Ágnes Pálfi – Zsolt Szász: Poetic and/or Epic Theatre?


Zs. Sz.: In professional theatre circles, it is now a commonplace that in the post-dramatic era the classic conflict between heroes disappeared from the stage, and with it, the legitimacy of the dramatic dialogue also ceased to exist.[1] Therefore, according to some, it is not advisable to take seriously literary classic texts which focus on a conflict between larger-than-life heroes. However, there is a peculiar self-contradiction that even the most determined followers of the post-dramatic school still do not give up on classic heroes, since – even if they deheroize them on stage – they can only demonstrate their own greatness and celebrity status through them. Yet you think that there is also a much deeper and real basis to this deheroizing tendency: it is the now widespread state of the world that “the participants in dramatic events with global implications do not act in a shared space-time continuum, that is, in many cases, they do not even meet each other in physical space”[2].

Á. P.: And I also claim that this is why the current era favours mass-market films with superheroes effortlessly moving from one space-time dimension to another, or being present in both at the same time. But that is only one half of the issue. Because on the Web you can connect virtually with the farthest corner of the globe, and often with much less trouble than with your immediate neighbours. The Transylvanian poet, Zsófia Balla recounted at a recital of hers several years ago how shocking it was for her to realize in retrospect that the conflict in the nearby region of the Southern Balkans had seemed to be so distant to her that, even though the bombings could be heard across the border, it had no connection to her life. As she admitted, this experience shook her up in her poetic existence. This ascpect of her confession is just as important, as it indicates that the artist still wants to be responsible for what is happening in the world, even if her instincts fail her from time to time.

Zs. Sz.: In your above-mentioned writing, you express that in their case it is no longer directly the actors, but in fact “these particular segments of space-time [that] enter into a dialogic relationship”. To be honest, this sounds a bit abstract for a theatre practitioner, but I will try to translate it into our language. It may, among other things, refer to the kind of simultaneity when multiple locations and time planes appear all at once in a single stage space. Take, for example, Psyche[3], from the repertoire of the National Theatre in Budapest, where the stage space – if I count correctly – consists of nine sub-units. Among these, the intimate sphere of László Tóth Ungvárnémeti in the middle back for instance serves a stable reference point: this hero belongs to this centre throughout, which indicates that unlike the constantly travelling and shape-shifting heroine, he is a “self-identical” figure, a narcissistic personality locked in his own mania. Similarly, the living quarters of Psyché’s sister and brother-in-law can also be localised well on the centre left side (where her childbirth and Psyché’s polyp surgery also take place), and the centre right side, where the scene at Kazinczy’s literary salon in Bányácska is evoked, takes on particular importance. This part of the stage is dedicated to the drama of Psyché’s poetic identity throughout the performance, either staged concretely or in symbolic representations. – It is generally true that simultaneity as a compositional principle can become truly productive in the enclosed space of the stage, where it is not limited by the linearity typical of literature or film[4]. Yet theatre relates to modern visual art by the very same compositional principle, the simultaneous presence and dialogic interplay of space-time segments. It is no coincidence that in the 20th century, the renewal of the language of theatre was often inspired by visual artists. However, storytelling on stage is also based on the principle of linearity, even if the director uses reverse chronology (like Vidnyánszky, for example, in the case of Chekhov’s Three Sisters, which he starts with the third act). In this performance, Psyché’s life story can be followed chronologically, faithful to the biographical nature of the original work, which transforms the poet who expresses herself in verse into a flesh-and-blood figure and/or into the protagonist of a “verse novel” in the reader’s consciousness. The greatest sensation of this production more than four decades after the publication of Weöres’s work is that the seven same-aged Psyché alter egos (who are same-year acting students) together create on stage the complex character in whom we can recognize the Psyché of our time. However, this magic could only come to life because Psyché’s “split personality” was able to manifest itself in an adequate, complex spatiotemporal system, constantly crossing by her erotic surplus the virtual boundaries that separate the “segments” of this stage space-time from each other.

