The backlash over Hungary’s new theatre legislation is not just political drama. It is a democratic and artistic crisis
In a speech last year, the Hungarian prime minister Viktor Orbán gave his definition of what some late 20th-century Marxists used to call hegemony. “An era,” said Mr Orbán, “is a spiritual order, a kind of prevailing mood, perhaps even taste … determined by cultural trends, collective beliefs and social customs. This is the task we are now faced with: we must embed the political system in a cultural era.”
Soon afterwards, the Fidesz government, which Mr Orbán leads, cancelled state funding for gender studies in the country’s universities. This was part of a drive to minimise the influence of liberal ideas in Hungarian life and promote an alternative worldview – one which the prime minister used to call “illiberal democracy” and now likes to refer to as “Christian liberty”.
Since 2010, Mr Orbán and his allies have aggressively extended their reach and influence into multiple areas of civil life. His hegemonic activities continue apace. This week new legislation was introduced to restrict the power of municipal authorities, after recent local elections saw opposition gains. The government also moved to restrict the freedom to form opposition alliances in parliament. Most strikingly, it was announced that the country’s theatres are also to be subjected to the constraints and demands of the new “era”. A government bill has proposed that the state should have a role in the appointment of directors in theatres which it subsidises. The proposed law also notes that the “basic expectation” of the arts is that they “actively protect the interests of the nation’s survival, wellbeing and growth”. The news was enough to bring thousands of protesters on to the streets of Budapest on Monday evening. A former director of the Hungarian National Theatre said the theatre legislation could eventually mean “everyone who gets a chance to make culture and create work would have to be a loyal servant of the regime”.
Mr Orbán rose to prominence in the anti-communist demonstrations of 1989, so it is ironic that the domineering politics practised by Fidesz is being experienced by its opponents as a throwback to the late communist era. In the 1980s, careers prospered only with the approval and patronage of the party, which held the purse strings and prized loyalty. Today, those lawyers, artists or lecturers who find themselves at odds with the prime minister’s version of “spiritual order” increasingly risk finding themselves out in the cold.
The proposed new law does not bode well for the Hungarian arts. In his 1984 novel The Unbearable Lightness of Being, the Czech author Milan Kundera famously explored the idea of “totalitarian kitsch”. This, he wrote, became aesthetically dominant when a single political movement gained a monopoly on power. Obsessed with the inculcation and celebration of collective virtue, kitsch art could not countenance the messy, challenging nature of real life and individual nonconformity. In a possible sign of things to come, the Hungarian State Opera House cancelled 15 performances of Billy Elliot last year, following a media campaign against its alleged promotion of homosexuality. Mr Orbán’s new theatre law is not only bad in principle. It will also produce bad art. Wed 11 Dec 2019