Hungarian drama

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Judgment Day

Faber and Faber
Type: Text

It's another normal day at a small-town station, where a handful of passengers are waiting for the stopping train. Thomas Hudetz, the well-liked station master, is momentarily distracted by a young woman. Seconds later eighteen people are dead.

Standing in the wreckage of the 405 Express, can Thomas accept the truth that is hurtling towards him? If not, how long can he postpone the day of judgment?

Christopher Hampton's translation of Ödön von Horváth's Judgment Day premiered at the Almeida Theatre, London, in September 2009

At the beginning of the twentieth century the Hungarian National Theatre, founded in 1837 with the goal of promoting national self-consciousness, was still the country's most important and respected theatre. Its most serious rival, the Comedy Theatre, opened its doors in 1896. Under Mór Ditrói (1851–1945) it offered mostly light comedies from Hungarian and foreign authors (Labiche, Scribe, Feydeau) and became the home of Ferenc Molnár. Yet this company was the first to stage the realistic and naturalistic plays of Ibsen, Chekhov, Hauptmann, Gorky and O'Neill, and Ditrói encouraged Hungarian naturalistic drama, presenting the plays of Sándor Bródy (1863–1924) – A dada (‘The nanny’, 1902), A tanitónó (The schoolmistress’, 1908) and A medikus (‘The med’, 1911). Unfortunately, the attempts of the Thalia Society (1904–8), one of whose founders was the young Georg Lukács, failed in its efforts to follow the pioneering path of Antoine's Paris Théâtre Libre and Berlin's Freie Bühne, and the avant-garde theatre of Expression, Surrealism and Dada had even less chance to gain ground.

In between the two world wars most of the best Hungarian writers and artists opposed the ultraconservative and chauvinistic Horthy regime which ousted the short-lived communist government. Even the state-controlled National Theatre had to be offered in 1922 to a man of the left, Sándor Hevesi (1873–1939), who directed most of the plays at the Thalia Theatre. Hevesi modernized not only the National's repertoire but also its acting style, and, with his writings and productions, promoted a new Shakespeare cult in Hungary.

In 1935 Antal Németh (1903–68), a specialist in German drama, was appointed head of the National Theatre. He did his best to comply with the political requirements of those in power, but at the same time maintained decent although very conservative artistic standards. He presented the standard classical works of world literature, Hungarian classical drama of the nineteenth century and contemporary Hungarian authors favoured by the regime, such as Ferenc Herczeg (1863–1954). The liberal-minded middle-class public continued to back the Comedy, which had been run since 1921 by Dániel Jób (1880–1955) who continued successfully the policy of his predecessor. The same audience also supported the City Theatre, run by a very professional theatre man, the ‘Hungarian Reinhardt’, Artur Bárdos (1882–1974). Andor Pünkösti (1892–1944) led the Madách Theatre (named after a famous Hungarian playwright) from 1941 and tried to use his theatre as an artistic forum against fascism. When in 1944 the Germans occupied Hungary, Pünkösti committed suicide.

In 1945 the communist Tamás Major (1910–86) became the director of the National Theatre and hoped to convince the actors of the benefits of the Stanislavsky system. With the very talented director, Endre Geliért (1914–60) he succeeded in staging excellent productions of classics, but unfortunately dogmatic thinking gained the upper hand in the 1950s and a lot of bad socialist realist plays were included in the repertoire.

In 1949 the private theatres were nationalized. State subsidies were considerably increased, but the price to be paid was strict obedience to the Stalinist cultural policy of József Révai (1898–1959), the Hungarian equivalent of the Soviet Zhdanov. After 1956 a more enlightened cultural policy, originated by György Aczél (1917–91), the right-hand man of Premier Kádár, eased the constraints considerably. Once more modern authors like O’Neill, Tennessee Williams and Samuel Beckett could be staged. A new generation of Hungarian playwrights – Imre Sarkadi (1921–61), István Örkény and István Csurka (b. 1934) – started to analyse in their plays in a frank although indirect way the causes and consequences of the suppressed 1956 revolution. A trio of directors, Ottó Ádám (b. 1928), Géza Pártos (b. 1917) and László Vamos (1928–96), leading the Madách Theatre, rediscovered the so-called ‘bourgeois dramatists’ of the 1910s and 1920s, Milán Füst (1888–1967), Ernö Szép (1884– 1953) and Dezsö Szomory (1896–1944). In 1962 Vamos produced the most successful Hamlet of the Hungarian theatre, which remained in the repertoire for five years. The actor Miklós Gábor (1919– 98) confronted the public with a disillusioned intellectual Hamlet who does not want to accept any compromise with the existing order.

The avant-garde was alive among young directors like Péter Halász (b. 1943), who, after being forced to leave Hungary, became the founder of the Squat Theater in New York, and István Paál (1942–98). With their non-professional companies they were the first to adapt the teachings of Brecht, Artaud and Grotowski.

A new generation of young directors followed in their footsteps at the end of the 1960s and worked in regional theatres: Gábor Zsámbéki (b. 1943) attracted talented directors such as László Babarczy (b. 1941) and Tamás Ascher (b. 1948) to the theatre of Kaposvár. Gábor Székely (b. 1944) worked in Szolnok with Paál. József Ruszt (b. 1937) allied himself with Gábor in the theatre of Kecskemét. The productions they presented – mostly classics – avoided the direct methods of political theatre, but nevertheless were highly critical of the regime. These new directors were the first to break the star system and create a director's theatre based on the collective work of actors. In 1978 Zsámbéki and Székely were invited to lead the National Theatre, but as their programme was considered too antiestablishment and they were accused of anti-national sentiments they had to leave after two seasons. The most talented young actors of the National followed them and they set up a new company at the small Katona József Theatre. They established a reputation quite quickly and won international acclaim with productions of works including Three Sisters, Platonov, The Inspector General and Ubu Roi.

With the transformation of Hungary from a socialist into a market-orientated society since 1989, the theatres gained far more freedom but far less money. Ten years later, Katona is still the best Hungarian theatre, although Gábor Székeley broke with Zsámbéki and left the company. After the death, in 1997 of Strehler, Zsámbéki was invited to be president of the Union of European Theatres. Interest has come to centre on a new generation of very talented young directors, adherents of postmodernism. One of the most talented, János Szász (b. 1958), working in Nyíregyháza, was praised for his productions of Woyzeck, Uncle Vanya and A Streetcar Named Desire.

from Gábor Mihályi, The Continnum Companion to Twentieth Century Theatre, ed. Colin Chambers (London, 2002).