Sándor Weöres’s Psyché, d. by Attila Vidnyánszky, National Theatre, Budapest, 2015 (photo: Zsolt Eöri Szabó, source: nationaltheatre.hu)

Á. P.: Still, in the reality of Hungary in the first decades of the 19th century, these boundaries were by no means virtual. In Gábor Bódy’s 1980 film adaptation[5], there is a great emphasis on the distances separating the different spheres of existence, Psyché’s continuous journey as an “adventuress”, who shuttles like a real-life picaresque hero between the “up” and “down” worlds, between the squalid slum and the elegant Viennese salon, between the rural noble manor house and the Pozsony Diet, each milieu expecting a different mentality. And the dynamics of this series of spatial adventures suddenly seem to stretch the realistic time frames of her life story by themselves: after spending years in America, Psyché returns to a period a hundred years later, the Europe of the 20th century, as it begins to succumb to fascism…When I taught Hungarian literature at Toldy Ferenc Grammar School in the 1990s, I showed this film to my sixteen-year-old students every year before we started studying the 19th-century reform period. After this, it was much easier for them to cope with the language of Bánk bán [6] and Az ember tragédiája[7], now considered “outdated and unenjoyable” (the students of one class prepared completely independently and with great pleasure a 5–10 minute abridged version of some of the scenes of Madách’s work and presented it to me). – Of course, you can never predict what kind of experience will propel a young person through the impasse to start reading the classics as if they were his contemporaries. To me as a university student in the mid-1970s it was Pushkin who provoked the question with his famous poem, The Bronze Horseman: how can the tribute to the founder of modern Russia, the genre of the glorifying ode, and the narrative poem about the rebellion of the Russian little man who ultimately utters a menacing curse on the equestrian statue of Peter the Great, the cause of his tragic fate, on the banks of the Neva be reconciled? Later, philologists found out that these two originally separate works were combined and given a common title by an editor who was Pushkin’s contemporary. But as I see it, in this case, the editor acted in the spirit of the author, as evidenced by his drama, Boris Godunov.[8] In this work, the two protagonists, the tsar-designate who is fleeing from the historical responsibility of ruling, and Grigory, the young anarchist raised in a monastery, who is striving to seize power as a self-proclaimed heir to the throne, do not even meet on stage. So the work has no dramatic conflict in the classical sense; Pushkin collides two remote spheres of existence where there is no possibility of dialogue between the respective characters. They do not even share a language in common: Boris speaks in the archaic verse language of the Slavonic church liturgy, while Grigory speaks in a more prosaic, profane verse speech. Yet 20th-century history proves that these two spheres, the power centre of Bolshevik autocracy leading to a one-person dictatorship and the all-people anarchism opposing it on the peripheries of the empire, continue to have a simultaneous impact on the development of not only Russia but the entire world. We can safely say that, even in Pushkin’s time, it was not from the poet’s subjective point of view that this conflict appeared so dramatic, even if few comprehended the extraordinary significance of this issue. Of course, it is possible to consider Pushkin’s insight as a “poetic vision” which has been eminently confirmed by time. But this bold idea, which no wonder startled his contemporaries, of connecting the two seemingly disparate spheres, the “sacred” and “profane” spheres of existence, and forcing them into dialogue, was as much a result of Pushkin’s exceptional understanding of reality as it was of his prohetic vision.

Zs. Sz.: It means you have reservations about the term “poetic theatre”. As far as I perceived a few years ago in Debrecen[9], Attila Vidnyánszky and the Artistic Workshop around him aimed to express with this adjective that their theatre is opposed to the increasingly prevalent naturalistic tendencies in contemporary Hungarian plays and directors. It is true that this group, of which we ourselves are members, has not since provided a more precise definition of the concept of “poeticism,” as is rightly pointed out by more and more people.[10] Yet theatre history has already seen a similar opposition: a hundred years ago, Meyerhold fought for the replacement of the so-called realistic, but in fact naturalistic theatre aesthetics.

Á. P.: Mind you, he contrasted symbolism with naturalism, but not “poetry”. He looked to renew stage language through the symbolist Russian poets of the turn of the century, such as Alexander Blok, Valery Bryusov, Vyacheslav Ivanov, Leonid Andreyev, and Andrei Bely.[11] Yet no one can seriously think that we should dispute the poetic quality of the best representatives of naturalism (in which movement some literary historians, such as György Lukács[12], include Ibsen and Chekhov as well). If we want to be professionally correct, the adjective “poetic” is actually a synonym of “literary”; it is true that in Hungarian, the word “poet” primarily refers to a writer of poetry, but the terms “dramatic poet” and “prose poet” inherited from the 19th century are also used.[13] Therefore, I think it is justified to approach the theatre aesthetics represented by Attila Vidnyánszky and notably contemporary Russian directors from a different angle. In the 1960s and 1970s, Gyula Király, the outstanding Hungarian scholar of Russian Studies, came to the conclusion that literary works are not actually to be classified into three modes, but into two. The subject’s relationship to reality is fully realized in the mode of lyric poetry, taking on appropriate genre forms. The objective perception of reality, on the other hand, is the domain of epic literature, which, according to this view, has two types: dramatic epic, characterized by the conflict of personified interests, and narrative epic, which has two major genres, the epic and the novel. In the latter, as the leading genre of the 19th century, there is a need for authorial, formal and/or narrative storytelling, because the ambitions and aspirations of the heroes are not directly tested in dramatic conflicts, but indirectly: through the transmission of usually multi-threaded plotlines featuring multiple protagonists.” By this means, we can either gain insight into reality’s “self-movement” or “logic of existence” (novel of fate), or we can get to know the moral character of a given era (novel of morality).[14]

