I mentioned earlier that there seems to be a definite dividing line in literary and artistic taste when it comes to ideological commitments. Conservatives or right-wingers are normally traditionalists while liberals on the whole are more open to modernity.
In countries with an established democratic tradition politicians usually don't try to dictate artistic taste. But in Hungary such meddling is nothing new. I just read an opinion piece in today's Népszabadság in which the author quotes a politician from the late 1920s who felt compelled to get up in parliament and complain that the director of the National Theater was about to commit a national crime: he wanted to make some slight changes in wording in the play Bánk bán, written by József Katona (1791-1830). Sometime later another politician objected to a play by Dezső Szomory (1869-1944) at the same National Theater. The real reason for these attacks by far-right politicians was that the director of the National Theater at the time was a Jew, Sándor Hevesi. As one of the far-right papers pointed out: the first Jewish director of the National Theater. And not unimportant, Szomory was also Jewish. The politicians' complaints went as far as the minister of education and culture who was supposed to sack Hevesi. But the minister, Kunó Klebersberg, was a very wise man. He announced that it was not the business of politicians to get involved with art and literature.
I have no idea whether Róbert Alföldi, the current director of the National Theater, is Jewish or not but he definitely has other problems. He is gay, and that is more than enough for Jobbik and the Christian Democrats to try to get rid of him. Also, he has another strike against him: he was appointed to his post during the socialist-liberal regime.
Alföldi is a talented actor and an imaginative director who has been in demand internationally. Just lately he directed Aristophanes's Lysistrata in Rijeka, Croatia. Well, Alföldi always seems to run into trouble. This time because of a poster advertising the production. It was "a scandalous poster" depicting a phallic symbol. INA, the Croatian oil company that was the original sponsor, withdrew its financial assistance for the production. All that was detailed in a fairly lengthy article yesterday in Heti Válasz. I'm sure that the placement of this news item in yesterday's paper was not a coincidence. Alföldi has been under vicious attack lately because of his production of The Tragedy of Man by Imre Madách (1823-1864), which is considered to be one of the greats of Hungarian literature.
The right-wingers with conservative taste consider the National Theater something special. It is more for them than one theater of the more than one hundred in Budapest. It is supposed to be the temple of Hungarian theatrical production. I have the feeling that some of the critics of Alföldi would like to see original Hungarian productions from the classical repertoire and nothing more. Moreover, according to their conservative taste the productions themselves must be traditional. They should be the kind of Tragedy of Man that was staged fifty years ago. Any kind of innovation is looked upon as sacrilege. But complaining about his production didn't get them very far. So, they tried to attack him politically.
One of the many attacks came in mid-November 2010 when it turned out that Alföldi had rented out certain parts of the National Theater for an event celebrating Romania's national holiday. The date commemorates the gathering of Transylvania's Romanians on December 1, 1918, to declare the province's union with Romania. I guess I don't have to describe what happened when the news hit the papers. The Christian Democrats immediately demanded an investigation and made no secret of the party's desire to get rid of Alföldi, who "caused moral damage." The spokesman of the party, István Pálffy, formerly an anchorman at MTV but today a member of parliament, announced that the theater director by renting out the premises to the Romanian Embassy "offended the sensibilities of many Hungarians." Very soon Fidesz joined the Christian Democrats and announced that Alföldi simply doesn't understand the gravity of the affair. Considering that Viktor Orbán's government views Băsescu's Romania as one the country's staunch allies, the whole affair with its strong anti-Romanian flavor didn't strike me as a friendly gesture. In the end, Alföldi had to retreat. He broke the contract with the Romanian Embassy.
Since then both Jobbik and Christian Democratic MPs have criticized Alföldi's production. István Pállfy, who was so worried about the sensibilities of Hungarians in November, and István Szávay (Jobbik) claimed that in Magyar ünnep (Hungarian Holiday) by the contemporary Pál Závoda "Hungarian soldiers are masturbating in their joy over the return of Northern Transylvania to Hungary." As it turned out, Szávay hadn't even seen the play. In fact, he didn't even know Alföldi's given name. Pálffy criticized The Tragedy of Man, although he had to admit that he hadn't seen it. At this point Miklós Réthelyi, minister in charge of cultural affairs, defended the play and Alföldi: he saw it and he liked it. It was an innovative performance.
So, this didn't work either and therefore a new attack was launched. A reporter from an Internet television station N1TV (N = Nemzeti = National) asked a few provocative questions of Alföldi at a press conference. I ought to mention that this is a the same far-right television station that celebrated Hitler's birthday on April 20. The female reporter asked Alföldi whether he shouldn't resign because he is showing Hungarian classics in a "provocative and divisive fashion." It turned out that the reporter hadn't seen the production. At this point Alföldi expressed his astonishment: "Then what are we talking about?"–he asked. At this point the woman changed her story and claimed that she "did see the oral sex scene which…." There was no oral sex in the production, and if one compares this current production of the Roman orgy to the 1887 illustrations of the play by Mihály Zichy, the Alföldi version was outright tame. In any case, Alföldi lost his cool and wished the woman "the same kind of oral sex from here on for the rest of her life."
This was a whimsical answer but still unfortunate. It opened the door to a new Jobbik and Christian Democratic attack. Another request to fire Alföldi went to Miklós Réthelyi, who reluctantly asked for a meeting with the theater director. He didn't fire him as the far-right demanded. Alföldi received only a written reprimand. Too bad that Réthelyi doesn't have the integrity of Kunó Klebersberg and didn't have the guts to tell them that a theatrical production or an off-the-cuff remark to an ignorant reporter is not good enough reason for the minister to interfere in the affairs of the National Theater.