Péter Száffko[1]

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Talking about theatrical commentary in a particular country presupposes some background knowledge of the theatre scene of the given country in the broadest sense of the word. Since Hungarian theatre is not really well-known beyond the borders of Hungary, I think it may be appropriate to say a few general and perhaps banal facts and phenomena about it.

Hungarian theatre had a rather belated start at the very end of the eighteenth century but Hungarian-language theatre as an institution was established only in 1837 with the opening of the Magyar, later renamed National, Theatre in Pest. The eighteen-thirties was the Age of Reforms in Hungary, right in the middle of the fight for political and cultural freedom leading to the War of Independence in 1848. This revolutionary era happened to coincide with the Romantic Period in the arts, particularly literature and music. In fact, the Romantic Period was as national as aesthetic both in its purposes and in its results.

When professional theatre started, there were relatively few Hungarian plays, which means that right from the beginning, Hungarian theatre companies heavily relied on the international repertory of stage plays from Greek tragedies through Shakespeare to contemporary French farces. While Hungarian culture in general and theatre in particular have always been conservative rather than experimental, the regularly offered classical tragedies and comedies were soon reduced to the minimum giving place to musical and farcical entertainment. In other words, despite the late start of professional theatre in Hungary, commercialization was unavoidable. By the end of the nineteenth century Hungarian playwrighting also caught up with the European trends and a huge amount of Hungarian melodramas, musical pieces, folk-plays, farces, well-made plays and operettas flooded the stages all over the country. (Quite strangely, this period produced the first internationally acclaimed Hungarian playwright, Ferenc Molnár, author of The Play’s the Thing or The President which just closed at the Shaw Festival as well as other highly popular works performed with great success on Broadway as well.)

Those intellectuals, however, who would make comments on or write about theatre in Hungary all through the nineteenth century were highly qualified and well-read writers, poets and journalists, most of whom have become canonical authors in Hungarian literature. And this is the first major conflict one can notice in the relationship of criticism and theatre as early as the very beginning of this new institution in the eighteen-thirties.

As many historians pointed out: although writers of Hungarian theatre commentary of any kind between 1790 (the date of the first Hungarian-language troupe being formed) and the late 1870s “noticed the independence of the art of the actor”, they “considered drama as a literary work more important and more valuable” (Magyar Színháztörténet I: 439; my translation) than its realization on the stage, they were practically unable to write about theatre performances from this practical point of view. In other words: formally, there was Hungarian theatre criticism in this period but the majority of the commentaries would analyze the plays and not the performances.

Towards the end of the century actor-director and theatre historian Pál Rakodczay (who was one of the founders of naturalism in Hungary) justly complained saying the following: We have no proper theatre criticism, i.e. criticism which is written not in the easy-going and superficial manner of reports about social balls but in a way that can teach the actors and records the art of the actors. Most writings are limited to the presentation of the plot, they are generally too vague, too theoretical instead of being more descriptive and describing more details. The reason for this, he maintains, is that critics are not properly prepared, they do not know the inner life and essence of acting and dissatisfaction being fashionable (as well as a typical Hungarian attitude), they love to criticize rather than find the “beauties” of the performances. He also pointed out that a theatre journal would be too specific for the contemporary audiences so it was the duty and responsibility of the dailies to educate theatre-goers (quoted in Magyar Színháztörténet II: 809).

The Old National Theatre in Budapest (demolished in 1965)
The Old National Theatre in Budapest (demolished in 1965)

In the last decades of the nineteenth century more and more theatre buildings emerged in the provincial towns with or without their own companies while troupes from the capital began to tour the countryside for purely economic reasons. Local journalism had its first flourishing period and, consequently, theatrical commentaries suddenly grew in number. It does not require too much research to prove that the majority of these comments on stage productions could hardly be called theatre criticism in the proper sense of the word. Nevertheless, such journalistic pieces, especially in the country, had two interesting features: first, they were published every day about the previous night’s performance, and, second, although generally they had very little to say about acting, directing or the production as a whole, they almost always referred to the audience’s response. Therefore, they have a very significant sociological and historical role in the theoretical reconstruction of the repertory of a given theatre and its relationship with the theatre-going public. At the same time, it should also be mentioned that between 1870 and the First World War the most notable theatre commentators would include such famous literary figures as novelists and playwrights Kálmán Mikszáth, Sándor Bródy or Menyhért Lengyel, poets Endre Ady, Gyula Juhász or Dezső Kosztolányi, literary critics and historians Ignotus, Aladár Schöpflin or György Lukács. No wonder that most of them approached theatre productions from the written text. It is true even of Sándor/Alexander Hevesi (1873-1939), a friend of Edward Gordon Craig and the most outstanding director of the National Theatre in the first half of the twentieth century, who started to write theatrical commentaries after studying humanities and law. To conclude: since those who created theatre criticism in Hungary were literary people, their writings were of high literary quality but much less outstanding in their analysis of the performing side.