Zs. Sz.: I consider this argument extremely important primarily on account of its ontological orientation. I myself have come to the realization on a similar basis – from the perspective of ontology, and later through the questions raised by cultural anthropology – that man is ab ovo a dramatic creature who can only manifest as a personality through the transmission of the community. And I gradually came to see that these forms of expression are inherently theatrical, ranging from the rituals that sanctify the most mundane activities, to large communal celebrations –both in prehistoric times and as they continue today. Therefore, for me, the syncretic concept which proved to be valid for every cultural manifestation was not epic, but drama. This is the shared basis from the folk tradition of dramatic customs to the cult of Petőfi, as well as new community-building communication techniques such as Facebook, a favorite hunting ground for the currently popular “verbatim” theatre. At the same time, as a practising theatre maker, I mostly worked from archaic narrative epics: chronicles, legends, knightly hero stories, folk tales and oriental folk epics. During the production of the stage script, when I had texts of different genres “appear on stage” and tried to force them into dialogue, I needed a narrator. For this I had to clarify who this person was: a simple storyteller, or perhaps someone in the role of a chorus commenting on the events on stage. So, in fact, I mostly dealt with how to combine and bring together the narrative and dramatic elements within the epic genre. Therefore, due to my interest in theatre, I look from a different perspective at Gyula Király’s theoretical proposal with its focus on novel poetics, which is certainly a legitimate position for the 19th and 20th centuries. In the 21st century, however, we see an even greater motivation for crossing over genres, and even literary modes, than before.

Á. P.: It is also worth considering that the dominance of the novelistic state of being actually did not begin in the 20th, nor even in the 19th century. Shakespeare’s Hamlet is a groundbreaking work for many reasons, one of which is that it brings the very disappearance of dramatic conflict onto the stage, which becomes particularly important when viewed from today, the mediatized world of the 21st century. Because, as the saying goes nowadays: “It’s not enough to be authentic, you have to look authentic, too”. In the famous mousetrap scene, the courtiers exit the room one by one after Claudius has left, so, despite Hamlet’s successful “calling him out,” the announcement of the result fails to materialize. Instead, it becomes evident that the officials of the state apparatus are guided by their momentary political interests, and they are indifferent to whose hands the fate of the country has fallen into. This subservient and conflict-avoidant attitude leads to the fact that at the climax of the drama – in the moment of “catastrophe”, to use Katalin Kemény’s expression – they are unable to turn towards “being”[15]. As a result, the “main event”[16] of the drama is cancelled, while in the medium of theatre, the conditional reality of the play takes on the status of actual reality. Therefore, as viewers, we get the impression that the judgment fades away in existence itself.[17] And it would be hard to deny that the general decay, the principle of entropy in this play overwhelms everyone and everything – which drives some contemporary directors and literary analysts to step over the border by questioning even the tragic hero status of Hamlet.

Zs. Sz.: The downgrading of epic roles is a common phenomenon nowadays, both in everyday life and on stage. For example, on television, one of our distinguished poets compared the prime minister to a bus driver whose job is to transport the “passenger” to the desired destination, and he also mentioned that the word “minister”, which comes from “ministrans”, originally means servant – yet he failed to add that this kind of service is offered to God. Undeniably, Attila Vidnyánszky is going against this megatrend of downgrading. And, lo and behold, the success of the award-winning production Isten ostora [Scourge of God] [18] based on Miklós Bánffy’s Attila drama at the 2015 POSzT proves that the audience still has a demand for heroes of a mythical stature. At MITEM 2016, plays involving the Iliad and Titus Andronicus also appeared among the foreign performances, which proves the same. The desire for greatness is so deeply encoded in human nature that, as Ernő Verebes put it in a debate about the Don Quixote production, even the lack of greatness can now fill the function once occupied by tragic heroes who were “better than us”, as Aristotle said.[19] In the late 1950s, Samuel Beckett made this very absence itself the main character of his absurd drama, which is already hinted at by the title of the play: Waiting for Godot – at least based on the meaning of the English “God” – can also be interpreted as waiting for God.[20]

