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Didactics and entertainment on eighteenth century Hungarian stage.


Professional stage in Hungary was established in 1790. The four decades leading to 1790 meant fast, radical and manyfold change of school theatres. Didactics belonging closely to school theatre had to be kept but was evidently in change. The present survey investigates how the change of didactics, the purpose of entertainment shifted Hungarian school drama closer and closer to the professional stage. A definite change occured in historical plays, as well as in the number and atmosphere of Catholic comedies and parodies. Calvinist school stage was strongly didactic but untouched by classicism. Franciscan devotional genres belong to a very old medieval didactic tradition. The changing function of love themes and female roles drove school dramas directly towards the professional theatre.


The professional stage in Hungary was established in 1790. Earlier, there was practically no professional theatre, since the rare experiments here and there could not develop any tradition, and the only form of theatre was that of the schools. For centuries schools staged dramas as a part of their educational jobs. Before the mid-eighteenth century, school-performances were merely parts of teachers' jobs, their pedagogical routine, with the traditional purpose of teaching language, speech, proper behaviour, argument technics, mythology and history to the pupils. However, the four decades leading to 1790 saw school theatres functioning more and more as real, almost professional theatre. This process meant a fast, radical and manyfold change, both for the performers and for the audience. From about the mid-eighteenth century, the main purpose of school theatre, even if undeclared, became pure entertainment, parallel with the teacher's claim of being an author, a playwright. More and more school dramas were published as a work of art, with the author's name, i.e., the teacher, identified as a playwright. The growing claim for entertainment quickly changed the language, the themes, and the genre of school dramas. More and more comedies and profane dramas were played in the vernacular.

In our present survey, we investigate how the purpose of entertainment brought Hungarian school drama closer and closer to the professional stage. Didactics belonging closely to school theatre had to be kept but was evidently in change. We are going to examine the process how in and what way the didactic function of school stages was changed.

I. A moral lesson

I.1. Historic plays

History, being a frequent and typical Baroque theme of school dramas, especially for the Jesuits, was used for centuries to give examples of the works of Providence marking the right choice of man between his frail world and divine eternity. The moral of history showed the tragic end of pursuing wordly values like power, crown, ambition. History itself was, however, in the centre of the changes in school theatre. In the eighteenth century a fresh interest in history arose as a new worldly message. The modern Jesuit historical dramas omitted the didactic prologues and epilogues, probably because they recognised the strength of the story itself. The teachers still wanted to give a moral, but they gave it separated, somewhat apart from the plot, in several forms:

A) An opening and/or closing poem or song was frequently added to the drama. Modern historical plays were mostly written in prose; therefore, the verse form itself made the prologues and epilogues separate from the drama text (1). This was a small change since school stages often used choruses to emphasize a moral as well as to refresh the audience, but still, one has to remember the first steps.

B) In many cases even the opening and closing songs were omitted, and the message was to be found within the drama text and the plot. The closing sentences of the play were often told by the protagonist or by one of the most important characters of the story, who thus finished the play stepping forward and sending a message to the audience: "Learn from this and that ... !" or "Learn from this example", etc. (2). This solution keeps, and what is more, emphasizes, the moral, but hides it in one of the characters.

C) Biblical themes, especially those from the Old Testament, were also considered as historical topics. Here the authors often used Prophets to tell these last teaching sentences, e.g., Daniel tells the message at the end of Balthasar's story, Jeremiah gives the moral to Zedekiah's story (3). The authors used the special role of Prophets who, being a link between God and men, could also be a link between the stage and the audience.

In all cases mentioned above, the moral is rather short, one or two sentences, or one or two short strophes, which shows that the author let the drama, the story, the figures influence the audience.

I.2. Comedies

Comedies became the representative genre of the second half of the eighteenth century. Comedies were to teach a moral, though the moral was given only in the prologues and epilogues. During the play the harsh and fast buffo and farcical scenes did not allow time for didactics; that is why the moral was given before and mainly after the play itself: as if the author had forgotten about didactics and then, reaching the end of the play, he suddenly realized the "deficit" and quickly gave the missing moral. Jesuit, Piarist and Minorite comedies are of a large number; about half of these plays do not give any moral. Most opening and closing verses, choruses (if they exist) turn to the audience and speak only of clowns, vagabonds as performers and dancing, Carnival, entertainment as the opportunity of playing comedies. The Minorite school of the Transylvanian Kanta, for example, performed a series of Molierian comedies in the 1770's, adapting the original story to Hungarian circumstances (4). The main sources used were Moliere's Scapin (Les fourberies de Scapin; The Cheats of Scapin) and L'Avare (The Miser). These comedies either do not give any moral at all, or they have a prologue and an epilogue, most often sung, with some thin lesson.

