Scene4 Magazine — International Magazine of Arts and Media
Scene4 Magazine-inSight

september 2007

Lessons From A First Encounter
With Hungarian Theatre

by John Terry

So, you've been in the country for a couple of days, found a few good restaurants, and learnt the etiquette with regards to taxis and tram tickets, but as you first walk through the front doors of a theatre, you can have no real preconception of whether the production about to begin will be unique from anything previously witnessed, or merely a local version of work being made everywhere else. Any nation's theatre culture is comprised of a unique amalgam of local factors and international trends. As the houselights fade, you hope that this new theatre culture will have a strong identity and personality of its own, and will have the power to surprise and delight you. It might also be hoped that, in similarity and difference, comparative theatre cultures can learn from each other's successes and failures.  

The history of Hungarian theatre, like the country that conceived it, has many similarities with its neighbours across what is generally termed Eastern Europe. Hungarian theatre-makers are understandably adamant that their work be seen in its own right, and many Hungarians will insist in all seriousness that their homeland is at the centre of Europe, and that any time now this fact will come to full and belated appreciation.  Hungarian theatre is not to be confused with Polish Theatre just as Hungarian music is not to be confused with that of the Romany gypsies or Hungarian architecture with its Austrian equivalents. This determination is made all the more difficult by Hungary's position at the crossroads of the continent's political and cultural history, constantly overrun by conquering invaders. I spent seven weeks in Hungary, and Hungarian speaking enclaves in neighbouring countries, trying to tease out these similarities and differences. This project was undertaken with the support of the Peter Kirk Foundation, a charitable trust working through the UK offices of the European Parliament, and the with the support and involvement of numerous Hungarian theatre professionals and academics working both in the UK and on native soil – together they helped me to see the beginnings of emerging patterns, and to draw lessons from it for the work of others outside of Hungary.  

Theatre is, in every sense, an institution in Hungary. More than 40 permanent producing theatres are creating work on any given day of the year, and in any given year, almost 5 million theatre tickets are sold in a country of only 10 million inhabitants. The audience base is traditionally wide and varied: about sixty percent of audiences in the capital are below 30, a statistic that will seem extraordinary for those working in many other theatre cultures. Whilst inevitably most comfortable as a middle-class pursuit, low ticket prices and a long history of involvement, inclusion and commitment means that audiences still span the social spectrum to an striking degree. According to the International Theatre Institute, over four hundred straight theatre productions open in Hungary each year, with the number rising to over seven hundred if one includes Hungarian speaking theatres abroad, dance theatre and musicals. This quantitive success is achieved largely with the help of an established subsidy from the national government.  


The reputation of Hungarian theatre abroad varies from the dismissive, to the adulatory to the simply misinformed. I quote a dispiriting passage from a guidebook I had read on the plane to Andrea Tompa, head of publishing at the impressive Theatre Institute in Budapest as well as editor of Színház, the nation's leading theatrical magazine: 'Mainstream Hungarian theatre is in the doldrums at present, and there is little to tempt the visitor in its melodramatic and unsubtle productions.' Was this really true?

Not really. She points out that in Hungary there is the pure entertainment culture, as there is everywhere, but the alternative theatre scene is healthy and active, creating important work. But just as this begins to sound positive, a note of uncertainty and doubt, one that I would become very familiar with, creeps into her conversation. "This year has not been a good year for our theatre" she sighs, " I don't know why. You will see." Her mixture of great positive energy followed by apparent pessimistic indifference, I was to discover, characterises the whole of the Hungarian theatre scene. It was even suggested to me that the strong inflection at the beginning of each word that so strongly characterises Hungarian speech is itself expressive of this quixotic mixture of brief optimism followed by forlorn despair. Hungary proudly boasts a theatre culture that even in the zenith of success, can despair of itself.  

