Who's Wining Hungary's Truth-to-Power Standoff? A Festival of Brave New Works Animates the Nation's Dark History and Critiques Its Tumultuous Present

By O'Quinn, Jim | American Theatre, November 2011 | Go to article overview

Who's Wining Hungary's Truth-to-Power Standoff? A Festival of Brave New Works Animates the Nation's Dark History and Critiques Its Tumultuous Present


O'Quinn, Jim, American Theatre


TRY TO SEE THESE EMBLEMATIC STAGE moments through Hungarian eyes:

* As Shylock, Shakespeare's archetypal Jew, emerges from the shadows of an Escher-esque scaffolding to declaim his famous "hath not a Jew eyes" speech, a crew of black-masked apparitions representing the citizens of Venice materializes ominously and silently beneath him. Later, when the ducal court humiliates and banishes him, the citizen horde swarms after Shylock like a flock of voracious birds, or a pack of wolves intent on devouring its prey.

* After Abram, the young protagonist of a 1965 German drama called hunting Scenes from Lower Bavaria, is driven to a senseless act of murder by the remorseless and brutal intolerance of his fellow villagers, who believe hesgay, the entire audience is invited to join the play's townsfolk in a jolly beer test to celebrate the deviant's bloody capture ami consignment to prison.

* Despite having earned a college degree, taught at a Budapest university and started a family, the aging horticulturalist at the center of a grim new play called Hard can't shake the rural provincialism of his youth. When he's fired from his academic post, he takes refuge with his taciturn mother back in the isolation of the countryside and proceeds to drink himself to death.

[ILLUSTRATION OMITTED]

These moments, like any number of others that studded the first-class program of Hungary's 2011 National Theatre Festival this past June, contain layers of meaning for native Hungarians that many of us outside the culture can only begin to fathom. With rare exceptions, the productions selected for remounting at the 10-day fete in Pecs--I Iungary's fifth largest city, nestled since medieval times in the Meesek Mountains south of Budapest, near the Croatian border--were as cruelly dark and somber of theme as the sketches above imply. The brightest aspect of the program was die self-evident willingness of Hungarian theatremakers to plunge boldly into the political and social morass of this particularly troubled national moment and call those responsible for it to account.

That would include, unfortunately, the Hungarian government. As American 'Theatre reported nine months ago ("News in Brief," Feb '11), the conservative center-right party Fidesz beat the incumbent Hungarian Socialist Party by an overwhelming majority in April 2010 elections, gaining two-thirds of the seats in Parliament and control of 22 out of 23 major cities in the country. This virtually complete consolidation of power gives Fidesz the ability to change Hungary's constitution at will, and the party has wasted no time in asserting control over the nation's culture and media--including the frequently outspoken artistic community.

The turning of the political tide also meant dramatic gains for the ultra-right Jobbik "Movement for a Better Hungary" party, which stands proud on a platform of anti-Jew, anti-Roma (meaning gypsy), anti-gay policies. Although Prime Minister Viktor Oban and his Fidesz colleagues appear to distance themselves from the radicalism of Jobbik, they appointed a member of the party as president of the government's cultural and media committee.

In the months leading up to the gathering in Pecs, attacks on theatre artists got specific: Robert Alfoldi, the audacious and progressive artistic director of the flagship National Theatre in Budapest (see page 62), was decried on the floor of parliament as deviant, rowdy and treasonous, and his work at the National wras labeled obscene and anti-Hungarian. Trumped-up demonstrations demanding Alfokli's firing were countered by support from artists, writers, critics and theatregoers. Meanwhile, independent theatres--those not part of a state-sponsored network--have been threatened with complete elimination of their state arts funding (despite legal guarantees to the contrary), and leaders of most of the country's regional venues have been replaced with undistinguished party hacks. …

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