The Swan (1923), THEATRE
Comment 1

Molnar’s play “The Swan”

In 1923 Basil Rathbone starred with Eva LeGallienne in the hit play The Swan. Basil played Dr. Nicholas Agi and Eva played Princess Alexandra. You can read the entire play if you’d like to; it can be found on archive.org. But I decided to present an abridged version here, in case you want to know what the play is about, but you don’t want to read the entire play.

You can download the entire play here:
https://archive.org/details/fashionsformena00glazgoog/page/n168/mode/2up

(The book on archive.org contains two plays by Molnar. The Swan begins on page 169.)

The Swan (Abridged version)
A Romantic Comedy in Three Acts
by Ferenc Molnar (translated by Melville Baker)

Main Characters:
Princess Beatrice
Symphorosa, her sister
Hyacinth, her brother
Alexandra, her daughter
George, her son
Arsene, another son
Dr. Nicholas Agi
Prince Albert
Princess Maria Dominica
Count Luetzen
Colonel Wunderlich

ACT I

The story starts on a summer morning in a pavilion in the garden of the Princess Beatrice’s castle. The pavilion serves as a classroom for the young princes. George and Arsene. Dr. Agi is their tutor. The boys have been at their studies for some time, and the day’s exercises are being concluded by the young tutor reading aloud from the history of Napoleon. It happens that Prince Albert, a royal neighbor and heir to a throne, is a guest in Princess Beatrice’s castle. The boys discuss the situation with Dr. Agi.

ARSENE: Mother is rather touchy about thrones now that Prince Albert is here.
GEORGE: Prince Albert is a real heir-apparent — and when Mother sees one of these, she can’t eat.
ARSENE: Poor Mother. Just because her great-grandmother had a throne of her own, Mother can’t bear to think that she can never have one.
GEORGE: Never?
AGI: It’s hardly likely — thrones are rather difficult to obtain these days.
ARSENE: But suppose the Prince marries Alexandra?
GEORGE: He won’t.
ARSENE: How do you know he won’t? If he does, we’ll all be at the court because Alexandra will be queen. And if I know Mother, the Prince will not be the one who does the ruling.
GEORGE: If he marries her.
ARSENE: He will.
GEORGE: Why should he?
ARSENE: Because Mother wants him to — all of us want him to. Aunt Symphorosa — Alexandra — I — and you — and the Professor.
GEORGE: I’m not sure that I want him to, are you, Professor?
AGI (embarrassed): Well, her Highness would grace the most exalted position.
GEORGE: Yes, I know — but you don’t want her to marry him, do you?
AGI: Why do you say that?
GEORGE: Well, the way you said, “Her Highness would grace the most exalted position.”
AGI: It — comes as rather a surprise to me. I can hardly grasp the idea all at once. Since — it has been by good fortune to be with your family, her Highness, your sister, has been very gracious to me — to all of us. And then besides I have been allowed to instruct her in fencing. When I try to realize , so suddenly, that my pupil is to be come a bride — and a queen — well, I find it rather difficult.
GEORGE: I shall be sorry to leave this place. Everyone has been so nice to us. But you’ll be coming with us, won’t you?
AGI: If I am asked to.
ARSENE: It won’t be so bad and maybe politics will keep Mother so busy, we’ll be left to ourselves.

Princess Beatrice and Alexandra come from the garden to warn Professor Agi and the boys that Prince Albert has announced an intention of visiting them in their schoolroom. He is interested in their studies and he would also like to see them fence. Princess Beatrice is a matronly woman, and a dominating spirit in her household. Alexandra, her daughter, is a slim, beautiful girl in her early twenties, serene and wistful, a passive and rather interested figure in the royal game, who has so far accepted without protest the positions into which the older and presumably wiser players of her family have moved her.

Princess Beatrice takes the boys to see Father Hyacinth, their uncle, leaving Alexandra to arrange the day’s program with the tutor. The plan is for the boys to demonstrating their fencing skills, and then Alexandra will take Prince Albert on a tour of the rose garden. Professor Agi is disappointed that Alexandra will not be demonstrating her own fencing skill.