Around the birth of professional theatre, school stage was still flourishing in Hungary. Late school comedies, i.e., around and after 1790, just entertain and do not give any moral. Or, if they do give a message, it is different and is involved in a preface added only to the written version of the play: the self conscious author, influenced by the Enlightenment, speaks of the necessity and relevance of theatre, also of comic theatre, and of the author's patriotic aims to improve the language and culture of his beloved country. This shows a definite change in the "canon" of literature since drama has nothing to do with pedagogy or didactics any more, but it is a literary achievement, and what is more, the written version belongs to literature while the stage production belongs to theatre. Thus, theatre and literature have moral teaching in common, but the stage itself is effective enough to convey the message. These are the first signs of the Schillerean concept of theatre which soon became very important in Hungary (5).

I.3. Parody of teaching a moral

Parodies belong to this process, too. Full mythological parodies have survived where the pathetic language and the high figures (Gods and Godesses) of mythological dramas become subjects of satire: this proves a definite change in values. Some low comic dramas also use the means of parody: the summary of a Plautinian--Molierean comedy, for example, refers to the 000th item of the torn part of the lost book of Peter Dream where the audience should find the real, i.e. non-fiction story, in the same way the summaries of historical plays gave their exact sources (6).

II. Two exceptions: Observant Franciscan and Calvinist theatre

As we saw, by the second half of the eighteenth century, school theatres got close to the entertaining professional stage performing mainly neo-classicist (7) plays. Only two types of school theatres remained completely untouched by this process: some of the Franciscan and all Calvinist schools.

II.1. Passion plays, mysteries

The bulk of the Minorite repertoire of the Transylvanian Kanta and the Observant Franciscan dramas of the Transylvanian Csiksomlyo largely differ from other Catholic plays. (Their similarity might be easily explained: Csiksomlyo and Kanta were close to each other in Southern Transylvania, and many teachers of both orders were former pupils of the other school.) A large part of the Minorite repertoire consists of moralities, passion plays, mysteries and devotional dramas. The Observant Franciscan repertoire of Csiksomlyo gave a cycle of mysteries between 1721 and the 1780's: this corpus is to be dealt separately, especially from the aspect of didactics. The (Observant) Franciscan passion plays and mysteries were performed in Csiksomlyo during the Easter festivities, most often on Good Friday, but sometimes also on Black Sunday, Palm Sunday (the two Sundays before Easter), Whitsunday and on Corpus Christi Day. The Lord's Passion was their main theme, together with several Biblical scenes from both Testaments linked by typological symbolism. Most of these plays were performed in the school, but sometimes the pupils performed the drama during the Easter process, in parts, in front of festive open air altars or of the stations of the Calvary. Both types of performances, those in the school and the moving ones in the open air, wanted to give a mutual experience of faith for the audience. In other words, it is not the traditional didactic purpose of school dramas, neither the new aim of entertainment, but the last point of a long, medieval tradition of devotion. This attitude explains the main task of the performance, i.e., to sing and cry together with the people who are not an audience any more, but a community of one and the same devotional experience.

II.2. Calvinist theatre

Protestant teachers were the first to recognize drama as a tool of religious propaganda in the middle of the sixteenth century (Jesuits followed a bit later). Calvinist drama (8) remained a means of everyday teaching practice with a strong moral. Calvinist schools kept the purpose of moral and intellectual teaching, but their teachers did not consider themselves as playwrights or authors. They used stage performances in teaching: for lower classes, short drama performances made learning faster and easier; in higher classes, dramas proved to be effective in teaching history, mythology, as well as behaviour. Calvinist dramas show a much closer link to everyday teaching practice than Catholic ones. Their structure largely differs from that of the neo-classicist dramas; the slow, "illogic", epic nature of Calvinist drama is to be explained with their different aspect of drama and stage. For Calvinist authors, stage was considered as a treasury of examples; they wanted to show the way of the world through several examples, illustrations. Due to their concept of life-drama or world-drama, i.e., the Baroque theatrum mundi, Calvinist theatre (unlike Catholic one) was able to stick to moral teaching as the central purpose of school theatre. That is why the rich tradition of Hungarian Calvinist school stage disappeared by the beginning of the nineteenth century and was replaced by European neo-classicism and romanticism.

