Independent Theatre in Hungary
This is one of three posts exploring the state of the independent theatre in Hungary and the Czech Republic.
This year, for the second time, the Hungarian Critics’ Association (which is affiliated with the International Association of Theatre Critics [IATC], a “typical” cultural offspring of the European Cold War, and very active now, especially in the former communist countries) organized a showcase of mostly independent Budapest theatre and dance called dunaPart. It has recently become one of the rare occasions for foreign theatre professionals to see what’s new in the Hungarian arts scene.
The specifically Eastern European concept of independent theatre—most of the time financed by public grants—is a very complex one, since it bears an important symbolic value: it’s not private (in a region where culture is dominated by state-subsidized institutions, independent art also receives public money based on open calls for project grants), but the independent theatre proposes alternative organizational and production modes, and traditionally takes much more leeway in tackling social and political issues. Independent companies can have artistic continuity and build a loyal audience working outside of a repertory system. Even if the directors tend to work repeatedly with the same actors, the companies are not ensembles, they don’t perform an alternate corpus of long-running shows, and (with the exception of Béla Pinter’s Skéné theatre in Hungary) they don’t call a singular performance venue home. Without the pressure of abiding cultural tradition and less fear of offending the governmental apparatus, the independent theatre scene can afford to take more artistic risks. If the subsidized theatres represent the king and his men, these companies are akin to Robin Hood. While not necessarily aesthetically experimental, the Hungarian independent theatre experiments with financial structure and production relationships, which makes it a laboratory for new, freer, though sometimes more precarious working models. All of these factors make the independent theatre—especially in Hungary, where dominant theatre is more conservative than ever—of great interest for a lot of non-Hungarians.
But dunaPart was not only about the shows on stage. It was also about how theatre reflects the social psyche, and how fragile this art is when met with a challenging economic and political context.
While not necessarily aesthetically experimental, the Hungarian independent theatre experiments with financial structure and production relationships, which makes it a laboratory for new, freer, though sometimes more precarious working models.
There were two major topics of conversation among the foreign guests in Budapest: the generational shift in the independent performing arts in Hungary and the representation of women on stage. I didn’t participate in the 2013 showcase, but the issue of women in the Hungarian theatre was raised loudly then by a large American delegation—I suppose they are not very often put in the position of watching a week-long festival where every show is directed by a man. Two years later, with all the efforts of the organizers and the roundtables dedicated to the topic, the situation didn’t appear much better: across generations, there simply aren’t enough female directors in Hungary. In contrast, in Romania, there’s an overwhelming presence of women directors in the younger generations, but not across generations; and in Poland the mainstream theatre is strongly influenced by female voices. Having a close to male-only club directing the more progressive independent theatre in Hungary does have an impact on how women and female bodies are codified in performances: always through the male gaze, with varying results.
Let’s take Kornél Mundruczó, the only contemporary Hungarian who is equally famous as a theatre director and a filmmaker. Dementia, the show he presented in dunaPart, deals with the closing of mental health facilities in Viktor Orbán’s Hungary (the controversial prime minister whose party, Fidesz, has won the general elections twice since 2010, each time with the support of the extreme right, and runs a form of nationalist politics based on demonizing immigrants, the Roma minority, gays, and the European Union). It also deals metaphorically with a society where those deemed crazy seem more sane than those living free, outside, in the new world. Mundruczó’s two previous shows—Hard to Be A God (2010), inspired by the Strugatsky brothers’ sci-fi novel, and Disgrace (2012), a very free dramatization of J.M. Coetzee’s novel—unapologetically approach the issues of human trafficking, porn, snuff movies, and rape, and all his work shows a sensitivity for how women deal with and survive trauma and sexual abuse. Even so, in Mundruczó’s productions, the female characters (always outnumbered by the male ones) seem like lonely figures of resilience in a world where their bodies are constantly abused—in a world where abuse is tolerated, and almost expected because it happens so routinely. This sums up the situation in everyday Hungarian life: domestic and sexual violence against women is non-existent as a topic for public debate unless it’s about the police blaming rape victims for “eliciting violence.” The right wing advocates for women to “fulfill their natural role” and have more children. The theatrical representation of gender relations, even when not trying to draw attention to the violence of sexual abuse, reproduces a conservative power dynamic in which women are always objectified and deprived of any agency.
Béla Pinter’s Our Secrets tells the story of a police informant during the 1980s fighting his own pedophilic desires in a context of state-controlled sexuality, but it ends up focusing exclusively on the man, omitting his female victim. This in and of itself wouldn’t be that striking—Pinter doesn’t condone pedophilia and is not trying to justify it—if the issue itself wasn’t so ignored in public discourse and almost never represented on stage. It didn’t help that during many days of dunaPart performances, the most common—if not the only—kind of consensual sexual act on stage was fellatio, or that so many male directors seemed to feature actresses naked on stage for no discernable reason.
In Hungary, as in the rest of Eastern Europe, the younger generations have become disillusioned. Though the established Hungarian theatremakers such as Béla Pinter, Arpád Schilling, Kornél Mundruczó, and Viktor Bodó began their careers right after 1990 (the end of the communist regimes in Eastern Europe) wanting to change the system, the post-2010 artists (who entered the scene after the rise in power of the right wing, Viktor Orbán’s nationalist party coalition) have not seen the kind of change that their predecessors had hoped for. Theatre, it seems, has lost its power to address the most pressing social and political issues facing the region—this marks a stark shift in the deeply rooted historical role that theatre has played in Eastern Europe in the last century. Since the beginnings of the nation states in this part of the world (and throughout various dictatorial regimes and foreign occupations) theatre has been considered one of the “forces that kept us together as a nation,” and theatre artists have always been engaged with negotiating different kinds of common identity.
The feeling that the “nation,” this large imaginary community, doesn’t exist anymore is now prevalent. While Pinter and others of his generation inherited the successes won through the amateur, student, and experimental pre-1990 theatre standing up to the dictatorship, the artists in companies like dollardaddy’s or those who work with Stereo AKT (an event-based organization that works with different theatre professionals) emerged on the independent scene only to witness the politically engaged performing arts being crushed by Viktor Orbán’s version of nationalist neoliberalism. In order to preserve their freedom, this generation felt the need to run away from the classical theatre space, and to give up any hopes of an imaginary community in favor of more concrete, smaller, elective communities. There are artists who question the limits of the theatre and how it communicates with the ad-hoc community of spectators; there are other artists for whom theatre could never “beat reality” and the suspension of disbelief is a fiction; there are artists that position themselves as non-engaging observers of a mutable “reality” for which they serve as facilitators. Even when talking about reality being nothing else but representation, they don’t necessarily think they can have a definitive say in constructing this representation in their own work.
The younger independent theatre community in Hungary appears not as one that prepares its audience for participating in the larger community whose views it has the power to shape, but as one that acknowledges the polarization and fracture of Hungarian society and acts accordingly. But if even the theatre gives up, who then will be left to create our desperately needed imaginary community?