Ivan Sanders as born in Budapest, in 1944, lives since 1956 in the United States. He teaches at the Columbia University. Now he spends his sabbatical year in Budapest. We are publishing the text of a lecture given by him at the Central European University ( Budapest)


Two Ways Of Being a Jewish Writer:
Ferenc Molnár and Arthur Schnitzler


At first glance the lives and works of Ferenc Molnár and Arthur Schnitzler appear to be similar. Both became celebrated playwrights, the toast of their respective native cities—Budapest and Vienna—at a fairly young age, both came from similar family backgrounds, both their fathers were well-to-do doctors of rather humble Jewish origins, and perhaps more significantly, as assimilated Jews they were both firmly committed to the liberal achievements of the Dual Monarchy, and witnessed with dismay the erosion of Austro-Hungarian liberalism toward the end of the 19th and the beginning of the 20th centuries. Both Molnár and Schnitzler outlived the collapse of the Monarchy—Schnitzler by twelve years (he died in 1931) and Molnár by over thirty and unlike Schnitzler scored some of his greatest theatrical triumphs in the 1920s, yet fin-de-siècle Austria-Hungary was for both the world they knew best and remembered with fondness (despite their criticism of it) to the end of their days. Though sixteen years apart—Arthur Schnitzler was born in 1862 and Ferenc Molnár in 1878—they could be said to be contemporaries, whose most important and revealing works were written between 1900 and 1918.

The popular image of the two men was especially close. They were both seen not only as brilliant and witty writers of plays, but also as connoisseurs of the good life, celebrities affecting bohemian ways, though solid bourgeoises at heart. Further affinities are suggested by studies that show specific thematic parallels between plays by the two writers (Anatol and The Guardsman, Play in the Castle and Schnitzler’s trilogy Komödie der Worte, etc.), and attempt to demonstrate that Molnár borrowed motifs from Schnitzler and was in fact influenced by him. In reality, however, Schnitzler and Molnár were as different in their private lives as they were as playwrights. Most of Schnitzler’s plays are one-acters or strings of one-acters, in which the emphasis is not so much on dramatic action, but rather on the presentation of an inner reality, a state of mind, a sensibility. Molnár’s plays, on the other hand, are often built on a single ingenious idea, are full of surprising twists and plenty of scintillating repartee.

Nevertheless, there are reasons why the Austrian Schnitzler and the Hungarian Molnár could feel close to each other. Molnár’s father, Mór Neumann, like Johann Schnitzler, was a self-made man: Neumann became a well-respected army doctor in Budapest, while Schnitzler Sr. for years was Professor of Laryngology at the University of Vienna. Both sons first chose bourgeois professions. Molnár studied law in Geneva; Schnitzler followed his father in medicine, and was a practicing doctor for a number of years before deciding to devote himself completely to his writing. What is more, Schnitzler’s family came from Hungary; his father was born in Nagykanizsa and began his education there, finished Gymnasium in Budapest, and completed one year of university study before moving to Vienna. Schnitzler had relatives in Hungary, and in his memoirs Jugend in Wien (My Youth in Vienna) he frequently mentions Hungarian Jewish friends, acquaintances, colleagues. We routinely encounter Hungarian place names and characters in his literary works. (Similarly, Molnár wrote plays—Olympia, The Swan—with an Austrian or quasi-Habsburg setting, and even Liliom, firmly rooted in turn-of-the-century Budapest reality, was “quickly adopted [in Vienna] as an Austrian “Volksstück” and given a respected position among other Viennese plays.”)

None of this should surprise us; after all, the two writers were citizens of the same Empire. And as far as the Hungarian Jewish presence in Vienna is concerned, the Habsburg historian William McCagg reminds us in his comparative study of Viennese and Budapest Jewry that in 1869 over 40% of the members of the Vienna Jewish community hailed from Hungary.

