With a population of just under 10 million and an area of 93 thousand square kilometres Hungary ranks among the small countries of Europe. Nonetheless, it can boast with a rich cultural life and theatre system, where yearly about five million theatre tickets are sold. Budapest, the bustling capital city stretching on both sides of the Danube, is also the prime hub of cultural life, giving space to roughly the half of all the theatres in the country. With its 1.7 million inhabitants it clearly dominates both the established and independent performing arts sector. There are 25 major theatres in Budapest, and about 100 independent/alternative theatre groups and 25 dance companies are also based in the capital.
Most of the 18 county centres have a city theatre of their own, working in a repertory system with a permanent company. According to the peace treaties which ended WWI Hungary lost a large part of its former territory to the neighbouring countries, with about 3 million people having Hungarian as their mother tongue. The large Hungarian ethnic groups in Romania, Slovakia, Serbia and the Ukraine also have their own repertory theatres. For these communities, theatre has always played a key role in cultivating their mother tongue and preserving national identity. Among them the Hungarian theatres in Cluj-Napoca and Sfantu-Gheorghe in Romania, Košice and Komárno in Slovakia, Subotica and Novi Sad in Serbia or Beregovo in Ukraine are among the most acclaimed. Furthermore, there are also 12 repertory puppet theatres and several ethnic and religious companies (Croatian, German, Roma, Serbian, Slovak, Jewish) in the country.
In Hungary theatre subsidies are traditionally granted either by the state for 7 institutions owned and run directly by the government, or jointly by the state and the local authorities. Generally, 40 % of the subsidy is from the state budget, 30 % from the local governments (which is also from the central budget allocated for cultural activities), and only 30 % comes from the box office or other sources. Many if not all of the established theatres in the country take use of an extensive system of season tickets offering specialized portfolios of shows to different social groupings (high-school students, the elderly, general audience, kids etc.)
The first permanent Hungarian-speaking theatre was founded in Pest in 1837, renamed soon to National Theatre and played a great role in the development of a Hungarian-speaking bourgeoisie in the city during the so-called Reform Period. In another period of cultural boom, at the end of the 19th century several private theatres were founded, like Vígszínház in 1896, which offered a broad repertory to the by then culturally booming city: classics, operettas, fashionable comedies, ‘well-made plays’. Ferenc Molnár, who became a world-famous playwright was also a resident author in Vígszínház. Up until today the backbone of the Hungarian theatre system has been the system of historic theatre venues which today operate as repertory theatres with their own permanent companies. These historical buildings, with the exception of a few modern venues, echo the luxury and life style of a bygone era, the Austro-Hungarian Monarchy. This is especially visible in the theatres built by the successful Vienna studio specialized in theatre buildings, Atelier Fellner and Helmer, active in all the countries in the region. Vígszínház or the city theatres in Kecskemét or Szeged built by them mostly using the typology of the Austrian Baroque palace architecture, are equipped with several rows of boxes, spacious foyers and an interior decoration abounding in gold and red velvet.
The German Bildungsteater concept, Max Reinhardt’s theatre or the guest performances of the Burgtheater and Volkstheater from Vienna were of equally important influences on the Hungarian theatre life. The onset of the communist dictatorship after WWII brought about the centralization of theatres and a very strong state control for over 40 years which, however, provided ground for a secure operation. In terms of theatre aesthetics, the Hungarian theatre has been and still is dominated by the work of the actor. The influence of Stanislavski’s method acting, its particular Hungarian interpretation with focus on psychological realism, is still predominant on the Hungarian stages, both institutional and independent. From all actors in the Central European region the Hungarian one stands out with an extremely focused and well-shaped character formation, a minimalism of means and gestures and an inherently naturalist portrayal of psychological processes. The acting style called kisrealizmus (small realism) could almost be a hallmark of the Hungarian dramatic theatre, refined from the 50’s or 60’s, reaching a peak in the performances of the Kaposvár theatre in the 80’s and later at the Katona József Theatre, the most influential arts theatre in the country, just until our days. After 1989 directors like Sándor Zsótér, János Mohácsi, Kornél Mundruczó, Viktor Bodó, Enikő Eszenyi, Attila Vidnyánszky, Árpád Schilling or Gábor Tompa and László Bocsárdi from Transylvania tried to relate to this heritage either by diverting from it, reinventing it or taking it to the extreme. On the other hand, the emergence of ‘directors’ theatre’ or ‘theatre of direction’ has not leaved the Hungarian theatre untouched. From the mid-sixties, a strong generation of theatre directors started to form a theatre language characterized by their overall vision of the play. The heritage of József Ruszt, Gábor Zsámbéki, Gábor Székely and Tamás Ascher is still decisive in the Hungarian theatre scene.
