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Literature / A Lost Letter

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"I'm not drunk... but I, for whom shall I vote?"
The Drunken Citizen

Published by the Romanian playwright I. L. Caragiale in 1884, A Lost Letter (Rom. O scrisoare pierdută) is one of the most well-known Romanian comedies of manners. The comedy in four acts takes place in an unnamed Romanian mountain county. For the past eight years, the city's young prefect Ștefan Tipătescu has been having an affair with Zoe Trahanache, the coquettish wife of his much older, but (seemingly) clueless friend and political ally Zaharia Trahanache. One day, the lives of Tipătescu and his mistress are turned upside down when the slimy lawyer Nae Cațavencu finds a compromising letter from Tipătescu to his mistress and blackmails the pair, threatening to publish the letter in his newspaper unless they name him as a candidate for the Chamber of Deputies. Things are further complicated when Tipătescu's party sends its own candidate to the county and demands his naming as a candidate, and his election. And to top that all off, the letter keeps changing hands...

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The satirical comedy paints a humorous picture of the social and political corruption taking place in Romania at that time. Thanks to being included in the Romanian high school curriculum, most Romanians are highly familiar with it and it continues to be played in theaters up to this day. It has been adapted to film twice, once in 1953 (directed by Sica Alexandrescu and Victor Iliu) and in 1977 (directed by Liviu Ciulei).

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This play provides examples of:

  • The Bad Guy Wins: While most of the characters end up no worse for wear, the dim-witted but unscrupulous Agamemnon Dandanache succeeds in his ambitions and becomes a deputy... all the while keeping the other lost letter as an instrument of blackmail.
  • Blackmail: Nae Caţavencu blackmails the city's prefect and his (married) mistress with the publication of a compromising love letter. In a similar context, Agamemnon Dandanache successfully blackmailed an important official and his influential mistress.
  • Corrupt Politician: Every single politician in the play.
    • Tipătescu treats the county as if it were his own personal fiefdom, orders the arrest of his political opponents without a legal reason and tolerates the illegalities committed by his subordinates.
    • Trahanache is willing to falsify the elections and like Tipătescu, tolerates the theft committed by his subordinates.
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    • Nae Cațavencu is a blackmailer, forger and thief.
  • Determinator: Faced with possibly the biggest crisis of her life, Zoe will do whatever it takes to maintain her social position.
  • Dirty Cop: Pristanda steals from public funds, arrests people at the orders of his superior even though he knows he has no legal basis to do so and spies on his boss' political enemies.
  • Elopement: When threatened with the publication of their love letter, Tipătescu proposes this to Zoe. As she is very attached to her privileges, reputation and social position, she rejects the idea immediately. This highlights the fact that she is the more cerebral one in the relationship, while Tipătescu is the one truly in love.
  • The Everyman: The Drunken Citizen represents the naive and easily manipulable electorate - multiple characters take advantage of him over the course of the story.
  • Gold Digger: Zoe has been interpreted as being one. She is extremely concerned with her social status and enjoys her luxurious life, but doesn't love her husband and began cheating on him shortly after they got married.
  • Hair-Trigger Temper: Tipătescu errupts into rage when he finds out about the blackmail attempt on himself, and continues to have outbursts of temper. Lampshaded by Trahanache, who remarks on his friend's fiery temper.
  • Obfuscating Stupidity: Zaharia Trahanache is sometimes interpreted as someone who knows very well about the infidelity of his wife, but tolerates it because his alliance with Tipătescu serves his interests well.
  • Malaproper: Quite a few of the characters, but Pristanda is the most common offender - he says "enumeration" instead of "remuneration", "bampire" instead of "vampire."
  • Meaningful Name: Almost all the names in the play suggest a secondary meaning - which often gets lost upon international readers or viewers.
    • Tipătescu - evocative of the word "type" which suggests that he is supposed to be a stereotype of the corrupt politician. Intentionally, he is given very little description in the play, to better serve the idea that he is just a type.
    • Zaharia - altough a biblical name, in Romanian it resembles the verb "a se zaharisi" (when something becomes sugared with time). The surname "Trahanache" comes from "trahana" which means "soft dough", another reference to the character's pliable and naive nature.
    • Caţavencu - comes from a type of coat with two sides called "caţaveică", a reference to the character's duplicity.
  • Pet the Dog: A small moment at the end of the play: as morally ambiguous as Zoe is, she is genuinely grateful to the (otherwise annoying) Drunken Citizen for returning the lost letter to her, so when she spots him in the celebrating crowd, she goes to him and offers him a glass of champagne.
  • Pragmatic Villainy: Dandanache kept the compromising letter he had found, in case he needed to blackmail other favors out of his victims in the future. It slides into Obliviously Evil territory, as he recounts the story to Zoe, proud of his cleverness, but without seeming to be aware of how horrible it makes him look.
  • Red Oni, Blue Oni: Tipătescu, fiery-tempered, passionate and impulsive is the red oni to calm, patient Trahanache's blue.
  • Slippery MacGuffin: The love letter starts by being lost by Zoe in a moment of carelessness, found by the Drunken Citizen, stolen from him by Caţavencu, then lost again, then found anew by the Drunken Citizen, who returns it to Zoe.
  • Smug Snake: Nae Cațavencu is not nearly as smooth and clever as he thinks he is.
  • Socialite: Zoe, the vivacious first lady of the county.
  • Upper-Class Twit: Trahanache's unseen son sends him a letter from university filled with comically faux-philosophical thoughts:
    Trahanache Jr.: Daddy, where there are no morals, there is corruption, and a society without principles means that they're lacking.
  • Your Cheating Heart: Zoe has been cheating on her husband with Tipătescu for eight years, with the affair having started only a year after she married Trahanache.
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