– Enter New Hungarian Dramatists Stage Left, Right and Politically Centered
By Rory Winston
‘As shameful as it seems, artists working in a totalitarian dictatorship are often envied by those who work in freedom’, Tom Stoppard related at a conference in the mid-eighties while discussing his recent translation of a Václav Havel play. There was something to it. We are often, ironically, jealous of our oppressed counterparts. Whether dissident artists are persecuted by those that wish to silence them or hailed as heroes by those who see them as fearless iconoclasts is neither here nor there; what matters to us is that their given society is not indifferent to their works. In addition, we are also not indifferent to it internationally. Critical dramatists living under oppressive regimes are a political presence, a viable threat, a force to contend with; they are even – and how wonderful it sounds to us – a menace. Anything is preferable to being relegated innocuous dinner conversation for polite society.
By the early nineties, media had romanticized the plight of ex-Soviet authors, to the point that our collective imaginations saw all of Eastern Europe as an elaborate hothouse for sexy subversives harboring undiscovered literary gems. A decade later, and the interest had dissipated. Whether or not state suppression is worse now than during the last years of communism is immaterial, the fact is that a struggling artist under a supposedly democratic regime simply does not carry the same clout as even a state-approved ‘bad boy’ in an otherwise intolerant or closed society.
But what was happening now? As the child of Hungarian Jewish émigrés, I was adamant to find out. Although I had worked with theatre, my limited knowledge of Hungary’s cultural history meant I subconsciously divided drama into three rather arbitrary time periods: the classics (verse dramas, historic pieces, national romantic subject matter), the Pre-WWII cosmopolitans (these included satirical geniuses whose work, thanks to a horde of immigrants, managed to influence the sixties and seventies generation of New York and London based comedy writers), and the Perestroika writers like György Spiró – a dramatist whose play Chickenhead had an irreverence similar to that of Look Back in Anger for an earlier generation of Brits.
Sadly, the last complete Hungarian production I was even aware of was Stephen the King – a revival of a twenty odd year old rock opera that, like Arthur Miller’s The Crucible, employed a historical parallel to criticize the powers that be. To be fair there were contemporary names like the writer/director Béla Pintér whose works had created a buzz in Central Europe’s alternative theatre scene, but as for his oeuvre… My ignorance was such that had anyone informed me that Béla Pintér was merely the long lost relative of Harold Pinter, I would have merely nodded knowingly, content with the misinformation.
And so, Facebook had served an educational purpose. Stumbling upon the ‘like’ of a friend of a friend with whom I no longer recalled how I was acquainted, I discovered the Contemporary Drama Festival Budapest – a festival that had gone under my radar for what was now its 12th non-consecutive year. ‘Yes’, I thought, ‘About time.’ Why not find out what kind of plays were being produced in a country that had most recently received media attention for its government’s right wing bent, its racism, its political corruption and its partisan modification of its constitution. Was there censorship? Self-censorship? Covert resistance? Overt criticism? What was the voice of the new generation? Was there a voice? What became abundantly clear from the moment I arrived in Budapest was that the festival’s own exuberant and caring voice belonged to Mária Mayer-Szilágyi, a woman whose resourcefulness and enthusiasm was singlehandedly responsible for the entire event.
Hungarian Rhapsody – The Remix
Neither governmentally organized nor state supervised, the partially subsidized festival owes everything to Szilagyi’s conviction. Working in close contact with German theater, Szilágyi, by the early 90’s had noticed a renewed international interest in Hungarian drama. At the very moment when In-yer-face theatre started making the rounds throughout Central Europe – with new works by Philip Ridley, Mark Ravenhill, David Eldridge and Sarah Kane winding their way through the German circuit – a host of independent project-based ensembles popped up across Budapest. Cross-pollination soon ensued and the idea for the festival was born. The festival is held in the Jurányi Art Incubator House– a large Fin de siècle school-like complex where dozens of disparate theatre companies test and showcase their works to an ever-growing public. Imagine a mid-sized city whose entire Off-Broadway and Off-Off-Broadway scene were squeezed into a single large schoolhouse and you might have a picture of how the venue works. In terms of showcasing, organizing performances, conducting workshops, seminars and parties it is a perfect venue. As poetic justice would demand, collaboration between German and Hungarian theaters remains an essential part of Szilagyi’s annual portfolio; take the opening piece: Mikó Csaba’s the Fatherless (Apátlanok)– a Hungarian play that was paradoxically making its debut in German with surtitles running in the original language.
