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Budapest from a balcony

A little world outside our window — miscellaneous photographs from our balcony over the last three months.

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Five plays in five days . . . . .

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from ‘Our Class’ photographs from Hungarian Showcase

I had the very good fortune one week in March to attend five plays – with English superscripts – performed by five different theatre companies.  These were five of twenty plays bundled by the Hungarian Theatre Critics Association as The Hungarian Showcase.  http://www.hungarianshowcase.com/about-us/ 

The goal of the showcase was to make accessible in English a wide variety of plays, theatre companies, and actors for critics, theatre festival directors, theatre organizations, and non Hungarian theatre goers in order to promote Hungarian theatre to an international audience.  I have already blogged about the politics surrounding this series. (see Saturday, of Hungarian politics in a day)  Here I summarize my reactions to what I experienced. 

Bela Pinter and his company, which began in the late 1980s, has developed a cult following in Budapest and Pinter’s company is said to be the most provocative and influential experimental theatre in the city.  Pinter is a theatrical everyman: writing, directing, producing, and acting in all of his company’s plays.  His theatre is a small space (150 or so seats) on the second floor of the Technical University and his plays, it seems, are eagerly awaited events.  Several of his plays were represented in the Showcase.

I saw his play of last year, Muck

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Muck is the name of the main character, a teenaged orphan who, along with a Roma (Gypsy) friend is adopted by a childless couple living in a rural Hungarian village.  It all turns out badly – the friend gets pregnant by the adoptive father and Muck joins the rightwing, neo-fascist Jobbik Party — a commentary on the alarming growth of the ultra nationalist rightwing and its anti-Roma, anti-Semitic rhetoric and violence. 

The play mixes drama and farce, commenting on current issues drawing on traditional village folk songs and experimental staging (masks, a musician on a ladder playing wind instruments accompaniment throughout the play, a play within a play, etc).  It was an interesting theatrical experience despite the challenges of following what was happening on stage while also trying to follow the English supertitles.  At times I would simply stop trying and become naïve anthropologist observing the audience.  I was surprised how young the audience was – that was the case at each of the plays I attended – and how engaged they were: laughing at lines I couldn’t catch in translation, leaning forward in their seats, nodding to each other or whispering comments.  The after play scene was especially interesting.  A snatch of conversation behind me while waiting in the coat check line: He: “It is amazing that Pinter is in such control of his own aesthetic!” She: “Wow.  You got that too?  Such control!  And those orphan customs . . . where does that come from?!”  I felt like Woody Allen standing in line for the movie in Annie Hall.

I won’t try to say much about Ulysses’ Living Room but instead include this YouTube video trailer to it:  http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=-95uHLFYdXw

This was a theatre of visual experiences rather than ideas, thematically held together by the title that was meant to evoke Homeric homecoming as well a Joyce’s stream of consciousness.  Performed in a warehouse in Obuda for sixty “guests” I felt uncomfortable and exposed, longing for the return of the “fourth wall” between audience and players and the clarity of which side I was supposed to be on.  But many of the episodes were visually riveting and made me wish I could have had my camera.

The obvious thing to say about Kornél Mundruczo’s stage adaptation of J. M. Coetzee’s novel, Disgrace, is that it was disgraceful.  But not in the sense intended by Coetzee’s novel.  I had really liked the novel which is why I selected the play.  Coetzee, the South African writer and Nobel Prize winner, is unflinching in depicting the fall from grace of a British literature professor, his daughter who had immigrated to a farm in apartheid era South Africa, and symbolically the fall of European privilege in Africa.  It is a physically and emotionally violent novel, but still it has insight and moments of human connection and redemption.  Mundruczo’s adaptation,on stage at Trafo House of Contemporary Art, captures the violence but only that.  Mundruczo is an actor and film director who has assembled an excellent company of actors around him for theatre and film projects.  And it is clear he can direct up a storm.  The opening rape scene that lasted probably 20 minutes but seemed much longer was a visual and emotional assault and the audience could not avoid experiencing the degrading violence along with the young woman – acted brilliantly by the waif-like Orsi Toth, who remained nude for much of the play, looking more Holocaust survivor than expat farmer. 

There is no insight or humanity in Mundruczo’s version of the novel.  It is brutality throughout, relieved occasionally by moments of slapstick, rock-opera like scenes, and yes, even grand opera (a young actor with a credible voice sings Nessun dorma before a large television projection for no apparent reason).  The rape scene, by the way, gets repeated mid way through the play by video from various angles projected on four large screens.  But mercifully it is interrupted after about 5 minutes by an actor acknowledging to the audience that since we have already seen this part the play will move on – a line that brought a cheer from the audience.  