Schnitzler may have had ties to Hungary, still we cannot say that he therefore felt a sense of kinship or nostalgia for Hungary. In fact the opposite is true, as he himself makes it clear at the beginning of his reminiscences of his youth:

I visited my father’s home town just once—I was five or six at the time—and spent a few days there. A farmyard, a few hens, a wooden fence, the railroad nearby, trains passing, the whistle of a locomotive fading into the distance are all that remain with me of that experience. I don’t know when my ancestors settled in Gross-Kanizsa, or for that matter in Hungary, where they may have wandered before that or settled down after having left their original home in Palestine two thousand years before. The only thing I am sure of is that neither longing nor homesickness ever tempted me to return to Gross-Kanizsa; and if fate had chosen to direct me to this town in which my grandparents once lived and my father was born, I would have felt like a stranger, perhaps even an exile. Thus I am tempted to come to grips at this point with the curious view that a person, born in a certain country, raised and active there, is supposed to recognize as his homeland another country, not the one in which his parents and grandparents lived decades ago but the one his ancestors called their native land thousands of years before, and this not solely for political, sociological or economic reasons—which would bear discussion—but also emotionally...

What Schnitzler is referring to in the second half of this passage is of course the question of how an assimilated Austrian Jew is supposed to relate to the Jewish homeland, to Zionism, a much-discussed topic in Viennese intellectual circles in the first decade of the twentieth century. Schnitzler dealt at length with the issue in his novel, Der Weg ins Freie (The Road Into the Open), first published in 1908. Which brings us to the larger question of what kind of Jewish writer, what kind of Jew was Schnitzler? How was he different in this regard from Ferenc Molnár. It is safe to say that both men were of a time and at a stage in assimilation when being totally removed from Jewish practices and observances was fairly common. In the Schnitzler household even the trappings of the Jewish religion were absent, and the only time Arthur set foot in the synagogue was at weddings and funerals. The same could be said about the Neumann family.

Of course there are always vestigial traits, trace elements, not terribly significant in and of themselves, though revealing nonetheless. What is often observed among the assimilated—that traditional culinary habits and preferences persist long after everything else is given up—can be seen in the biographies of both men. For example, Schnitzler tells us in My Youth in Vienna that his grandmother still observed the Jewish holidays: on Yom Kippur she fasted and on Passover she ate unleavened bread, “which incidentally,” Schnitzler adds, “is delicious when crumbled in coffee.” And Ferenc Molnár, when he lived in New York as an émigré, renting a small room at the Plaza Hotel, liked to eat at a nearby Jewish deli. “Let’s go to the Jew,” he would say to his friends, whom he would take along but never treat, even though as a playwright Molnár probably made more money than all other Hungarian writers combined. Molnár anecdotes abound—it’s one of the ways he lives on in the Hungarian literary consciousness—and anecdotes about his frugality and tight-fistedness are especially frequent, confirming for many his bourgeois legacy, and for some, I suppose, his Jewishness. At one lunch in that New York deli, Molnár and his fellow Hungarian émigrés talked about the first English phrase they had picked up in America. One of his friends said: “My first sentence was: ‘I love you.’” “For me,” Molnár said reflectively, “it was ‘Separate checks, please.’”

Cultural assimilation and abandonment of religious practices notwithstanding, both Schnitzler and Molnár grew up in cities with a very significant Jewish presence. Around 1910 Jews constituted close to 10% of Vienna’s and almost 25% of Budapest’s total population. Thus Jewishness was very much in evidence, and discussions, debates about assimilation, anti-Semitism, Jewish wealth, Jewish poverty, Jewish identity, religiosity, Jewish genius, Jewish sins, etc. etc. were ubiquitous, inescapable. No Central European Jewish writer, no matter how far removed he was from formal Judaism, could be indifferent or oblivious to these things (to claim otherwise is to perpetuate a myth), and his writings on some level always reveal feelings, sensitivities, anxieties related to his Jewishness, even if he never explicitly treated Jewish subjects. In this sense, then, Arthur Schnitzler and Ferenc Molnár were definitely Jewish writers—except that they also treated Jewish topics and themes in their works, though we cannot say that these occupy a central place in their oeuvre.

But the two were very different kinds of Jewish writers, which had a great deal to do with the fact that one was Austrian and the other Hungarian. Studies of the political and intellectual history of the Monarchy’s latter years, by Carl Schorske and others, point out that political liberalism, the legacy of 1848 in both halves of the Empire, fared differently in Austria than it did in Hungary. “Hungarian liberalism did not become nationalist, as it had always been so,” writes Arpad Ajtony in a study dealing with the politics of the two cities in the late nineteenth century. “Its legitimation of nationalism was based on the menace of an Austro-Germanic nationalism in the west, rather than on the agitation of the less cultivated minorities in the Hungarian territory. In other words, it justified itself by the necessity of a politics of defense, rather than by a politics of repression. At the same time, the Hungarian political class did not produce extremist and anti-Semitic tendencies as was the case in Austria.” This was one of the reasons why Hungarian Jews embraced wholeheartedly and unreservedly the Hungarian ethos and at the same time were among the first, after 1867, to take a kinder view of the Austrians. What they eagerly embraced was a romantic brand of nationalism—open, receptive, tolerant.

