Fidesz and the extreme right: The strange story of a new theater director

Two days ago came the news that one of the many Budapest theaters, Új Színház (New Theater), has a new director, an actor named György Dörner. Suddenly all the hell broke loose. Those who both follow the life of Hungarian theater and pay some attention to Hungarian politics were outraged. The primary cause of the outcry was that the mayor of Budapest who has veto power over such appointments in theaters belonging to the city picked Dörner over István Márta, the present director, despite a 6-2 decision in favor of Márta’s proposal. The other reason for the outcry was that Dörner, a self-declared right radical, made no secret about his plans for the theater. He promised that he will use it as a vehicle of his political agenda.

There are also personal reasons for Dörner’s eagerness to become a theater director. Let’s be blunt, he has reached a point in his professional life that no theater really wants to hire him for bigger and better roles. Dörner confessed that if he wants to be more than someone who provides the Hungarian voice of Eddie Murphy, Michael Douglas or Mel Gibson, he “must acquire a theater” of his own.

Artists or writers who find themselves in this situation often invent political reasons for their professional failure. Those inclined toward the right blame the “liberals” for keeping them down. In their distorted vision of reality they blame others for their misfortunes. Hungarian writers whose works are not translated into German, English or French are certain that it is only their lack of international connections that prevents them from acquiring world fame. More often than not there are anti-semitic overtones in these people’s complaints.

Dörner is similarly convinced that he is a genius who because of his political views is barred from significant roles in important Hungarian theaters. Not necessarily because he is a MIÉP or a Jobbik supporter but simply because “he is a Hungarian, national völkisch and Christian.” He used to be very critical of Fidesz, but lately he has been discovering the “new radical characteristics” of Viktor Orbán’s party.

So, this is Dörner’s self-image. Tamás Koltai, a theater critic, has a different view of Dörner. According to Koltai, he used to be “an excellent actor when he was young,” but a few years ago Koltai saw him playing Falstaff in Shakespeare’s The Merry Wives of Windsor and found his performance “unspeakably stupid, unprofessional, buffoon-like, substandard” (gagyi, szakmaiatlan, ripacs, szinvonalatti). Mind you, Koltai didn’t sing the praises of Márta, the current director of the theater, either. But at least Új Színház was only “mediocre like an average Hungarian theater.” Perhaps Koltai is too harsh, but he is convinced that a bad actor cannot be a good theater director.

Dörner’s proposal is truly outrageous. The emphasis is on “national” and “magyar.” On 15 pages I counted 34 instances of “nemzeti” and 35 of “magyar.” Dörner naturally claims that Hungary doesn’t have a national theater. After all, the National Theater under the direction of Róbert Alföldi cannot be truly national. Out of Új Színház he will make a national theater which will be devoted exclusively to Hungarian “masterpieces.” Unfortunately, it is a well known fact that drama is not the strength of Hungarian literature.

Dörner is planning to rename Új Színház. It will be known as Hátország Színház (Hinterland Theater) where “hinterland” symbolizes “the Hungarians who are suffering under the social-liberal yoke.” His goal is “to reconquer” theater which is of “vital importance for the whole nation.” His theater will “declare war on the liberal entertainment business.” In this quest István Csurka, a successful playwright in the 1960s and 1970s who since the change of regime became a right radical politician, will help him. In turn, Csurka’s ideas about the need to return to the propagation of Hungarian drama came from “the greatest Hungarian Catholic philosopher, Tamás Molnár.” Molnár was an arch-conservative who lived and died in the United States.

So, let’s see what kind of plays Dörner, the Christian, national, radical, will put on. I fear that if he is allowed to stage such works as Mihály Vörösmarty’s Zalán futása, Sándor Petőfi’s Tigris és hiéna, Mihály Csokonai’s Karnvóné or István Csurka’s Írószövetségek harca (War of the Writers’ Unions) he doesn’t even have to open the doors of the theater. Total failure can be predicted. A sure way to ruin a theater that at the moment is financially secure.

In addition to all sorts of Hungarian plays, some of which are known to me while others not at all, I found two or three plays by foreign authors. He will stage Friedrich Schiller’s The Robbers, James Joyce’s only play The Exiles, and Henrik Ibsen’s The Lady from the Sea. 

The intriguing question is what prompted István Tarlós to go against the decision of the majority of the panel and appoint Dörner. The two people on the panel who voted for Dörner were officials of the City of Budapest and the Ministry of Human Resources. Thus it was clear that officialdom preferred the right radical Dörner who as an extra bonus was bringing along István Csurka as “intendant,” an office that exists only in really large European theaters and opera houses. In English “intendant” can mean “superintendent” or “manager.”

