Romeo with a baton : Tamás Major’s 1971 Budapest Romeo and Juliet production

Par Veronika Schandl
Publication en ligne le 23 avril 2015


The essay aims to introduce a mythical Hungarian Shakespeare production of the Kádár‑era, Tamás Major’s 1971 Romeo and Juliet direction at the National Theatre. The production came to be known as the « brutal » Romeo, since instead of emphasising the play’s romantic tones, it wished to place it within a contemporary political discussion, while insisting on a Brechtian/Wekwerthian alienated delivery. This direction is still often referenced as Major’s most successful Brechtian Shakespeare attempt, a question the paper will also touch upon. However, instead of arguing about the production’s place in Major’s oeuvre, which for a foreign reader may be of little interest, this essay rather hopes to open up the discussion and, in lieu of the 1971 Romeo and Juliet, raise the questions theatre historians have to ask when tackling a mythical production from a totalitarian era.


Texte intégral

1The 1971 Romeo and Juliet production of the Hungarian National Theatre is often named as one of the legendary Shakespeare productions of the Kádár era1. It has a stable place in the recent theatre historical database of post‑1945 Hungarian theatre history2, and is often quoted in essays as a groundbreaking new, « brutal », political rendering of the play3. The discourse on the production also speaks the language of legends – certain concepts are never explained or questioned, such as the « Brechtian » nature of the production, and certain narrative elements are handed down from one account to another without considerations of their possible validity. One reason for this is the figure of the director, Tamás Major, a legendary Hungarian theatre‑maker of the Socialist period, whose character also draws praise or condemnation in historical discourses that bears the same kind of language. What this essay attempts, through a short discussion of Major’s Shakespearean oeuvre and his controversial legacy, as well as through an analysis of the 1971 Romeo and Juliet, is to break through the myths that surround both, and present a different account of the show than is usually found in retrospective writings. Probing the narratives around Major’s figure and the production, the paper also seeks to test methods by which theatre under totalitarian regimes might be approached successfully.

I. Tamás Major : the director and the myth

2Director, actor and theatre manager Tamás Major is one of the most controversial figures of the Hungarian Socialist theatre world. Playing a pivotal role from 1945 as the manager of the National Theatre, throughout the Stalinist Rákosi and the post‑1956 Kádár regimes, he is seen as the great survivor of the era. He, though sometimes « bruised and beaten », endured all political changes, and with a final renewal of his art at the end of his career died and is often remembered as the « Master », the teacher of the younger generation of theatre‑makers in the 1970s and 1980s. His political involvement, his personal choices, as the manager of the National Theatre as well as the privileges he enjoyed as a supported artist during Socialist times, are still of primary interest to all, journalists and scholars alike, and these still make studying his artistic legacy without prejudices extremely difficult, especially since his figure is surrounded by a narrative web of anecdotes, legends and gossip, in which he came to represent an era and which have become a symbol of Socialist Hungarian theatre politics.

3Furthermore, it seems that the attitude of contemporary writers towards Major’s oeuvre is still very much based on emotions – some of them being Major‑fans, others Major‑haters – therefore much of even the more scholarly writings published on him are narratives venting emotion rather than expanding knowledge. What further complicates the discussion of his legacy is that he himself worked hard to create a master‑narrative for his own life and work, continuously reflecting in interviews, radio and TV programmes on all steps of his career, providing readings of his directions and motives for his actions. Most writings published in his lifetime are summaries of these – most prominently Tamás Koltai’s interview with the « Master4 », and Gábor Antal’s collection of Major’s writings5. After his death Mihály L.  Kocsis published a volume that combined interviews with Major and his colleagues, but remained on the anecdotal level only6. All three volumes are rich sources of information, but unfortunately, both in their tone and structure, approve of and continue the narratives Major suggests. The essay will attempt to question and unravel some of these surviving myths about Major’s works, and thus contextualise the 1971 Romeo and Juliet production.

4Major’s oeuvre is usually divided into two periods. The first he himself placed under Stanislavsky’s influence, the second under Brecht’s. This division was later echoed in all publications on his life and works. Let us, however, challenge this seemingly straightforward distinction and look behind the labels. Major’s earliest artistic influence came from France, where he visited Jaques Copeau’s Vieux Colombier in 1937. Copeau’s body‑centred acting style, which combined commedia dell’ arte and folk dramatic elements, left a visible mark on his early directions, and the essay wishes to argue that the caricaturesque, almost overdone acting that was so characteristic in his early works and can be seen as influenced by Copeau does also return in his later directions7, not only in the mid‑1950s8, but, combined with metatheatricality, in his so‑called Brechtian period as well. Copeau, Jouvet, a strong reliance on folk plays and a strident, non‑realistic acting style were also the trademarks of his first works after the Second World War. By this stage, he was already the manager of the nation’s first theatre, the National, a position he got as a reward for his achievement in the illegal Communist Party during the war. These are also the artistic roots he seems to have returned into the 1970s as well.

