Expatriates in Their Own Country
Expatriés dans leur propre pays
Une période de pression politique, de dépression ou de cataclysme, est paradoxalement un moment de révision des valeurs à la fois en art et dans la société. Il s’agit en fait de moments fructueux qui permettent de mieux comprendre quelles sont les valeurs humaines qui peuvent transcender l’immédiat, la période actuelle, peu importe combien peuvent durer ces instants de chaos et de rupture. Voilà ce que nous enseignent des décennies de dictature et de contrôle politique en Europe de l’Est. C’est pourquoi certaines cultures et compagnies théâtrales sont devenues fortes et intrépides, et suscitent un grand impact social peu importe la puissance du contrôle qu’elles ont subi.
A period of political pressure, depression or cataclysm is paradoxically a moment of revision of values in both art and society. Somehow these are fruitful moments for a clearer understanding of what those human values are which can transcend the current, immediate period, no matter how long those moments of chaos and break-up may be. This is what the decades-long dictatorships and political control in Eastern Europe teach us. This is why some theatre cultures and some theatres have become strong and fearless, with great social impact no matter how strong the control has been.
In the last two decades in Hungary, decades of freedom, the theatre has become more and more politicized, mainly because of the lack of reforms in the arts sector—reforms which should have aimed at a clear division between state subsidy of the arts and arts institutions, which could lead to transparency in decision-making, and the introduction of professional and civil control over politics in art. Such reforms could also address a lack of a cultural policy, and make clear the values to support, the priorities, what public theatre and public art are; they could define what is commercial and can gradually be put on the market. So it is a two-decades-long story of how and why politics has interfered with the arts. The country has gradually arrived at the situation when today, in 2011, the post of director of a small puppet theatre seems to require a serious political relationship with local government in such a way that the actual professional quality of the future director is much less important than his political relations or his political views. This is how mediocrity can acquire power and lead institutions. It is a long and tricky process, with lots of small and important details, which the present paper does not aim to present.
Thus the situation is gradually deteriorating. But why is theatre so important that political leaders would care about it at such a level? And fight pro and contra over directors, so as to put them into office or remove them? Not every theatre is important, of course. National institutions (national theatres, of which there are several in the country, opera houses) have symbolic value; theatres in the provinces as well, since most provincial towns have very few cultural institutions, and control of the leadership of institutions has been established practice in Hungary ever since the social changes of 1990. The independent theatres too, however, have recently become targeted by cutting their budgets, since they represent something less controllable and predictable, unstructured, impossible to keep under control, something where free, young energy can emerge.
Also those voices which were peripheral before the elections in April 2010, and which claimed certain moral values for the theatre, have become central and have arrived in Parliament. These voices have become louder and louder and more popular in an anti-modernist and anti-elitist new leadership of the country. Some works–especially those of the National Theatre in Budapest – have been labeled pornographic, harmful and dirty. (Although this article does not aim at a deep analysis of the political climate, the anti-elitist behavior of the authorities seems to mean that the opinion of the intellectual elite is no longer considered something to listen to.)
It might seem a paradox, but it is not: theatre is not so important in Hungary as to have social impact. Its importance is more symbolic than factual and real, since—as in most countries of Eastern Europe and of the world—it becomes a forum of the elite, a narrow culture, and not a widely popular one.
Unlike literature, theatre reacts more quickly to the present. Interestingly, it is not the independent scene which has immediately reflected the growing political control and social tension. The unique exception was the Adaptation Tricolor by the Krisztián Gergye company. One would expect a subversive culture to emerge in such a moment, with radical forms of art and radical content, probably in the more flexible independent field—but such a thing did not happen. It is hard to say why not, although the Hungarian independent field of theatre is quite rich and prolific. Maybe the fact that it is more vulnerable, more dependent on subsidy—which is being cut gradually and systematically—discouraged this scenario. Its independence gradually became pure dependence. (A most recent event was also the illegal dismissal of the board of independent theatres; myself being one of the effected board members.) Furthermore, there has been very little tradition of political theatre, or in a wider sense, theatre which would examine more directly the contemporary socio-political climate in the independent field (since Krétakör has been dissolved). Such performances might emerge in the future.
There have been, however, aesthetic responses to the present in Budapest’s big art houses.
Katona József Theatre has probably the longest tradition of reflecting on contemporary society and reality, and its answer is probably the darkest and most unambiguous one. Speaking through Molière’s Le Misanthrope, director Gábor Zsámbéki proposes a unique solution for his tenacious and bull-headed hero, Alceste: escape. His hero is an independent intellectual who has lost his influence on the morals of the world and gradually decides to abandon this world for internal emigration. He becomes lonely and is given no understanding by the world, his friends or his loved one. This is a model of artists and intellectuals, blasé and tired of struggles, whose potency and impact are gradually weakening. Zsámbeki has darkened the whole play—a comedy—which on his bare stage becomes a humane, intellectual tragedy about the hopelessness of engaging in dialogue and considering real values.