Ernő Verebes – Cervantes: Don Quijote, d. by Attila Vidnyánszky, National Theatre, Budapest, 2015 (photo: Zsolt Eöri Szabó, source: nationaltheatre.hu)

Á. P.: This reminds me of the famous study by Mikhail Bakhtin, in which he claims that dialogue between two people “always creates space for a third participant as well”.[21] He argues that in fact it is this third entity which binds the two speakers in dialogue together, whether it is a natural phenomenon like winter, or any other thing. In the example given by Bakhtin, the speakers consider winter as a living person above them, as the great mover of life, without naming it. In Bakhtin’s view, this particular third party is both the subject and object of the dialogue, and if it ceases to exist, there is nothing left to talk about – real dialogue becomes impossible.

Zs. Sz.: It is exactly at this position that ‘personnel substitution’ takes place in the major turning points or era-changers of human history. In the world of animism, animal-, plant-, or object-shaped ancestral totems occupy this position, while in polytheistic cultures it is both animal and human-shaped deities. In monotheistic religions, the “one true God”, or the primordial principle which moves the world, usually becomes present through the mediation of human beings – prophets or saviours. Alongside this, various dramaturgical strategies emerge. In pre-literate tribal societies, this function is yet fulfilled by the order of ceremonial rituals which reinforce the entire worldview as well as the rules, protected by taboos, of social interaction, through the shaman as the master of these rituals. However, at the drama competitions of Athenian polis democracy, the playwright functions as a dramaturge who extracts from myths and presents on stage stories about the cosmic struggles of human-like gods and earthly heroes, while demonstrating the hierarchy between celestial and earthly powers and also the ongoing dialogue to be renewed between them every year. Thanks to writing, this kind of dialogue has not been forgotten to this day, and what is more, theatre theory still considers it as a benchmark to follow. Yet we cannot say that this model is still valid today, although ancient tragedies are continuously being performed, and even contemporary adaptations are being created from them. In the position of a dramaturg, however, there is no longer a playwright-didaskalos today, who would be capable of opening a gateway between these spheres of existence. The 20th century was the era of the director’s theatre. But the most significant ones among directors – such as Stanislavski, Meyerhold, Brecht, Grotowski, or Tadeusz Kantor –, who were also theorists, each and every one of them aimed to open this gateway, regardless of the kind of ideological context in which they as “escape artists” tried to restore the status of human beings, from which transcendence cannot be excluded.

Á. P.: Anatoly Vasiliev also belongs to this group, who directed for the first time in Hungary during a short-lived but epoch-making enterprise: at the Művész Színház (Artists’ Theatre), which had been founded by actors and operated from 1993 to 1995. In 1994 Vasiliev directed A nagybácsi álma [Uncle’s Dream] based on a Dostoevsky short story here. His prediction formulated in 1990 – which is also his directorial creed – seems to be coming true today, at least in light of the performances presented at MITEM that we have already mentioned above:

“I believe that dramatic theatre as I know it, is currently in decline. It seems that visual theatre can no longer convey the information it once did. The theatre of text is no longer satisfying because it is a dead theatre. Although there are still performances that can tell the story well, they always give way to those that do not use the text. It seems that the search for a synthesis of the avant-garde and the classics – the visual action encapsulated in a pause and action founded on literary text – will be the future path of theatre. For me, this is the mutual relationship between literary text and improvisation. The combination of freedom and non-freedom, precision and anarchy. I believe this is the only version that brings life back to the stage.”[22]

Zs. Sz.: If I so choose, this statement summarizes all our previous content. But beyond that, Vasiliev is also referring to the striking phenomenon which characterized the Hungarian theatre of the past quarter century, too, namely that text-based dramaturgy has been pushed into the background by the increasingly dominant physical theatres. It would also be worth mentioning how this trend has been reversed by today (see the aforementioned “verbatim” theatre). But far more important than that is where the pursuit of synthesis, which Vasiliev predicted here, stands today. And what is the magnetic force that attracts the opposing attitudes of avant-garde and classical artistic views to each other: the radical use of signs as well as philosophical commitment of avant-garde, and the layered language as well as extensive range of meanings of classical texts? And the most important question, in my opinion, is how the emerging, yet still uncodified visual gesture language and the literary text enclosed in the artwork can mutually energize each other.

