Orban’s Macbeth

The tragic figure behind the Hungarian populist leader’s efforts to remake his country’s theater.

By Dariusz Kalan, a Central Europe correspondent in Warsaw.
People arrive to watch the actress Zsofia Szamosi perform in the play Pali at the Jozsef Katona Theater in Budapest on Jan. 18, 2019.
People arrive to watch the actress Zsofia Szamosi perform in the play Pali at the Jozsef Katona Theater in Budapest on Jan. 18, 2019. Chris McGrath/Getty Images

BUDAPEST, Hungary—If Attila Vidnyanszky were a character in a play, he would have fit well into the fourth act of Shakespeare’s Macbeth.

This is when the king, after years of bloody rule, learns from a group of witches about his impending fall. The prophecy is so vague, though, that Macbeth doesn’t know when and how his demise will come. And that makes him even more paranoid.

That is, at least, how Judit Csaki, a Hungarian theater critic, sees Vidnyanszky, who in real life is a 56-year-old director with close ties to Viktor Orban, Hungary’s nationalistic prime minister. Vidnyanszky holds several prestigious positions in the Hungarian theatrical world, including the head of National Theater and Hungarian Theater Society. He got some of those posts after Fidesz, Orban’s party, took power in 2010. And in early August, he added another: chairman of the new board of the Budapest-based University of Theater and Film Arts (SZFE), Hungary’s oldest and most prestigious university of arts.

In late August, nearly 100 SZFE students who feared that Vidnyanszky would force the university to promote Orban’s nationalistic agenda took over the school’s main headquarters in central Budapest. A month later, they blockaded another SZFE building, two streets away. The school’s employees launched an ongoing strike. Artists all over the world, including established writers and Oscar-winning actors, declared their support for the protesters. And among the locals who backed the students was Vidnyanszky’s own actor son.

Vidnyanszky’s is not the first university appointment to rankle during Orban’s time in office. In fact, by transferring ownership of state-run universities to private foundations, many with Fidesz-related figures on the board, Orban’s party has in recent months virtually seized control of six schools. It maintains that its goal was to eliminate state influence and modernize outdated teaching programs.

All the previous university transitions went smoothly. But much to the government’s surprise, SZFE students pushed back. That’s why Csaki hopes that Vidnyanszky is Macbeth before the fall, pushed to the edge by his own tenacity. Most recently, he nominated, apparently without consultation, two new deputy rectors and replaced the sitting SZFE chancellor with the former chief of staff of Orban’s defense minister—moves the university community interpreted as attempts to escalate the conflict.

“He has against himself local and foreign artistic circles. If things go too far, Orban, who is dealing with the pandemic and has no interest in art, will sacrifice him without hesitation. After all, Fidesz will not bring the police to the university,” Csaki said. Vidnyanszky, the critic concluded, “sold his soul to politics and now is paying the price.”

She met Vidnyanszky nine years ago when, despite not having an academic title, he expressed his desire to become the head of the theater institute at the University of Kaposvar in southern Hungary. That would have made him the superior to Csaki, who was the head of a theater department at that time and was competing for the same post. Eventually, about a year after he did take charge of the institute in 2011, Vidnyanszky fired Csaki during a reorganization. In 2015, she won a lawsuit for wrongful dismissal.

Years of heavy-handed influence over the theatrical world won Vidnyanszky a reputation as a “pope,” “messiah,” “demon,” and “titan,” as opponents and supporters alternatively call him. He’s particularly admired in Christian and conservative circles, whose members, he argues, should get the floor after years of liberal domination. In an interview with the ATV television channel, he suggested SZFE should also focus more on “the nation, the homeland, Christianity.”

Critics say that this recipe has led to a dramatic drop in viewership for the National Theater. The weekly Hungarian magazine HVG reported that in 2018, despite state subsidies worth over $6 million, only half of the tickets had been sold at the theater’s main stage, and the season ended with a loss of about $500,000. Vidnyanszky replied that the unsold seats had, in fact, been free tickets distributed to those who couldn’t afford them.

Especially during the recent protests, Vidnyanszky has hewed close to Fidesz talking points. He called the protesters “Lenin boys,” compared them to radical Hungarian communists from the interwar period, and accused them of being manipulated and accepting aid from international organizations. “He seemed offended. As if we protest just to spite him,” Mihaly Csernai, a 23-year-old student and the head of the SZFE student government, recalled after meeting with Vidnyanszky.