Often still referred to as 'The Eastern European Model,' the majority of theatre in Hungary is produced within a system of repertory producing theatres. These organisations produce their own work from a permanent stable of actors (and often directors and creative team too), playing them in repertory so that each play might get, for example, 6 or 7 productions in a month, alternating alongside other work produced by the same company. Most of the major towns, and several unexpectedly smaller ones, have a civic theatre where a small group of directors and actors will have been producing work for the same audience for a number of years. The outright dominance of this structure is, however, gradually changing. In the last decade or so, there have been a number of high profile success stories amongst independent companies – that is companies who may or may not have a permanent company of actors, but who are not the sole producers of work within a single venue. These two, almost opposing approaches are what shapes the process of making theatre in Hungary, and the lives of those who make it.  

I was invited to visit József Kolscar, a recently recruited actor at the Tamási Aron Theatre in Sepsiszentgyörgy, a small town in the Hungarian speaking area of Northern Romania, and spoke to him about working within the repertory system. Most actors' ambitions, he tells me, are contained within the company: "You want to get better roles, and to do them better. The Katona József in Budapest is a good company – but so is Sepsiszentgyörgy, so why would you want to move." The repertory companies are generally happy and supportive families, even in some cases providing flats for their actors in addition to the 24-7 work and social life. After watching a performance of Beckett's Waiting for Godot at Sepsiszentgyörgy, the sense of community continued with the actors and staff of the theatre hanging out together in a mechanic's yard alongside the stage door to share a vat of goulash cooked over an open fire. Sitting amongst them along a huge and rather fragile impromptu table, one could see the extent to which this theatrical community, so apparently isolated amongst the Transylvanian hills and prairie plains, was a real melting pot of talent and creative juices. The theatre makers here see themselves, and demand others see them as artists of national standing, but are also intent on taking full advantage of this intense artistic environment to immerse themselves in their work.  

Nonetheless, independent companies such as Krétakör and the Pintér Béla Company, who regularly move from venue to venue, are slowly bucking the trend with a portfolio of popular, successful work. But however successful, however critically acclaimed these companies are, they are still beset with a continual struggle for existence recognisable to independent artists across the world. Their work does not fit comfortably with the subsidy that still underpins the theatrical scene in Hungary, and which traditionally trickles down through bricks-and-mortar venues rather than individuals or companies.  As companies such as Krétakör change and expand, one wonders which will be the first to change – the independent spirit of these hard-up companies, or the funding policies of the national government. Something, surely, has to give.   


The situation in this case is further complicated by the theatre's own history as political eccentric under the Socialist regime, slipping out of the circle of governmental control to make sly rebellions. Indeed, confusingly, many of the most established figures leading the most institutionally secure theatres were themselves artistic and political rebels within recent memory. The history of that relationship between artist and state continues to inform how theatre is made today.  

The political upbringing of a rebellious theatre

During much of the Socialist period, the State considered theatre a tool of ideological manipulation, and as such afforded it sufficient funding and a degree of patient acquiescence. Simultaneously, many who worked within it considered it instead an illicit and powerful tool of resistance and criticism. Both sides benefited from the broad appeal and sense of inclusion across the social classes. Initially controls were strict; a brief lightening of the situation under the new government of Imre Nagy following Stalin's death in 1953, was soon cut short by the heavy, violent repercussions for the 1956. Eventually, by the early sixties, Hungarian society began to experience a creeping tolerance, virtually unknown in the rest of the region at this time, exploiting its not entirely severed links to the west, mostly though its old empirical compatriot Austria. All of this allowed theatre artists a certain licence to push the envelope of toleration within their work. Tibor Valuch, in his cultural history of the period, explains that artists' work became governed by the three T's: 'tiltás ('prohibition'), tűrés ('tolerance') and támogatás ('support').

As soon as this gentle liberalisation took effect, work influenced by the absurdism already flourishing in the west, began to emerge, challenging the status quo through subtly, buried metaphor. Directors began to look for ways of criticising the regime through covert, though of course widely understood and recognised references throughout their productions. Classic plays, to which the regime had no objection, were staged in such a way as to reflect upon and criticise their context, in a process István Szabó, former managing director of the Institute of Theatre History calls 'a mutual winking.'

