American Theatre Magazine, November 11, 2011. By Robert Avila.
Archive for November, 2011|Monthly archive page
“What Is a National Theatre: Róbert Alföldi battles to invigorate Hungary’s Premier stage with visions of the here and now” (American Theatre Magazine)In Uncategorized on November 29, 2011 at 7:13 pm
by Ian Herbert
Quite early in his directorship of London’s National Theatre (known before his arrival as the Royal National Theatre), Nicholas Hytner was asked whether he would be addressing minority interests. He pointed out that being Jewish and gay he was himself a member of two significant minorities. Robert Alfőldi, director of Hungary’s National Theatre in Budapest, has been accused of belonging to the same minorities, but although like Nick he has led his theatre to considerable artistic success, unlike Nick he has had to put up with some vitriolic personal attacks, many of them coming from his political masters. He told me recently that he expects to complete his mandate, which takes him to 2013, but after that his future is far from clear.
The situation for theatre in Hungary is worsening daily. The country’s right wing government is fanatically nationalist, armed with a majority that enables it to make laws that will be almost impossible to reverse in future parliaments. Last month it threatened to cut completely its grants to the country’s independent theatre companies.
The latest scandal in Hungarian theatre comes at a local level. Budapest’s popular New Theatre (Új Színház) went through the usual procedures to appoint its directorate for a new term. A board composed largely of theatre professionals named the current management to continue, but the Mayor of Budapest (with the support of the Hungarian Minister of Culture) used his power of veto to appoint a new team: György Dörner, an actor, was to be artistic director, and the playwright István Csurka his manager. All well and good to choose an actor and a playwright, you might think. But Mr Csurka is well known for his neofascist, anti-semitic views, as leader of an extreme right minority party. Mr Dörner occupies the same ground, as was quickly seen when he published not a programme, but a manifesto for the new management, setting it in opposition to the ‘degenerate liberal sick hegemony’.
New manager Csurka wrote about the theatre’s plans in his own far right newspaper, declaring war on the ‘egotistical, over-confident theatre clan which has ruled for 80-100 years’, a reference to the high percentage of theatres in Budapest that were owned and managed by Jewish Hungarians before the second world war.
Új Színház sits in the centre of Budapest, a stone’s throw from the old ghetto and the restored synagogue, so when Csurka talks about the risks of parking in the area and the need to bring one’s sword to his theatre, he is making barely veiled anti-semitic inuendoes. ‘I will rely first of all on a national-Christian audience, the support of my combatants, and on their renewed attitude for a fight.’ He goes on to say that the repertoire will concentrate on drama which discusses ‘the tragic fate of the Hungarian nation’.
The original intention was to change the theatre’s name to ‘Home Front Theatre’, a gesture towards the present government’s desire to unite all the Hungarian communities no longer within the country’s borders – they have already been offered Hungarian citizenship. This provocative move has now been abandoned, but the new management will continue with its narrow, ultra-nationalist policy. The manifesto says explicitly that it will not be presenting the work of one of the country’s leading playwrights, György Spiró, because he is ‘not a Hungarian writer’. Spiró is Jewish.
The response of Hungary’s artistic community has been vehement. The conductor Adam Fischer told the French newspaper Le Monde, ‘An anti-semitic theatre in the very heart of Budapest, a couple of steps from the Opera, cannot be tolerated.’ While back at the National Theatre, the current hit is Robert Alfőldi’s revival of Martin Sperr’s play Hunting Scenes from Lower Bavaria, set in a poor, remote village in post-war Germany, whose inhabitants hound out and destroy a young man for his homosexuality. Its final scene has the villagers saying, ‘That Hitler, maybe he was right after all,’ as a brass band plays triumphantly.
This was the motto of the anti-Orban, October 23rd protest organized in Budapest on the 55th anniversary of the 1956 Revolution. According to the Orban government controlled media outlets, “several thousand” people gathered outside to complain. In reality, according to major international news outlets, more like “tens of thousands” Hungarians took to the streets in protest of Orban’s passing of outrageous laws against freedom of speech, stripping the powers of the Constitutional Court, pushing through a rewritten Constitution, raiding people’s private pension funds, and supporting the appointment of openly racist directors in the country’s most successful theaters (yes, we are referring to the Új Színház debacle).
The deteriorating situation in Hungary has been largely ignored in the international media since the passing of the new Constitution, but this protest broke the dry spell.
In the wake of the Budapest Mayor’s appointment of openly anti-Semitic actor György Dörner as the the Új Színház’s new artistic director with István Csurka, a playwright and founder of the extreme right party MIÉP (Party of Hungarian Truth and Life), as his intendant, we thought it might be interesting to post a speech given by Secretary Clinton at the Hungarian Parliament in honor of the inauguration of the Lantos Institute this past June.
In her speech, Secretary Clinton talks of democracy, human rights, and due process, the most cherished and fought for beliefs of Representative Tom Lantos, the only Holocaust survivor to have ever served in the US Congress. It is thinly veiled, but her concerns regarding over-stepping and eroding of civil rights and liberties on the part of the Orban government are there between these lines in particular:
“At a time when technology transmits news and information instantly, we have all become the global equivalent of neighbors. And what happens in Tunis and Cairo reverberates in Budapest, Jakarta, and Washington. For all democracies around the world, old and new, including my own country and yours, it is vital that we continue building and strengthening our own democratic institutions. It is vital that we understand that the glue which holds together democracies is trust – trust between people as we widen the circle of democratic inclusion, and trust between the people and their governments. It is vital that we not engage in destructive political tactics or the kind of rhetoric that erodes that trust in democracy and one another. We need strong checks and balances across party lines and from one government to the next.
As we struggle to help new democracies emerge, we can’t let any democracy anywhere backslide. The stakes are too high. Other company – other countries are trumpeting national economic growth over freedom and human rights, as though the two are neither compatible nor mutually reinforcing. So that is why this institute is more needed than ever.
Let us work across all sectors of society and all the lines that we too easily believe divide us, to strengthen and support democracy, civil society, and the rule of law, and to protect the rights of minorities, to make sure that when justice is served, it is administered with due process and judicial integrity, not political vengeance or partisan meddling. Those were the principles for which Tom fought so hard.”
Please click here to read the full text of the speech or listen to the recording.