Father Hyacinth, Princess Beatrice and the boys return to the classroom. Beatrice discusses her concerns about Prince Albert with her brother. Prince Albert has been graciously appreciative of everything done for him — but not once has he exhibited anything more than the most casual interest in Alexandra. And this lack of interest spells tragedy for Beatrice. There are other European reigning families with young daughters for Albert to marry. How can she make Albert interested in Alexandra? And he’s due to leave tomorrow!

BEATRICE: She is beautiful and clever — and such dignity and reserve. Her father, you know, always called her his swan. “My proud white swan,” he used to say. And she does impress you that way. Always proudly silent — with head high. Indeed, she is quite beyond criticism. And Albert doesn’t even notice her. It’s enough to drive one to distraction.

And now Prince Albert, attended by Colonel Wunderlich and Count Lutzen, enters the pavilion. He is tall, about 35, gracious and handsome. Before the fencing Beatrice does what she can to start Albert toward the rose garden with Alexandra as guide. But his Highness is still either consciously or unconsciously stubbornly opposed to the excursion. He would much rather see the new dairy, where the cows are milked by vacuum. What chance has a pretty rose garden, even with a pretty girl as guide, against so strong a counter attraction? Beatrice is distressed by this turn of affairs, but she is not yet defeated. She still has one trick left in her hand and now, in her desperation, she is determined to play it.

BEATRICE (speaking to her brother and sister): The whole trouble is that Alexandra has not succeeded in arousing Albert’s interest — I mean she has not appealed to his feelings as a man.
SYMPHOROSA: Oh, dear, oh, dear.
BEATRICE: He must have some feelings — He is a man, isn’t he?
SYMPHOROSA: I know, but —
BEATRICE: Furthermore, there are definite limits as to what Alexandra can do in that direction. She can hardly make eyes at him or —
SYMPHOROSA: It gives me some comfort to hear you say that.
BEATRICE: Alexandra — simply cannot throw herself at him.
HYACINTH: Well, what then?
BEATRICE: There is only one thing which can arouse a man’s interest in a woman: the interest of another man in the same woman. Albert must be made to respond to the woman in Alexandra — the rest will follow of itself. Alexandra is clever and — open to reason — and Albert told us he found the tutor charming —
HYACINTH: What about the tutor?
BEATRICE: We — are going to invite him to the reception tonight. And Alexandra will — will notice him. to think that I should be forced to employ such an outgrown stratagem. the tutor and the princess! So hackneyed — and still so effective. Because you see, a rival of his own rank wouldn’t bother him in the least. But when his rival is a petty tutor, then he will realize the danger.
SYMPHOROSA: This is more than I can bear.
BEATRICE: You must bear it. Alexandra will look at the tutor — and Alexandra will dance with the tutor. And God will forgive me and God will forgive Alexandra — and I shall never forgive the tutor.
HYACINTH: And why not?
BEATRICE: Because I shall be indebted to him.

Father Hyacinth is not at all surprised at the audacity of his sister’s plan. But he is a little worried about the effect on the tutor — this game they are planning to play with him. He conveys his concerns to his sister.

HYACINTH: The tutor is young and, being young, not incapable of fashioning dreams. Perhaps my eyes have lost their old skill in reading the face of a young man, but there was something in the way that boy looked at your daughter that I could not mistake. There was reverence in his look but it was reverence not without desire. He was like a cat watching a beautiful bird — the cat has a certain respectful admiration for the bird, but it would also like to eat it.
BEATRICE: Are you trying to tell me that he is in love with her?
HYACINTH: No, but at least Alexandra has aroused his interest.
BEATRICE: But what of it?
HYACINTH: What of it? Nothing, except that a brave lad like that was not meant to be used as a tool and then thrown away.

