent co-worker in the person of stage-designer Gusztáv Oláh. Oláh’s set contained a stylized leafy bough which spanned the two sides of the scene, reminding the audience that it was witnessing Adam’s dream from which he awoke at the end of each scene. All the various historical scenes were characterized by strong, unmistakable colour-symbolics as well as by well-defined preferences to the history of art: to Fra Angelico, to Albrecht Dürer and to Hungarian Mihály Zichy. Hevesi stressed the unity of the entire performance by having the masses move in the same manner. In this way, the masses became the fourth leading role in the play. Finally, the system of parallel casting was also introduced and a new practice was continued: the most important parts were played by the leading actors of the theatre, irrespective of their ages. (Lucifer was still played by the same actor as in the premiere: by Lászlö Gyenes.)

Already in 1923 Sandor Hevesi stressed the importance of the biblical framework, the Lord’s and Lucifer’s struggle for Man. This led to his interpretation of the Tragedy as first and foremost a mystery play. This conception is bound to some extent to two characteristic features of the given historical period. First, in the early twenties, Christianity was adopted as the state ideology in Hungary, which increased the number of religious interpretations of the Tragedy as well. The other motivation came from the theatrical


realm and was the influence of Max Reinhardt’s mystery plays in Salzburg. In 1926, again with the cooperation of stage designer Gusztáv Oláh, Hevesi used the same reconstructed three-part stage which had been used in 1876 by Otto Devrient in Goethe’s Faust to stage the Tragedy anew. The two flights of stairs on both sides of the scene were connected in the rear by a bridge and the changing historical periods were indicated by the changing backgrounds and minor props. This type of set without question facilitated the smooth movement of great crowds and ensured a continuous performance, shortening the time needed for scene changes. It is also beyond doubt that, in a sense, the Tragedy can be conceived of as a mystery play: it begins in Heaven; Scenes I, II and XV are based on the Bible and the conclusion shifts into the realm of the transcendental. It was in this sense and to this extent that Hevesi interpreted the Tragedy as a mystery play, although the work resists being classified as dealing with the philosophy of religion both in its entirety and in its details. It was in Szeged, a town in Southern Hungary that the idea of creating a “Hungarian Salzburg” came up with the Cathedral offering an appropriate background on the newly built Dom Square. The suggestion was put forward by Ferenc Hont, a young director who had studied in France and who had been greatly influenced by Firmin Gémier’s People’s Theatre. It is perhaps understandable from the above why Hevesi initially opposed the production of the Tragedy in an open-air theatre. He felt no inherent connection between the open-air setting and the play. What is more, Hevesi who had always held Madách’s text in great respect, was afraid of a second-rate production and of a revival of Meiningenism.

While the advocates of conservative and progressive theatrical interpretations of the Tragedy were conducting a passionate debate throughout Hungary, and while it was being performed time after time as a mystery play in Szeged, in Vienna, Madách’s work achieved prodigious, universal success in 1934, on the stage of the Brugtheater. Theatre manager Hermann Röbbeling directed the Tragedy as a part of the “Peoples’ Voice in Drama” series. When shortening the text, he deleted first and foremost those parts which were nearest to Goethe’s Faust. The performance lasted three and


a half hours with only one intermission. In his version, Röbbeling made a clear distinction between the biblical framework scenes and the historical visions and also created the choreography of the crowd scenes. The role of Adam was played by Paul Hartmann, who, in spite of being the theatre’s leading romantic actor, portrayed not Adam, the romantic hero, but Adam, the struggling man. In contrast, Marie Eis’ Eve was utterly feminine. The seventy-year-old Otto Tressler represented an older school: his Lucifer was passionately demoniacal.

As for the scenery, Röbbeling used raised platforms throughout as well as inclined planes in several scenes. Captivating light effects were also devised and the mechanized world of the Phalanstery was emphasized by revealing the stage lights incorporating the technical equipment into the setting.