5After 1949 his political stance weakened, and he even got entangled in one of the political show trials of the year, as a close friend of the Minister of Interior, László Rajk. To save his position this is when he turned to a more conservative acting style, alongside a turn towards directing « safer » classical plays. As mentioned before, around 1954 and 1955 he did return to a gestic‑ironic acting and directorial style which aimed to address the audience more openly, but was harshly criticised for this change by official criticism9. Tamás Gajdó summarized Major’s stylistic changes before 1956 in the following way :

Major as a manager first followed the legacy of his forerunners to build an ensemble and a repertoire for the National Theatre. Furthermore, his first years were characterized by the introduction of new initiatives, interesting new Hungarian plays as well as his directions of Hungarian and foreign classics at a high artistic level. The controversies of the following years are mostly due to Major’s lifelong commitment to politics. From 1950 he denied himself, his talent and his best endeavours, by first openly admitting and repudiating the mistakes of his previous managerial decisions, then representing the dogmatic theatre politics of the Party for years as a member of the Party’s leading organisations, an active participant of Hungarian political life and as the manager of the National Theatre. […] In the 1950s he defended his managerial power by all possible means10.

6Although dismissed in 1956, he remained the manager of the National Theatre until 1962, and later worked there as one of the main directors. The National Theatre of Budapest, its flagship and at the same time its problem child, was of central interest for the cultural prestige of the Socialist regime. Its management always included politically trustworthy artists, while its repertoire was also decided on a political basis, mostly consisting of classical European plays, Soviet dramas and new Hungarian plays supporting a Socialist agenda. Shakespeare featured prominently in their programme, often in highly stylized, traditional productions. There were several attempts to invigorate the artistic material that the National Theatre produced, yet none of these efforts were successful in the long run. Some outstanding productions were staged at the first theatre of the nation ; still, the theatre could never really become the centre of new Hungarian theatrical trends11. One period of upheaval is partly connected to Major’s name, and his so‑called « Brechtian », second directorial period that reached its peak at the end of the 1960s and in the early 1970s. He himself attributed the change to the May 1959 visit of the Berliner Ensemble in Budapest, which, he recalled, opened his eyes to another kind of theatre‑making.

7When we look at the continuous commentary Major provided on all his works, it is clear that before 1959 Stanislavsky is the authority he most often quotes, while after 1959, he turns to Brecht for artistic support. However, when we look at the content of these references, it quickly surfaces that they are organised around certain recurring elements.

8During the 1950s, Major turned to the Socialist‑realist understanding of Stanislavsky and quoted him often as his main influence. In Major’s understanding a Stanislavskyan theatre rested on two pillars : one that, to be able to teach, it should have reflected contemporary life in its fullest12, two that all roles should have had an « inner meaning13 ». These two principles appear in almost all of his articles from 1948 to 1980 – the educating and politicizing nature of the stage is already there in his programme‑giving interview in 194814, where topicality is combined with a wish to educate the workers of the country, and in the 1960s when it is depicted with the theatre’s general task to hold a mirror up to nature15. By the 1970s the best method for a theatre to be contemporary and political is no longer Stanislavskyan acting, but Brechtian dialectics16. Still, the model of an educating, politicizing theatre remains the same, whether linked to Stanislavsky or to Brecht. The same is true for the idea that a role should explicate a « deeper » meaning, the only difference being that in the 1950s he connected the analyses of the roles to the author17, while by the 1970s he often gave contemporary political parallels instead18.

9Major also fought a lifelong battle against a phantom enemy he called literary theatre, which, in his understanding, meant a theatre practice that cut Shakespeare and other classics, juggled the scenes around and thus « misunderstood the author’s intention19 ». According to his argument, bourgeois directors cut Shakespeare, because his diversity hurt their delicate feelings. Contrary to this, the people’s theatre, that is Socialist art, realized and embraced Shakespeare’s polyphony, and only considered « complete » Shakespeare plays to be worthy of watching20. During the 1950s, under Stanislavsky’s influence, Major compared Shakespeare to a symphony, where all instruments had their own distinct voices, but together they played in a harmony that would have been lost when attempted with a chamber orchestra21. In the 1960s and 1970s he quoted Brecht and claimed that Shakespeare was as rich as life is, therefore he should not have been mutilated22. The theory, however, remained the same, although appearing in different guises.

10This diversity, Major also argued, was the reason why Shakespeare should not have been played in a Guckkastenbühne. This wish to break away from a naturalistic tradition appeared in his writings as early as in the 1940s23, but, fortified by Brecht, the demolition of the fourth wall would be a major feature of his metatheatrical tendencies in the 1960s, for which we shall see several examples in what follows.