While Mundruczo retains the South African locale, he can’t help but try to treat the play as a parable for present-day Hungary, by implying that the rape happened in Budapest then returning to all the references to South Africa of the novel.  The attempted reference to Hungary’s current distress seems obligatory in Budapest theatre (the production of Angels in America ends with a projection of the Gabriel stature at Hero’s Square rather than the fountain in Washington Square) but in this case it was jarringly gratuitous and the implied comparison between Apartheid and contemporary politics in Hungary – as depressing as they are – strains credulity.

Dogs figure symbolically in Cortzee’s novel and they are everywhere in Mundruczo’s play – they announce the rapists, there are stuffed dogs in the rafters, a dog’s throat is cut on stage, dogs are portrayed by actors, and at the very end all the actors come to the edge of the stage and howl and bark at the audience.  When the lights finally went out, there was stunned silence.  A hand full of people stood and cheered, about half the audience clapped diplomatically, and the rest exhaled the equivalent “Thank God!” in various languages.  I was among that group.

Our Class was the most completely satisfying of the plays that I saw.  The play, by Polish playwright Tadeus Słobodzianek, is about a real and tragic episode in a small Polish village in 1941.  The Catholic villagers herded 1600 Jewish neighbors into a barn, locked it, and set it on fire, killing them all.  For years the villagers claimed that the Nazi were responsible, and the play deals with falsifying history, forgetting and remembering, denial, and refusal of responsibility as much as with the event itself. It is told through the eyes and lives of Catholic and Jewish children (acted by adults), classmates who spilt apart and come together over the years that follow.  This play truly is a parable for contemporary Hungary and coming to terms with responsibility for the Hungarian Holocaust.  It was acted brilliantly by the Katona József Theatre Company, in their basement black box theatre on Ferenciek tere.  The set was simple – a schoolroom with desks and blackboard – and the adult actors wore children’s school uniforms.  The passage of years was marked by changing dates on the blackboard.  The story unfolds through brief scenes, song, letters exchanged with a student who had immigrated to the US, and actors narrating events directly to the audience.  But it all worked seamlessly and chillingly.  It is a play I think would transport well to the US because historical forgetting and evading responsibility are not unique to Eastern Europe.

I have written about Angels in America in an earlier blog (Saturday, or Hungarian politics in a day) so I won’t repeat what I said there about the complicated cultural politics of Budapest.  I will say that this was world-class, big stage theatre. 

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While the architecture of the National Theatre is suspect, the technical capability of the stage and quality of the auditorium are not.  This production exploited the technical capabilities fully.  The relatively bare stage consisted of two revolving platforms – one inside the other – where scene moved carousel-like into view, with other scenes emerging on multiple risers — sometimes simultaneously — here and there around the central circular platform.  The compression of the two plays into one was effective and gave coherence without losing the different themes and forces of each play.  The acting was uniformly outstanding and once I forgot that this was advertised as a parable about the challenges of democratization in Hungary I was able to appreciate it as a fine piece of theatre. 

I will not try to draw any conclusions from these five days of theatre in Budapest except to say that they were demanding, intense, aggravating, and rewarding.   I was very lucky to have had the opportunity.

Spring has arrived in Budapest!

Hooray!!!! The sun is shining, the temperature is climbing, flowers are beginning to bloom, and we can enjoy the balcony finally.

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We had a wonderful time sharing Budapest with Patrick, Gretchen, and the Atlanta kiddies. The weather could have been better but we had a full day of sun at the end and Joseph, Ella, and Jude brought their own sunshine. They saw all the signature sights; we spent a day at the Zoo with Ildiko, Lorand, and Brigi; took a Danube River cruse; a short trip to Szentendre; and, of course, ate lots of good food and drank lots of Hungarian wine. It was hard to see them leave for Vienna and Prague today but we are so glad for their continuing adventure through this part of the world.

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We went for a long weekend to Transylvania, Romania with our friends Ildiko and Lorand, to Târgu Mureș (Hungarian Marosvásárhely), the town where they grew up before immigrating to Hungary. While there we took a day trip to the Turda Salt Mine and the city of Cluj-Napoca (Hungarian Kolozsvár). We had such fun meeting Ildiko’s Mother — who prepared wonderful lunches and plied us with her special palinka — and their friends Julia and Mihaly.

The history of Transylvania and the ethnic tensions between the Hungarians and Romanians who live there is more complicated than we could hope to appreciate in a short visit or the reading we had done. Both Hungarians and Romanians claim a historic right to the region – the Romanians through a debatable theory that traces their linage to the Romans who occupied the region during the 1st century, and the Hungarians who trace theirs to the arrival of the Magyars in the 10th century.

