The Development of the Drama


THEATRE in Hungary has never been exclusively a medium of entertainment. The birth of the modern theatre was a result of the struggle for the creation of a culture in the national language at the turn of the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries. While we possess ample evidence that mystery plays were performed in late medieval times, that school-dramas were popular in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, and that aristocrats often maintained small, exclusive theatres of a high standard at their family residences in the country, the link between modern theatre and these ancestors does not seem to be convincingly established.

The same can be said of dramatic literature; most of the plays written around the time of the Reformation were topical, and thus unsuitable for long-term survival on the stage. As theatre-going is a habit most readily acquired by town-dwellers, it is little wonder that in Hungary, where towns hardly existed in the West European sense before the nineteenth century, any theatrical tradition was restricted to the various educational establishments owned and supervized by religious orders (e.g. Piarists, Jesuits). To claim that theatrical performances in schools created a demand for secular plays – let alone original plays – would need strong evidence, for their exclusive purpose was the moral education of the young. It would be also futile to ponder on the cause and effect of the lack of significant Hungarian drama prior to the nineteenth century, whether it was the lack of opportunities for staging their work that prevented potential playwrights from producing dramas, or whether it was the lack of playwrights that handicapped the development of theatrical life. In any case, the pattern of development was largely similar all over Eastern Europe, including Poland and Russia.

When however, the cause of the national language became the centre of interest for the intelligentsia, writers almost immediately realized the significance of the theatre as a medium for providing an opportunity to popularize the literary language and for putting their ideas into circulation, and turned their attention to the writing of dramas.

Bessenyei was in the forefront of the movement, and his Tragedy of Agis was the very first product of the literary and intellectual revival. Bessenyei wrote his plays with no hope of seeing them performed; in the 1770s the performing arts were neglected in Hungary apart from school plays and seasonal performances in small, private theatres maintained by aristocratic families (e.g. the Esterházys). The first sporadic theatrical performances were held in Buda around 1784-5; the actors were usually young noblemen and their enthusiastic girlfriends. They had no training whatsoever and their occasional public was easily convinced that the actors’ loud recital in the native tongue was the chief virtue of, and reason for, a theatrical production. It was the company of László Kelemen between 1790-6 which first aimed at artistic productions, but in spite of the support provided by Parliament their experiment was doomed to failure for lack of a large enough public with any aristic expectations.

In the course of the next third of a century, prior to the establishment of the National Theatre, numerous companies were formed, but all of them abandoned their theatrical ambitions sooner or later because of financial difficulties. In those years there were three permanent theatres in the whole country, and only the Kolozsvár Theatre proved to be self-sufficient both artistically and financially. The remaining companies toured the country and played in large inns or municipal buildings in provincial centres. The early theatre-goers were hardly sophisticated; all they wanted was that the play should be performed in Hungarian, and should be about the ‘glorious past’ of their forefathers. The first of their demands was a distinct feature of the rising national consciousness and, a protest against the German theatres which thrived in towns – particularly in Buda – where there was a significant German-speaking middle class. The second demand of the public stemmed from a romantic preoccupation with the past, conspicuously manifest in the subject-matter chosen for heroic epics in the Age of Reform. These early companies mainly made use of German plays, translated rather freely; the characters were renamed in Hungarian and the plots transferred to Hungary. The most often performed playwright was Kotzebue. Among the classics, Shakespeare was staged for the first time in 1794, initiating an unparalleled cult, but Goethe, Schiller, and Lessing were also frequently performed.

Since most of the companies had no permanent theatre, managers had to take into consideration various local circumstances when staging a play. No proper setting of the stage was possible; costumes, props and special effects were kept to a minimum for they were usually expensive and awkward to transport, and companies had hardly enough income to keep themselves at subsistence level. As local taste was never known, companies performed plays selected at random from their repertory by the director in the hope of meeting local approval.

The huge success of Károly Kisfaludy’s historical plays clearly marked the beginning of an era when the theatre rapidly gained ground. It also proved that the public wanted original plays, rather than adaptations of German Ritterdramas. The policy of the Székesfehérvár Theatre Company, which staged Kisfaludy’s Tartars in Hungary, set the course for the subject-matter of plays for some time to come. It also explains why Vörösmarty, who did not consider himself a playwright, produced numerous historical dramas in the 1830s; he felt there was a marked need for original plays with historical themes if theatrical life was to flourish.

With the opening of the Pest National Theatre in 1837 the heroic age of theatrical experiments came to an end. In its early days the competition of the German theatres, particularly in Pest, could be strongly felt; to counteract their influence and to entice the German-speaking middle class to the National Theatre the management staged lavish operatic productions, but the policy of producing operas and spectacular shows had to be discontinued on account of the outcry from the press; critics claimed quite rightly that the National Theatre was not established for this purpose and that the policy governing the theatre should reflect its original task, namely, that of providing a home for theatrical performances of original Hungarian plays.

The National Theatre became the nursery of the theatrical profession. First and foremost, by providing a permanent and stable outlet for original plays, it fostered native playwriting. It also acted as a magnet for talented provincial actors, and helped to establish a professional acting style. Actors who had previously been prone to overact in a crude and sentimental fashion were given the opportunity to study their parts in more detail, and shed their mannerisms under the watchful eye of a director. Stage speech was also carefully corrected, proper intonation and grammar was taken seriously, and sentimental declamation was frowned upon.

Acceptable standards were introduced by the critical activity of Bajza and Vörösmarty. Their influence was evident not only in the more professional interpretations of the roles, but also in the selection of plays. The German Ritterdrama and melodramatic plays yielded their place to French Romantic plays, giving the actors a chance to study better delineated characters. The public gradually abandoned its single-minded devotion to those historical dramas whose popularity rested solely on inflating the national ego by dwelling exclusively on the ‘glorious past’. Audiences also became accustomed to the idea that the historical past could also be treated in a lighter fashion, and that comedy could represent human characters and situations just as truthfully as tragedy.

By the 1840s actors and public alike were ready to appreciate original and high-quality dramas. Yet no Hungarian playwright appeared to produce any outstanding work. Writers who were successful in other departments of literature, some of them writing immortal lines of poetry, all failed in their efforts to write dramas.

Curiously enough, the best Hungarian drama of the nineteenth century had already been written at a time when the management of the National Theatre was apparently unable to find an outstanding play by a Hungarian author. The story of the public discovery of Bánk Bán and its road to success contains many unexpected turns. Before its merits were recognized either by critics or public the National Theatre staged the play at the request of one of its leading actors, Gábor Egressy, in 1839. The first version of the drama, however, had been written for a competition in 1815, and its author, József Katona, had died in 1830. Moreover, the play had already been performed in Kassa in 1833 and two years later in a Buda theatre, but it was only when the National Theatre produced it for the second time in 1845 that its qualities were recognized.