10. 17. 2006. 09:14

Mob behavior and shared history

András Papp and János Térey: Kazamaták (Casemates)

The plot of Casemates is based on the darkest moment of the 1956 Hungarian Revolution: the siege of the Communist Party Headquarters in Budapest. With the 50th anniversary of the revolution well nigh, this is no one's idea of a flattering, commemorative play. Rather, it is an excoriating piece of provocation.

On October 30, 1956, a group of revolutionaries besieged the Communist Party Headquarters of Budapest in Republic Square, trapping several Party officials, secret police agents, young conscripts, and clerks inside. The building's occupants called repeatedly for reinforcements, but they were ignored. Eventually, a Soviet tank rolled in, but its troops were so badly informed and confused, they aborted the mission soon after. Whether provoked by shots fired upon unarmed bystanders from inside the building or not, a battle ensued. Those leaving the building to parlay a truce were mowed down. The revolutionaries finally stormed and took control of the building, dreaming of an underground labyrinth – a network of prisons, storage chambers, and escape routes, filled with political prisoners, looted treasure, luxury goods, and arms. These so-called casements were never found. The square became the scene of unbridled cruelty; bodies were strung up and mutilated. Grisly photos of the event appeared throughout the world, and thus, the entire siege became the darkest of stains upon the otherwise relatively unsullied history of the 1956 Hungarian Revolution.

What 1956 means to Hungarians today, how it lives on in the national psyche, how people choose to remember and commemorate the event – these topics are far too complex to tackle within the scope of a mere piece of theatre criticism. Nevertheless, András Papp and János Térey's drama Kazamaták (Casemates), written in a mixture of prose and blank and rhyming verse, raises these issues. By choosing to focus upon and dramatize the events of this isolated day, they present a provocative and troubling vision of history.

The evening is narrated by a surreal figure played by Judit Rezes, clad in white. She starts off the play with a prologue in verse, a popular convention in Elizabethan theatre. In the realistic sphere of the play, she operates as a foreign journalist. (Initially snapping photos, she manages to capture the revolutionaries and their captives posing together in a cheesy group shot. It is one of the play's finest moments of absurd, grotesque humor.) She also comments upon the action and questions the characters, even acting like a game-show host or reality-TV moderator at times. In the end, she dons a harness and exits angelically, floating offstage past the corpse of a young revolutionary who was hanged by his own comrades.

"Inside and outside," Judit Rezes announces in her opening address, a distinction that is remarkably illustrated by the set, designed (as is his custom) by director Péter Gothár himself. The outside is symbolized by an open stretch of bare stage. The main entrance of the Party Headquarters is downstage left, a few broad stairs and a frame of corrugated metal. As the audience members enter the auditorium, those outside are already clearly in control of the stage. They prowl the space, well-armed, some sporting patriotic armbands. Far upstage is the skeletal, black metal framework of a corridor that represents the inside. The corridor rolls forward for interior scenes, rotates for changing perspectives, tilts up and down to symbolize the changing balance of power, and falls apart in places to signify the building's gradual ruin.

Nevertheless, from the very first scene, the distinction between inside and outside is blurred. Revolutionaries Gergo Kocsis and Károly Hajduk confront Ervin Nagy and Tamás Keresztes. After a confusion of passwords, mutual threats, dis-armings and re-armings, the two men are allowed access to the building. They turn out to be members of ÁVO, the despised secret police force. Later, the secret police agents, along with their young troops, change into People's Militia uniforms to escape detection. This ploy fails in the end. Later, as a hotheaded revolutionary leader, played by Zoltán Bezerédi, urinates on one of the casualties, a young female freedom fighter cries, "What are you doing to my brother?" When others in the crowd respond with menacing looks, she is cowed into claiming that her words were only metaphorical.

Indeed, if we are to extract a theme from escalating, internecine violence onstage, it is that inside and outside are quite similar. It is not a matter of brave, noble revolutionaries versus evil, spineless traitors. One side or the other, where the characters land appears a mere matter of circumstance. No one in the play expresses any firmly held convictions. No one can be said to believe in the Party, any more than the revolutionaries believe in freedom. What we see, instead, is a cavalcade of stupidity, brutality, selfishness, and cowardice. Just before Ági Szirtes (in an outstanding performance) dives on the corpse of a secret police member to cut out his heart with a large butcher knife, Judit Rezes, like a TV journalist, interrupts her. "Are you doing this for revenge?" she asks. Ági Szirtes replies with a terse and emotionless, "Yes", before satisfying her bloodlust with a feral cry. Not one revolutionary so much as airs a grievance or gives an example of the regime's abuses that drove them to such desperate, blind fury.

Inside, the Party members tend to be shallow and overwhelmed with fear. Anita Tóth constantly clutches a telephone receiver to symbolize their incessant appeals for aid. A stir-crazy recruit opens fires on the crowd without orders. A high-ranking officer, played by Gábor Máté, literally pisses his pants. (He wears blue sweatpants for the remainder of the play.) László Szacsvay plays a crooked clerk who, when held at gunpoint, offers to show the intruders the safe if they spare his life. (They shoot him anyway.) When revolutionaries elect to spare the life of a young female member of the secret police, she demands to stand and die with her fellows. This stands out as a rare moment of bravery in the play.