Beatrice is still obdurate. Her mind is made up. She sends for Alexandra, to whom she outlines the plan. Alexandra, who is not without her own royal ambitions, listens respectfully. If stratagem must be employed to bring Albert to a consciousness of her nearness to him, she is willing to lend herself to it. But — she, too, is a little worried about the possible reactions of the professor. She is concerned that he might misunderstand her flirtation. Her mother tells her not to trouble herself about that. “All that you have to think of is your own goal.”

Dressed for the fencing demonstration, the boys and Professor Agi await Prince Albert, who is still inspecting the cows. Alexandra invites Professor Agi to join the family at the reception being given in honor of the Prince that evening.

AGI: I feel deeply honored, Princess, particularly to have received the invitation from your own lips.
ALEXANDRA: It will be a somewhat formal affair. I hope you won’t find it stupid.
AGI: I could hardly find it stupid when your Highness is to be present.
ALEXANDRA: If you find the company of so many notables tiresome, please come and talk with me.
AGI: If your Highness will allow me to —
ALEXANDRA: I want to hear you talk of something besides fencing. You shall tell me of the stars — about that blue star and the golden star.
AGI: It will give me the greatest pleasure, Princess.
ALEXANDRA: Then you will come?
AGI: Yes, Princess.
ALEXANDRA: At nine, then.
AGI: You are most kind, Princess.

Alexandra nods briefly, then goes into the garden. Agi watches her walk offstage.

ACT II

The banquet hall of the castle is set for the late evening supper. There is a long table, elaborately spread with lace cloth and china and gold service for seven persons, who haven’t yet arrived. Symphorosa and Beatrice hurry into the room. Dance music from the ballroom can be heard. The ball has been going on for some time and it appears that Alexandra has been having much success with the professor. For the last few minutes she has been sitting quite contentedly under the mirror with him.

Beatrice is thrilled by Prince Albert’s confession to her that he never before had realized how pretty Alexandra really is. This indicates that he will not go home in the morning, and the day following, his mother, Maria Dominica, will be there. And Maria Dominica, Beatrice feels certain, will not only approve of Alexandra, but will see that her son does, too.

Now Alexandra and Professor Agi come from the ballroom. Agi has been telling her of his stars. Not of the mystery and beauty of them, but of their remoteness. Prince Albert enters and notices the princess and the tutor. He speaks to them briefly and then moves on. Agi confesses to Alexandra that he is jealous.

AGI: For months you have been cold and reserved towards me. Your politeness was as false as your indifference was real. And now tonight — this evening — you suddenly begin to look at me as if I were a man — and you even speak with a little kindness.
ALEXANDRA: I said nothing that —
AGI: Perhaps — but everything you have said and done and looked — has left me shaken and bewildered — and no longer able to subdue my feelings. When you were so far removed from me, so hopelessly unattainable, then your remoteness gave you the beauty of the stars. And now that beauty is lost — because of this evening.
ALEXANDRA: Oh, no. I must make you understand now. Oh, I am so ashamed.

The Princess confesses to Professor Agi that her behavior towards him was for the sole purpose of arousing Prince Albert’s interest. She adds that she truly regrets having hurt him. It is not easy for Agi to take this blow gracefully.

AGI: I worship you, Princess, and now I can worship hopelessly again. But have no anxiety on my account, I shall be properly submissive and I am quite at the disposal of your distinguished family. I bleed a little — perhaps it is a mortal wound — nevertheless I can enjoy the interesting role you have given me. It amuses me and appeals to my sense of the dramatic. What better way of serving a beautiful princess — with a smile on your lips and a dagger in your heart!

The assembling guests find them smiling bravely and pretending a deep interest in the story of the stars the professor has been telling. The guests take their places at the table, and as Albert offers his arm to Alexandra, Professor Agi stand stiffly and consciously to one side. Sitting between Prince Albert and Professor Agi, Alexandra struggles to direct and control the conversation. Prince Albert seems determined to lead Agi on, and the professor is easily led. At one point, the tutor reaches for his glass of Tokay. “I drink to the very beautiful daughter of the house!” he cries and drains the glass at a gulp.