Independently of Röbbeling Árpád Horváth staged the most up-to-date interpretation of the Tragedy in 1936-1937 in the eastern Hungarian city of Debrecen. Earlier, as the director of the National Theatre, his original interpretation of the Tragedy led to clashes with the state-appointed supervisory head of the theatre. In Debrecen Horváth used a revolving stage 13 meters in diameter, and achieved symbolic, monumental effects by using a raised Platform system and a circular curtain. He also engaged a large choir and a chorus for the narration as well as a great number of extras. Horvath also used light effects to demonstrate Adam’s repeated awakenings from his historical dreams, a feature borrowed from his teacher, Sándor Hevesi.

Between 1935 and 1944 the staging of the Tragedy was entrusted to Antal Németh, the manager of the National Theatre. Németh had studied in pre-Hitler Germany, had acquired great knowledge in modem dramatic arts and scenery techniques but had also been influenced by cinematography in many respects. He aimed to make his performances flow smoothly and had a liking for the monumental; he availed himself often of revolving stages and projected scenery, When Németh was appointed director of the National Theatre, he was given a free hand in the hiring of actors and he built up the best company the National Theatre had ever had. Since he was at the same time the director-in-chief of the Hungarian Radio, he could indeed pick his cast from among the


best actors—sticking all the time to the interpretation of the Tragedy as a mystery play. Németh not only wanted to eliminate the last vestiges of the traditional casting of leading man, prima donna and villain but also with the more recent practice of allowing leading artists to retain their roles indefinitely—unregardless of their ages. Already as a young director Németh, endeavored to make use of his cultural relations with Germany and Italy for the popularization of Hungarian classics. In this way he was able to experiment abroad with his own approach to casting in radio broadcasts as well as with his ideas concerning scenery as guest director in Hamburg in 1937 and in Frankfurt-am-Main, Goethe’s native town, in 1940.

Antal Németh had a passionate interest in putting on the Tragedy on the most varied types of stages. In 1939 he adapted the Tragedy for performances on a small stage the size of a room with an open-panel tryptich in the background. In the right- and left-hand piches of the tryptich he placed statues of Adam and Eve; the 3 x 4 meter painted backdrop was changed twice in every scene. The actors performed in front of these in costumes and masks. This version of the Tragedy heavily emphasized the text and could easily be put on anywhere. An 1936 open-air version of the Tragedy was another extreme in the Antal Németh’s chain of scenic experiments, which, for financial reasons, never materialized. Antal Németh, intended to use—as in the mediaeval passion plays—the complex of buildings around the Szeged Cathedral as the basic scenery. He also had in mind a revolving auditorium, moving in a full circle around the stage. At last, after the 1937 and 1940 big-stage version, Németh, completed work on the so-called medium-stage version. A raised platform system and suspended stylized scenery and props made this version well within the reach of provincial theatres as well. One interesting feature of this version is that the scenery designer was the very same Zoltán Fábri who later became a world-famous film director.

Antal Németh’s interpretation of the Tragedy as a mystery play was best expressed in his small-stage version. In this version the actors were, in the words of Németh, “expected to conduct a regular service” before the tryptich. Németh saw Eve as the symbol of eternal femininity and insisted on choosing actresses suitable in


both appearance and age. In Lucifer he attempted to symbolize the Angel of Death but came close to this aim only in 1938, when the performance was recorded on a record.

Both as a director and stage manager, Antal Németh, did his best to export the Tragedy, and through it Madách’s humanistic ideas, to other countries in Europe. He also tried to adapt it to other genres as well, including radio, records and film. The Second World War prevented the realization of these ideas. However, it was with support, that the puppet show version of the Tragedy was produced. The show was first presented in 1937 by Géza Blattner, a Hungarian puppeteer, in the Arc-en-Ciel Theatre in Paris.

