Tamás Koltai

Tragedies and Comedies

Imre Madách: The Tragedy of ManTragédia-jegyzetek (Tragedy Notes) • Géza Bodolay: A magyar mennyegzõ (The Hungarian Wedding) • István Tasnádi: Titanic vízirevû (Titanic Water Show) • György Spiró: Honderû (National Mirth)

"You think this is tragedy. Regard it / As comedy instead: it will amuse you".* This line from Imre Madách's dramatic poem The Tragedy of Man is addressed to Adam by the fallen angel Lucifer on seeing the first man's horror after he was given a glimpse of mankind's future history. I have discussed this classic nineteenth-century Hungarian piece often enough in these pages, and I propose not to repeat myself. (Hopefully some readers will have read it in translation or, better still, seen an English-language production.) In the space of one month, four Hungarian companies recently premiered their new productions of the play. My other motive, and hence the quote, is that quite often judgment is only a matter of viewpoint; anything that might seem tragic and fatal in history or in our everyday lives will appear simply comic or grotesque when seen from another perspective, that of an outsider or an indifferent observer. A good many tragedies have comic overtones, and vice versa, and there is the border zone in between, the tragicomic, which appears in the modern theatre—think of Beckett or Ionesco if you will—as a basic attitude.

This vacillation between the tragic and the comic is plainly evident in productions of Hungarian plays, old and new alike. One example is the Tragedy itself. Earlier, it would have been unthinkable to perform it other than with tragic pathos. The creation myth, which plays a pivotal role in the play, demanded this pathos; just as Goethe's Faust, the play is about the battle between God and the Devil for the soul of a man. History provides the places d'armes for the battle, and for Madách, who saw human history as a succession of discredited ideas, it is a tragic field. Through a set of visions, Lucifer guides Adam through the history of ideas, from the remote past to the distant future—from ancient Egypt to the end of life on Earth—in an attempt to lead him into despair and to suicide. Since, however, this is impossible (mankind has, according to the latest evidence, survived its own history), the play's pessimism can only be resolved by way of a spiritual deus ex machina. This is the Tragedy's famous concluding line, God's divulgence: "Man, I have spoken: strive on, just have faith!"*

As the world grew more profane—with religious world view and affected theatrical delivery going out of fashion—so did The Tragedy of Man lose its aspect as a mythologizing tragedy. Nowadays an everyday and playful interpretation prevails, often verging on the ironic. In the production of the Merlin Theatre (directed by Tamás Jordán) Adam and Eve lie on God's palm. Literally. An enormous plaster hand descends from above, making a comfortable bed, today's version of paradise, for the first couple. We see two unselfconscious, instinct-driven creatures at the high end of biological evolution. There is even a reference to Darwinism in that Adam and Eve do bear some resemblance to our primate cousins. Lucifer is portrayed as a kind-hearted private tutor presenting the history of mankind to his students with the help of a film projector. The historical scenes take place both as theatrical reality and on film. A technical trick transports the actors to the silver screen, only to return at the appropriate moments. For example, the Roman gladiator is stabbed on screen and his body rolls forward onto the stage out of the screen. In the final act the protective hand descends again, and Eve, the perennial conformist that she is, rubs herself against God's little finger.

For the first time ever, the Tragedy is being performed by the Budapest Puppet Theatre. The possibilities are, indeed, limitless here, as the puppet stage can be changed almost at will, both in size and in proportion; cosmic at one minute, it can be turned into a cosy interior the next. The dimensions are infinite, time and space can freely be roamed, with no physical laws to bound fantasy to earth. The surreal visions of the play can be realized here with ease: armies of toy soldiers are shown marching; a meat mincer spews out the French tricolour during the French Revolution scene; robots work in a Fourier-type phalanster; Adam orbits in space in the manner of a sputnik. In modern puppet theatres "live" actors and puppets mix freely: a huge cherub bursts into the puppet Paradise; the audience can see the "handlers" of Adam and Eve as they manipulate the marionettes. We are all puppets in the hand of a supreme power, or so it seems. Rather than being a transcendental creature, this supreme power is the director himself, who presents the comedy of creation and history on stage. Here, Lucifer is a disgruntled, rebelling actor who has different ideas about the play. And since the Budapest Puppet Theatre's version is directed by none other than Dezsõ Garas, one of the most obstreperous of Hungarian actors, who himself had played Lucifer in a "proper" theatre, the concept of "violating the rules" receives an additional twist, making room for an ever broader interpretation.