Sándor Hevesi
Sándor Hevesi

At the turn of the century the reform of theatre commentary was started by Sándor Bródy but the actual changes were realized by Ignotus, Schöpflin and Ady. What Bródy did was to develop a special journalistic style in which he approached the readers in an easy manner mixing colloquial and literary language so that it should become more personal. In a way, he and his fellow critics introduced the Hungarian equivalent of the English personal essay so typical of the Romantic period.

Pál Ignotus (1869-1949)
Pál Ignotus (1869-1949)

Ignotus who was a leading journalist between 1892 and 1929 in the capital has been forgotten despite the fact that he was an ardent critic fighting for modern Hungarian literature and established an experience-based and intuitive critical style called impressionistic advocating full artistic and recipient freedom. Since later many critics seem to have misunderstood his concept, let me qoute his words from his writing published in Nyugat [West], the most famous literary journal of the time, in 1910: “A book is an experience just as any other experience. How much it is worth depends on how much it is worth for me. What it means is determined by what it means to me. It is the author’s right and duty to write it as s/he could. It is my right and duty to read it as I can. The way I feel and who I feel to be that day. Tomorrow it will be different from yesterday” (quoted in Magyar Színháztörténet II: 839; my translation). It was especially relevant in his theatrical commentaries. Writing about Ferenc Molnár’s The Guardsman, he stated the following: “Ferenc Molnár makes theatre on the stage. The theatre is the art of making us believe […] The essence of the playwright is […] to make us believe what he wants” (839). And he hastened to add that the purpose of this “make-believe” cannot be the acceptance of the worthless since theatre itself is an art form. He was the first critic to mention the directors of the productions by name in his valuable assessments.

Endre Ady (1877-1919)
Endre Ady (1877-1919)

A special voice in theatrical commentary was introduced by one of the most important Hungarian poets Endre Ady who published his critical comments in Debrecen (1896-1900), Oradea (1900-1904) and Budapest (1904-1910). The specific feature of his articles was that his (not always professional) comments on the productions included a strong sensibility towards social problems. He claimed that the theatre must have a very close connection to reality or life and since he was looking for lifelikeness and authenticity on the stage, in his commentaries he put special emphasis on the plot and the message. In a sense, Ady’s theatrical commentaries are not conventional critiques but rather militant articles. He constantly criticized the worthless items on the repertory and the audience for enjoying pure entertainment much more than Shakespeare and other classical works. Although in Ady’s commentaries the professional aspects were generally overshadowed by journalistic insights, he frequently evaluated the actors’ work. He claimed that most actors were uninterested in literature which he found strange because, as he said, Hungarian theatrical profession “originated from literature, and it lived for and by it” (quoted in Magyar Színháztörténet II: 843). For him, real actors would present themselves in their roles authentically and truthfully.

The third person to mention here is Aladár Schöpflin whose career as a theatre critic spanned the period between 1912 and 1944. Many historians consider him the most important figure among his contemporaries. The main reason for this may be that Schöpflin did understand theatre better than others and in his analyses he concentrated on the question: to what extent the theatre served the artistic goals it set for itself in the case of the given production. He was interested mainly in the way the chosen script became a performance and influenced the audiences. Consequently, he started his reviews by examining the subject matter to find out whether the basic idea was original and strong enough to become the core of a unified work of art. His detailed analyses, which explored the philosophical, sociological or psychological dimensions of the plot, provided a clear explanation for the dramaturgical strengths and weaknesses of the plays being responsible for the quality of the given production.

The story of the history of theatre criticism could be continued endlessly but the essence would not change: basically, Hungarian theatre commentary has been very strongly literature-based and it can be partly explained by the tradition of earlier times. It seems, however, that this is not the most important problem with Hungarian theatrical commentary.

John Terry, a theatre director and freelance writer from London spent seven weeks in Hungary in 2007 trying to learn as much as possible about theatre life in the country. In his report published in Scene4Magazine, by way of introduction, he said the following:

The New National Theatre in Budapest (built in 2001)
The New National Theatre in Budapest (built in 2001)

Theatre is, in every sense, an institution in Hungary. More than 40 permanent producing theatres are creating work on any given day of the year, and in any given year, almost 5 million theatre tickets are sold in a country of only 10 million inhabitants. The audience base is traditionally wide and varied: about sixty percent of audiences in the capital are below 30, a statistic that will seem extraordinary for those working in many other theatre cultures. Whilst inevitably most comfortable as a middle-class pursuit, low ticket prices and a long history of involvement, inclusion and commitment means that audiences still span the social spectrum to a striking degree. According to the International Theatre Institute, over four hundred straight theatre productions open in Hungary each year, with the number rising to over seven hundred if one includes Hungarian speaking theatres abroad, dance theatre and musicals. This quantitive success is achieved largely with the help of an established subsidy from the national government. (Terry “Slow Revolutions”, http://www.archives.scene4.com/sep-2007/html/johnterry0907.html)

Gábor Tompa
Gábor Tompa

Given this situation, it seems evident that people working in the theatre as well as the audiences would expect high-quality assessments of all these stage productions. Theatrical commentaries, of course, are published all around the country where there are theatres and local newspapers. There are one or two professional theatre journals which provide more detailed evaluations of individual productions, theatres or directors but most of them would concentrate on the capital and the works of popular or fashionable theatre people. The fact that there is something wrong with this genre in our country is well illustrated by an interesting venture by a Hungarian-language Transylvanian news portal where several theatre directors were asked to tell their opinion on theatrical commentary in Transylvania and in Hungary. More than half a dozen theatre people put forward their ideas which reveal a lot about the present situation. Let me summarize the ideas of director Gábor Tompa who manages the Hungarian State Theatre in Cluj, Romania (Boros “A színházi sajtóról III”, http://www.szinhaz.hu/index.php?id=1268&cid=16326). I think his approach is not only typical of the artists in the theatre but also acceptable from the point of view of the general audiences.