Ferenc Molnár is typical in this respect. Though an international celebrity who spent long periods outside his native country, he remained a Budapester at heart, to say nothing of the fact that his juvenile classic, A Pál utcai fiúk (The Paul Street Boys), in the Hungarian context is a celebration of the sanctity of the native land. In fighting for the grund, a plot of land in the big city, the boys of Paul Street are fighting for their country. Yet as a war correspondent in the First World War, Molnár proved himself an uncritical defender of Francis Joseph’s Austria as well. (We should note that Hungarian nationalists have always maintained that the patriotism, the Hungarian identity of the assimilated, turn-of-the-century Jewish writers was limited to Budapest, their city, and that they had little feeling for the rest of the country. The perception that Budapest is a rootless, alien formation has by no means disappeared. It remains a part of the political culture to this day. )

In contrasting the two cities at the turn of the century, Hungarian historians have stressed the fact that while writers and artists of fin-de-siècle Vienna were apolitical aesthetes, their counterpart in Hungary were far more committed and active, very much interested in politics and the new social sciences. Péter Hanák’s essay “The Garden and the Workshop,” a response to Carl Schorske’s Fin-de-Siècle Vienna, is well known. Interestingly, Ferenc Molnár, as a writer and public figure, was rather apolitical: he never joined a political party and was never vocal on political issues. In this sense he resembled Arthur Schnitzler, who also steered clear of political, ideological battles. Both writers subscribed to a generally tolerant, liberal, leben-und-leben-lassen philosophy. Nevertheless, Schnitzler would never have written the kind of superpatriotic, propagandistic war reports that Ferenc Molnár allowed himself to write in 1914 and 1915. The two writers’ attitudes toward the First World War reflect not only their view of nationalism but the sharply different (albeit mostly unspoken) assumptions of an Austrian and a Hungarian Jew. After an initial burst of patriotic zeal, Schnitzler became highly critical of the entire war, whereas Molnár remained gung-ho, and his gushingly sentimental and jingoistic reporting from the front prove it. (Indeed, some of Molnár’s pacifist contemporaries in Hungary condemned him for being all too willing to become an apologist for the war. When he was decorated by he Emperor for his war reports, they jeered, believing that he was thus honored because “when confronted by horrors, he turned the other way.” ) Molnár’s Recollections of a War Correspondent is interesting from a Jewish point of view. Since he covered the Galician campaign, Molnár has quite a lot to say about orthodox Galician Jews—about their strangeness, their wiliness, their primitive ways. He sympathizes with them, but always in a condescending way; for him they fit a stereotype. At one point he quotes a Galician Jew whose shop had been cleaned out by invading Russian troops: “As long as a Jew lives and breathes, his shop is full. My store can be ransacked, but not my business. That’s why I am a Jew.” It’s also true that when he recites the names of Hungarian doctors and medics serving in Galicia, he notes with some satisfaction that the pharmacist from Ungvár is named Jakubovits, the one from Máramarossziget is Margulit, and so on. But nowhere in his reports does he even hint that he the Budapest playwright doing his bit for the war effort and those bearded, caftan-wearing Jews have something in common.