The first premiere in the recently renovated Madách Theatre is billed as a "variation" on the Madách drama. This should still be all right, as every production is in a sense a variation of the original play. Nor should we object in principle to the fact that the director Imre Kerényi has rewritten the text, standard practice in modern and, especially, postmodern theatre; even Shakespeare is not safe from such meddling. What is dubious is the principle and, on seeing the result, the manner of the rewrite. As to the director's principle, he thinks that not everyone in the audience is a university professor who understands the original text. This is a familiar argument; some people say that, for the same reason, it is easier to put on Shakespeare in translation than in the original English. But The Tragedy of Man was written in 1860, and while some philosophical deliberations do appear in it, the language and the message of the play should be intelligible to an average person with secondary school education. (Not to mention that the play forms part of the national curriculum for schools who usually have organized trips to the theatre to see it.) Besides being a forgery, however, the Madách Theatre's "text variation" is also a depoetization, a primitive simplification and, quite often, defiles the text and the prosody. The whole production was conceived in the same spirit. A ballroom orchestra is arranged on an estrade in the middle of the revolving stage (sometimes disappearing from view, sometimes popping up, as if in the Folies Bergères of Paris), playing music "appropriate" to the actual historical scene. We are treated to a tune from Aida for the Egyptian scene, then to a popular syrtos for the Athenean scene, the Neapolitan song O sole mio for the Rome scene (!), Mozart's Sarabande in Constantinople during the Crusades, the cancan from Offenbach's Orpheus in the Underworld in Paris during the French Revolution, and the song The streets in London are numerous from a Hungarian operetta for the London scene, and so on. The choir of angels sing Madách's words to Beethoven's Ode to Joy. The whole thing resembles a cheap gala performance on a commercial TV channel. Three actors and three actresses play the parts of Adam and Eve in succession, probably to demonstrate the aging of mankind. We might have suspected a case of deliberate comedy, or parody even, had we been oblivious to the director's mentality, to his diligence in satisfying the demands of shallow taste. There is an element of schizophrenia in the production, in that we can perceive a calculated entrepreneurial spirit at work on the one hand, and a militant messianism on the other.

The real Madách parody is produced by the alternative theatre group Mozgó Ház Társulás (Moving House Company), without actually claiming to be such. The group was formed five years ago in opposition to the institution of official theatres, catching the public's attention through their cheeky and highly talented re-interpretations of classic plays (Shakespeare, Beckett). These off-beat productions used the originals as raw material, producing a peculiar brand of subcultural values. Lately the younger members of the group began to show off. With Chekhov's Cherry Orchard, they produced a highly effective but not really profound potpourri, complete with video clips, small etudes and nude scenes, inevitably earning them international success. As a result, their latest production was financed jointly by the Berliner Festspiele and the Avignon Festival. Hence the Tragédia-jegyzetek (Tragedy Notes) based on Madách's work. The director László Hudi made it clear that he wanted to concentrate not on the work itself, but on his own generation's relation to it. This in itself guarantees that those who do not know the play would not learn much about it from this production. (Which is fair enough: a theatrical performance should not be expected to form part of a public education campaign on drama.) We see eleven actors face the audience behind a long table, devoting themselves to the task of eating apples (obviously from the Tree of Knowledge). In front of them there are video cameras disguised as microphones, capable of showing the face of any one of them on one of the two large monitors, montaged into the films shown. Operating the cameras and the projectors from behind the control desk, the Omnipotent of the Almighty Multimedia co-ordinates this classico-historico-geografico-pornografico show; he is perhaps the alternative personification of God Almighty. Ingenuity and professionalism hallmark the stage sets and the costumes, the light effects and the props. Shown through a distorting lens on the monitors, the mugging and grimacing create a caricature of mimicry. Creation is presented as a science-fiction parody, and history consists of idiotic disputes, gymnastic exercises and infantile handicraft classes. There are surrealistic associations: in Egypt, we have "desert" sand blown by a vacuum cleaner from a shovel; we witness the diagnosis of Miltiades's wounds and a bandaged arm manipulated as a marionette figure in the Athens scene; sex symbols in Rome; currency symbols in medieval Prague, where Kepler is prostituting his talents; the Eiffel Tower put to the guillotine and a bucket of blue blood in revolutionary Paris; factory mass production on a conveyor belt and Orwellian turmoil in Fourier's phalanstery. We are treated to a torrent of associations, all wildly eclectic, through a cascade of texts and pictures, a caricature of the Tragedy. But with Hamlet I might ask "What is the matter?" There is no answer to that.