The other guests are startled to see this. One never gulps down such a wine. But Agi didn’t know, not being used to it, and he did not care, being miserably unhappy. It was the first glass of wine he ever took. Then, to everyone’s astonishment, Alexandra picks up her glass of Tokay and drains it at a gulp.

The wine that Agi is not used to drinking causes him to be reckless in his conversation. He lectures Prince Albert about astronomy, and tells the prince that he cannot understand astronomy! Prince Albert responds sarcastically, “Splendid! At last someone who dares to tell me there is something I don’t understand.”

AGI: Yes, your Highness, this is something you know nothing about.
ALBERT: For twenty years I have longed to be addressed in that tone. Let me tell you, that as an astronomer, and as a man, you have delighted me — and your manner is charming.
AGI: Whether or not I have delighted you doesn’t interest me.
ALBERT: And so frank. Charming! Charming!

Alarmed, Beatrice realizes that something must be done, and so she elects to faint. Soon the supper table is deserted and Symphorosa and the attendants are helping Beatrice to her room. Albert follows.
And now Alexandra and the tutor are alone with Father Hyacinth, and eager to explain to him their respective views of the scene.

ALEXANDRA: It is my fault. I am responsible for everything.
HYACINTH: Gently, gently, my dear. I understand it all — I know so well how it happened.
AGI: I couldn’t stand it any longer, Father, I couldn’t. God knows I meant to bear it in silence until tomorrow — but I am a man — and in love, Father — and I didn’t know what I was saying. But when I saw that I was being used a a mop to clean the floor for someone else to walk over, then something inside me gave way, and my blood began to boil.

Alexandra says that she has never been so sorry for anyone in her life. Father Hyacinth realizes that her feelings are something other than pity or remorse. She’s in love with the tutor.
But it isn’t easy for a proud young lover to forgive — until he realizes that Alexandra is quite sincere. And then Hyacinth seeks diplomatically and kindly to explain to them that what they have done is very foolish — and very beautiful. He tries ever so hard to be severe with them — but what is he to do, sitting between them, as the gaze first at each other and then so earnestly, so helplessly, at him?

HYACINTH: You two dear children, so young and so innocent — how can I judge you? How can I judge you as you sit there in this hour of glorious beauty — two brave children in such a plight — and so happy — happier than they can ever be again — for your happiness will vanish with the night’s breeze. Now the daylight is almost here — the daylight that must separate you.

The majordomo comes to summon Father Hyacinth to his sister’s room. Alexandra and Professor Agi are alone again.

AGI: They have all gone; the guests, too. We are alone together, dear Princess. Perhaps only a few minutes, and then the end of this. The last hour, perhaps the last minute I can be with you. Do you love me?
ALEXANDRA: I don’t know. This is the first time I have ever seen a man in love — and he happens to be in love with me.
AGI: Are you so very much afraid of me? (He takes her hand.)
ALEXANDRA: Frightfully — at the thought of your being so close to me. How cold your hand is.
AGI: And yours is warm. What do you feel that makes it tremble so in mine?
ALEXANDRA: Something that burns, and —
AGI: And?
ALEXANDRA: I feel as if I wanted to do something I shouldn’t — something wicked. Suppose I tell you all our secrets — did you know that we once had an actress in our family? I would like to do something to make you happy. Tell me, would you like to call me Zara?
AGI: Your Highness —
ALEXANDRA (looking at the table): Will you have something to eat?
AGI: No. I am not hungry; I am thirsty.
ALEXANDRA: Do you want some wine?
AGI: No, it is you — your mouth — your eyes — your throat that I am thirsty for. (Attempts to embrace her.)
ALEXANDRA (resisting): Nicholas!

The majordomo is back with two announcements. First, Prince Albert is about to retire and will pass almost immediately through that room, and second, Albert has just received a telegram announcing that his mother, the Princess Maria Dominica, will be there the next day.
When Albert comes, formally attended by his staff, he pauses to say good-night to Alexandra. He is in a jovial mood. But when he speaks to Professor Agi, there is a tone of contempt in his voice. Albert insults Nicholas Agi, and Alexandra defends him.