The political situation in this day and age is self-evidently very different – since the system changes of the late eighties and early nineties, Hungarian theatre has been presented with the challenge of finding equal relevance within a very different society. As Eszter Orbán, a dramaturg with Budapest's Katona József Theatre writes 'Political messages hidden between the lines, allusions to oppression, and other forms of coded messages all disappeared with the fall of the Berlin Wall.' The enjoyable mischief of 'mutual winking' is no longer appropriate, since theatre and politics now go hand in hand in a very different way. So how is Hungarian theatre responding to these political changes?

According to some commentators, too slowly. Many theatres seem to have not realised the inevitability of such change. Anna Lakos, head of the Budapest office of the International Theatre Institute, told me she was weary of the younger generation repeating the same experiments that she saw through the late sixties and the seventies. She hinted that behind all the posturing of originality, there is a strong sense that the prevailing content is sourced from the intellectualism and the radical politics of an earlier age. "Truth," she laments. "I want to see something truthful." Perhaps now is the time for Hungary to ask whether the Absurdism that stylistically dominates much Hungarian theatre work is also becoming a form of easy escapism that discourages any real political or social engagement with the wider contemporary world.  

The director's shadow and the writer's ghost

It is the director who, despite Hungary's reputation as a nation of writers, dominate theatrical consciousness here. Classic plays remain extremely popular across the country, but are invariably updated and reinvented through vigorous interpretive productions, just as they were under Socialism. Of the fifteen or so productions that I watched across the country, only five were new pieces, of which three were written by the director, and one had received at least two previous production runs, leaving only a single premiere. Hungarians love the idea of a polymath – a genius propelled not by skills or craftsmanship inherited from previous generations, but by a natural spirited propensity. Some of the work being made is all the more astonishing for this tendency, some seems to be buried helplessly beneath it.  

The older generation names such as Péter Valló and Tamás Asher, seem to have rather stuck in the era when their reinterpretations of classic plays were still considered radical. Their productions, in my opinion, are less modern than they feel they are. Then comes a group of directors – for example Gábor Tompa, Silviu Purcărete and János Mohácsi – who are famous for the extent to which they will re-invent, even rewrite plays to their own specifications. Mohácsi , a director renowned, much like the UK's Katie Mitchell, for his own very particular and exacting working method, provided a fascinating and eloquent example of the sheer differences between a British and Hungarian approach to an existent text with his production of British playwright Michael Frayn's oft-revived farce-within-a-farce Noises Off (Veszett fejsze) which ran for an unprecedented four hours, simply due to the number of extra jokes written by the director.

And in the younger generation, three names in particular will never be far from the public eye: Arpad Schilling and his Krétakör company, Béla Pintér's company of often untrained outsider artists, and actor-turned director Viktor Bodó. His extraordinary production titled, approximately, Igetmincedanddisappeared (Ledarálnakeltűntem), was certainly one of the highlights of my trip.


Based (very loosely) on Kafka's The Trial, seemed designed to insist upon its youth, its fringe status: rock culture, surfing references, advertising tricks, Terry Gilliam and flea-bitten circuses all fought it out amongst the sprays of blood and lashings of dry ice. It was Pintér's work, however, that was perhaps the greatest surprise, not least because he is unafraid to engage with a native culture that is neither modern nor Socialist. As the audience expectantly cram into the circular, barn-like auditorium that he creates for his production My Mother's Nose (Anyám orra), awash with folk music, it becomes clear that this is theatre less afraid of tradition, less frantic in its modernity, and that will draw directly on the region's folk culture as a source of intuitive inspiration. There is very little seen or heard over the course of the production that would disturb the impression that this is all taking place in a provincial village somewhere on the Great Plains. It is comic, charming, and a creation of the director's imagination alone.

