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Mária Kurdi: An Overview of Lóránt Kabdebó’s Writings on Drama and Theatre Performances

Lóránt Kabdebó is known and remembered as the most prominent researcher of Hungarian modernist poet Lőrinc Szabó, about whose work he accomplished his first monographic study in 1970. As his other books and numerous essays testify, Kabdebó took a keen interest in other poets, Lőrinc Szabó’s contemporaries primarily, including Anglophone modernists such as T. S. Eliot, Ezra Pound and William Butler Yeats. Regarding fiction, he published articles and book chapters on a handful of authors he knew personally, Győző Határ, László Németh, Magda Szabó, Miklós Szentkuthy and others, with several of whom he made interviews, too. In this overview I navigate to the territory of drama and theatre to survey how much Kabdebó wrote about plays and performances. Guided by the biography of hundreds of his writings, when delving into his achievement from the beginnings it is surprising to see that in the 1960s Kabdebó contributed to the papers published in Miskolc extensively, reporting about new books (novels, volumes of poetry, critical studies, etc.), various cultural events such as concerts, exhibitions and the celebration of significant anniversaries, and, most importantly for this overview, performances of the National Theatre in Miskolc. For a survey of Kabdebó’s scholarly oeuvre it is certainly worth investigating what thoughts and observations he presented in these articles and why it is rewarding to read them even today.

In 1960 Kabdebó commemorated the 10th anniversary of G. B. Shaw’s death by acknowledging not only the playwright’s social criticism as explored by other critics but highlighting the presence of uncanny and grotesque scenes in his dramatic works, making him one of the most realistic realist. Shaw’s rational attitude to and treatment of his material may have been inherited from Voltaire, Kabdebó opines, ensuring a lasting value for his work against the irrational caprices, therefore short-lived fame of contemporary bourgeois writers.[1] A few years later Kabdebó published a joint review of two studies on Eugene O’Neill and Luigi Pirandello, respectively, which gave him the chance to draw some parallel between the two playwrights. He thinks that of the two Pirandello was the more forcefully experimental modernist, yet appreciates O’Neill’s construction of characters who insist on their own idea of personal happiness even if it entails a tragic clash with their environment. Kabdebó highlights that tragedy in O’Neill is a manifestation of optimism[2] – one might say, an intervention into the effects of the grinding wheels of day-to-day mundane circumstances and the stifling nature of conventional ethics.     

Among Kabdebó’s theatre reviews of the mid-sixties the most outstanding ones are those written about two respective productions of Németh László’s plays at Miskolc National Theatre. The language of the reviews is vivid and their style captures the reader, while the pieces demonstrate that their author has an exemplary familiarity with the whole oeuvre of Németh, fiction, essay and drama together, between which he was eager to find correlations. O’Neill’s protagonists’ non-compromising stance and complex psychology seem to have their echo in the relentless pursuit of truth by Németh’s characters, as Kabdebó observes them. In 1965, he published a review of the production of Nagy család (Big Family) by Németh, emphasizing the sensitive portrayal of psychologically intricate situations in the drama. The characters, Kabdebó claims, represent particular social types and their coping with the various challenges posed by living in a big city nowadays, thus it was an excellent choice to project the montage of a vast cityscape as background to the family apartment in which the action takes place. Notably, this kind of setting is frequently used in performances of Arthur Miller’s Death of a Salesman, to represent the pettiness of the individual and his/her futile struggles against depressing social forces. In Nagy család, as elsewhere in the Németh oeuvre, Kabdebó continues, the immediate context to the plot is the crisis of a marriage reaching a breaking point. Moreover, Németh represents the clash between two kinds of moral attitude: that of individualism and that of unconditional love. Assessing the actors’ work Kabdebó calls attention to the highly successful impersonation of an angry young man character, which inspires the critic to comment on the acting as a proof of the necessity to see a distinction between the mode of telling the truth on stage and the ways in which it appears in real life.[3]  With this Kabdebó astutely contributes to the awareness of an important quality of dramatic representation discussed by many theorists of the drama, namely the power of creating, in Bert O’ States’s words, a theatrical image (and not merely a sign) which “detains, arrests” by its expressive density.[4]   