ALEXANDRA: Your ridicule is unjust, Albert — he is not like us.
ALBERT: So I observed.
ALEXANDRA: He is a scientist, a free spirit — he is not bound by our conventions.
ALBERT: You defend his bad manners now with as much grace as you tolerated them a while ago. You are a brave-hearted girl, a little martyr.
ALEXANDRA: Don’t laugh at him, Albert. He is a scholar and a poet — an astronomer.
ALBERT: An ill-bred little stargazer.
AGI: Your Highness!
ALEXANDRA: You are going too far, Albert. You mustn’t say such a thing.
ALBERT: Ah, but I do.
AGI: Your Highness, I —
ALBERT: You are a presumptuous intruder.
ALEXANDRA: Don’t answer him, Nicholas! I forbid you to.

For a second or two Alexandra hesitates. Then she deliberately throws her arms about Agi’s neck and kisses him passionately. Shocked into absolute stillness those who have been entering the room in the wake of Albert silently withdraw. Father Hyacinth alone stands his ground.
Albert, completely taken aback, slowly gathers his wits and bows formally. “I beg your pardon!” he half mumbles. “That is another matter — quite another matter. In that case I most humbly beg your forgiveness, Professor.” He bows stiffly to them repeats his good-nights and is gone. Symphorosa, leads Alexandra out of the room. Agi, with head bowed and cheeks flushed, stands alone. Father Hyacinth advances upon him and kisses him on both cheeks. Agi stares wonderingly after him, as he hurries out of the room.

ACT III

It is early morning of the following day. Alexandra is out riding alone. Professor Agi plans to leave, so he is packing. Princess Beatrice greets the Princess Dominica, who has just arrived at the castle.

Dominica is excited to see Beatrice. She tells her that Albert sent her a cable saying how eager he is to marry Alexandra. Dominica says she has always liked Alexandra, so she is very pleased with Albert’s choice. It turns out that Albert was enchanted with Alexandra from the very start, but he felt he dared not show how delighted he was until his mother arrived and gave her approval. Beatrice realizes that her scheme to use the tutor to make Albert jealous was totally unnecessary. And now, she fears the worst — that Albert won’t want Alexandra.

Father Hyacinth joins the two princesses. Forceful and determined, he tells Dominica everything that has happened. He relates that during her son’s visit he was cold to Alexandra and showed a complete lack of interest in her. This is why, he says, Beatrice felt the necessity to bring the young tutor into the scene to develop a needed action. He tells her of the scene at the supper, and of the discovery that Agi was secretly in love with Alexandra.

HYACINTH: Imagine the cruel suffering of this good young man, so pitifully in love when he discovered his part in this innocent game was only to serve as a means to an end.
DOMINICA: Albert is to blame — why couldn’t he speak out? There was no need for him to be so over cautious.
HYACINTH: And so the boy sat down to supper with us — the martyr — there is no other word to describe him — this self-sacrificing martyr — and the agony he endured brought tears to my eyes.
DOMINICA: I don’t blame you.
HYACINTH: And Alexandra — with her kind heart — couldn’t bear to see him suffer either. She would have liked to have sent him away. But the professor — merely out of loyalty to the family and to Alexandra — and to your son, too, for that matter, was determined to play the game out, in spite of his breaking heart.
DOMINICA: The poor boy.
HYACINTH: Until Albert, who of course knew nothing of what was going on, insulted him.
DOMINICA: The professor?
HYACINTH: Yes, the professor.
DOMINICA: How did Albert insult him?
HYACINTH: He called him an intruder.
DOMINICA: How awful! And the poor boy?
HYACINTH: What could he do? He bowed his head — I thought my heart would break.
DOMINICA: The brave fellow — and Alexandra?
HYACINTH: If you could have seen him as he stood there, with his hopeless, desperate love — with his romantic dream so cruelly shattered — with his heart torn and bleeding — while Albert, in all his perfect elegance, insulted him. And the boy stood there with his head bowed, humiliated, disgrace, all because of this loyalty to the family. I appeal to you as a woman. Wasn’t that brave of him?
DOMINICA: Very brave.

