by Attila Szabó and Éva Hutvágner (Hungarian Theatre Museum and Institute, Budapest)
This is an attempt at the digital reconstruction of a puppet performance by the Nemzeti Bábszínjáték, the first permanent puppet theatre in Hungary. Founded in 1941 by István Árpád Rév, in a room of a former hotel in Budapest’s Podmanicky street, the troupe performed on a repertory basis for both children and adults, with monumental success. During their short existence of only four years the company put up ten shows: folk tale adaptations for children and puppet operas, mystery plays and puppet cabarets for adults. Toldi, based on the epic poem with the same title by János Arany, was one of their biggest successes. The show ran for 756 times, in the hall seating 130 people. Their last performance was in September 1945, as they received no playing permit in the new regime.
The performances played by the National Puppet Play, founded by puppeteer and puppet maker István Árpád Rév in the 1940’s, offer a unique material for reconstruction. The puppet maker and theatre manager was very meticulous in the documentation of his performances. Rév, after returning in 1941 to Hungary from his drawing studies in Düsseldorf, founded the first permanent puppet theatre in Hungary. The National Puppet Play (Nemzeti Bábszínjáték) received no public funding, he used his own savings to operate the puppet company, of which he was the director, puppet designer, puppet maker and dramaturge. He developed his unique puppet mechanics which enabled him to move the eyes and mouth of a traditional glove puppet, with an intricate system of small levers. Their first performance, Toldi, was a huge public success, being performed for no less than 756 times.
What makes our reconstruction work feasible despite the age of the performance is the fact that Rév was extremely meticulous in documenting his own work. The artist’s attention for detail, which becomes obvious when looking at any of his puppets, is echoed in the abundant (and very specific) documentation that survived about the National Puppet Play’s short activity: performance photos, full sets of wood-carved miniature furniture which was used for the set, and a detailed photo album about what each scene represented in the plot, puppet costumes carefully placed on miniature hangers with a detailed dressing plan booklet and many promotional materials. In Rév’s puppet theatre some puppets were redressed to play different characters both in the same performance and also between different shows of the company. Also very unique of the puppet theatre of this period is a short film fragment which features Rév’s company in action.
Toldi was their first and undoubtedly most successful performance. Based on János Arany’s hyponymous epic poem, the performance followed the extensively epic structure of the literary original, thus the need for 21 different sets. It is advisable to dwelve shortly on the analysis of the literary source, since we know that Rév used the full text of Toldi for the performance. The epic poem, which presents the life of a peasant boy (of distant aristocratic origins) who becomes the bravest knight in the king’s suite due to his extraordinary strength and kindness of heart, is not just an ubiquitous literary work from the 19th century, a compulsory reading for high-school students, but also one of the principal works of the Hungarian literary canon, which, from the mid 19th century onwards was a most important literary bearer of Hungarian cultural identity and cultural memory. Written in 1946 for a poetry call published by the Kisfaludy Társaság, which explicitly demanded a work which poetically rendered the story of one of the great Hungarian heroes remembered by folklore, the epic poem was actually based on a literary paratext: the Toldi by Péter Ilosvai Selymes from 1574. Later in his life Arany wrote two other parts to Toldi, but this first work undoubtedly started him on the route of becoming the prime poet of Hungary for several decades into the late 19th century. Although the content, form and purpose of folklore inspiration in relation to Toldi is a very complex and much-debated issue, one cannot argue that Toldi had instantly became a literary blockbuster (receiving the acclaim of both the critics and the wider public), and it managed to keep this position more-or-less unchanged throughout the late 19th, early and mid 20th century, the communist times and well beyond. Just as its “folk epic” sibling, John the Valiant written by Arany’s great literary friend Sándor Petőfi, next to being a compulsory school reading, Toldi keeps endlessly recurring in very different adaptations, many of which are for the theatre or puppet stage. Due to its simple, folktale-like story line, clarity of language and beautiful and coherent system of symbols and tropes, it is easy to see how the poem could be appealing for both young and adult readers. Even in the 1930’s the literary public opinion sees Toldi in a virtually unchanged way. Literary historian Elemér Császár writes in 1932: ‘In János Arany’s Toldi the Hungarian poetic spirit presents itself in is purity and originality, at the peak of its power, and, together with Petőfi’s lirical oeuvre, reaches its zenyth, and rises to international rank’.
We know from contemporary accounts (reviews) that the text of the epic poem was performed uncut and without changes. There was a puppet character in the show of János Arany, the poet himself, presumably he was playing the role of the narrator. Still, without having found the exact script it is hard to tell if all narrative parts were recited by the figure of Arany or maybe the dialogue parts (present also in the original) were made more numerous, to give more text to the individual characters. It is also impossible to tell without recovering the script or finding references of contemporary viewers how the more naturalist, carnivalesque elements present in Arany’s text were rendered on the puppet scene, how was the bloodshed, murder or drinking presented for an audience which would also have children present. But by looking at the puppet of the Bull, with whom Toldi fights in one of the scenes, we can conclude that the animal could move its body parts (horns especially) in a way even a real animal could not. So it is quite probable that raw naturalism was translated here too to some sort of surprizing, mechanical and “ultra realist” puppet mechanics effect.