Arthur Schnitzler was more sober and realistic when examining who he was and where he came from. (The passage quoted earlier from his family history attests to this.) In a more general sense his Austrian identity was quite different from Molnár’s all-embracing Hungarianness. In his novel Der Weg ins Freie he distinguishes between Vaterland and Heimat, embracing the latter but considering the former alien to him. Two of the novel’s Jewish characters discuss the two concepts, as well as religions and Zionism. One of them, Heinrich Bermann, seems to be Schnitzler’s mouthpiece here:

Fatherland. . .that was, in general, a fiction, a political concept, undefined, changeable, unintelligible. Only Homeland indicated something real, not Fatherland. And so the feeling of Homeland was one’s right of settlement. And as concerns religion, he could tolerate equally the Christian and Jewish legends, as well as the Hellenistic or Indian; but all were equally intolerable and revolting to him when they sought to force their dogmas on him. And he felt a sense of community with no one, no, not one in the world. With the sobbing Jews in Basel just as little as with the howling Pan-Germans in the Austrian Parliament; with Jewish money lenders as little as with the high-born robber knights; with the Zionist brandy merchant as little as an old Christian Socialist. And least of all would the consciousness of a commonly suffered persecution, a jointly endured hatred, bind him to other men from whom he felt inwardly distant. He would accept Zionism as a moral principle and as a welfare scheme if it would honestly make itself known as such; but the idea of the establishment of a Jewish state on religious and national grounds appeared to him an insane revolt against the spirit of all historical development. “And in the depths of your soul,” he cried standing still in front of Leo [he is the budding Zionist], “even you don’t believe that this goal will ever be achieved, you don’t even wish it, as long as you enjoy yourself for this or that reason along the way. What does your ‘Homeland Palestine’ mean to you? A geographical concept. What does ‘the Faith of your Fathers’ mean to you? A collection of customs that you have long ceased to practice, most of which you find as ridiculous and tasteless as I do.

Der Weg ins Freie is not the only work of Schnitzler’s in which he deals in depth with choices and dilemmas faced by Jew in post-liberal, turn-of-the-century Austria. He examines the role of Jews in a Christian world and scrutinizes the many facets of anti-Semitism in Professor Bernhardi (1912), which its author called a comedy, though it is more of a modern morality play, quite talky therefore, like some of G.B. Shaw’s thesis plays, though hard-hitting enough so that it was banned in Austria until the fall of the Monarchy. Though rarely performed nowadays, it remains one of Schnitzler’s most important dramatic works.

Professor Bernhardi centers around a scandal that erupts when Dr. Bernhardi, the Jewish director of a private clinic in Vienna, refuses to allow a priest to administer the last rites to a patient, a working-class woman dying of blood poisoning, the result of a botched abortion. The girl in her final hours is euphoric, thinking she will soon leave the hospital fully recovered. Dr. Bernhardi believes it is his duty as a doctor not to allow anyone to deprive her of this happiness by reminding her what awaits her. To him it’s a matter of medical ethics, and he is courageous enough to forego diplomatic niceties, while the priest is indignant about being prevented to perform his duty. The case becomes a cause celèbre, the charge is made that Bernhardi showed a flagrant disregard for the values and ritual of the Catholic Church, and what is implied is that as a Jew he is constitutionally incapable of even appreciating the enormity of the breach. He is dragged through the courts, is imprisoned for a few months, though after his release the tide turns, he is vindicated, and becomes a hero in many people’s eyes.

Through it all, Bernhardi remains curiously calm and passive, responding to developments with quiet disillusionment. He refuses to mount a grand defense and wouldn’t allow others to do so in his behalf; he doesn’t savor his ultimate vindication, and he certainly doesn’t see himself as a hero or a martyr, a victim of an anti-Semitic slur campaign. He maintains throughout that all he did was to be true to the oath he took as a physician. As an assimilated Jew, a secularist and a humanist, Bernhardi doesn’t believe this is a religious issue at all; if he has any religion it is medicine. When during a dramatic exchange with a priest the latter says: “I, Professor, am commanded by my religion also to love those who hate me,” Bernhardi responds: “And I am commanded by mine—or by that which has settled into my heart in its stead—also to understand where I am not understood.”

The play offers a cross section of the turn-of-the-century Viennese medical profession, which then becomes a microcosm of Viennese society in general. We meet hypersensitive, defensive Jews, old-time non-Jewish liberals, turn-coat politicians, anti-Semites, both casual and vicious, although even the more unsavory characters are multi-dimensional. Schnitzler tries to remain objective and presents the complexity of the situation. In connection with the Bernhardi affair some of his colleagues raise the touchy issue of there being too many Jewish doctors. One of these, a Dr. Ebenwald, says at a crucial staff meeting: “The fact is there are many people who do not find it proper that in an institute where a Prince and a Bishop are trustees, and where statistically eighty-five percent of the patients are Catholic, a majority of the attending physicians belong to another confession. That simply makes for bad blood in certain circles.” One of the Jewish doctors, Löwenstein, counters: “But the money we get, eighty percent of that also comes from that other confession.” To which Ebenwald retorts: “That is besides the point.” (A student of mine in a class where I taught this play said after reading these lines: “Boy, does this sound familiar.”)

