by Békés, Pál
NEW YORK TIMES:
A Budapest Theater Casts Off Its Soviet Past
By JANE PERLEZ,
Published: October 27, 1994
The Vigszinhaz, the theater where the playwright Ferenc Molnar rose to fame, re-opened last weekend after a yearlong, $20 million renovation that restored it to its original neo-Baroque glory.
Gold bas-relief, plush boxes and glistening chandeliers greeted the opening-night audience, which came to see a rousing performance of a new work called “Let’s Dance Together.”
During the Communist era, the hall fell upon hard times. Officially called the Hungarian Popular Army Theater, it was for decades a beacon of Stalinist social realism, with boxes that were far from plush, military motifs on the walls and lighting that consisted of bare bulbs, not chandeliers.
The opening of the restored Vig szinhaz (pronounced VEEG-seen-hahz) — popularly known as the Vig, which can be roughly translated as comedy — marked another step in the rebirth of Budapest. Elegant buildings dating from the last decades of the Austro-Hungarian Empire but pock-marked by World War II bullets and covered with black grime from Communist neglect, are being gutted and spring cleaned.
The catalogue of renovated structures says something about the bourgeois society of Budapest in the 1880’s and 90’s, when building boomed and the arts flourished.
“It was a very important era for the city, the golden age,” said Mayor Gabor Demszky, a dissident publisher in the 1980’s and recently in the vanguard of much of Budapest’s renovation. “The present shape of the city, the ring roads, the avenues, were built at that time, and this theater as well. It was the period when the civil society of Budapest developed.”
Among the recently unveiled buildings is the central market place, renovated with porcelain roof tiles copied from those of the 1890’s. On Liberty Square, the exterior of the stock exchange, formerly the largest in Central Europe and now housing the national television stations, has been refurbished. And on the other side of the square, the art nouveau National Bank, its facade decorated with an intricate bas-relief, has been cleaned to its natural sandy color.
The renovation and reopening of the Vigszinhaz in its original form is particularly symbolic for the city as it tries to escape its Communist past and pushes toward a more prosperous future.
The theater, designed by two popular German architects, Ferdinand Fellner and Herman Helmer, and opened in 1896, was bombed in 1944 and the auditorium almost entirely ruined. Quickly rebuilt by the Communists for Stalin’s birthday in 1951, the new version was a bare-bones affair.
“When it opened in 1896 it was celebrated as one of the most beautiful theaters in Europe,” said Laszlo Marton, the director of the Vigszinhaz. “My idea was to get it back to the original plans.”
But the architects in charge of the renovation were hampered by a dearth of original drawings. Maria Siklos, one of two Hungarian architects on the project, said that only one photograph of the early interior had been found. Ground plans for the building were destroyed during World War II.
With the driving energy of Mr. Marton, who was determined to be as true to the original as possible, guidance from some of Fellner and Helmer’s other theaters in Europe — including the Volkstheater in Vienna — and a little imagination, the past was re-created, Mrs. Siklos said.
“It can’t be absolutely the original, but we wanted to give back the mood,” she said.
Mr. Marton said he had gone to the theater at 6 A.M. every day and driven the work force as hard as if it had been renovating his own home. He insisted on a copy of the original chandelier designed by an Austrian firm for the auditorium ceiling, and used two badly broken chandeliers in the Maria Theresa style from the original theater for the restoration. In a southern Hungarian town he found a pair of smoked-glass panes with the word for Exit etched in old Hungarian (“kimenet”) and had the panes copied for all the auditorium doors.
“It was typical of the era to have an oval lobby with black and gray and white marble on the floor and gold filigree on the ceiling,” he said, as he showed off the intimate and almost identical entrance and upper-floor lobbies.
Mr. Marton, the head of the theater since 1985, is proud that the Vigszinhaz has always been progressive in its choice of productions, standing as a counter to the more traditional National Theater. Thus, Chekhov was first presented in Hungary at the Vigszinhaz, and by 1902 Molnar, a well-known journalist but little-known playwright, made his theatrical debut with “The Doctor.”
In 1909, Molnar’s “Liliom,” the basis for the Rodgers and Hammerstein musical “Carousel,” opened to lukewarm reviews. The Vigszinhaz audiences had become accustomed to Molnar as a comedy writer and were unenthusiastic about his serious drama. After “Liliom,” Molnar reverted to what the Hungarians liked, and his subsequent productions as playwright in residence were comedies, including “The Guardsman” and “The Tale of the Wolf.”
With the rise of anti-Semitism in Hungary in the 1930’s, Molnar left for the United States, never to return. But by then he had worked his magic for the Vigszinhaz. “His fame made the theater famous,” Mr. Marton said.
The early post-World War II years for the Vigszinhaz were difficult, but by the 1960’s the cultural freeze had thawed enough to allow productions of Arthur Miller, Bertolt Brecht and even the return of Molnar.
Mr. Marton has encouraged productions of work by contemporary Hungarian playwrights as well as by Harold Pinter, T. S. Eliot and Ingmar Bergman. Musical productions have included “West Side Story.”
For the opening work of the theater’s new life, Mr. Marton chose “Ossztanc” (“Let’s Dance Together”), adapted from a French staging of short stories with mime, dance and music but no dialogue. The stories are based on aspects of Hungary’s 20th-century history: the well-to-do 1920’s, the dark 1930’s, the 1944 bombing of Budapest, the Stalin era, the 1956 uprising, the despised Soviet Army and censorship, and goes right up to the nouveau-riche businessman with his mobile telephone.
The opening-night audience loved it: the darkness of history was balanced with sharp dancing and rollicking Western music. “This production gives us all a chance to send a very special message,” Mr. Marton said just before the opening, “that the theater is back.”
Photo: The refurbished interior of the Vigszinhaus in Budapest, a theater that has tried to recapture a bit of its Austro-Hungarian elegance. (Laszlo Beliczay for The New York Times)
Hungarian director Laszlo Marton, artistic director of the Vigszinhaus theatre since 1979, spent his late summer in…Gatlinburg, TN. The world premiere of Marton’s Dance In Time opened at the Clarence Brown Theatre (CBT) on the campus of the University of Tennessee Aug. 28 and ends its scheduled run Sept. 12.Marton adapted his movement-based theatre piece from the 1983 film, Le Bal, by Ettore Scola. The setting is a lonely-hearts dance hall, spanning 70 years of Hungarian history. Says Marton, “I wanted a piece that would be a family photo album for the community, just as our theatre was for our city [Budapest].”
Audiences may be surprised to hear so much American and European pop music in the play, but that’s not just a come-on to U.S. audiences; Western music is ubiquitous in Easter Europe. Besides, says Marton, “It is not necessary to be completely familiar with all the history in the play to be captivated by the relationships…that unfold as a result of that history. Like music, personal drama has a way of transcending languages and borders.”
Music must tell the story, in fact, since the 25-member ensemble say not a word throughout (as in the Scola film). Johanna Bodor (also of Vigszinhaus) choreographs. More than half the cast are local Tennessee actors and members of the University of TN Actor Training Academy.
Designing the show are Bulgaria’s Marina Raytchinova (set), and CBT designers Melanie Starnes (costumes) and John Horner (lighting).
This is far from Marton’s first visit to the States. He’s staged several productions at the Actors’ Theatre of Louisville, including Little Shop of Horrors(!). He’s also worked at Chicago’s Court Theatre, as well as venues in Germany, Finland and the UK.
For tickets and information on Dance In Time at the Clarence Brown Theatre on the U of T Campus call (423) 974-5161.
— By David Lefkowitz