ISSN 2451-2966


Andrea Tompa

And the Winner Is… Appointing Artistic Directors in Hungary

Hungary National Theatre in Budapest. Photographer: Misibacsi, CC BY-SA 3.0. Source:

Hungary National Theatre in Budapest. Photographer: Misibacsi, CC BY-SA 3.0. Source:

Read Abstract

The current paper presents those processes which characterizes the appointment of a leadership of Hungarian cultural institutions. Public theaters, performing arts institutions and independent theaters stay in the focus of the paper. Looking at such cases as National Theater in Budapest, New Theater, Trafó etc.  the paper demonstrates political interference and intervention into the appointment of a leader of an institution by the ministry/local government. Also the paper analyzes the vulnerable legal frames and the weaknesses of these processes; lack of transparency of the processes, lack of understanding of what is of “public benefit”, lack of public and professional control over the processes result into politically biased decision making. The paper states that after the conservative political turn in 2010 these biased political decisions became a general practice; exceptions are rare.

<nd the Winner Is…: ppointing Artistic Directors in Hungary

The aim of this article is to present the situation of arts institutions in Hungary today, with a special focus on theaters. I will look at the present and past of institutions, especially practices of political interference in their leadership and management, which has been increasing since 2010. As a writer and theater critic, editor-in-chief of the journal Színház [Theater], former board member for independent performing-arts, created by the ministry culture to give funds for this field, and editor of a programme on public radio, I’ve been closely following and reflecting on these processes.

In the current Hungarian cultural-policy environment, becoming an artistic director / general manager of an institution no longer depends on professional excellence or one’s achievements. Political connections and being politically acceptable and ‘on the right side’ – the ruling one, that is – are almost the exclusive requirements and are decisive for being appointed to such a position.

When Tamás Jordán, the founder and artistic director of the Weöres Sándor Theatre, who opened the theatre in Szombathely and directed it since 2008, was rejected for the position of artistic director after a project competition in March 2017, only a professional scandal broke out, but not a political one. Though Jordán, a well-known and appreciated actor, had displayed great merits as the theatre’s artistic director, managing to open a new building and build up a rare and consistent artistic programme in the provinces, that wasn’t convincing for the local government, the mayor of which is a representative of the Christian Democratic People’s Party, in the coalition with the governing Fidesz party. Jordán was strongly supported as artistic director by the small, prestigious group Actors of the Nation and other small organizations, but this changed nothing. No justification of the local government’s decision was announced; legal frameworks aren’t in place which would require political leaders to justify such decisions, or to declare in this case why Jordán’s application or person did not meet the expectations of local authorities. Such expectations are not presented for public scrutiny or for debate by the public and the professional community. Yet such non-transparent, politically biased decisions have become everyday practice. After the controversial decision of the local government and outcry from professional circles, Jordán was reappointed as managing director in the second round, that is, after a second competition.

Hungary, in 1986, with its progressive socialism had paradoxically been first in Eastern Europe to introduce a system of competitions for directors of theatres. It had been part of early democratization in the country. But this democratic tool was never really transparent in its implementation in ways that could satisfy expectations of professionals, and politics could never refrain from interfering. Today, by law, public institutions have managing directors appointed through competition processes. Committees for evaluating competing applications may be involved – these are so-called professional boards or committees. But the final decision can only be made by the ‘owner’s’ representative, the local government, the ministry and so forth: that is, by politicians.

In Hungarian cultural and political documents, the state – local governments, ministries – is referred as the ‘owner’, a term used by its representatives, as well. Since there is a lack of understanding about what is ‘public’ and about what is of public benefit, the concept of ownership doesn’t belong to the public but to the state, to the public authorities. The use of ‘owner’reflects this characteristic confusion in Hungary. Who actually owns cultural institutions? The state, or ‘the people? I also use the term to emphasize that political power often looks at public property as personal.

