Located in Central Europe, modern Hungary (Hungarian: Magyarország) had its foundation in the late 9th century after centuries of habitation by a succession of many peoples, including Celts, Romans, Huns, Slavs and Avars. Hungary’s golden age was the 15th century, after which it was partially occupied by the Ottomans (1541-1699), later coming under Habsburg rule, and then forming a significant part of the Austro-Hungarian Empire (1867-1918). For four decades in the 20th century, Hungary was a member of the Eastern Bloc (1947-1989).
The roots of indigenous performing arts in Hungary date back to the 11th century with dramatic folk traditions as well as the well-known semi-liturgical dramas. At this time an early form of Hungarian puppetry also took shape, seen, for example, in the busó – triple masks and puppets – or the “dancing puppets” of the Christmas Crib (see Nativity Scenes), with traditional figures like Herod and the Devil, the Bellringer, a “Jutka-Marinka” puppet, and the Little Red Hero. Later figures included the “Titiri” shepherds and the Chimney Sweep. At the end of each performance, Kis Miklós (Little Nicholas) would make the rounds of the audience to collect alms which he put into his moneybag. There was also a kind of planchette (jigging puppet) performance that could be seen in the villages, manipulated by young peasants or strolling gypsies.
The 18th and 19th Centuries
From around the middle of the 18th century foreign puppeteers performed in the town fairs of Hungary: the German Franz Passer with his marionettes; a little later another German, Franz Joseph Diwald, who performed until 1790; and the well-known Albert Bienfait, the Pulcinella player. The puppet theatre housed in the castle of the Princes of Eszterházy became an important puppetry centre where, from 1773, many productions could be seen, often with music by Joseph Haydn (see Eszterháza Palace Marionette Theatre). Marionette performers such as A. Lombardino, J. Kobler and Franz Stöger gave performances in Pest during the first decades of the 19th century. Another famous performer, C.J. Tschugmall (1785-1845) from Tyrol, had great success with his mechanical puppets in 1839. Alongside these touring artists the Hungarian actor István Balogh (1790-1873) developed an interest in puppetry and left librettos (more in the nature of outlines) of his puppet plays to posterity: some children’s tales, a romantic story about a highwayman, among others.
There were, however, two German dynasties which made their home in Hungary and learnt the language: the Hincz family and the Korngut-Kemény family (see Vitéz László). The former built a permanent puppet theatre in the Budapest City Park; the latter built another in the Népliget (People’s Park). Both theatres are located on the eastern side of the Danube. Both families performed regularly until the nationalization of theatres took place in 1949. The tradition of the Kemény family was kept alive by Henrik Kemény Junior (1925-2011): a highly dynamic style of performance using the glove puppet called Vitéz László (Lazlo the Brave).
In 1910, Loránd Orbók (Pozsony, 1884 – Barcelona, Spain, 1924) and his friends made the first attempt to use puppets as a means of higher artistic expression in Hungary. Over the subsequent four years, they performed short plays using glove and shadow puppets written by distinguished contemporary poets. An example of these plays is A fekete korsó (The Black Jug) by Béla Balázs. Another notable artist who experimented with puppetry was Géza Blattner (Debrecen, 1893-1967), who adapted fairground tales for puppetry. In 1925, Blattner established a puppet theatre in Paris called Arc-en-Ciel. In Hungary, Béla Büky (Juta, 1899 – Budapest, 1983) performed special shadow plays based on well-known Hungarian folk ballads. Sándor A. Tóth (Rimaszombat, 1904 – Zalaegerszeg, 1980) created a series of glove puppets for the Boy Scout movement. The Remsey family set up a puppet theatre at Gödöllő which was active between 1934 and 1953. The first permanent professional puppet theatre in Hungary was the Nemzeti Bábszínjáték (National Puppet Theatre) founded by István Árpád Rév (Budapest, 1898-1977), who created ten new shows for adults and six for children at this theatre between 1941 and 1945. The most noted of these was Toldi, a puppet version of a classical poem written by János Arany in 1847.
