3/19/2012 International Arts Manager

Comment: Adam Fischer on artistic freedom in Hungary

Adam Fischer

Ádám Fischer on why he feels compelled to incite artistic action in Hungary against the performance of István Csurka’s The Sixth Coffin.

Hungary's society is going through a phase of enormous change. The world is increasingly concerned about the way democratic instituitions are being obstructed, how racism, antisemitism and xenophobia are gaining ground and acceptance. In such times it would seem important that artists fight for the freedom of the arts and are on the alert when politicians try to silence artists, to censor books or ban theatre performances.

I am advocating the ban of a theatre event planned for this autumn in Budapest. Is this compatible with an artist's obligation to fight for the freedom of expression? I think it is. An artist must speak up when a publicly funded theatre in the capital of an EU country plans to show anti-semitic pieces, something that has not happened since the war. I am talking about the production of the piece The Sixth Coffin at Budapest’s New Theatre (Új Színház) by the recently deceased writer István Csurka, doyen of the Hungarian antisemites and formerly member of the Hungarian Parliament as leader of the extremely right-wing party, MIEP.

The New Theatre fell victim of a shady political deal. Csurka and his party had abstained from running in the last parliamentary elections. Instead Csurka appealed to his followers to vote for FIDESZ, now the ruling party. Thereafter György Dörner, a combatant of Csurka, was appointed director of the New Theatre by István Tarlós, Budapest’s Mayor. Dörner declared that he would lead the house in the spirit of his mentor Csurka, and also perform his plays.

Dörner's appointment has lead to protests in Hungary and abroad. In reaction, Tarlós publicly promised not to allow any anti-semitic performances to take place at the New Theatre, or he would fire Dörner. But the premiere of this anti-semitic Sixth Coffin had already been announced at that time, and it can be assumed that the persons in charge have read the play. There is only one explanation: they do not consider this piece anti-Semitic. That is the most alarming fact in this matter.

Csurka's piece is set in 1920, shortly before the Austro-Hungarian monarchy was to be partitioned into several successor states. Some American bankers with suspiciously German-sounding names decide to instruct the American President Woodrow Wilson – who is of course under their control – to punish Hungary severely in the upcoming peace negotiations. Among each other they admit that this step is indeed cruel, but neccessary if the secret society of capitalists is to gain control over the whole world.

The fact that the Mayor apparently does not seem to consider such a piece to be antisemitic is the real scandal. A couple of years ago this would have been unthinkable. But intolerance in Hungary has been growing recently. Tarlós and many others seem to believe that somebody who only denounces evil jews has claim not to be an anti-Semite, because he/she likes ‘nice’ Jews – and only hates ‘ugly’ Jews, or those who ‘behave like Jews’. A response that is unacceptable.

Anti-Semitic propaganda strengthens existing prejudices. Csurka implied that he had nothing against Jews as such, only against those who plan and take part in the international Jewish conspiracy against the rest of the world – something that is the standard argument of all right-wing extremists in Hungary.

The Mayor has said that he will not allow the performance of anti-Semitic propaganda at the New Theatre and yet he has failed to contest the performance of The Sixth Coffin.

If the politicians had opened the discussion that in a democracy it must be possible to perform even an antisemitic piece, this might be an argument that one could debate. But if they say they do not consider Csurka´s piece to be anti-semitic, by implication that surely means something is seriously rotten in the state of Hungary.

It is a move that potentially shows how the immune system of the Hungarian society is already frightfully weakened by the virus of anti-semitism. It is our duty to find ways to strengthen its defenses. And this is why I and many others will not stop in our protest against this production.


Ádám Fischer is the general music director of the Austro-Hungarian Haydn Orchestra, music director of the Hungarian Radio Symphony Orchestra, and chief conductor of the Danish National Chamber Orchestra. He is a Hungarian conductor of Jewish family origin and runs the website www.artistsagainstracism.eu