05. 11. 2006. 16:34

Péter Halász’s living theatre

Halász' theatre was a non-imitational one. He never wanted, nor was he able, to pretend that he is someone else but himself. His theatre was born out of an inner freedom, not hard work, not something that can be regulated, rehearsed and repeated.

A highly unusual funeral ceremony took place on the evening of February 6, 2006, in the grand, neoclassical building of the Palace of Arts in Budapest. There were candles burning, flowers, hundreds of mourners, and a large picture of the deceased hanging on the wall, behind a simple, black, open coffin, which was placed on a black velvet covered platform. Funeral ceremonies are rather common occurrences, most of us will have one, at the end of our earthly existence. What made this sad event so special was the fact, that the person lying in the black coffin was still alive. He was a tall, thin, bald man, with sharp features, piercing, dark eyes, a commanding nose and a wide, sensuous mouth. He was wearing a black suit, a white shirt and a red scarf around his neck. He was quite restless, tossing and turning in his coffin, drinking water from a plastic bottle, taking medication, often grinning, as he was listening to farewell speeches given by his friends and colleagues. His name was Péter Halász, and he was a theatre.

Péter Halász was not faking death, he was actually dying of liver cancer at the time of the ceremony in the Palace of Arts. He wanted to experience his own funeral, he said, when he started to organize his last show. He wanted to hear what people had to say about him, and also, he wanted to depart in a style befitting to someone who had spent his entire life trying to eliminate the borders between life and art. His was a non-imitational theatre. He never wanted, nor was he able, to pretend that he is someone else but himself. It happened a few times during his half-century long career, that - for money or for fame - he took up traditional acting roles. Invariably, he performed these roles miserably, sticking out of the cast of character-playing professional actors like a sore thumb. He couldn’t memorize lines, couldn’t properly follow directorial instructions. All he knew was to be present, to play himself, which he always did perfectly. It’s not that he knew himself, like a yogi does, far from that. He was not a thinker, in the common sense, nor was he practicing any kind of self-discovering meditation. He took himself as someone who was born perfect, and simply followed his instincts, regardless of the consequences. He was driven by the pleasure principle; he wouldn’t do anything that he did not enjoy at first try. Theatre for him was playing; a joyful, self-testing activity, a miracle, born out of an inner freedom, not hard work, not something that can be regulated, rehearsed and repeated.

His theatrical career started in the 1960s, in Budapest. He was a member of the University Theatre, a government-approved and financed, semi-amateur formation, led by the director József Ruszt. Theatre, like all other art forms, was strictly controlled by the ruling Communist Party at that time. Only one style, the so called socialist realism - a kind of pathetic mixture of method acting and 19th century romanticism - was allowed. As a result of the all-encompassing Communist ideology, Hungarian art, including theatre, fell half a century behind European artistic achievements. The University Theatre was cautiously experimenting with modernism, mixing socialist realism with stylistic elements of quasi-contemporary (in reality, 20-30 years old) Western avantgarde theatre.

At the end of the 1960s, Péter Halász left the University Theatre, and with his first wife, Anna Koós, and friends, István Bálint, Péter Breznyik (Berg) and others, formed Kassák Studio, a collectivist theatre group. Following the teachings of the then famous Polish theatre guru, Grotowsky, they wrote and staged their plays together. No individual initiative was tolerated at that time in Hungary. The Kassák Studio was soon banned by the authorities. Since they were not allowed to perform publicly, they held their performances in Anna Koós' and Péter Halász' two-room apartment that they shared with Mr. Halász’s ailing grandmother. They were soon put under surveillance by the secret police. Their phone was bugged and police snitches (‘bricks’ in Hungarian slang) were built into their audience and among their circle of friends. The snitches gave detailed reports about the group’s activities to the authorities.

The apartment-theatre was often raided by the police, during performances. The armed goons searched the premises and recorded the IDs of the performers and their audience. Anna Koós and Péter Halász were warned that their apartment would be confiscated, because its use as a theatre was against the law, and the noises they made and the constant stream of people in and out of the flat was bothering their neighbors. Following the group’s participation in a Polish theatre festival, their passports were confiscated, and they were not allowed to travel outside of Hungary anymore. They were banned from the media as well. It was forbidden to write about the group in the papers, or even to mention their names in the radio or television. In the middle of the 1970s, they were offered a chance to emigrate from the country, on condition that they renounce their Hungarian citizenship. They accepted the offer, packed, and left the country with their families.

