A noted Hungarian theatre critic examines the nature of criticism

As Hungarian theatre artists are under siege, a leading critic speaks out

A week ago, Andrea Tompa, President of the Hungarian Theatre Critics Association, came to Baltimore’s Center Stage to speak about the political pressures being placed on artists and writers in contemporary Hungary. Titled ‘The Dismantling of Hungarian Theatre’, this was the first event for Baltimore’s Open Theatre, which is gearing up to inaugurate a season of local and international acts. 

Andrea Tompa

The story she had to tell  about Hungary was one sadly familiar to many in Eastern Europe. She went into theatre criticism as a university graduate in the mid 90’s, when Hungarian culture was in its first flush of post-Communism. Since then, political polarization and increasing nationalism has poisoned the dialogue on arts and national culture. What she was talking about is a cautionary tale for any American. The fact that she was invited to speak in Baltimore shows that the city is really a hotbed for emerging independent artists from abroad.

For this interview, I was most interested in her own story.

Before she spoke, we sat together in the Head Theatre, in the third floor of Center Stage. The stage was cluttered with construction for Center Stage’s upcoming production of The Whipping Man.

I decided to begin by asking the question I ask myself repeatedly. Why the hell would anyone, in Hungary, or the U.S., for that matter, decide to become a critic? And once you get the job, how do you justify your existence?

Her thoughtful responses are interesting, especially in a world where people wonder whether we really need critics at all.

How did you start writing theatre criticism?

I studied literature at the university in Hungary. I didn’t really know what to do afterwards. I looked in a theatre magazine. There was a workshop for theatre critics. So I tried it out. At the time I didn’t go to the theatre at all. I’m originally from Romania. I had also been in Russia. And I thought Romanian and Russian Theatre were great and Hungarian theatre was boring. But I took the course because I didn’t know what to do. It was a two year course. And gradually, I started to go to the theatre. And I discovered that in Hungary theatre is different from what I thought it was.

So you’re a creative writer – you have a novel out now – and there are a lot of outlets for that. Why did you turn to theatre criticism?

I thought this was a good form for expressing myself. But if that workshop was about something else, who knows, I might have wound up being an art critic. I started immediately to publish articles. The good thing was that my generation – at the time, the young generation – was completely absent from the critics scene. There were much older critics. There was a need for something new – new voices. It was also a good environment.

Where do you get published?

In Hungary, it’s usually cultural weeklies or professional magazines. But I don’t write for dailies.

- The magazine she edits is only available in Hungarian, which she acknowledges ‘is a problem.’ About 70 percent of the magazine is Hungarian, about 30 percent is international. -

You were a critic when things were changing fast in Hungary. For better and for worse?

For the better at the time. When I really started to publish, it was the year 2000. There were lots of good things happening. More and more criticism was published online, and the theatre itself changed a lot. There was a lot of good independent theatre, and a lot of international theatre. It was a really progressive moment.

There’s a template for criticism that a lot of us follow. You show up, watch the play, offer a summary, and explain how you can do it better. As a creative writer, did you struggle with that?

I don’t really make decisions about how to do things better. If I could do it better, I’d do it myself. I feel that criticism to me is about dialogue. It’s a dialogue with the audience, and with the performers. It’s also a dialogue with myself. Because it’s writing, and in the process of writing you learn a lot about yourself, if you want to be able to mediate this dialogue.

So it’s not about deciding whether something is worth seeing or not?

Of course where I live, criticism is probably very mild compared to the criticism in the United States. [In the U.S.] it’s more black and white. You have to tell the audience to go or not to go. Criticism in Europe and Eastern Europe doesn’t assume that power – to tell the audience what to do. This is good and bad at the same time. A critic doesn’t have the power to close a show or to make it great. It’s also good, because you realize that you’re only part of the dialogue, not the only voice, delivering the final verdict. But really, I would hate to have that role. I can’t imagine how a critic can live with that power.

Some might say it’s a critic’s dream to show up on opening night on Broadway, and be able to shut down a show or turn it into a hit.

Well I do go to opening nights, usually. But that’s a problem, because often the shows aren’t ready. Then often, when I’m taking my job seriously, I go to see a show two or three times.

So I really want to engage in a dialogue with that play. Especially a complicated one, whether it’s philosophical or contemporary. It’s good to see it a few times.

