Tag Archives: Petőfi Irodalmi Múzeum

The fate of Gergely Prőhle: From diplomat to museum director

At the end of August came the news that the new director-general of the Petőfi Irodalmi Múzeum (Petőfi Literary Museum) will be Gergely Prőhle, who is best known as a diplomat. He began his diplomatic career in 1998, and by 2000 he served as Hungary’s ambassador to Berlin. Fidesz’s loss of the election in 2002 didn’t put an end to Prőhle’s career. In 2003, during the Medgyessy administration, he was named ambassador to Switzerland. He left the diplomatic service only in 2006. The socialists were certainly nicer to him after 2002 than Péter Szijjártó was in 2014, who as the new minister of foreign affairs unceremoniously fired him from his job as assistant undersecretary in the foreign ministry, together with about 300 career diplomats who were not considered to be faithful enough servants of the Orbán regime. Prőhle, the father of four, was apparently desperate. His career was so closely intertwined with the Orbán regime that it was difficult to imagine what he could possibly do outside of this charmed circle.

But, as is well known, Orbán is good to those people who were once useful, faithful servants of his regime but who for one reason or another become outcasts. So, in the last minute, Prőhle was offered a job in the ministry of human resources as assistant undersecretary in charge of “international and European Union affairs.” It looks as if the position was created specifically for Prőhle. The ministry has two undersecretaries: the “administrative undersecretary,” who can be compared to Britain’s “permanent undersecretary,” and the “parliamentary undersecretary,” who normally represents the minister in parliament. The parliamentary undersecretary is in fact the deputy minister. For some strange reason, the position created for Prőhle was placed directly under the parliamentary undersecretary, although the two positions had nothing to do with one another. In fact, it was difficult to figure out exactly what Prőhle did in this ministry. In any case, now that he is becoming a museum director, the ministry decided to change the structure. Prőhle’s successor, who is coming from Századvég, will report to the undersecretary in charge of family and youth.

The move from undersecretary to museum director was a simple procedure considering that Zoltán Balog, Prőhle’s boss in the ministry, is also in charge of the Petőfi Irodalmi Múzeum. It was on his recommendation that the committee picked Prőhle. The museum, which was established in 1954, has become the most important depository of material related to Hungarian literature. For the past ten years it was headed by Csilla E. Csorba, who has written extensively on literary history and the history of art. In literary circles Prőhle’s appointment created quite a stir. What does he know about literature?

Actually, Prőhle has a degree in German and Hungarian literature, but then he moved on to Corvinus University to became a student of international relations and diplomacy. He was director of the Friedrich Naumann Foundation between 1992 and 1998, but he has no other experience running a large institution with well over a hundred employees. But, I guess, one can always learn, as he has already begun to do. Although he will start his new assignment only on January 1, 2017, he is spending the coming months getting acquainted with the work of the museum.

What are the museum’s plans for the coming years? The staff is already working on a large exhibit on the life and art of János Arany (1817-1882), for which Prőhle expects the help of the current director. But he himself has a couple of new ideas, which he apparently outlined in his application for the job. One is an exhibit on Albert Wass (1908-1998), the other on Lajos Kassák (1887-1967). An interesting juxtaposition of political and literary careers. The former is a nationalistic, anti-Semitic writer who is considered to be a literary mediocrity. The latter is a poet, novelist, painter, essayist, editor, and theoretician of the avant-garde. He was one of the first genuine working-class writers in Hungarian literature, closely associated with the socialist movement.

Prőhle’s plan for an Albert Wass exhibit raised quite a few eyebrows, given the man’s controversial reputation. But the newly appointed director defended his choice with the following spurious justification: “If a writer has so many statues in the country, we will have to do something with the phenomenon.” He wants to know why Wass has such a cult in Hungary. “Why doesn’t Dezső Kosztolányi have 200 statues and why does Wass?” For those unfamiliar with Hungarian literature, Dezső Kosztolányi (1885-1936) is one of the mainstays of twentieth-century Hungarian literature, a writer of both poetry and prose. The question Prőhle poses doesn’t belong to the world of literary inquiries. It is clearly political and sociological.

One of the more hidious Wass statues in Csepel

One of the more hideous Wass statues, in Csepel

András Bozóki, minister of culture in the first Gyurcsány government, would love to see more characters of the Orbán regime “in museums.” Péter Krasztev, a literary historian, described Prőhle as a “party soldier” who serves where he is placed. István Kerékgyártó, a writer, sarcastically noted that “actually we can be grateful for this appointment because this government could just as easily have decided to close the museum altogether because they are not interested in literature. After all, it is not a place where too much money can be found to steal.”

Finally, C. György Kálmán, a literary historian, wrote an opinion piece on Prőhle’s appointment titled “Jóindulat” (Good will), the upshot of which is that he is trying not to be suspicious and hopes that Prőhle will be satisfied sitting in his office and will not interfere with the work of professionals who know something about literature. He is also hoping, although he has some fears, that the planned exhibition on Wass will be a balanced evaluation of Wass’s work, which Kálmán considers ”abominable and junk.” It is possible that Prőhle wants to stage “problem exhibits.” In this case, the “director doesn’t want to celebrate Wass but wants to reveal the phenomenon, the cult, the damage that cult inflicts on society or perhaps the possible virtues of the writer.” But, he adds, “we have every reason to suppose that the exhibit will not deal with the Wass problem but with Wass’s celebration.”

