DAVID BELASCO ON HIS FRIEND FERENC MOLNARDon Haefliger
David Belasco, legendary American theatrical director and producer, introduced the plays of Ferenc Molnar to America by presenting them at his equally legendary theatre in New York City. In The Forward of the edition of Molnar’s collected works published in 1929, he expresses his overwhelming love and respect for Molnar’s plays. The following is a complete transcript of that document.
“Receive them, then—the tribute that I owe!”
Molnar! Author, stage-director, dramatist, poet: Ferenc Molnar. Today, whether at home in his own beloved Hungary, or here, in America, a name to conjure with. But I remember a time before it was so—a time when that name was the name of a stranger; when, here in our Western world, his work was untried and unknown. That was more than twenty years ago. My friend Harrison Grey Fiske had acquired the American rights to one of Molnar’s earlier plays, “The Devil,” in manuscript and I had been strongly impressed by the singular, original faculty of the author. It was brought out, for the first time in America, for the first time in America, at the original Belasco, August 18, 1908, and it enjoyed a substantial measure of popular support.
From my first acquaintance with his writings, I marked Molnar as a dramatist of original and fearless mind, whose work evinces lively contempt for hide-bound conventionality, quick apprehension alike of the humor and the pathos of human experience, keen sympathy with the wretched and miserable, extraordinary faculty, unerring dramatic instinct and a satisfying, sinewy vitality of style.
It was natural that I should be eager to become personally associated with the work of a dramatist who thus powerfully impressed me—that I should desire to place his work before the American public under my own direction as well as in my theatre. It was not, however, until six years later than an opportunity for me to do so presented itself. Then, early in 1914, there came to me a manuscript of a new play by Molnar, called “The Wolf,” and, the moment I read it, I knew that I had found what I had been seeking. I selected the late Leo Ditrichstein to play the principal part and also to assist me in adapting the piece so as to render it altogether acceptable upon our stage. The necessary revision was easily and quickly made; and on October 6, 1914, I had the honor of presenting it, under the name of “The Phantom Rival,” at the present Belasco Theatre, where it achieved an immediate artistic as well as popular success and where it was acted for many months. The performances that were given in it by Ditrichstein (who, within his natural field, was one of the finest actors of his period) and Miss Laura Hope Crews, were models of histrionic art. That most authoritative and exigent of critics, the late William Winter, wrote about them: “. . . Of the kind, nothing so good as the acting of Miss Laura Hope Crews and Mr. Ditrichstein in the last scene of it has been known to our Stage for many years.”
“The Phantom Rival” is a “dream play”—that is, a play in which the chief scene is made up of the fragments of a dream in the sleeping mind of one of its central characters, visualized to the audience. Anything which trenches upon the occult, the fantastic, the preternatural, the mysterious, has for me a dominant appeal; it holds me fascinated. Dreams, no doubt, are natural enough; but, also, they are mysterious, beyond comprehension. And so I reveled in the task of producing this play. The “visible dream” is an old device of the Theatre—but as difficult to deal with as it is old. I do not mean to boast; but recognition bestowed not only by the generous, indulgent public but also by experienced, exacting critics is the prized reward of the worker in the Theatre, and therefore I recall with pride Winter’s comment on the difficulty of the task of directing and producing that play: “. . . Belasco’s preservation of an unreal, dreamlike atmosphere throughout the dream scenes of this play was perfect. . . .”
I like to believe (as certainly I do believe!) that the success achieved by “The Phantom Rival” laid the cornerstone of the great and constantly growing success of Molnar in America. In this volume will be found, besides “The Wolf” (“The Phantom Rival”), ten other plays that have followed it to our stage: namely, “Carnival,” “The Play’s the Thing,” “The Glass Slipper,” “Fashions for Men,” “Heavenly and Earthly Love,” “The Swan,” “The Guardsman,” “Liliom,” “Olympia,” and “Mima.” An imposing list, truly—and the remunerative popularity it denotes is richly deserved.
The rewards of successful play-writing, in this land and day, are prodigious. Popular approval in the Theatre, to use Johnson’s phrase, means “the potentiality of growing rich beyond the dreams of avarice.” As a consequence, the field is overcrowded. Persons of very slender ability, who have, nevertheless, chanced to win the fickle fancy of the ever-desultory multitude have, in a season or two, passed from pinching and obscure poverty to celebrity, affluence and ease. Their prosperity has been widely observed. The fact that In this, as in everything else, “the one succeeds, the many fail,” is lost sight of, and misled by golden dreams of fortune and fame, an army of scribblers toils at the abortive and pestiferous industry of inditing reams of dialogue and miscalling them dramas! The desire to acquire money cannot create the dramatic faculty. The dramatist, doubtless, requires to be cultivated—but like the poet, he must first be born; he cannot be cultivated into existence! It is only from the natural-born dramatist that comes the plays worth writing, worth producing, worth seeing. Such a dramatist is Ferenc Molnar, today the most interesting and significant of living dramatists. —David Belasco
[ Belasco revolutionized theatrical production. He was the first to use incandescent spot lights, colored lighting via motorized color-changing wheels, and follow spots. He built enormous amounts of flyspace, used hydraulic systems, turntables, moving walkways among other things. In fact, he was said to have purchased a section of a tenement building, dismantled it and reconstructed it on his stage and that he put appropriate scents to set scenes in the ventilation of his theaters. He carried Naturalism and Realism on stage to the ultimate extent at the turn of the 20thCentury.]