Directed by Michael Lippold and performed by the Theater Regensburg, The Fatherless has a highly designed approach wherein visual constructions run counterpoint to dialogue. Bringing to mind the early works of Thomas Ostermeier, albeit scaled down to a small sized theatre, the directing purposefully works against the given space by exaggerating the plays highly symbolic motifs with larger-than-life epic moments. Juxtaposing grand architectural concepts with an intimate setting, Lippold ends up ‘distancing’ during the more realistic scenes while creating a sense of familiarity during overtly theatrical moments. Like Marius von Mayenburg’s The Stone, Mikó’s chronological leaps and breaks in continuity are designed to toss us back and forth between competing metaphors. It is a world where absence itself becomes the very glue that holds together the illusion of a family, a realm wherein ‘father’ has become a mythopoetic notion whose relevance depends entirely on which theory one is temporarily willing to subscribe to in order to fill the paternal vacuum.
Whether talking about Hungary’s pagan forefathers, ‘our father who art in heaven’, the nationally romantic ‘fatherland’, father Stalin who arrived after WWII, in the end, it is clear from Mikó’s play that Hungary was left without a viable father figure. With the Russian troops gone and a new republic declared, and religious, national and communist principles long dead and buried, what ideological father was there to turn to? Who was left that had not already been deconstructed? It was solely the absent father that remained. Even as mass media took the role of stepfather, the Hungarian family unit insisted on retaining the ghostlike figure whose essence could be interpreted any which way each family member chose. Lyrical, contemplative and highly associative, Mikó’s The Fatherless (Apátlanok) is a contemporary opera devoid of music. In a sense, it is a conceptual response to Gertude Stein’s The Mother of us All.
Noting my interest in Mikó’s work, Ms. Szilagyi recommended I see the play Mary Stuart, Mikó’s adaptation of the Friedrich Schiller classic. Although the play is not part of the festival, Szilagyi’s unbiased love of theater and her need to share worthwhile works is enough to impel her to inform me about the play. In terms of writing and directing, Mary Stuart is a multi-tiered construction that associates to three distinct eras. Without sacrificing the essence of the original work, this rendition draws contemporary parallels while also alluding heavily to Hungary’s communist past. Exceptionally well directed by Ildikó Gáspár, the play braces us within a music box realm of deadly whispers and stifled cries. It is a pastel blue world where Machiavellian plots are dressed in protocol and cruelty wears a cordial if bureaucratic guise. We are privy to the inner workings of Schiller’s Elizabeth – a woman who wants her cousin Mary dead but does not want to be the one taking responsibility for it. Appearance is everything; and power desires nothing more than to continue being loved while allowing itself the luxury to hate with impunity.
Mary, the object of Queen Elizabeth’s hate and fear, is fixed on stage throughout the performance while other characters are seen plotting against her. The only time these characters catch a glimpse of Mary is when they feel guilt, fear or loathing. The idea of being present through absence seems to be a recurring theme for Mikó; it is also one that Gáspár tackles with éclat and depth.
If Mikó’s The Fatherless (Apátlanok) shows Hungarian identity as a void waiting to be filled, Hungari, written and directed by the highly esteemed professor and dramatist, Péter Kárpáti, is a journey into the information overload that stands ready to fill that void with whatever vague definition our contemporary lives allow for. Hungari is a country without borders, regions or cities; it is the makeshift identity had by those who inhabit cyberspace. Thanks to the internet, a person can be physically located in Hungary while inhabiting the mental landscape of New York; likewise, an expat living in New York can retain a totally Hungarian identity. Chatrooms, skype, facebook, twitter, telephone… Kárpáti has relentlessly trekked through these spheres before cut-and-pasting together a series of monologues based on real internet conversations.
Working together with the HOPPart Company – an ensemble of actor/musician/singers – Kárpáti, dramaturge Bori Sebők and composer Árpád Kákonyi present us with nine people – each of whom inhabits a single unified apartment on stage while simultaneously being located in a very different part of the globe. Like the short film The Parlor (2001) there is no way for a participant to verify the age, gender or true location of his/her counterpart. What is clear is that this is an apartment where time zones, seasons and styles vary a great deal. The common factor: the participants are all communicating in Hungarian. While the humorous lyrics bring to mind musicals such as Avenue Q, there are disconcerting elements of our atomized lives that recall Caryl Churchill’s Love and Information. With eclectic music that caroms from folk to pop to elegiac to brash Broadway Musical, Hungari is the cacophony of contemporary identity delivered in a symphony of observations.
The Sound of the Unsound
When it comes to grasping the zeitgeist of the transition period from communism to ‘wild east’ capitalism, few writers could have done it as evocatively and perceptively as the twenty seven year old, László Potozky. Born in the Hungarian-speaking region of Transylvania, Potozky is a published novelist who has – already in his first play – demonstrated both a great ear for dialogue and the smarts to ‘show’ rather than ‘tell’ when relating large concepts. Though Aba Sebestyén makes some interesting decisions in directing – creating what amount to contemporary danced versions of Eugene O’Neill’s Strange Interludes-like monologues – the strength of the play Strodgegon Superglue (Sztrodzsegon) resides primarily in its insightful characterizations and its ability to captivate without once changing sets.
As the play begins, three impoverished flea-market merchants witness a friend of theirs being run over by a train somewhere offstage. Accident? Suicide? As in Anton Chekhov’s The Cherry Orchard, the opening foreshadows the annihilation of an era. More interestingly, each character becomes inadvertently complicit in his/her own demise – their fate inexorably hastened and sealed by their very attempt to escape the status quo. Hoping for a better life, they profit off one another’s weaknesses. Friendships are severed, dreams are fractured, families are torn apart. While none of these can ever be glued together, Strodgegon Superglue (Sztrodzsegon) – a brand of super-glue leftover from the Soviet era whose only remaining function is being sniffed – can at least help us forget. As up and coming international talents are concerned, Potozky fits the bill. With a markedly confident style, Potozky’s work eschews both gimmickry and trendy devices. His strong characterization and his concepts would likely survive the journey abroad.
No Place for the Likes of You by Márton Kovács and the Mohácsi Brothers takes on the very touchy subject of Hungarian complicity in the Holocaust; or, better yet, the subject of Hungarians murdering other Hungarians whom they opportunistically decide to relegate as Jews in order to usurp what they own. As a darkly comic musical where pulp-meets-social commentary and absurd fuses with macabre, the play has all the elements of a Hungarian Urinetown, albeit more risqué and rhapsodic. Given that Hungary’s most renowned satirical pulp fiction author, Jenő Rejtő, was murdered by Hungarian Nazis who were probably enjoying his books while killing him, the play’s mordant humor seems fitting. With a minimalist set that makes brilliant use of lights and shadows, the play elicits a response similar to Lina Wertmüller’s Seven Beauties – a film that opens with easy-going Jazz music set to a Hitler speech.
As for the university production of Boris Vian’s Foam of the Days directed by Balázs Benő Fehér, let’s just say that while Ádám Fekete’s wordplays are way more imaginative and closer in spirit to Vian than Michel Gondry’s Mood Indigo, the cartoonish world represented with its unique brand of surreal romanticism is not capable of sustaining its length. Despite the feverishly changing scenarios, the highly acrobatic performers, and the well-balanced caricature-like portrayals, the overall play feels more like a demanding cross-genre exercise than anything else. While it is easy to imagine this cast performing the best ever version of Tom Stoppard’s Jumpers, the Vian play falls short of satisfying. The one saving grace: Ádám Fekete – a creative and performing artist whose intensity and range recalls a young Eric Bogosian or John Leguizamo.