I believe Schnitzler intimates half-consciously the futility, the hollowness of assimilation in this play. He also admires Bernhardi for having the courage of his conviction, but the doctor’s disenchantment and resignation—clearly he, too, is a character who partakes of fin-de-siècle Viennese melancholy and decadence—suggests that pitted against ideological fervor, either political or religious, the secular humanist is bound to lose.

It is the Christian hero of Der Weg ins Freie that sums up the tragic aspects of the Jewish condition in Central Europe most poignantly. After listening to the arguments of his Jewish friends, Georg, the artist reflects: “For the first time the name Jew, which had so often frivolously, derisively, and contemptuously crossed his lips, began to appear to him in a completely new, as it were darker sense. A presentiment of this people’s mysterious destiny, that somehow expressed itself in everyone who sprang from this origin, began to dawn on him; not less in those who tried to escape from it like a disgrace, an injury or a legend that didn’t concern them, than in those who stubbornly referred back to it, as to a fate, an honor, or a fact of history which stood fast and immovable.”

It is no accident that the literary historian Aladár Komlós quotes this very passage in an essay he wrote much later, in which he tries, not for the first time, to explain why the best Hungarian Jewish writers of Molnár’s generation chose not to delve into the Jewish experience in their works, the way someone like Schnitzler did. The explanation is simple: they felt that doing that would have made them seem more Jewish and less Hungarian; and they wanted to be considered Hungarian writers above all. Even someone like the young Georg Lukács, certainly one of the most important and original thinkers in turn-of-the-century Budapest, shared this view. In an interview with Péter Nagy conducted late in life, Lukács said: “You can believe me that I am not motivated by anti-Semitism when I say that the novels of Tamás Kóbor that were considered important in my youth are Jewish novels and not Hungarian novels.” It is as if Lukács, too, could not conceive of a Hungarian writer dealing with the Jewish, the Hungarian Jewish experience. Interestingly enough, the young, pre-Marxist Lukács welcomed Schnitzler’s Der Weg ins Freie; he wrote a very favorable review in the first volume of Nyugat, calling it a “rich, beautiful, refined, strong, funny and moving book,” though he did miss a consistent world view in the novel. We should add that Lukács, both pre-Marxist and Marxist, had a very low opinion of Molnár. About no other Hungarian writer did he write quite so contemptuously as he did about Molnár—not even about some of the right-wing populists whom, one would think, he had more reason to dislike. Lukács considered Molnár a mediocre naturalist, a playwright of cheap tricks.

It’s true enough that Molnár could not and would not have written a play like Professor Bernhardi. Even if we compare what is arguably Molnár’s best story, “Széntolvajok” (Coal Thieves) with Schnitzler’s justly famous “Leutnant Gustl,” written around the same time and on a similar theme—the chasm between social and moral façade and reality in modern society—we realize that Schnitzler’s treatment is far more sophisticated. “Leutnant Gustl” is a stunningly accurate self-portrait of a callow officer of the Austro-Hungarian Army, and it is one of the first sustained employment of interior monologue in European literature. “Széntolvajok,” a story about the urban poor who are stopped from committing petty theft only by the sober realization of the consequences, is sentimental and transparent by comparison, especially its vaguely socialistic finale—a lyric paean to the downtrodden.

Am I also saying, then, that of the two, Schnitzler is the better, more modern writer? I guess I am saying that, but that’s not my main point. Even if Molnár were a differently gifted writer, he would not have written Professor Bernhardi or Der Weg ins Freie. As a Budapest Jew living in a city which, as John Lukács says in his Budapest 1900, was then enjoying its “noonhour”, Molnár is more energetic, more optimistic, more combative than his Austrian counterpart—even, or especially, when it comes to the Jewish question. The two stories mentioned earlier are also instructive from a Jewish point of view. Schnitzler masterfully reveals Leutnant Gustl’s deeply ingrained, reflex-like, potentially very dangerous anti-Semitism. Molnár in “Széntolvajok” places the problem entirely in a social context—we see rich Jews oppressing poor Jews.

