Reflections on Budapest -Theater and Cultural Politics

Reflections on Budapest -Theater and Cultural Politics

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  • March 18, 2015

Budapest is a beautiful city of fin de siècle buildings and graceful bridges connecting Buda and Pest on either side of the gently curving Danube. From the 18th century to the beginning of the 20th, Hungary was part of the Austro-Hungarian Empire, which dominated much of Europe, but most of the 20th century was a disaster for Hungary: it was on the losing side in World War I; occupied by Germany in World War II; and then under Communist rule for forty years. Now it is a parliamentary democracy led by Prime Minister Victor Orban of the right wing Fidesz party, which was re-elected a year ago with a two-thirds majority.

Ellen Maddow and I had been in Hungary in 2008 when I directed her play, Flip Side (translated into Hungarian) at the National Theater in Debrecen, Hungary’s second largest city.

Ellen Maddow's "Flip Side" in Hungary.

Ellen Maddow’s “Flip Side” in Hungary.

This month we returned to Hungary, where we were invited along with almost fifty U.S. theater and dance artists, presenters, artistic directors, and journalists to attend the Dunapart 3 Festival of the Performing Arts in Budapest. The trip was organized by the Center for International Theater Development and funded by the Trust for Mutual Understanding. I saw thirteen productions in eight days, attended panel discussions, and talked over many coffees with theater professionals from Hungary, the U.S. and other countries.

In an introductory panel discussion Hungarian art critics framed the festival in the context of the country’s current cultural politics.   The festival showcased the work of independent theater and dance companies. These companies are small relative to the state sponsored National theaters, however most of them also receive subsidies from the government. Now the increasingly nationalistic and authoritarian rhetoric and policies of the Orban government make them feel under attack, and their existence threatened. Grants to small companies have been cut drastically and in some cases eliminated, while large sums have been given to the state sponsored theaters. The Minister of Culture comes from the far-right wing Jobbik party, known for it’s anti-Jewish, anti-Roma, anti-gay platform. (In 2008 Ellen and I saw a small, motley group of Jobbik members parade in black shirts in the central plaza of Debrecen. Back then they were an extreme fringe party: in the most recent election they won twenty percent of the vote).

Cuts in governmental funding for the arts are not news for U.S. artists. The National Endowment for the Arts, under pressure from the right, stopped funding provocative individual artists years ago.  State and local governments responded to a souring economy by slashing their arts budgets. Hungary is a country of only ten million people yet their government still spends the same amount on the arts as the NEA does for the whole of the U.S.

What’s different in Hungary is that there is no private sector support for the arts. There are no Kickstarter campaigns. Foundations, corporations, or individuals don’t give to the arts, because under Communist and then Socialist regimes that was considered to be a government responsibility.   So, the Hungarian artists experience their new reality as a crisis – some companies have announced they are disbanding, others are struggling to find new ways to survive.   Moreover, they view this struggle as part of a larger political struggle against a regime that is effectively stifling opposing voices and any art that does not reflect Hungarian traditional/nationalist values.

Most of the productions I saw at the festival were responding to this new political reality.

Loser by Árpád Schilling and his company Krétakör is the most direct response to the government’s cultural policy. Krétakör, one of Hungary’s celebrated theater companies, has announced that this will be their last production. Loser starts with Schilling alone on stage. He tells the audience how the company’s government grant has been denied; of his unsuccessful attempts to get an explanation; and of his public protests. He then strips naked and invites audience members to come up and write with a marking pen on his body what they think he should do.   He is joined on stage by his wife, who disapproves of his behavior, and then by other members of the company. In a chaotic series of scene fragments Schilling mocks himself: he shows himself as a superhero, as a wife beater, and as a whining, diapered infantilized man – in short as a loser.

a scene from Béla Pintér and Company's "Our Secrets"

A scene from Béla Pintér and Company’s “Our Secrets”

Our Secrets, written and directed by Bela Pinter for his company, is set in a “dance house” in the 1980’s when the communist regime sanctioned the Hungarian folk dance revival as an acceptable art form. During that time, the regime also exerted control through a vast network of informers, and it coerced many ordinary citizens to spy on each other. These informers have never been named, and many believe that a number of them hold high offices in the present Oban government. The actors – like many of the actors I saw at the festival- are skilled and versatile. They play multiple characters of different genders and ages, and they are also the musicians and dancers.  The back wall of the set is dominated by two giant spools of a tape recorder –they could be playing back music, or secretly recording conversations, or grinding relentlessly like the enormous machine cogs in Charlie Chaplin’s Modern Times. The end of the play jumps ahead in time: an informer who has destroyed his friend is now Prime Minister.

