Thursday, April 18, 2024

A brief survey of Hungarian acting in Subotica

Subotica is a town in the North of Serbia, located only 20 km away the Hungarian border. Its population amounts to 100.000 inhabitants  40% of which is comprised of Hungarians. - The first Hungarian theatre performances were recorded as long ago as 1816; the theatre itself was built in the Secession style 38 years later, in 1854. It served its purpose right up to 2007 when it had to be demolished because of its ruinous condition; according to promises, within five years, that is, by 2012 we will have a huge new building with the benefits of modern infrastructure. The building work has been going on with great vigour but until the new theatre is completed, the performances are held on two alternative stages.

Theatre has had quite a special tradition in Serbia, the former Yugoslav Republic. The Hungarian minority represents an amalgam of Western-European and Balkan theatres, and by exploiting the essential values of both, it developed its specific theatrical language that uses language, music, movement and other theatrical elements in a unique way.

Today, two troupes work and perform simultaneously in the theatre of Narodno pozorište – Narodno kazalište – Népszínház. Economically, they represent one unit but their ars poetica differs and is self-contained; nevertheless, the reciprocal and uniquely creative artistic influence of interculturality is present in both groups’ creative output. 



In 1779, Subotica received Maria Theresia the charter that declared the town a free royal city. The town adopted the name "Maria Theresiapolis", thereafter the cultural life begun to grow dynamically.

Beside the denominational performances in schools, German touring companies performed in the beginning, and according to certain records, the first professional theatrical performance can be determined to have taken place in 1780.

In 1790, the possibility for first Hungarian performances came up when the city council sent a larger amount of money to Budapest to László Kelemen in order to help Hungarian acting, as they wrote: "this magnificent matter". In charge with Ádám János Láng, a troupe separated the first company in Pest which took to its heels, and performed its plays with great success among others in Kecskemét, then in Nagykőrös. In 1816, this troupe turned to the leaders of the Town of Subotica with its application to perform their plays here during the summer. The application was dated July 4, 1816in Kiskunhalas. The council approved the application, and actually, professional Hungarian acting started with the troupe’s guest performance of Goethe’s Clavigo.

Subsequently, the troupe of Dávid Kilényi (that separated   the Láng company) arrived to Subotica in 1819, then in 1820. In the meantime, they adopted the  Alföldi National Theatrical Company name. The members of the at first tiny company that later amounted many people were Ádám Láng, Zsigmond Szentpétery, Anna Csepreghy, Sándor Abday (who later, due to inheritance, promoted himself to the director’s position of an independent company that also entertained in Subotica), as well as Déryné Széppataki Róza, who later became famous around the country as the first female Hungarian opera singer.

At first, performences were held in the banqueting hall of the old grammar school, later the scene of the peformances moved to the Schultz café, then the Fekete Sas restaurant. Finally, the City Council decided to set up a permanent place for theatrical performances, and the ballroom of the Nagykávéház (Bürger Casino) (Grand Café) was redesigned suitably to the purpose. The Hungarian Theatrical Company of Székesfehérvár performed here on the 4th August, in 1826 the occasional play of Ferenc Komlóssy called The Altar of joy.

The theatrical life of Subotica was on the up-swing, but even the ballroom of the casino did not serve the purpose completely. More and more demanding plays were performed to the increasing audience. In the spring of 1833 (namely, twenty-one years before the opening of the building) a newspaper article was published that raised the question of erecting a permanent theatre. Nonetheless, it suggests the formation of a permanent company of Subotica and Szeged that would perform its plays in both towns. Eleven years later, we receive the news again the columns of the press stating that the leadership of the town is already seriously dealing with the thought of building a theatre. It applied for a construction permit   Vienna that arrived in 1847. However, straight before the beginning of the construction work, the Hungarian Revolution and War of Independence broke out that postponed the beginning of the building work for a few more years. Finally, the plans of the building were entrusted to János Skultéty, the chief engineer of the town, and the place for the common building of the theatre and the hotel was designated in 1853. The chandelier for the building hosting  1400 spectators was made in Pest; György Telepi, a stage technician Pest dreamed up the interior design of the building that had the disposal of more than fourty boxes and a two-story gallery. The brand new theatre and hotel building was opened on the 16th of December in 1854. It was inaugurated by Endre Latabár’s company that performed Miklós Jósika’s chronicle drama called Két Barcsai (The two the Barcsa family).

