Madách sent The last days of Csák to the drama competition of the Academy. From the note on the cover we know that the manuscript arrived at Pest on 19 March 1843.
The jury, composed by András Fáy, József Bajza, Gergely Czuczor,
Ferenc Schedel and Mihály Vörösmarty met on 4 October 1843. Károly Obernyik’s
Aristocrat and peasant was awarded. Ede Szigligeti’s Gerő was found
worthy for publication, but they also noticed Madách’s work: “Thereafter, we
must highlight with praise… The last days of Csák, a drama in five acts.”
15 Mór Jókai’s The Jewish boy was also praised.
From a letter by Madách to János Arany on 3 October 1861 we know, that eighteen years after the competition, in August 1861 he took out again and rewrote The last days of Csák: “Here I enclose a play. 17 By no means wanted I depict Máté Csák in all his magnitude, which Károly Kisfaludy failed to do; I only wanted to show the dying lion in his last days. I don’t know, however, whether I succeeded in doing so, and whether this simple plot could have any effect on the stage. (…) I ask you therefore (…) to judge my work, not only its inherent value, but also whether it is suitable for the stage, because I know how difficult and how special it is to meet this requirement. –
If appropriate, be so kind to present it to the jury of the
dramatic competition; if not, send it back to me. (…) The reason why I
chose among my works this play for a complete elaboration, is partly my special
interest in the subject, and partly that the name of Máté Csák has started to
revive in our literature, and I, to avoid any involuntary imitation, did not
even dare to read Károly Szász’s Csák, only today I start it – this is why I
hastened to prepare mine.”
Madách formulated it precisely: in our 19th-century literature the name of Máté Csák started to “revive”, because his historical role was judged diametrically oppositeto how he was considered in the 20th century or nowadays. Today he is alive in the public imagery as he was depicted in Ady’s poem On the land of Máté Csák: the symbol of the domineering feudal lord. However, in the 19th century, the reform era and in the time of absolutism “the name of Máté Csák was linked to national independence and the efforts of freedom against the foreigners.” 19 This widespread evaluation was based on the fact that Máté Csák supported Elisabeth, the daughter of Andreas III, the last king from the Árpád dynasty, against Robert Charles, the king of foreign origins. Károly Kisfaludy dedicated him two incomplete works in this spirit, the Zách family and Csák. Petőfi planned to write an epic on him, 20 and Arany had the same idea. 21 His name is repeatedly mentioned in Vörösmarty’s works, too, who also wrote a German-language epic poem entitled Csák. 22 In 1861, as it is attested by the letter of Madách, Károly Szász wrote a narrative poem on Csák of Trencsén.
Madách’s choice of topic, however, was motivated not only by the spirit of the age, but also by personal feelings, since one of his ancestors served as a soldier in the time of Andreas III.
In October 1861 János Arany enthusiastically supported the publication of The tragedy of man, but the second, reworked version of Csák did not please him. He believed, it is more advantageous to Madách if “Csák is not known until they read the Tragedy. I find so that in this latter, in spite of the actors’ representing abstract ideas, there is more drama than in the Csák. But let us return to this on another occasion.” 23 Madách understood the delicate words, and in his answer he urged János Arany to a radical action: “From your short note on The last days of Csák I understand that it has no drama. Which is no little trouble in drama! There is no greater calamity than the survival of a mediocre work. It will come forth, if not in our life, then after our death, when a heartless good friend would compromise us with it. So please, throw it into fire, but I would be happy to hear some of your observations after the autodafé, because I could learn from them. All I am writing now is my sincerest conviction: I would not consider myself worthy of your friendship if I wanted to show myself different than I am in your eyes, just as I always wait the straightest truth from you: what is more, the more brutal and the farther it is from your very mild observation on Csák, the more I see that you love me.” 24 (35 MTAK K 13/374)
The response of Madách reveals several things. First, how great authority Arany was to him, and second, how rigorous critic he was of himself.
The sober, not quick-tempered Arany of course did not throw into the fire the drama of Madách: “We should never hurry with the autodafé of Mr. Csák. I will tell you if it is necessary: but it is not yet. Let us return to it later, when I will have the time and mood.” 25
To the reception of The last days of Csák belongsthat in 1969 it was published in a “reformed”, “modernized” language by Dezső Keresztury. 26
(Csák végnapjai (The last days of Csák). Drama in five acts. With a foreplay in one act. A competition work for 1843. LHAS Department of Manuscripts, Magyar Irodalom Színművészet 4° 20/173.)
From Madách’s flyleaf to Moses we know that he wrote his play between 9 July 1860 and 16 November 1861. 27 In this period he was extremely busy, working on more than one work: in the autumn of 1861 he reworked his play The last days of Csák, and he was in correspondence with János Arany on the corrections of the Tragedy.