- In Eastern Europe, meanwhile, most theatre is performed as repertory. A show becomes part of the repertory over months, or years, and is frequently polished and adjusted over that period. -

Conditions in Hungary started to change in mid-decade. Economically, politically, and otherwise. The economy started to collapse. What happened to your role?

It’s hard to put it simply. And the less healthy a society is, the smaller the role of criticism is. It’s important to have a dialogue about what we see, what we subsidize. In European countries, so much depends on subsidies by the government. So criticism has a role. But interestingly, in those young and fragile democracies, Hungary included, criticism doesn’t have an important role.

I feel that the role of a critic in my society is very small. And when I decided to lead this organization of Hungarian Theatre Critics [in 2009], I had in my mind to influence things and to see that the dialogue with the artistic world becomes more important.

But the increasingly fractious political atmosphere of Hungary has made that difficult. These goals were not achieved.  Since elections in April, we’ve felt an even bigger marginalization of ourselves, which would mean that we don’t have access to a bigger audience. We don’t have access to mass media.

- Tompa is speaking of last year’s parliamentary election. The conservative Fidesz Party and the nationalist Jobbik Party together captured 310 of the country’s 387 seats in Parliament. The two parties have allied to pass the restrictive Media Laws. -

This is, in part, because of the Hungarian Media laws. Your radio show was shut down in March 2011, wasn’t it?

This is because the core of the political control is control of the media. So people do not have to choose between different ideas. Interestingly, my show was called ‘Pro and Contra,’ because we always wanted to have different perspectives on everything – where we’d have arguments about everything, politics or culture. To do that, we have to accept that our audience is grown up, that it can understand different points of view.

There must have been some very strong debates.

We have had fights in a studio. Once, almost a physical fight. But the idea that we should have a dialogue is so important. The tragedy now is that there’s no dialogue. The whole society is completely divided. There’s a liberal theatre organization and a conservative one, and there’s a constant battle between these organizations. Unfortunately, as the  Hungarian Critics Organization, we are instantly viewed as liberal. Although we never had a political statement to make as an organization.

In the U.S., in some populist circles, there’s a strong reaction against perceived intellectual elite.

Fidezc [the Hungarian ruling party] is a very anti-elite government. It’s important to understand. The government often uses tools to undermine the opinion of the ‘elite.’ It becomes very populist. It becomes very important to exclude the opinion of the ‘elite’ from the center, from the media, and not to let the ‘elite’ express its opinion.

In the U.S. we have, say, David Mamet, taking a more populist tone. In his latest book, “The Secret Knowledge”, he writes that arty people are too elitist.

We had fights in the studio because we tried to have a democratic dialogue. This is very tragic. That we don’t know how to have a dialogue, how to listen to that other person. Very often, we’d try to have an open discussion, but there are two people and they’re not listening to one another. They’re not trying to recognize the other person’s point of view. It’s very much about fighting and power. In a small place like a radio studio, it becomes very visible that we don’t know how to have a dialogue.

It sounds like these divisions are intensifying all over: between the populists and the smarty-pants.

In my professional relationships, these situations are very poisonous. Instead of having a professional discussion, we assume from the beginning that we’re on different sides. And that’s wrong. On lots of questions, we’re on the same side.

So I’m guessing that you’re using theatre criticism to create the conditions for dialogue, to mediate, to teach people how to talk.

Absolutely, and to try to undermine that ‘authoritarian’ voice – whether it’s of the critic or the politicians – to help us try to understand that each one of us has only one voice. We advocate it, we try to convince people of our own opinion. But this is part of the game of trying to be a democracy.

But it’s hard to do. Because everything in the country is so political now. All of the decisions that are being made – about leadership of theatres, about the budget – they’re all politically very charged. It’s very hard to keep the dialogue professional.

In the American culture, the marketplace decides everything. In Hungary, it’s politics, and not the marketplace, where decisions are made. I’m not sure which is worse. Both can be bad because they can transform and control culture. Understanding the role of a critic is very important, in that context. It’s the role of the critic to control the quality, to let people know whether tax money should be spent on the product. So you’re talking to parties and politicians. In the American marketplace, you’re talking only to the market.

Well, don’t the politics get expressed through the market?

Exactly. But the objective numbers don’t really measure quality, because otherwise you’d have nothing but musicals. You have to be very careful. When I was working on the board of [an] independent theatre we had to consider objective numbers, on the other hand, some work might have very little audience, but it’s still valuable. It’s a tricky question.