Symbolically, this is a statement by a Hungarian artist and intellectual who becomes an expatriate in his own society. The bare stage is a rejection of theatricality, of falseness, of appearances, and implies entering directly into a discussion of essentials, not superficialities. All the theatrical machinery—the lighting, pieces of furniture—is manipulated by the actors so as to have a clear, unmediated dialogue with the audience. The stage is dark and unlit, as if Alceste were somewhat lost in this murky world. It will be the funny, but dangerous Oronte who will turn on the lights. Their dialogues are real moral and ideological clashes, cruel and sharp. For Zsámbéki, the relationship between Alceste and Célimène is a clear and durable love, a real and deep relationship; they are a real couple, as if they have always been together. Thus their parting tells us of a tragic real loss of human values. It seems that when the world falls apart and values are washed away by chance, human relationships and love are doomed. The text is a sharp translation by the poet György Petri—“Moliere translated with a pen-knife,” one critic remarked—and full of humour.
In the final scene, Alceste becomes an almost homeless person, who, before leaving society, collects the few things needed for his survival. A small shed is placed on the stage—it looks too theatrical and “arty,” though, compared with the bare stage—in which he remains closed in himself from now on. Not in the desert, but leaving society behind.
The director’s choice is clear, simple and sharp, it has no doubts about the future: there is none. Performed wonderfully by Tibor Fekete, with no ornaments or acting tricks, Alceste, with his doctrinal faith in truth, becomes deeply dramatic. Gábor Máté in the role of Oronte is splendid, light and sharp, full of humour, but still plausible. Célimène (played by Eszter Ónodi) is a very feminine, human, loving woman.
With this gesture of going into self-imposed exile, Gábor Zsámbéki is leaving his director’s chair at Katona, to be followed by Gábor Máté. Katona continues its way of employing the symbolic talk of the 1980s, rather than direct speech, not one bound to a present situation, but a durable talking through big texts. Zsámbéki’s proposal for becoming an “internal émigré” is a well-known model: it is typical intellectual behavior of the 1980s. Thus the director goes back to his roots.
It was not until the premiere of We Live Once or the Sea Disappears into Nothingness Thereafter that the National Theatre reacted on stage to the “events” around the theatre (demonstrations, calls in Parliament for the replacement of artistic director Róbert Alföldi, threats and pressure in the media, attacks from political and artistic sources on his production of John the Valiant, and the list can be continued). It needed an independent artist—not the artistic director himself—and an original play to provide a complex “answer,” or rather pose a number of questions, in the discussion of theatre and politics in contemporary Hungary. The writer-director is known for other plays written and directed by him on contemporary topics, on the 1956 revolution and on the gypsies.
The multilayered play We live Once, an opus magnum, is written and directed by János Mohácsi (his co-authors were his brother István and the musician Márton Kovács). It is a three and a half hour play, employing two dozen actors and a live band. Complex and complicated, the show has so many sub-texts, layers and references that even the Hungarian spectator would not be able to disentangle all of them. It can, however, also simply be taken as a great piece of art, probably the most valuable performance of the season and the best piece in the National’s repertoire—without the matter of the conflict between theatre and politics.
The starting point of the plot—something like a play within a play—is based on a real event from 1946, when, in a Hungarian village, a performance of the musical folk play John the Valiant was ruined by Soviet soldiers, fighting broke out between peasants and Soviets, and a number of people ended up being sent to Siberia. Mohácsi used this story to re-open discussion of this Hungarian musical folk play, which was performed recently at the National and became the symbolic target of politics. Directed by Alföldi, this classical Hungarian play is reinterpreted and placed in the present; the fairy-tale heroes arrive in a present-day big city and become prostitutes and lonely people. This re-interpretation of a classical and “national” play was then accused by politicians and their supporters of “falsifying” the original. John the Valiant was written as a poem by the “national poet” of the 19th century, Sándor Petőfi, and the musical version was a dramatisation of the poem done in 1904 by three writers, Kacsoh, Bakonyi and Heltai, which even then aroused a scandal for its “falsification.” It looks as if politicians have been able to revive these accusations and use them, of course, as artificial motives for removing an artistic director.