The stateless theatre took on a tour of Europe, and soon became famous internationally for their free-spirited, fresh performances. The exiled Hungarian artist, Tamás Szentjóby gave the theatre a name: Squat Theatre. They moved to the United States in 1977 and took up residence in New York, at 256 West 23rd Street, near the Chelsea Hotel, in a four-floor building, which formerly housed a gay club. It was an ideal arrangement for the group. They could have their home and theatre in the same space. They set up the stage on the first floor, using the wide store window and the street behind it as background for their shows. The audience inside the theatre was entertained by the sight of the people peeping in from the street, and vice versa. The performances often spilled out to the busy street. They arranged mock gunfights and kidnappings on the sidewalk, so the arriving police became part of the show.

The Squat Theatre soon became a theatrical sensation, a fashionable place in New York. They were supported by grants from the city’s Cultural Commission and various other governmental and private institutions. They became a favorite of the New York media; their performances received enthusiastic reviews in the papers. They were given an OBIE award for Outstanding Achievement, in 1978, for their first American show, Pig, Child, Fire! Their following plays: Andy Warhol’s Last Love; Mr. Dead & Mrs. Free; The Three Sisters – and these plays’ several mutations – were also highly successful. As a famous New York based theatre, they were often invited to perform in other American cities and European theatre festivals. They won a Grand Prix in the BITEF international theatre festival, in Belgrade, Yugoslavia (1979), and the Italian Critics Award: Play of the Year (1979) in Italy. In 1982, Mr. Dead & Mrs. Free received a shared OBIE award. In 1983, they received another OBIE, this time for their past achievements.

Besides housing the group and their theatre performances, 256 West 23rd street became an independent movie theatre, an exhibition space and a music club as well. It functioned as a spiritual center for ground-breaking New York artists and their audiences. They readily extended their hospitality to a multitude of visiting Hungarian and other European artists, too. Members of the group played in American and European movies, exhibited their art in various high-ranking New York galleries, taught at universities, and generally enjoyed the support of American intellectual circles and private sponsors.

The Golden Age of Squat Theatre, as they called their most creative period, lasted until the mid 1980s, when the group started to break up into several fractions. One of the fractions held on to the name of Squat Theatre, the other fraction, led by Péter Halász, started to work as Love Theatre.

After the change of regime in Hungary, from the beginning of the 1990s, Péter Halász often returned to Budapest, where he staged dozens of plays, up until his death. In the beginning, his shows attracted large crowds in Budapest, but as public attention turned from theatre to different forms of popular entertainment (similarly to the rest of the world), the audience’s interest for his performances gradually dimmed. His City Theatre had to change profile, and Halász had to leave the institution after a few years, due to the lack of audience – and to not receiving enough government support.

Fifteen years after the change of regime the fate of Hungarian culture is still in the hands of politicians. There is still no private sponsorship for art in Hungary; the artists depend on public funds, which are entirely controlled by the government. Artists and art institutions receive support (scandalously meager compared to European standards) solely on the merits of their political affiliation. Hungarian politics - the highly privileged, above-the-law, omnipotent political cast - is notorious for its dislike of independent art and media. An independent-minded artist, especially if he or she is trying to cross the boundaries between life and art, just as Péter Halász did in his entire life, has no place in contemporary Hungarian culture, just as it never had in the past either. The provincialism of the Hungarian audience did not change much either ever since Béla Bartók was chased out of the country by the aggressive ignorance of Hungarian concert mobs. It is most telling that Péter Halász, an internationally famous and truly original artist who played a decisive role in the renewal of Hungarian (and world) theatre has never received a state award in his home country, while hundreds of talentless, but politically correct kitsch-makers are given medals and huge sums of money yearly by the government.

Péter Halász’s virtual funeral, at the Palace of Arts, on February 6, 2006, received world-wide media attention. Even Guatemalan, Columbian, South African, Icelandic, Turkish and Vietnamese publications reported on the event. It was a heroic performance. Just a day before Péter Halász’s last show he had to be brought back from death by his doctors. Yet, the next day he gave a perfectly composed, never rehearsed, good humored farewell talk, speaking with a strong, unwavering voice, climbing in and out of his coffin unaided. Little more than a month later he gave up his spirit in his beloved New York.

László Najmányi

Tags: Péter Halász