11All in all, this paper seeks to argue that Major’s directorial commentary consists of similar elements both in his first and second period, but does not wish to conclude that Major’s directorial style did not change. His later works are quite different in their understanding of Shakespeare, for example. They often questioned or discarded the legitimacy of the theatrical illusion, while they frequently reflected on their own theatricality. They abounded in circus‑like, commedia dell’ arte elements, and were often constructed from scenes, abandoning overreaching cohesive narratives. Brecht’s, or mostly Wekwerth’s influences are hard to deny ; still, looking at Major’s oeuvre, we do find these elements in his earlier works as well. This is why the essay argues that a theatre historian has to be very careful when accepting Major’s own commentaries, since they are highly manipulative, especially because they are handed down to us as part of a mythical narrative. While Major liked to reference only Brecht as his major influence, it is evident that, since he was in a privileged position to travel abroad, many of his stylistic changes are indebted to Brook, Monuchkine and Wekwerth. Finally, it is also important to keep in mind that all Major’s artistic efforts remained within the boundaries of « supported » art, and even if he was influenced by certain « tolerated » directors, he always made sure to distance himself from avant‑garde or countercultural tendencies24.

12In what follows we we outline a possible analysis of his legendary Romeo and Juliet production with all these reservations about the surrounding myth in mind. We hope that this attempt may also be an example of how one can approach a production from a totalitarian era, and dismantle the layers of mythical narratives attached to it.

II. Romeo and Juliet, National Theatre, Budapest, 1971 : the production and the myth

13In 1971 Tamás Major directed Romeo and Juliet at the National Theatre in Budapest. The show that only ran for half a year generated enormous debates and went down in history as the « baton » or the « brutal » Romeo which, according to contemporary reviews25, wished to contemporize and « Brechtianize » the Shakespearean tragedy. Without an available video recording, this paper will use the radio recording from the Archives of the Hungarian Radio, reviews, and interviews with the directors as its main sources to reconstruct the production. We are convinced that the production and the discussion surrounding it are not only interesting in their own right, but also significant since they show many aspects of the myth narrative we wished to demonstrate in the previous section. Indeed, in the written documentations of the production, which start with interviews from as early as eighteen months before the first night’s performance, one can see a clear division between the narratives constructed by Major and that of some of the reviewers.

14As already indicated, the production falls into Major’s second directorial era, when he was largely influenced by the 1969 visit of the Berliner Ensemble, and Manfred Wekwerth’s directorial style. The paper wishes to argue that besides certain formal Brechtian elements, such as a more deadpan delivery and a strong emphasis on emotional distance between character and actor, what both Major and contemporary reviews call his « Brechtian » phase, mostly manifested itself in an ironic take on classical texts, metatheatricality, and a style of delivery that at the same time wished to show and comment on the events of plays.

15Major’s first experiment with Wekwerth’s style was a point‑by‑point copy of the Brecht‑Shakespeare Coriolanus, a catastrophic failure where the fascination with the scenery and the costumes was not enough to appropriate the production, the painful lack in training in an alienated acting style among Hungarian actors undermining the show’s Brechtian directorial concept. Major therefore set about educating a younger generation of actors in further productions in a more Brechtian delivery, experimenting with plays by Shakespeare, Brecht and contemporary Marxist writers.

16The breakthrough came in 1969 with Timon of Athens, which still was only partly successful in reviews, but in its directorial solutions did successfully re‑imagine the play for the Hungarian stages26. The fragmented scenes of the play Major reconstructed as a series of circus performances – in a strongly metatheatrical setting after each scene the actors were handed over robes, like tired boxers at the end of a fight. The scenery resembled both the circus floor and the Greek amphitheatre.

17Timon of Athens is the Shakespeare play Marx also reflects upon at length, contemplating the corrupting nature of gold. It is a drama the message of which could easily be fitted into a Socialist narrative. Several reviewers pointed out, however, that Major chose to deviate from the prescribed interpretation of the play, and saw Timon’s fall as an ironic, bittersweet tragicomedy, and Timon himself not as a tragic hero, but as an antihero, who falls victim to his own credulity. It was not by chance that the traditionally romanticized role of Timon, which in Hungary usually was given to well‑established elderly actors as a benefit performance, Major instead gave to a young actor, who had graduated from the Academy only three years before. István Iglódi’s character and physique – being fragile and skinny – resisted all romanticising touches.

18Although the production met with mixed reviews, it did heavily stir the still waters around the National Theatre. As theatre critic and literary scholar Miklós Almási mused :

Although not flawlessly harmonic in its style, pace and dramatic elements, this is the first production in a long time that elicits tempestuous emotions from audiences. It is alive, does not let the spectators have a free moment, and if it gives you second thoughts, they are only there to make you realize the genius of the discovery27.

19Major, in his later Shakespeare directions, did reuse several of the successful elements from Timon : the metatheatrical setting, the ironic tonality, the questioning of heroism and the functional stage scenery.

