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Staging Stalinism

The revival of a play about Hungarian communists brings to the forefront questions that are as pressing in modern-day Hungary as they were in 20th century Europe.

6 December 2018

A rather unusual play is being staged at the Metropolitan Playhouse in New York City. Shadow of Heroes was written in 1958 by Robert Ardrey, and played briefly in London and New York before disappearing until the current revival.


It addresses the fate of Laszlo and Julia Rajk, Hungarian communist activists who survived arrest and torture by the Gestapo only to face arrest and torture by the post-war communist government that they helped bring to power. It is a wrenching (true) story, raising unsettling questions about the nature of political heroism and the scope for moral agency in a world of dueling totalitarian dictatorships.


The playwright brings these broad macro-historical forces down to human scale by focusing on the triangular relationship between Laszlo, Julia, and Janos Kadar, who was Lazlo’s deputy in the underground communist party during the war, and who became godfather to their son in 1949. The Budapest communists – Rajk and Kadar – were viewed with suspicion by Stalinist leaders Matyas Rakosi and Erno Gero, who were in exile in Moscow and who came back with the advancing Red Army. The latter needed the former because of their legitimacy, given their status as heroes of the Resistance.


Rajk became head of the security ministry, and later foreign minister. After Tito kicked out all the Soviet advisors from Yugoslavia in 1948, Stalin launched purges of potential Tito-type national communists throughout Eastern Europe. Rajk was arrested and after months of torture he was persuaded by Kadar to publically confess to his “crimes.” After that he was executed, despite promises of clemency. Julia was also jailed and her son was taken away from her. After Stalin’s death, Hungary’s political prisoners were freed, and Laszlo Rajk was rehabilitated and reburied with full state honors in September 1956. The crowds that gathered for his funeral triggered a wave of protests that culminated in the Soviet Union deploying tanks to crush the uprising in November 1956. (For a vivid account of the revolution, see the 1986 BBC documentary Cry Hungary.)


Kadar changed sides a couple of times – he deserted the Stalinists for the reformers, but after the rebellion was crushed Moscow appointed him the new leader of Hungary. Political leaders who had taken refuge in the Yugoslav embassy, including Julia Rajk, were lured out with a promise of freedom, but were then arrested. Former Prime Minister Imre Nagy was executed.


On a simple set and with just 11 actors playing 24 roles, the play manages to compress this complex and challenging history into two hours and 45 minutes of gripping drama. One of the characters, the “Author,” helpfully steps up and provides a running commentary on the political context of each scene. He explains which scenes are documented and factually accurate, and which are dramatic license. The former outnumber the latter. This type of documentary drama is unusual, but highly effective. It is eerie seeing “real” living Stalinists striding around the stage just feet from the audience. Theater has an immediacy and human connection that movies (such as the black comedy “The Death of Stalin”) do not.


Ardrey’s play fits into the broader literature of the early Cold War that is exemplified by Arthur Koestler’s The God That Failed and George Orwell’s 1984. The lesson was simple: communist utopianism could quickly turn into totalitarian repression. Writing in the immediate aftermath of the 1956 anti-communist revolution, Ardrey was outraged by the fate of the Rajks: according to some reports, the play was instrumental in persuading the communists to release Julia from jail. Ardrey turns the Rajks into heroes, based on the nobility of their struggle against fascism and their sacrifices at the hands of the new regime. However, they are not seen as heroes in contemporary Hungary, since they played such a central role in the creation of the very regime that went on to persecute them – along with hundreds of thousands of others.


From Euripides through Shakespeare, the theater has excelled in conveying the emotional turbulence that is generated when personal loyalties and the logic of political power collide. Ardrey’s play continues in that powerful tradition. Most contemporary political theater, such as the award-winning Oslo about the Israeli-Palestinian peace talks, do not present us with such grim moral dilemmas.


A second way in which the story looks different today than it did in 1958 is the role of anti-Semitism. Many of the Hungarian communist leaders were Jews – including Rakosi and Gero – and after Stalin withdrew his support for Israel in 1948 he launched a wave of purges of Jewish officials across Eastern Europe, which brought down Rajk, accused among other things of protecting Jewish officials. Anti-Semitism also surfaced in the 1956 revolution, and has remained an ugly undercurrent in segments of the Hungarian nationalist narrative to this day – think of Viktor Orban’s campaign against George Soros.


Ardrey is an interesting character. He was an accomplished playwright and Hollywood scriptwriter: his credits include The Three Musketeers (1948) and the epic Khartoum (1966), for which he received an Oscar nomination. In later life he turned to writing books of popular anthropology, such as The Territorial Imperative and African Genesis. (By the way, Rajk’s son, Laszlo Rajk Jr., has also ended up working in Hollywood – he grew up to be a dissident, post-1989 politician, successful architect, and set designer for films such as The Martian). 


The Metropolitan Playhouse specializes in reviving overlooked plays from America’s theatrical past, and director Alex Roe is to be commended for rescuing this work from what Orwell in 1984 referred to as the memory hole of history.


In a world where Russian agents spray deadly nerve agents on door handles in an English suburb, and a Saudi hit squad dismembers a critical journalist in their Istanbul consulate, we hardly need reminding that in many countries of the world the struggle for political power is a deadly business that knows few moral boundaries. But these trends reached a peak of terror in what Timothy Snyder terms the Bloodlands of Eastern Europe in the 1930s and 1940s, and this play does a valuable service in reminding us of those dark times. One wonders if this play could ever be staged in Viktor Orban’s Hungary, and what audiences would make of it.

Peter Rutland
 is a professor of government at Wesleyan University in Middletown, Connecticut.
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