Liliom — a roguish hustler, brash carousel barker and swing pusher in Budapest’s City Park — doesn’t ask before taking the servant girls by the waist. Women are drawn to his raffish looks and he is drawn to drinking and brawling. He sponges food and lodging off the jealous carousel owner Mrs Muskat before meeting the love of his life: Julie. The two run away from their old lives and elope, moving in with a relative — the photographer Mrs Hollunder. She reads Liliom like a book and is contemptuous of the out-of-work hothead who brings no money home and has begun to hit his beloved Julie out of frustration. Their plight becomes particularly acute when they learn that Julie is pregnant. Nothing goes Liliom’s way. Ficsur, a denizen of the underworld, gets him involved in a robbery that goes badly wrong before ending fatally. ‘I think’, as Liliom optimistically proclaims at the beginning of the play, ‘that even a good-for-nothing trickster can make a man of himself’. In his case, this is a misconception. Even when he is able to return to the world following 16 years spent in purgatory, he shows no signs of improvement.
Director Kornél Mundruczó intends to approach the ‘suburban legend in seven scenes’, as the work is subtitled, from the end: Liliom is already dead and has been called to answer for his deeds at the last judgement. This involves looking back on a distant time when things were different. Why was he unable to break the spiral of violence? Why is he not mindful of his own guilt until the very end? Mundruczó has the wife-beating hothead, who believes he has always meant well, account for his actions to a chorus of nonconformists.
The Hungarian writer and journalist Ferenc Molnár is said to have written his plays in packed coffee houses and encountered his characters while pursuing his journalistic investigations in places such as Budapest’s City Park. Liliom, Molnár’s most widely performed play, got a second chance in Vienna following its unsuccessful Budapest premiere in 1909. Alfred Polgar’s German translation moved the action to the Viennese Prater and also put the play on the path to worldwide success as an audience hit and subject of multiple film adaptations.
‘At the level of feeling, the work sits on a line where brutality and tenderness intersect. … This irrationality of the heart — shown by the simplest example as seen in the simplest type of human being — gives the play its sophisticated reasoning.’ (Alfred Polgar)
Kornél Mundruczó, born in 1975 in Gödöllő (Hungary), is one of the most important theatre and film directors to have emerged from Hungary in recent years. His short films and full-length features have been awarded numerous international prizes and also been shown in English-language cinemas on both sides of the Atlantic. His film White God won the Prize ‘Un Certain Regard’ at the 2014 Cannes Film Festival while Jupiter’s Moon competed in the main competition section for the 2017 Palme d’Or. He also became well-known as a theatre director through his productions of Vladimir Sorokin’s Ice, shown as a guest performance at the Vienna Festwochen, and The Frankenstein Project. Proton Theatre, an independent company established by Mundruczó, has been invited to festivals around the world since its founding in 2009.
The director has worked together with the Thalia Theater for a number of years. Kornél Mundruczó’s first production in Germany, Judasevangelium (Gospel of Judas), was also the first premiere of Joachim Lux’s artistic directorship when it opened on the house’s smaller stage, the Thalia in der Gaußstraße, in 2009. Following the Judasevangelium, the world premiere of Die Zeit der Besessenen (Time of the Possessed; inspired by the Dostoevsky novel Demons) and an adaptation of Gerhart Hauptmann’s Die Weber (The Weavers), Liliom is the fourth collaboration between the director and the ensemble of the Thalia Theater.
Translation: Sebastian Smallshaw