The Tragedy of Man is one of the few mythologizing dramas in Hungarian literature, if not the only one. What we are witnessing are belated attempts to fabricate the missing dramatic mythology. Even by resorting to foreign help, if necessary. This was how the production A magyar mennyegzõ (The Hungarian Wedding) recently came about at the Katona József Theatre of Kecskemét, based on Stanislav Wyspianski's work. Polish historical drama was born out of poetic mythology; the best known example is perhaps Wyspianski's Wedding, thanks to Andrzej Wajda's movie version. It was written exactly a hundred years ago, at the fin de siècle. It focuses on a village wedding that took place in real life. Less than six months after the ceremony the participants were sitting in the theatre, watching the première of the play which portrayed themselves under their real names. The wedding between an urban intellectual, the groom, and a peasant girl symbolized the actual social programme-national unity as a patriotic duty. The visionary scenes that emerge from the pictures of the wedding served to promote a symbolism elevated to poetic dimensions. In the manner of some ghosts, all the great figures of Polish history appear during a drunken revelry, bringing messages from the past, calling for a peasant uprising, a fight for freedom and national independence. Then the sobering dawn finds all the guests in a deep sleep: by cock crow their flash-in-the-pan patriotism all but dies out, and readiness for action proves an illusion.

Géza Bodolay, the author of the adaptation who is also the director, thought that it was possible to substitute the Polish references, largely incomprehensible to Hungarian audiences, with corresponding Hungarian ones. His wedding takes place in a Hungarian village near Cegléd, rather than near Cracow; the guests dance the Hungarian csárdás rather than the polka; and a Hungarian Scarecrow is invited to the occasion, rather than the Polish Chochol; the apparitions also come from Hungarian history, rather than from Polish. The Magyarized text is complemented with the poems of Endre Ady, the Hungarian symbolist poet and a contemporary of Wyspianski's, as these poems are similarly accurate reflections of the turn-of-the-century sentiments in Hungary. Regardless of all this, Hungarian Wedding does not work, mainly for two reasons. On the one hand, the historical background is different. In Hungary, which celebrated the millennium of the Hungarian conquest in 1896, the ideals of national freedom were not currently on the agenda: at that time the Austro-Hungarian Monarchy was going through a very intense phase of bourgeois development, industrialization and urbanization. The urban intelligentsia was not seeking any alliance with the peasantry, and the ghosts of the past would have been wasting their time in trying to rally support for their cause; the picture of peasant armies waiting for orders with their scythes beaten into swords is simply anachronistic. On top of that, the Hungarian theatre has no analogous play to work with or against—this is the other reason why the Magyarized version cannot resonate for an audience. Since poetic symbolism is entirely absent in the Hungarian theatrical tradition, Hungarian audiences do not understand mythologization in verse. It is thus futile to back-project onto a curtain the fata morgana of Hortobágy, the very symbol of Hungarian illusions, for the belated creation of theatrical mythology itself is an illusion.

Endre Ady, whose poetry features in Wyspianski's text, was a scourge of contemporary rural Hungary, and himself one of the nation's great sobersides. What he achieved in his poetry, his friend, the outstanding novelist of the first half of the century, Zsigmond Móricz did in prose. In his novels, and partly in his plays (both those that he wrote and fiction adapted to the stage by others), he unmasked the social anomalies of the gentry in rural Hungary. Instead of poetic-symbolist works, these are down-to-earth pieces of stern realism, the diagnosis of real life. Rokonok (Family Relations) is the most famous. It is about the reign of nepotism, corruption and the economic and political "mafias" in the provinces (at a time when this word still meant nothing). The central character is one István Kopjáss, who is elected the town's chief prosecutor on his reputation as an honest and insignificant man "not involved in any scandal". However, it is the hope that he would be corruptible that inspired his patrons. Determined to clean up the town's public life, Kopjáss sets down to work, and he soon comes across cases of fraud, dubious bank dealings, bribery, and family enterprises financed from municipal loans, in which the mayor and the local bank manager are implicated, as are numerous civil servants and their kin. As soon as he starts unravelling the cases, with the guileful support of his superiors, he finds himself entangled in corruption: for the lifestyle befitting his position, he is expected to be socially prominent, suitably housed and those who come to his help here are those who he wants to unmask. Inevitably, the relatives also knock on the door to ask for small favours. All along Kopjáss deludes himself by saying that he will accept favours only until he reveals the truth: when he discovers that his reputation is irrevocably tainted, he commits suicide.

László Babarczy, who directed this adaptation for the Csiky Gergely Theatre of Kaposvár, could safely assume that the audience was familiar with similar cases from the press and television. The book has lost none of its topicality since its original publication; indeed, after the Communist intermezzo—with the revival of true parliamentary democracy and a market economy—history seems to have picked up the thread remarkably easily. This is all emphasized, when the relatives asking for money call out to Chief Prosecutor Kopjáss from the auditorium, clambering up the stage from there, while he occasionally walks to the front of the stage, so as to peer into the future from a tiny wrought-iron pulpit in the manner of a man who is satisfied with his prospects. By recalling similar "cases" from their own experience, the audience theatrically, or mythologically if you like, relives the situaiton and judges accordingly.