Knowing how the Orbán government functions, I am convinced that the decision to allow the far-right Dörner and Csurka to have their own theater came straight from the top. It is a gesture to the far right. The message to the right radicals is that it is worth supporting the Orbán government. After all, even Dörner noticed that Fidesz has been getting more and more radical lately and Csurka also said a few nice things about Fidesz last year at the time of the elections.

There is nothing new in this strategy. Fidesz has been making every effort to steal the votes of the right radicals. But why does Tarlós lend a helping hand to Orbán in this dirty deal? Because he needs the good will of Orbán. He should realize, however, that Orbán’s promises are often not worth the paper they are written on. There were promises to assist the failing transit system, but given the state of the budget this is unlikely. Instead of giving money to Budapest, Orbán is in the middle of nationalizing the city’s hospitals without any compensation. Tarlós was fooled. Mind you, I don’t feel sorry for him.


  1. There are plenty of bad Hungarian books, newspapers, movies, and one more bad theater will not be a surprise.
    I saw a very poor show in the Madach Theater, but the public was in ecstasy, and seemed to embrace the bad acting.
    So, what happened to the Budapest culture?
    Another day, there was an outrageously bad concert in the Zene Akademia.
    It was the funeral of music.
    Another post communist achievement.

  2. As I said a few threads back, OV has a 100% success rate with destroying any opposition.
    At the time of his rise to power he needed Jobbik to help stir up nationalistic fervour, which Fidesz could then benefit from, whilst at the same time pretending they had nothing to do with – Jobbik was both a creator of votes for Fidesz and a useful lighting conductor.
    But, now he’s in power, and with all left/liberal/centre opposition effectively destroyed, Jobbik start to become the opposition. They are becoming a potential problem for Fidesz, especially with disenchanted ex-Fidesz voters drifting rightwards. Jobbik are already flexing their political muscles, and, once they have increased their seats after the next election and become the ‘official’ opposition (perhaps even the only opposition), they will become a real pain in the side to OV.
    And, although OV is proving to be a tactically terrible PM now he is in power, he was a very effective tactician on his way there, and he still retains that ability and desire. He can easily see the potential for problems with Jobbik, and he also knows the history of extreme right-wing parties, and how easily they disintegrate once they get any success. He is almost certainly planning his strategy for making sure this disintegration happens, and happens as early as possible.
    He will no doubt use several tactics for doing this (stand by for whispering campaigns against Jobbik leaders, dirt on their personal lives leaked to the papers, etc). But one tactic will almost certainly be to give them enough rope to hang themselves. This appointment, with its inevitable messy, and very public, failure looks very like the beginning of that strategy.

  3. I hope Paul is right and the Jobbik leadership will be disintegrating.
    What about the desparate members, who looked for a family atmosphere?
    The ultra-right affiliation is a mental disease. It is time to study this anti-intellectual disorder.

  4. The story remainds me brilliant book by Klaus Mann Mefisto and eqaully brillaint film by Istvan Szabo, winning Oskar in early 1980s. Young and talented actor, so eager to make careeer that he lost himself in the process and becoming catroon of his own past.

  5. The provenance of Csurka’s ideas brought to mind a quotation from John Maynard Keynes: “Madmen in authority, who hear voices in the air, are distilling their frenzy from some academic scribbler of a few years back.” Of course this quotation has rather broad applicability in Hungary today.

  6. Is it customary that a mayor has the veto power in such appointments? What are the panels meant to deliver or asked differently have there already been other cases where the choice of the selection panel has been overruled?

  7. Well, the end result is the same, but the mayor actually nominates the next director. The panel is just advisory. Crazy, isn’t it. But hey, this is Hungary.
    This is class warfare on tax payers money. They couldn’t get rid of Mr. Alfoldi, the director of the National Theatre, who is wildly talented, successful, and bummer, openly gay. Now lets do something about it. What do we need? A nazi with power and a bluff application. Consider it done brother. Say what? Talent? What do you mean talent?? You filthy anti-Hungarian …
    Every fascistic, totalitarian bunch acts like a vacuum cleaner for burnt out, incapable bozos. This is their last chance.
    The mayor, Tarlos, responded to the letter from the theatre directors that complained about the nomination. In the first sentence he told them that their letter is full of grammatical errors (I read it. Couldn’t find any. Somebody please help me.) Then he just blatantly accused them of inciting anti-government sentiments. The word was “hangulatkeltes” – again we need a dictionary for the Hungarian extra right bull crap. It’s the same meaningless expression as the “neglect of fiduciary responsibilities” (“hutlen kezeles”). Then the rest of the letter lists all the other theatre directors, saying “See, they all stayed. We are not cleaning up”. Fuck you, Mr. Tarlos.