Local governments, whether city or county, or the ministry ‘own’ these public institutions. The public is the real owner, but the elected bodies represent those real owners: taxpayers. Often, this results in invisible ownership of theatres by local governments – especially given how the representatives (politicians) behave, and not only when appointing the ‘right’ leaders. Though there aren’t such practices as those prevalent in the 1970s and 1980s, when repertoire was controlled in advance and subject to authorization, I recall a recent situation in the Katona József Theatre in Budapest, when a politically scandalous play written and directed by Béla Pintér, The Champion,was the subject of political attacks on the theatre; the major ‘party’ magazine Heti Válasz published the ‘official’ opinion, condemning the production.1The conservative periodical Magyar Időkreminded readers that Gábor Máté, the artistic director, was appointed by the Fidesz majority of the Budapest city council, but ‘ we will get rid of him again’.2 No direct critical opinion by the authorities was expressed, of course. Early in 2012, the director of the National Theatre was invited in by the parliament’s culture committee to discuss his new production: in classic Hungarian drama Az ember tragédiája [Tragedy of Man], where ‘naked’ young people were on stage – more accurately, actors in swimsuits.

Many scandals, removals of management, bad choices and politically biased decisions had characterized the 1990s, as well.3 But by the late 1990s, it was expected that an entirely transparent, democratic decision-making practice would come to be elaborated – yet through personal lobbying, unprofessional decisions and political interference, such rules have at every opportunity been rewritten.

As political culture has deteriorated, these decision have become not only politically biased but also highly personalized, and the processes increasingly easy to manipulate. The turn in management of provincial theaters dates from 2007: conservative local Fidesz governments took more and more control over theatres. Already by 2008, seven theatre companies had new and ‘trustworthy’ management, led by directors who had announced clear right-wing affiliations. It was symptomatic when the Szigligeti Theatre in Szolnok, another provincial theatre with a controversial artistic directorship of long standing, got a new artistic director who wasn’t ‘on the list’ of the proposal-making board, which is to say wasn’t proposed by that board as a potential director. With seven applicants for this position, the board proposed another candidate’s project by a unanimous vote. The local government finally picked a different appointee, Péter Balázs. When a large group of artists protested the decision, an arrogant response came from the local government: ‘the tail is wagging the dog’, they said, meaning no people, professionals or public, should tell the local government what to do and whom to pick. Then in 2010, after elections and the new regime of Prime Minister Viktor Orbán, numerous Budapest theatres were also ‘occupied’, which is to say that at the József Attila, Új Színház, Thália, Pesti Magyar and the National Theatres, political appointees received the directors’ jobs.

Lack of Transparency

One of the most important criteria for democratic processes concerns their transparency.The entire process of appointment to public institutions including theatres is very vulnerable, with legal frameworks missing and competence levels, rights and obligations left unclear.

What makes these appointments non-transparent is characterized by the following steps:

• invisible strategies and expectations of the owner (that is, the state, ministry or local government), which prevent a (local or national) cultural-policy strategy that would be reflected in clearly articulated calls for proposals and applications • no open or debated evaluation processes of projects for public institutions where the ‘owner’, the public, could express opinions, expectations, criticisms • if there are any ‘professional’ boards involved, evaluating competing projects, there is a lack of really independent, professional representatives and experts in the decision-making, or more often such committees are biased from the beginning of their involvement, or appointed members of the committees are controversial, not representative • the competence of such committees or proposal-making boards to evaluate projects and proposals is limited to only evaluating and/or proposing prospective leadership appointees • no legal framework regarding what their proposal would mean – what their role will be, if it is obligatory to accept the proposed project, and what will happen if it is not implemented • ‘closed doors’ during voting by local governments, ministries, etc. • no legal framework for political bodies to announce decisions to the public; lack of open communication by decision-makers • no legal requirement for political boards to justify a different decision from the one proposed by the professional board • candidates for management positions are not expected to make public their projects public either before or after the decision • finally, there are no evaluation criteria (except the financial one) for a public performing-arts institution, no consensus on ‘achievement’, ‘excellence’, ‘public service’, ‘quality’, ‘success’, ‘commercial’, etc.

This lack of transparency in decision-making results in professional and civil organizations that are unable to control these processes.

Since theatres are public institutions, they can be viewed as engaged in public service; yet there is little understanding of what is of ‘public benefit or interest’. Why are both commercial theatres and art theatres considered of public benefit? The decades-long struggle by public media shows the lack of such understanding; public media, always used as a political tool, after the elections in 2010 became a simple propaganda tool of the government, with no access to different opinions any longer.

There’s a saying today that ‘the competition’s opened when the winner’s already known’. Decision-making at cultural institutions has long since ceased to be a competition for projects, views, values, which would best serve the audience. It’s a competition for people who are trustworthy thus have political support.

There’s no legal framework which would force representatives of the ‘owners’ – that is, the state and local governments – to present winning projects to the public for evaluation, either before or after decisions are made. Sometimes such projects are published against the writers’ wills. Often this ‘WikiLeaks effect’ works – and often scandalous, ridiculous projects are made available.

