In 1946, the Hungarian playwright Istvan Bekeffi (1901-77) gave his wife a gift. She was the actress Ida Turay, and his gift to her was a starring role in an evergreen comedy, one that continues to be performed in modern times, including in the Budapest theater named in her honor. But there was a downside to it: the script called for her to be soundly and spectacularly spanked at the climax of the play!
Janika opened at the Magyar Theater, Budapest, on October 23, 1946, with Ida in the role of Gizi Polgar, an actress who was deserted fifteen years ago by her husband, Janos Balla: he went off to produce a play in America, a job that was due to last a month, and never came back. Until now, that is.
It’s Christmas, and Janos has decided, at long last, to pay a return visit to the family home, not necessarily with the best of motives. Gizi is understandably unimpressed, but has difficulty expressing her feelings to her wayward husband. So she decides to put her professional skills to useful effect, and give Janos a startle he won’t easily forget. And so it is that he makes the unexpected discovery that he has a 14-year-old son he knew nothing about; evidently Gizi was pregnant when he left her. Here they are, father and son, in the 1946 production, the former played by Janos Sardy:
Of course, there is no son: he’s an imaginary character created and played by Gizi, with the connivance of her relatives and servants. With a cunning twist of the knife, she names this fictional son Janika, which is a diminutive of the name Janos. And though initially taken aback, Janos quickly develops some obvious fatherly feelings for the ‘lad’. He also doesn’t ask any awkward questions about why Gizi and Janika never seem to be in the same room at the same time.
But paternal pride isn’t the point of the exercise. Playing Janika gives Gizi a different relationship with Janos, without the marital baggage, and this enables her to express her anger and frustration more freely than she ever could as herself. So the father and ‘son’ relationship isn’t going to be easy to start with, and it doesn’t get any easier when some of Janos’ showbiz cronies turn up at the house and are introduced to his difficult teenage offspring.
So now there are two groups of characters in the play: those who believe that Janika is a 14-year-old boy, and those who know Janika is really a woman in her 30s. That will become especially important later, but for now let’s note that this is another reason why the choice of name is so clever: in Hungarian, Janika is a double-gendered name, meaning either ‘Johnny’ or ‘Joanna’ depending on the context. If the name tells Janos that Janika is his son, it also reminds the audience that ‘he’ is really a she.
And that’s where we hit the play’s major variable, which is going to have a big impact on how much pleasure we take in its climactic scene: should the actress play Janika convincingly as a boy, or as a boy who’s obviously really a girl? Most people reading this, I imagine, would favor the approach taken by Gabriella Segesvari in the 1997 production:
Whereas in the 1949 film version starring Ida Turay, Sandor Szabo’s Janos can’t be said to be quite so grossly unobservant:
And when Janika’s bad behavior results in these fatherly reprisals, the humor of the situation lies in the dramatic irony that she isn’t really who Janos takes her to be – something the audience knows, but might usefully also be allowed to see! The moment when a spanking enters her immediate future can be delicious, if played right, as it suddenly dawns on Gizi that she’s risking more than she bargained for. Here’s how Dorottya Udvaros handled it in a late 1980s television production:
In effect, ‘Gulp!’ But try as she might, she can’t bluster, bluff or otherwise talk her way out of it. An extended spanking follows, going through several stages: first with Janos and Janika alone onstage,
after which the cronies enter
and aren’t necessarily unhappy to see justice being done to the tiresome ‘lad’.
Whereas the last in, who knows the truth, is rather dismayed at this turn of events! (In some productions, the others are too.)
Immediately afterwards, it looks as if he’s going to spank her again, but in the event she’s merely sent away with a sore bottom.
And that’s the last we see of Janika. Gizi returns in her own person, and it emerges that Janos’ taste for domestic bliss has been rekindled – even though he has to face up to the fact that he has been fooled. Perhaps it is even more galling to realize that he didn’t realize he was spanking his own wife!
See what I mean about unobservant?
Janika was successful enough in its first run to spawn the film version, in which the girl may be boyish but the kicking is stupendous:
The spanking scene was given pride of place on the film poster:
And if you want to see a more feminine Ida Turay being spanked, you’re in luck, because Janika wasn’t her first time. There was also a spanking scene in her 1938 movie Rozmaring (Rosemary), in which she played Molnar, a typical 1930s spoiled heiress who gets what typical 1930s spoiled heiresses always get. The script was, once again, written by Istvan Bekeffi, and you can see the scene here.
Janika was revived on stage in 1954, but it went into eclipse after its author and star left Hungary at the time of the Russian invasion of 1956. Just like Janos, Bekeffy and Turay lived in exile for fifteen years before returning home in 1971. But it was not until the 1980s that Janika was rediscovered, around the time Ida Turay was beginning to win serious recognition in her homeland for her lifetime achievement as an artist. The play was revived in 1986, with Levente Nemes as Janos and Marta Istvan in the title role:
The television version followed, with Dorottya Udvaros and Laszlo Tahi Toth, and from then on it was revived roughly every five years, including two successive productions at the Ida Turay Theater, both starring Karoly Nemcsak and Erika Papai. Here they are in 2002…
… and here they are again, with a new set but the same costumes, in 2007:
The most recent production played at the Karinthy Theater, Budapest, with Kriszta Biro as Gizi and Balazs Mihalfyi as Janos.
That was in 2012… so if Janika is in roughly a five-year orbit, there’s probably another production due in the next few years. Here’s hoping for a reasonably girly Janika!
Update: And I was right about the likelihood of a revival: go here for details!