In the 1920s, the first couple of the American stage — Alfred Lunt and Lynn Fontanne — starred in the hit play “The Guardsman,” a light comedy by Ferenc Molnar, translated from Hungarian, about a husband who tries to lure his wife into infidelity. That version got it wrong, according to playwright Richard Nelson, whose adaptation, based on a more-faithful translation, reveals “The Guardsman” to be a sophisticated and deeply honest love story.
How did you discover that Molnar’s work was darker than you thought?
I found a literal translation of the original Hungarian play as it was written in 1910. When the play was first translated in 1911, it was a failure and was forgotten. Then it was picked up again in the 1920s with a new, comedic translation and it was a huge success.
What is the play really about, then?
The intention of the playwright is, I believe, to use the metaphor of the theater for the illusions of love. He wanted to talk about human beings and how we live with each other — love, passion, marriage, friendship.
And the ’20s production didn’t?
They latched onto something very easy and changed the entire meaning of the play. They turned something dangerous and questioning into something very safe that people could feel comfortable with.
As a playwright, do you feel a kinship with Molnar?
Everyone has an experience with something that’s gone off the rails one way or another. There’s pride in trying to reclaim a play that may not have been seen as significant for 90 years.