  8. Mutt: “In the first sentence he told them that their letter is full of grammatical errors (I read it. Couldn’t find any. Somebody please help me.)”
    Can’t help you! I read it too and couldn’t find the spelling errors. To be 100% sure I put it through a Hungarian spell check. Nothing came up.
    On the other hand, Tarlós’s letter had a few peculiarities. For example: igazgató Úr. Why to capitalize Mr. It’s not English. Moreover, I doubt that Tarlós speaks any foreign language. I read a succinct description of his in a comment after his letter: “primitív barom.” Perfect. Primitive idiot, perhaps in English.

  9. I am thinking whether the theatre will be a financial disaster or success (the like-minded people discover their liking for true Hungarian drama or their duty to the nation expressed through support for it). Was not Mr Tarlos considered a moderate at some point?

  10. Kirsten: “I am thinking whether the theatre will be a financial disaster or success (the like-minded people discover their liking for true Hungarian drama or their duty to the nation expressed through support for it).”
    Apparently they are trying to bring up people who like this kind of stuff from the countryside. But if you ever tried to read Zalán futása or some of the other stuff mentioned, believe me, no one will come back to the theater again.
    As for Tarlós. He is a crude fellow. I would be ashamed of him if he were my mayor.

  11. Of course, as we all know, right-winged actors/writers/whatever cannot be good artists.
    Because of their political affiliation.
    Now most people like you are motioning to ban Dörner from becoming the director.
    Why? Because of his political views.
    Welcome to the left-winged concept of democracy.

  12. Johnny! We don’t mind having an theatre where people can watch contemporary Hungarian dramas about Gyurcsany as long as it doesn’t cost disproportionally more to maintain than the other theaters (meaning the loss is the same).
    The problem here is the unspeakable arrogance how they took over the theatre. Dorner’s so called “application” is basically a bluff. The whole deal just stinks. Like it was decided a long ago and Dorner was too lazy to make it look legit. The “application” wasn’t even proofread: somewhere at the end a paragraph is there 2 times, probably some copy paste glitch, who knows where did the part come from. This is the typical “we have the power, we can do whatever we want” way of thinking. No talent required. We are the FIDESZ.
    See what I’m saying? If you want to screw the people do it nicely please. Write a decent application, with a few white lies about keeping everything as is and gradually take over later. It’s called politics. 🙂 God, the hated “M” word again … (munka=work).

  13. Mutt no, the this “problem” wouldn’t even exist if Dörner was a left-winged extremist.
    But since he’s a radical right, it doesn’t matter what kind of application he submits, be it professional or substandard. These are lame excuses.
    The problem is with his (and Csurka’s, who is a brilliant writer, has always been, but whose dramas were banned from the stage for the past 20 years) political views.
    Because that’s how you imagine democracy, and always have.

  14. “Because that’s how you imagine democracy, and always have.”
    Why do you relate that to “democracy”? Has there been a general assembly to choose the director? If it is assumed that the elected mayor is the best candidate to choose the theatre director, that should be stated and done. But why then taking recourse to “democratic elements” such as a selection panel if it only invites questions and criticism. The “democracy” in Fidesz policies may be already questionable (in which you need not agree) but at least it should not be blatantly inconsistent. That is what you should try to defend (and if possible without saying that MSzP has also been inconsistent at times, then you are not one inch better, and I thought this is at least the ambition of Fidesz).

  15. @Johnny “whose dramas were banned from the stage for the past 20 years”
    Csurka wrote nothing in the past 20 years. His dramas were written for the Kadar era mostly in the 70s and they were pretty big deal when we saw them in the 80s but I in the past 20 years there was no interest in them. Being recently an openly anti-semite, far-right loony didn’t help much either.
    Now the Orban regime is his last chance to be the great Hungarian writer. He has two new dramas: one is about Trianon the other is about journalists. See Johnny, this deep-Hungarian business is very costly. Dorner will show these “masterpieces” and waste a few hundred millions of your tax money. Who the hell will want to see a drama about Trianon, especially in BP?

  16. Ms. Balogh, you and your fellow liberals really make a lot of us almost symphatize with these scoundrels.

  17. Eva, I am not sure whether NoName may not just be joking but in any case your authority is impressive (just this “almost” hints at a minor liability to unruliness…).

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