Roma Nymphomaniacs in Lit and on Stage

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Weörös’s Psyché at the National

Esterházy’s 17 Swans at FILC

 

Though the title may seem flippant, promiscuous young minority women have an impressive pedigree as heroines in Hungarian literature – no doubt partly on account of the prestige of their accomplished Hungarian male creators. When these figures are brought to the screen or to the stage – in the case of Sándor Weörös’s Psyché at the National and Péter Esterházy’s 17 Swans at Fischer Iván Lakásszínháza (Iván Fischer’s Apartment Theatre or FILC) – the questions of sexism, racism, and representation become all the more complicated.

Let us begin with Sándor Weörös and his opus Psyché. First and foremost, Weörös was a genius poet, and when he wrote under the identity of Erzsébet Lónyay (a.k.a. Psyché), an undiscovered poetess born at the very end of the 18th century, he was clearly exploring his anima or female self. See the following lines from his work “Xenia”: “I was a woman, clutching my lord to my tender body / like a sensitive string instrument holds the maestro […] Oh, how I envy the filthy slut! Now I am merely a man. // So long as you are man-force, fighting fierce fate: / creation is your palace to stroll through. / So long as you are woman, bearing storms and searing sunlight: / the universe is your billowing nuptial gown.”

Yet, what is Psyché’s gypsy cred? The front cover of my copy (hardback, illustrated, Magveto Press, 1972) shows the face and bust of Erzsébet Lónyay. Her skin is unmistakably dark, and her facial features are exaggeratedly large. On the inside cover, we have a similar Currier and Ives-style depiction of a romanticized gypsy man playing a cimbalom, as if to underscore Erzsébet’s Roma roots. The work commences with 155 pages of her poetry, in which she neglects to mention her heritage, followed by some autobiographical writings where she touches on her Roma identity, albeit obliquely. At one splendid ball in Vienna, a guest addresses her banteringly as “schwarze Zigeunerin.” The next 60 pages are taken up by the writings of László Ungvárnémeti-Tóth. (the type of name even Weörös could not dream up), an obscure poet who actually lived from 1788 to 1820. Between the real-life László and the fictional Erzsébet, Weörös concocts a long, tortured, unconsummated love affair. Afterward, we get an account from a made-up contemporary of Psyché’s, Márton Achátz, who writes in his work A Picture Gallery of Hungarian Women (1871), “She had gypsy blood; that was plain to see on her.” The man’s word is hardly credible, although he is the only source of information about Psyché’s controversial death, which could have been murder or an accident. Finally, Weörös steps forward one hundred years later in time (in 1971, and on page 275) as a practically all-knowing literary historian to inform us that Erzsébet’s mother was half-Roma, an illegitimate child, conscientiously raised by her liberal landowning father. Thus, Psyché, the exotic gypsy beauty, is only one-quarter Roma. What is it they say about that one drop of blood?

Some would call this exoticism, but what does that term mean? The classic example is Bizet’s Carmen. She is a dazzling gypsy beauty – faithless, temperamental, and violent. She is promiscuous, criminal, and – oh, my God – she is even a witch! Is this a racial stereotype? Certainly. But shall we destroy all existing copies of Carmen and never perform the opera again? Unthinkable! We love this heroine exactly as she is. Hence, while exoticism is inevitably bound up with racism, apologists would insist that it is benign and affectionate, if not flattering.

Psyché’s Roma status is undoubtedly integral to her exotic appeal, and yet Weörös’s treatment of her racial identity is ambiguous and slippery. This is not so in Vidnyánszky’s production, when it is emphasized in the very first minutes that Erzsébet is a gypsy and a slut. (In Hungarian, it is quite common to use the word kurva, which literally means whore, although the term is not quite appropriate in Psyché’s case. She never has sex for monetary gain.) In the mind of the bigoted viewer, it is terribly easy to draw the conclusion that she is a slut, because she is gypsy. This is precisely why storytellers must avoid pandering to this type of prejudice, since it only serves to confirm racist stereotypes.

Ambiguity is key here, and it greatly extenuates the possible charges of racism in Weörös’s work, but it is tricky to translate that quality to the stage. Director Attila Vidnyánszky succeeds in preserving the ambiguity when it comes to Psyché’s relationship to her foster father / brother-in-law. In a portion of her writing, Erzsébet claims that he repeatedly raped her; yet, one of her poems records their only sexual encounter occurring after her persistent attempts to seduce him. “Which one is it?” Weörös opines. As the author, he is the only one who could settle the question; but at this point, his selective omniscience fails him. In the stage adaptation, we are presented with both versions and left to decide which is true.

On the other hand, Psyché’s problematic death is presented less equivocally. If her husband deliberately runs her over with a horse-drawn wagon (and it seems rather intentional when staged), then his motive is jealousy. In the play, it seems that he is furious, because she disappeared earlier to stay beside the deathbed of her life-long love, László Ungvarnémeti-Tóth. Yet, in the original, her husband shrugs off this episode. His possible motive for uxoricide is a comic misunderstanding, but this is left out of the adaptation. It is as though the creators eventually lost sight of the humor, which only makes the ending more ponderous. This could be the reason why the conclusion seems to drag on 30 minutes too long.