Next year Kabdebó published a review of Németh’s Csapda (Trap, 1966), a not so widely known work by its author. The play dramatizes the last weeks of Alexander Puskhin’s life, a period in which he felt unjustly persecuted whereas also abandoned by his colleagues and friends. According to Kabdebó’s interpretation Németh was inspired to stage such historical characters, known for their uncompromising insistence on what they believed to be true and valuable, because of his own similar experiences as testified by some of his other plays exposing the stories of István Széchenyi, Galielo Galilei and János Apáczai Csere. Considering the play on Puskhin, Kabdebó sees it as having kinship in terms of the internal development of its truth-seeking protagonist with Németh’s novel Irgalom (Mercy), yet he stresses that they embody two extremes in representing the fate of the exceptional personalities portrayed in them. About the premiere of the play in Miskolc Kabdebó writes that the scenes were composed in a way to emphasize theatricality and the figure of Puskhin was isolated from the rest of the characters by playing in one corner of the stage as if put in a cage. Sampling the actors’ work the critic praises the subtle rendering of Dolgorukov’s paradoxical situation best revealed in the scene where this petty, Iago-like figure recounts the death of Puskhin, suggesting that he admired the poet for his monstrous tenacity and attacked him out of sheer envy.[5]

From the 1970s onwards Kabdebó wrote far fewer newspaper articles and reviews in favor of contributing to journals and accomplishing his own books. Whenever he turned to drama in various studies and book chapters, it happened mainly through the lens of his research on Lőrinc Szabó or to complement the portraits he gave of the novelists he so appreciated. One of the great early poems of Lőrinc Szabó entitled “Isten” (God) was conceived to celebrate the Imre Madách centenary in 1923, which inspired Kabdebó to explore parallels between the poem and Az ember tragédiája (The Tragedy of Man), the masterpiece of Madách. Comparing the two, Kabdebó claims that Madách’s dramatic poem reflects classical dialectics in its structure while Lőrinc Szabó’s bulky poem is a monologue composed of multilayered instances of self-confrontation. The Tragedy of Man offers a historical vision following classical logic, the composition of the poem “God” rests on a method of dispersal and counterpointing, the critic says. In Madách’s work, Kabdebó concludes, man may become a loser but is saved by divine Grace ultimately, while Lőrinc Szabó’s poetic persona cannot expect any possible divine intervention in the modern world. [6] Intriguingly for the critic, both interrogate the relationship between man and God, although approaching it from different angles. The poem was published as the closure in Lőrinc Szabó’s groundbreaking volume, Kalibán (Caliban,1923)

Lőrinc Szabó was also a translator, rendering Shakespearean plays and sonnets into Hungarian beside hundreds of other prominent works in world literature across the centuries. It is hardly a wonder that the English Bard exerted influence on his own work of poetry. The Tempest was translated by Mihály Babits in 1916 as an antiwar gesture, Kabdebó says, which treated the figure of Prospero as a bringer of peace, a man re-establishing balance and order, imposing by this a traditional interpretation on the play with preference for the Prospero-Ariel duo in a troubled world of both human and cultural loss. Lőrinc Szabó’s poetry volume, Caliban and the eponymous poem in it troubled this more or less fixed view by placing emphasis on the rebellious figure of Caliban, thus opening a generational gap between Babits and himself in favor of unavoidable change, even at the expense of violent upheaval, Kabdebó continues. The critic adds that Ernest Renan’s drama entitled Caliban: A Philosophical Drama Continuing “The Tempest of William Shakespeare”(1878) also carried inspiration for the Hungarian poet. Kabdebó’s interest in the contemporaries of Lőrinc Szabó in international modernism guided him to the highly experimentalist Ezra Pound’s long poem, “Hugh Selwyn Mauberley” (1920), in which the line “Caliban Casts out Ariel” conveys the change in power relations as a fact.[7] There are hosts of critical reflections which focus on the figure of Caliban in literature. In the context of modernist poetry one can distinguish two major strands in these. Firstly, writings about the 19th century roots of turning to the Caliban figure (as in the above mentioned play by Renan), is exemplified by an article which analyzes the impact of 19th century authors’ concern with “barbarism” in addition to the experience of World War I on Pound’s “Hugh Selwyn Mauberley”.[8] Secondly, critics have spent much ink on discussing adaptations of the figure of Caliban in postcolonial literatures as the determined rebel against oppression. Looking at European works, suffice it to mention a well-known drama, Endgame by the Irish Samuel Beckett, in which the servant Clov’s complaint about only repeating the words of his master, Hamm taught him, and not possessing his own language, strikingly resembles Caliban’s talk to Prospero in The Tempest: “You taught me language; and my profit on’t / Is I know how to curse:”.[9] In Endgame Clov’s words run: “I use the words you taught me. If they don’t mean anything any more, […] let me be silent”.[10]

