A Comedy with a Prelude and Three Acts
by Branislav Nušić
Translated by Milo Yelesiyevich
In November 1936, the playwright Bravislav Nušić suffered a heart attack. Doctors worked around the clock to save his life while newspapers prepared his obituary. Nušić was so sick that he was unable to attend the premiere of his latest comedy, Dr., which was being enthusiastically received by both audiences and critics. Nušić, however, not only pulled through, but went on to write The Deceased (Pokojnik), his greatest play.
Nušić, who had come to be known as the "Harlequin of Belgrade salons," had poked fun at social climbers, impotent patriarchs and schemers; now he revealed the Harlequin's bitter scowl and vented his fury on society. Instead of conducting a series of farces with the soft rubber baton of humor, he took up the stinging whip of satire. This meant that he had to abandon the one kind of humor that he had practiced throughout his life, which "alleviates the cruelty of life by provoking laughter," in favor of satire, which provokes instead a complex emotion described by Gilbert Highet in The Anatomy of Satire as being comprised of amusement, contempt, disgust and hatred, and whose effect is generally negative and destructive. This is precisely what Nušic felt, and he sustained a play based on moral judgment, whose range encompasses the grimace made upon seeing the incongruous aspects of the human condition as well as the roaring laughter that erupts upon the exposure of fraud.
Pavle Marić, an architect, is furious with his wife because she has been conducting an affair with Milan Novaković, his best friend and business partner. Weeks later, a deformed corpse is found washed up on the banks of the Danube and is identified to be that of Pavle. The case is judged a suicide. Three years later, Pavle, now the deceased, unexpectedly returns. He discovers that his heirs have plundered his estate, and refuse to admit that Pavle is alive and unite to keep him "dead."
Nušić studied law in Graz and in Belgrade, and participated as a volunteer in the Serbian-Bulgarian War (1885). In 1887, he was sentenced to two years imprisonment because of an anti-dynastic poem he had written, Two Slaves (Dva raba), but was granted clemency after having served one year of his sentence. Upon his release, the young rebel was surprised to find himself in financial straits, and ironically enough, was compelled to seek employment with a government agency. Appointed as a civil servant, he was sent to the Serbian consulate in Priština (1889).
Shortly before his death on January 19, 1938, Nušić wrote to Stevan Brakus, the manager of the National Theater in Sarajevo, about the Belgrade premiere of The Deceased: "My fate is strange. The Left will not recognize me as a writer, and say that I am a bourgeois blabbermouth, a trifler and nothing more; and the Right counts me among the Communists, and I -- I am neither part of the Right nor of the Left. Perhaps that is my mistake."