{600.} Folk Customs and Dramatic Traditions


Dramatic traditions appear in many areas of Hugarian peasant culture. The beginning and end of harvest have dramatic traditions, as does the story teller’s performance of the hero’s adventures, the gestures with which a ballad singer accompanies the events he relates, and the games of children, all are interwoven with various dramatic traditions. Naturally, it is the area of folk customs where dramatic elements occur most often, and in the widest sphere. Therefore, it is reasonable to discuss folk customs together with dramatic traditions, because it is not possible to separate the two in life.

Consequently, we should emphasize, by way of introduction, that peasant theatricals are not limited to Nativity plays and to certain customs similar to carol singing, such as the celebration of St. Gregory’s day (gergelyjárás), Whitsuntide greeting (pünkösdölő), and the celebration of St. Blaise’s day (balázsolás), or to the old custom of regölés at Christmas and New Year, a custom nearly extinct today. When speaking of the dramatic traditions of the Hungarian folk, people think, first and foremost of Nativity plays or the customs referred to above. Excluded in this way are a large and varied number of games with which young people entertained themselves at the conclusion of a substantial piece of work (e.g. harvesting) or in the spinnery. Among these are several humorous ones acted by members of a spinnery who go over to a neighbouring spinning house to perform their scenes. And if we want to pursue the simile further, at some places the welcome “actors” even got a “payment” in food for their “play”. Although the message of these scenes has no dramatic or, traditional text, the audiences were highly amused. The basic forms of these scenes were preserved by tradition.

Even though the text is often a mixture of insignificant and meaningless jokes, it gives all the more chance for invention and ingenuity, so that the amused audience rewarded such jokes and unexpected broadsides, well suited to the occasion, by grateful approval. A large part of wedding customs must also be added here, while the rest belong to cultic customs. The jokes and competitions of the best men, or even earlier, the traditional ways of proposing to the bride are all the popular offspring of the people’s desire for theatricals. The role and task of these plays are significant in the world of dramatic folk customs, although in basic form they differ from the Nativity and other plays, which are plays to be performed and which have faithfully preserved texts. However, these customs cannot be excluded from this group. Anybody who has witnessed a peasant or a Nativity play can see that the acting has two basic forms: the improvised performance, and the faithful repetition of the fixed text. We cannot neglect either to the advantage of the other.

To throw a little more light on the subject, let us consider a sample of Hungarian wedding customs. The following comes from Szabolcs {601.} County, although we could bring up examples quite similar in structure from other places as well.

The komas of the groom-to-be gather in the best room of the house. The expression koma means those friends and relations who shall be later invited as godparents: in this case the koma are young men, the brothers of the groom, his future brothers-in-law, but only those who are already married. The relatives of the young girl are already in the room. The suitors come in saying that they are men who have travelled a long distance and are very tired. Would they give them lodging? (We need not call special attention to the fact that with this entry we are already in the middle of a theatrical performance, into acting out a fictitious situation.) A star has led them here, which they took as a good omen. Thus it is revealed that the theatricals of the marriage suit are woven throughout with biblical allusions. Naturally, the hosts receive the guests readily. They tell them to rest, even though they do not yet know if they can give them lodging. What has brought them here? The suitors sit down comfortably and say that they have brought a flower, and they are seeking a mate for it. On their way, after much searching, they were directed here. At this point the hosts pretend that they do not understand the allusion, and quickly bring out a flower and offer it to the visitors. They shake their heads: no, that is not the kind they want, they want a larger flower; it would not be worth while to travel so far for this little one. The hosts cut down a largish bough and offer it. But the suitors do not want that either; they want a live flower. The hosts are puzzled; they wonder, what is it they want? “Perhaps they want a walking flower?” “Yes, that is it!” So they bring in a kitten and tie a flower on its neck. But this is no good either, because they want a flower that walks on two legs. They quickly bring in a frightened, clucking hen, and tie a flower on its neck. No matter, the suitors are still dissatisfied and now they say that they want a flower who can talk. They bring in a small child, dressed up in mummery: she is grinning in awe. “We need a bigger one,” they say, rejecting the offer. All this time, they would in no way shorten the ceremony. They bring in an older girl. “We want one even bigger than this: bigger and fuller in body.”

And we should not think that this detailed banter and delay tires out the ingenuity of the hosts or the demands of the suitors. The actors whole-heartedly enjoy the new and present alteration in the known and proper turn of events, and they watch their own behaviour excitedly. One would think that following this latest request, they would finally bring forth the long-awaited bride-to-be. But it is still not her turn; there is time left for a word game or two. A young wife comes in amidst much swishing of skirts; perhaps she will be full bodied enough? But they do not want her either; she already has a flower, so the travellers reject the offering. Now they bring in an oldish widow, since she has no mate. No, they don’t want her. She used to be a flower, they say; but now she is wilting away.

273. Christening

273. Christening
Lészped, Moldavia

By now they have run out of jokes and bring in the bride-to-be. She is reluctant and blushing, as is required by propriety and the situation itself. Many people are watching her, so she must properly abide by the rules. Of course the custom set by the rules as well as the emotions of her {602.} soul–these great inner treasures of peasant culture–join anyway and further strengthen the girl in playing the role and in the new situation of her life. “This is the one, this is the one!”–exult the suitors all together, “this is the flower we were looking for!” The girl takes the hand of the young man and the two sit down. Only after this do they start to eat and drink with good appetite; up to now they had offered food and drink to the tired “travellers” to no avail. Then, singing loudly, they celebrate until morning.

If we were simply to list this custom among the so-called wedding customs and not see in it a propensity of the folk spirit for play-acting, and at the same time the inner, self-actualizing working out of dramatic folk plays, we would fail to understand folk plays themselves and their {603.} essence. These wedding customs are filled with inexpressibly deeper experiences than the Nativity plays or greetings, which have been rattled off even in the recent past by schoolchildren, and even today they intertwine the permanent framework of traditional customs with multipersonal inspiration. Naturally, descriptions of these details are very scanty, showing only the framework and course of the custom. It is something like trying to summarize the contents of a lyric poem in a few prose sentences.

In the following, therefore, we shall try to introduce the most important customs and dramatic traditions in the way they really lived at one time, and how the way they were interwoven with a great many beliefs.