Titanic vízirevû (Titanic Water Show) by the young playwright István Tasnádi could even be called a myth parody, if provincialism, pettiness and operetta-like nostalgia counted as myths. In this grotesque piece, there is a small-time conman whose great ambition is to play the male lead in an operetta and to sing a duet with the Famous Diva. Another character is a peasant boy turned local Mafioso, who grew up on Ady poems as recited by a legendary actor of the recent past, which does not prevent him from owning the trendiest night club, complete with female wrestlers. There is also a poetic metaphor in the play: the Hungarian Titanic. This is a small boat sunk into the bed of the sluggish river near the village roughly round the time that the Austro-Hungarian Monarchy went down, but with the help of the mayor and some local businesses it has now been restored in order to hold an operetta gala on board, with the Diva wrapped up in the Hungarian tricolour, singing operetta numbers at the prow of the boat as some kind of a Nike; the boat would then sail from the village, up the Tisza, then onto the Danube, up to Vienna, reaching Germany and passing through 150 European cities, then out into the open seas as far as Greenwich, where it would cross the meridian of Greenwich just in time to enter the twenty-first century. Unless it runs aground just outside the village, that is. Together with the "shipload of harmony" and all the phantasmagoria holding sway over the operetta-singer profiteer and the poetically-inclined-the mayor/innkeeper, who sank all the village's government subsidies into the boat project, the village teacher, like Penelope raising her children alone and waiting for their father, the post office miss, who burnt all her bridges behind her on the road to a career in operetta and her prosaic night soil collector, and the entire local amateur rock theatre company. In short, everyone who travels to the European Union on the wrecked little boat.

The allegory forms only the tip of the iceberg; the irony of Titanic Water Show delivers its impact below the water line, with the precise characterization and verbal mannerisms of the figures, which graphically express the mentality of the age, its delusory mythology based on commercialism. Tasnádi's stylistic armory spans from cabaret wit to vulgarity. But only one half comes from the text; the other half is from the actors of Bárka Theatre, directed by Eszter Novák.

The tragicomedy of the century is elegantly summed up in György Spiró's play, Honderû. The title is a pun impossible to translate: it refers to the grammatically slightly incorrect French expression honte de rue (the shame of the street), pronounced very close to the Hungarian word honderû. The latter is a somewhat outmoded compound word (and also the title of a magazine published at around the middle of the last century), meaning national mirth, joy at home. The play's characters use it among themselves as a catchword when they want to comment on something very stupid. All are members of the so-called Christian middle class, all fought in the Great War, all were taught some Latin and Greek and so can quote a few Classical tags; they know who the best ophthalmic surgeon is; they all fought on the Russian front, all have been interned, worked as car drivers and coal carriers, etc. In other words, they lived through, and survived, the twentieth century, treating it with the gallant, derogatory, sarcastic "honderû" that it deserves in their view. Three somewhat debilitated but still presentable gentlemen, who duel with the sword for the honour of a charming lady, a widow four times over, strictly in accordance with the rules, because forms should be observed: without respect for them everything would fall apart. The whole thing is, of course, terribly out-moded, and this is pointed out by the debt collector—the old lady refuses to pay her electricity and gas bill, not because she has not got the money but because she has moral objections, the electricity and the gas are disconnected, the old lady uses candles and a primus stove, the man has just come to collect the debt—so the debt-collector thinks the whole thing is terribly outmoded, the duel, the gallantry, the Classical education, the respect for forms, and the rest. The debt collector is absolutely right, this is all terribly out-moded, this is the age of general barbarism, baseness and one cannot do anything about it except for writing a play about it.

Through his characters, Spiró gives us his view on the human condition in this new world, with all its boasters and ignorant loud-mouths who think that history began with them ("Kindly learn your way around the country in which we happen to live"), and does that in a rather outmoded fashion, as far as dramaturgy and language are concerned. Like his characters, he respects the forms: he insists on proper conversation and well-constructed sentences in his dialogue. That can be achieved only with the help of "outmoded" actors in the Budapest Kamaraszínház, under Péter Valló's direction. True, they are young for their parts, but these actors put up with the trials, ailments and the proximity of death with the mannerisms, bearing and unaffected charm of old age, so that their performance is itself a testimony to agelessness (and immortality).

They really deem tragedy a comedy.

Tamás Koltai, editor of Színház, a theatre monthly, is The Hungarian Quarterly's regular theatre reviewer.

SOURCE: Koltai, Tamás. “Tragedies and Comedies,” The Hungarian Quarterly, VOLUME XL * No. 156 * Winter 1999.

The Tragedies of Man” by Tamás Koltai

Heroism and Failure” by Tamás Koltai

Futurology, Science Fiction, Utopia, and Alienation
in the Work of Imre Madách, György Lukács, and Other Hungarian Writers:
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From Eden to Cain: Unorthodox Interpretations & Literary Transformations:
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