Clash of cultures and politics in the theatrical world

Today I’m venturing into the world of theater–the politics of theater as well as political theater. I’m looking at what happened at the 15th Pécsi Országos Színházi Találkozó (POSZT), a yearly festival where theatrical companies, directors, and actors compete. The festival is organized by the two existing theater associations: the Magyar Színházi Társaság/MSZT (founded in 1998) and the Magyar Teátrumi Társaság/MTT (founded in 2008). MSZT has many more member theaters than the “upstart” MTT. MTT, under the leadership of Attila Vidnyánszky, the controversial director of the National Theater, seems to be a gathering of theaters and their directors who follow a specifically Hungarian theatrical tradition and who tend to be supporters of the current government.

In the past few years, especially since 2010, politics has infused theater life in Hungary, including the festival in Pécs. And, as with everything else, the right–in this case MTT–has been gaining the upper hand. For example, this year the delegate of MSZT, Judit Csáki, was not accepted as a member of the jury. Most likely because her liberal politics and opinions don’t sit well in certain circles.

MTT came into being because those who decided to create a new association felt that they had been pushed into the background by the liberal representatives of the profession. Since 2010 these people have been convinced that “their time has come.” It seems that they’re right. At the Pécs festival the presumably stacked jury chose “for best direction” a play directed by Vidnyánszky. The play, about Attila the Hun (“Scourge of God” by Count Miklós Bánffy), deals with the tension between east and west.

But the real story in Pécs was the “coda” to a performance of Bánk bán by József Katona (1791-1830), a drama based on actual historical characters. The theater company that performed the play in a modern setting came from Novi Sad-Újvidék, Serbia. The scandal had nothing to do with the performance itself: one either likes these completely reworked old plays or doesn’t. What upset some people was what came after the play.

The director decided to cap off the performance with an interactive play between the actors and the audience. The actors proposed a set of future possibilities that might compel the members of the audience to leave the country. For example, would they leave if the euro were worth 650 forints as opposed the current exchange rate, which is less than half of that? Those who would leave if the forint weakened at this point could leave the theater. What if the government fired thousands of state employees? Or if the Hungarian government decided to leave the European Union?

Szilvia Krizsán, best actress, as a rather unusual Queen Gertrude

Szilvia Krizsán, best actress, as a rather unusual Queen Gertrude

Even before the interactive play began, Szilveszter Ókovács, the head of the Hungarian Opera House who was a member of the jury, got up and inquired what all this had to do with Bánk bán. He then left the theater. Ókovács is a Fidesz appointee and a rather controversial one. Others also objected. One historian, who specializes in the history of Hungarian theater, from the balcony voiced his opinion that the whole thing was dilettantish. But most people were ready to play. At the end relatively few people remained seated, but they applauded the performance enthusiastically.

The director from Novi Sad is baffled. He doesn’t understand the vehement reaction to the play’s “coda.” It had been performed several times earlier outside of Hungary–for example in Timișoara/Temesvár in Romania, where Judit Csáki, the theater critic saw it and where, according to her, the audience didn’t consider the idea an attack on the country. Csáki, by the way, played the game and stood up after the question about Hungary leaving the European Union.

So, what is the connection between the interactive game and the theme of Bánk bán? Katona’s play was first published in 1820 but was not performed until 1833. János Arany, the great nineteenth-century poet, in his unfinished essay on Bánk bán, summarized the message of the play as a conflict between “foreign oppression” and “the nation forced to fight for freedom.” The director of this particular production considered the major theme of Katona’s drama to be “love of country.” And, he continued, it is perfectly fitting to ask the members of the audience about the limits to their attachment to the land of their birth.

