Ferenc Molnar Rides Again

Today S and I went to see a matinee of Carousel, based on the play Liliom by Ferenc Molnar, whom I mentioned in a blog post last year. It was corny but we both cried at the end, which is all that matters. The American version pretty much follows the Hungarian story, except the romance is between a carousel barker and a mill girl in Maine instead of a carousel barker and a maid in Budapest. And in the end, the American Billy Bigelow, after his death, succeeds in his mission on earth, whereas Liliom doesn't and ends up in hell. And in the Hungarian version, the man who Liliom and his friend plan to rob is Jewish instead of a rich mill owner. So why is that? Why would Molnar nee Neumann, endorse the stereotype of the Jew as the guy with the money? You could call Molnar a self-hating Jew, but that's too easy. Yes, he changed his name from Neumann when he became a journalist because he wanted to be known as a Hungarian writer. That makes sense to me. The father of the great Hungarian Jewish martyr Hannah Senesch or Senesh (in Hungarian, Senesz) had changed his name from something that was more Jewish-sounding, I'm pretty sure. It was not possible to be both Jewish and Hungarian. I mean Hungarian-Hungarian. Her father was called Bela Senesz, and it is hard to find a name more Hungarian-sounding. (I'm Googling for his name, and I find my own essay about Hannah and Monica Lewinsky. It's like seeing yourself in a mirror that you thought was a window.) I find from reading myself that the family's last name had been Schlesinger.

In Liliom, the Jew who has the money is a cashier ("a strong, robust, red-bearded Jew about 40 years of age") traveling on a Saturday (handling money on Shabbos, forbidden--this is my comment, and is not in the play) to deliver the payroll to a leather factory. When Liliom says he's afraid to kill the man because his ghost will come after him, his partner in crime tells him, "A Jew's ghost don't come back." Later while they're waiting for the cashier's train to come in they talk about telephone wires and Liliom says Jews talk through them. As in Carousel, the intended victim happens to have packed a pistol for the first time, and is able to threaten the would-be robbers. In both, also, the duo has attacked too late; the money has already been taken to the factory/the ship's captain. In both, the friend runs off and Liliom/Billy is surrounded by police. He stabs himself with his own knife. In Liliom, Linzer the red-haired Jew calls the hospital. In Carousel, no one calls for medical help. As he's dying, Billy tells Julie to tell their unborn baby that he went to San Francisco. In Liliom, it's America.

Perhaps Molnar made the would-be victim Jewish because he was reflecting society--Jews often were agents, handling money for factory owners. Maybe he thought he was doing his fellow Jews a favor by showing a sturdy Jew instead of a bookish, spindly stereotype. Perhaps he wanted the audience to sympathize with the Jew who is attacked by bad guys. That seems doubtful. In Carousel, we accept it as a fact that in a mill town, the mill owner is rich. That's the guy with the money. (See Willie Sutton on robbing banks.) In any case, I protest. The Jews had enough trouble without one of their own reinforcing the stereotype that Jews are associated with money handling. So in case anyone wanted to know, Carousel is good for the Jews, because they're not in it.

No comments: