The Hungarian right and artistic taste

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.

Alfoldi 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. 


  1. Eva, I just loved your post! I love what Alfoldi had to say. He said what we would love to say sometimes to these close minded bigots! I am so happy that so many people stood up for him, and even people who are Fidesz supporters were able to overcome their political views, and stand up for what is right. THe Hungarian Theatrical Association also wrote an open letter in support.

  2. “You have disgraced yourselves again,” Yeats told the rioters in the National Theatre of Ireland, the Abbey Theatre, when they rose up against O’Casey for questioning the required ‘blood sacrifice’ of nationalists, and rioted.
    Alfoldi has proved to be the great survivor of the last two years of slander and witchhunt. Thus far. But he needs more powers that be to face the baying Jobbik (culture)vultures and to tell them that they have indeed disgraced themselves again.

  3. Does art determine the development of society or does society determine art?
    In Hungary’s case art is indeed the reflection of the feelings and behavior of SOME individuals, ignoring the needs and desires of others.
    In my humble view, with all due respect, art should be inspirational, NOT SHOCKING (or you might call it challenging).
    I guess, in the name of art and democracy one can get away with almost anything.(Not to mention the hard fact that sex sells!)

  4. latefor: Have you seen any of Alfoldi’s directorial efforts? Art can be inspirational when it is shocking. I do not see why not. Take a look on a Bruegel painting. How about almost any painting about the crucifixion?
    Sex? Of course. How about classical cinema, 1933 Baby Face with Barbara Stanwyck, 1933 Ecstasy (Czech), King Kong 1933, Schindler’s List 1993, From Here to Eternity, Cabaret, Last Tango in Paris, Ben-Hur, etc.
    Lets combine sex and shock, Poussin painting from the 17 Century with a masturbating naked woman, Venus Spied On by Satyrs.
    Lock up the museums and turn off the TV because the shock and sex lurking at us all over in the name of art.

  5. Budapest report: I can not find any support for the fidesz. Only its narrow clique is playing the Gadaffi game. Sticking to power, hoarding, plundering, and dying a public death.
    Hugary will survive this set of clowns, and will continue bleeding, and laughing at the same time.
    Long live beautiful Hungary.

  6. “someone”
    Somehow I was sure that you will refer to Poussin….ha..ha..ha..
    You say”lets combine sex and shock” and I say: lets combine LOVE and PASSION and ROMANCE!
    You argue that he has not done anything truly shocking which hasn’t been done before.
    True, I agree. BUT where are we going from here???? There is nowhere else to go in my view….may be walking around naked on the streets and doing it in the alley while some pervert watching in the name of art….well, you must say that this would be original.

  7. latefor to someone: “You argue that he has not done anything truly shocking which hasn’t been done before. True, I agree. BUT where are we going from here????”
    Straight to hell! (Big smiley)

  8. Dearest Eva,
    I prefer heaven!!!(but not just yet, please) I still have a lot of loving to do!!!!!!!!!!!!!!Ha…ha…ha…ha

  9. This article is another manifestation of the extremes between Bunkósztán and a liberal Hungary, with its head and heart very much in the European vanguard, that have been played out for 150 years at least, and which cross (or used to cross anyway) traditional party lines.
    As my dear old dad used to tell me, if you don’t like something then turn it off, do something else or don’t do it again, and stop complaining already.

  10. I like his smile. He reminds me on Sean Bean: Very good looking fellow.
    Those wingnuts if they want good oral sex for the rest of their lives perhaps should not come to Virginia. Oral sex is a felony here. Not a good place to expand your carnal knowledge either. Fornication is also a misdemeanor.
    It will be a very sad day when the Nemzeti will only show plays that can be shown to a 12 year old. How about the Radio City Christmas Spectacular? Wait, aren’t the Rockettes too sexy?

  11. Latefor: “[to someone] You say”lets combine sex and shock” and I say: lets combine LOVE and PASSION and ROMANCE!”
    Yes, I agree. I never denied the right for Casablanca or Titanic (although there is a bare breast). I would never go to see a horror movie or allow my kids to watch a horror movie. I do not believe in God but took my kids to the church and to the synagogue, I signed up my kids for Church Camp, because the people who work there could answer to their questions better then I could (even though I have read the bible twice). I do not like rap music and find the words awful but if it comes up on the radio, I do not run to change the channel and I do explain to my kids that those words are not acceptable in our life. I did us the f.. word once, and I apologized to my kids, and they were laughing as they found it out of character. My older one was in a play (fantastic play for older teens by the way) where there were some “sticky” subjects, and I sat down with my daughter and we talked about it, and then that was it. My kids now what is the difference between gays and straights, and let me tell you I would not take my nine years old to see The Tragedy of Man but I would love my older one to see it with simulated sex if needs to be. Alfoldi did not write history, nor he wrote the play, he just took a literally approach to the text versus “politically” or “religiously” correct approach. (Of course my younger one does not know the exact way how sex being done, but my older does know.)
    Many-many art (music, painting, etc.) were misunderstood or dismissed in its time. I am not the judge of what others should like or not, and I am not sure why anyone thinks they can be the judge. People vote with their legs or with their money.

  12. “someone”
    “Alfoldi did not write history, nor he wrote the play, he just took a literally approach to the text versus “politically” or “religiously” correct approach. ”
    Somehow I just can’t see how his artistic approach will benefit society in general…and you can’t even say that he can be “misunderstood”…ha…ha..ha.
    I am curios, what was the average age group of the audience, 20-25 or the 65+ ?? (The young and impressionable and the “nothing shocks me anymore” group)
    “Men lives and moves in what he sees, but he only sees what he wants to see.”
    /Paul Valery/

  13. This is a weird feeling. I still think that Alföldi’s innovative art would be more suitable for a smaller alternative theater (like Bárka) and I also think that sometimes his sexual provocativeness is contrived and meaningless (öncélú?).ű
    I’m also among those who think lending the Nemzeti for the Romanian celebration was kind of tasteless, I don’t think the US celebrates the Mexican-US war in the national theater of Mexico City.
    On the other hand making the Roman scene outrageously shocking is totally appropriate as it is the point of the whole thing. It is intended to depict a morally deprived society and if it’s not repulsive that means that the director did a bad job.
    Also, the journalist of N1 asked a provocative question while not even having seen the play means that she did not even do her homework. Of course Alföldi as a director is a public figure and should have controlled herself, but I can hardly see this whole incident as his fault.

  14. “Jano”-“I still think that Alföldi’s innovative art would be more suitable for a smaller alternative theater (like Bárka) and I also think that sometimes his sexual provocativeness is contrived and meaningless (öncélú?).”
    I couldn’t agree with you more.
    Also, I do not believe that anybody has the right to push something down on the whole nation’s throat just for the hell of it, in the name of art! (for selected groups,… well, go for it if this is what you need)

  15. latefor, have you seen the play? Why any give approach to directing benefit society? What way Pasolini and Fellini benefited society. Art is in the eye of the beholder, and not everyone have to like everything. My other half can’t stand my cabbage roles, so should I stop cooking?
    “It is frequently the tragedy of the great artist, as it is of the great scientist, that he frightens the ordinary man.” Loren Eiseley

  16. “someone”
    Some of us ordinary men might not want to be frightened.We’ve been frightened long enough from the influence of violence on both the big and small screen, and luckily we are still standing (haven’t killed each other yet)….surely you do not want to start with presenting the Roman orgies as guide line what you can get away with by pushing the boundaries? I do support unity in diversity but NOT at the cost of my own sanity. With all due respect.
    I have one for you too by T.S.Elliot:
    “Sometimes the only way forward is to go backward” Obviously Alfoldi took this quote very seriously……ha…ha..ha.. I would only look into the last let say 200 years, we might actually learn something.