III. Women as danger

According to the general rule, Catholic school plays had to be cleaned--"expurgated"--of female roles and of love scenes considered as immoral and harmful for pupils. This ban was, however, continuously broken, mainly because the didactic purpose of showing the dangers of love initiated by women proved to be much stronger. As most dangerous worldly vices come from and are connected to women, many dramas show lecherous women living in permanent fornication and thus sending men to Hell. A horror-like (Minorite) love tragedy (9) warns the young to be aware of the dangers of women and love, both in the opening and closing songs and within the drama text, too. The summary warns the audience: "Boys and girls, learn from the bitter example of Leonina [the negative heroine of the drama], who, being made blind by enchanting love, caused the death of his own father, then his fiance, finally she killed herself." The main danger was Leonina's opinion about love: "true love wants to reach its goals, and therefore does not care for God, men, blood or good deeds." Calvinist schools shared the negative view on women, though women's roles and love scenes were not taboos for Calvinism. We know several dramas, both Catholic and Protestant ones, showing love's cruelty. Still, in the second half of the eighteenth, century we find some important though hidden changes in love themes, too. The pious, both Catholic and Calvinist, school authors must have known well the pains of love as well as female attraction or temptation; their heroines declare their deep and invincible love in tearful, poetic monologues, which seems to be just the opposite of the strict anti-love message of the original purpose. As examples we refer to Phaedra's love letter to her stepson (10), or the touching lament of Dido's in Calvinist dramas (11), or Mrs. Potiphar's confession of love to Joseph in a Pauline drama (12); though the authors' definite intention, in all cases quoted, was to give a moral on women's cruelty and thus threat. By the end of the eighteenth, century the tradition of condemning love and women was completely broken, and love developed one of the most pathetic and valuable human sentiments: perhaps that was the longest way from school theatre to the professional stage.


We could sum up our short survey of the second half of the eighteenth century by stating a complete change in the didactic purpose of school theatres. As we have seen, the direct aim of teaching a moral disappeared and gave way to the concept of a theatre partly entertaining, partly teaching the audience about the complex emotions of the modern individual. We have found only two exceptions that kept the original didactic purpose: the devotional repertoire of the Observant Franciscan Csiksomlyo cycle and the moral aspects of Calvinist school dramas. Due to netclassicist taste and values, both traditions disappeared.


Research supported by OTKA (Hungarian National Foundation for Scientific Research) T 031918


(1) Jezsuita iskoladramak [Jesuit School Dramas], ed. Imre VARGA, Budapest, 1992, vol. 1. (See dramas No. 1, 2, 4, 13.)

(2) [Jesuit School Dramas: see note (1)] I. No. 6, 7, 14; II. No. 10, 17.

(3) [Jesuit School Dramas: see note (1)] I. No. 14; I1. No. 7A-B

(4) Minorita iskoladramak [Minorite School Dramas], ed. [Istvan KILIAN, Budapest, 1989. No. 12, 13, 14, 15.

(5) See Gyorgy FEJER's dramas performed in Pest in the Catholic Seminary (1790, 1791) = Palos iskoladmmak, kiralyi tanintezmenyek, katolikas papneveldek szinjatekai [Dramas of Pauline Schools, Royal Institutes, Catholic Seminaries], ed. Imre VARGA, Budapest, 1990. No. 10-11.

(6) [Jesuit School Dramas: see note (1)] II. 590. The sources are Plautus: Mostellaria [The Haunted House] and Moliere: Les fourberies de Scapin [The Cheats of Scapin].

(7) With the language of this paper I chose the English term of net-classicism and net-classicist, i.e., with reference to seventeenth-eighteenth century literature inspired by antiquity.

(8) Lutheran Reformation reached Hungary very early, especially in German speaking towns. Ethnic German and Saxon students from Hungary visited Wittenberg as early as in 1522 and they were the first to "import" Luther's principles. Melanchton had a strong influence and his Confessio fidei Aagustana (1530) was soon accepted in Hungary, but around the mid 16th century, the Confession by Calvin-Bullinger had a stronger influence among the Hungarian speaking population, mainly in the Eastern region and in Transylvania. In the second half of the 16th century, Hungarian Calvinism accepted Calvin's strong and strict orthodoxy (Cp. the Confessions of Debrecen and Egervolgy, 1561-62.), which was even strengthened by the purges of the next century. Calvin was definitely against theatre, that is why the Hungarian Calvinist stronghold, the college of Debrecen, did not have a theatre till 1790. No wonder, for centuries, Debrecen has been called "the Calvinist Rome". This was not general, however, as some other important Calvinist colleges produced dramas quite regularly, e.g. the famous Sarospatak college became the centre of Calvinist school theatre, already in the 17th century--due mainly to the stay of Comenius (Komensky).

(9) Leoninus es Leonina [Leoninus and Leonina], = [Minorite School Dramas: se note (4)] No. 11A

(10) SZATHMARI PAKSI Samuel: Elvadolt artatlansag [The Innocent Accused], Sarospatak, cca 1773 = Protestans iskoladramak [Protestant School Dramas], ed. Imre VARGA, Budapest, 1989, II. No. 33.

(11) Dido kiralynenak Aeneasszal esett tortenete [Dido's Story with Aeneas], Sarospatak, 1784 = [Protestant School Dramas: see note (10/] II. No. 34.

(12) TANCZ Menyhert: Jozsef [Joseph], Satoraljaujhely, 1765 = [Dramas of Pauline Schools ...: see note (5)] No. 4.

Julia Demeter, Eotvos Lorand University, Hungary

Demeter, PhD, lectures on eighteenth century Hungarian theatre and literature.
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Author:Demeter, Julia
Publication:Academic Exchange Quarterly
Geographic Code:4EXHU
Date:Jun 22, 2003
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