Theater with a sword
by Andrea Tompa
Based on a decision by the mayor of Budapest, one of the repertory theaters in Hungary’s capital got a new artistic director in October 2011. His proposal was immediately (and illegally) published on the internet (by law there is no obligation to publish either the proposed, or the winning projects.) Before now, a proposal like this could never have been written, let alone accepted. More a political pamphlet than a professional proposal, the application adopts the language and ideology of the extreme right. The appointment of this new artistic director has caused probably the biggest scandal in the cultural field in the last two decades.
The theater in question, currently called the Új Színház (New Theater) will be renamed the Hinterland Theater because, according to the proposal, what is new is not necessarily good, especially “in the degenerate sick liberal hegemony”.
Known for his “commitment to the Hungarian nation”, as he states in his letter of intention, György Dörner, an actor and the new artistic director, and his intendant, István Csurka, a playwright and founder of the extreme right party MIÉP (Party of Hungarian Truth and Life), propose to have a theater of “real national values,” “real Hungarian spirit,” and exclusively Hungarian drama. Since Budapest, argues Dörner, has no National Theater, this theater will take over that role. (Budapest actually has a National Theater, with a strong artistic program, which has been under siege since the elections in April 2010. In the past few months, the disputes around the National have calmed down. The statement that there is no National Theater in Budapest refers to the fact that, according to certain ideologues, the National does not serve as a national institution.) In the present economic climate, the proposal states, a place of true Hungarian spirit and feeling of national unity, are a form of survival.
An analysis of the new artistic director’s proposal, reveals the centrality of the word ‘war’ as a metaphor, along with its synonyms, fight, struggle, battle and fighters. One of the battles will be held against “the liberal, entertaining, money making theaters of Budapest”, which he compares to brothels. Because the new “Hinterland Theater will represent the Hungarian nation suffering under social-liberal domination,” collaborators of the theater are referred to as fighters and warriors. War is declared against the “egotistical, over-confident theater clan which has ruled for 80-100 years”, his intendant, Istvan Csurka, stated in his own newspaper after their victory. The time reference is a veiled anti-Semitic comment, since a high percentage of theaters in Budapest were owned and managed by Jewish Hungarians before the second world war. Everything has been oppressed, states the intendant, which is not ruled by “them”, i.e. the clan.
You can check your coat and sword in the cloakroom – adds the new intendant- because it is difficult to park in “Dohány street with its institutions.” This is yet another unmasked anti-Semitic comment- the “institutions” being Dohány street‘s famous synagogue. So, the intendant argues, you have to prepare yourself in a different manner and bring a sword with you (i.e. to protect yourself in that area.) This passage refers to the fact that the theater building is next to the former ghetto of Budapest, which is considered the Jewish district.
The intendant declares: “[After opening the theater] I will rely first of all on a national-Christian audience, the support of my combatants, and on their renewed appetite for a fight.” The national-Christian audience is understood in Dörner’s proposal to be “those Hungarians who believe in nation”.
The name Hinterland Theater refers to the unifying of the Hungarian nation both in the country and across the borders. Hinterland Theater promises not only to be a national theater, but also to integrate Hungarians around the world.
The theater proposes to produce Hungarian drama of the past and present (together with classical world drama), particularly Hungarian drama which discusses the tragic fate of the Hungarian nation. The intendant also states that György Spiró, a contemporary Hungarian playwright, will not be presented in his theater, because “as a writer” he did not prove to be Hungarian. I.e. his writing and sentiments are too Jewish.
The Hinterland Theater will not be a place for directors to experiment and interpret plays, but instead to ‘truthfully’ represent the texts. It will also be a place for young Hungarian writers who espouse certain traditions and values.
After the decision was made, intendant Csurka added: “Now, through the mayor’s decision, we feel both the sympathy and understanding of the whole government, and that this is only the first little step.”
In the appointment process of an artistic director, the final decision is taken by the owner of the theater, i.e. the local government and the ministry. A board of professionals read the proposals and make a recommendation concerning the decision. Politicians can, of course, make a different decision, an event which has happened often in Hungary over the last two decades. This time the professional board proposed a different person – the actual director of the theater. The mayor of Budapest did not feel it necessary to explain why he ignored the recommendation of the theater community and appointed somebody else . The real reason for appointing such an artistic director with such a proposal is indeed incomprehensible. (Something is being hidden here, stated Tamás Ascher, director, and member of the professional board.
In a discussion with the former artistic director, István Márta (quoted in a radio program), the mayor said that he liked the idea of a theater with Hungarian drama. So Márta asked him: why then didn’t they write a call for such a theater?)
Now it looks like the proposal did not even meet the legal requirements for the applications: Some important directors and theaters who were named in the proposal as future collaborators – such as the Euro Theater in Bonn – declared after the result was announced that the artistic director has not even been in contact with them; one of the potential collaborators mentioned – the Hungarian Theater in Canada – closed down 20 years ago. Additionally, the proposal outlines only a 2 year program (instead of the required five.) A legal examination could be started. The mayor did not back down – but he has made on concession: the theatre will be not renamed.
Since the elections in April 2010 there is a lot of tension in cultural field, including the attacks upon the National Theater and independent companies’ budget cut. But such an ideology could not move into an institution in Budapest – but now here we are.