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Book Report: The Devil

The play that made Ferenc Molnár’s name as a playwright was The Devil; it appears to have had two competing English translations open in New York on the same night in New York (in addition to playing in German and Yiddish). It was, however, banned in London, presumably because of what seems like a very mildly risqué bit where the lead actress is said to be naked under her travelling cloak (although she is not).

Or perhaps it was banned because it’s one of those plays that is terribly cynical about marriage generally. The lead actress is married to a banker but in love with an artist; he has a mistress (who he has dumped at the beginning of the play) and a fiancée, but is in love with the banker’s wife. The Devil appears and mixes everything up, as one would think, and in the end…

The question in these sorts of plays, particularly from the first few years of the twentieth century, is love or marriage? Does the play end with the couple in love throwing off the restraints of the world to fulfill their romantic destiny, or does the play end with the marriage bonds tested and found strong? There are options: the old banker can die, or the young artist can die, or the couple can turn out not to have been legally married at all, or the young artist can be discovered to be not worthy of her love, but if it is the sort of play that supports the institution of marriage, then she will not break her vows. But in that time period not all the playwrights (and novelists and so on) do support the institution of marriage, so the viewer/reader can, a hundred years later, remain in suspense about the ending.

Unfortunately, that’s really the most interesting thing about the play. Mostly the Devil manipulates people into doing and saying things that go against their principles, and sets up situation after situation where somebody is caught in a compromising position, and it’s all very artificial and awkward. I had no idea at the end why the Devil wanted to muck about with this artist and his life. I quite like stories of the Devil in a general way (unlike the editor in the story who sold his soul for a guarantee that he would never have to read another pact-with-devil-story ever again), but I remained unclear who was at risk of being damned for what in this play. Perhaps it’s just my twenty-first century blinders, but it seemed to me that the Devil was neither maximizing sin nor even maximizing temptation, just making people believe things that weren’t true.

Ah, well. I never expected to like all the fellow’s plays.

Tolerabimus quod tolerare debemus,
-Vardibidian.