The Serfs is considered one of those canonical texts that continue to provoke, raise essential questions and require a constant in-depth reflection. Working on his new play in 1909, Cankar was initially determined to write a political satire. In the third act, however, his satirical play suddenly turned into »a tragedy«, as he himself described it. However, the play is ultimately not a tragedy according to classic criteria, despite the tormenting struggle of the main protagonist, the progressive school teacher Jerman, a decent intellectual of high moral standards, forced to retreat in the face of political pragmatism, self-centred pretension, abuses of power and manipulations. Nonetheless, The Serfs has established a long-lasting template for dealing with political scheming and manipulations that has not changed much in Slovenia since the play was first written 110 years ago.
Published in 1910, The Serfs caused an immediate scandal and gave rise to indignation and outrage, resulting in the censor’s ban on staging the play. Thus it was first produced after Cankar’ death, in 1919, in Trieste, and later in Zagreb, and finally, on 11 December 1919, on the premises of the present-day SNT Drama Ljubljana.
With its ambiguous and evocative title, The Serfs has remained a paradigmatic text repeatedly used to describe Slovenian political situation and a collective attitude to the authorities. Frequently analysed and quoted, its selected passages have acquired various meanings, ranging from a devastating critique of Slovenian national character to the slogans of emancipation and patriotism. Several characters from The Serfs have become synonyms for people of principle, decency and high moral standards, or, conversely, for the absence thereof and laxity. Cankar’s unforgiving diagnosis of the nation continues to provoke, which makes each new staging of The Serfs a singular response to the play.
GENI: Indeed, I’m genuinely blessed, carrying out this holy job, for otherwise I’d be bored to hell. Do you remember when we were set a written task to elaborate on the holiness and superiority of the teaching profession? I was applauded for I had lied the most ... not a single word about the hills and the hillbillies or the patched blouses, the run-down heels, the potatoes in their jackets, the unbridled tongues, or the uncouth superintendent ... oh, the usefulness of the task, as now its purpose has been proven: whoever has not learned to lie early, will struggle hard to become a definitive liar.