The artist group of Orfeo criticized the communist system by following the ideas of the student movement of 1968 and the new left ideological trends. Orfeo was attacked by the political leadership as an uncontrollable, hostile group which was opposed to the communist system and the allegedly legitimate societal forms.
Orfeo was based on a puppet theatre group, which first performed in 1969 and to which a theatre company, a music band, and a circle of fine artists and photographers joined. The main common point in these young people’s lives was that creative intention merged with very strong leftist radical criticism of the regime based on Marxist ideas. Their artistic ambition was united with their desire for social influence.
According to the communist cultural politics, Orfeo spread an oppositional, hostile western ideology and its members led immoral lifestyles because of their commune. Orfeo became an “issue”: attacking articles in the press, surveillance, police investigation, interrogation. Finally, in the mid-1970s the group broke up.
The history of Orfeo is complicated. The student movements in Paris in 1968, the new left ideologies, the revolution in Cuba, respect for Che Guevera, and an interest in Maoism had an impact on the group. They criticized the communist system, the injustices in the social order, and the Janus-faced politics of the party. Their activity was characterized by the reform of artistic forms, discussions of political issues, and the desire to have impact on social issues. They wanted to create a shared life with real meaning.
The puppet theatre group was established at the University of Fine Arts. The founders were sculptor István Malgot, photographer Péter Fábry, graphic artist Mihály Kiss, puppet designer Ilona Németh, sculptor-teacher Zsuzsa Lóránt, and graphics teacher Huba Bálványos. To create a performance with puppets it was necessary to invite actors and musicians. The first production was “Orfeo’s Love,” which gave the company its name. The production was an allegory about Che Guevara.
The puppet and the music group organized performances in the “Angela Davis” youth club in Kőbánya (a typical worker district of Budapest). Orfeo was a political theatre and it was unique in this field of art in Hungary. The theatre company’s important plays included Etoile (1971), a play about the theoretical and practical content of revolution, and Vurstli (1972), a play about the relationship between power and the individual. According to Tamás Fodor, this last production expressed in the most precise way what they thought about the world around them. The communist cultural politicians regarded it as a dangerous political metaphor. After the performances, they held discussions about it with the audience.
The aim of the community was to improve and foster political thinking and social self-reflexion. István Malgot said in his interview that they saw around them party bureaucracy, the rule of the communist elite, and the low standard of living of the workers. They believed that society would change along the lines outlined by Marx. Péter Fárby emphasized their need to make their own community. They felt the lack of the genuine communal feeling in everyday life, in spite of the collective ideology of communism. According to Tamás Fodor, they thought that they had to find their own independence in their own communities, and members were not allowed to follow.
Orfeo built up two houses in Pilisborosjenő (15 kilometers from Budapest) between 1972 and 1974, where the members of the theatre group and the members of the puppet group lived and worked together. They created their own commune, which was based on shared artistic work. The value of physical work was great in this mental community. Numerous members worked in factories, and so it was particularly exhausting for them, after a hard day’s work, to prepare for the performances.
In 1972, the political police began investigating the “Orfeo’s issue.” They interrogated the members, and the company’s operating permit was withdrawn. They were banned from every community centre, and students were forbidden from attending the plays. The next year, the Theatre Arts Association negotiated on the alternative theatres. They stated that these companies were dangerous and that they spread hostile, Western ideology among young people. Only some official person protected the amateur groups.
This attack got more attention in the public when the central journal of the Hungarian Young Communist League, entitled Hungarian Youth, wrote articles about Orfeo. The author accused the members of the group of immoral behaviour. According to him, Malgot, the main protagonist, wanted to cut off children from their parents and intended to create a commune, a sort of big family. He wrote that Malgot broke the rules of social coexistence. Finally, the prosecution did not bring any charges against the members of the group, but the aftermath was serious: Orfeo was banned from every community centre and no one was allowed to write about Orfeo in the press. The accusation concerning sexual abuse and a man allegedly abusing his power interested the authorities not as a violation of rights with serious implications. For them, the allegation of sexual abuse was relevant only for its political implications, i.e. as a clue to detect anti-communist thinking and anti-communist individuals. Thus, they politicized gendered-based dominance and, in doing so, also concealed it.The history of Orfeo is partly the history of the connection between art and politics. The assault against Orfeo was followed by other acts of retaliation against amateur theatre companies. The younger generation began to lose interest in this kind of art in the mid-1970s. First the Orfeo music band left the group, then Orfeo Studio left, and the theatre company became independent in 1974. It changed its name to Studio K and continued with its work, and it remains active today. The puppet group kept the name Orfeo and continued to work in different official theatres.
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- Huhák, Heléna
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"Az Orfeo-csoport." Nagy Generáció. Directed by Ilona Mélykúti. Budapest: Klub Rádió, December 7, 2011.
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"Váradi Júlia vendége Nemes István." Dobszerda. Directed by Júlia Váradi. Budapest: Klub Rádió, June 1, 2011. https://web.archive.org/web/20131101074500/http://orfeocsoport.hu/varadi_nemes.mp3
Márton Távolodó, László. ""Néztem ezeket az elsárgult dalszövegeket" - Kamondy Ágnes - Orfeo zenészcsoport." Magyar Narancs, May 5, 2011. http://magyarnarancs.hu/film2/neztem_ezeket_az_elsargult_dalszovegeket_-_kamondy_agnes_-_orfeo_zeneszcsoport-76056.
Sándor L., István. "Szabadságszigetek. Beszélgetés Fodor Tamással: Etoile – az Orfeo Stúdió első előadása." Ellenfény, November 14, 2011. http://www.ellenfeny.hu/index.php?option=com_content&view=article&id=3367:szabadsagszigetek&catid=9:fuggetlenek&Itemid=61. .Hegedüs, Béla. "Annyi a jelenem, amennyi a múltam. Beszélgetés Székely B. Miklóssal." Ellenfény, no. 1 (1998). http://www.ellenfeny.hu/index.php?option=com_content&view=article&id=1883:annyi-a-jelenem-amennyi-a-multam&catid=124:1998/1.&Itemid=133
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