What You Don’t Know Will Hurt You

by Leigh Witchel

Nothing is as it seems in Béla Pintér’s “Our Secrets.” The evening was promoted as about the government surveillance of Hungarian folk dance troupes in the 1980’s. There wasn’t much folk dance in it – it was a straight play with some music and song. There was also some humor, of the gallows kind, but the evening was a disturbing, sobering look at what authoritarianism does to societies and individuals.

We heard a low rumbling sound in the opening darkness. It turned out to be someone whistling over a bottle lip, and the scene was a táncház or “dance house,” a night of Hungarian folk dance and music. The revival of Hungarian traditions in the late 1970s was a nationalistic impulse that could be seen both as patriotic, and resistance to a regime that was a puppet of the Soviet Union. The backdrop, though, was a large stylized tape recorder.

The dancing was not the theatricalized kind you might see from the Moiseyev or a national folk troupe. It was homegrown and percussive, requiring coordination rather than facility. Stamp, turn in, turn out, slap thigh, slap heel. The folk songs had a sour, self-aware edge, “Complaining gives your heart relief,” and pushed the narrative. It turned out that the leader of the táncház, Imre (played by Pintér), also ran an underground resistance magazine. We forget how difficult disseminating dissent was when it had to be done via hard copy.

Another of the men, folk song expert István Balla Bán, was talking to a sympathetic psychiatrist about his marital problems. He no longer desired his wife Kata. Gradually we found out he’s not in love with another woman. Or another man.

An animal? The psychiatrist joked. Then it dawned on her, and she asked how old his stepdaughter is. Pretty much all of our secrets are sexual: as more than one character says, “Dick Dictates.” István’s predicament was handled sensitively, but also graphically and disturbingly. Yet it was a metaphor; this wasn’t a play about pedophilia.

Ester Csákányi (Comrade Pánczél) and Zoltán Friedenthal (István Balla Bán) in “Our Secrets.” Photo © Stephanie Berger.

Unfortunately for István, the class buffoon at the táncház was a spy, and his buffoonery hid a spiteful edge. István was trapped into reporting on his friends, and though he attempted not to say anything compromising, he inadvertently did.

The spying became a merry-go-round. A male bureau chief, Comrade Pánczél, propositioned István. When István declined, Pánczél took revenge by describing how the information he provided allowed the police to arrest István’s friends.

Like many narratives, this one wasn’t reliable. István told the psychiatrist he hadn’t acted on his desires. We saw see that he had. Or maybe we didn’t: there were enough dream sequences in the piece that we couldn’t be 100% sure of any truth.

By the end, István was trapped not only by the state, but by his own desires. He drugged a 10 year old boy, Imre’s son (played by an adult woman).  We watched István pull the boy’s pants down and stare at his bare ass. People in the audience started to cover their eyes. It disgusted István as much as the audience and “Our Secrets” came to its sour and painful ending. The full cast reassembled to sing a folk song at the end announcing the end of the tale – as if to simultaneously reassure and taunt the audience that the fourth wall was still there.

“Our Secrets” was low-budget like 1980’s Hungary, where an ancient Xerox machine needed to be hidden in a car to create a dissident newspaper. Or tripe was a special treat. We’re rightly thinking a lot these days about oppression and resistance. The play drew few parallels, although in a scene in the present, a protester shows up in a Pussy Hat, reminding us all that the struggle against authoritarianism is global. But Hungarian totalitarianism smells different than American fascism – ours is arriving with a lot more bread and circuses – and luckily for us, there is no outside invader. We only have ourselves to fight. But the real lesson of “Our Secrets” may be that even when fascism smells different, it often tastes the same.

copyright © 2017 by Leigh Witchel

“Our Secrets” – Béla Pintér and Company
Baryshnikov Arts Center, New York, NY
January 25, 2017

Cover: The cast of “Our Secrets.” Photo © Stephanie Berger.

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