September 11, 2016

Culture, censorship, and the Hungarian National Theater

Every time foreign critics claim that the Hungarian media is not entirely free government officials are outraged and immediately ask them to point to just one occasion when censorship was used to prevent the free expression of opinion. Well, from here on the supporters of the Orbán regime can no longer boast about their “tolerance” toward contrary opinions. And it doesn’t have to be political opinion that the regime doesn’t tolerate. It can even be artistic. After all, political dominance in Viktor Orbán’s Hungary seems to be going hand in hand with ascendancy in the cultural sphere.

I covered the ongoing “Kulturkampf” through two events. First, there was the disgraceful charade that took place at the Hungarian National Theater which ensured that the government’s favorite, who considers the National Theater a depository of national values, got the job. More on the subject can be found in the post entitled “Kulturkampf is called ‘Kulturkampf’ in Hungarian too.” A few days later I highlighted another government coup in the field of culture. A right-wing gathering of writers and artists are receiving practically exclusive financial support from the Orbán government. To add insult to injury the government appointed György Fekete, whose commitment to democracy can be seriously questioned, president of this artistic academy. Fekete made it clear that literature and art will have to be in the service of national values. “Echoes of Hungary’s communist past” I called that particular post.

Since the values of the new director of the National Theater, Attila Vidnyánszky, are very close to the heart of the current political leaders, one ought not to be surprised about what happened on Magyar Rádió. Péter Esterházy, the well known Hungarian writer, was asked by the Rádió to contribute once a month to the station’s program called Trend-idők (Trend Times). He was supposed to give advice on cultural events–to call attention to a new book or an exhibition worth visiting. The last time he was the guest of the radio station he suggested a posthumously published volume by Szilárd Rubin, a book by Józsed Keresztesi on Rubin, several exhibitions organized by the Petőfi Irodalmi Múzeum (Petőfi Literary Museum), and finally he urged people to see the last few productions staged by Róbert Alföldi.

That was too much for the servile leadership of the Hungarian public radio station. Esterházy’s positive assessment of the productions of the Hungarian National Theater under the directorship of Alföldi couldn’t be tolerated. They simply left out his remarks about the theater productions.

Esterházy’s answer was an article that will come out tomorrow in Élet és Irodalom. In it he writes that the last time something like that happened to him was in 1981, in the Kádár regime, but he added that by 1986 he could openly complain about it. “Today I don’t want to live in either 1981 or 1986. I lived in those days once, and it was enough. The Regime of National Cooperation as Kádár-splotch [kádármaszat]; I wouldn’t want to national-cooperate this way.”

This story gives me an opportunity to talk a little bit about the history of the National Theater. A few days ago Attila Vidnyánszky, the incoming director, called the National Theater “a sacred place.” For Alföldi, on the other hand, the National Theater is simply a venue where one can produce good or bad plays. There is, in fact, nothing terribly special about this particular National Theater. There are many “national theaters” in the country: one in Pécs, another in Miskolc, and a third in Szeged, just to mention a few that come to mind.

The theater was originally called Pesti Magyar Színház (Hungarian Theater of Pest) and was supported by the County of Pest. It was called Magyar Színház because all the other theaters in Pest and Buda were German-language theaters. When the theater opened its doors in 1837 Hungarian speakers were in still in the minority, a little over 30% of the combined population of the two cities. Basically Pest and Buda were German cities until the 1880s.

Originally the National Theater (normally called in Hungarian simply “a Nemzeti”) was situated at the corner of Múzeum kőrút and Rákóczi Street, right across from the Hotel Astoria, where it remained until 1908. The company “temporarily” moved into the former Népszínház (Volkstheater) on Blaha Lujza Square, where it stayed until 1963 when there were plans to build a new permanent building to house the National Theater.  Nothing came of it, and for more than thirty years the members of the theater had to move every few years from one building to another. That was the case until the mid-1990s when at last the foundation for a new theater was dug on Erzsébet Square. At this point Viktor Orbán won the election and immediately halted work on the building. He threw out the plans approved by an international jury and everything began from scratch. Months went by as they looked for a different location. The theater was eventually sited in District X close to the Rákóczi Bridge. As for the architect? The new government official in charge of the project without any competition gave the job to the architect who designed his own house, a woman who had never designed a theater before.

According to architects the design is unfortunate. Some ordinary folks find it hideous and bizarre. According to Wikipedia, “the building in its outward appearance gives the notion of a ship that is swaying on the Danube.”

National Theater

I may also add that the building was erected in record time. Just a little over a year. The hurry was dictated by political considerations. Viktor Orbán and Fidesz politicians found it very important to stage the first production, Imre Madách’s play The Tragedy of Man, before the elections. And indeed, it was on March 15, 2002, that the theater opened to the public.

On April 7 Orbán lost the first round of elections and the second one on April 21. The National Theater’s charm wasn’t enough.