The Nationalization of Puppetry
After World War II, the Communist regime proposed the organization of amateur puppetry ensembles as one of the “weapons against imperialism”. Until the end of the 1940s, there were more than 1,000 amateur groups performing in nurseries, schools, factories, and in different workplaces and organizations. Two such companies are Napsugár Bábegyüttes (Sunshine Puppet Company), one of the oldest puppet companies in the country, founded in 1949, and Astra Bábegyüttes (Astra Puppet Company) founded in 1953. The only professional puppet theatre at the time, however, was the Mesebarlang (Cave of Tales or Story Cave) which opened on February 21, 1948 under the patronage of the Hungarian Women’s Democratic Union. Shortly afterwards, in 1949 (when all Hungarian theatres were nationalized), the Mesebarlang was transferred from the Women’s Union to State ownership and renamed Állami Bábszínház (State Puppet Theatre). It was not, however, a genuine nationalization, as previously it had not been a private institution.
Due to political pressure, neither the “Cave of Tales” (Mesebarlang) nor the State Puppet Theatre were able to develop autonomous artistic identities and, instead of following Hungarian fairground or artistic traditions, they began to develop performances in the style of Soviet puppetry, and earlier figures of importance, such as István Árpád Rév, were not able to develop their own work.
The State Puppet Theatre, as the only professional puppet theatre, held the hegemony for the development of all Hungarian puppetry during the post-war period. After 1958, however, the theatre began to return to national and folk traditions and added high-quality performances of classical literary works to the children’s repertoire.
The theatre developed new work, drawing from old traditions and new experimental material under the artistic direction of Dezső Szilágyi (Gyula, 1922) in collaboration with the following directors: Kató Szőnyi (Budapest, 1918-1989); Gyula Kovács (Budapest, 1920-1985); Géza Balogh (Budapest, 1936); Gyula Urbán (Székesfehérvár, 1938); Pál Lengyel (Diósgyőr, 1943). Both Balogh and Urbán had studied directing for puppet theatre in Prague, and Lengyel came from the alternative student theatre movement. Szilágyi also worked with prominant designers such as Vera Bródy (Budapest, 1924), Iván Koós (Budapest, 1927-1999), the legendary surrealist painter Lili Ország (Ungvár, 1926 – Budapest, 1978), Klaudia Orosz (Belogradchick, Bulgaria, 1954) and Imre Ambrus (Gyergyófalu, 1936).
The Hungarian Centre of UNIMA was established in 1962. Dezső Szilágyi was its first president (1962-2004) and was then succeeded by Géza Balogh. From 2008, Eszter Pap was president, and since 2010 Kata Csató became president of UNIMA Hungary.
The hegemony of the Állami Bábszínház (State Puppet Theatre) decreased from the 1980s onwards. During the latter decades of the 20th century, several professional puppet theatre groups in the provinces were established. The earliest was Bóbita Bábszínház in Pécs, founded in 1981, followed by Harlekin Bábszínház in Eger since 1986, and Ciróka Bábszínház in Kecskemét since 1987. These companies could not compete with the Állami Bábszínház, however, as they only performed 180 to 220 times per season in comparison to the 1,400 to 1,500 performances by the Állami Bábszínház in Budapest and its performances throughout Hungary. As this theatre had for so many decades held the monopoly on puppet theatre in the country, the style came to be considered old-fashioned among newer, more contemporary ensembles, some of which were established following the change in national politics in 1989.
Hungarian Puppetry After 1989
After 1989 (the date of political change), many new professional puppet troupes emerged in the cities of Budapest, Győr, Miskolc, Debrecen, Szeged, Szombathely, Veszprém, Zalaegerszeg and Békéscsaba. Almost all the leading personalities of contemporary Hungarian puppetry had trained at the State Puppet Theatre, and yet there emerged a divergence in style: they would either follow its style and dramaturgy or, alternatively, develop theatre against the classicism of what they considered to be the outdated modes of the Állami Bábszínház.