Transparent, democratic, open processes of appointing directors to any culture institution aren’t even mocked anymore. The arrogance of power and the ruling party no longer requires masking these biased processes, either from public discussion or from professional organizations or their representatives. The powers that be have their preferred organizations: the ones best serving their interests. And such organizations are always available or can be easily created. In every field of art, there are at least two major organizations, considered representative of the two sides, the liberal and the conservative ones. But the first ‘became’ the ‘liberal’ one once the second had been created on a clearly political basis, often with great influence and access to resources. Becoming liberal means that before a second (right-wing) organization was created, the first one had a neutral political position or ‘colour’; then once the right-wing organization appeared, the already functioning one was labeled as liberal.

Hungary doesn’t have a strong festival culture; POSZT, the only big national theatre festival, held in Pécs, was gradually compromised and destroyed in recent years. That process is easy to understand: the festival’s ownership was changed, and the right-wing organization got a part. Originally owned by the Pécs city authorities (66 per cent) and by the ‘liberal’ theater organization Magyar Színházi Társaság [the Hungarian Theatre Society], the new right-wing organization Magyar Teátrumi Társaság [the Hungarian Theatre Association] got half ownership of the liberal organization – that is, it bought that ownership. The liberal organization was forced by the Pécs local government to sell half its ownership, with rumours saying that they could thus ‘save’ the festival.

So two professional organizations own the festival, which got new directorship and boards. But the right-wing organization is far better at lobbying and advocacy – and far more aggressive. At first, all results in terms of concept, selection, programming, the off programme, prizes, etc., increasingly became compromises, then visibly became the full success of the right-wing organization. As the right-wing organization represents most provincial theatres, the festival programme shows a general counterpoint by those theatres to Budapest theatres. And a painful lack of independent theatres.

Programme selectors, delegated by the right-wing organization, often have conflicts of interest with the selections: they are artists, theatre directors active in the field, and have contracts with certain theatres. To offer a striking example: in 2015, Attila Vidnyánszky, director of the National Theatre (his appointment will be appraised below), received four major prizes at the festival. One of the two selectors of the official programme was Vidnyánszky’s former dramaturge, the critic Tibor Balogh. The Hungarian Critics’ Association had delegated a strong critic, Judit Csáki, as a jury member; the right-wing organization rejected Csáki for the jury. Other critics, including me, boycotted the festival for that reason.

The powers that be have learned much from ‘mistakes of the past’, from times when evaluating / proposal-making committees were made up of independent professionals and proposals for positions weren’t ‘good’ ones from the point of view of local politics. Thus the time has come for the ‘right’ committees, which will support the ‘right’ candidates.

People, Not Projects

Hungarian culture-policy decisions in recent years – with special focus on performing-arts institutions – can be characterized as having several major tendencies: creating strong, influential institutions with big budgets; controlling existing institutions; and, finally, threatening and/or destroying those on the cultural peripheries, especially independent civil culture and its organizations.

Elections in April 2010, won by the right-wing, conservative Fidesz party, was defined by Prime Minister Orbán as a ‘revolution in the polling booths’, thus opening the way to anyone ‘revolutionary’ and allowing any radical tool to be used.4 The real Kulturkampf, the struggle for culture, began in 2010 but in three or four years, it basically ended in full victory.

On the culture field, the radical change of the liberal ‘old elite’ to the ‘new elite’ became a most important, frequently declared project. Awards, grants, state honours, powerful and influential positions, and budgets, of course, are steps in creating these new, elite, strong institutions. The most controversial and most powerful of these is the Magyar Művészeti Akadémia, [MMA, Hungarian Arts’ Academy].5 Created to counterbalance the existing Hungarian Academy of Science, this new organization came under the protection of the Hungarian Constitution in June 2011; its budget, scope, influence and wealth at all cultural levels and on issues has grown each year. In 2016, the MMA budget became 6 billion forint (around 19 million euro).

MMA is a political rather than an artistic body; its members are clearly right-wing artists, often quite old and male, and support for national, patriotic, conservative values is made the full and declared priority. MMA’s president is the controversial György Fekete, now 85 years old, with ultra-conservative arts’ and political views. Young people and independent-artist groups demonstrated against this exclusive organization. A ‘little brother’ of MMA was recently created through personal lobbying, to deal with talent management for young writers. That new institution has a far larger budget than do all four important writers’ organizations added together.

