Hungarian Watch

Letter From the Hungarian Theatre Critics’ Association

This letter from the Hungarian Theatre Critics’ Association on November 30, 2010 was the first call to attention to the international media and theatre community exposing the intensifying state and political control over arts, culture and media in Hungary.

In a nationwide election this past April, Fidesz, Hungary’s conservative center-right party, beat the incumbent Hungarian Socialist Party (MSZP) by an overwhelming majority to gain two-thirds of the seats in parliament and control all county assemblies, the city of Budapest, and 22 out of the 23 major cities in the country. This complete consolidation of power gives Fidesz the ability to change Hungary’s constitution at will, and already there are increasingly alarming sings of political control over theatre, culture and media in the country.

The turning of the political tide in April also saw dramatically increased gains for the Jobbik “Movement for a Better Hungary” party, which stands proud on a platform of anti-Jew, anti-Roma, anti-gay policies and ideals. Jobbik, now the third largest group in parliament after winning 47 seats in the April elections, displays a red and white banner that resembles the insignia of the Arrow Cross, the Fascist party that briefly ruled Hungary during the Nazi occupation of World War II. Although Prime Minister Viktor Orbán and his Fidesz colleagues seem to distance themselves from the radicalism of Jobbik, they have appointed the extreme-right party’s representative, Előd Novák, as the president of the Cultural and Media Committee.

Governmental attacks on the National Theatre and its artistic director, Róbert Alföldi, were only rumors until the “case” was recently discussed on the floor of Parliament. Members of Jobbik described Alföldi as deviant, rowdy, and treasonous, and called the present National Theatre dangerous and mischievous. The extreme right is calling the work presented in the National Theatre obscene, pornographic, gay, anti-national, and anti-Hungarian. They are demanding the expelling of Róbert Alföldi from the National. Fidesz’s response to Jobbik’s request was this sentence: “Everything will happen in due time.” [Mindennek eljön az ideje.], which sounds like a dark promise.

Since then the extreme right has intensified its attacks, considering their success over the campaign against Alföldi and the National a first priority. On December 1st, Jobbik organized a demonstration next to the National Theatre’s building with the sole purpose of replacing the director. Artists, writers, critics, and theatre goers – organized by a Facebook group – also gathered in front of the National marking their sympathy for this theatre and artistic freedom. The demonstration was held on the day of the Romanian national anniversary, when Romania celebrates its union with Transylvania (a part of the country that belonged to Hungary until 1918.) The National Theatre originally wanted to host the Romanian Embassy’s representatives and celebrate their anniversary in the building, but the extreme right attacked this sign of reconciliation between the two countries as an antipatriotic and humiliating gesture for Hungarians on the part of the National. Due to extreme pressure, Róbert Alföldi decided to cancel the celebration.

Since the beginning of Alföldi’s tenure in July 2009, The National Theatre has prospered and undergone an artistic rebirth. He was awarded the precious Critics’ Prize in September 2010 “For renewing the National Theatre”, and a similar prize from the City Council of Budapest. Many works presented in the theatre received international critical acclaim were invited to festivals all over the globe.

Róbert Alföldi’s contract does not expire until June 30, 2013.

His dismissal would mean the termination of this contract without any legal base, and this, consequently, could create a dangerous precedent: from that time on the leader of any cultural institute could be dismissed based on the aesthetic ideal of a given political party.

Another major cultural institution in the country, the Opera House of Budapest – the best financed institution – is also undergoing difficult times. The artistic director of the Opera, Balázs Kovalik, an internationally celebrated director, was dismissed this past summer. There is still no appointed general director to take his place.

Because appointments of theatre directors in the provinces are made directly by the local governments, decisions are notoriously based on political sympathies for the ruling political party. The process has a legal face and an illusory professional basis, because seemingly directors’ applications and eventual appointments are based on competition. There is a board of professionals who evaluates the applications and makes recommendations to the local government. But this board is either formed of people with a particular political view who are certain to make the “right” decision, or it is an indeed free board whose proposal is not taken into consideration. This situation was recently repeated when the new artistic director was named to the theatre in Tatabánya, and a fine previous leadership was replaced.

The independent theatres in Hungary are most vulnerable in this current climate. This is the field that is most mobile, young, and willing to take artistic risks; this is the field that contains all dance/theatre companies, and most of the production houses and freelance artists. It has been only one year since the so-called theatre law, which guarantees for the first time that a minimum 10% of the total budget for the national theatre subsidy goes to independents, came to operate. One of the new cultural leadership’s first actions was to cut this subsidy, although it is such a microscopic part of the whole budget. It is evident that this cutback serves only symbolic purposes. Barely any of the legally guaranteed subsidy will be given to the independents.

The theatre law will undergo a serious rework in the spring 2011, and there is little hope that the 10% for independents will be maintained.

Some artists in the theatre field who already have an international career are deciding to mostly work abroad.

The drastic cutting of budgets and subsidies and an increased, radical control over the leadership of big theatres is undermining freedom of artistic expression and general freedom of speech in Hungary.

A new highly-contested and controversial “media law” promises serious control over the whole media, including blogs. The new Media authority – formed by members only of the ruling party – will have the entitlement to control and punish. This week, independent cultural papers will be published with a blank cover page as a protest sign against this control.

Watch the video of member of the cultural committee of the parliament commenting what should happen in the National. (English subtitles from 9:20).

  1. […] Since Orban now enjoys a supermajority in the Hungarian parliament, he has met minimal resistance in introducing his reforms. He has even reached out to the more rightwing nationalists in the Jobbik (= “movement”) Party, the third-largest party in Hungary. And he has put members of this controversial, emphatically anti-gypsy party on cultural committees in the National Assembly, an act of defiance to the Hungarian Left […]

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