Created with the feel of Immersive Environmental theatre – as demonstrated in works such as Tony n’ Tina’s Wedding by New York’s Artificial Intelligence comedy troupe – the Children of Dollar Daddy company in Budapest performed Emma Bovary based on the character from Gustave Flaubert. Of course, this particular Emma Bovary was reputedly based on the work of Flaubert, Dumas, Walter Scott and… Basically, whoever and whatever Emőke Kiss-Végh – who was responsible for the entire performance (in concept, text and performance) – felt like borrowing from. The play is performed in an actual dressmaker’s salon where Emma greets her guests, has them sit around a table, offers some snacks and drinks, while telling them about her life, aspirations and the shortcomings of her marriage. The one woman show – done in collaboration with the dramaturg Erzsébet Csikesz and her long standing acting partner Tamás Ördög (relegated, this time around, to working the sidelines) – is about as Off-Off-Broadway as a Hungarian performance can get. Staging works in apartments, cellars and other offbeat locations throughout the city, the Children of Dollar Daddy get a lot of mileage on minimalist aesthetics.
Irrational Voices of Reason
As an exciting addition to the festival, Szilágyi offered us a screening of Krétakör’s Loser – a one-off masterpiece created in direct response to state repression. Self-ironic, bitingly satirical and transgressing the boundaries between reality and fiction, Loser is a cross-genre rollercoaster that goes from a strict dialectic to realism to heightened theatrical moments to macabre comedy, ending in a post-expressionistic orgasm that is bound to leave any viewer with both a shiver running down their spine and thoughts spinning through his/her head. If ever anyone wanted to answer my initial questions about criticism, resistance and new directions in Hungarian theater, Director/Writer Árpád Schilling managed a trompe l’oeil by delivering the reality offstage in an entertaining onstage format.
Krétakör’s Loser shows us the terror of a non-terror state; the lengths a seemingly democratic regime can go to in an effort to stifle criticism are quite astonishing since few are monitoring the excesses of a government that is no longer part of a communist block or the axis powers. As brilliant as Loser is, the show – aside from a few sporadic performances given by Schilling’s very determined group – is mostly limited to DVD viewing. The reason for this unfortunate circumstance is that government funding was so ‘insultingly low’ that the founder of the internationally lauded and awarded group, Schilling, tore the government subsidy check live on air while informing the Hungarian public that his company would henceforth be closed thanks to the wishes of their ‘supreme leader, Viktor Orbán’. Such panache. Max Reinhardt would be proud.
When it comes to other political issues such as Hungary’s inherent level of Antisemitism and Antiziganism, there is likely no better play out there than the darkly satiric Scorn (Lefitymálva) written by András Vinnai and directed with élan by András Borgula. What starts out as seemingly frivolous banter between a very self-conscious working class man and his more matter-of-fact colleague, soon eddies into a whirlpool of hidden animosities whose undercurrent is profound racism. “Don’t use the J-word”, remonstrates the wary and Politically Correct worker, his greatest fear being that others might perceive him as an anti-Semite. It does not take long to realize that the reason this is his greatest fear is because he has long bought into the notion that Jews do in fact own everything, run everything and are watching his every move. His is a world of Zionist conspiracies, blood libels, and covert ops by the Mossad intent upon infiltrating every aspect of Hungarian life. It seems that the only thing keeping the main character’s rabid anti-Semitism in check all these years is a genuine fear of Jewish omnipresence and imagined reprisal.
As the play moves from hyperrealism – with intense staccato dialogue reminiscent of David Mamet – to a more abstract poetic construction, the audience is cajoled into letting down its guard. Soon the stage has become a representation of our protagonist’s mental landscape and we forget the very real danger this psychotic wonderland poses to our world. Underestimating the ability of a deluded person to incite, we become ever more vulnerable and it comes as a momentary shock when the play draws our attention to the fact that with each laugh we forget that the hero’s vapid allegations – the big lies – have the potential to kill.