20The two productions, however, which can be seen as direct precedents for the 1971 Romeo were of non‑Shakespearean plays. The first was a 1968 production of Brecht’s Saint Joan of the Slaughterhouses, which, according to contemporary reviews, « transformed » Mari Törőcsik, Juliet in the 1971 show, into a Breachtian actress. The second was written by one of Brecht’s disciples, Peter Weiss, and dealt with the oppressions of the Salazar regime. The critics declared that the 1970 production of Song of the Lusitanien Bogey was « a milestone in the emergence of modern Hungarian theatre28 », was « the best production, the biggest surprise of the season » and « the most enchanting production of new Hungarian theatre29 ».Although the play itself was generally viewed as second rate, the show was declared to illustrate the success of ‘« Major’s theatre ».

21So what made this production so unusual ? Major, probably influenced by the success of West Side Story and Hair as well as by the productions of Living Theatre30, transformed the documentary play into a musical, which relied heavily on the body‑centred acting traditions of his early master Copeau as well31. Tearing down the fourth wall of the stage, Major made the actors exit and enter through the auditorium. Separating the roles of the actors from their physical bodies, almost all roles were doubled, tripled or quadrupled – the main actor, Mari Törőcsik played seven roles throughout the performance. The theatrical form itself was put between quotation marks, at the same time emphasised and questioned through the various cross‑references between onstage and offstage events. What reviewers remarked in commendatory terms was Major’s ironic take on the play’s text, which transformed Weiss’s « pathetic oratorium » into a bittersweet comedy32, as well as the unusually harmonious ensemble work of the actors, many of them still students of the Academy, showing that there was a younger generation there which was eager to learn newer, less conventional ways of delivery.

22After the success of the Song of the Lusitanien Bogey, expectations were high when Major announced his next project : Romeo and Juliet. While the rehearsals were still going on, Major gave several interviews about his directional concepts. As indicated in the previous section, his declarations were mostly politically legitimizing narratives, which pointed out the contemporary relevance of the play, and alongside the sensitive reflections Shakespeare put into the tragedy, to hold up a mirror to his own society. In Major’s opinion, Shakespeare, with this « alarming example » of feudal discord « wanted to show support for the regime of his own age, for Elizabeth’s central government33 ». Although, in his opinion, one need not show this on stage today, but rather find those points in the play that resonate with a contemporary audience, still « one can only achieve that if one knows what Shakespeare hated and loved, what he himself fought against […] Without this our take on the play will remain a hollow, albeit trendy modernization34 ». An attentive reader can of course perceive here Brecht’s idea that we can never fully transport Shakespeare into our own time and context, but have to realise the discrepancies between the different value systems of different ages. We can, however, almost as an automatism, also sense the Marxist literary doctrine of 1950s Shakespeare interpretations that viewed the source of all social conflicts appearing in his plays in Shakespeare’s fight against feudalism.

23Reflecting on the other important topos of his theoretical narrative, Major never failed to mention what made the tragedy of the two lovers of Verona fatally contemporary and modern. In his interpretation, when watching he play the spectator realised « that on this tiny stage they perform the history of the second part of the twentieth century, as a documentary drama, taken from news reports and newsreels35 ». According to Major, Verona torn into two recalled the image of civil war territories : « This situation is as absurd as that in Belfast, where people die just because they are Catholic or Protestant. It is an absurdity that humans should lose their lives during a football match just because of unreasonable hatred36 ». In another interview he appropriated the story thus :

It is not advisable to trespass on the streets of our stage Verona without a knife or even without a gun. The setting of Romeo’s and Juliet’s story should today be Amman, Belfast or other such cities. We wish to show the beauty and purity of love born in the atmosphere of hatred. There is a strong sense of anti‑civil war and anti – feudal anarchist activism in the play, too37.

24To make the questionable analogy between medieval Verona and contemporary civil wars more evident, Major himself played the prologue in street clothes : servants were seen whirling around the two families, wearing « C » and « M » armbands, the Duke’s soldiers wore uniforms that reminded audiences of the Vietnam war and they kept order with huge batons at their side.

25As a result of all these modernising touches the critical debate around the production mostly centred on the question whether a director was allowed to transform a romantic tragedy into a socially critical play, or as contemporary critics put it, whether a director was allowed to « alter the author’s intentions38 ».With the benefit of historical hindsight, however, the interesting aspect of the performance is not only its crude attempt at modernisation. Let us therefore digress from the interpretational frame Major offers for posterity – even if this is the narrative most later accounts of this mythical production follow, commenting on the social and political angles of the production – and let us look at the show from a different angle. Especially because the audio recording we have at hand, as well as some of the contemporary reviews also point in another direction, the critics in question enthusiastically praise the production for its brave break from illusionist theatrical traditions : « Tamás Major’s Romeo and Juliet is an attack on romanticism. It is not 19th‑century cello music, violin humming, not a sigh, not a gush of love, but a pure and painful human cry39 », claimed reviewer Péter Molnár Gál. His colleague, Tamás Koltai went even further :

If there is one theatrical production which with its dynamism, impressive bravery and outstanding results achieves the break from everything that is antiquated, museum‑like and obsolete in the Hungarian theatre world today, that one production is Major’s often disputed Romeo […]. We should be grateful to Major for this production. It could not have come at a better time. We should also be happy for the debate around it : finally there is a production which provides ample ground to confront our conflicting views on theatre. Finally there is something to discuss40.

