Acclaimed Hungarian director swaps the stage for anti-Orban activism
Orban's allies see Arpad Schilling as a threat to national security
Arpad Schilling, acclaimed Hungarian theatre director, has been deemed a threat to national security for his civic activism and anti-government protests. Photograph: Kretakor Foundation
For German playwright Bertolt Brecht, whose works include The Threepenny Opera and The Caucasian Chalk Circle, a theatre ticket was not an invitation to an evening of soothing escapism.
One of the great innovators of 20th-century drama, Brecht lamented the eagerness of audiences to “hang up their brains with their hats in the cloakroom”. “Art is not a mirror to reflect reality,” he said, “but a hammer with which to shape it.”
Over the next decade, Schilling (43) and Kretakor became stars of Hungarian theatre, winning international awards and playing at major festivals across Europe.
When Kretakor came to Dublin in 2007 with BLACKland – which was inspired by bleak Hungarian headlines popping up on Schilling’s phone – The Irish Times called it “a truly remarkable and profoundly political piece of theatre”.
“I could give interviews and talk about problems with a serious face, but I felt I was lying and not really touching those problems,” Schilling recalled recently. “We just used those problems, and ethically that was unacceptable.”
When Schilling was at the height of his success, Hungary was suffering.
It was ruled by a lame-duck Socialist government crippled by scandal and the economic crisis, and the rise of the far right would soon result in a spate of deadly attacks on the Roma community.
To the bewilderment of many, Schilling disbanded his theatre company in 2008 and formed the Kretakor Foundation.
The group takes creative projects into poor areas to tackle prejudice and others issues that weaken and divide communities, and helps young Hungarians develop their sense of social engagement and responsibility.
During prime minister Viktor Orban’s eight-year drive to turn Hungary into an “illiberal democracy”, however, Schilling has become a prominent critic of what he calls the ruling elite’s corruption and disdain for democratic values.
When Hungarians were sent a “national consultation” called “Let’s stop Brussels!” last spring, Schilling answered with a viral video aimed at Orban.
“Are you listening, Viktor?” a trouserless Schilling shouted as he refuted each point of the questionnaire, which was one of several to focus on Orban’s bogeymen – the EU, migrants and liberal Jewish philanthropist George Soros.
Then Schilling launched his own online national consultation, which allows Hungarians to choose and discuss the issues that most concern them, from poverty, education and healthcare to corruption and Russia’s rising influence in the country.
In December, when an Orban ally posed with a dead pig etched with a phrase meaning both “It was his turn” and “This was Soros”, Schilling responded with a staged photo of his own that suggested the government was stoking anti-Semitism.
Schilling may be unique among major Hungarian cultural figures in criticising Orban so bluntly, and he has paid a price for his stand.
Last September, a deputy leader of Orban’s Fidesz party declared the director and two other civic activists to be threats to national security; Schilling also says tax inspectors dragged out an investigation into Kretakor for two years, causing funding to be frozen.
“They test the reaction of society by saying things like this,” Schilling said.
“Many theatre associations, directors and institutions didn’t support me...I have a problem with this lack of solidarity.”
For Schilling, Hungary’s creative elite is partly responsibility for the weaknesses in civic culture that Orban exploits to the full.
“We never dealt with what it means to be a citizen,” Schilling said of Hungary after the collapse of communism in 1989.
“We changed the economy, the constitution, parliament...But the individual didn’t know how to change.”
As the EU frets over populist leaders in central Europe, Schilling believes democracy and rule of law in the region are still vulnerable.
In the West, he says, “people can be bad like here, but there is a strong institutional system...built by the citizens for hundreds of years. There is a very complex set of social contracts between people, and this is what we didn’t build.
“Orban isn’t a dictator who just appeared. He’s a product of the last 29 years. He’s in the right place and time to say ‘Yes, I know how to make this situation work.’”
Schilling still directs plays around Europe but no longer in Hungary, where he is regarded variously as an inspiration and a troublemaker.
“In 20 years I want to be proud and able to say that I did something...This is my way to show that I’m a patriot and it doesn’t matter if five or 10 or 50 people are with me,” he said.
Despite Fidesz suffering a shock byelection defeat last weekend, Schilling expects Orban to win next month’s parliamentary elections – but he is not despondent.
“You never know when the right historical moment will come for things to change.” he said. “You can prepare, but you just never know when the moment will come.”