Á. P.: I think that for both of us, the production based on Carlo Gozzi’s play, The Raven, directed by Nikolay Roschin, was a revelatory experience in this respect at MITEM 2016.[23] We get Gozzi’s tale, which is a baroque version of a Middle Eastern (Baghdad) story, in an old-new adaptation here, with the simplified language of fairground comedies, focusing on action. This method of direction, evocative of the spirit of early 20th century Russian avant-garde, makes the relationship to the literary text active and open due to its brevity and fragmentation already. But the mechanism of effect is similar for the visual language of the performance as well: by presenting the metal monsters operating as living creatures, this direction parodies, on the one hand, the illusionist stage technique of Baroque theatre and, on the other hand, the fatal horror story, which has excessive self-sacrifice and erotic over-excitement also characteristic of the Baroque era as its basic themes. The 21st-century character of storytelling, the here and now relevance of the performance, is established – beyond the uniformity of the set and costumes – by the ceremonial framing (the prologue of the “Gozzi successor” and the epilogue of the “ritual master” conducting the orchestra), as well as the interlude of the abduction (in which the “Gozzi successor” is liquidated by terrorists). The plot structure of the performance, however, faithfully follows the fairy tale model in which the “main event” (Vasiliev) is actually the solution, that is, the happy end. Though the emphasis here is not, as in Gozzi’s fiaba (fairy tale), on the fact that all obstacles eventually give way to the happy marriage. Here, the catharsis that follows almost immediately after the “catastrophe” (Katalin Kemény) is thanks to the simultaneous functioning of the entirety of time, the cultural memory of humanity unfolding before the audience: the mythical pre-time of the fairy tale, the great European era of the Baroque, during which the Gozzi play was written, and post-Soviet Russia, still an open era that extends into the present, form a single space-time continuum in terms of perspective. To us the directorial concept of Roschin embodied in this composition clearly indicates that for the new generation of Russian artists, the programme is no longer about coming to terms with history (as it was for generations appearing since the mid-twentieth century, as demonstrated by Weöres’s entire oeuvre and his book titled Teljesség felé [Towards Completeness] (1945) within that in Hungary), but rather about confronting an ecological catastrophe. This is what makes this tale of the raven’s “revenge” truly relevant, as it sends us, people living in the 21st century, the message that man as a dramatic creature cannot break out of nature, of which he is a part, without consequences, for then the elemental forces, the animal and plant world, will turn against him as one.

Carlo Gozzi: The Raven, d. by Nikolay Roschin, MITEM 2016 (photo: Zsolt Eöri Szabó, source: nationaltheatre.hu)

Zs. Sz.: The same type of universal perspective is characteristic of the directorial concept of Attila Vidnyánszky. His 2003 production based on Ferenc Juhász’s[24] opus A szarvassá változott fiú kiáltozása a titkok kapujából [The Boy Changed into a Stag Cries Out at the Gate of Secrets] (1955), also manifests the duality of human identity, its determination by both nature and civilization. This production, which the director created with his ensemble in Beregszász, is, in my opinion, also as significant an artwork in its genre as Bartók’s Cantata.

Á. P.: With Bartók, the symbolism of the deer motif, originating from shamanism, is yet akin to the symbolism of the archaic plot of the kolinda (Christmas carol). In his Cantata, the mission of the stag-boys is fulfilled on a cosmic level: having found the “clean spring”, there is no turning back to the world of civilization for them. In Ferenc Juhász’s opus, the milieu of nature and civilization is already distinctly rewritten, as if roles were reversed: the wilderness is the metropolis here, into which the post-World War II generation which left their native village with world-changing ambitions entered, and the departure, this second exodus, no longer promises the possibility of a new beginning, but is burdened with a premonition of early demise. The production by Attila Vidnyánszky, A szarvassá változott fiú kiáltozása a titkok kapujából, is strikingly new also conceptually. On this stage, the protagonist, the boy turned into a stag, like the shaman and the poet, turns simultaneously towards the dual otherness of himself and the outside world. This enables him to engage in dialogue and metamorphosis, to explore and connect the levels of existence “below human” and “above human”. Its existential operation is two-way: continuous exodus and return.[25]

Ferenc Juhász: The Boy Changed into a Stag, d. by Attila Vidnyánszky, Illyés Gyula National Theatre, Beregszász, 2003 (photo: Zsolt Eöri Szabó, source: nationaltheatre.hu)