But these above examples are cases where the supremacy of the interpretative director has worked. There were certainly many others where the director's dominance was instrumental in the production's failure. At the POSZT festival – a sort of Hungarian combination ofEdinburgh and Cannes - I saw Mihai Măniuţiu's production of Woyzeck, and Budapest's Barka Theatre's production of Hölderlin's The Death of Empedocles. Both were suffocated by autocratic visions that was simply too weak for the job.  The almost breathless quest for originality and provocative re-interpretation on behalf of Hungary's theatre directors is certainly something of a mixed blessing, and its effect on the playwriting scene is a major negative side-effect.  

It is not solely the directors who are holding back theatre writing, but also the choices of the producers, policy makers and programmers. The force of conservative resistance to change and risk provided by these sectors is itself representative of a nation that has proved itself adept at slow revolution in its recent political history. Unlike Berlin, Moscow or Prague, the end of Socialism in Hungary went unmarked by dramatically falling walls[1], and on this occasion at least, no tanks or rebels slogging it out in the streets, but a gradual process of transition lasting from around 1988 until 1991. As a result there was perhaps no single catalyst for a corresponding theatrical revolution, and, according to many of the theatre-makers that I spoke to, programmers and producers seem to reluctant to modernise and challenge the status quo.  

I suggested to Andrea Tompa that this was perhaps just a question of time – that this would simply be another slow revolution of attitude for Hungarian theatre – she agreed: "I think in a decade we will have some good writers. In about a decade." Kriszta Kovács, a young producer and dramaturg with the Pintér Béla company also believes that many of the industry's current problems lie within this crisis of playwriting "We do not have anything like the Royal Court here – we do not have anywhere that is devoted to actively looking for new plays." The fault and the solution for this lies, she believes in the programming of the theatres, and the conservatism prompted by a repertory system demanding productions that can comfortably run throughout the year and longer to justify their investment.

There has really only been one real celebrated epoch of Hungarian drama –between the last decades of the nineteenth century and the first of the twentieth –  with writers such as Madách, Molnár and Szép, whose internationalism, rich language and 'boulevard sophistication' were recognised across Europe. They were, sadly, the last group to receive such recognition. It is no wonder that contemporary writers such as Péter Esterházy and János Háy are regarded as writers of prose and poetry who, no matter their success on the stage, are merely dabbling in playwriting.

Above and beyond all this, perhaps the Hungarian theatre's complex relationship with the written word in theatre grows from a complicated and recurrent distrust in language as a form of honest communication, and from a widespread hatred of 'offiacalese' during the Socialist period. Not only did Hungarians see language corrupted and perverted in the name of government, but, as a result, the literal text became less important to theatre makers. Subtext and implication were everything.During the 1970's and 80's apparently harmless texts were presented in such a way as to undermine or invert their textual meaning so as to make them a knowing critique of the oppression under which they and their audience suffered. The writer's original intentions served only as a smokescreen.

Living off the state: subsidy and survival

According to the government, Budapest subsidises more theatres than any other city in the world. This situation inevitably is slowly and subtly changing. The rebalancing from public to private sector revenue as the national economy's driving force is being followed by another comparable change in the finances of the theatre. Parallel to the huge increase in foreigninvestment in the country, theatres are now being encouraged to find match funding from corporate sponsors. Many theatre makers believe that theatre would be more versatile, more adventurous if it were not so reliant on the subsidy, but most cannot really imagine a world without it. In our conversation, Anna Lakos at the ITI mentions a recent interview given by a Hungarian director which suggested that the subsidy should be withdrawn for the sake of the industry's health. I asked Lakos if she agreed with this. She looks anxiously around as if someone might here her, and then with eyes full of mischief and determination she quietly says "Yes. Of course."

The more daunting question is whether the national economy will continue to have the will and the resources to maintain such strong support of theatre at all. Hungary is currently facing up to some tough economic choices, not least those following their accession to the EU and those needed before joining the European Monetary Union. The level of prosperity varies widely across the country, and even more widely between city and village, making generalisation difficult, but ticket prices are substantially lower, even in relative terms, than many Western European countries, and the priority of arts funding within the local and national fiscal budgets is, for the time being, clearly higher than most of its European neighbours. For the moment, theatre is thriving even in more deprived areas - on my visit to Miskolc, a large industrial town in the significantly poorer north-east of Hungary, and one still reeling from the unemployment and the closure of much of its heavy plant, I found a thriving, well-attended international Opera Festival hard at work, and spectacularly well attended. This cultural life does not feel divorced from the steelier realities of the town's economic present: the theatre feels a part of the town, and more crucially, the town as a whole took part in the theatre.  