Discussing the works of Magda Szabó, Kabdebó included comments on her plays in some of his own critical texts. The novelist’s choice to write historical plays he attributes (though not solely) to the fact that born in 1917, she belonged to the “Trianon generation”.[11] These plays, he claims, re-read and re-stage groundbreaking political and social events in the remote Hungarian past, which she carefully studied before setting out to compose the works in question. Az a szép, fényes nap (That Beautiful and Shiny Day, 1975) shows prince Géza and his son, Vajk (who became King Saint Steven [Szent István király] later), in the context of establishing the Hungarian state and converting to Christianity. Their story, in Magda Szabó’s drama, is situated in a way that they accept the change as a necessary one, having no other option, Kabdebó argues. Recently, Az a szép, fényes nap has been exímined by Norbert Baranyai at a conference organized in Pécs with the first lecture given by Kabdebó, to mark the centenary of the writer’s birth. In this critic’s paper the play is found notable also for staging patterns of communal memory to highlight the problems which underlie the various modes of remembering and become forces that shape history amidst the represented interpersonal conflicts.[12]

Magda Szabó’s trilogy, Béla király (King Béla, 1980-1984) appears to Kabdebó as a work which rewrites elements of a great national drama, József Katona’s Bánk bán (Baron Bánk, 1819), most importantly the public memory of the murdered Queen Gertrude, mother of King Béla IV.[13] Regarding the dramaturgy of the trilogy, Kabdebó calls attention to the symbolic meaning of the fact that none of the characters in the royal court try to understand the real importance of the annoying noises they hear from the forests of the Carpathians: unnoticed, the tatars keep on felling trees to make a road for themselves by using which they can easily overtake the Hungarian army and conquer the country. The symbolic meaning of this is extended by Kabdebó to the tragedy of Trianon[14] — the neglect to read the warning signs and the loss of the Carpathians as a result, one might add. Interestingly, Magda Szabó’s historical plays have their characters speak in the language of our time therefore the reader might be inclined to feel that they are our contemporaries. This textual device is used by the author deliberately, to bring the audience close to the depicted historical era and portray the characters as people who acted and made decisions according to their personal traits, beliefs, experiences and preferences, as argued by Judit Kónya’s well researched monographic study of Magda Szabó’s literary career.[15]  

In his discussion of Magda Szabó’s novels Kabdebó suggests that her method was largely due to the working of a kind of demon in herself, which Socrates speaks about in connection with the artistic creation in his philosophy. It was the demon which forced the writer to form her characters in a certain way.[16] The relation between the demon in humans and artistic achievements appeared in the work of William Butler Yeats, a poet Kabdebó zealously included among the most significant and influential European contemporaries of Lőrinc Szabó. Yeats’s poem, “Demon and Beast” attributes human victory to the power of the demon: “Yet I am certain as can be / That every natural victory / belongs to beast or demon”.[17] A later play by Magda Szabó, entitled Sziluett (Silhouette, 2000) dramatizes the major events in the life of Hungarian poet Mihály Vörösmarty, leading to his untimely death in 1855, which she was commissioned to write for the bicentenary celebrations of the poet. In a sense it is also a historical drama, taking the reader or spectator back to the past as its setting is the decisive period of the 1820s to the 1850s, the years leading up to and immediately following the tragic defeat of the anti-Habsburg revolution and war of independence. In his look at the play Kabdebó emphasizes the role of the demon to push the author to assume the challenge of dramatizing the vicissitudes of an iconic poet of the national canon. What is more, he even draws a parallel between Magda Szabó and Vörösmarty, in terms of how their respective demons (in conjunction with their internal beasts, to apply Yeats’s idea) were struggling against their sense of duty to nation and society. Kabdebó suggests that the two differed in this respect, with Magda Szabó able to balance the antithetical forces while Vörösmarty had too much sense of duty causing his slow demise after the national tragedy and the change in the demands of the reading public which turned away from his patriotic epic poetry.[18] However, there is quite a lot of emphasis in Sziluett on the duties the women characters have to fulfill often against their emotional needs, exemplified by Adél Perczel (called Etelka in Vörösmarty’s poetry), who loved the poet in their youth but was forced to marry the suitor her father chose for her and Laura Csajághy, who was pressed to marry the middle-aged poet out of duty to the nation at 19. 