Indeed, Vidnyanszky has a long history of feeling left out. Born in a family of teachers in Berehove—or Beregszasz, as this small town in the Ukrainian Transcarpathia region is known in Hungary—he was a wrestler and a boxer in his youth. He had wanted to study at SZFE, but after he reportedly missed his audition, he learned his artistic craft in Kyiv instead.

In more recent years, Vidnyanszky has often complained of being harassed by the Budapest theatrical community because of his Transcarpathian origins and his innovative vision. To the later point, Arpad Schilling, a director and one of Vidnyanszky’s most ardent critics, has admitted that his foe had “added something new and interesting to Hungarian theater, which is based on words and psychological truths.” Schilling continued, “from the East he brought mysticism, lyricism, poetry.”

Yet all that was not enough for Vidnyanszky to feel accepted in the capital city. In 2002, after several well-received years leading a theater in Berehove in often difficult conditions, he applied to be artistic director at the Budapest-based National Theater. But he was turned down due, as he saw it, to a conspiracy between the culture ministry and local artistic circles, which he has referred to as a “theater mafia.” He also complained that he was not allowed to teach at SZFE, an accusation that SZFE leadership denied. “He was invited to do a course but was too busy to attend, and the work remained unfinished,” Laszlo Upor, a former deputy rector at SZFE, said in an interview.

Gabor Nemeth, a screenwriter and a lecturer at SZFE, thinks Fidesz took advantage of Vidnyanszky’s frustration. “His private war against part of the theater community became an element of the system,” Nemeth said, adding that plays directed by Vidnyanszky were actually staged in Budapest in the 2000s and that he was part of the mainstream. After all, he was awarded with others the Jaszai Mari Prize, the highest theatrical prize in Hungary, in 2002, as well as the Silver Cross of Merit of the Republic of Hungary in 2005.

Vidnyanszky’s apparent sense of alienation seems to have been common among future Fidesz figures. When the party won local elections in 2006, it started appointing friendly figures as theater directors across the country. Vidnyanszky, for his part, became artistic director of a theatre in the Fidesz-ruled city of Debrecen in eastern Hungary that year. In his time, he “transformed it from a provincial theatre into internationally recognized cultural institution,” Gábor Turi, former deputy major of Debrecen who employed Vidnyánszky, said. “He has never had political ambitions. He has remained first and foremost an artist, whose mission is to make Hungarian theatre more open to conservative values.”

In 2008, while Vidnyánszky was still artistic director in Debrecen,  he founded the Hungarian Theater Society, a representative body, where many of those close to Fidesz found a home. And then, in 2010, the party saw nationwide electoral triumph.  In the following years, the party introduced several changes, including rewriting Hungary’s constitution in 2011, overseeing an ongoing overhaul of the country’s judiciary, and taking control of public media outlets and many private ones. In 2018, after winning a two-thirds majority in the parliament for the third time, Orban said in his annual speech in Baile Tusnad, Romania, that “we must embed the political system in a cultural era.”

And so, last year Fidesz changed the way theaters receive state funding and also pushed its nationalist agenda into academia. “I don’t think Fidesz tells artists what they should do theatrical plays about,” said Ferenc Czinki, a writer. “But, the atmosphere has been created that the artists themselves start to wonder what will satisfy the leaders and what not.”

For former SZFE staff member Upor, Vidnyanszky, whom he sees as central in Fidesz’s attempts to spread its nationalistic view throughout Hungary, is a tragic figure. The two met some 30 years ago in Zalaegerszeg doing a small play. At that time, Vidnyanszky “was a charming boy and an inventive creator.” Now, he has “too much power and vanity,” Upor added. “If he stayed in the theater, he would have gained—due to his talent—a large group of devoted students, followers, and colleagues. Now, he provokes emotions not because of achievements, but political involvement.”

Vidnyanszky has never paid much mind to such critiques. His opponents say his recent moves to place loyalists in the SZFE leadership suggest that he is determined enough to maintain control over the school at all costs. In many ways, he has nothing to lose. “He went too far [into politics] and will not go back to doing a serious theater,” Czinki said. According to him, the talented and powerful Vidnyanszky, locked in a showdown with a large portion of the theatrical community—even his own son—could be a good character for a play. “But who would write it? Our theatrical community is too divided.”

Attila Vidnyanszky did not respond to a request for an interview.

Dariusz Kalan is a Central Europe correspondent in Warsaw. Twitter: @Dariusz_Kalan