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Culture war around the National Theatre

November 23rd, 2012

A centre-right columnist welcomes the endorsement of the left-leaning director of the National Theater by a prominent right-leaning rock musician as a rare example of how to ease tensions between opposing camps.

Róbert Alföldi, a provocative theatre director and actor whose term as the artistic director of the National Theatre of Hungary is coming to an end and who is widely expected not to win another four year term, has received a surprisingly warm open letter of endorsement from Levente Szörényi, a cult figure of the rock opera scene who is a supporter of the present government. Szörényi praises Alföldi as a director who is dedicated to the art of theatre. The two have worked together on two rock opera performances authored by Szörényi. Alföldi had been much reviled in the right-wing press and by right-wing MPs who called for his removal two years ago, when the right wing won an overwhelming majority in Parliament. The director reapplied for a position which is widely expected to go to Attila Vidnyánszky, a director favoured by the Hungarian right. “Cultural wars” between artists seen as left-liberal-alternative on the one hand and artists who profess strong national sentiments and embrace right-wing political values have been a constant feature of the political landscape in Hungary, and appointments to cultural posts often provoke outrage and even street protests. This was the case at another downtown theatre, where the previous director was replaced by a leadership accused of extreme right-wing and anti-Semitic leanings (see BudaPost, October through November, 2011). This time, however, the professional and democratic credentials of the probable winner are generally recognised, even by Alföldi’s supporters. Although important cultural positions are supposed to be filled through open competition, based on the merits of proposals, political favouritism usually carries the day.

In Heti Válasz, András Stumpf welcomes Szörényi’s letter as “good news,” and calls it a yardstick for cultural debates. “It is both disgusting and tedious” to observe how those with views to the right of centre are expected to “hate” Alföldi, while critics on the left are supposed to revile his rival, he writes. This endorsement, he argues, is not an invitation for everyone “to join hands”, but a correct way to appreciate artistic achievement. It will not be scandalous, Stumpf continues, if Alföldi does not win the competition and Vidnyánszky has his chance to produce a different type of theatre; what would have been scandalous, however, would have been to remove the present director on the insistence of right-wing MPs two years ago, before his term expired.  Stumpf finds the open competition a hypocritical practice, nonetheless, and quotes Vidnyánszky’s observation that he would prefer a simple appointment. It would be a much cleaner solution, he argues, if instead of a sham competition the director of the National Theatre were simply to be appointed by the government.

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