Transylvania has had periods of autonomy but through much of its history was part of Hungary, until the Treaty of Trianon, at the end of WWI divided two thirds of Hungarian territory and inhabitants between Romania, Czechoslovakia, and Yugoslavia. Since Trianon, Transylvania has been contested territory, becoming briefly reunited with Hungary during WWII, and a continuing source of conflict between its population of ethnic Hungarians and ethnic Romanians. There have been demographic shifts in which Hungarians have gone from the majority population in the region to minority through out-migration of Hungarians and through Romanian relocation programs designed to dilute the Hungarian population. There has been shifting control of the schools, periods in which the Hungarian language could not be used in public, controversy and violence over memorial recognition of Hungarian and Romanian historical figures, and recent tension over Hungary’s extension of dual citizenship and voting rights to ethnic Hungarians living outside of the country.

Ethnic Hungarians of my age appear to speak only rudimentary Romanian when necessary. Ildiko and Lorand took their school classes in Romanian but associated primarily with other ethnic Hungarians, so they grew up bi-lingual of necessity. Many of their generation or younger have left Romania. Their friend that we met had moved to Budapest for a few years, returned to Transylvania to be near family, but and appear to be thinking of leaving again. Ethnic Hungarians are a minority now in Transylvania and are treated as a minority by Romanians.

Transylvania countryside is a beautiful mix of rolling agricultural land and forests dotted with small villages and a few cities. Romanian nationalist sentiments are evident everywhere in the display of flags and many villages have replicas of the Roman Romulus and Remus sculpture in their town squares, asserting their claim of Roman origins. Targu Mures and Cluj are an urban mix of buildings dating to the Austro-Hungarian period – beautiful but often in disrepair – and Soviet era block housing – also in disrepair and ugly. Churches were either Hungarian style Roman Catholic (and an especially beautiful Gothic in Cluj) or Romanian Orthodox and there seemed to be new Orthodox churches under construction everywhere – another sign of Romanian nationalism. The dull Soviet greyness still so much in evidence is punctuated by striking Hungarian Art Nouveau buildings (the Palace of Culture in Targu Mures was spectacular) and the Hungarian yellow churches and public buildings of an earlier day, and more recent renovations in bright orange, blue, and neon green.

I hope the pictures below give a sense of our introduction to Transylvania.

OUR FRIENDS

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TARGU MURES

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TURDA SALT MINE with recreation area and underground lake

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After a week of sun and signs of the spring to come, Saturday turned grey and foggy. Good conditions, I thought, to photograph the “Danube Shoes” – a memorial to the over 200 Jews who were taken by the Arrow Cross (the Hungarian version of the SS) to the banks of the Danube, required to take off their shoes, were shot, and pushed into the river. The sixty pairs of shoes are a chilling reminder of one episode in the Holocaust in Hungary.

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As I was leaving the Danube Promenade to board the #2 Tram, I saw a gathering of Jobbik Party supporters in what looked like a fascist swap meet in front of the Academy of Science. Their signature red and white striped Arpad flags were flying, two figures were being hanged in effigy in the back of a pickup truck, there were crudely lettered signs, car doors and trunks were open and people were milling around trading paramilitary paraphernalia.

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The Jobbik Party (http://www.jobbik.com) is an ultra nationalistic right-wing political movement with a paramilitary arm (The Hungarian Guard) whose politics is xenophobic, anti-Semitic, anti-Roma (Gypsies), anti-EU, and pro the purity of the ancient Magyar of their imagined past. When we were here in 2006 they numbered in the hundreds. Now their members make up 15 % of the Hungarian Parliament and they are allies of the ruling majority Fidesz Party, forming a right-wing supermajority.

As the #2 tram made its way around the Parliament Building, crowds were gathering – soon to number several thousand – to protest a 15 page package of amendments to the new (January 1, 2013) Constitution that was forced through by the supermajority Fidesz Party with Jobbik support – amendments designed to reinforce an already shocking document with additional controls on courts, the media, and consolidation of Fidesz power.

http://www.politics.hu/20130309/thousands-demonstrate-against-new-constitutional-amendments/

Tucked in the noble rhetoric of the preamble to the Constitution is this sentence:
“We date the restoration of our country’s self-determination, lost on the nineteenth day of March 1944, from the second day of May 1990, when the first freely elected body of popular representation was formed. We shall consider this date to be the beginning of our country’s new democracy and constitutional order.” The point of this sentence is that Hungarians, because of their loss of self-determination, bear no responsibility for the killing and deportation of the Jews to concentration camps or the tortures, executions, imprisonments, and brutality of the Soviet era. It was the fault of the Nazi and the Soviets, not us. And this is the supermajority’s view of history and moral responsibility: a view so demonstrably false and morally cynical that it would be funny if it were not so pervasive among Hungarians.