On the whole, the characters of those inside are better developed – some even receive names – but to what effect? When we learn that Klára, a female member of the secret police (Andrea Fullajtár), who is married to Endre, a high-ranking Party official (Ferenc Lengyel), fell in love with István, a fellow officer (Ervin Nagy) during a summer fling, this petty romance is a mere parody of drama, straight-faced melodrama with a good deal of physical comedy. It does not make the characters any more sympathetic; nor does their plight become any more tragic. Just as those outside, they are barely differentiated entities within a group.

Consequently, it is difficult even to assess their merits as characters. Group hysteria, mob rule, and mass psychosis (often indicated by choral humming) are the subjects on display. Figures step forward for a short time, like individuals from an Ancient Greek chorus, only to perform a specific role and then retreat again. Hence, one young woman represents the voice of conscience. On at least three different occasions, she expresses moral outrage. When her protests become intolerable to the crowd at large, she is spared thanks to the double-dealing of a man (Erno Fekete). He materializes at least three times, always to rescue someone from the wrath of the mob, always by means of some lie. This occasion happens to be the most memorable. He tells the crowd that he recognizes this young woman, that she is not responsible for what she says, and that she is an actress from the National Theatre. On cue, the young woman declaims two lines of dramatic verse, whereupon she is allowed to flee.

Moreover, those characters who are not static, who do undergo some change, show no sign of being altered once the conflict has ended. Ági Szirtes's character, who grows increasingly sadistic and inhuman during the siege, seems perfectly capable of resuming her everyday life once the turmoil has simmered down. She exits the stage with a blithe "I'm going home to have dinner", completely unmoved. Gergo Kocsis, as one the mob's nominal leaders, has a more complicated evolution. He is repelled by the increasing brutality, but when no one heeds his protests, he succumbs to the mob mentality through mere inertia. He experiences a moment of profound disillusionment when he discovers that the casements were a myth. Nevertheless, at the end, when the narrator asks him if he regrets his actions, he replies with an indifferent no. In effect, he claims it had to happen, so he feels no remorse.

By parodying dramatic conventions (like the love triangle), obliterating the boundary between antagonist and protagonist, stripping the play of actual characters, and depriving the plot of any semblance of resolution, the authors have achieved a historical dramatization that is practically anti-theatrical and decidedly anti-cathartic. Witnessing two faceless crowds, locked nearly eye-to-eye in bitter conflict, massacring each other for two tense hours without an intermission can only desensitize the audience. It is not really tragedy or satire or farce; it is more a withering examination of mankind's basest instincts, a dry-eyed spectacle of senseless bloodshed.

The play also features several moments of stunning theatricality, inspired absurdity, and grotesque humor (although the audience is oftentimes too stunned to laugh). A fragment of a piano that falls from the sky, only to hang suspended in mid-air, conjures the looting and destruction of the entire mighty Party complex. When young revolutionary Ottó (Lehel Kovács) is captured by the secret police, they treat a small wound by binding his whole body in an enormous swath of bandage, completely immobilizing him. Occasionally, groups outside the Party Headquarters will copy or amplify the gestures of those inside, and everyday objects are used in unexpected ways. Blood pours from a large watering can. Actor Ferenc Elek embodies the Russian reinforcements. Flying in over the audience's heads like a one-man fighter plane, he lands onstage and holds an enormous magnifying lens up to the faces of various performers. As a final example, those leaving the Party Headquarters to negotiate with the revolutionaries search in vain for a white flag of surrender. Instead, they use a falvédo, the wall hanging you often find decorating Hungarian kitchens, a white piece of fabric invariably embroidered with kitschy scenes or hackneyed sentiments in red thread.

Kazamaták is a difficult play to enjoy, but it is easy to admire its bold experimentation and frank audacity. With the 50th anniversary of the 1956 Revolution well nigh, it is no one's idea of a flattering, commemorative play. Rather, it is an excoriating piece of provocation. One can only wonder why it has not stirred up more debate. Why has the play been greeted with such silence, such relative indifference? On the night of this review, a few members of the audience did abandon the performance early on. Still, the vast majority of the audience remained to the end; they applauded warmly, politely, but there was no cheering. There were certainly no boo's. In the lobby afterwards, the scent of controversy was suspiciously absent.

In lieu of resolution, Kazamaták does leave us with a final image, perhaps the key to the play's unique vision of the past. Gradually, the performers return to the stage, but not in costume. Those actors whose characters have already died re-enter in their everyday street clothes. There is a blackout. When the lights return, all 36 actors in modern dress (no doubt, in clothes from their own wardrobes) mill about the stage like the revolutionaries at the beginning of the play. Fifty years on, they are the contemporary Hungarians, who have inherited the legacy of the 1956 Revolution. Whether they choose to examine the darker aspects of this shared history or prefer to sweep the atrocities under the rug, the unresolved past remains with them. The events of October 30, 1956, cannot be isolated in time, because history is a continuum; and it is shaped not by self-determined individuals, but by a nebulous, indefinable mass identity in which our personalities are subsumed.

 

Patrick Mullowney

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