Zs. Sz.: In Attila Vidnyánszky’s performance titled Mesés férfiak, szárnyakkal [Fabulous Men with Wings] created for the 50th anniversary in 2011 of Gagarin’s space flight, we get the interpretation of the world citizen from the perspective of civilization. The question here is already whether humanity, venturing beyond earthly spheres, has truly gained new experience when the cosmic dimension has opened up to them in a technical sense. After Yuri Gagarin’s spaceflight, which lasted about an hour and a half, a confident statement was made that humanity had entered the space age, and that the possibilities for development were unlimited from that point on. The past half-century has indeed brought revolutionary changes, but not quite in the sense in which the two superpowers participating in the space race communicated it back then. Because while we reached the Moon by the end of the decade through American astronauts like Neil Armstrong and others, it became clear by the 1990s that this new era would be defined much more by the revolution in terrestrial communication, the internet, even if space exploration was a prerequisite for it. This digression was important for our line of thought because in information society people began to perceive the dimensions of space-time in a completely different way – as you also mentioned at the beginning of our conversation. Instantly, all the accumulated knowledge became accessible, providing free passage between the world’s regions and cultures that represented – and partly still represent – different periods of civilization. The natural peoples’ cyclical perception of time and the goal-oriented, finalistic attitude of the “developed” world, which no longer conforms to the rhythm of nature, are present at the same time. In fact, Attila Vidnyánszky’s production keeps track of the emergence of this global condition, when it exhibits in physical reality the essential stations of humanity’s mythic visions of flight, from birdman via Leonardo’s flying contraptions and Tsiolkovsky’s precise calculations to the suffering of the exiled constructors in the Gulag. It is accompanied by comments narrated by actors embodying deceased historical figures, who, through their texts, bring the actor’s paradox itself into play: as living beings, sort of returning from death, they evoke their “own” story of suffering with cool objectivity, often in the third person singular. One by one, these human dramas are exposed by the direction from the perspective of the “supreme event”, the moment of death, when those in power ’reward’ superhuman achievement by retaliation, by disregarding, or even liquidating the creative human being.

Á. P.: Actually, this alone would be enough for an authentic docudrama to be created about one of the great stories of the 20th century. A play like this could even go so far as to have these tragic life stories sanctified by the commonplace metaphor of the Christian sacrifice. Yet Attila Vidnyánszky does not choose this obvious, easier path. With the way he weaves the legend of the fourth Magi into the play, he does the opposite: the director’s staging emphasizes from beginning to end the spatial and temporal distance between the mystical past and the profane present, while also evoking the mystical event in its physical concreteness as a sequenced silent play. However, the story itself – that the fourth Magus set out on the journey at the time of Jesus’ birth and, having sacrificed everything, he arrived at the crucifixion of Christ – is conveyed by a minstrel-like narrator. However, the paraliturgical textual space of the narrative cannot be localized, so it does not fulfill the function of linking this mystery play to the climax of the story about space travel, when the first astronaut overcomes gravity and leaves the Earth’s atmosphere. Therefore, the “main event” must and can only take place in the consciousness of the third dialogue partner, the audience, who, seated on the revolving stage, observes the current events taking place in the isolated segments of space-time according to the rules of reverse perspective. And as the revolving stage turns around with them multiple times, the equivalence between humanity-scale world time and the individual’s lifespan becomes perceptible for the audience over and over again.

Zhukovsky – Szénási – Lénárd: Fabulous Men with Wings, d. by Attila Vidnyánszky, Csokonai Theatre, Debrecen, 2011 (photo: Zsolt Eöri Szabó, source: nationaltheatre.hu)

Zs. Sz.: It can be said about this performance, too, that the kind of humaneness which is capable of overriding the ideological burden of dictatorships, whose loudly proclaimed programme was, beside atheism, to do away with the past, stems from the composition itself. For contemporary playwright generations, the most significant lesson of this production may be that particular historical periods, even the century-long passion story of a nation, can only be told legitimately within this broader conceptual framework.


To sum up, we can provide the following answer to the question posed in the title of our essay:

It can confidently be said about the internationally recognized distinctive trend of contemporary world theatre, of which we have examined only a few performances in more detail here, that it simultaneously realizes the drama’s inherently epic character as well as poetic nature. The affinity between stage works and narrative epic – primarily the epic poem and the novel – has become increasingly apparent in recent times as directors regularly employ narrative techniques developed by narrative epic to establish a dialogic relationship between the various dimensions and isolated segments of space-time. As for the term “poetic theatre”, it is essentially synonymous with the meaning of “artistic theatre”: both express the idea that, rather than depicting natural reality, the given institution seeks to restore poetic/artistic fiction[26] to its rights – leading the audience to “creation in the fullest sense”[27] through the artistic production of the actors. Nevertheless, the two concepts mentioned above are not sufficient to point out the characteristic features of the new theatre aesthetics examined here. The essence of this artistic approach and practice is more accurately captured by familiar concepts operable in other contexts, such as the wholeness principle, universalism, transhistoricism that encompasses the full range of human cultural memory[28], and the apocalyptic view of the simultaneity of beginning and end. With this paper, we wanted to draw attention to the fact that apparently there seems to be a renewed demand nowadays – not only within Europe but beyond its borders as well – for a kind of “humanity drama”, which is represented in Hungarian literature by Madách’s masterpiece, Az ember tragédiája [The Tragedy of Man].[29]


