The Challenges of Reality (Hungarian Theatre Versus The Conservative Revolution)
While to the four corners of the earth artists complain that culture and especially the performing arts are moving more and more to the periphery, in today’s Hungary there is a lively debate about what good/national theatre is/should be like. Specific performances are discussed in Parliament, theatre professionals make statements on news programmes, weekly magazines do interviews with theatre makers and even political journalists have something to say about the questions and scandals currently under discussion in the theatre.
Theatre is at the centre of public discourse (though this tendency does not entail an increase but rather a decrease in the subsidies for the performing arts), and critics are compelled to reconsider their ideas about the role of theatre in society, and to reformulate, again and again, what they had thought to be trivial.
Kaisers TV Ungarn
photo Zsuza Kóncz
revolution of conservatism
These days however a more conservative theatre ideal is becoming increasingly dominant and clearly outlined. Although the products of this ideal are far from being on the same aesthetic level and its followers do not agree in every respect, they represent themselves as a united force having their own, separate organization (Magyar Teátrumi Társaság) and their own theatre periodical (Magyar Teátrum). These theatres have announced that they are making a revolution of conservatism, where “going back to the old” is the novelty, and theatre, ideally, is an institution where one can cultivate the mother tongue and national values.
According to this conservative revolution, the issue is that today’s dominant theatre trends focus excessively or exclusively on problems and do not provide solutions. Against this, the “theatre of hope” is idealistic, as its positive and affirmative productions offer categorical and unambiguous answers, and thus do not upset the audience with questions left floating in the air. Of course, a positive message presupposes a more passive spectator because it assumes that the message of a piece of art can be “translated” into the language of the theatre by a theatre maker who commands the right answers and the necessary expertise. This way the audience can take part in the interpretation of a performance (or the message itself) to a limited extent.
The followers of this conservative revolution also have a strong opinion about the intention of the author. Some of them recognize only one single interpretation, while others think there are possible and impossible interpretations, the latter of which falsify the spirit or the intention of the author. This attitude legitimizes an authoritative position, as obviously the holders of this opinion are those who decide which interpretations are loyal or disloyal to the author.
Hungarian theatre criticism is also reprimanded for only supporting theatre trends to which the conservative revolution is opposed. From the conservative point of view the reason for this is that critics are politically partial, malicious or they are taking petty revenge for not being talented enough to become theatre makers. There is, they claim, a need for a new generation of critics. The problem with this position however is that it regards criticism as having only a canonizing role and ignores its contextualizing or analytical roles.
The conservative revolution apparently results in repertoires that almost totally lack theatre pieces dealing with current social questions. While emphasizing their intention to satisfy all kinds of demand, apart from the well-known contemporary Hungarian pieces like Portugál by Zoltán Egressy or Finito by István Tasnádi, these theatres only play comedies, operettas of (half) classical dramas that can be staged without any risk. It is almost impossible to find “unknown” authors in these repertoires.
This conservative theatre ideal has gained ground in the last few years. Most of the theatres in the provinces now have conservative managing directors, who were appointed by the ‘maintainer’ (and that is, in most cases, the local government). While the subsidies for theatre periodicals that have existed for decades have been radically cut, the money spent on Magyar Teátrum, the theatre journal founded by the conservative theatres a few years ago, has never been greater. The National Theatre Festival of Pécs, POSzT has always been criticized for favouring quality above variety, though in 2012 the demand for variety turned out to be more successful. This happened partly because the ownership of the festival has changed: the owners of the company managing POSzT used to be the local government of Pécs and Magyar Színházi Társaság, but recently the Magyar Teátrumi Társaság has also bought a share in the company giving them a part in the decision-making processes, for example in the choice of the selectors for the jury. As a result, the programme of the festival was the most criticised ever with productions from all over the country, but, according to many professionals, not good enough to be presented at the most significant theatre festival in Hungary.
Moreover, the variety desired by the conservative theatres does not seem to include the independent theatre companies. There were no independent companies at the POSzT, and the official explanation was that for practical and economic reasons some types of production, for example documentary pieces or shows for a limited number of spectators could not have been selected. It is quite clear that these restrictions are unfavourable to the majority of productions played with more intimacy, that is, by independent companies. Earlier it was guaranteed that independent groups would get 10 % of the total expenditure for theatre. However, in the new version of the Performing Arts Law, which was revised by a committee consisting mainly of conservatives, this guarantee was excised and, the independents go unmentioned, as if they did not exist. In November of 2012 they still have not been informed about how much subsidy they will get for the year 2013. As a result, lots of internationally renowned companies such as Béla Pintér’s or Viktor Bodó’s company, Szputnyik are operating on a much lower power base.
|We Live Once...|
Hungarian political theatre today
While the ‘theatre of hope’ is increasingly gaining support from the authorities, what is happening at the more experimental companies? Are there any theatres that react quickly to the above and other contemporary issues? Do they reflect on political changes that are considered by half of the country to be a curbing of democratic rights? Does theatre deal with the consequences of the economic crisis or the seemingly unalterable situation of the Roma community, which is permanently stuck on the margins of society? What happens to a theatrical tradition where the methods of reading between the lines and the use of allusions have become redundant since the fall of the communist regime?