To mention, last but certainly not least, the case of Győző Határ, Kabdebó’s good friend, is similar to that of Magda Szabó: writing about his excellence as a novelist Kabdebó samples his plays and puts his finger on one of them, the monumental Golghelóghi, which was conceived after seeing a dream during Határ’s imprisonment then composed in exile in London and published there twice, in 1976 and 1978 respectively, finally coming to Hungary in 1989. The drama is constructed on the model of the medieval mystery play but achieves an ironical version of it by placing Satan as the insensitive lord of all.  Kabdebó calls it a “world drama”, comparable to Faust or Peer Gynt in creating a protagonist who is exposed to a diversity of experiences in his wanderings, yet he thinks it is unique in juxtaposing the comic and the tragic, the description of human misery and an ingenious and exceptionally playful use of language.[19] Indeed, Golghelóghi is admirable for its poetry and stylistic innovation primarily, while its array of characters and their adventures reminds the reader of both the faults and potential in human existence. It is small wonder that Lóránt Kabdebó, the researcher of poetry in the first place, loved and valued this play immensely. 

[1] Kabdebó Lóránt: „Tíz éve halott G. B. Shaw” (G. B. Shaw Died 10 Years Ago). Észak-Magyarország XVI,  259, Nov 2, 1960. p. 5. 

[2] Kabdebó Lóránt: „Két XX. századi íróportré: Benedek András: O’Neill, Szabó György: Pirandello” (Two 20th Century Author Portraits). Észak-Magyarország 20: 235, October 7, 1964. p. 4. 

[3] Kabdebó Lóránt: „A kis család bomlása: első részének előadása a Miskolci Nemzeti Színházban” (The crisis of the little family: the production of the first part in the National Theatre of Miskolc”). Észak-Magyarország 21: 68, March 21, 1965. p. 4.

[4] Bert O’ States: Great Reckonings in Little Rooms: on the Phenomenology of Theater. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1985. Kindle edition.

[5] Kabdebó Lóránt: „Németh László ősbemutató Miskolcon” (A premiere of László Németh in Miskolc). Napjaink 5: 11. 1966. p. 6.

[6] Kabdebó Lóránt: „Madách és Szabó Lőrinc” (Madách and Lőrinc Szabó). Híd 63: 11. 1999. p. 706-707.

[7] Ibid. 708-709.

[8] Robert Stark: “ ‘Caliban Casts out Ariel’: Ezra Pound’s Victorian Barbarian”. Textual Practice 25 (6) 2011, p. 1076.

[9] William Shakespeare: Complete Works. London: Oxford University Press, 1969 [1905]. p. 5.

[10] Samuel Beckett: Endgame. New York: Grove Press Inc., 1958.  p. 44.

[11] Kabdebó Lóránt: „Egy monográfia címszavai: Szabó Magda”. InUő: „Ritkul és derül az éjszaka”: Harc az elégiáért. Debrecen: Csokonai Kiadó, 2006. 281.

[12] Baranyai Norbert: “Emlékezet és a múlt reprezentációja Szabó Magda Az a szép fényes nap című drámájában”. In: Soltész Márton – V.Gilbert Edit (szerk.): Szabó Magda száz éve.269-270.

[13] Kabdebó Lóránt: „Az önmegmentés hősnői”. In Uő: Vers és próza a modernség második hullámában. Budapest: Argumentum Kiadó, 1997. 296. 

[14] Kabdebó Lóránt: „Egy monográfia címszavai: Szabó Magda”, 283.

[15] Kónya Judit: Szabó Magda: Ez mind én voltam… Budapest: Jaffa Kiadó, 2008. 175.

[16] Kabdebó Lóránt: „Egy monográfia címszavai: Szabó Magda”, 283.

[17] William Butler Yeats: “Demon and Beast”. The Collected poems of W. B. Yeats. London: Macmillan, 1965 [1933], 210.

[18] Kabdebó Lóránt: „Egy monográfia címszavai: Szabó Magda”, 279-280.

[19] Kabdebó Lóránt: „A modern magyar próza másik modellje: Határ Győző”. In Uő: Vers és próza a modernség második hullámában. 283-285.

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