This theme emerges even more strongly in an early social novel, Az éhes város (The Hungry City, 1901), for which its twenty-two-year-old author had Balzacian, Stendhalian ambitions, most of them unrealized. Here too all the Jews’ ills are blamed on rich Jews. If only the wealthy were different, Molnár seems to suggest, everything would be all right. A young Jewish intellectual lashes out at a Jewish capitalist at a glittering party:

You people are the real anti-Semites, not the People’s Party. . . You are thoughtless and we are your victims—me, you, him, all of us, the poor Jewish middle class that has to work hard to earn a living. We are the ones who bear the brunt of your meanness. . .
Because you are inconsiderate fools who like to play the aristocrats, I have to hear day in and day out that I am not Hungarian. Do you understand what I am saying? I speak no German or French or any other language in the world, only Hungarian. I love no other land besides this, I was born here, my mother and father are buried here, and still I must hear that I am an outsider. This is all your fault, you millionaires and overlords, you bank potentates and stock market rulers and heartless moneybags, who should be pelted with stones by the anti-Semites—yes, I myself would join them. Your are terrible for this country, which owes its modern greatness in part to the Jewish middle class. All the good that Jews did here were done by us poor scribblers, by Jewish teachers, doctors, engineers, lawyers, judges, and Jewish streetcar conductors, factory workers and road builders.

The mature Molnár continued the theme and wrote hilarious and devastating social satires aimed at the pretensions and ignorance of Jewish parvenus. The best known of these is the skit “Disznótor a Lipótvárosban” (Pig Killing in Leopoldtown), in which a super-rich, newly titled denizen of Budapest’s fashionable (and mostly Jewish) Lipótváros wants to outdo his friends by staging an old-fashioned Hungarian pig killing, though he is too refined even to say the word pig (disznó), so it’s always cochon. In their eagerness to fit into high society, he and his wife Christianize everything: thus, Rabbi Akiva becomes “that old parson,”(“öreg plébános”), they refer to the “Dohány Street vicarage” (“Dohány utcai parókia”), a rabbi from Buda becomes the “abbot” from Buda, etc.

In this and other social satires and parodies Molnár reaches Molièrian heights, but there is no question that behind the scathing satire there is a certain amount of Jewish self-hate. We find revealing examples of this attitude in the reminiscences of Molnár’s own sister, Erzsébet Molnár, whose life was far less glamorous than his famous brother’s. Like many assimilated Hungarian Jews, Erzsébet Molnár—who published her memoirs in Budapest in 1958—glosses over her Jewish origins and internalizes many of the negative images of Jews. When she calls the rabbi at their mother’s obviously Jewish funeral a priest, it’s not a satiric touch (though in all fairness to Erzsébet Molnár, the Hungarian word pap can mean a rabbi.) In 1944 she too becomes a victim of persecution, and has a hard time associating herself with fellow sufferers. When a friend of hers, a Jew according to the racial laws, commits suicide, she wonders: “Is there a Jewish heaven? Because the old one we may not be able to enter anymore.”

During the war years an aging Molnár, safely ensconced in New York’s Plaza Hotel, wrote a play called “Miracle in the Mountain”, 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, however. Unbearably sentimental and preachy, it has never been staged.

Ferenc Molnár’s self-image as a Jew—so much more than Schnitzler’s—oscillates between pride, even swagger, and shame. In his delightful comedy, Játék a kastélyban (Play in the Castle) Turai, the playwright, is Molnár’s idealized self, the stage magician, a modern Prospero, while Gál, his ever-pessimistic, neurotic, kvetch of a partner can be seen as his Jewish self. P.G. Wodehouse in his brilliant English adaptation, The Play’s the Thing, sensed this and changed the name Gál to the more Jewish-sounding Mansky.

