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.
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.
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.
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.
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.