  17. “Someone” – yes, I have seen segments of the play and I have read many opinions for and against it. I am just scared that onscreen violence will be replaced with this new kind of influence, which could also lead to violence. I would love to explore this more but I don’t want to. Leave to the imaginations.

  18. Latefor: “Jano”-“I still think that Alföldi’s innovative art would be more suitable for a smaller alternative theater (like Bárka) and I also think that sometimes his sexual provocativeness is contrived and meaningless (öncélú?).” I couldn’t agree with you more.”
    The theater is full all the time. At the last performance he received a standing ovation. So, there are people who like his productions. Not everybody will like all plays and all interpretations.
    The problem is that the current Hungarian political regime wants to force its own taste on the whole country.

  19. Latefor: “. I am just scared that onscreen violence will be replaced with this new kind of influence, which could also lead to violence.”
    It has been hotly debated whether on-screen violence has a real and lasting influence. Apparently it doesn’t.

  20. Latefor, what you are saying is that if we see imitated orgies on TV, we will have orgies all over town, on the street, in the library? I disagree. WHat people would do in their own home, on the other hand is their own business (as long as it does not involve force, does not cause bodily harm and it is consensual). As for violence, that is not tolerated even behind closed doors, as it is not consensual on the receiving end. There are movies I do not watch (and trust me I watch all genders), there are art shows I do not go to, there are live performances I could care less for.
    I think the real question you are asking here is if Alfoldi’s straight forward directing belongs to the National Theatre or not. My opinion that it does. The National Theatre should not only provide access to past and contemporary dramas, but a home for past and current trends about exhibiting those works. If the venue is wide enough that people can pick and choose between performances to see, I think the Nemzeti fulfilled what it should be for. I just visited their home page, and there is a performance for Children’s Day, Berzsian and Dideki, there is a Bank Ban (Junior), 12 Angry Man, and there are dances, and guest theatres. For that matter I have counted 28 various performances, not a bad feast for any theatre, and for sure Alfoldi is not he only one who is directing. I do not see that anyone is forcing down on anyone’s throat any specific performance.

  21. Eva: I just wrote what I think. I certainly accept if other people think otherwise.
    On the other hand, as much as Alföldi shouldn’t go because he’s gay (or jewish, I don’t know), neither should he stay just because of it. Don’t make him an anti-Fidesz hero, judge him exclusively by the art regardless of who likes him and who doesn’t. (This may not be intended for most of the contributors here, but it’s a general message for people)

  22. Eva’s right. This play belongs to the Nemzeti. One of the few things we should be proud of these days. Here is one blog about the standing ovation (sorry it is in Hungarian)
    From the post: “the Lord, portrayed as an elderly, conservative gentlemen, with a cane, astonished watching what the world became and forced to accept the cool cosmopolitan Lucifer as partner is the real provocation not the subtle hint of oral sex in Roman scene”.
    @Jano Sir Anthony Hopkins was marshaling the the 4th of July parade in US a few years ago somewhere in a big city, I don’t remember. We should hug the Romanians and make a lot of money on them.

  23. “It has been hotly debated whether on-screen violence has a real and lasting influence”
    My son won his first headshot competition in on-line Counterstrike when he was 12. In the boyscout meeting they were still talking about bears.
    I’m a bad parent … sad.

  24. Jano: “Don’t make him [Alföldi] an anti-Fidesz hero, judge him exclusively by the art regardless of who likes him and who doesn’t.”
    You don’t like his work. A lot of people do. But to break a contract and forcibly remove him from the National Theater just because his art is not appreciated by the Christian Democrats and Jobbik is absolutely outlandish.