Centralization is an essential process across the entire country; creating huge institutions with big budgets, one omnipotent leader best serves the implementation of the political will. Culture is part of that gigantic ministry, reduced to a single department. The National Cultural Fund, the most important grant-giving body and originally a progressive institution, the outreach arm of the state, was penetrated by MMA members, and today its president is the minister of culture. The restraint of any arm’s length separation from politics was definitively given up.

Why has such a struggle been undertaken to control culture institutions – theatres, museums, culture centers, and also other scientific institutions – and to appoint politically biased artistic directors? One wonders, as in the current political environment, culture plays a non-essential role. Ours is an era of populism, focused on populist state investments, first and foremost on football. It’s also an anti-intellectual, anti-elitist era, where the ‘old intellectual elite’ is being consciously and steadily cleared away.

There are several answers to the question. Traditionally, theatre is important in Hungarian culture, especially in the provinces where there aren’t many culture institutions – thus they should definitely be ruled by ‘our people’. Some major culture institutions – including the Hungarian National Opera and the National Theatre – represent ‘national’ symbols. But there is also another past, which makes such tools easy to use: traditionally weak transparency in democratic processes; weak professional organizations and a powerless civil society (the one big recent success by a civil movement resulted in the withdrawal of bids for the 2024 Olympic Games); and a lack of mobility among artistic-director positions.6 Such directors tend to stay fifteen or twenty years or more in their roles, which gives the certain system a certain gravity and inertia.

In recent years in the context of Hungarian theatre, this has resulted in some scandalous, painful situations, of which I’m going to look at three cases.

The National Theatre

The National Theater in Hungary has a long, difficult story; its new, controversial building was built by the first Fidesz government and opened in 2002. The building has a scandalous history – originally planned to be built in the city centre by the liberal government and later moved to the outskirts by the conservative Fidesz – and reflects the ‘national kitsch’ taste. The appointment of the new directorship was among the all-time biggest scandals in Hungarian theatre culture.7

Róbert Alföldi, an actor, director and media celebrity, took up directorship of the National Theatre after at least one unsuccessful application to another Budapest theater – at that time, at 33, he could certainly not become a director, for young artists haven’t been accepted in management positions in Hungary since the social transformations. It’s also important to note that in Budapest currently, the average age of artistic directors is 59; in the provinces, it’s 62. Compared to today’s appointment practices, one wonders if it would be possible now to open a theater such as Katona József, started in 1982 with two talented young artists and a company supported by the state – by the Party. It makes it look like the 1980s could be more progressive than our day.

Alföldi, appointed in 2008 during the liberal government, turned the National Theatre into one of Budapest’s most lively and progressive places, with productions responding to the contemporary world, the social environment. His proactive communication was present during the long, sometimes frightening process of persecuting the National Theatre after 2010. Upon his appointment, one of his opponents competing for the directorship had stated that a Protestant heterosexual couldn’t have received the appointment, hinting that Alföldi isn’t Christian and isn’t heterosexual. Such openly anti-Semitic and homophobic discourse arrived at the parliament level when, immediately after elections in 2010, Alföldi became a target of the Jobbik (far right) party, whose key mission in the culture field was to remove him.

The persecution of the National Theatre and Alföldi, which became very much linked, had many tough scenes, including a Jobbik demonstration at the theatre in December 2010. Parliament members, mostly Jobbik PMs, discussed how national Hungarian classics should be shown, what the correct interpretation of such texts. The theatre was accused of being pornographic, morally harmful and anti-Hungarian. Demonizing Alföldi was one of the major tools for change.8 Finally, he wasn’t dismissed from his position, but it was evident he couldn’t win in another competition.

Attila Vidnyászky, competing for the position, became a favourite of the political powers. Vidnyánszky also joined the anti-Alföldi and anti–National Theatre discourse of politicians commenting on productions from moral points of view and criticizing the theatre. The post-election rise of Vidnyánszky was spectacular: with a full professorship at the Theatre Academy in Kaposvár, head of the minister of culture’s advisory committee and other responsibilities, Vidnyánszky is today considered the most powerful culture-policy maker in the conservative government. One lacks clear access to the National Theatre’s current budget, but its annual MITEM international festival (created with no competition) and its two regular journals indicate a wealthy institution.

