When the nationalist party Fidesz swept into power in Hungary this past April, one of its first acts was to cut funding for the country’s alternative theaters. A casualty was an annual independent theater festival that was to have taken place in September. When the money was abruptly withdrawn in August, remembers Andrea Tompa, one of the festival organizers and head of the Hungarian Theater Critics’ Association, she and her colleagues were disappointed but not shocked. Hungary’s economy, after all, had been in crisis for at least two years. But looking back on that moment now, Tompa sees an early warning of the deterioration of Hungary’s fragile democracy.

"The amount of money in question was minuscule," Tompa says, especially in contrast to the untouched, much higher allotments for Hungary’s longstanding system of state-supported repertory theaters, with their buildings and salaried staffs. "But the ruling party was sending a symbolic message. They wanted to shut up the independent theater, which is always more free, less conventional, more subversive."

Then in November, the institutional theater came under fire as well, and the theater community couldn’t help linking the attacks to Fidesz’s simultaneous tightening grip on free expression in general.

On January 1—the same day Hungary assumed the six-month, rotating presidency of the European Union—a media law passed by Parliament on December 21 went into effect, essentially reinstating state censorship. The law establishes a National Media and Communications Authority to monitor all forms of news media—newspapers, television, radio, even blogs. It can impose fines as high as $950,000 on coverage it deems unbalanced or "offensive to human dignity," seize reporters’ notes, search editorial offices and demand confidential business information. Prime Minister Viktor Orbán waved off criticism from EU members as so much unseemly Western meddling, but considered alongside the fate of the theaters, the ominous signs are hard to dismiss.

Elected in a landslide in the face of public disillusionment with the failures and corruption of the Socialist Party, which had been in office for the previous eight years, Fidesz won 263 of 386 seats in Parliament and easily maintains the two-thirds majority required to change Hungary’s Constitution. If that weren’t enough, Fidesz is being pushed from the right by the neofascist party, Jobbik, which won forty-seven seats, having run an explicitly anti-Roma and anti-Semitic campaign. (The ousted socialists held on to fifty-nine seats.)

In November Jobbik launched a putsch against the highly successful director of Budapest’s National Theatre, Róbert Alföldi. Though Alföldi has garnered popular and critical acclaim at home and abroad, and even earned a profit in the first two and a half years of his contract—not slated to expire until June 2013—Jobbik has been denouncing him as a Jew, a homosexual and a traitor and calling for his ouster. Fidesz has apparently heeded the party’s demand; according to theater artists in Budapest, a party-loyal substitute has been chosen and has been giving interviews to the press in which he scorns Alföldi for the "sin" of reinterpreting the classical repertory.

Politically opportunistic attacks on art are familiar enough to Americans. Some of the language hurled at Alföldi sounds like the vitriol spewed at the David Wojnarowicz video conservatives recently bullied the Smithsonian’s National Portrait Gallery into removing, to cite our latest example. But such charges are more dangerous in Hungary, which has little experience of democracy. "We haven’t developed much civil society yet," explains László Jakab Orsós, director of the PEN World Voices Festival and, until his term ran out in June (shortly after Fidesz’s election), director of the Hungarian Cultural Center in New York. (Fidesz has yet to appoint a replacement.) "We have a few small, brave organizations, but in twenty years we haven’t built the capability to handle such severe attacks. Everything has changed so quickly in less than six months, and we are losing most of the achievements of the last two decades."

If the situation is not as dire as in Belarus, where leaders of the Belarus Free Theater were arrested or driven into hiding in late December in Aleksandr Lukashenko’s campaign of repression, Hungary is "halfway to a dictatorship," says Anna Lengyel, a dramaturge and independent producer at Budapest’s PanoDrama, which fosters international exchanges of new plays. "And it is our own fault. There is no Soviet army this time."

Hungary’s theater draws Fidesz’s attention because, unlike theater in the United States, it is culturally important. There’s not even a small community without a state-subsidized theater
 within thirty miles, Tompa notes, and in a population of 10 million, nearly 5 million tickets are sold each year. Even when most of those buildings are presenting light commercial entertainment, the historical role of Hungary’s theater has not been forgotten. "It was the most important forum in the Communist period," Lengyel says. "Especially in the milder ’70s and ’80s, the censors would allow some kind of freedom as long as there was no open criticism of the regime. Winking at the audience was OK."

Hungary’s theater artists may have to learn to wink again. "We will remember 2010 as a turning point," predicts Mate Gaspar, deputy director of the Open Society Institute’s Arts and Culture Program, based in Budapest. "We have courageous artists in the theater who will reposition themselves as the internal opposition," he says. The question, though, he adds, given Orbán’s enormous popularity and the support Fidesz maintains, even among Hungary’s youth, is whether the artists will find an audience this time.