  25. “Don’t make him an anti-Fidesz hero”
    Trying to be an independent observer in these times for me plays too much into the hands of Fidesz. Fidesz are not impartial, why should the rest of the world be? It is easy to stylise people with other opinions as anti-Fidesz (heros or not), perhaps they do not care about Fidesz as such but simply have other ideas about how the society should look like. But they get the label of anti-Fidesz 1) because it is Fidesz that rules so you cannot circumvent this party anymore, and 2) because apparently it is only “allowed” to be either pro-Fidesz or “impartial”. Should there be any compromise candidate chosen as independent expert on art, he must be toothless from the start because he will be expected to be “impartial”, i.e. abstain from any critical opinion on Fidesz. I am not an expert on theatre and art so I cannot judge what should be shown in the Nemzeti Theatre or not but I am sure that impartiality is not the main objective of art.

  26. “Eva” – You are saying that it has been debated that on-screen violence has no effect on real crime.
    It would be interesting to know who were the people who conducted the debate? May be they were from gated communities and they must be completely out of touch with the real world?
    As for Alfoldi, I do not think that he should be sacked from his position, but he should be given a guide line what is acceptable from someone in the public life and what is not.
    Re: government intervention –
    Governments (of any political persuasion) have a responsibility to guide (within democratic rules, of course) and protect their citizens. That’s why they get elected by the people, for the people.

  27. “Someone” – yes, there are shows you do not watch and I do not watch, there are art exhibitions you do not go and I do not go etc. BUT that does not mean that others will follow our decision. There are people who are incapable to draw that fine line, to decide what is acceptable and what is not, what will influence them in a positive way and what will hinder they development as responsible human beings first and mindless experimental risk takers second. (I am talking about the young and impressionable)

  28. @Latefor It’s always the same: money. Because of the lower living standards the theater tickets wouldn’t sell for higher prices to self finance a production. (I’m wondering what the gap is). I understand that the theater is full all the time. If it is such a big success the government is obliged to provide financial support without judgement. This is the only intervention the government should provide. Spend our taxes they way the people want it.
    Out of curiosity, who do you think would be suitable to give this “acceptable behavior” lecture to Alfoldi?
    This violence thing is off topic but for instance I grew up in a dodgy neighborhood in the 15th district in Budapest. Let’s just say it wasn’t a gated community … I would debate the relationship between video games and violence. Certain parents like to blame everybody for the problems of their kids but themselves. My kid played “Grand Theft Auto” for a day. He said it was pointlessly violent …

  29. “Mutt Damon” – Your kid is obviously being brought up in a family who knows the difference between right and wrong. My argument is that there are families who are incapable to draw that fine line (lack of education etc).
    Re: financial success of the production
    What does this say about society? You have to create a Roman orgy on stage to sell a Hungarian master piece….ha….ha…ha..
    What’s next? As people can watch violent crimes on movies totally detached, without even blinking an eye, sooner or later they will become immune to orgies as well. I am no self appointed visionary, but it is not terrible hard to predict what’s coming next. This is when historical religious institutions should step in and save humanity before it’s too late. (may be this is what Alfoldi tried to
    do indirectly, to warn us…. who knows?)

  30. “What does this say about society?”
    I believe it’s a very positive message. It says that society is open, willing and eager to to see old masterpieces in different forms.
    “This is when historical religious institutions should step in …”
    God, no. You mean the government should withhold financial support if the censors don’t like the play? Sorry buddy. My taxes, my art.
    I wish I could see the play. I can only rely on the critics. I think Alfoldi’s version is trying to show you the world as it is now. No religious sugar coating. So I would actually say that he is warning us.
    By the way this Hungarian masterpiece was always selling with or without oral sex in the roman scene. It’s ironic that you who advocate censorship to “educate the masses”, you think that the play is successful only because of the (for some) shocking directing.

  31. “Mutt Damon” – you are twisting and misunderstanding my words and frankly I have lost interest in this debate. You have your opinion and I have mine. Please try to see the big picture.

  32. @latefor Sorry for twisting your words. My ears perked up for the: “This is when historical religious institutions should step in” part.

Comments are closed.