26Koltai went on praising Major’s bravery for putting on a decidedly non‑romantic Romeo at the same time Zefirelli’s film hit the Hungarian cinemas. Major, in Koltai’s view, did not only distance himself from sentimentality, but also from naturalism, in a season when puttering about with authentic details was the successful approach when directing the classics41.

27The production did sustain the ironically distancing, self‑reflecting tone of Major’s earlier Timon, Brecht and Weiss directions, which, when combined with Romeo and Juliet, did cause quite some surprise in the Hungarian theatre world, since all previous Hungarian Romeos were remembered for their lyrically soft atmosphere and romantic understanding of tragedy42. We have to bear in mind, though, that Major’s directorial concept was not unique in Central Europe. It did resonate several aspects of Otomar Krejča’s 1963 Prague production, which, for the first time in the Easter Bloc, broke with the romantic understanding of the play43. Still, this paper argues that the new interpretation of Romeo and Juliet that gained much popularity behind the Iron Curtain during the 1970s, which saw the play as a generational drama, where the youth could not break out of the confines created by the older generation, did first appear in Hungary in Major’s 1971 production44.

28Propagating, as always, his idea of « uncut Shakespeare45 », Major did not leave out much from Romeo and Juliet either. Such lines that would hardly be heard in Hungarian productions of the play, such as Capulet’s praises of Romeo or Juliet’s complete poison soliloquy, were left untouched. Some of the contemporary reviews did blame the failure of the production on this unconditional faithfulness to the text, claiming that the play as a whole rejected the rather narrow directorial concept. Nevertheless, the « complete » text did give Major ample space for ironic double takes, since he put on some scenes as parallels – Juliet’s poison soliloquy was thus contrasted with the dialogue of her parents about the wedding preparations, or the farewell of the young lovers after their wedding night was played against Paris’s visit.

29This acting style was helped by Árpád Csányi’s puritanical but functional stage design as well, which mainly constructed of cubes and columns that could be turned on their sides, framed on one side by a construction made of planks. Although not everyone was convinced by the effectiveness of the scenery : « Árpád Csányi has created a stage design that sooner reminds the audience of a metallurgical plant, equipped with all necessary labour safety features than that of a Shakespeare stage46 », wrote for instance András Rajk. But combined with Brechtian chalk‑white light, strengthening the director’s intentions, this stage resisted all romantic emotionality. Péter Molnár Gál recalled : « On this stage all sparkling and soft lights were turned off. Lamps did not light the stage, but the play. Not the actors, but the characters. They did not light the hidden shades of bushes, but a whole society. The production gets very little illumination from the spotlights, but it does receive the light of poetry and truth47 ».

30Unfortunately, we do not have a video recording of the production, but the radio footage amply shows the Brechtian alienating, emotionless delivery of the actors. This is how the production managed to bring the tragedy close to a tragicomedy, and to utilize the ambiguities that lie in the text, which Major summarized this way : « there are several happy endings in the play, as well as some burlesque, some black humour and some melancholy48 ». As the critical debates show, this approach did not meet with general enthusiasm ; however, it is important not only because the 1971 Romeo and Juliet can be seen as one of the summaries of Major’s directorial concepts, but also because it resonates with the kind of Shakespearean interpretation that gained popularity in the productions of the younger generations in the 1970s and 1980s.

31Unlike previous Hungarian productions, instead of solely focusing on the star‑crossed lovers, Major intended to draw a wider tableau of Verona’s people. This resulted in an ensemble work, which was still unusual among contemporary Hungarian Shakespeare productions, which mostly saw the Shakespearean plays as vehicles for star performances :

Major’s director‑centric Romeo brings the best out of all the actors at the National Theatre. Not to mention the fact that we could scarcely find an example of such stage presence in other productions. Extras have not been this lively, this human for long. It turns out that stage crowds also consist of individuals, with everyone having their own characters, their own roles and authenticity. We are not used to witnessing this on stage, neither are we used to seeing that a role does not end with one’s lines – that someone can be present in silence as well. In this production every theatrical moment has a function49.