For Mohácsi, the Johns of 1946 and the contemporary play, and the other Johns, those of the original poem and the 1904 musical, have a lot in common and furnish rich material for the discussion of how politics can exercise control over arts and artists. The first act is a reworking of the 1946 story, ending with the expulsion of the writers and actors of John to Siberia. The second act is a “visit” to them in the Gulag, and another attempt at performing John in the presence of the leader-dictator, someone like Stalin’s right-hand man. It is a good occasion for the confrontation of the two Valiants, the “national” poem and the anti-national musical. The third act returns to the village with the exiles, who find there a different world, where the great train of socialism has finally arrived.
The present is viewed not only in a historical perspective, but in a wider, surrealist-absurdist view of the times, in which mythical and legendary dimensions can appear on stage. Heroes are shot, but can be resurrected; the blind are restored their sight; people can travel by thought and on the wind. Time is one of the main “heroes” of the production. All the scenes are put on in museum spaces, as if the present is not only happening, unfolding right now, but is already reflected, put in a museum as a piece of the past. This creates a sense of real and unreal. The first scene is a synagogue and its museum; all the Jews have been killed, and this space is a relic of the past. The second is a Gulag-museum, while the third is a museum of the socialist era in Hungary. Time is historical and frozen, and at same time eternal, since “heroes,” like John do not die. Mohácsi balances between time-as-prison and timelessness, the opportunity of heroes to escape into eternity, and the condemnation to live “here,” the reality of theatre and everyday life. Hope and hopelessness alternate continuously. The final picture of the performance, however, with the strong emotional effects of the music, shows in a way the impossibility of escape from historical, linear “real” time. But theatrical heroes like John do not die; only human beings do.
For a perspective, Mohácsi chooses a point of view where neither condemnation nor acceptance of the present is possible, but he adopts the angle of contemplation and meditation. This contemplation is full of humour, irony and self-irony, a distance which makes it possible to get rid of self-pity and nostalgia. In addition, it makes it impossible to fall into dogmatism, ideology or simplistic solutions. The “play within a play” scenes are self-reflective games, and the contemplation of relationships with power becomes crucial. Sharp and witty, with almost word-for-word quotations from politicians and politically involved theatre leaders, the National’s production becomes a real, large-scale event of theatrical expression.
Working with such a big cast, Mohácsi at the National is able to create independent, alternative worlds, rather like distorting mirrors, real/unreal worlds. His Monty Python-like absurd language, full of inter-textual allusions, with puns and jokes, compact and extended, both very “national” and local, makes the language of Mohácsi’s work hard to translate.
Another John, Dürrenmatt’s König Johann: nach Shakespeare (King John in the Manner of Shakespeare) offers a further opportunity to discuss the nature of power. Based on a series of betrayals and the art of manipulation practiced by kings and popes, the Örkény Theatre production transforms history into a picturesque and entertaining farce. Directed by László Bagossy, the quasi-historical play is a grotesque and absurd political pamphlet. Intense, witty and full of humour, history and the wrestling for power, it is bereft of reason, teleology, logic and, of course, all moral content.The National’s company, with so many young actors, has become a leading company of Hungarian theatre, not a collection of stars. As a subtext, Mohácsi toys with the previous cast of John the Valiant, opening a fruitful dialogue between the two productions.
Theatricality is emphasized by the presence of red theatre curtains and theatre-like scenery, which transform history and politics into a stage on which everything is costume, symbol (one can even recognize the symbols of the Hungarian state), staged event and nicely choreographed gesture—a masquerade of history, in which the massacre also has an edifying aspect. There is no difference between leaders, whether French, English or popes, but the whole of history and politics is viewed as an event staged for the poor, an act of manipulation. In Bagossy’s version, the two ambassadors are played by the same actor, who only changes his tie. Fast and brutal, funny and ice-cold, Bagossy’s farce looks at actual and eternal history as entertainment, a show for show’s sake—something not to be taken seriously, although blood is running everywhere. The Örkény company presents a masterly display of acting technique. As Örkény positions itself, its artistic credo lies somewhere between art and good quality entertainment, according to which politics becomes a source of bloody entertainment.
Although these are very different productions and interpretations of history, and of the role of intellectuals and power, it looks as if political theatre, or in the wider sense, theatre responding to the questions of political events in Hungary, is coming back after a long interval. And it looks as if there are plenty of issues to be discussed and to have dialogue about.
 Andrea Tompa, PhD (1971) is a Hungarian theatre critic and researcher. Her main field of interest is contemporary Hungarian, Russian and East European theatre and drama. She is the editor of the theatre magazine SZINHAZ (Theatre). Since fall 2009 she is the president of the Hungarian Theatre Critics’ Association, and also an academic at Babes-Bolyai University, Cluj, Romania. Recently she published her first novel.