Dezső Szilágyi directed the Állami Bábszínház until 1992. When he retired, the Állami Bábszínház’s position was taken over by two successive institutions: the Budapest Bábszínház (Budapest Puppet Theatre) and the Kolibri (Hummingbird) Theatre. Since 1994, the director of the Budapest Bábszínház has been János Meczner (Budapest, 1944) and from 1992 the artistic director of the Kolibri has been János Novák (Budapest, 1952). The Budapest Bábszínház aims to preserve the artistic profile of the Állami Bábszínház while continuing to innovate; it can be considered a prestigious participant in puppetry festivals. The Kolibri is an intimate family theatre and creates children’s performances based on classical or contemporary stories, with puppets or actors.
The new political situation has resulted in the birth of new personalities in Hungarian puppetry. From the 1990s, a new generation of stage directors emerged: Géza Kovács (Kecskemét, 1959) who mixes traditional fairground puppetry with contemporary human intellectual angst during the 20th and 21st centuries; János Pályi (Szolnok, 1959) who is known for a mixture of passion and comedy; László Rumi (Kecskemét, 1960) and his poetical and metaphorical theatre. These are the most important developments for puppetry in the past two decades.
During this period, many private experimental and alternative groups or “family theatres” also emerged featuring the following styles: such as Figurina, the object theatre of Gábor Siklósi’s (Budapest, 1955); MárkusZínház (Markus Theatre) with the grotesque comedy of Gábor Pilári (Pécs, 1960); Fabula, the traditional company of Tibor Felszeghy (Budapest, 1962); Levendulaszínház (Lavender Theatre), the metaphorical theatre directed by Zsuzsa Szabó (Pécs, 1962); Hattyú Dal Színház (Swan Song Theatre), inspired by the Middle Ages and directed by Zsolt Szász (Debrecen, 1959); and last but not least Mikropódium, the poetic and tiny one-man theatre of András Lénárt (Eger, 1955).
Education and Training
After World War II, Béla Büky (1899-1983) began to organize specialized training for puppeteers. Béla Szokolay (1891-1959) and Sándor A. Tóth (1904-1980) laid the foundations for teaching puppetry. After 1950, an educational centre was established at the Népművészeti Intézet (Institute of Folk Art). Since 1958, the Állami Bábszínház organizes professional training: four cycles, then six and eight semesters are provided. In 1995, the College (now University) of Film and Theatre Arts in Budapest opened classes for actor-puppeteers, led, since 2000, by János Meczner; they offer a broad professional training meeting the requirements of theatre and puppetry actors (practical and theory of literature, theatre, puppetry, acting techniques, performance techniques, acrobatics, singing, dancing and foreign languages). Finally, several theatres, under contract with various higher education institutions, are training young puppeteers.
The Faculty of Fine Arts offers set designers a special puppetry course.
The Hungarian Theatre Museum and Institute (Az OSZMI Bábtörténeti Gyűjteménye) was founded in Budapest in 1952. The historic puppet collection functions as an independent department. It includes documentation on puppetry in Hungary and the rest of the world.
The museum’s collection of objects includes: some 3,000 puppets, accessories and other puppetry-related objects, laying out the history of itinerant troupes of travelling puppeteers and fairground puppetry; about 20,000 posters and programmes from Hungary and other countries; 10,000 manuscripts; 450 drawings and sketches; tens of thousands of photographs taken by amateur photographers or by photographers of theatre; and an important collection of books. The library, with 20,000 volumes in Hungarian and foreign languages, is one of the largest collections of specialized literature in Hungary. In addition, there is the collection of press clippings and videos.
The historic puppet collection is open to artists, practitioners and teachers. It contributes to training, symposia and festivals. It organizes exhibitions, for the most part, travelling exhibits (Prague, Vienna, Berlin).
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