There are other works of his where we encounter what is actually a characteristic feature of Hungarian Jewish literature—the masked or undeclared Jewish character. “A novel,” Aladár Komlós reminds us, “can be about Jews even if it doesn’t explicitly say it is about them.” Of Molnár’s heroes Komlós writes: “Under [their] skin Jewish blood runs. It would be difficult to prove this in particulars, it’s a matter of feeling.” And more recently the philosopher Ágnes Heller has advanced the proposition in an essay entitled, significantly, “Dejewification in Hungarian Jewish Literature,” that in Molnár’s famous Pál utcai fiúk (The Paul Street Boys), Ernõ Nemecsek, this small, frail, ever so loyal boy, the perfect victim, is the undeclared Jewish hero of the novel, modeled after Molnár’s own childhood self. The only problem with this theory is that Molnár as a child and as an adult was anything but a timid soul. In fact he was a bully with a violent temper, given to sudden contrition. A recent biography of Molnár by his grandson, Mátyás Sárközi, makes it clear that he was something of a wife-beater (which is pretty shocking, if only because according to the ethnic stereotypes a Jewish husband is not supposed to do that). If any of his literary creation is a disguised self-portrait, it is Liliom, the tough amusement-park barker who cannot show just how tender-hearted he really is.

His human failings notwithstanding, Ferenc Molnár cut a debonair figure in the world capitals where his plays were shown during his long career. Vienna was especially receptive to his brand of theatrical genius. When Liliom first opened in Budapest in 1909, it failed. The Vienna production, however, was a triumph. We could add that Schnitzler also had many sympathetic readers and theater fans in Budapest. His scandalous Reigen (most often translated into English as La Ronde) had its world premiere in the Hungarian capital. Not surprisingly, Hungarian Jewish writers responded positively to Schnitzler’s radical social criticism, his attack on the hypocritical sexual mores of turn-of-the-century Vienna. Sándor Bródy translated Reigen into Hungarian, and seventy-five years later Mihály Kornis produced a mordant update entitled Körmagyar (Hungarian Round).

Molnár and Schnitzler knew each other; they met numerous times, mainly in Vienna. Molnár mentions him in letters written to his third wife, the actress Lili Darvas. We know even more about Schnitzler’s feelings about Molnár, since Schnitzler kept a meticulous and voluminous diary throughout most of his life. The Hungarian playwright, it seems, made a lasting impression on him, especially the more colorful aspects of his personality. This is what he wrote in his diary after their first meeting in 1913: “Molnár, etwas verlumpt, etwas sentimental, etwas hochstaplerisch und melancholisch, gefällt mir sehr” (Molnár is a bit dissolute, a bit sentimental, a bit roguish and melancholy—I like him a lot.”) But later, in 1924, after seeing Molnár’s play The Red Mill, Schnitzler wrote: “eigentlich die praetentiöse Läpperei eines sehr begabten, einfallsreichen, witzigen Menschen” (“a pretentious trifle by a very gifted, imaginative, clever man”).

Schnitzler was perhaps a little jealous of Molnár by then; after all, the Austrian writer faded from the literary and theatrical scene after World War One, while Molnár’s popularity showed no sign of flagging. It’s also true that while Molnár’s plays—except for Liliom—were turned into formulaic Hollywood movies, Schnitzler’s works over the years have attracted far more original, innovative filmmakers and adapters. The most recent example is Stanley Kubrick’s last film, Eyes Wide Shut, based on Schnitzler’s Traumnovelle. The only contemporary man of the theater who seems to find Molnár and Schnitzler equally congenial—he has adapted both Schnitzler and Molnár plays into English—is Tom Stoppard, a Briton with roots in Central Europe, whose forbears were also Jewish.

Ferenc Molnár and Arhtur Schnitzler did not see themselves as Jewish writers. But while Schnitzler dealt with Jewish concerns and dilemmas in a serious and probing way in some of his works, Molnár was more reticent and elliptical on the subject. As an Austrian Schnitzler was leery of nationalist causes and philosophical and skeptical about any solution to the “Jewish question,” Molnár as a Hungarian was uncritically patriotic and clung to the notion that there would be no Jewish question if some Jews were different—less arrogant, less ostentatious, more humble, more Christian. But as liberals and individualists, they also saw the Jewish question in terms of individual rights. The dangers of anti-Semitism and the limits of assimilation preoccupied both of them, and not only as social or psychological themes to be used in their works, but also as basic, existential problems. Schnitzler and Molnár were children of the Dual Monarchy. Their life’s work mark the high point of a culture that without Jewish participation and contribution would have been quite different. Many of their works remain vital and resonant not only in their native countries but the world over.



  © All rights belong to the authors or their heirs. 2004.