Since the social transformation in 1990, only Alföldi’s management at the National has not been permitted a second term to run the theatre. Support from the public during the final months of his directorship had a level never seen in this country. The theatre’s popularity increased drastically when the situation – the pending change of management – became evident; tickets were sold more quickly than ever before. People at the final performances held ‘Thank you’ placards. In spring 2013, a civil petition was issued in defense of the current management, opposing threats to Alföldi. There were tears at all events. When at last his team had to leave, a hugeevent was organized inside and outside the theater, with thousands in attendance. These final months were documented by director András Salamon in the film Nemzeti Dokumentumfilm [National Documentary Film]. The amount of support in the media also deserves mention.

New Theater

In Budapest after the 2010 elections, the most controversial appointment happened at the Új Színház [New Theater]. Director György Dörner was first appointed in October 2011, then reappointed in 2016. Dörner’s first application, published illegally on the Internet, was more a political pamphlet than a professional proposal; that application adopts the language and ideology of the extreme right.<9> He proposes to have a theatre of ‘real national values’, ‘real Hungarian spirit’, a theatre that ‘will represent the Hungarian nation suffering under social-liberal domination’, with its collaborators referred to as fighters and warriors. War is declared against the ‘egotistical, over-confident theatre clan which has ruled for 80 to 100 years’. The intendant declares: ‘[After opening the theatre] I will rely first of all on a national-Christian audience, on my combatants’ support and on their renewed appetite for the fight’. The national-Christian audience in Dörner’s proposal is understood to be ‘those Hungarians who believe in nation’. (The artistic director being active on the extreme right, and seen at Jobbik party events.) According to his faith and to his proposal, since his appointment Dörner has organized an annual Christian Theatre Festival.

In this case, the professional advisory board had proposed a different person: the theatre’s previous director. The mayor of Budapest didn’t feel it necessary to explain why he ignored that recommendation by the theater community and appointed Dörner. Scandals and demonstrations followed, but did not change the decision.

The real surprise, however, came in autumn 2016 when Dörner was reappointed. It looks like the local government of Budapest is satisfied with his work. What had seemed a bad mistake has become a rule. The difference in 2016 was the lack of any scandal: again, such decisions have become the norm. In 2011, Dörner had been an ‘extreme’; by 2016, that was a norm, something seemingly acceptable. Yet when Prime Minister Orbán gave a state award in 2016 to the extremist journalist Zsolt Bayer, who spreads hatredmore than a hundred,10 Hungarian intellectuals holding that same award returned theirs to the state.

And for the New Theatre directorship, though in recent years there has been perceptible apathy in applying for such positions, as artist-managers are fully aware of politically biased selections, twelve application projects were put on the table. Emerging and talented young companies and different groups of artists competed. In the hopes of change? Or of using this democratic tool to apply pressure on politics? Some have stated that they had no real hope for winning but wanted to give it a try and wrote excellent projects, visions for a future theatre. Viktor Bodó, the well-known director, and k2, the independent group, and other young people applied. In any case, an added value of 2016 was these projects, which remained and which will remain in the drawer.

Artists vs. Managers: Trafó

It’s symptomatic that most important among Budapest repertory theaters today are those led by actors. Theatres including the Katona, Örkény, Radnóti, Vígszínház, and also the József Attila and Újszínház, have well-known actors as managing directors; some have had directors in such positions before. Understanding culture-policy processes in Russia of the past and present, one can see a tradition of great actors as managers who are accepted at the power level of leadership. Actors are often loved, thus are accepted by the powers, viewed as less dangerous people, less prone to speak out.

This shift, from directors to actors in such positions (very few actor-directors led theatres in the 1970s and 1980s), shows that at present it’s easier to gain acceptance as a well-know, established actor than as a director who’s often in the shadows. Art theaters such as the Katona, Örkény, Víg and Radnóti have been able to continue their artistic programmes without necessarily being under threat in applying for support. (Only the Víg Theatre had to fight strongly for the local government’s support.) In some cases – since these are established, important companies with prestige and achievements – there were no other applicants, as with the Katona. So it’s not a rule that allartistic directors are political appointees at present; in some cases – though these are few – professionals can lead theaters. If there’ve been any deals behind the curtains, nobody can tell.

But managers as artistic directors are most easily removed, since they aren’t viewed as artists. There’s the very sad case of the most important and progressive of Budapest’s contemporary performing-arts centres: the Trafó Kortárs Művészetek Háza Magyarországon [Trafó Contemporary Arts’ House]. Trafó’s founder, manager György Szabó, couldn’t continue his successful artistic programme after 2012, when local government declared the application process was unsuccessful, and didn’t appoint an artistic director.

