It happened some time at the beginning of the 1970s. I was attending the opening of an art exhibition in a small university club, in a moldy and smelly basement in downtown Budapest. A middle-aged man opened the show by reading an essay to the two dozen or so people (many of them police snitches) who had gathered for the occasion. He was wearing a dark suit with a black tie. He looked like any other suit-and-tie fellow, the party bureaucrat type, universally despised by the young people of my generation. He stood behind a small table on which I saw a white porcelain plate filled with steaming hot soup. The strange thing was that the man, while he was reading what he had written, deliberately let his tie hang into the soup. His name was Miklós Erdély, and his gesture of letting his tie hang into the soup was a forbidden form of artistic expression in Hungary at that time.
For almost half a century after World War II, the country, like most of the region, was ruled by the Communist Party (for some unfathomable reason, though, they called themselves Socialists), which was exercising total control over all segments of life, including culture. They declared themselves the sole owners and custodians of truth and maintained the right to decide what art is and what it is not. They had the full power of a police state behind them, and they did not hesitate to use it against those who dared to go against the party’s directives. Those artists who disobeyed the rules were declared enemies of the state, and they were treated accordingly. Arrests, interrogations, and home searches were common occurrences. People were blacklisted and dismissed from their jobs for writing poems, doing performances, or painting pictures that went against Party lines. An army of police informers were employed by the state security agencies to gather information on those who were suspected of having independent thoughts. Films, plays, books, and exhibitions were often banned, and artists were forbidden to keep contact with their Western colleagues. Artists needed special permits to take their own works out of the country, a permit which was as hard to obtain as a passport. Writers were not allowed to publish their writings abroad unless their works matched the Party’s standards. Miklós Erdély was one of the banned artists. He served as an important connection between the old and new generations of Hungarian avant-garde. There was still a continuity in artistic traditions in that pre-postmodern time, as older artists handed over their accumulated knowledge to new generations. I learned a great deal from Miklós Erdély, just as I built my own artistic research on the work of many other great artists of the previous generations.
Independent of the state-financed and officially approved art system, I formed my first theatre troupe, István Kovács Studio (the Hungarian equivalent of John Doe Studio) in 1971. The troupe consisted of myself, my wife, Györgyi Orsós, and our closest friends, mostly university students. We started to work in the Cultural Centre of Hungary’s largest machine and metal works factory, Ganz-MÁVAG. After our first show – The Life and Unfortunate Death of Grigoriy Yefimovich Rasputin (attended by an audience of about two dozen people, among them several police snitches) – we were notified by the management of the GM Cultural Centre that they had received a call from the state security authority ordering them to kick us out immediately. That was the beginning of a strange, seven-year long adventure: how to create independent art in a dictatorship.
With István Kovács Studio and its successors (Donauer Video Family Without Video & Friends; Donauer Arbeiter Familie Ohne Arbeit), I staged about 70 plays between 1971 and 1978. The plays were written by me, based on discussions I had with the more creative members of my troupe – Tamás Papp, György Magos, and Gergely Molnár. Due to the circumstances, we performed all of them only once. After each performance, we were invariably kicked out of the cultural institution which hosted our show. We could not rehearse our plays, either. When we held a rehearsal, the police snitches who were planted in our troupe informed the authorities about our plans, and the next day the management of the institution which had invited us to play on their stage received a phone call from above, banning our planned show.
This cat and mouse game with the authorities forced me to re-invent an ancient theatrical form: ritual theatre. Just as I was not interested in imitational theatre or representations of any kind, I did not want to do improvisational theatre, either. I scripted out each play, down to the smallest details, and used pre-recorded narrations which contained direct instructions to the performers: “The door on the left side of the stage opens. A man, wearing a fedora comes in. He walks across the stage and greets the painting, which hangs on the front wall, by tipping his hat…” The performers had nothing else to do but to listen to the narration carefully and follow the instructions. The audience found these narrations irresistibly funny, especially if – either accidentally or deliberately – something different happened on the stage from what the narrator had just announced. They took any deviance from the narration as a joke on the Party’s practice of narrating events and regularly misinterpreting the facts. Up until this day, I often employ narrations in my plays. The times have changed, indeed, but techniques of manipulation have remained basically the same.
Some parts of the Communist regime’s secret archives are now free for research. I learned from the documents that my theatre and I were put under police surveillance right from the very beginning, in 1971. Several of the people I thought of as my closest friends were regularly informing the anti-culture commando, the feared Department III/III of the state security agency, about my activities. They gave detailed reports on our private lives, about our plans and performances, and they were trying to destroy my troupe from the inside, by pitting us against each other. Several additional informers were planted within the troupe as we became more and more known in the country.
Ten years after the fall of Communism, I met one of these fellows, a photographer whom I suspected of being a snitch from the moment he joined us decades ago. He was simply too considerate and dependable to be an artist. He was there at each of our meetings, came always on time, listened carefully to everything I said, and he was great at solving practical problems. The photographs he took were always sharp, as opposed to the pictures my real artist friends took of our performances. I grew to like him and often confessed my innermost doubts to him, asked for and took his advice. I was glad that this clear-headed, smart guy was assigned to report on us. I was sure that he gave an objective evaluation about our work to his superiors, so they could learn that we were not imperialist agents, that we were not conspiring against the system, and that we were just artists in search of our place in the order of things. The snitch and I became friends. At one point, he invited me to his humble home in the industrial part of the city. He had a small room, furnished with a chair, a table, a bed and an East-German-made turntable. He had no kitchen and no bathroom; all his comforts consisted of a cold-water faucet and a cast iron sink. He kept his clothes in a grey, metal locker; he cooked on a hot plate. He was a great fan of the country-western singer Johnny Cash. He had all Johnny Cash’s records, wrapped individually in plastic foil, stocked neatly in a cardboard box. The sale of foreign records was banned in Hungary at that time, so his collection of Johnny Cash records represented a rare treasure of Western culture for me. I stayed until late at night in that small, windowless room. We drank cheap red wine and coffee while we listened to Johnny Cash’s prison ballads. I became a life-long Johnny Cash fan that night long ago. I lost contact with my snitch friend when I was forced to leave Hungary by the authorities at the end of the 1970s. I was truly glad to see him again, twenty years later. He walked up to me in the foyer of a Budapest theatre. He hugged me and kissed me on both cheeks. “I am sure you know by now what my real job was in your theatre,” he said. “You must know that I did not do it for money or for career reasons. I was a believer in Communist philosophy at that time; I was just following my conscience when I took the assignment.” Then, without letting me answer, he wanted to sell me some pictures he had taken secretly, of me and members of my troupe, on the orders of the secret police. I felt sorry for him and wished that I had had money to buy the old photos.
(To be continued)
Tags: László Najmányi