Sixty years in two hours

by Eszter Hargittai on December 28, 2003

I saw a play last night (in Budapest) in which no one said anything. Everything was conveyed through music and dancing. It wasn’t a musical as none of the actors sang at all. They moved and danced. The set changed a bit, but most events took place in a café. The play portrayed Hungary’s history from the 1930s through the 1990s. [If you’re getting sick of Hungary-related writing this week, don’t give up on this post just yet, I’m aiming at something hopefully with a bit more general appeal.:)]

I thought it was fascinating to watch what events of those 60 years the writer decided to portray and what music was matched with them. I think it’s an interesting exercise to pick a country whose (recent) history you know fairly well and see what events you may choose to portray it and with what music and dances.

This play had the following (I may be missing a couple) as per my interpretation of the dances and music:

1930s – start of the play with much good-spirited dancing
early 1940s – half the dancers suddenly appear with yellow stars, they are taken away and gassed
1945 – end-of-the-war celebrations then suddenly many men are taken away by the Russians for labor
1956 – uprising, which is followed by tanks and squelching of the uprising; many emigrate
1958/9 – a mother receives word that her son was killed (young people who were underage in 1956 were held in jail until old enough to be killed a few years later)
1960s – influence of the West – this was the only time in the play the music playing was not in Hungarian, rather it was in English (Rock Around the Clock and The Beatles’ Michele); there is also much euphoria over a Coca-Cola bottle
1980s – young people dressed in jeans organizing secretly get hauled away by the police
1990s – Hungarian pop/rap to signal the many changes (political, cultural) and a young man gets beaten up (I think this was meant as sign of some general level of chaos and rise of racism and xenophobia)

As I think about it, I’m not sure what else I would have included. I thought the play did quite a good job of capturing a ton of history in just two short hours. The original play, by the way, is French from Theatre du Campagnol and was directed by Jean-Claude Penchenat. I wonder what events were portrayed in that one and with what music.



jacob 12.29.03 at 5:33 am

That seems like an interesting time–and way–to start a play about Hungarian history. I know only the basics of Hungarian history, but I’d have thought that one would start with World War I, or Trianon at least–and that the start wouldn’t be happy dancing, but more like a third(?) of the population being put by the Allies in other states. Is this play indicative of a trend that traditional anger over Trianon is ending?


Doug 12.29.03 at 9:20 am

Yes, Jacob. Even when I lived there a decade ago, the “nem, nem soha” approach of the interwar years was long since history. The dustbin of history, if I am not mistaken.

Irredentists surely exist, but they are less than marginal. (And with Slovakia entering the EU alongside Hungary in five months, Romania at least somewhat likely for 2007 and Croatia also somewhat likely for 2007, the whole idea will become even less relevant.)


Danny 12.30.03 at 5:05 pm

I don’t think I like that play – sounds a bit like Forrest Gump – reinforcing existing stereotypes of the past, while adding a few mindless “pop culture” references.


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