Theaters in Hungary Feel the Chill of Viktor Orban’s Culture War – The New York Times

Theaters in Hungary Feel the Chill of Viktor Orban’s Culture War – The New York Times

That has prompted fears among many in the Hungarian arts scene — which has a strong theatrical tradition and has been a pillar of free speech even under Communism — that artistic freedom is at risk.

The government department in charge of culture dismissed the fears about a threat to artistic integrity as “opposition agitation” based on “fake news,” saying in a statement that the changes would ensure that “public money is used transparently, with clear responsibilities attached to it.”

Yet lawmakers allowed no public consultation on the legal changes, which were presented just days before the parliamentary vote.

The Hungarian Theatrical Society — a representative body led by Attila Vidnyanszky, the head of the National Theater who supports Mr. Orban’s government — welcomed the measures, though it said in a statement that future agreements should not allow “state interference in the artistic work of theaters.”

Like other theaters, the Jozsef Katona has regularly staged works that reflect on societal issues, including in the waning years of Communism.

Some of its plays have been seen as critical of populism, including a recent staging of “On the Royal Road: The Burgher King,” a play about President Trump written by the Nobel laureate Elfriede Jelinek. A 2017 staging of Alexander Pushkin’s “Boris Godunov,” about a powerful regent and czar of Russia, was taken by some to be a representation of Mr. Orban.

The production after which the protest photo was taken this week, Bertolt Brecht’s “The Caucasian Chalk Circle,” is a parable of justice involving two women’s struggle for the custody of a child. Its director, Kriszta Szekely, said the venue was “a type of critical theater that reacts to the present.”

She dismissed the notion, often repeated in government-friendly news outlets, that works there were politically motivated. “My shows are about what goes on with people, with their emotions and their lives,” Ms. Szekely said.

But a recent sexual misconduct scandal at the Katona has complicated the theater’s dealings with the government. Last month, the theater fired Peter Gothar, a prominent director and longtime collaborator, after accusations surfaced that he had sexually abused two co-workers.

The initial, vague statement from the theater did not name either the accused or the two alleged victims. A day later, Mr. Gothar admitted one instance of misconduct against a woman — a sequence of events that unleashed a storm of questions and criticism, especially from government-friendly news outlets, even though the theater’s artistic director later said that their intention had been to protect the privacy of those involved.

The theater’s handling of the case has led some to express concern that it has provided ammunition for the government to justify greater oversight of theaters.

One prominent lawmaker from Mr. Orban’s party, Mate Kocsis, wrote on Facebook that the “Gothar-style harassing theaters demand money from the government while blocking insight into their affairs and, at times, conceal criminal acts for years.”

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