The strong regional presence is an important factor here – theatre is not considered something for the literati of the capital alone. Even beyond the borders where they receive little or no support from the Hungarian government, Hungarian language theatres continue unabated. The Hungarian Diaspora has been extensive, not only to neighbouring countries, where ethnic Hungarians equivalent to around a third of the population of Hungary itself reside, but around Europe and the Americas. BuckinghamPalace even confirmed some Hungarian lineage in the British royal family in a recent press statement. Hungarian language theatre has a firmly established and professionally respected hold in the extensive Hungarian speaking areas of Transylvania (known as Erdely in Hungary), Serbia and the Ukraine. These areas now function as a sort of offshore bank account for the Hungarians, preserving their folk traditions and cultural identity from the interferences of modernity, wealth and the clutches of Brussels. Making theatre in these halfway houses is a struggle; a struggle which perhaps mainstream Hungarian theatre must prepare itself to encounter.

In the face of change

Hungarian theatre displays impressive variety, vibrancy and success, but stands on the brink of changes that have the potential to develop its potential or to neuter it of all its characteristic qualities. It seems to the outside observer that these changes will come, whether wanted or not.How is an industry that prides itself on its political independence, autonomy and radicalism, to negotiate the issues created by a subsidy from an elected democratic government, to whom it is therefore openly indebted? How will its structures adapt to the increased pressures of commercialism and a consumer-led market? How will it find ways of presenting and engaging with twenty-first century life? The country's accession to the European Union will be regarded by many as the effective end of the country's period of transition economics – one wonders when, and if, the period of transition will come to fruition in its theatres. Like any culture, these problems exist, and in their solution or denial lies the future of the industry.  

Internationally, the crucial comparison is this: in the UK, and to varying degrees across some other European countries and North America, theatre makers are struggling to make theatre in an environment dominated by commercial concerns, where subsidy is a rarity which is rarely issued on the grounds of artistic quality. This is a situation that Hungary must prepare itself for, or actively avoid. And in other theatre cultures, with the memories of producing repertory theatres now fading from living memory, what is there in the Hungarian system and its vibrant, socially diverse audience, that we regret having lost, and what, more vitally, are we currently at risk of losing? 

I asked many of my interviewees where they saw Hungarian Theatre in five years time from now. It proved a difficult and complex question. Andrea Tompa was unsure that new names will have emerged to replace the current ones, and lamented the limits of the current fringe theatre. She shrugged when I asked her where the next generation of artists and innovators would come from. Anna Lakos simply sighs at the question. "I will have to think about that one. It is a difficult question." Kriszta Kovács is more optimistic; she agrees that many of the supposed alternative artists are now effectively establishment. However, there are many people, she points out, looking for the new grassroots talent, looking for the future of their industry: "there is a great will to find what is new – we are all looking and we will find it." Over the stormy seas that lie ahead, the outsider, heart-won and heady with the richness of theatrical culture that floods this land-locked country, can simply wish them all fair winds and safe passage.


Cover Photo - Igetmincedanddisappeared - Katona Jozsef Theatre
Photo - Imre Varga 

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About This Article

©2007 John Terry
©2007 Publication Scene4 Magazine


John Terry is a freelance theatre director and commentator based in London. Twice winner of the Peter Brook Empty Space Award with his company Shapeshifter, he is also Associate Director of the Finborough Theatre and has directed productions at The Orange Tree Theatre Richmond, The Southwark Playhouse, The Courtyard Covent Garden, BAC, and the Royal Exchange Manchester as well as collaborations with The Hampstead Theatre, The National Theatre Studio and many others.

Scene4 Magazine-International Magazine of Arts and Media

september 2007

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