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January 11, 2017 | Theatre,

Time Has Stopped: The Work of Béla Pintér & Company by Tamás Jászay


What are the signature characteristics of work by Béla Pintér? Wide-reaching appeal, rich Hungarian values, tastelessness, authentic folklore, rampant kitsch, rituals and boisterous exhilaration—in the hands of Béla Pintér and Company these plays all represent a distorted universal mythology.

For nearly two decades Béla Pintér (age 46) has been the premiere Hungarian theatre-maker presenting work globally. Pintér not only writes, directs and produces his pieces, he often performs the major roles and manages the work offstage. Today Béla Pintér is the most popular theatrical creator in the Hungarian independent scene. From the beginning, he was an actor who has been interested in music and movement. He “grew up” in Szkéné Theatre, where many of the cutting-edge international productions popped up in the late ’80s. At that time, Pinter had performed solely in the productions of others until 1998 when he began writing, directing and performing his own work.

With a consistently changing company, Pintér started performing at Szkéné Theatre, a studio with 120 seats situated on the second floor of the Budapest University of Technology and Economics. Today his plays are staged in at least three different theatres of the capital, with an average of fifteen to twenty performances per month. His chosen topics are often autobiograph­ical, while the roles are tailor-made for his actors. “He does not carve unique characters,” says one of his analyzers, “instead he writes archetypes built on close examination, and although he uses micro communities and concrete situations to express his message, he depicts a univer­sally recognizable human condition.” [i]

In a 2001 interview Pintér said, “A functioning performance is born out of the text; whether this corresponds to the dramatic form that we know, I’m not sure. I also don’t know if other people would reach out [to produce] these texts. I would be interested to know.” [ii] He got his

response in 2010, when someone decided to find out how Peasant Opera, a play that has so far played 300 times, would work with a different directorial vision and cast. The result: in 2015 this tragically grotesque piece combining Transylvanian folk songs and baroque music was performed by five different companies. 2016 represents a new milestone: it marks the first time Béla Pintér directed a show in a state-subsidized theatre. The Champion uses themes of Puccini operas to create one of the biggest successes in the recent history of the Katona József Theatre in Budapest.

Pintér is a self-critical creator who keeps almost all of his twenty-one performances alive to grow and mature, omitting only a few pieces. For a long time critics failed to acknowledge that Pintér’s scripts could be read as plays because these texts, while they drew on Hungarian theatre’s tradition of psychological realism, also turned against that heritage. Today all this is old news; Pintér has had a substantial volume of plays published, and critics have awarded him twice the prize for The Best New Hungarian Play (for Our Secrets and The Champion).

However, significant obstacles remain. Pinter and his peers in the independent field are cur­rently, financially speaking, being left to slowly bleed to death. There is no way culture can exist in Eastern Europe without the financial support of the state. As a result of the incredibly limited funding and the unreliable grant system, these artists are unable to break even.

“The basis for their [Bela Pinter and Company’s] productions is the everyday contemporary Hungarian reality,” writes one dramaturg about the work of the company. “Different familiar and urban contexts and situations that mirror society’s anomalies gradually shift, with the help of the leapfrogs of the storytelling and unexpected changes in genre, into the surreal and grotesque.” [iii] Since 2010 Pintér’s interest in autobiographical topics has started to fade. Although he still makes his analysis through the most basic unit of society—the family—the playwright has begun to focus on the searing and sometimes taboo problems of Hungarian society. Muck spoke about the strengthening of the Hungarian far right, while Kaisers TV, Ungarn made an ironic critique of Hungary’s failure to overcome its past.

Our Secrets, which premiered in the autumn of 2013, also falls into this category. A powerful play that developed a cult following, Our Secrets has been awarded abundantly both in Hungary and abroad, critically acclaimed and loved by the public. It was performed 150 times in its first two years. “We all have our secrets,” says Comrade Pánczél matter-of-factly, with his dense moustache, thick glasses and creaking shoes—a man sprung straight out from ’80s Communist Hungary. Here he is played by Pintér Company actress actress, Eszter Csákányi. He’s right: these petty or unspeakable secrets do imprison us. When everyone is a link in the chain, the spaces of personal and community life intertwine. What starts at a folk dance gathering continues into the marital bed; what people whisper today in the corridors of the Parliament will be on the front page of the samizdat magazines tomorrow. So we drift to the acme of the tragedy, to the inevitable explosion, until we are thrown back into today to understand that in our country, time has stopped.

—Tamás Jászay, theatre critic, editor of, lecturer at Szeged University, Hungary

Our Secrets – JAN 19 – 22 at the Emerson/Paramount Center. Tickets are on sale now.

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