Translated by Nóra Durkó


[1]     For the full text of the conversation in Hungarian, see: Ágnes Pálfi – Zsolt Szász: ’Költői és/vagy epikus színház?’ [’Poetic and/or Epic Theatre?’], Magyar Művészet [Hungarian Art], September 2016, pp. 61–71

[2]     Cf. Pálfi, Ágnes – Szász, Zsolt: “Ez egy valóságos színházavató volt!” [“It Has Been a Real Inauguration of Theatre!”] Szcenárium, May 2016, p 54

[3]     Fictitious female character in the mixed-genre work Psyche by Sándor Weöres (1913–1989), one of the greatest Hungarian poets of the 20th century. Published in 1972, the work is one of the first and emblematic pieces of Hungarian postmodernism. It contains the fictitious poetic oeuvre and life story of the heroine named Erzsébet Lónyai, evoking the Hungarian conditions of the turn of the 18th and 19th centuries.

[4]     For the different spatial and temporal dimensions of theatre and film, see Anatoly Vasiliev’s “A valóság nyitott tere” [“The Open Space of Reality”] in his book Színházi fúga [Theatrical Fugue] (OSZMI, Budapest, 1981, pp 82–113). It should be noted that Attila Vidnyánszky first directed Psyché in an open-air production, with the same cast later performing in a stage version in Gyula on 6 July 2015.

[5]     Gábor Bódy (1946–1985) is a prominent figure in Hungarian and European film and video art. He won the Bronze Leopard Award at the Locarno Film Festival in 1981 for his feature film Narcissus and Psyche.

[6]     Bánk bán, the historical drama by József Katona (1791–1830), one of the fundamental works of Hungarian literature, was published in print in 1820.

[7]     Imre Madách’s (1823–1864) dramatic poem Az ember tragédiája [The Tragedy of Man] was published in print in 1862.

[8]     For an analysis of the drama, see Ágnes Pálfi’s Vers és próza. Puskin-elemzések [Poetry and Prose. Pushkin Analyses], Akadémiai, Budapest, 1997.

[9]     Attila Vidnyánszky was the artistic director and later director of the Csokonai National Theatre in Debrecen from 2006 to 2013.

[10]   See for example István Bessenyei Gedő’s “Halál, hol a te fullánkod?” [De-dramatization Efforts in Attila Vidnyánszky’s Productions] Part 1: Szcenárium, October 2013, pp 5–19; Part 2: Szcenárium, November 2013, pp 24–42

[11]   See on this: Mejerhold műhelye [Meyerhold’s Workshop], Gondolat, Budapest, 1981, pp 33–39

[12]   György Lukács (1885–1971) was a Marxist philosopher, communist politician, and literary critic.

[13]   One of the most significant developments in Hungarian literary studies in the past three decades has been, thanks primarily to Árpád Kovács and his students, the vigorous exploration of the language of narrative prose, down to the level of phonemes, based on the methods developed for the analysis of the language of lyric poetry.

[14]   See for this: Király, Gyula: Dosztojevszkij és az orosz próza [Dostoevsky and Russian Prose], Akadémiai Kiadó, Budapest, 1983

[15]   Katalin Kemény warns that “katastrophή” (καταστροφή) in the Greek language originally meant ‘reversal’, “more precisely the turning point in the drama where the threads of complexity begin to unfold (…). “[where] the disturbances and connections of life would be clear, where we could turn to the real and become real, there we crash”. Cp. Kemény, Katalin: Az ember, aki ismerte a saját neveit (Széljegyzetek Hamvas Béla Karneváljához). [The Man Who Knew His Own Names (Marginal Notes to Béla Hamvas’s Carnival)] Akadémiai Kiadó, Budapest, 1990, p 41

[16]   Cf. Anatoly Vasiliev’s ’Irodalmi szöveg és improvizáció’ [’Literary Text and Improvisation’] in Id. Színházi fúga [Theatrical Fugue], Budapest, OSZMI, 1998, pp. 34–55. See term on p. 44

