|Gerrard Lobo and Morgan DeTogne in LILIOM. Photo by Samantha Mercado-Tudda.|
Rodgers and Hammerstein’s Carousel was originally inspired by the play Liliom, written by the Hungarian playwright Ferenc Molnar in 1909. Liliom was not well received when it was first staged in Hungary but it was a rousing success when it subsequently opened on Broadway in 1921 in a translation by Benjamin Glazer and again when it was revived on Broadway in 1932. It was staged in New York again in 1940 but has not been seen here since – not until now, that is: it is currently being revived in an excellent off-off-Broadway production by Beautiful Soup Theater at Celebration of Whimsy (the former home of The Living Theatre) on Clinton Street on Manhattan’s Lower East Side.
Liliom is set in Budapest, Hungary and in a sort of transitional area outside of Heaven. In this production, Gerrard Lobo performs powerfully in the title role as a tough, arrogant carousel barker who, despite falling in love with and impregnating Julie (Morgan DeTogne), generally mistreats her, once even to the extent of slapping her. Nonetheless, concern for his unborn child prompts Liliom to engage in an ill-conceived robbery, resulting in his untimely demise. At that point, Liliom finds himself waiting outside the Pearly Gates to learn of his eternal fate: after spending 16 years in a fiery Purgatory, he is given the opportunity to return to Earth for a day to make amends for the life he lived, before final judgment is passed upon him.
(Carousel Americanizes the play in many ways. The first half takes place in Maine rather than Budapest. Liliom becomes Billy Bigelow. And the play’s climax is made more hopeful.)
But since Carousel is widely considered to have been one of the greatest musicals of all time (indeed, in 1999, Time Magazine named it the Best Musical of the 20th century), and since it has been frequently revived, while Liliom seems to have been all but forgotten, one might reasonably ask: Why revive Liliom now?
In a Program Note to this revival, Steven Carl McCasland, the Artistic Director and founder of Beautiful Soup Theater and the Adaptor and Director of this production, addresses that question. While he readily concedes that:
“The music [in Carousel] was so stirring that, despite several revivals over the years, Molnar’s play is often forgotten and companies around the world choose instead to mount the beloved musical”
he contends that:
“…the play evokes a cautionary tale. The War on Women continues to rage. But much like when Julie challenges Liliom to raise his fists again, the fight for equality passionately continues.”
And he concludes that
“[Liliom is] just as moving a journey, even without the sweeping sounds of Carousel.”
I’m sorry but I must respectfully, and vehemently, disagree. Liliom is nowhere near as moving a journey without the sweeping sounds of Carousel. And it is really quite a stretch to attempt to interpret this play as a polemic against wife abuse: Molnar emphasizes the point that Liliom has struck his wife only once and that others are mistaken in believing that he is a habitual wife-beater. And at the play’s conclusion, both Julie and her daughter Louise (Kelly Reader) express the sentiment that sometimes a hard slap does not even hurt.
Rather, the play explores a whole variety of human behaviors – both admirable and reprehensible - of which wife abuse is only one. It touches on a woman’s confessing to her dead lover what she had been unable to express to him when he was alive; on the joy (and fear) a man experiences on learning that he is to be a father; on individuals’ petty concerns for their own portraits or pay or pensions in the face of others’ real tragedies.
None of what I have just written is intended to trivialize all of the unforgivable, misogynistic, sociopathic and brutal aspects of wife abuse. Such behavior is to be condemned, criminalized and punished and I, for one, applaud Beautiful Soup Theater for bringing this matter to the attention of its audience, soliciting their support in combating it, and contributing the proceeds from its own production of Liliom to Safe Horizon, the largest organization helping victims of crime and abuse in the United States today. But support for a worthwhile cause still doesn’t justify misinterpreting what a theatrical work is all about or why it may be worth producing or seeing.
Nor should what I have written be taken to mean that I didn’t enjoy this production of Liliom, nor that I wouldn’t recommend to you that you see it. On the contrary: I think that this is a very professional production of a seldom seen play and theatre aficionados – especially those with a particular interest in the precursors of selected works (in this case, Carousel) – are very likely to enjoy it.
But it doesn’t really strike a blow for women’s rights. And it really isn’t even in the same league as Carousel.