Thereafter, touring companies continued to visit Subotica, but they obliged the contracting directors to receive the inventories on trust, comply with the number of monthly performances held with and without season tickets and the determined price of the tickets.

On March 11 in 1915, a conflagration broke out in the wing of the building where the theatre was located, and the whole stage and the auditorium fell victim to the fire, only the bare walls remained intact. After the destruction, the banqueting hall (the small concert room of the present day) of the hotel was reconstructed for performance running, and the destroyed banqueting hall was restored in 1927.

However, following the end of the First World War, an almost centennial era of Hungarian acting in Subotica comes to an end, since guest performances of professional Hungarian companies were not allowed in the Serbo—Croatian—Slovenian Kingdom.

The art of Thália rises its ashes again only in 1945, when next to the Croatian National Theatre – and along with it in the same building – the Hungarian National Theatre was formed in Subotica. The opening night was on October 29, in 1945. The audience hungry for Hungarian performance could watch the drama of Béla Balázs called Boszorkánytánc (Witch Dance) directed by László Pataki. this period on up to nowadays, Subotica – in an unique manner in Vojvodina – disposed of a permanent company/theatre, and in the following, brief six years many performances were born: Hungarian acting in Subotica beautifully sprang to life.

Nevertheless, the two institutions were closed in 1951, and the Subotica National Theatre was formed. By virtue of Hungarian and Croatian companies, both theatres were merged into the Subotica National Theatre. Furthermore, a music sector was established within the institution that grew into an opera the autumn of 1952 to be closed the end of season 1953/54. In 1958 the Croatian company was transformed into a Serbo-Croatian-speaking company, and the Hungarian was turned into a Hungarian-speaking company what even today suggests an incorrect interpretation, according to which an identical artistic activity based on a coherent programme policy can be followed in two languages within the institution.

Despite the economic and the forced theatre policy conditions, the forthcoming period can be regarded as the golden age of Hungarian acting in Subotica.

The founders did not ensure adequate financial resources for the maintenance of the building, therefore, it gradually fell into disrepair. In 1975, work in the thatre was prohibited due to the frayed electric wires. For this reason, the critical parts of the building were partly reconstructed, but in spite of the fact that the decree of 1986 declared the building a historic monument, significant repairs had not been made since then. In the second part of the ’80s, no performances were allowed to be held in the main hall of the theatre due its ruinous condition – thereafter, the hall served its purpose as a storage for the theatre up to 2002 when it was declared life-threatening, and any kind of usage of it was forbidden.

In 1985, Ljubiša Ristić, the notorious theatre-maker took the lead of the National Theatre, who dissolved the two companies, that is, he merged them, and as a result of his "multicultural" theatre policy, almost nobody remained in Subotica the Hungarian company under his ten years of "reign". He discharged the actors with a pension, or they voluntarily went to Hungary, chose a different carreer.

Against the destructive absolutism of Ristić, Frigyes Kovács formed a municipal theatre in 1994, the refuge of traditional Hungarian acting. It was called the Kosztolányi Dezső Theatre. The opening night was in 1994.

Following his departure that took place in 1995, the Hungarian company (officially still called: the Hungarian-speaking company) vanished into air in Subotica, and the audience understanding and requiring less "radical" theatre-forms based on Hungarian (West European) traditions also completely alienated the theatre in Subotica. It became distrustful, disintersted, even hostile. Theatre-making had to be started   the beginning.

In 1995, the lawyer Zsuzsanna Erdudác was offered to take the lead of the theatre, who tried to clear up both legally and economically the rather chaotic institution. In 1999 Ljubica Ristovski, master in theatre research, takes the lead of the two-sectioned Narodno pozorište — Narodno kazalište — Népszínház (National Theatre). Gabriella Jónás was appointed to the leadership of the Hungarian Company in 1995, she is followed in the position by Frigyes Kovács   January 1998. In 1995, the Hungarian Company of the National Theatre had two prompters/stage inspectors, two actors and a company director. Today, in autumn 2005, the company is comprised of 17 actors, a director, a dramaturg, an artistic secretary, two prompters/stage inspectors and the company director.

June 1, 2006, Zoltán Mezei actor is appointed to the leadership of the company.