Hungarian theaters as political instruments

Once upon a time, a long time ago, with the exception of the Hungarian National Theater in Budapest, theaters were in private hands. In 1948 all theaters were nationalized, and even today most of the theaters are run by local governments. Many of them are heavily subsidized, and every year there are huge fights between the directors of the theaters and the central and local governments over money.

During the socialist period the life of an actor was idyllic in comparison to the insecurity of earlier times. They were the employees of one given theater; only rarely did it happen that someone left one theater and began a new career in another. This may have been bad in the sense of artistic freedom but it gave security to the actors. More and more theaters came into being and more and more actors graduated from the Színház- és Filmművészeti Főiskola (College of Theater and Film).

No real privatization of theaters took place after 1990. The theaters, by now in the hands of local governments, became the pawns of politics. Political parties find it important to have a say in running the local theaters. That can be achieved through the choice of the director. Thus, often not talent but political connections decide who is going to be the next director. For instance, after the local elections in October 2006 it became quite evident that the new Fidesz-run local governments picked directors on the basis of their political preferences.

As I said earlier, while before 1948 most theaters were in private hands, this was not the case with the National Theater. The establishment of a Hungarian-language theater (because basically this is what people in the 1830s understood as "national") became an important demand in the so-called reform period during which modern Hungarian nationalism began. The Hungarian National Theater as opposed to the German theater in Buda had a Hungarian-language program from the very beginning. At that time it was important to have at least one Hungarian theater. Today to have a special national theater doesn’t make much sense. There are an incredible number of theaters in Hungary. In Budapest alone there are close to one hundred. In what way does a national theater differ from all others?

Yet there was a demand to build a permanent home for the national theater which lost its last home on Lujza Blaha tér in 1966 when it was demolished. Even before that the poor National Theater was moved from one theater to another, God knows how many times. After 1966 the company moved to the old Magyar Színház, but the Horn government at last decided to spend a lot of money and build a modern, permanent home for the theater. In my opinion it was a waste of money, but it seems that the government felt that it was going to be a popular move.

Earlier I briefly talked about the fiasco of the "hole." An international jury chose a design and the foundation was dug when the Horn government lost the election and Viktor Orbán wanted to have the glory of building a theater for the nation for himself. Therefore, he halted the construction, discarded the design, and chose a man of his own liking to be in charge. Too bad that the man he chose (a playwright and director) had very bad taste and a real atrocity was built at not the best location. Those who have been inside the building complain that there are seats from which one cannot see the stage at all. Even the actors chosen to be part of the company were mostly people who were favored by the government.

Recently the director of the national theater decided that he would prefer to be the director of a still nonexistent theater in a town close to the Austrian border, so a new director had to be chosen. The choice lies with the minister of education and culture. He asked the the opinion of a committee, and the choice was Róbert Alföldi, an apparently very talented, fairly young actor and director who seems to have some rather revolutionary ideas concerning the theater.

Shortly after the choice of Alföldi was announced, the director of the Pécs National Theater (also nationalized in 1948), Tamás Balikó, who was also among the competitors, accused the committee of cheating. And if that wasn’t enough, he added: "I, as a fifty-year-old, Lutheran, taxpaying citizen with three diplomas, a heterosexual theater director and a man, can state that cheating is a sin." It is impossible to find out from Balikó what his Lutheranism and heterosexuality have to do with the case. Except, of course, if he thinks that there is something wrong with Alföldi’s religion and sexuality. What can one say about such behavior? Nothing good.

Actually I feel sorry for Alföldi. It is enough to listen to fellow actors in TV interviews to know that a lot of them are not very happy with the choice. The staff of the theater is also dubious about him. Yesterday Alföldi boldly announced that he will fire a few of the people, that he wants to have a young crew, and that he is not happy with the interior of the theater. One doesn’t need to be a fortune teller to know what will happen in the next few months.