The last 600 years of anti-hero fetishization have failed to produce anything like the title character of Ferenc Molnar’s 1909 play, Liliom, the story of an unrepentant young man who works as a barker at a merry-go-round. Eventually Liliom moves in with a young woman and begins to torment her. Not one for hard work, and proud of his criminal streak, he then decides to try his hand at armed robbery. He has no training in any field, flouts authority like an adolescent, and he gets flustered easily—in one scene, desperate to recover his losses, he gambles away his remaining share of the haul from a robbery before the job is even done.
In Liliom, Molnar produced one of the rarest manifestations of the sinister: This young man, lacking either Byronic charm or Marlowe-grade evil, is a savage. Almost a simple person, he gets frustrated when faced with anything resembling a complex emotion and resorts to anger and violence. On his deathbed, when characters in other plays and novels are typically at their most elegiac and most sentimental, he can’t even cough out an apology. Instead, he doubles down, telling his wife that he was right to have slapped her around for no reason.
Liliom is a haunting and masterful portrait of a savage heart that should surely belong to the great canon of theater. Instead, Molnar’s work is essentially out of print, and one of the only explanations for this is that there is something deeply foreign to American audiences about a story of a scoundrel who undergoes no transformation for the better. Here in America our scoundrels all have hearts of gold and die in some selfless act that reveals a kinder streak, or at least work diligently to improve themselves over the course of 90 minutes.
A testament to Molnar’s skill is how often his plays were reworked into celebrated works of American film and theater in which the European grit of Molnar’s play was sanded away. The Swan was made into a film with Grace Kelley. Billy Wilder and I. A. L. Diamond adapted another of his plays into the 1961 film One, Two, Three. Liliom became the Rodgers and Hammerstein musical Carousel.
Liliom, tragic as it may appear, is also full of ribbing ironic lines of the type that years later would be dreamed up by directors who knew how to weave European sensibilities into American narratives; Molnar’s work can read, at times, like something Ernst Lubitsch or Billy Wilder might have written, and, no doubt, were inspired by. In one scene, a girl reveals that she is dating a soldier; her friend quickly realizes that the first girl is, in fact, actually dating a porter, and had simply been confused by his uniform.
Even Molnar’s big-city plays can have a small-town feel, where everything feels as communal as a Frank Capra film, even when things are at their worst. In the first scene of Liliom, adults line up for a merry-go-round; the scene ends as white acacia flowers are blown down by the wind onto two people sitting on a bench—a scene that longs so desperately to be set somewhere in a small New England town.
Lubitsch and Wilder knew how to give American audiences what they craved, which is to say, something adjacent to a happy ending or closure. Molnar, who fled Hungary for America before WWII, wrote plays in which closure always comes with an asterisk. His work feels like a marriage between the wholesome and heartfelt irony of American culture and the European emotional-thriller genre. It’s a fascinating chimera, something like a backward Capra movie, as if Liliom takes place in the version of Bedford Falls where George Bailey never existed—a sinister, downtrodden world teeming with refractions of beauty and would-be serenity. Great works of art like this don’t fly in America. They go out of print.
Beauty and would-be serenity are both an important part of Liliom. After his robbery goes awry, Liliom plunges a dagger into his heart and, in death, appears before an otherworldly magistrate. The magistrate informs Liliom that for 16 years his soul will be engulfed by flames to burn off all impurities. Once his infant daughter has turned 16, Liliom will then be sent back to Earth for one day and given a chance to do a single good deed for his daughter. If he succeeds, Liliom will enter heaven.
When Liliom’s moment arrives 16 years in the future, he comes across his daughter and wife sitting on a porch behind a picket fence in a moment more worthy of an American soldier coming home after the war than of a spectral being coming back for a last-ditch attempt at penance and salvation. But Liliom totally botches it. He is rude to his wife and scares his daughter.
Then, suddenly, Liliom produces a handkerchief from his pocket; wrapped inside is a gift. He looks around surreptitiously to make sure that his heavenly guards are not watching, and finally unfolds the handkerchief to reveal a glittering star.The scene directions make it clear that Liliom has stolen a star from heaven for his daughter.
This is his good deed; a criminal act—stealing from heaven itself. And yet, what could be more romantic than this act of immeasurable beauty, of bringing down a piece of the heavens for a daughter he has never even met? What is a good deed if not this? Crime and villainy, ultimately, are Liliom’s only great eloquences. And so he snatched a star from the heavens and brought it down, hoping it would be enough to earn him a spot in paradise, even though it will almost certainly do the opposite. It is a gesture almost identical to a scene out of It’s A Wonderful Life, when nearly 40 years later Jimmy Stewart would jokingly offer to lasso the moon for his beloved.
But Liliom, a scoundrel for life and forever, has none of Stewart’s charm. His daughter refuses the celestial gift from a strange man. She does not seem to understand what he has brought her. His good deed, unlike Stewart’s, is a failure. And Liliom doesn’t really seem to care. It has all the makings of an American happy ending, but instead, it became something else—something halting, poetic, and thrilling.
Read Alexander Aciman’s Bookworm column in Tablet magazine on Mondays.