The Tragedy of Man

Culture, censorship, and the Hungarian National Theater

Every time foreign critics claim that the Hungarian media is not entirely free government officials are outraged and immediately ask them to point to just one occasion when censorship was used to prevent the free expression of opinion. Well, from here on the supporters of the Orbán regime can no longer boast about their “tolerance” toward contrary opinions. And it doesn’t have to be political opinion that the regime doesn’t tolerate. It can even be artistic. After all, political dominance in Viktor Orbán’s Hungary seems to be going hand in hand with ascendancy in the cultural sphere.

I covered the ongoing “Kulturkampf” through two events. First, there was the disgraceful charade that took place at the Hungarian National Theater which ensured that the government’s favorite, who considers the National Theater a depository of national values, got the job. More on the subject can be found in the post entitled “Kulturkampf is called ‘Kulturkampf’ in Hungarian too.” A few days later I highlighted another government coup in the field of culture. A right-wing gathering of writers and artists are receiving practically exclusive financial support from the Orbán government. To add insult to injury the government appointed György Fekete, whose commitment to democracy can be seriously questioned, president of this artistic academy. Fekete made it clear that literature and art will have to be in the service of national values. “Echoes of Hungary’s communist past” I called that particular post.

Since the values of the new director of the National Theater, Attila Vidnyánszky, are very close to the heart of the current political leaders, one ought not to be surprised about what happened on Magyar Rádió. Péter Esterházy, the well known Hungarian writer, was asked by the Rádió to contribute once a month to the station’s program called Trend-idők (Trend Times). He was supposed to give advice on cultural events–to call attention to a new book or an exhibition worth visiting. The last time he was the guest of the radio station he suggested a posthumously published volume by Szilárd Rubin, a book by Józsed Keresztesi on Rubin, several exhibitions organized by the Petőfi Irodalmi Múzeum (Petőfi Literary Museum), and finally he urged people to see the last few productions staged by Róbert Alföldi.

That was too much for the servile leadership of the Hungarian public radio station. Esterházy’s positive assessment of the productions of the Hungarian National Theater under the directorship of Alföldi couldn’t be tolerated. They simply left out his remarks about the theater productions.

Esterházy’s answer was an article that will come out tomorrow in Élet és Irodalom. In it he writes that the last time something like that happened to him was in 1981, in the Kádár regime, but he added that by 1986 he could openly complain about it. “Today I don’t want to live in either 1981 or 1986. I lived in those days once, and it was enough. The Regime of National Cooperation as Kádár-splotch [kádármaszat]; I wouldn’t want to national-cooperate this way.”

This story gives me an opportunity to talk a little bit about the history of the National Theater. A few days ago Attila Vidnyánszky, the incoming director, called the National Theater “a sacred place.” For Alföldi, on the other hand, the National Theater is simply a venue where one can produce good or bad plays. There is, in fact, nothing terribly special about this particular National Theater. There are many “national theaters” in the country: one in Pécs, another in Miskolc, and a third in Szeged, just to mention a few that come to mind.

The theater was originally called Pesti Magyar Színház (Hungarian Theater of Pest) and was supported by the County of Pest. It was called Magyar Színház because all the other theaters in Pest and Buda were German-language theaters. When the theater opened its doors in 1837 Hungarian speakers were in still in the minority, a little over 30% of the combined population of the two cities. Basically Pest and Buda were German cities until the 1880s.

Originally the National Theater (normally called in Hungarian simply “a Nemzeti”) was situated at the corner of Múzeum kőrút and Rákóczi Street, right across from the Hotel Astoria, where it remained until 1908. The company “temporarily” moved into the former Népszínház (Volkstheater) on Blaha Lujza Square, where it stayed until 1963 when there were plans to build a new permanent building to house the National Theater.  Nothing came of it, and for more than thirty years the members of the theater had to move every few years from one building to another. That was the case until the mid-1990s when at last the foundation for a new theater was dug on Erzsébet Square. At this point Viktor Orbán won the election and immediately halted work on the building. He threw out the plans approved by an international jury and everything began from scratch. Months went by as they looked for a different location. The theater was eventually sited in District X close to the Rákóczi Bridge. As for the architect? The new government official in charge of the project without any competition gave the job to the architect who designed his own house, a woman who had never designed a theater before.

According to architects the design is unfortunate. Some ordinary folks find it hideous and bizarre. According to Wikipedia, “the building in its outward appearance gives the notion of a ship that is swaying on the Danube.”

National Theater

I may also add that the building was erected in record time. Just a little over a year. The hurry was dictated by political considerations. Viktor Orbán and Fidesz politicians found it very important to stage the first production, Imre Madách’s play The Tragedy of Man, before the elections. And indeed, it was on March 15, 2002, that the theater opened to the public.

On April 7 Orbán lost the first round of elections and the second one on April 21. The National Theater’s charm wasn’t enough.