In the evening I went to a production of Tony Kushner’s Angels in America at the National Theatre. This is one of about 20 plays presented this week with English supertitles packaged as the Hungarian Showcase for international critics, festival organizers, and theatre directors. I was lucky enough to get tickets to five plays that I will report later. The controversy surrounding the Hungarian Showcase, the National Theatre, and this play could form the basis of a history of recent politics in Hungary. Theatre is ground zero of the culture wars waging now between Fidesz and the “liberal, degenerate, elitist, intelligensia.”

Many Hungarians and other Eastern Europeans still think of theatre – as the Greeks did – as a form of civic religion. Theatre is a political act – not in the petty sense of politics but rather in the sense of holding up a mirror to the community and the community critically engaged in what they see there. It is not insignificant, for example, that Vaclav Havel, the first president of the Czech Republic was a controversial playwright before becoming a leader of the dissident Charter 77 movement and then president.

There are theatres of all sorts all over Budapest, in grand buildings and tucked away in basements, warehouses, and storefronts. From what I can tell the offerings are quite diverse but even traditional plays tend to be given an experimental and political twist. I’m told that almost all venues play to full houses. Tickets are cheap. Audiences at plays I attended were at least half made up of young people. And some independent writers and directors – Bela Pinter, for example – have a cult following. Theatre seems to matter.

So it is not surprising that theatre – especially the major theatres such as the National, the New Theatre, and the Hungarian State Opera – should become the eye of the cultural storm. The production of Angels in America is a case in point; or in several points.

First, just before heading off to the tram I received an e-mail from the organizer of the Hungarian Showcase forwarding a letter, at the request of the Minister of Culture, to participants in the showcase expressing dismay and displeasure at the selection of plays being presented as representative of Hungarian theatre and offering the services of his ministry in better informing us about the true Hungarian theatre.

Second, you could write another history of the recent past by chronicling the political controversies leading up the construction of the National Theatre and its reception. Every change in government since 1990 reversed decisions about site location, design, and mission made by the former government. The final result is a magnificent mess! Plopped into a terrible site between a row of glass box office building and a barbed wire chain-length fence separating it from the suburban railway line, it has the look of some fantasy boat plowing up the Danube. It is a mishmash of decoration and memorial, clear evidence of what happens when committees and politics takeover architectural good sense.

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Third, seeing a play (actually in this case both the plays combined into one) that I’ve seen and also taught and that I think is among the great American plays:

• translated into Hungarian with English supertitles;
• staged by a Romanian American director with Hungarian cast;
• about AIDS in NYC and Roy Cohn and Rosa Luxemburg and Mormons and the Cold War and Prophecy and the “Great Work to Begin”;
• advertised as a mirror on the crisis of democracy in Hungary;
• performed for a primarily Hungarian audience;
• in the most significant and controversial public theatre building in Hungary.

This is a study in cultural dislocation. It struck me as metaphor for attempting to understand the politics of Hungary and also to explain why I have not posted about politics so far in this Blog, even though the politics is what interests me most here. It is always difficult to comprehend the politics of another country; even more so when you don’t speak the language; and more so still for a country with such a complicated history and morally challenged recent past.

Finally, the lead actor in the play – the remarkable Róbert Alföldi – is the recently sacked artistic director of the National, having been replaced by a Fidesz supporter whose artistic claim to fame is that he dubs Bruce Willis’ voice in the Hungarian releases of the Die Hard movies. His mission is to restore the great values of Hungary’s noble past. His first act as artistic director was to bring on to the board and to schedule a play by the ultra right-wing playwright Istvan Csurka,founder of the extremist Hungarian Justice and Life Part, a decision so wildly egregious that even conservatives joined in the pressure to drop the idea. Cusurka did the right thing and died about then . . .

What to make of all of this? I offer these as merely suggestive episodes from a Saturday. I’m working out a longer essay attempting to make sense of the politics of Hungary, more for myself than circulation. Sadly what most outsiders and many insiders see is Hungary’s dangerous denial of its past, its growing xenophobia, and a country losing its already tenuous grip on democracy with its steady slide back to authoritarianism. I can’t disagree.

The “Great Synagogue” of Budapest is the largest in Europe. It was build in the mid 1800’s in the Moorish revival style, and includes a museum and a memorial stainless-steel willow tree whose leaves are inscribed with the names of Hungarian Jews that died during the Holocaust. Over a half a million Hungarian Jews either died at Auschwitz or died in the ghettos of Budapest.

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