The circumstances of the presentation of Moses we know from his letter to his friend Iván Nagy from 23 December 1861: “I had great problems with it. First, I was late in writing it, so I could hardly finish it, and then I had no time to let it rest a couple of months, when I myself can better judge whether it is worthy to be sent for the competition. – But now, when hardly completed, I already had to cause it copied, now, when I still feel the ecstasy which, I think, every author feels for his own work immediately after completing it, just like the man in love at the first embraces of the conquered lady. As a result, I am truly terrified whether I send a failed work. (…) My troubles are increased by the fact that it was copied in a scandalous script, which deters from reading and gives an unfavorable impression.” 28
Madách was pressed by time: there was little more than a week until the deadline of 31 December, so, although apologetically, but he aske two things of his friend: first, to bind the manuscript, “as the rules require”, and second, “not as an expert, but as an educated public”, “judge it in all opennes, whether it is worthy to send for the competition or not”. 29 Iván Nagy considered it worthy to present Madách’s work, which arrived at the Academy, for the Karátsonyi drama competition on 29 December 1861.
It is amazing, how strong Madách was, how easily could renounce of his work and, as a fatalist, to leave on his friend’s decision the fate of his spiritual child. If Iván Nagy happened to feel that the Moses is a failed work, and does not present it on the competition, now we would be poorer of a work by Madách.
The “committee report” was read by corresponding member Károly Bérczy on the meeting of 31 March 1862. The manuscript of the report has survived, and also published in print in the secondvolume of the 1861/2 edition of the Magyar Akadémiai Értesítő, which, in spite of its numbering, was publishe in 1862.
The report revels that six works were sent to the competition, whose jury was composed by Baron Zsigmond Kemény, János Arany, Mór Jókai, János Pompéry, and Károly Bérczy. Among the members of the jury, Madách was on good terms with Károly Bérczy, and since a few months he had also enjoyed the confidence of János Arany. Nevertheless we can say in full certainty that these acquaintances did not bring any benefit to Madách, since he sent the Moses anonymously, and it was not his drama which won the first prize. From his letter to Iván Nagy we know that he counted with this possibility, and he acted with an exemplary care and honor: “I would have willingly sent it [that is, the Moses] to János Arany, to judge whether it is worthy for the competition. I know his special friendly inclination shown towards me could have allowed it. But there is no time for that, and I was also afraid that he might be a member of the jury, so he must not know about this work..” 30 The feeling of Madách was justified: János Arany was also a member of the jury.
The jury did not conceal that they were unsatisfied with the level of the works: “the report should start with the reservation that the award has been given to this and this work not because it is definitely good, or because it is the best among the good competitors – but because it is relatively better than the other, weak ones.” The literature links the criticism to the name of Károly Bérczy, although he probably only summed up, poured in its final form, read and published the judgment of the jury, but the text itself is based on the thoughts of others.
On the Moses the report tells the following: “The fourth work is Moses, called a tragedy in five acts, although it is essentially no tragedy, and not even a drama. Moses is a purely epic subject, and as presented, he is an epic, and no tragic figure. He is the first warrior of his people; he follows the voice of fate; his task is to fulfill the common interest, and not his own individual goal, for which the hero of the tragedy comes into conflict with the order of the world, to finally fall fighting. Moses, on the contrary, receives his vocation from God, and he is supported by divine force. He is a fatal hero: he himself says that he cannot fall until he fulfills his vocation. – But he is also an epic hero because he leads his people to victory through every vicissitude; because the fact that he cannot enter the land of promise, only look into it, is no tragic fall, it is almost as much as if he entered it. And finally, he is no tragic hero also because he has no tragic errors. He himself does not feel anything like this, on the contrary, in his final hour he courageously says:
“My soul is not charged by any accusation.”
This is not how the hero of a tragedy dies. This latter usually dies by wishing to start his career again, and, learning from his mistakes, to run it better than for the first time.” 33
The competition was won by the play number five. From the letter by Károly Szász written on 12 September 1862 we know that the criticism published in the Akadémiai Értesítő was accepted by Madách with dignity and understanding. “I do not belong to them who close their ears from criticism. This year I participated at the drama competition with my Moses, and the opinion of the jury convinced me about the mistaken principles of my work so much, as if it were a foreign work.” 34 A day later he wrote in similar words and in the same spirit to János Erdélyi: “…this year, the well-founded judgement of the jury of the Teleki 35 drama competition convinced me so much about the mistaken principles of my work that it will never again see the light of day.” 36
However, he was wrong in the last sentence. The Moses has been published several times, and it was a success on the stage, too. In the 1970s and 80s it was played in the National Theatre in a language modernized by Dezső Keresztury, and in one and half decade it had almost five hundred sold-out presentations.
(Mózes (Moses). Tragedy in five acts. Work presented for the Karátsonyi drama competition in 1862.
LHAS Department of Manuscripts, Magyar Irodalom Színművészet 4° 35/A. 299.)