[17]   See in this regard the semiotic approach of Yuri Lotman, according to which the “play on ’real/conditional’ opposition” is characteristic of any “text within the text” situation. He uses the example of the play initiated by Hamlet in Shakespeare’s drama how the “double coding of certain parts of the text” results in the interpretation of the text’s “base space” as a real space. According to Lotman, a crucial role in this is played by the fact that “Shakespeare on stage not only presents the scene, but […] also the rehearsal of the scene”. Due to this, “the double code system of ’real/conditional’ is transformed into the sphere of conscious structural construction”, and, on the other hand, the basic text of the drama becomes interpretable as the text-space of reality. Cp. Jurij Lotman’s ’The Problem of Artistic Space in Gogol’s Prose’, translated into Hungarian by Andrea Mercz as ’A művészi tér problémája Gogol prózájában’. In: Kultúra, szöveg, narráció. In Honorem Jurij Lotman [Culture, Text, Narrative. In Honorem Jurij Lotman]. Edited by Árpád Kovács and Edit V. Gilbert. Janus Pannonius Egyetemi Kiadó, Pécs, 1994, pp. 172–173

[18]   About the award-winning performance at the Pécs National Theatre Meeting, see Márta Tömöry’s “Mondd, bűn megölni egy sólymot?” Miklós Bánffy’s Attila drama on the National stage’, Szcenárium, March-April 2015, pp. 95–100; and Katalin Keserü’s “POSzT 2015” in Szcenárium, October 2015, pp 87–98

[19]   See also: “A hősi hóbort ragálya” – beszélgetés a Nemzeti Színház 2016-os Don Quijote-bemutatójáról’ [“The Madness of Heroic Delusion” – A Discussion About the 2016 Production of Don Quixote at the National Theatre] (dir. Attila Vidnyánszky). (Participants: Márta Tömöry, Ágnes Pálfi, Zsolt Szász) Szcenárium, October 2015, pp. 62–70; and: Ágnes Pálfi: ’Bekezdések Cervantes regényének újraértelmezéséhez [’Paragraphs for the Reinterpretation of Cervantes’ Novel’], Szcenárium, May 2015, pp. 43–55

[20]   See a doctoral dissertation on the play, by István Pinczés: “4D Ro” analógiájú művészi hatáseszközök vektorizációja Samuel Beckett Waiting for Godot című tragikomédiájában [Vectorization of “4D RO” Analogy Artistic Effect Tools in Samuel Beckett’s Tragicomedy Waiting for Godot’] (DLA dissertation, 2009). www.szfe.hu/uploads/dokumentumtar/pinczesidolgozat.pdf

[21]   Cf. Mikhail Bakhtin: A szó az életben és a költészetben [The Word in Life and in Poetry], Európa, Budapest, 1985, p 26

[22]   Anatoly Vasiliev, ibid. p 51

[23]   For a detailed analysis of the performance, see: Ágnes Kereszty: ’Morbid történet – 21. századi köntösben. Carlo Gozzi A holló című darabja Nyikolaj Roscsin rendezésében’ [’Morbid Story – In 21st Century Attire. Carlo Gozzi’s Play The Raven Directed by Nikolay Roschin’] in Szcenárium, May 2016, pp 81–89

[24]   Juhász Ferenc (1928–2015) was one of the greatest Hungarian poets of the second half of the 20th century, and a renewer of the genre of epic poetry.

[25]   Cf.: Pálfi, Ágnes – Szász, Zsolt: ’Ímhol az ember’ [’Behold the Man’], in Csokonai Színlap, 2007.

[26]   See classical philologist Olga Freidenberg’s opinion that, in the world of antiquity, the semantics of fiction (πλάδμα) can be traced back to the cosmic image of “creation.” According to this semantics, ancient “fiction” does not coincide with our concept of “sheer deception.” Moreover, ancient circus “deception” also referred to the imitation of the original, and the fiction of art was understood as the “image” of reality. Cp. O. Frejdenberg: ’Metafora’. In: Poetyika. Trudű russzkih i szovjetszkih poetyicseszkih skol. Edited by Gyula Király, Árpád Kovács. Budapest, Tankönyvkiadó, p 70

[27]   Anatoly Vasiliev, ibid. p 289

[28]   See for this: Szörényi, László: ’Epika és líra Arany életművében’ [’Epic and Lyric in Arany’s Oeuvre’]. In Id.: “Múltaddal valamit kezdeni”, Hungarian Academy of Sciences Publications, No. 45, Budapest, Magvető, pp 164–207

[29]   For the dramaturgical projection of the apocalyptic space-time view of the Age of Aquarius, see: Pap, Gábor – Szabó, Gyula: Az ember tragédiája a nagy és a kis Nap-évben [The Tragedy of Man in the Great and Small Year], Érd, Örökség könyvműhely, 1999

(01 May 2023)

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