It is certain that in the last two seasons the number of theatre pieces dealing with contemporary social questions has increased (especially since this number was almost zero). The demand for these productions is also more emphasized in the discourse about theatre, and the critics applaud the staging of plays reflecting on Hungarian reality (even if not wholly positively). It is a new and highly welcome tendency that some productions provoke social debate over aesthetic questions.
There are practically no productions dealing fundamentally with specific political questions, which may be no wonder considering that such pieces might become obsolete shortly after their premieres. Concrete political questions could be better handled in cabaret, but this traditional genre was stopped in the first half of the 20th century in Hungary.
However, the fact that Hungarian theatre is not uninterested in the (political) changes of the last few years is reflected more in the choice of plays being staged. There are more and more pieces dealing with politics, the mechanisms of gaining power and their absurdity, the relationship between the individual and history in general. These productions do not contain specific allusions: they are about the small man exposed to the continual changes in political structures and regimes who is unable to grow up to face problems. (This, naturally, does not mean that these pieces cannot contain allusions by accident.)
Interestingly, the most purely political production was created by a choreographer who had earlier been obsessed with archetypes and myths that explored his personality. Krisztián Gergye’s Adaptation Tricolor is a political polemic where jokes are built around the motifs of national identity that have been re-examined and reinterpreted recently and around the individual wandering in the forest of these themes. The piece quotes the Secretary of State for Culture (who has since been replaced) word for word.
Pintér Béla’s Kaisers TV, Ungarn goes back to an enigmatic event in Hungarian history, the revolution of 1848, while reflecting on today’s political systems. Again, there are no concrete allusions: the characters and events, in their subtle details, remind us for example of the riots of 2006 (when demonstrators occupied the headquarters of Hungarian Television) or of active politicians (from all sides). This intricate system of allusions and connections show how false historical imagery can be if the past into which it is embedded is glorified in a simplistic way.
Vote by The Symptoms (directed by Réka Szabó) illuminates the character and nature of democracy: the audience can take control of the production by choosing between two types of scene with the help of a voting machine. The choice is frustrating and liberating at the same time and embodies the dilemma of whether our vote counts or not and whether we have any responsibility in the evolution of things.
theatrical-political situation In the last two seasons several theatre productions have been created that include motifs responding to today’s theatrical-political situation or which position themselves overtly from a theatrical-aesthetical point of view. The most significant of these is a production by the National Theatre: We Live Once or the Sea Disappears in Nothingness Thereafter; (directed by János Mohácsi), with a text co-written by the director, István Mohácsi and the company (which will be discussed later).
Bánk bán in the Kecskemét Katona József Theatre, a member in the Magyar Teátrumi Társaság, (directed by Bertalan Bagó) ironically handles a look at literary texts as something sacred and thus unalterable. Bánk bán is ‘the’ Hungarian National Drama, but its somewhat sketchy dramaturgy and archaic language make the piece quite difficult to understand. For this production, however, a new text was written, which has made the original play much more comprehensible and modern. At the same time, the first scene and the closing image are staged from the original text and played in traditional costumes, which appear almost comical when compared to the rest of the piece.
Hungarian theatre has reacted very quickly to the growing popularity of the radical right-wing parties. This is not surprising since dramatic literature is full of plays about the gruesomeness of (threatening) fascism whose methods of discourse can be compared to that of the radical right. To name only a few, Sándor Zsótér directed Brecht’s Arturo Ui in the Örkény Theatre, and Fear and Misery of the Third Reich for Theatre Academy students. Rába Roland directed George Tabori’s Mein Kampf while Róbert Alföldi, Martin Sperr’s Hunting Scenes from Lower Bavaria (about the sorrows of a homosexual man; the radical right in Hungary is openly and intensely homophobic). Béle Pintér also made a piece dealing with this topic: Muck is about how a community is built up along stereotypical lines and the tensions that lead to self-fulfilling prophecies like, the expression of the extremist anti-gypsy crimes or the escape of the ugly un-loved girl to the radicals.
