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.