Clampdown in Hungary

Clampdown in Hungary

The right-wing nationalist government has defunded and harassed the influential theater community and passed a harsh new media censorship law, threatening the country’s fragile democratic institutions.


When the nationalist party Fidesz swept into power in Hungary last April, one of its first acts was to cut funding for the country’s alternative theaters. One casualty was an annual independent theater festival that was to have taken place in Debrecen in September. When the money was abruptly withdrawn in August, remembers one of the festival organizers, Andrea Tompa, head of the Hungarian Theater Critics Association, she and her colleagues were disappointed,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 but link the attacks to Fidesz’s simultaneous tightening grip on free expression in general.

On January 1—the same day Hungary assumes the six-month, rotating presidency of the European Union—a media law, passed by the Parliament on December 21, goes into effect, essentially reinstating state censorship in Hungary. The law establishes a National Communications and Media Authority to monitor all forms of news media—newspapers, television, radio, even individual 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. An analysis of the draft legislation by the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe warned that provisions of the law “simply cannot be described as being compatible with the basic principles of democracy.” Luxembourg’s foreign minister even questioned whether Hungary was fit to lead the EU. Prime Minister Viktor Orbán waved off such criticism as so much unseemly Western meddling, but considered alongside the fate of the theaters, the ominous signs are hard to dismiss.

Elected in a landside in the face of public disillusionment with the failures and corruption of the socialist party that had been in office for the previous eight years, Fidesz won 263 of 386 seats in Parliament last spring and easily maintains the two-thirds majority required to change Hungary’s Constitution. (Banning abortion and defining marriage as between a man and a woman are high on the party’s agenda for constitutional reform.) If that weren’t enough, Fidesz is being pushed from the right by the neo-fascist party, Jobbik, which shocked the world by winning forty-seven seats last April, having run an explicitly anti-Roma and anti-Semitic campaign. (The ousted socialists held on to fifty-nine seats.) One of the new government’s first official acts was to require that public buildings—including theaters—prominently display a “proclamation” asserting the “constitutional revolution” and “new social contract” that Fidesz claims to represent. The proclamation promises a new future based on “work, home, family, health, and order.”

Jobbik exploited this all-too-recognizable rhetoric in November by mobilizing homophobia, anti-Semitism and ultra-nationalism in a putsch against the highly successful director of Budapest’s National Theater, Róbert Alföldi. Though Alföldi has garnered popular acclaim at home and abroad, won awards from Hungary’s critics’ association and from the Budapest city council, 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. The party seized on Alföldi’s agreement to rent the theater to the local Romanian Cultural Institute for a program on December 1, when Romania commemorates its unification with Transylvania (enshrined by the Treaty of Trianon in 1920), territory that had been part of Hungary until the First World War. Fidesz joined in the condemnation, issuing a statement reminding the director that “for a majority of Hungarians the loss of Transylvania is a cause of deep trauma to this day.”

Though other major institutions had rented space to the Romanians for such celebrations in past years—and government ministers have attended as official guests—Alföldi canceled the rental in the heat of the protests.

Nonetheless, some 100 Jobbik supporters showed up to demonstrate outside the theater on December 1 (and the theater community mounted a counterdemo of equal size) and has continued to berate Alföldi inside Parliament, ridiculing him as “Roberta” and accusing him of perverting the noble Hungarian stage. Fidesz has apparently heeded Jobbik’s demand; according to theater artists in Budapest, a party-loyal replacement has been chosen and has been spending time at the National, getting to know the staff and giving interviews to the press in which he scorns Alföldi for the “sin” of reinterpreting the classical repertoire.

Politically opportunistic attacks on art are familiar enough to Americans. Some of the language hurled at Alföldi sounds just like the vitriol spewed against the David Wojnarowicz video that conservatives bullied the Smithsonian’s National Portrait Gallery into removing last month, to cite just our latest example. But such charges are more dangerous in Hungary, most of all because Hungary has so 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 last June (shortly after the election of Fidesz), director of the Hungarian Cultural Institute in New York. (A replacement has yet to be appointed.) “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, Hungarian artists who have forged professional ties elsewhere are talking anxiously about emigrating. “We are halfway to a dictatorship,” says Anna Lengyel, a dramaturg and independent producer at Budapest’s PanoDrama, which fosters international exchange of new plays. “And it is our own fault. There is no Soviet army this time. So we have to take to the street and demand that the government respect our young democracy.”

Hungary’s theater draws attention from Fidesz because, unlike in the United States, it is culturally important. There’s not even a small community in Hungary without a state-subsidized theater within thirty miles, Tompa notes, and amid 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, but Fidesz seems to have anticipated the possibility. Even as it moves to curtail the press, Orbán’s regime seems to be taking pre-emptive measures against the chance that the country’s stages could, once again, become sites for dissident expression.

Such steps began as far back as 2006, when Fidesz won regional elections all over the country and quickly installed party faithful as heads of the provincial theaters. While such positions had often been subject to political patronage, this was the first time the jobs went to utter hacks, theater artists there say. “The right wing will turn the wheel of time back to 1966, when pink operettas in fluffy costumes with happy endings were all local audiences had a chance to see,” Lengyel wrote in a special, Hungary-focused issue of the American journal Theater in 2008.

Meanwhile, a current generation of artists chronicled by Tompa in that same issue of the journal, and that began to emerge with fresh insights, aesthetics and urgency in the last decade, may take a cue from the artists who found a way to speak out in the 1970s. “We will remember 2010 as a turning point,” predicts Mate Gaspar, deputy director of the Arts and Culture Program at the Open Society Institute based in Budapest. “We have courageous artists in the theater who will reposition themselves as the internal opposition,” he says, citing some young troupes that already are “concretely dealing with the absurdity of the contemporary situation.” But the big question, he adds, given Orbán’s enormous popularity and the support Fidesz maintains, even among Hungary’s youth, is whether they will find an audience this time.

Hungary’s theater community initiated a petition, “Hands off culture and media in Hungary,” that quickly drew some 2,500 signatures, mostly from Hungarians but also from international supporters, including such luminaries as playwrights Elfriede Jelinek and Caryl Churchill. To sign, go here.

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