By talking fast and with great emotional enthusiasm, Father Hyacinth soon convinces Dominica that to have kissed the tutor under the circumstances was really the only thing a princess could have done. “I kissed him myself,” he concludes. “Of course you did,” agrees Dominica. “There was nothing else for you to do.” Dominica understands perfectly.

When Alexandra comes back from her ride she finds Professor Agi wearing the clothes he expects to travel in. She is surprised to hear that he is going. He pretends that nothing happened between them. Everything is as it was before last night.

ALEXANDRA: I will not deny it. It seems to me you took a very precious gift from me — more precious than you deserve — perhaps a kingdom.
AGI: That is not so much. There was one offered once in exchange for a horse.
ALEXANDRA: Do you want to insult me? You are behaving like a sulky child.
AGI: No, your Highness. My action, my speech, my departure today — they are simply my answer to your Highness’s kiss.
ALEXANDRA: I didn’t ask you to use that word.
AGI: What harm to name it? When the receiving was so much more painful.
ALEXANDRA: More painful that the giving?
AGI: Much more — Because I felt all the pity in it and the contempt. It was a little too condescending. It meant that I was not a man, but a child or a dog that you could pat on the head.
ALEXANDRA: Was that how you took it?
AGI: If I could have taken it in any other way.
ALEXANDRA: Then — ?
AGI: I would have returned it.
ALEXANDRA: Then, in other words, it was a very stupid thing that I did.
AGI: It was a little too much, your Highness, too sudden.
ALEXANDRA: Too sudden?
AGI: We had not gone that far. But you did kiss me — and so I went out into the cool morning air, after the kiss — I went out through the park, where the wind could clear my head. There my heart became quiet, and I could think once more.
ALEXANDRA: I am glad that now you see things so clearly.
AGI: It is the morning light, your Highness. The sun is shining.
ALEXANDRA: And not the stars.
AGI: No, no, not the stars.
ALEXANDRA: I marvel at your calmness, your self-control. But I know it’s not real the way you are acting today. You would like to act quite differently.
AGI: Perhaps, your Highness.
ALEXANDRA: Where was this self-control last night? If you can be so calm now, why did you act as you did last night? What was it you wanted them? I’m sure I don’t know.
AGI: Nor do I. That was the most beautiful thing about last night — I didn’t know what I wanted.
ALEXANDRA: You didn’t know!

Albert enters, and Alexandra speaks to him.

ALEXANDRA: He didn’t know what he wanted. He only wanted to destroy things — to give way to the excitement of the moment. You called him a rebel. You should have called him a rebellious child.
ALBERT (lightly and ironically): You judge him unjustly — he is a free spirit — he is not like us.
ALEXANDRA: All he wanted was to defy us — to make a scene — he had no decency.
ALBERT: You forget, he is an astronomer.
ALEXANDRA: And now I say his behavior was presumptuous.
AGI: Your Highness.
ALBERT: Not a word, Nicholas, I forbid you.

And before he knows it Prince Albert himself has added one more kiss to the startled and flushed cheek of the tutor. Agi leaves them now, unhappy, but a little proud, it may be, of his martyrdom.

And now Alexandra and Prince Albert are alone. Albert begs Alexandra to not be angry with him. He understands everything, even her kissing the professor. He asks her to marry him, and she agrees.

The play ends with Princess Dominica reminding Alexandra to be like a swan — gliding over the smooth surface of the lake, with head held high, oblivious of the crowds along the shore.

For more on The Swan, see these earlier blog posts:

RATHBONE & LE GALLIENNE

Interview with Helen Sheehy

1 Comment

  1. rockhyraxx says

    Wow that was marvellous, thank you!! The swan has to be my favourite play ever, it is just so well written! I have also seen the Hungarian original and can only imagine how fantastic Basil had to be in it!!! *sigh*

    Like

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