After 1989, the theatre life has become highly diversified. Many of the previous important city theatres have preserved their status and continue to present high-quality artistic drama theatre (Katona József Theatre, Vígszínház, Örkény Theatre, Radnóti Theatre to name just a few in Budapest). Madách Theatre changed profile and became specialized in musicals, and next to the Operetta Theatre these are the only two musical theatres in the country, which are not operas. Nonetheless, they both still receive large state subsidies. The National Theatre, working in a new building constructed in 2002 near the Danube, has a prestigious permanent company, under the leadership of director Attila Vidnyánszky, but also regularly invites guest performances from other Hungarian cities and abroad. MITEM international theatre festival, organized by the National Theatre, has quickly become a defining cultural event of the spring season.
While some Hungarian theatre directors work extensively abroad (like Mundruczó, Bodó, Alföldi, Schilling) playwriting seems to be very much language-bound and not so easily exported internationally as the Hungarian prose writers like Sándor Márai, Imre Kertész, Péter Esterházy, Péter Nádas or, more recently, László Krasznahorkai. Still, István Örkény or György Spiró are among the modern Hungarian playwrights performed extensively abroad.
The Hungarian theatre system still struggles to incorporate independent companies and dance groups born after 1989: they do not receive state support automatically but can apply for grants, which amounts to about 7 percent of the total theatre subsidies of the central budget, 80% of them are based in Budapest. These groups usually lack permanent venues and may or may not have permanent staff, yet their artists often have the same training as those at the standard theatres. Sometimes the independents may aesthetically be more challenging and some have earned international reputation. After 2000 a revival of a new political and socially involved theatre has been gradually taking shape. Companies like Krétakör (led by Árpád Schilling), HoppArt, KOMA, TáP Színház, Sputnik Shipping Company led by Viktor Bodó, playwright Péter Kárpáti’s projects or K2 Színház were or are the most innovative in this respect, also trying to target young audiences and discuss matters relevant to them. Yet they have to constantly struggle for subsidies and performance venues, and with the abrogation of the so-called TAO-system, a form of support that could be required after the sold tickets, independent theatres and groups remained in an even more uncertain financial situation in 2019. Béla Pintér, the playwright-director with the most unique and characteristic voice has developed during the past ten years a very consistent theatrical form with his own company building on the clash of everyday language and songs performed live, absurd fantasy and socio-political sensibility. Writing the text for a specific performance and then directing it by the playwright-director seems also a strong trend among young theatre makers like Andrea Pass, Kristóf Kelemen and Ádám Fekete. During the past five years several theatre groups specialized in young audiences and TiE have been founded (KÁVA, Nézőművészeti, Mentőcsónak etc.), but also many city theatres have realized the potential of special performances and immersive theatre events for adolescents. Another great instance of (critical) social engagement can be found in the recent documentary projects by the PanoDráma group, founded by dramaturge Anna Lengyel. Production venues like the world-renowned TRAFÓ, Jurányi Incubator House (a converted school) or Atrium (a converted cinema) are the main scenes of independent theatre.