32Major did place more than usual emphasis on crowd scenes, as well as on minor characters. Sándor Suka’s Apothecary stood out among those. Wearing a « pufajka », the typical puffy jacket formerly associated with violence and the Stalinist authorities, but by the 1970s only worn by poor manual labourers, he portrayed the character as a déclassé intellectual, who will inevitably fall into oblivion with the money he has received for the poison. In Péter Molnár Gál’s words :

Suka, with the money in his hand, gleefully dances backstage, and before exiting gives a cheery yell. But this turns into a dreadful death scream. We are to be sure : the apothecary is a lost man, whom the gold will drag into depravity. Soon he’ll die of delirium tremens, of syphilis, or will be knifed down in a dark alley for his money50.

33Major did in fact make money the ultimate trigger of the world around the lovers, the effect of which he intended to show not only through the character of the apothecary, but also through the hypocritical portrayal of the servants, who only mourned for their deceased master and mistress in a willy‑nilly way.

34Naturally, most reviews reflected at length on the actors portraying Romeo and Juliet, István Sztankay and Mari Törőcsik, respectively. Even those writings that commented on their portrayals positively did not rejoice over the overall concept of the production. Their casting ws in itself unusual – Törőcsik, although still a young shooting star, was already over 40, while Sztankay, short and stocky, was not exactly an epitome of the romantic lover to whom Hungarian theatre‑goers were accustomed. Critics agreed that Törőcsik did break with all previous interpretative traditions, and portrayed Juliet as a clever grown‑up, who rationally contemplated her decisions, and made extra efforts to hide her feelings from the world. Péter Molnár Gál saw a rebirth of the Elizabethan boy‑actor in her movements and diction51, while others welcomed the fact that « maybe for the first time we could see what goes on in Juliet’s mind, in the shadows of her tragic and passionate love52 ». The reviews praised her for fully executing an alienated acting style, while Sztankay was sometimes seen slipping back into a more lyrical and recitative mode of interpretation53.


35From all available sources it seems that the production, despite its exciting anti‑romantic and anti‑sentimental directorial concept, because of all the far‑fetched modernising elements Major crammed into it, only half succeeded in giving a paradigm‑changing interpretation of the play, and in reaching a broader audience,. Although most of the critical debates did centre around these modernising touches, asking whether a director should or should not be given such freedom to twist a classic into a contemporary form54, and this controversy still constitutes the backbone of the myth of the 1971 Romeo and Juliet, this paper has tried to argue that, distancing ourselves from this narrative, Major’s direction does deserve a place among iconic Hungarian productions. Despite its flaws and shortcomings, this Romeo and Juliet did launch a critical debate on the connection of Shakespeare and illusion, as well as on the practices of a directorial theatre. It did foreshadow the first Hungarian theatrical debate that was to come a year later, when Peter Brook visited Budapest with A Midsummer Night’s Dream. Major’s break with the interpretative traditions of Shakespeare’s tragedy also opened a space for the younger generations, since Major helped authorize more unorthodox Shakespearean interpretations as well.

36Finally, the production sparked a critical debate, which ultimately had to question the foundations of the Hungarian interpretative tradition of Shakespeare. As a reviewer, echoing Major, asked : « We have to ask ourselves what we want from theatre ? Shakespeare, with all his wild extremities and contradictions, life portrayed in an artful way, or our fancies, our ordinary and comfortable stylistic clichés55 ». At the end of Romeo and Juliet, while the fathers of the Montague and Capulet families shake hands in peace, above them, on the top of the planks the servants have started another fight. This final scene did not only deepen the tragic nature of the play, but somehow foreshadowed how the debates on Shakespeare’s modernity and on the modern interpretations of his plays that had started with Major’s production would also continue in the succeeding years.

37Veronika Schandl is an associate professor at Pázmány Péter Catholic University in Hungary. In the past she has mainly worked on Shakespeare in performance, specialising in Socialist, politicised productions of Shakespeare in Eastern Europe. Her book entitled Socialist Shakespeare Productions in Kádár‑regime Hungary : Shakespeare Behind the Iron Curtain was published in 2009 by Edwin Mellen Press. Her main interest in discussing Socialist Shakespeare lies in contextualising the productions by the means of sociology, history and theatre studies, as well as in understanding how readings of Shakespeare worked in an authoritative cultural environment. Currently she is writing a monograph on Hungarian director, Tamás Major’s Shakespeare directions. After her research grant at the Folger Shakespeare Library in 2012, her interest has turned towards Shakespeare burlesques and she is now mostly working on contemporary versions of burlesques and travesties in performance.


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Gyurkó, László, « A szörny csodája », Népszabadság, 4 October 1970.

Hermann, István, « Az Athéni Timon a Nemzetiben », Kritika, 6.12 (December 1969), p. 45‑48.

Hofer, Miklós & Kerényi Ferenc (eds.), A Nemzeti Színház 150 éve, Budapest, Gondolat, 1987.

Joughin, John J. (ed.), Shakespeare and National Culture, Manchester, Manchester University Press, 1997.

