Inherit the Wind Avant la Lettre? Part 3

Scene from Majomszínház (1925), via Wikimedia Commons

I’m in the middle, just about the exact middle in fact, of summarizing a Hungarian play, Ferenc Herczeg’s Majomszínház (1925), a comedy in three acts. Why? Because, as I noted in part 1, The New York Times for January 2, 1927, claimed that Herczeg “is probably the first playwright to utilize the celebrated Dayton trial as the theme for a play.” Under the title Monkey Business, a translation of the play was supposed to start rehearsal in New York shortly after the Times article appeared. But as far as I can tell, the play was never produced, and the translation was never published. So I obtained a copy of the play and, despite not knowing any Hungarian, managed to produce a rough translation that’s inelegant, occasionally mysterious, but overall comprehensible: certainly enough to give the gist of the events of the play.

In part 2, I summarized Act I and about half of Act II. Briefly, a young female monkey, Rákitáki-Juláhé (seen above, right), falls in love with a human, Tomy, violating the law that requires monkeys not to reveal to humans that monkeys are capable of speech. Nevertheless, the monkey community is largely reconciled to the prospect of the marriage, in large part because of the economic benefits that they think will accrue to them. As Tomy’s family is preparing to receive his fiancée’s family at a soirée, Tomy finally reveals that his fiancée is a monkey. As with the monkeys, the family is initially shocked, but reconciled to the prospect by the economic benefits that they think will accrue to them—and not to the monkeys. Then the monkeys arrive for the soirée—through a window rather than through a door—and tense small talk ensues.

Eventually, Tomy produces the documents that will open the jungle to economic development and asks Vauvo, the leader of the monkeys, to sign—or make a thumbprint, rather. When Vauvo asks what will become of the monkeys, Tomy suggest that they will “enter the human genus,” a proposal seconded by Rákitáki but opposed by Captain Franklin (seen above, left), a monkey. Tomy and Vauvo then debate the merits of humans and monkeys, with Vauvo scoring a point in noting that the ambition of humans—to live at ease without working—is the normal condition of monkeys. The debate proceeds with more characters adding their voices. The monkeys are skeptical of the supposed moral superiority of humans, citing divorce and war. As the humans continue to press Vauvo to sign the documents, Captain Franklin seizes and spills the bottle of ink.

After a chaotic scene at the end of which the documents are still unsigned, Tomy tells the monkeys that humans have a custom: when a deal is under consideration, the doors are closed and not opened until the deal is concluded. Already feeling trapped, Vauvo responds by telling Tomy that monkeys, too, have a custom: a deal can be concluded only after the performance of a sacred dance. To the tune of a jazz band, the monkeys dance their way out of the house, ending Act II. At the beginning of Act III, the disillusioned monkeys are back in the jungle, but they’re not out of the woods yet: Captain Franklin reports hearing two humans discussing a quasi-judicial hearing that will determine who owns the jungle. Vauvo, however, has already arranged for the help of a beast so ferocious that it preys not on any animal but on humans themselves—a lawyer.

The lawyer arrives, and outlines his strategy. The humans will claim that there was an oral contract with the monkeys; so the lawyer will respond that monkeys are brute animals incapable of speech. (He is not concerned about the falsity of the response or the existence of witnesses to the monkeys speaking.) When the hearing begins, it’s presided over not by a judge but by the consul—not, he stresses, the ambassador—which strikes me as legally anomalous. The lawyer for the monkeys adheres to his strategy, dismissing the witnesses to the monkeys speaking as victims of mass suggestion. The monkeys are called as witnesses, but behave like brute animals and refuse to speak (except for one who whispers to a banker who tries to bribe him to speak that he is a wicked usurer; the banker is understandably unwilling to repeat the remark).

The consul rules that there was no oral contract, in part because he discovers that the person who he thought was a court reporter was actually a newspaper reporter, and he fears a story describing him as a man who will negotiate with monkeys. The human family’s only hope is to ask Rákitáki—not as alienated by their behavior as the rest of the monkeys—to intercede. Tomy finds Rákitáki, but she has already been canoodling with Captain Franklin. She is disappointed first when Tomy refuses to fight with Franklin over her, and again when he is willing to fight after Franklin shreds, with his teeth, the document that Tomy is asking Rákitáki to sign. Tomy departs ignominiously. When the rest of the monkeys return, Franklin tells Rákitáki’s father Sir Tobiás that he is his new son-in-law, and together the monkeys join in screeching at the rising moon. Curtain.

Obviously, despite the report in The New York Times, Majomszínház was not based on the Scopes trial. The events are nothing like the events in Dayton, Tennessee, in 1925. The only resemblance—and it’s quite a meager resemblance—is located in the fact that there is, if not a trial, then at least a quasi-judicial hearing in Act III. But it isn’t a hearing involving a question of what is to be taught about evolution. Overall, there isn’t much about evolution in Majomszínház anyhow: a few predictable throwaway jokes—in Act I, for example, a monkey exclaims that he doesn’t believe in Darwinism; it was just invented to flatter the vanity of humans by saying that they are related to monkeys—and nothing more. But I suppose that a theatrical publicist can’t be expected to worry about the accuracy of details when a headline is in the offing!