Just before losing ourselves entirely in his Ionesco-like world, we are jolted from our stupor and thrust into yet a third realm – one known for its faux objectivity, the televised talk show. Having once again jumped genre, Vinnai ‘does a Christopher Durang’ on us by subverting a familiar format in order to make us reflect on both the concepts and the artifice in our means of perception. The artifice of TV is revealed for what it is: a vehicle for informing us of danger while simultaneously numbing us to the threat being posed. This final ‘mass media’ zone is one wherein the play confronts all the rationalizations our society creates to excuse those that irrationally hate. Borgula is an actor’s director. Whether creating a space that highlights what the characters are emotionally going through or creating a dissonant world that stands in sharp contrast to their words, his focus steadfastly remains the content. To paraphrase the immortal bard, “the play’s the thing”; and when successful it is precisely the play that can “catch the conscience” of us all.
Although the Gólem Theatre that presented Scorn (Lefitymálva) was not included in the festival, the show came highly recommended from many of the participants and it is no coincidence that the theater is lodged within the same Jurányi complex.
Besides the many plays on offer in Budapest, the festival also included bus excursions to Cluj in Romania and Subotica in Serbia where two other Hungarian theatre festivals were simultaneously taking place. I myself took a trip to the scenic city of Kecskemét where the Katona József Theatre did a marvelously at nuanced rendition of Eugene O’Neill’s Long Day’s Journey Into Night.
In addition to the many seminars, debates and workshops, each night in Budapest meant a continuation party at a specially allocated moody city club where a wide range of up and coming indie bands and alternative live music played till the wee hours of the morning.
As a final response to my opening question about whether there was overt criticism or covert resistance, the Festival took us to see The Víg Theatre’s and Sputnik Shipping Company’s production of Nikolai Gogol’s The Government Inspector. Directed by Viktor Bodó, the play felt as if Dario Fo had hijacked the Comédie-Française and fed all of them amphetamines before the performance. And I mean this in a good way.
Death by Democracy
Throwing the plot of the visiting inspector into a local context, The Government Inspector was a funhouse with associations to Hungarian corruption hidden in every corner. From visual associations to triple layered verbal jokes to vaudeville moments with political references, this is intellectual slapstick at its best. Transforming Gogol’s play into a three ring circus of storytelling, sociopolitical satire and post-modern self-referential theater, The Government Inspector is one of those plays where the allusions and ripostes come so quickly that focusing too hard on any one line means missing the one that follows. With cornered bureaucrats lamenting, ‘turn left, turn right… in the end, you sink in the moderate middle’, the play is an ongoing commentary about the country’s current leadership. When the trapped mayor realizes that everyone is laughing at his plight, he turns to the audience – in a way reminiscent of Joel Grey’s most frightening in-your-face moment in Cabaret – and says, “So you think I’m the joke? What about you?” As revelation turns schadenfreude into genuine terror, the audience’s roar soon subsides into a less than comfortable laugh. So this is the voice of theater in Hungary: still struggling, still haunted, still evolving and more powerful than ever.
In short, Hungary’s theatrical voice is not one voice at all. It is, and has always been, the voice of many. While the hubbub of politics becomes indistinguishable from white noise, it is these voices that can be heard slowly rising from the vast halls, filled auditoriums, and small improv spaces of the city: each voice distinct, each with its own tone, each as unique as the voices of those inhabiting our stages in New York.
Tom Stoppard may have been right about our envy regarding the attention paid to artists working in overtly repressive regimes, but he failed to mention how easily we ignore artists that struggle against less media-sexy forms of oppression. After witnessing the Contemporary Drama Festival Budapest, I realized ‘woe onto the artist who struggles not against a globally recognized threat but against the anonymity inherent in a minor world language’. When it came to Hungarian artists, it appeared that just as the Iron Curtain had come up and a new show was about to begin, the west snuck out of the theater in search of another play.