Cultural Exchange: Budapest’s New Theater is at center of culture wars
BUDAPEST, Hungary — “The Sixth Coffin” has been officially buried. Derided as anti-Semitic agitprop, this work by recently deceased Hungarian playwright-politician-polemicist Istvan Csurka has been the focal point of controversy until it was finally scrubbed from Budapest’s Uj Szinhaz’s — or New Theater’s — new season. But how this production (think: the Hungarian equivalent of “The Protocols of the Elders of Zion”) ever got anywhere near the performance schedule of a major municipal venue in the first place is part of a larger drama involving this country’s leadership and its assault on culture. And that drama has a few more acts to go.
“‘The Sixth Coffin’ is more a manifesto than a play,” explains theater critic Judit Csaki, a columnist at the weekly Magyar Narancs. “Its vision is that the greatest Hungarian historical trauma, the Versailles Peace Treaty — called Trianon — is the result of a plot by rich American Jews.” The narrative further descends into the idea of Jews bringing the Holocaust on themselves. For Csaki, like many others here, this cultural embarrassment is the logical outcome of of Budapest’s conservative Mayor Istvan Tarlos’s announcement
that when the contract of Uj Szinhaz’s then director, Istvan Marta, expired, he would be replaced by Gyorgy Dorner, who, in addition to being an actor and the Hungarian-dubbed voice of Bruce Willis and Michael Douglas, is seen by Budapest’s urban sophisticates as an uncouth and reactionary extremist. Dorner, in his job tender, proposed taking the “New” out of the New Theater, since “new” did not, he believed, always connote good, especially in “a degenerate, sickly liberal hegemony.”
Though Marta’s tenure could not be characterized as anything particularly subversive or avant-garde, Dorner envisioned turning the theater into a “pure” Hungarian institution (Hungarian themes, Hungarian playwrights) that would “instill patriotic values.” He called for changing the name to “Hatorszag” or “Hinterland Theater,” which suggests something like “Home Front Theater.” Dorner also proposed an advisory role for Csurka, another right-wing reactionary (he was the founder of another ultranationalist party, MIEP, which lately has been eclipsed by the equally extreme Jobbik party), reviled for his support of skinheads and his exhortations of the “Christian Hungarian masses.”
Hundreds protested in the street, and resignations of more than 10 actors ensued. Letters of protest poured in from rights groups, and artists canceled engagements in the country. Tarlos refused to reconsider but nonetheless advised Dorner to drop the “Hinterland” notion and not to include Csurka. Dorner left the name as is, and three days after he assumed the directorship, Csurka had the political grace to die on Feb. 4, at age 77. Marta now manages a culture complex in the town of Pecs, and neither he, Dorner or Tarlos’ office would comment for this story.
When the conservative Fidesz party came to power in 2010, the government began to transform the Hungarian constitution and restrict media freedom. Party loyalists were inserted in all positions of influence. This included a media council that would oversee publishing and broadcasting. Regional theaters had their directors replaced, then the Hungarian State Opera, and finally the New Theater.
Many suspect an unspoken alliance between Fidesz and the far right, accusing the regime of tolerating a resurgent nationalism whose targets are the all-too-familiar trio: Jews, Roma (gypsies) and gays. The contract of the director of the National Theater (Nemzeti Szinhaz), meanwhile, Robert Alfoldi, is set to expire in June, and right-wing tabloids have already been “smearing” Alfoldi by insinuating he’s Jewish (untrue) and gay (true). Though his most serious indiscretion is allowing a marzipan phallus to appear on a poster of his adaptation of Aristophanes’ comedy “Lysistrata,” few believe he will be allowed to continue.
“In the case of the New Theater, you can see that the hate has moved into the theater from the outside,” says Hermina Fatyol, a Hungarian actress and ethnic Roma who now lives in Berlin. Another actress, Julia Ubrankovics, believes that “Uj Szinhaz might just be the first step, but if it happens to the National Theater next year, you better watch your language and your thoughts.”
Still, with no word on Alfoldi’s possible replacement, Budapest’s thespians and intellectuals had little to react against until the posters announcing “The Sixth Coffin” went up in early August. And once again, the protest and petition mill cranked up anew.
“This play is a watershed and a symbol,” says conductor Adam Fischer, founder and music director of the Austro-Hungarian Haydn Orchestra in Eisenstadt, Austria, as well as chief conductor of the Danish National Chamber Orchestra, in Copenhagen. Fischer spearheaded a boycott drive against “The Sixth Coffin.” “The problem is that there is a revival of this sentiment of the [Miklos] Horthy [regent of the ‘Kingdom of Hungary’ during the interwar years] government and the policy of not accepting the partition of the country. Horthy was also the first politician to introduce anti-Semitic laws in Europe in 1920.”
At first, the theater and the mayor’s office hung tough, citing the need to preserve artistic freedom. But as more copies of the play circulated, Tarlos finally observed that “The Sixth Coffin” was perhaps not very good and in his opinion it probably should not be performed.
The New Theater a few days later announced that the play was off the schedule — to be replaced by an earlier Csurka creation, “Megmaradni” (To Survive), a less-offensive nationalistic yarn about the fate of ethnic Hungarians in Transylvania.
As for the National Theater, this month it will present Tony Kushner’s “Angels in America” and, next May, “Mephisto,” based on the Klaus Mann novel about an actor and theater director who compromises his aesthetics and his principles to advance his career under the Nazis (adapted into a 1981 film directed by the Hungarian Istvan Szabo). “I’m sure they will appoint a right-wing director,” Fischer says. “But there is still a difference between a right-wing ideologue and a racist, and I hope at least for the former.”
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