There was fear that important national and international values that Trafó represented, dealing with the independent scene, would be destroyed. For the first time, wide-spread civil debate was organized about the role and functions of Trafó, and strong support was shown by the entire scene and public, not only for the program and values but also for the current management, which is to say Szabó. That debate was held in Trafó. But it wasn’t enough to convince the local government about the importance of continuity. Again, a non-transparent deal with the local Budapest government followed a new application process, and dancer-choreographer József Nagy (know internationally as Josef Nadj) became executive director, and Szabó, the previous manager, was named as managing director. A ‘silent social contract’ was accepted that Szabó would continue to do the same work, programming and planning, without being the artistic director.

In spring 2017, Trafó again was in a competition for new management, raising fears and questions again. The only applicant for the position of general director, Beáta Barda – the centre’s artistic director – was appointed. The appointments of Jordán and Barda are considered the 2017 season’s most important achievements. Cautious questions remain, as silent agreements defend both parties; when discussing such solutions, we’d rather bury our heads in the sand and try not to name what’s happened, thinking we can save a value named Trafó.

Such silent contracts aren’t rare, and were a ‘good’ practice in the 1970s and 1980s, as it resolved situations. Such solutions, however, are painful, for they don’t serve the development of democratic practices.


Though one can also report also on important new venues for independent performing arts including the Jurányi House and the Sín Culture Center – both are incubators for independent work – the biggest victim of the performing-arts scene since 2010 is the independent scene. This rich scene includes companies, artists and venues surviving on annual public grants, but whose leaders aren’t controllable, as they lead independent, which is to say private, organizations. Since independent work is often more political and radical, it became more dangerous for the powers, as well. A different tool of control was used against this scene: control of grants, and rewriting their legal frameworks.

The Hungarian independent-theater scene reached its maturity in 2010, which paradoxically marked the beginning of that scene’s dismantling.11 A decade of lobbying by independent artists, on one hand, and of national and international recognition and success of the Krétakör Company on the other, had resulted in a first-time state guarantee for this field. Passed in 2008, the so-called Performing Arts Law guaranteed 10 per cent for the independent field from the entire theatre subsidy in Hungary. This guarantee marked a big, important result in establishing this field, its professionalization and potential future planning for artistic work.

The law was scheduled to begin functioning in 2010, with the notable amount of 1.2 billion forint (nearly 4.5 million euro) as a yearly, competition-based subsidy. But after the 2010 elections, the ministry of culture immediately withheld 33 per cent of this sum, which ultimately was never paid to independent theatre artists.

The dismantling of the independent scene began with abolishing the Performing Arts Law in summer 2011 and with passing a new one based on little formal consultation with professionals and organizations. The new law no longer includes any financial guarantee for independents, now categorized among ‘others’. Soon after elections, the curators for independent performing-art grants – legitimate representatives of organizations, appointed for three years by the ministry – were illegally dismissed after a year of operations (a committee of which I was a member). Most curators had been put forward by the Independent Performing Arts’ Associations; this board annually judges grant applications by independents including independent theatre, the entire dance field, theatre in education programmes and independent venues – in 2010, there had been about a hundred and twenty applications.

Board members were dismissed in the most illegitimate way, learning that we weren’t members any longer from the ministry of culture’s site, where we could read their call for applications. But only some members were kicked out: the ‘uncomfortable’ – Trafó artistic director György Szabó, the former manager of Krétakör, Máté Gáspár, and me. We issued an open letter to the ministry (published in the newspaper NépszabadÁg), requesting explanation and their motivation regarding our professional competencies. We received no reply; unfortunately, we did not sue the ministry.

Cuts in grants, late payments, unpredictable grant applications and deadlines gradually demoralized the scene. Companies fell apart, disappeared. Both Krétakör and Viktor Bodó’s company have definitively folded.

It’s important to note as well that the most important independent-theatre journal, Színház [Theatre], of which I have been editor-in-chief since 2015, also depends on annual grants from the National Cultural Fund. In recent decades, 2016 has been the most vulnerable year for Hungarian arts (literary) journals and periodicals. Our journal received only 42 per cent of the budget received in previous years. Our projected support for 2018 and 2019 is around 22 per cent, which one can only read as a conscious destruction project.