Still, the production is not without its merits. The cast is young and enthusiastic. The material, while difficult to understand, is fascinating and melodious. The visual world is attractive, built around the dominate colors of black, white, and deep red with gold and silver highlights. There are also some dangerous-looking fire effects. The atmosphere is romantic and surreal, although the symbolic associations are too obvious to be truly dreamlike: red = rose = passion = sensuality = wine = blood = menstruation. Later in the play, when Psyché has a polyp removed, there is a scene of body horror reminiscent of David Cronenberg’s film Dead Ringers. Several actresses play Erzsébet Lónyay, which is a blessing; that way, they can divide the numerous sex scenes. Memorable moments were provided by Estilla Mikecz and Eszter Ács, the latter handling most of the dramatic scenes near the end.

Another possible area for criticism is Psyché’s motivation, since it dominated, almost obsessively, by sex. In the original, she had a few other interests besides intercourse – her (ultimately unsuccessful) efforts to have her poetry published and her support for the cause of Hungarian independence. In the play, her patriotic fervor is aroused by group sex with rebellious hussars. Honestly, could they not give her character any political convictions? (In Weörös’s work, Lónyay writes a poem that is critical of the weak efforts of Hungarian reformers; yet, in the adaptation, it is used instead as a limerick to tease her beloved László Ungvarnémeti-Tóth.)

 

Something similar occurs in the adaptation of Esterházy’s 17 Swans (the work of dramaturge Lilla Falussy, director Árpád Sopsits, and performer Tünde Majsai-Nyilas). Delivered as a monologue in a one-woman-show, the thoughts of our heroine Lili Csokonai seem absurdly dominated by sex.

Unlike the case of Weörös, my research has turned up no strong personal motivation on the part of Péter Esterházy to write in a feminine voice. Still, the parallels to Psyché are numerous. Though not a poet, Lili Csokonai has a very poetic name, a mixture of Mihály Csokonai-Vitéz (Hungary’s renown eighteenth-century poet) and his muse Lilla. She mentions that her mother is Roma (or Creole – she also evinces an affinity for Brazil), and she is orphaned at a young age. In her foster home, she has a wretched Cinderella-esque existence, mitigated by her affectionate relationship with her foster father. Still, unlike Psyché, she is whisked away to an institution before the man can deflower her. Although seemingly sex-obsessed, Lili clings to her virginity, until she meets a dashing and married businessman who gives her access to a life of ease and luxury that was previously unimaginable to her. Her later nymphomania is traceable to this affair, which irrevocably ends with a car accident. (Note the similarity to the horse wagon incident in Psyché.) Lili survives, but is crippled. Along the way, she dabbles in lesbianism, prostitution, and murder before eventually finding peace.

It is almost impossible to provide an exact synopsis, because the text of 17 Swans is so challenging. It is a kaleidoscopic mish-mash of modern slang, archaic forms, and neologisms that draws unfavorable comparisons to James Joyce. In fact, the central conundrum of the work is why Lili must use this garbled and confused language in the first place. She was born on Csepel [an island and historic workers’ community, now a southern portion of Budapest] in 1965. Unlike Weörös, who mastered the old-fashioned idiom to the point where he could craft a convincing facsimile, Esterházy incorporates obsolete forms quite regardless of context. It would be like sprinkling a modern English text with words like doth, hast, and thine. To put it another way, if this young woman in the dying days of Communism claimed to be inhabited by the ghost of Lili Csokonai under hypnotism, it would not spark a movement to hunt down the real-life identity of this long-dead poetess. Instead, her strange speech would be perceived as the linguistic tics of a mentally disturbed young woman.

All this leads me to a critic’s predicament. While I have difficulty locating the literary merit of 17 Swans, which enjoys something of a cult following, I find the current stage adaptation ultimately more successful than Psyché at the National. Tünde Majsai-Nyilas has internalized this material to the point where can deliver the monstrous text naturally, while managing to hold our attention for 90 minutes – surely a testament to her uncommon talent. The staging, which is simple and effective, also maintains our interest without distracting us from the narrative. Like when reading the novel, it is not important to understand every word or to comprehend precisely what happens. We are supposed to let the text wash over us like a disturbing dream.

In screen adaptations of both these works, it was difficult to see past the Roma angle, or the gypsy exoticism of the heroines, mainly due to the casting and filming of the main characters – Patricia Adriani as Erzsébet Lónyay in Narcissus and Psyche (directed by Gábor Bódy in 1980) and Dorka Gryllus as Lili Csokonai in Érzelmek Iskolája (School for the Senses, directed by András Sólyom in 1995). Thankfully, there is no such emphasis in the current stage adaptation of 17 Swans, as there is nothing strikingly gypsy in Tünde Majsai-Nyilas’s characterization or performance. [Actors who have gone this route in recent memory include Tamás Keresztes and half the cast of Gypsies (József Katona Theater, premiered 2010), Adél Jordán as a sex worker in Illaberek (also at the Katona, 2013), and Lia Porkorny as a dreadfully stereotypical palm-reader in East Railway Station (New Theater, 2009).] Tünde’s approach provides hope for future adaptations of this kind. By focusing on the character and not her race, it allows the story to transcend its racist overtones. Now, if only they had found a way to make the heroine more multi-dimensional!

It would be an intriguing line of investigation why Sándor Weörös and Péter Esterházy chose young Roma women as alter-egos, to provide the voice for their works of sexual exploration. Could it be the heritage of the Carmen stereotype – the gypsy as free, unconstrained by society, and the exotic woman as an available and avid sexual partner? Whatever the case, younger generations of artists continue to be drawn to these works, both for the tantalizing topics they raise and their linguistic challenges. As in the case of Carmen, there is no need to consign these beloved works to the dustbin. Nonetheless, the creators must be very circumspect when navigating the minefields of sexist-racist stereotypes.

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