The year 1962 saw the beginning of a milder period in Hungary’s socio-political history. In spite of a tendency towards swing-like politics, which meant that from time to time the country’s leader, János Kádár, was obliged to make a show of his willingness to maintain Soviet standards, things were not so harsh as before and Hungary served as a model for a freer version of socialism compared to Romania, Czechoslovakia and Poland. In the performing arts, it meant that the repertory of professional theatres was less ideologically regulated; nonetheless strict controls remained in place and theatres had to plan their programmes in advance and be granted permission. The Agitprop Committee had the power to ban any scheduled play or give permission under special circumstances, and occasionally requested changes even as late as the rehearsals stage or after the premiere (in order to curtail political double entendres).

The theatre groups that worked outside of the official structure were labelled amateurs since their actors lacked formal qualifications from the Theatre Academy, they didn’t use theatre buildings but rather university clubs and culture houses, and most of them were students or had other jobs besides acting. Owning to their amateur status, these groups enjoyed a kind of freedom, being able to perform plays that were still censored in professional theatres and at the same time experiment with acting methods. Some worked with dramatic texts, had a by and large fixed group and functioned on the basis of a closed representation. The most important group of the period, the Universitas, led by József Ruszt,[1] as a university theatre group, gained international reputation in festivals. During the next decade several radical tendencies took place. Groups such as Szegedi Egyetemi Szinpad [Szeged University Stage], led by István Paál, and the Stúdió K, led by Tamás Fodor, a former member of the Universitas, had leftist leanings, and both sought a less formal acting method and a more direct relationship between the actors and the audience. Despite achieving success, they experienced severe persecution and endured constant surveillance owing to their political ideas. In contrast to the Stúdió K. and the Szeged University Stage, the Apartment Theatre on Dohány street[2] and the Kovács István Stúdió had a different worldview (they had no ambitions to reform the system, considering it irreparable) and a different goal: the reconceptualisation of theatrical representation by breaking with tradition of actors playing fictional characters in a story. I propose, in this text, to discuss the case of the Kovács István Stúdió and the work of its founder, László Najmányi during the seventies, which represents a lesser-known part in the Hungarian theatre history.

László Najmányi earned his degree as a civil engineer in 1972. In order to get on financially, he worked as a stage designer in professional theatres between 1972 and 1979. His blueprints, born of a kind of architectural logic and coming after the hegemony of painted sets, were quite revolutionary. Najmányi founded his first “amateur” theatrical group in 1971, naming it the Kovács István Stúdió (the Stephen Smith Studio—both Stephen and Smith are very common names in Hungary). By rejecting the convention of using a hero’s name from the socialist pantheon, his main aim was to pay tribute to everyday people. As a leader, Najmányi decided not to follow strict rules in order to maintain the group. To this end, there were neither a casting nor rehearsals, and the membership fluctuated from performance to performance. As Najmányi said: “I rejected all kinds of representation, imitation, repetition, pathos, and firmly believed that the alert, conscious presence of the performers was the key to create real, living theatre. I didn’t like directing in the traditional sense. Instead, I created situations for the performers in which they could freely improvise. I chose my partners not for their acting abilities, but for their looks and the strength of their personality. We performed each play only once, to avoid developing a routine.”[3]

Flyer of the performance The Life and Unfortunated Death of Grigori Yefimovich Rasputin, Kovács István Stúdió, 1972. Courtesy of the artist

In order to manage this potentially precarious situation and also to avoid censorship, Najmányi hit upon a brilliant idea. In almost every performance[4] he used the scenario of a staged radio drama: a recording with narration and stage instructions was created beforehand, and was played during the performance with the performers following the instructions. In this way Najmányi could avoid the problem of rehearsing (which the authorities sought to control) by simply casting and giving instructions shortly before the start of a performance.

The group held performances in the second public sphere[5]: they performed in culture houses, and also had a show in the Chapel Studio of artist György Galántai in 1973. But even under these circumstances it had to resort to minor subterfuges. For example, they gave their first performance under the pseudonym Soós Imre Irodalmi Színpad [Imre Soós Literary Stage], because the leader of the culture house insisted on a well-known name. Imre Soós was a famous actor of peasant origin and therefore a propaganda figure of the fifties socialist culture. On another occasion Najmányi entitled the show Victory, thereby implying that it was a Soviet anti-fascist propaganda play. In most cases he wrote one script to gain the authorities’ approval but a different one for the actual performance. Once, he even made a fake-diagram showing the effectiveness of the play and the use of the room, making a mockery of the process of asking permission to perform. Though control in the grey zone was less strict than in professional theatres, group performances were still banned many times because the officers couldn’t tolerate the fact that a performance differed from the one originally approved. However, for Najmányi, whose preference was for singularity rather than repetition and en suit theatre, this was not a serious issue.

