Veiled beneath the shimmering romantic plot of Ferenc Molnar’s 1928 play Olympia is a seething allegory for Hungary’s status as a nation after the First World War. The characters who populate Molnar’s play are masters of wit and social code, deftly flinging stunningly constructed verbal phrases at one another in an attempt to remain at the top of the pecking order. In fact, it is easy to sit back and merely enjoy the almost perfectly crafted plot and phrases of the play without noticing the social critique Molnar slips in between laughs. In particular, the elaborate social codes and manners of Molnar’s world seem to have often blinded audiences outside of Hungary to such an extent, that they have been unable to see the more political dimension beneath the façade, leading to the play being largely neglected outside of its native Hungary.
Ferenc Molnar’s Olympia is set at the height of the Austro-Hungarian Empire during the years preceding World War I in a dazzling world of wealth and power. It was during this period that a fifty-year dual monarchy arrangement between the Austrian Hapsburg Dynasty and the Hungarian nobility had enriched both empires creating a fertile exchange between the old cultural center in Vienna and the new one in Budapest. In a brief period of time, Molnar’s Budapest had transformed from a primarily agrarian outpost into a booming urban hub of industry and culture. This was fueled by both the influx of Austrian capital and the immigration of a population of highly-educated, liberal Jews who assimilated and thrived in Budapest under the 1867 Emancipation Law that accompanied the formation of the empire that same year. It was at the peak of this cultural expansion that Molnar chose to set his comedy about a dangerous love interest between the Austrian Princess Olympia and the Hungarian Captain Kovacs.
Olympia was not, however, written during these boom times in which it is set, but rather in 1928, after World War I had ended and the dissolution of the empire had split Hungary into tiny autonomous regions governed by nationality. Throughout the 1920’s Hungary endured a harrowing series of post-war revolutions and purges that included a bout of anti-communist, anti-Semitic hysteria known as the “White Terror” that forced Molnar out of his native Budapest and into Vienna for a short time. Despite the wide-spread political unrest of the decade, however, Molnar saw his plays translated, performed and adapted for the screen all over Europe and the United States, propelling him to international fame and success. He became uniquely positioned as the prominent voice of Hungarian culture, and was soon as highly regarded in international theatrical circles as much for being a charming conversationalist as for his mastery of dramatic forms.
It was during this politically chaotic, yet personally prolific era that Molnar found himself reflecting on an earlier time period in his native land, finding the roots of post-war Europe’s nationalistic tensions in the vicious class politics of the pre-war Empire. Olympia was rousing success in Hungary due to its masterful comedic construction to be sure, but also because of its mining of the long-held resentment of the Hungarians towards the Austrian aristocracy; their smug ineptitude demonstrated, from a Hungarian perspective, by the calamitous failure of the war. For the Hungarian public, the play did not only represent a class conflict, but the broader nationalistic conflicts that were perceived as having precipitated the collapse of the Empire. The character of the Hungarian Captain Kovacs is physically, intellectually and morally superior to the Austrian aristocracy he socializes with, but is nonetheless written off as a potential paramour for Olympia because of his status as a “peasant” and a “hussar.” For a Hungarian audience member, this character would have been immediately identifiable as their entire nation being written off by the cruel and beautiful hand of Austria.
It is perhaps because of the strongly nationally rooted references in the play that Olympia had more difficulty than Molnar’s other plays in finding popularity abroad. As a matter of fact, when it premiered on Broadway in New York in 1928, Olympia opened to mediocre reviews and closed after only 39 performances. Although American audiences were able to appreciate the well-crafted comedy and dexterous verbal wit that are Molnar’s hallmarks, the broader social context of the play was lost in such a dissimilar national context.
A decade after Olympiawas written and performed, Molnar was forced to permanently leave the home country he so loved because of oppressive, anti-Semitic laws passed in Hungary. It is tragic to note that the creator of an archetypal Hungarian character like Kovacs was eventually stripped of his own Hungarian nationality. Yet, the enduring feature of Olympia seems to be the profound humanity with which Molnar deals with this very specific national conflict, giving us flawed and hilarious characters trying to assert their birthrights in ridiculously restricting circumstances.
It recent decades Molnar has been a writer too often dismissed by both theatre artists and academics for writing well-crafted, but ultimately trite comedies. Indeed, although re-imagined for the cinema in 1929 and 1960, Molnar’s original play has not been seen on the stages of New York since its original ill-received production. Like all great comedies, Olympia is both exactly what it appears to be and smarter than it lets on. Just as Molière or the Restoration comediennes did before him, Molnar knows how to hide his claws under a pair of delicate gloves. As TACT focuses its Salon Series this season on romances that are not exactly what one would expect, Olympia could not be a more perfect choice to start it all off. And, as always with TACT, it is an excellent opportunity to pull the veil of manners off this neglected work, to reveal the full breadth of the scathing critique embedded in the play.