Sociopoly is a theater event that is set up like a game of monopoly. The audience is divided into four teams of poor families.   Each family must make choices about how they will survive for the month.   They are given a list of basic expenses – food, rent, transportation etc. – then actors play out different scenarios, for example the father is offered a part time construction job but then the family can no longer take welfare payments. The father can decide to work off the books but then there is no guarantee that he will be paid. Or, a child needs eye glasses in order to stay in school, but the money for the glasses either has to come from the food budget, or from a loan shark who charges exorbitant interest. Then the family/team decides what to do. The game is presided over by a real life sociologist who describes the actual economic realities facing poor families in Hungary. When I played, only one of the four families was able to get through the month: even then one felt it was just pure luck, and that it was unlikely that they would stay afloat the following month.

Given the political climate even the classical plays I saw appeared through the lens of contemporary politics. In an exuberant Twelfth Night, Malvolio, portrayed as an authoritarian, puritanical official, is undone by the riotous, free spirited Toby Belch, Andrew Aguecheek, and Maria. An austere production of Schiller’s Mary Stuart evokes the intrigues of those in power. In an adaptation of Shakespeare’s Othello, the director, Sándor Zsótér placed all the action in a contemporary kitchen, thereby signaling that the treachery, violence and racism depicted should not be considered something of the past. I didn’t list love or passion because there was little of either. Iago was the only character who showed passion – or any energy for that matter – and his passion was for manipulation, deception and revenge. The other characters’ speech and behavior was flat and detached. I found this a puzzling choice. It eliminated any sympathy or even interest I might have in the fates of Othello and Desdemona. When the actors in a Richard Maxwell play perform with affectless minimalism, I still feel the soulfulness of Maxwell’s characters, and believe that the choice to play down emotions comes out of discretion – a wish not to smother the characters with overacting. In contrast, the performances in this Othello left me cold and enervated.

The next day I spoke about the production with John Freedman, the arts critic for the Moscow Times, an English language newspaper in Russia. He loved the show and thought it made a powerful political statement. For him, the director was mocking a kind of detached, apathetic stance that has become pervasive in Russia and parts of Eastern Europe. He said that people – especially younger people – have become so beaten down, and disillusioned by the politics in their countries, that they have adopted a pose of cool indifference. John has lived in Russia and written about culture there for over thirty years, so I trust he is seeing something real that was not apparent to me. It was a stark reminder to me of how what we see is shaped by context.

I think this was also true in the way some members of the U.S. theater contingent reacted to the violence directed at women characters in a number of the productions. Men hit women, leer at them, make obscene gestures at them, insult them. In panel discussions, Hungarian critics and artists talked about the ingrained male dominance in Hungary. Women do not hold positions of power in the government. In the theater there are only a handful of women directors. While some American viewers saw the onstage behavior as a gratuitous reinforcement, and possible promotion, of violence towards women, Hungarian theater goers might see the depictions both as a reflection and critique of their culture.

Photo of "Joan of Arc at the Stake" at the Hungarian National Theater

Photo of “Joan of Arc at the Stake” at the Hungarian National Theater

On the last day of my stay in Budapest I went to see a production outside of the festival: The National Theater’s production of Joan of Arc at the Stake, an oratorio by Arthur Honneger and Paul Claudel.  As Joan of Arc is about to be burned to death she sees her life flash before her eyes. The production directed by the National’s Artistic Director Attila Vidnyanszky was enormous: there were 150 performers including dancers and several choirs onstage plus a full orchestra in the pit. Sections of the stage continuously rose and descended on hydraulics lifting the cast high into the air or below stage level. Churches, heavenly meadows, and a massive wall of books flew in and out. There were angels, devils, priests, characters with pigs heads, whole choruses with gargoyle heads, chefs and feasts, dancers in folkloric costumes, dancers in tights, hooded acrobats, a man in a dress suit who rolled in on a fantastically ornate metal contraption. And so on. The production was a display of excess – let’s show everything we are capable of doing with our tremendous technical capabilities and our large budget. (I was told that the budget for the set alone would fund all the independent theaters in Hungary). The libretto concerned faith, not politics. Yet the production was political as all art is either by intention or default: it either challenges or reinforces the status quo. This Joan of Arc endorsed an aesthetic of monumentality – to my foreigners’ eyes it primary intent was to impress, even to overwhelm. But the response from the sparse, elderly audience was tepid. The real excitement was elsewhere.