Although some of the planned performances were discussed with friends Gergely Molnár, György Magos and Tamás Papp, most of them were the concretisation of Najmányi’s personal ideas, scripts and texts. There was a lot of variation in the manner in which the pre-recorded voice and the activities on the stage were put together. For example, in the performance entitled Arcjáték [Mimicry] loudspeakers were placed around the auditorium, while on the stage a filmed face was projected onto a screen. While for the audience, this was akin to being in a cinema, the emphasis was on the performativity of the event, with the spoken text serving as a reflection on the “here and now-ness” of the event (in effect, theatricalising the cinema experience). At the end of the performance the projected face on the screen burst into real flames, while the rest of the screen, prepared with fire retardant material beforehand, remained intact.

In most performances the narration was as important an element of the performance as the ongoing events on the stage. The text of the narrator reflected on the theatrical situation as a whole, pre-telling, describing and interpreting what was happening on the stage and in the audience. In some plays the narration did not so much tell a story as speak about the experience of actually being seated in a theatre.

Adventure, Kovács István Stúdió, 1973. Courtesy of the artist. Photograph by András Tóth

Moreover, in some cases there was an intentional mismatch between events and their narration. In one performance, A Dél Keresztje [The Southern Cross] the narrator spoke of a jug falling and smashing on the floor; in fact, the jug did fall but was suspended in the air before it could break owing to the string attaching it to the ceiling. This can be interpreted as a demonstration of the unreliability of the medium of language.[6] And Najmányi himself stated that it was inspired by the official language of power, in particular the gap between the everyday experience of people and the over-optimistic narration of current affairs in the news and media.

The separation of body and voice follows the cinematic tradition, and highlights the materiality of the media.[7] This was most clearly demonstrated in those performances where the apparatus itself was made visible. For example, in Ne mondd el senkinek, Izsák vagyok [Don’t Tell Anyone, I Am Isaac], four reel-to-reel audio tape recorders were placed in the corners of the auditorium, linked by a single looped magnetic tape. One of them recorded the events, which were played back on the other three devices and thus re-recorded. The installation doubled the presence of the ongoing events, creating an uncanny effect.

The psychoanalytical approach demonstrated that a voice without a body possesses an authoritarian power.[8] In the Kovács István Stúdió performances, this was emphasised by the texts of the narrator. But in the same instance, the authoritative power of the bodiless voice was being dismantled by the presence of the actors’ bodies, the irony of the texts, and the intentional (sometimes unintentional) mismatch between the narration and the events. This is quite similar to the use of performatives and performative utterances by other Hungarian neo-avant-garde artists like Miklós Erdély, Tamás Szentjóby, and Tibor Hajas.[9] What’s more, the paradox of giving priority to singularity while at the same time using gadgets to produce repetition can be detected in the theoretical writing and artistic practice of Miklós Erdély and his circle.[10] It is these works that provide the real context for understanding the aesthetic of the performances of the Kovács István Stúdió, rather than the contemporary theatre of that period.

Blindfold Chess 1, Kovács István Stúdió, 1974. Courtesy of the artist. Photograph by András Tóth

Another important experiment was the reconceptualisation of the traditional theatrical space and situation. In their performance Vak Szimultán 1 [Blindfold Chess 1], the members of the audience were led into small separate boxes made from reinforced cardboard, situated next to the walls of the room (planned by László Rajk, Jnr, who participated in the group during this period). When audience members were seated, small windows were cut in their boxes through which they could watch the arrival of the others and later observe the scenes of a physical theatre play that was performed in a labyrinth (also built from reinforced cardboard) in the centre of the room. Vakszimultán 2 [Blindfold Chess 2] had a similar dramaturgy, but the members of the audience were split into groups and the scenes of the play were shown in different rooms simultaneously. The first group was led into a room and seated. While they were watching the minimalist action, the second group entered and tried to figure out what the situation was, and what, if anything, they were supposed to do (while the pre-recorded voice of a narrator faux-commented on their appearance[11])—looking at each other for clues was an important part of the spectacle and situation provided. After this, the first group went to the next room to watch other scenes of the play, and the second group took its place, becoming the ‘new’ audience, and soon the third group came in, and so on. In A császár üzenete 2 [The Emperor’s Message 2], Najmányi stood at the edge of the stage and read Kafka’s short story The Emperor’s Message, while from time to time semi-transparent curtain-like plastic foils fell to the ground, revealing another row of people on each occasion (mostly artists who were officially banned). Finally the entire stage was like an audience, looking back into the auditorium, where only the state appointed committee sat behind a long table. The performance was part of the “qualificatory exam,” which was mandatory to take for all “amateur” groups, in order to obtain official permission to publicly perform.

