Imre Madách was born on 21st January, 1823 in Alsósztregova (today: Dolná Strehová, Slovakia). This is where he wrote the Tragedy of Man between 17th February 1859 and 26th March 1860. And this is where he died on 5th October, 1864.
"Alsó- and Felsősztregova is a Slovak village in Nógrád county, situated in a valley, comprising 60 houses, with 314 Lutherans, 76 Catholics, 4 Calvinists and 3 Jewish inhabitants having an enormous old evangelical and a newer Catholic church. In the confines of the village there is 3007 'hold' of land; the soil is clayish, and rocky in some places, spotted with unregulated waters, hilly and gullied here and there. Its best crops are rye, oats, potato, red clover, and its meadows can be mowed three times a year; sheep breeding being the thriving bread-earning occupation. The confines and the entire valley are divided by the Sztregova stream that operates two mills here. The place is noted for an old fortress, the ancient home of the Madách clan. The village is owned by the Madách family who have a cosy mansion here, looking onto a large garden, an orchard and a greenhouse."
(Elek Fényes: Hungary' Geographical Dictionary,
The Madách family was able to trace their descent as far back as the 12th century; with a medieval knight, a Turk-beating hero and a Kuruc officer recorded down the line of the family tree. But a poet was also remembered; Gáspár Madách from the 17th century. And the ties of kindred could be traced to Miklós Zrínyi, the poet and soldier.
The liberal youth
In 1834 Anna Majthényi, i.e. Mrs. Madách was left a widow with her five children and an estate of approximately 6000 'holds' scattered across four counties. She educated her sons first at home, and later in Pest. The eldest, Imre was expected to serve either as a clerk for the royal administration or make a career as a county official for the benefit of the family.
Thus, Imre Madách began his university studies in 1837. It is evident from his letters addressed to his mother that he looked after his two younger brothers with the responsibility of a parent. Rebelling against his mother's stringency he subscribed for the major liberal magazine of the age, Athenaeum. He familiarised himself with the views of the radical youths. Etelka Lónyay was Madách's first muse. His love-poems were published in a volume titled Lyre-blossoms in 1840.
His worsening health condition put an end to his university studies in Pest: in the autumn of 1840 Madách decided not to return to Pest for his studies. He travelled back only to take his final exams, and he received his lawyer's diploma in the autumn of 1842. Initially, he worked as a junior clerk, and later became a judge of the County Court, nevertheless he was strongly aware of the conflict between his legal knowledge acquired in Pest, his liberal views and the feudal backwardness of the county.
Slowly overcoming his crisis: his illness, another love-sickness and his doubts, he became a county politician. Together with this friend, Pál Szontagh, he was an advocate of modern bourgeois administration. He sympathised with Eötvös' and Szalay's centralist group. The young Madách took part in the county's public life; he spoke at county council meetings. He published articles 'on municipal matters' in the Pesti Hírlap under the pseudonym Timon. He contributed to disputes going on in the press, and took sides with Kossuth against Széchenyi. He even visited the national assembly at Pozsony (now: Bratislava, Slovakia).
In 1844 he moved to a smaller family estate, Csesztve, as it was closer to the county seat, Balassagyarmat. Later he brought his wife, Erzsébet Fráter to this place in 1845. (This mansion is a Memorial Museum of Literature today; it is the only memorial place for Madách.)
He married against his mother's and friends' advice, perhaps rebelling against the conservative attitudes, although there can be no doubt as to the joy of the first married years. He lived for his family, nevertheless he remained a public figure.
The Revolution and War of Independence (1848-49)
The members of the liberal opposition gathered in the Csesztve manor. The county elected Imre Madách who often suffered from poor health to be the high commissioner of the county in 1846. His father used to hold that office once. His duty was to provide for the army stationing in the county. His duties increased greatly from 1848, as he became responsible for equipping and supplying provisions for the militia. In fact, he remained in office until the fall of the war of independence. He rejected the thought of a total empire, as he was a radical as far as independence was concerned. In 1847 he wrote to Pál Szontágh: "I believe more and more firmly that happiness can be reached via a bloody path only, and even during the French revolution the most honest people had been those who caused the most bloodshed."
Imre Madách could not be described as a 'retired hermit': despite his ailing, he participated in both the revolution and the subsequent war of independence. In March he was a member of the electorate, in June a commissioner of the electorate and in July of 1848 "a high commissioner, who despite his ailment proposed that he would go" with the Nógrád militia, but the county council exempted him from armed service. In the autumn of that year he worked a member of the recruiting committee, too. He assisted the freedom fighters in their war with his organising activities. While in February 1849 the county administration personnel took a forced oath of loyalty for Francis Joseph, Imre Madách was organising a popular insurrection against the Tsarist intervention in June 1849.
The militia of Nógrád county disbanded itself on 29th September, 1849, after the Russian army's passage across the area. They hid their weapons in Madách's estate in Sztregova..
Accumulating source experience
In addition to the fall of the nation, his grief was increased further by other tragic events occurring in his family. His sister, Mária Madách, his nephew and brother-in-law, the wounded 'honvéd' major were beaten to death by Romanian peasants while fleeing in August 1849. On 30th September, 1849 his younger brother, Pál died of pneumonia in Alsósztregova. He had worked as a courier in the service of Kossuth until his death.
His friend, Pál Szontágh was sentenced to a two-year imprisonment in a fortress after the fall of the war because of his role during the revolution. And in 1852 Imre Madách himself was arrested, because he gave refuge to Kossuth's secretary, János Rákóczy in his estate. Following his punishment suffered in the prison in Pozsony and his internment in Pest, he was allowed to return to Csesztve for one year. Although the proceedings initiated against him was stayed in 1854, he remained under the supervision of the gendarme until 1857. The proceeds from his lands were sequestered. To top his sufferings, his marriage got into a crisis. Instead of a faithful spouse, the poet on his return home found a flirtatious woman suffering from a slight nervous breakdown. They grew estranged from each other and in July 1854 he and Erzsébet Fráter divorced. His mother took over the raising of the children and the keeping of the household in Alsósztregova.
While he lived the eccentric life of a solitary landowner in the provinces, his closest friend continued to be Pál Szontagh, the landlord of Horpács in the years of despotism.
The first traces of his philosophising that led to the writing of the Tragedy can be found in his letters written to his friend. He wrote in the draft of his letter dated 7th February, 1857: "... man's nature has never denied its true self, and Adam has continued to appear in different shapes throughout history since the time of Creation, but he always remained fundamentally the same feeble wretch with an even feebler Eve by his side."
The fiasco of his personal life, the bitter experience of the nation's sad fate, the total failure of liberalism seen all over Europe were, in a few years' time, all condensed into a stock of experience in him to inspire his literary attempts. He began writing a dramatic poem on 17th February 1859. Taking on an almost impossible duty for a writer, he would write his work to explore - with a dissector's eyes - the man-woman relationship and the political ideas and their feasibility both at the same time, placing all this in a blown-up cosmic perspective of the historical development of the entire mankind. And thus the Tragedy of Man was born.
Exhibition of Imre Madách's Drama Reflected in Illustrations and Translations