Kolibri Family Theatre reacted to xenophobic voices becoming stronger with Monoblock’s Hallo Nazi (directed by József Tóth) for teenagers. Compared to theatre for adults, youth theatre in Hungary has proven to be very quick to grab current topics that might interest teenagers (to mention a few: Cyber Cyrano at the Kolibri and East Balkán in Bárka Theatre).
social problems In the opinion of many cultural journalists, there are not enough plays dealing with social problems. What is considered to be especially painful is the small number of theatre pieces dealing with the series of murders of Roma people committed by racists. For that reason, Gypsies by Katona József Színház (directed by Gábor Máté) was appreciated by all for its initiative. The piece actually consists of two plays: in the first part of the production we see a charming genre piece written by Jenő Tersánszky Józsi, while, with a sudden switch, the second part takes us to one of the villages of the murders. The characters and the hierarchy are more or less the same, but the contrast between the former idyll and the dreadful reality, the helplessness and hopelessness of the situation is harrowing. The problem with the production, according to some critics, is that the second part doesn’t reach beyond journalistic clichés.
The Last Roma by Company KoMa seems to have the same problem. According to the story we are in 2193, at an exhibition about the extinct Roma. But the piece cannot go beyond this absurd situation and only gives variations of the basic idea, which means that the production would not be different if it were about ethnic Germans, blue eyed people or fishermen. On average, the critics appreciated Muck by Béla Pintér the most for its multi-layered, deeply analytical attitude.
Word for Word by PanoDrama (concept: Anna Lengyel) introduced a new type of work into the Hungarian theatre scene that might become an important method of discourse for social questions. ‘Verbatim’ theatre presents interviews and other kinds of texts strictly word for word, so the creators’ most important role is the collecting and editing of the material. The creators of Word for Word interviewed people involved in the murders: the families of the victims, the survivors, the police, the prosecutors and the mayors, and they quote texts by public figures and the press. The latest piece by PanoDrama, To learn, to learn, to learn uses the same technique to observe problems in the Hungarian education system.
Viktor Bodó, his company Szputnyik and the actors of Katona József Színház collected material in a similar way for their piece about the Hungarian health care system. However, this was only the starting point for Viktor Bodó: the resulting performance, Anamnesis, is far more than documentary theatre: it is about the sickness of the Hungarian health care system, but also of the government, theatre, the country, man and humanity. The grotesque and ludicrous scenes accompanied by live music included the stories of a paramedic passionate about his job, a pathologist relating anecdotes heartily, a doctor informing his ex-wife about her terminal cancer, and more generally, the shortage of doctors, tipping, art, culture, life and death.
facing the past Last but not least two cathartic and staggering performances will be presented: both of them were created by the need to face the past, which has never been dealt with in public discourse to the point of reconciliation. Hungary still has a lot to make up for: the names of agents from the communist times have not been published yet, for example.
Katona József Színház staged Tadeusz Słobodzianek’s Our Class. The play is based on a real historical event: during the Second World War, the (fascist) people of a small Polish town locked all the members of the local Jewish community into a shed, which they burnt down. This tragedy is represented through the fate of ten people (Jewish, Christian, Communist, patriotic, snitching) who used to be classmates and who reveal their thoughts, feelings, fears and excuses in dialogues and monologues. The director, Gábor Máté puts the emphasis on the school motif: the stage shows a classroom all through the production and the characters are dressed in their school uniforms. It is the entropy of history: the innocence of childhood and the solidarity of the community are contrasted with the fierce storms of history, the chaos and the fate of the individuals scattered out into the world.
The Mohácsi brothers’ We Live Once or the Sea Disappears in Nothingness Thereafter at the National Theatre has the story of people carried off to Soviet camps as a starting point. Each of the three acts of this grandiose, multi-layered drama shows an event of crisis and a border crossing. In the first part village people, who are just rehearsing John the Valiant,( John the Valiant is a tale in verse by Sándor Petőfi, the most important Romantic poet of Hungary), are packed into lorries and taken away by Russian soldiers, in the second part the General of the Gulag orders the same village people to act out John the Valiant, and in the third the people return to their village from the Gulag and therefore have to face big changes. These stories are all embedded in the past, but able to contemplate the theatre of hope, the scandals around the National Theatre, the function of theatre in general and artistic freedom. At the same time, the piece is full of folk tale motifs and unexpected twists in the story, which do not tie the performance down to earth, but expand it into the mythical world. Roles, fates and sentences recur lifting the stories of the little men into infinity. We have never had such a great opportunity to look, at the ‘whole’ through small pieces, or with such great self-irony at ourselves, our compromises and our relation to our history, heroes and myths.
* While one group of Hungarian theatres are narrowing down the possibilities of a dialogue, and on the grounds of the theatre of hope, ignoring the outside world; for other companies (and many of them are independent) it has become of crucial importance to react to most contemporary realities. Both reality and theatre, although in a different way, are getting to be exciting.
english version of the article from Svět a divadlo magazine, issue 1, volume 2013 translated by Andrea Rádai