- As she notes, in post-Communist Eastern Europe, with shrinking budgets, the method of determining ‘value’ has never really been settled.-

So I get the idea that in that world, you’re trying to make people more aware and create dialogue.

In my country, the key word is to keep your integrity. Not to enter discussions which are not professional. Not to adopt, let’s say, sides. Somehow to be able to remain professional.

Criticism in the U.S. isn’t a day job. 

Yes, most of my colleagues and I either make money teaching or editing. I do both. To live on criticism isn’t possible.

Here, the Internet has increased accessibility, but it also has drawbacks.

Yes, people put less and less effort into it. I can’t really take a critic seriously who writes seven or eight articles a week. Because it must be superficial. So on one hand, it’s good that you have a lot of voices. On the other hand, the level is going down.

So if someone was starting out today, a 22 year old critic, what advice would you have to offer?

I advise my students at the beginning to avoid fast criticism. Overnight. I try to push them in a more analytical direction, to be able to understand deeply, and not to start with this quick, ironic, fancy style – glamorous. This spoils critics. But I also tell them that this should be a hobby. You shouldn’t lie to your students and tell them that it’s a career. It’s a hobby. 25 percent of my life is my criticism hobby. (Laughs).

After a brief break, then, Tompa headed to the discussion at Center Stage, where she spoke with American director Barbara Lanciers on the topic of Hungary’s repressive media laws. (See their discussion here.)Unfortunately, that is an ongoing story.. But the New York Times’ Paul Krugman, among others, has been keeping abreast of recent developments. His latest, on March 15, is here.

 

Comments

  1. Steve Beall says:

    Thanks for posting this interview.
    I’ve noticed that fewer and fewer theatre artists of my acquaintance read theatre criticism of any sort, and even more (and I am among these) don’t read reviews of the shows they are in, or read them only after the run of the show has concluded. Speaking for myself, the reason is that I rarely if ever see anything in a review that the artists themselves need to “hear.” The artists’ work is rarely if ever uplifted or enlarged by what is written in popular “criticism.”
    And it has seemed to me that what is lacking is an awareness of exactly what Ms.Tompa emphasizes: criticism needs to be part of a conversation between theatre management, theatre artists, and audiences.
    That conversation already exists between theatre management, audiences and artists before the critic arrives. The best critics – the ones who are known and cherished and remembered for having profoundly and constructively affected the way artists do art and the way audiences engage the work, are those who respect the existing conversation and arrive wanting to contribute to it, wanting to be part of it. Consciously or otherwise, explicitly or implicitly, hey come to the conversation already in progress saying “I think I have something here that might be of use to us all …” and continue from there.
    American theatre “reviewers” are under pressures and constraints that I can only observe and imagine. As print journalism tightens its belt, there’s a proliferation of theatre companies, new play incubators, festivals, etc. It’s a great time to be in the audience, I think, and a great time to be a theatre artist. But it must be very, very difficult to find a way to make a living at theatre criticism, when people are so often just looking for a “consumer’s guide” with a checklist of “good, better, best” – and don’t want (or perhaps just can’t imagine) a conversation about theatre.
    Even as I say that, though, I’m reminded of all the ways – often splendid ways – in which new media have provided opportunities for theatres and theatre artists to directly engage audiences. And audiences, it seems to me, in varying degrees, are welcoming the conversations when they are authentic, provocative, and engaging. Even the notorious “talk backs” after shows can be more than just a re-hashing of “topics” in the play, more than just the familiar (and quite genuine) expressions of gratitude between artists and audiences. Once the “how do you learn all those lines???” is done, real conversations about what it’s like to be alive in the presence of this or that play – on stage or in the seats, or in the office or the booth – wherever – are taking place.
    Writers who seek to join the conversation with critical thinking and skills and an eagerness to contribute can add much. But too often, they believe – or perhaps need to believe in order to eat – that they must be authoritative, expert and either dismissive or validating of art. And that’s no way to join a conversation.
    Wow. What a rant. Sorry. Won’t happen again. Until, like, tonight.

  2.  political polarization and increasing nationalism has poisoned the dialogue on arts and national culture.

    This is a shame, that there are certain (ex-communist) people who cathegorize  that way the hungarian (or anybody’s) nationalizm.

    A.S.

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