Kéry, László, « Athéni Krisztus », Népszabadság, 21 October 1969, p. 7.

Kocsis, Mihály L., Van itt valaki, Budapest, Minerva, 1987.

Koltai, Tamás, « A valóság hatékony képmásai », Színház, 4.6 (June 1971), p. 1‑5.

_______________ Major Tamás, Budapest, Ifjúsági Lap‑és Könyvkiadó, 1986.

körmöczy, « A Rómeó és Júlia próbáján », Néző, 3 (1971), p. 4.

« Láttuk, hallottuk », Radio Kossuth, 25 October 1969.

Major, Ottó, « Shakespeare – Budapesten », Tükör, 16 March 1971, p. 19.

Major, Tamás, « Shakespeare‑i pillanatok », in Gyárfás Miklós (ed.), Élő dramaturgia. Budapest, Magvető, 1963, p. 161‑181

« Major Tamás érdekes bejelentései a színház, a dráma és a színész mai kérdéseiről », Szabad Nép, 26 September 1948.

Molnár Gál, Péter, Rendelkezőpróba, Budapest, Szépirodalmi Könyvkiadó, 1972.

Nagy, Péter, « Mi a baj klasszikus előadásainkkal ? », in Két évad, Budapest, Akadémiai Kiadó, 1966.

Pályi, András, « Színészek kereszttűzében », Színház, 4.6 (June 1971), p. 27‑32.

_______________ « Törőcsik Mari Major cirkusz‑színházában », Színház, 3.12 (December 1970), p. 1‑4.

Rajk, András, « Rómeó és Júlia », Népszabadság, 7 March 1971, p. 11.

Stříbný, Zdéněk, Shakespeare and Eastern Europe, Oxford, Oxford University Press, 2000.

Szalontai, Mihály, « Athéni Timon », Népszava, 26 October 1969, p. 11.

Szombathelyi, Ervin, « Athéni Timon », Magyar Hírlap, 12 October 1969, p. 9.

Takács, István, « Színivihar », Magyar Ifjúság, 19 March 1971, p. 11.

Taxner, Ernő, « Színházi levél Budapestről », Jelenkor, 11.12 (December 1969), p. 112‑116.


1  The Kádár era is the period in Hungarian history between 1956 and 1989, named after Party secretary János Kádár, who governed Hungary for more than thirty years after the 1956 revolution.

2  Philter, a Hungarian theatre history from 1960 to 2008, a project financed by OTKA, the Hungarian Research Fund.

3  For a summary of reviews see Péter Molnár Gál, Rendelkezőpróba, Budapest, Szépirodalmi Könyvkiadó, 1972.

4  Tamás Koltai, Major Tamás, Budapest, Ifjúsági Lap‑és Könyvkiadó, 1986.

5  Gábor Antal, Major Tamás, Budapest, Népművelési Propaganda Hivatal, 1982. Gábor Antal (ed.), A színház nem szelíd intézmény, Budapest, Magvető Könyvkiadó, 1985.

6  Mihály L. Kocsis, Van itt valaki, Budapest, Minerva, 1987.

7  Mihaly Csokonai Vitéz’s Karnyóné, Városliget, 1938 ; Molière’s Duda Gyuri, Városliget, 1942.

8  Ben Jonson’s Volpone, National Theatre, 1954.

9  Péter Nagy, « Mi a baj klasszikus előadásainkkal ? », in Két évad, Budapest, Akadémiai Kiadó, 1966.

10  Tamás Gajdó, « Színházi diktatúra Magyarországon 1919‑1962 », in Lengyel György (ed), Színház és diktatúra a huszadik században, Budapest, OSZMI, 2012, p. 365‑366. All translations are mine.

11  For the debate on the role the National Theatre should play see Gábor Antal (ed.), Színházművészetünkről, Budapest, Kossuth Könyvkiadó, 1983.

12  Quoted by Miklós Hofer and Ferenc Kérényi (ed.), A Nemzeti Színház 150 éve, Budapest, Gondolat, 1987, p. 152.

13  Tamás Koltai, Major Tamás, op. cit., p. 92.

14  « Major Tamás érdekes bejelentései a színház, a dráma és a színész mai kérdéseiről », Szabad Nép, 26 September 1948.

15  See in detail Mihály L. Kocsis, Van itt valaki,op. cit., p. 34, 81, 248 ; Tamás Koltai, Major Tamás, op. cit., p. 103‑104, 124.

16  Gábor Antal (ed.), A színház..., op. cit., p. 47‑51.

17  See his interviews regarding his 1952 Hamlet, Hungarian Theatre Archives, Folder : Hamlet 1952.

18  The essay will present examples for this when discussing the 1971 Romeo and Juliet.

19  He often quoted the National Theatre’s 1938 Hamlet, directed by Antal Németh, as the worst example of this tendency.

20  This is the most frequently recurring element in major’s writings, therefore the following list only contains a few examples : Tamás Major, « Shakespeare‑i pillanatok », in Gyárfás Miklós (ed.), Élő dramaturgia. Budapest, Magvető, 1963, p. 161‑181. Gábor Antal (ed.), A színház..., op. cit.,p. 7‑47 ; Mihály L. Kocsis, op. cit., p. 19‑21.