In 1945, after the end of the Second World War, The Tragedy of Man became enriched with a new interpretation containing Marxist elements. At that time, however, discordant views flared up around Madách’s spiritual heritage and masterpiece, which at times directly, at times indirectly, touched upon the theatrical world as well. One group of the Marxist interpreters and critics of the work, among them György Lukács, the world-famous philosopher and aesthetician, considered the work to be the official, representative work of Hungarian state policy between the two world wars. They identified the Tragedy with the interpretations forced on it and criticized it not for a lack of aesthetic values but for a lack of philosophical elements. It was in this sense that they spoke disparagingly of the obsoleteness of Madách’s view of the masses, of the pessimism prevalent in his work and—influenced by the mystery play interpretations—of its clericalism. The other group of Marxist interpreters, on the other hand, had emphasized as early as in the fifties the organic presence of the Madách tradition, and the importance of this presence both in the theatre and in literature. Time and the new wave of Madách’s worldwide success have proved the correctness of their view.

The Budapest National Theatre revived the Tragedy in 1947 and again in 1955. These productions were characterized by the contradiction between an enriched, better developed interpretation on the one hand and the scenery on the other. A Lucifer of human dimensions established himself for ever as antagonist not only to


the Lord but in the historical scenes to Adam as well. The adversaries fought with each other to prove the soundness of their ideals or to prove the futility of the other’s with increasing diversity and on an ever-higher level. New approaches in directing the play enhanced the role of the masses in shaping history and the ideas of the historical eras assumed the characteristics of the class struggle.

The directors (Béla Both in 1947, Endre Gellért, Tamás Major and Endre Marton in 1955) adopted Konstantin Stanislavsky’s method and, working with excellent actors, they introduced many new elements to the Tragedy. Two such aspects were the stressing of the realism of the historical scenes and the psychological elucidation of the interrelation between the leading actors. However, at the same time as so many advancements were being made, the too narrow interpretation of the “realism of style” increased the gap between the level of scenery design in Hungary and on the world stage. Characteristic for that period was the fact that in 1955 Gusztáv Oláh used the same designs he himself had made in 1923 and 1926.

The year 1957 began a new are in the stage history of The Tragedy of Man. And in 1964 when the World Peace Council declared the one hundredth anniversary of the death of Madách an international event, theatres throughout the world turned with renewed interest to this masterpiece. Between 1957 and 1965 almost all Hungarian theatres staged the drama and for the most part hey strove to present the text in its pure, correct form, and exploited the wide range of possibilities the spectacle-laden play offers. Since 1960 the open-air theatres in Szeged’s Dom Square has also included the dramatic poem in its repertoire, offering a true “play for the people” in the best sense of the expression. Between 1966 and 1975 Hungarian language theatres in Roumania, Czechoslovakia and Yugoslavia have also contributed to the popularity of the Tragedy.

In the last decade, the interpretation of the Tragedy has again gained a new aspect. First in 1971, Epp Kaidu, director of the Vanermuine theatre in Tartu, Estonia viewed Madách’s poem as the drama of the eternally young, groping for new paths. This interpretation disregards Madách’s stage direction in which he describes


a gradually aging Adam in the successive historical scenes, a central figure turning step by step into a mere spectator. To comply with this demand has never been easy; it has posed difficulties in the acting, in the costumes and in the make-up. Twelve years after the Estonian production, the casting of young actors seems to have become as general an interpretation as the mystery play one used to be. Just one example to point out the many possibilities offered by this new approach! It is not irrelevant whether the director casts young actors only in the roles of Adam and Eve, or in that of Lucifer as well. In the former case, the middle-aged or aging Lucifer can direct the young and inexperienced couple as director, teacher and as an irrevocably embittered man. If, however, Lucifer is a contemporary of Adam and Eve (and nothing in the text precludes this interpretation), then the three leading actors can fight together against an established hierarchy of power and gain, with the somewhat wiser Lucifer’s help, concrete experience. If the director opts in favour of this youth's groping-for-the-path” interpretation, then his role in leading the actors is rendered much more difficult, as the young actors can neither draw on their own real-life experience or professionalism to help them. They might even run into difficulties in reciting the metrical verse in which Madách composed.

In the last decade Madách’s popularity has been increasing throughout the world. Audiences in Bratislava, Kosice, Poznan, Gdansk, Grozny, Minneapolis and Minsk, to name only a few, have had the opportunity to watch and listen to contemporary interpretations of Madách’s dramatic poem in Slovakian, German, Polish Russian and English translations and in many other languages. (A complete list of all stagings of The Tragedy of Man can be found in Part II of the Appendix.)

