Sunday, August 10, 2014

István, a király: Hungary's answer to "Jesus Christ, Superstar"

Istvány: eleventh century ruler, 80's hairdo

The Hungarian rock opera István, a király was created in 1983, during the waning years of the Communist regime. The musical tells the story of the first king of Hungary, St. Stephen (Szent István in Hungarian). The best way to describe the rock opera is to say that it is like a Hungarian Jesus Christ, Superstar, complete with the juxtaposition of historical subject matter with 70's clothing and hairstyles (Hungary was a little behind when it came to fashion).

You can watch the entirety of the original 1984 movie version on Youtube, though the English subtitles are pretty bad. For a better idea of what is going on, the play takes place around the end of the first millennium. For centuries, Hungarian warriors raided European countries as far away as Spain, but recently the introduction of heavy cavalry to the European battlefield has ended the age of the Hungarian mounted archer.

For that reason, Géza, the ruler of Hungary, has begun reforms to invite Christianity into Hungary so that the Hungarians can join the rest of Europe as a modern nation. Géza himself never converts to Christianity, and so on his death there is a debate over who should rule. Some believe that, according to the rules of European succession, the rightful ruler is István, Géza's son and chosen heir. Others cling to the traditional Hungarian rule that the deceased leader's oldest male relative should rule, which puts István's uncle Koppány in charge. This sets the stage for the conflict of the musical: István represents Christianity and Hungary's future, while Koppány represents paganism and Hungary's past.

Koppány: So manly he can even wear pigtails

István, a király is interesting because it does not take either side. Both leaders are shown to be conflicted, trying to do what's best for Hungary. Both have valid points: for István, becoming a Christian nation is the only way that Hungary will be accepted into Europe as an equal. For Koppány, giving up traditional pagan beliefs means giving up part of what makes them Hungarian. The musical depicts both sides as having strengths: Christians are shown as being wise and just, while pagans are awesome and badass.

The music is pretty generic for the time, though its tone shifts at times, so it can be anywhere from anthemic to goofy. The costumes vary too, from pseudo-medieval to modern. My other complaint about the music is that a lot of the lyrics are very repetitive. Some of the songs mostly simply repeat the same stanza over and over until the end.

Still, it's worth watching both as an account of an interesting shift in Hungarian history, and as a historical artifact of its own, as Hungary was undergoing another shift at the time the rock opera was produced. In the 80's, Communism was on the way out, so a lot of the doubt, confusion, and hope that the characters in the musical feel was no doubt familiar to the audience.

And if you don't have time to check out the whole film, watch Koppány's final song,  Elkésett békevágy (The Desire for Peace Has Passed), which sums up the conflict well. It begins with Koppány's daughter Réka recounting to him a prophetic dream she had where he was defeated and quartered. Koppány says that it is too late to turn back. István appears and, to preserve the peace, offers Koppány the throne if he converts to the church of Rome. Koppány replies that he refuses to accept the rule of foreign priests, making the war, and his own defeat, inevitable.

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