21  See Gábor Antal (ed.), A színház..., op. cit., p. 23.

22  Ibid., p. 189.

23  Ibid., p. 49, 99.

24  Ibid., p. 100‑101.

25  Péter Molnár Gál, op. cit., p. 113.

26  This summary of the play is based on the following reviews : Árpád Csányi, « Az Athéni Timon előkészületeiről », Színház, 2.10 (October 1969), p. 22‑24 ; Mihály Szalontai, « Athéni Timon », Népszava, 26 October 1969, p. 11 ; Ervin Szombathelyi, « Athéni Timon », Magyar Hírlap, 12 October 1969, p. 9 ; Ernő Taxner, « Színházi levél Budapestről », Jelenkor, 11.12 (December 1969), p. 112‑116 ; László Kéry, « Athéni Krisztus », Népszabadság, 21 October 1969, p. 7 ; István Hermann, « Az Athéni Timon a Nemzetiben », Kritika, 6.12 (December 1969), p. 45‑48 ; Tamás Dersi, « Az Athéni Timon mai olvasatban », Színház, 3.2 (February 1970), p. 12‑15, and Natália Emődi, « A fiatal Athéni Timon », Színház, 3.2 (February 1970), p. 15‑18.

27  Miklós Almási’s review in Láttuk, hallottuk, Radio Kossuth, 25 October, 1969

28  László Gyurkó, « A szörny csodája », Népszabadság, 4 October 1970.

29  Miklós Benedek, « Komlós meg A luzitán szörny », Észak‑Magyarország, 21 October 1970, p. 4. László Gyurkó,op. cit.

30  András Pályi, « Törőcsik Mari Major cirkusz‑színházában », Színház, 3.12 (December 1970), p. 1‑4.

31  See Tamás Koltai, Major Tamás, op. cit., p. 116.

32  Ibid.

33  István Takács, « Színivihar », Magyar Ifjúság, 19 March 1971, p. 11.

34  Ibid.

35  Ibid.

36  Ibid.

37  B.M. « Rómeó és Júlia », Magyar Hírlap, 23 Febuary 1971.

38  « They do not perform Romeo and Juliet on this stage. When questioned if Romeo and Juliet was still relevant, Major answered with a definite “no”, he did not believe in Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet. He did not believe it was still relevant, so he changed it into a modern play », in Pongrác Galsai, « Rómeó és Júlia », Nők Lapja, 13 March 1971, p. 22.

39  Péter Molnár Gál, op. cit., p. 88.

40  Tamás Koltai, « A valóság hatékony képmásai », Színház, 4.6 (June 1971), p. 1. Italics original.

41  Ibid.

42  The best example being Zoltán Várkonyi’s 1962 direction with Zoltán Latinovits and Éva Ruttkay in the title roles.

43  Major did see Krejča’s production when the National Theatre toured in Prague.

44  See John J. Joughin (ed.), Shakespeare and National Culture, Manchester, Manchester University Press, 1997, p. 207. Zdéněk Stříbný, Shakespeare and Eastern Europe, Oxford, Oxford University Press, 2000, p. 114‑115.

45  « The complete Shakespeare is the only acceptable theoretical tenet », Major Tamás in a radio interview, quoted by Gábor Antal, Major Tamás, op. cit., p. 58.

46  András Rajk, « Rómeó és Júlia », Népszabadság, 7 March 1971, p. 11.

47  Péter Molnár Gál, op. cit., 1972, p. 88.

48  Flóra Fencsik, « Anglia Veronában », Esti Hírlap, 6 February 1971, p. 11.

49  Tamás Koltai, op. cit., p. 1. See also András Pályi, « Színészek kereszttűzében », Színház, 4.6 (June 1971), p. 27‑32.

50  Péter Molnár Gál, op. cit., p. 113.

51  Ibid., p. 103.

52  Miklós Hofer and Ferenc Kerényi (eds.), op. cit., p. 178.

53  Körmöczy, « A Rómeó és Júlia próbáján », Néző, 3 (1971), p. 4.

54  Otto Major, « Shakespeare – Budapesten », Tükör, 16 March 1971, p. 19.

55  Péter Molnár Gál, op.cit., p. 88.

Pour citer ce document

Par Veronika Schandl, «Romeo with a baton : Tamás Major’s 1971 Budapest Romeo and Juliet production», Shakespeare en devenir [En ligne], N°9 - 2015, Shakespeare en devenir, mis à jour le : 28/12/2019, URL :