On September 21, 1983 the Hungarian theatre commemorated the one hundredth anniversary of the premiere of The Tragedy of Man in the most suitable way: with performances. In June 1983 it was performed in the open-air theatre of Szeged and in this jubilee year two Budapest theatres included Madách’s timeless masterpiece in their programs. In the last one and a half years the Tragedy, directed by Gyórgy Lengyel, has been performed more than 150


times in the theatre bearing the poet’s name and in the National Theatre the jubilee gala performance of the Tragedy, directed by László Vámos, was the 1301st in that theatre. In the same season two additional Hungarian cities (Zalaegerszeg and Miskolc had in their programs Madách’s dramatic poem. Two events attest to the fact that this celebration was not limited to the Hungarian theatre. In the early months of the year 1983 the news reached Hungary that The Tragedy of Man had been translated into the Fulani language. This represents the twenty ninth language and the first African language into which the poem has been translated, making it available to an audience of a completely different cultural past, system of traditions and poetic world. Alas, a few days after the jubilee celebration in Hungary, on October 6, 1983, the play opened in the Austrian town of Klagenfurt. Both these events confirm that newer and broader horizons are still opening up for Imre Madách and his Tragedy of Man both in the literature and the theatres of the world.

Sándor Hevesi once said about the Tragedy: “Madách’s poem serves as a Bible for the National Theatre, which we still never cease to study, from which we shall never cease to learn and which we will never learn completely.” The one-hundred-year history of The Tragedy of Man in Hungarian dramatic art and its ninety-year history on the world theatrical scene have proved—and continue to prove the truth of his words.

So it be.



SOURCE: Ferenc Kerényi. “A Dramatic Poem from Hungary to the Theatres of the World,” in The Tragedy of Man: Essays About the Ideas and the Directing of the Drama: Full Text of the Drama by Imre Madách, translated by Joseph Grosz, responsible editor: György Lengyel, selected and edited by Erzsébet Bereczky (Budapest: The Hungarian Centre of the International Theatre Institute (ITI), 1985), pp. 9-33.

The Tragedy of Man by Imre Madách,
translated by George Szirtes
Scene 13

Imre Madách’s “The Tragedy of Man” by István Sőtér

On Hungarian Dramatic Literature
by Georg Lukács, translated by Charles Senger

Die ungarische Dramenliteratur by Georg Lukács

The Metaphysics of Tragedy: Excerpts by Georg Lukács

La Tragedio de l’ Homo: Kovrilo
de Imre Madách, tradukis Kálmán Kalocsay, bildo de Mihály Zichy (1924)

Al horizonto de la historio de la homaro — pri “La Tragedio de L’ Homo”
de SHI Chengtai

Kompara analizo de tri tradukoj el La Tragedio de l’ Homo de Márton Fejes

Futurology, Science Fiction, Utopia, and Alienation
in the Work of Imre Madách, György Lukács, and Other Hungarian Writers:
Select Bibliography

Pessimism as Philosophy: A Jaundiced Selected Annotated Bibliography

Georg Lukács’ The Destruction of Reason: Selected Bibliography

Johannes Linnankoski (Pseudonym of Johannes Vihtori Peltonen, 1869-1913):
Literature in English & Esperanto

From Eden to Cain: Unorthodox Interpretations & Literary Transformations:
Selected Bibliography

De Edeno al Kaino:
Malkutimaj Interpretoj & Literaturaj Pritraktoj en Esperanto:

Science Fiction & Utopia Research Resources: A Selective Work in Progress

Sándor Szathmári (1897-1974): Bibliografio & Retgvidilo / Bibliography & Web Guide


Imre Madách - Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia

The Tragedy of Man - Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia

Madách tragédiája” [In Hungarian: Madách’s tragedy]  (1955)
by György Lukács

The Tragedy of Man translated by George Szirtes

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