Some commentators see the affair as a clash between the more cosmopolitan Hungarian communities in the neighboring countries and the right and extreme right in Hungary. György Vári, a historian and journalist, noted in his op/ed piece on the scandal in Pécs that Jobbik, already in February, had taken notice, disapprovingly of course, of the play, which hadn’t even been performed in Hungary yet. In the thinking of the Hungarian right there are certain works of literature and objects of art belonging to the national canon that are sacred. And Bánk bán is one of them. This is what, an internet site for curious Hungarian children, has to say about Bánk bán. “There are few works in Hungarian literature as important as the drama of Katona…. On March 15, 1848, the audience demanded the performance of ‘the national drama,’ which by then had become the symbol of Hungarian national resistance just like the Himnusz (National Anthem) and the Szózat (Appeal)…. No Hungarian drama of Bánk bán‘s significance has been created since.” It obviously shouldn’t be sullied with the addition of contemporary political theater.

A footnote: In the last few days readers of this blog have been having a spirited discussion about history and historical interpretation. Just like the events of Katona’s play, the topic was a medieval subject. Katona relied on historical data but looked upon the early thirteenth century from the vantage point of the world he lived in. He was a poet, writer, and playwright, not a historian. If we want to know who Bánk bán was and what he did, we’d best consult a history book on the reign of András II (1176-1235).

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seinean sabisan
June 14, 2015 12:57 am

“Temesvárad” ? I always thought that the name of the city (city of my birth) in Hungarian was Temesvár…

June 14, 2015 2:20 am

Such an interesting and informative article! Many thanks Éva.

As with the theatres, so with the visual arts now that the dubious and mostly low-standard-of-work, conservative Fidesz supporting (and financed by Fidesz) organisation, MMA, (Magyar Művészeti Akadémia) have “got the upper hand” as you say.

June 14, 2015 3:00 am

Habony and Finklestein and Orban are geniuses, they always deliver.

Fidesz is getting more and more popular and the opposition is left speechless.

June 14, 2015 8:23 am

Reality contradicts your statements.

Fidesz support has steadily declined and the latest available poll shows no rebound.

The campaign is widely ridiculed and has been countered by the opposition who have been very vocal about it.

The only way it might be successful is to divert attention from government corruption and budget issues.

Whether it has had any success changing attitudes towards immigrants has not yet been measured by any poll.

The UN’s Refugee Agency has launched a counter billboard and media campaign.

June 14, 2015 9:04 am

Agree with RealityCheck – the backlash to the billboard campaign will ultimately be more damaging to the government than whatever benefit it gets from it. Just wait until MKKP’s counter campaign kicks off on July 1 – it has already raised 10 times its originally desired amount.

Plus, I’m kind of shocked as to what passes for political commentary on Index. Márton Kárpáti’s piece that you linked to is less of an intelligent, insightful opinion and more along the lines of what you might hear some random guy say at a party. No facts or evidence to support his opinion.

June 14, 2015 5:06 pm

You know if one looks at the Bank ban opera it is interesting to see vocabulary in it like, spies, plots, conspiracy, revenge, homeland, foreigners , sorrow and despair. Kind of great timing and selection to pick a drama which will undoubtedly bring emotional discourse and no doubt get the political ‘juices flowing. It looks like when the going gets tough the best bet is to bring out the ‘sacred’.

Anyway, it’s apparent the rightist fellows love to do ‘research’. I thought it interesting that they’re now using a cultural door on that score to segue into the political. Those guys are something else. They cover the bases, eh? Another brave new Magyar world coming up.

June 14, 2015 5:13 pm

It’s a silly campaign from the government, but it achieved its objective of pushing the Quaestor and Buda-Cash from top-billing.

As clumsy and as brutish as it is, the campaign has ended up in people talking about immigration and signs, not corruption and people losing their life-savings in football stadiums.

The more the UN, opposition parties and civil groups react to the government campaign, the more people will start to line up behind the government on it. It links the government’s opponents with foreigners, and the urban effete left who are out of touch with the Fidesz heartland – poverty stricken villagers from the countryside trying to survive on 60000 HUF a month or less.

If the counter campaign becomes really active and starts to bite, it will push the people in the countryside back towards the government.

My 2 forints.