While the Kovács István Stúdió made good use of film screening in its performances, the influence of film can also be detected in other details. The performance A nagy Petőfi film [The Great Petőfi Film] used the slow motion technique of films (Najmányi was inspired by Miklós Erdély’s loop films,[12] which Erdély slowed down manually during home screenings, and by the stories he heard about Robert Wilson’s Deafman Glance). In Kaland [Adventure] a large white plastic foil with holes was placed in front of the audience. The performers behind the screen showed various body parts through the holes (face, hand, palm) as in a cinematic experience, and interacted with other performers standing on the other side of the screen.[13] In this way, the Kovács István Stúdió not only added recorded voice and film to theatre as plus sign-systems but created a situation for the recipient based on the intersection of these two media. The group was dissolved by Najmányi in 1975. With some remaining members (Gergely Molnár, Katalin Eörsi and Tamás Papp) he founded Donauer Video Family Without Video and Friends (after the first show it was renamed Donauer Arbeiter Familie Ohne Arbeit), who made oratorio-like performances using the combined texts of Gergely Molnár and László Najmányi. While the performances of the Kovács István Stúdió were minimalist and self-referential, the plays of Donauer troupe were rich in reference to high-culture and media theory.

The Mad; the Madness – the Medium is theMessage , Donauer Video Family Without Video and Friends, 1977. Courtesy of the artist. Photograph by István Rész

László Najmányi (together with Gergely Molnár, Péter Hegedüs and Tibor Zátonyi) was a founding member of the Spions, the first punk rock band of the Warsaw Pact countries. They performed only three concerts, two of which were halted early, but the group became a legend and heavily influenced the alternative bands of the eighties. The one and only entire concert had a theatrical dramaturgy, while the unexpected ending of their other two concerts were a kind of spectacle too.[14]

In the first part of the only fully realised concert (at the club of the Mass Media Research Centre of the Hungarian Academy of Sciences) Najmányi gave a short performance under the title Père Lachaise Show. He sang four self-penned songs with the same melody and arrangements, in which he played the role of a French secret police agent who captures and tortures Beckett, Artaud, Céline, and Henry Miller. Besides singing and playing on a home-made synthesizer, he removed cockroaches from a jar, skewered them on a needle, and using an overhead projector, projected their mortal agony onto the wall behind him.[15] The performance made novel use of contemporary technology and unconventional props but all these were easily accessible so convenient for their financial possibilities. The works of the authors mentioned were taboo at the time, and they each lived, to varying degrees, on the borderline in terms of the language, sexuality, and society. The liminal identity is a key part of the punk aesthetics; likewise members of the underground were liminal figures from the point of view of the socialist society.

Before the first song, in the second part of the concert, personnel nailed shut the doors and requested that the audience pay if they wanted to leave the room or for the concert to begin, which was considered a provocation. “Later on the members of the audience confessed that they donated only because they were afraid of the orderly, collected, disciplined presence of the three musicians on the stage.”[16] This kind of confrontation was uncommon at the time, in both theatres and at concerts. It is worth noting that the first attempt to perform Handke’s Offending the Audience in Hungary at the Theatre Academy in 1969, was brought to a halt in the first fifteen minutes by the head of the Acting Department and students performing in the play feared that they would be expelled from the school. After this, the play was not included in any theatre programme until after the change of the system in 1989.[17]

During this period, Najmányi also held one-man performances, mainly in his own apartment, for just one person with a camera. In a part of these performances, he was experimenting with the physical limits of his body, but without the heroic attitude of Tibor Hajas. In Run by R.U.N. Najmányi ran in one place, chain-smoked cigarettes, ate raw eggs, drank champagne and carried on running (sometimes for eight hours), until he fell to the ground from exhaustion. In S.T.R.I.K.E. he was motionless for hours while a camera captured moments of this process. The performance Kundalini saw him experimenting with drugs: after taking a pill with psychotropic side effects he forced himself not to lose consciousness while his assistant, János Béres, took photos documenting this “tour de force.”

Run by R.U.N. at Young Artists Club, Budapest, László Najmányi, 1979. Courtesy of the artist. Photograph by Zoltán Gazsi

His other one-man performances had a sharply different aesthetics and dramaturgy. Inspired by David Bowie and Lou Reed, Najmányi used heavy makeup, military-gay style uniform and improvised short actions in front of the camera. The photo documentation of these performances is largely unknown to a wider audience because he was misanthropic at the time and left the country in 1979, due to constant threats from the authorities and to constraints on his artistic freedom.

In the second part of the seventies the members of the Apartment Theatre on Dohány Street as well as the founders of the Kovács István Stúdió emigrated, István Paál, the former leader of the Szeged University Stage was forced to work within the more rigid professional theatre structure, while two founding members of the formative years of the Stúdió K. (B. Miklós Székely and Erzsébet Gaál) left the group, which briefly broke up in 1980. Consequently at the beginning of the eighties there was a lack of artistic creativity and experimentation in Hungarian theatre life. Owing to these circumstances Hungarian theatre remained a text-based, illustrative medium, and the hegemony of psychological realism remained virtually unbroken until the mid-nineties, with some notable exceptions.[18]

Gabriella Schuller is a theatrologist and researcher based at Artpool Art Research Centre in Budapest.