Although Tompa has a bad opinion of Hungarian theatre criticism he emphasizes the necessity of this genre saying that it is only the critical consciousness that is capable of waking the memories of ephemeral stage action. He also adds that writing theatre criticism is a profession which requires a kind of aptitude or talent. Therefore it is not a good idea for failed stage directors or actors to turn to theatrical commentary to achieve more success. What are the basic requirements of this genre?

The most essential element of any critical writing is the recognition of and familiarity with the special nature and discourse of the given branch of art. Personal experiences, of course, cannot be left out or ignored but they form a very delicate segment of criticism. What should be borne in mind is that the critic must concentrate on the subject of his writing rather than compare the production to his expectations. Subjectivity is acceptable but prejudices are not. Openness to the effect of the production is yet another crucial element.

Furthermore, Tompa maintains that the critic is expected to know a number of things theatre people know, s/he has to be able to look into the process of creation but first and foremost s/he must understand the work itself. This is why, just as in literary criticism, the clarity and correctness of the sentences explaining the ideas, the style or personalities of the theatre artists are further prerequisites. Unlike in literature, however, the theatrical commentator should be able to evoke the mood, the spirit, the material world and the essence of the seen production. All in all, the critique must be a mixture of descriptive, analytical and evocative elements.

According to Tompa—and other directors—Hungarian theatrical commentary is still predominantly impressionistic which basically means that if you take out the names of the concrete artists of a production, they are very much alike because they are full of commonplaces. On the other hand, there are a few theatrical journals which are on a very low professional level and ready to publish long essays on absolutely worthless theatrical events. As far as impressionistic commentaries are concerned, you can find them in papers like The Guardian as well but they have a value judgement which is generally avoided by Hungarian critics.

Love of the theatre is another aspect which is missing from these writings. Tompa claims that theatre is the recognition and acceptance of the other. If love in this sense is missing, the result may be confused and confusing, leading to the formation of various interest groups.

The Szigligeti Theatre in Oradea, Romania (built in 1899/1900)
The Szigligeti Theatre in Oradea, Romania (built in 1899/1900)

If theatre in a country is rich and diverse, theatrical commentary has a much wider horizon. In Hungary the majority of the productions are traditionally realistic/naturalistic and if there is a non-realistc stage work, commentators are at a loss. They tend to use such an abstract style to describe what they have seen that by the end any connection between the production and their commentary gets lost. Hungarian critics know two kinds of stage productions: the realistic and the stylized. The latter refers to anything that is non-realistic or they do not really understand. Tompa’s conclusion is that there is a need for the establishment of a school where critical writing can be studied at the highest possible level…

Because the fact is that there is no possibility for any formal education for those who want to become theatre critics. The University of Theatre and Film Arts in Budapest offers a degree in dramaturgy but none in criticism. The only humble endeavour is the initiative of Bárka Theatre, also in Budapest, which offers free courses in dramaturgy and theatrical commentary every two years. There two Saturday workshops every month with some 15-16 students between the age of 18 and 30. During the two years, the students analyse plays and productions together, they get commissions from the regularly published journal of the theatre as well as from some cultural websites and other journals. In addition to critical commentary, students have to try their hands in such genres as the literary essay, sketches and interviews. Homework is a very serious matter and most of the time in the class is spent with the thorough and common analysis of their writings. This program has been going on for 12 years now but the results are still to be seen. Perhaps at the next conference I will be able to say more positive and promising things about Hungarian theatrical commentary.

Works Cited

Magyar Színháztörténet I: 1790-1873 [A History of the Hungarian Theatre, Vol. I: 1790-1873] Ed. György Székely. Budapest: Akadémiai Kiadó, 1990.

Magyar Színháztörténet II: 1873-1920 [A History of the Hungarian Theatre, Vol. II: 1873-1920] Ed. György Székely. Budapest: Akadémiai Kiadó, 2001.

Boros, Kinga. “A színházi sajtóról III: Tompa Gábor rendező” [On Theatrical Journalism III: Director Gábor Tompa] Magyar Színházi Portál [Hungarian Theatre Portal] 26 August 2008 <http://www.szinhaz.hu/index.php?id=1268&cid=16326>

Terry, John. “Slow Revolutions: Lessons from a First Encounter With Hungarian Theatre.” Scene4Magazine. 19 September 2008 <http://www.archives.scene4.com/sep-2007/html/johnterry0907.html>


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[1] Dr Péter Szaffkó is Director of the Institute of English and American Studies, University of Debrecen, Hungary.

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Theatre Criticism in Hungary