The ‘Invisible’ Jewish Theatre of Budapest: A Response to Exclusion (Part One)
The Jewish theatre of Budapest was a cultural initiative established within the confines of the Israelite congregation. Between 1936 and 1944, it stood for a fight for continuous access to culture. The so-called ‘invisible theatre’ was a response to hundreds of Jewish actors and musicians losing their jobs in 1938 and 1939, following anti-Semitic legislation in Hungary. As an organisation, it became more than an employer to struggling artists or a source of entertainment for its audience. In his first speech, Géza Ribáry, the founder of the Artists’ Action, expressed a sense of conflict between Judaism and Hungarian nationalism: ‘I am opening my heart, which suffers as it is Jewish, and my soul, which is still proud in this humiliation as it is Hungarian.’ Somewhat paradoxically, it is this inner conflict which united the company and the audience in their struggle. Both expressed a need for cultural spaces which celebrated their dual Hungarian-Jewish identities.
Anti-Jewish legislation in interwar Hungary
Hungary was one of the first countries in the world where anti-Semitism took centre-stage in political life. Miklós Horthy’s rightist regime passed an exclusionary law commonly referred to as the ‘numerus clausus’ (1920). The law excluded thousands of Jewish students from higher education. The Jewish congregation of Budapest was quick to respond: Its cultural body OMIKE (Hungarian Israelites’ Cultural Association), whose original role was to promote Jewish literature and culture, provided aid to thousands of Jewish students. OMIKE adapted its practices to address political challenges and introduced relief programmes, in the form of study-abroad funding, as well as the establishment of an Art Academy. The radicalisation of anti-Semitism continued under the Horthy regime,lasting until the end of the Second World War.
Exclusionary legislation escalated in the spring of 1938, in an act known as the First (Anti-) Jewish Law. As its secondary title suggests, this act aimed ‘to ensure a more effective balance in economic life and society’. Other increasingly racial measures were put into place shortly, the Second and Third (Anti-) Jewish Laws. From the point of view of Jewish cultural life, however, the First (Anti-) Jewish Law precipitated the most dramatic changes. This legislation fixed the ratio of Christians to Jews at 80:20, and created ‘Chambers’ to oversee the execution of the law. The law was amended to a stricter form in 1939, decreasing the 20 per cent to a mere 6 per cent. This acquired racial, rather than religious connotations.
The Chamber of Film and Theatrical Arts declared hundreds of Jewish actors and musicians unemployable. Artists were often cruelly dismissed. Sándor Rott, for example, was suspended from the National Theatre during the celebration of his 50th year as a member of the company. Zsuzsa Simon’s picture was taken off of the wall of the Downtown Theatre and torn to pieces in front of her.
OMIKE’s response: The Artists’ Action
As the laws radicalised, OMIKE also adapted its practices. Its approach was no longer just academic and informative, but transformed into an emotionally-charged, communal one. The theatre and musical initiative, Artists’ Action, was the evidence of OMIKE’s aim to become a ‘cultural mission’ and fulfill the needs of Budapest Jewry in the aftermath of mass exclusion.
It is important to ask why such an initiative was allowed to exist within an authoritarian and exclusionary regime. Indeed, the movement was only another means of controlling the Jewish population of Budapest. The government restrictions placed upon the Artists’ Action support this theory. Advertisements were banned, as well as ticket sales. Instead, the company operated on a membership-only basis, and Christians were not permitted to attend performances. In this sense, the Artist’s Action theatre became ‘invisible’. Ultimately, the aim was to sever Hungarian from Jewish culture, thus consigning the Jewish theatre to a kind of ‘cultural ghetto’.
The Artists’ Action had 3000 supporting members during the 1940-1 season – almost purely upper-middle-class Jews – but the number of attendees for that year amounted to roughly 60 000. This means that a large segment of the audience was composed of regular attendees but it also meant that the theatre did not remain ‘invisible’, as planned. At least three famous Christian artists attended the performances, indicating a more wide-reaching, cross-cultural support. The lead conductor of the Budapest Opera, Sergio Failoni, is perhaps the most notable example. Having attended the Artists’ Action performances multiple times, Failoni advised his own company to do the same if ‘they wanted to see good opera’.
A Jewish-Hungarian-European Theatre
Although members were responsive to dramas with an explicitly Jewish theme (especially stories from the Old Testament), they were also eager to explore their Hungarian identities. As Oszkár Beregi wrote in the journal Equality: ‘My only sin, I know, is my Jewishness. But this sin I embrace with all its consequences. It does not stop me from being a Hungarian artist, with every drop of my blood’. The company also consciously transformed ‘Jewishness’ into a flexible term, actively reworking and reconceptualising what a ‘Jewish drama’ might mean. As one review of the 1943 performance ‘A Mother’s Heart’ reads: ‘It isn’t particularly the topic of the drama that is Jewish […] What’s Jewish about it is the sentiment it concludes with: the sentiment of goodness and understanding’. Beyond a Hungarian-Jewish repertoire, the members demanded that their theatre have an ‘independent artistic profile’. As the group matured, the genres and themes which they explored became increasingly diverse. The Artists’ Action was fast becoming a theatre celebrating Jewish, Hungarian, and European culture all at once.
Responding to the anti-Semitic laws of the late 1930s, OMIKE transformed its practices and used theatre as an emotional and creative outlet for the recently unemployed artists of Budapest. This initiative simultaneously acted as a catharsis for its audiences. Rather than posing as an intellectual and informational establishment, as OMIKE had done before the First (Anti-) Jewish Law, the new initiative addressed its audience on an emotional level.
End of Part One