Revanchism in Budapest: Hungary's Right-Wing War on Culture
First, Hungary's right wing revamped the country's political landscape. Now, Budapest's cultural life would appear to be next in line. One of the capital's leading theaters is to be run by a pair of anti-Semitic nationalists. And it may be only the beginning.
István Márta says that he hasn't given up yet, but he knows he's fighting a losing battle. He is standing in the auditorium of his theater with a camera and acting as if all was well in the theater.
"What can I do?" he asks, a little too loudly and with a touch of annoyance in his voice.
"Nothing," says his assistant. "We can do nothing."
On stage, actors are rehearsing a scene from "Don Carlos." Together, they move forward and begin to moan, snort and gasp. Here on the stage in Budapest, modern director's theater feels no different than it does in German cities like Bochum, Freiburg or Cologne. "Don Carlos" will be Márta's penultimate production, to be followed by "The Magic Mountain." And then it'll be all over for Márta.
His theater will soon be under new management. Márta's successors are an actor who recently campaigned for the right-wing extremist Jobbik Party and a playwright who is a professed anti-Semite.
There are 77 days left. It is mid-November, and outside, on the front of the Art Deco theater near Budapest's iconic Andrássy Avenue, a huge installation has been built in protest, counting down the days. Márta has been the director of the Uj Színház, or "New Theater," for 13 years. Now he has become one of the first prominent victims in a culture war that has been raging in Budapest since right-wing populists came into power in Hungary last year. Prime Minister Viktor Orbán's Fidesz Party controls the country with a two-thirds majority in parliament -- enough, in other words, to reconfigure a parliamentary democracy or even reshape an entire country. A new constitution takes effect on Jan. 1, 2012, and a new press law designed to prevent unwanted criticism of conditions in Hungary has been in place for the last few months.
A Battle for People's Thoughts
But a country's culture can't be changed that easily. In Hungary, culture is leftist and liberal, as it is in many other European countries. Culture does what it pleases and what it thinks. But to gain complete control over a country, one has to control what people think. This is precisely the issue on many people's minds in Hungary today: a battle for people's thoughts.
Already in recent months, the directors of a few provincial theaters have been replaced by government sympathizers. In Budapest, the artistic director of the National Opera was let go. Márta, at the New Theater, will be the next to go, and there is talk that the gay director of the National Theater may also be driven out.
The government is investigating 82-year-old Agnes Heller, Hungary's most famous philosopher, a former dissident, Marxist and student of the Marxist philosopher Georg Lukács. The government, with massive support from the right-wing press, claims that she squandered European Union grant money.
A monument to the poet Attila József on a square in front of the parliament building is expected to be taken down soon. József, whose works are classics of proletarian poetry, was a humanist with a Marxist worldview. He threw himself in front of a freight train in 1937. The new government does not believe that a monument to this sort of a person ought to be standing in front of the parliament. It's as if the Germans were to remove a statue of Friedrich Schiller because the poet had long hair.
A country is imposing a new way of thinking and a new culture on itself, a culture that ties in with pre-1920 Greater Hungary. Hungary today is a country trying to awaken a sense of national identity that never actually existed.
'Reptile of Hungarian Politics'
Márta, the current director of the New Theater, did nothing wrong. The theater is making money, and the productions have been favorably reviewed. He has produced the international theatrical canon, including works by Molière and Ostrowski, Büchner, Schiller and Shakespeare, as well as by Hungarian writers. Márta didn't expect to encounter a problem when he sent the mayor a 200-page document in the fall: his concept for the theater's artistic and financial future.
The mayor, István Tarlós, entered office since last year after 20 years of liberal leadership in the city. The writer Rudolf Ungváry describes Tarlós, a supporter of the governing party, as "a reptile of Hungarian politics, muscular and well-fed." Suddenly a second application for the directorship of the New Theater appeared on Tarlós's desk. It was less than 20 pages long, vague and incomplete. Those who saw it say it was obviously thrown together with little attention to detail.
It was submitted by György Dörner. Dörner, 58, does voice overs for Mel Gibson characters in the Hungarian versions of Hollywood films. He is a moderately successful actor who recited folk poetry at campaign events of the far-right Jobbik Party last year.
In his application, Dörner wrote that not only did he intend to rename the New Theater as the "Home Front Theater," but that he would also put an end to "degenerate, sick, liberal hegemony." The mayor liked what he read, although Dörner's suggestion to rename the theater went too far, even for Tarlós. In his application, Dörner also wrote that he intended to run the theater together with his friend István Csurka.
Everyone in Hungary knows István Csurka. Once a celebrated poet, he wrote stories and plays with such poetic force that even his rivals praised his works. Csurka was also a hero. As a well-known conservative dissident, he was arrested during the 1956 uprising, although it soon emerged that he had also cooperated with the Hungarian secret police during communist rule.
Not Real Hungarians
When the Soviet era ended and Csurka was no longer forced to hide his views in poetry and could express his thoughts openly, he said that the old Greater Hungary should be recaptured and the country wrested from the control of the Jews. He founded a party, the "Hungarian Truth and Life Party," and fought against what he called a "phony Hungary hostile to the nation" and the "foreign-hearted."
The horrible term "foreign-hearted" pops up again and again in the Hungarian far right. The nationalists use it to describe people who, in their view, are not real Hungarians -- mainly liberals and Jews. In 1998, Csurka's party was elected into parliament and cooperated with current Prime Minister Orbán. The two men know each other well. As great a poet as he is, Csurka is an even greater lunatic. He is convinced that the Zionists are planning to establish a second Jewish homeland in Hungary.
It was simply inconceivable that Dörner could succeed with his application in the middle of Europe and in an EU country. An eight-member panel of experts reviewed his application. Six of them, all theater professionals, recommended tossing it into the wastebasket immediately. The two others -- the envoy from the Culture Ministry and a representative of the City of Budapest -- abstained. Nevertheless, the mayor chose Dörner. Why? There are rumors that he received a recommendation from higher up the political ladder and, in fact, that the order to hire Dörner and Csurka came from the very top.
There were protests, of course: demonstrations in front of the theater, statements of solidarity and letters of protest. German conductor Christoph von Dohnányi cancelled a guest appearance at the State Opera, and the Academy of the Arts in Berlin sent a letter to Budapest to protest "the anti-Semitic views of the politician and author Csurka and the pro-fascist proximity to the Jobbik Party of theater man Dörner." In his brief response, Mayor Tarlós wrote that he would not tolerate the Berlin academy's "meddlesome" letter.
Why doesn't the mayor explain such a crude decision?
Because he didn't make it, says current New Theater director Márta.
But what does the new director say?
- Part 1: Hungary's Right-Wing War on Culture
- Part 2: 'Blabbing on about Jews'
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