Depression, humiliation, abjection – these are states of mind among artists. Today, independent work has a different scale from that of a decade ago – it is becoming smaller and smaller, productions with fewer actors, played rarely in small rooms before small audiences. Most artists from the powerful independent directors’ generation, including Árpád Schilling, Viktor Bodó and Kornél Mundruczó, now work more internationally than in Hungary. This generation, in their forties, have not become artistic directors of theatres, nor do they have power or influence in Hungary, though both Schilling and Bodó tried this route but didn’t succeed in the present environment. Companies such as that of Béla Pintér, the biggest survivalist on the scene, have become a rare model: Pintér has a repertoire of some fifteen productions, one of the strongest audiences and performs quite frequently.

But such great theatrical value was built over almost two decades. Looking at options available to independents today in Hungary, I doubt that even talents such as Schilling and Pintér could now emerge, come of age, become strong and create work with their companies.


Tamás Jászay, 'Finita la comedia: The Debilitation of Hungarian Independent Theater’, in Critical Stages, 3, June 2013

Dragan Klaic: Resetting the Stage: Public Theater Between the Market and Democracy, Chicago University Press, 2012

Toby Miller, George Yúdice: Cultural Policy. Sage Publications, London, Thousand Oaks, New Delhi, 2002

B. Guy Peters, John Pierre (eds.): Handbook of Public Policy. Sage Publications, 2006

Iulia Popovici (ed): New Performing Arts Practices in Eastern Europe Sibiu International Theater Festival Book Collections (Chisinau: Cartier, 2014)

István Szabó: ‘Igazgatóváltás’, Ellenfény, 3, 2016

Andrea Tompa: 'Die Berufungsfarce', Theater Heute, 2, February 2013

––'Du hast gerufen, geliebter Führer!'. Theater Heute. Juli 2016

––'Theater mit dem Schwert',Theater der Zeit, October 2011

1. The conservative, pro-government Heti Válasz [Weekly Response]first published a review of the production where the critic was ‘puzzled’ by the ethical questions it raised (such as telling a story of exact family). But three days later the same media outlet made a ‘correction’ by the deputy editor-in-chief, denouncing the private life of Máté, the artistic director of the theater, going into details about abortion, etc. Tamás Ascher, director and member of Katona, recalled on his Facebook page that the previous prime minister, Ferenc Gyurcsány was also portrayed with his whole family story in a production by a conservative director. And nobody cared.

2. See also Andrea Tompa: ‘Du hast gerufen, geliebter Führer!’, Theater Heute, July 2016.

3. See István Szabó, ‘Igazgatóváltás’, EllenfÉny, 3, 2016.

4. See‘Center-right Fidesz party sweeps to victory in Hungary’, CNN Region, 26 April 2010, [accesed on 10 August 2017].

5. See George Szirtes, ‘Hungary's culture is being crushed or co-opted’, The Guardian, 6 August 2013, [accesed on 10 August 2017].

6. See ‘Hungary Withdraws Bid To Host 2024 Olympic Games In Budapest’, Hungary Today, 23 February 2017, [accesed on 10 August 2017].

7. See Andrea Tompa, 'Die Berufungsfarce', in Theater Heute, 2, February 2013, p. 67.

8. See Jonathan Levi, 'Politics Spills Onto Stage in Budapest', The New York Times, 4 April 2013, [accesed on 10 August 2017].

9. See Andrea Tompa, 'Theater mit dem Schwert', in Theater der Zeit, 11, October 2011; Phillipp Oehmke, 'Hungary's Right-Wing War on Culture', Spigiel Online [accesed on 10 August 2017].

10. [accesed on 10 August 2017].

11. See Tamás Jászay, 'Finita la comedia: The Debilitation of Hungarian Independent Theater’, in Critical Stages, 3, June 2013; Andrea Tompa, 'How Much Room? Aesthetics and Politics of Independent Performing Arts in Hungary’, in New Performing Arts Practices in Eastern Europe Sibiu International Theater Festival Book Collections, ed. Iulia Popovici (Chisinau: Cartier, 2014).

Andrea Tompa

(1971), a Hungarian theater critic, writer and academic. Her major field of interest is contemporary Hungarian and world performance. Since 2015, she is the editor-in-chief of theater journal Színház [Theater]. She is resident lecturer at Babes-Bolyai University, Cluj, Romania. She has also published three novels. She lives in Budapest.