Empty-Me Meets a Myth

The Marriage, 1969

Here I am playing the painfully shy groom in Gogol’s The Marriage. National Theater of Szeged, 1969.

Socrates, 1970

In 1970, I performed in Socrates with Twenty-Fifth Theater Company in Budapest. I played the reluctant-to-listen apprentice to the master, Socrates.

My transformation from a player-on-stages into a player-in-a-myth happened in the middle of a catastrophe. As I look back at myself in that moment, I feel some guilt. I see a lack of emotion in my then-self toward the people I saw and the tragic event they were undergoing. To understand how I reached that emotionless state, I must explain how I worked as an actor at that time. I wanted perfection in my stage work, and I was tormented by the realization that I hadn’t come close to that yet. I chose a radical strategy in my effort to reach my goal. I decided to eliminate the self, with all its imperfections, from my work as completely as possible. I felt that I needed to make room for something much greater than I was; I wanted to welcome the heroes of the theatre into my “empty me,” the heroes of the plays of Shakespeare and Arthur Miller and other playwrights. These were the years of the “empty space” of Peter Brook and Jerzy Grotowski. These innovative directors broke with the old traditional theatre; they mounted plays without any props in order to create space for the imagination. My “empty actor” idea stemmed from the same concept. I didn’t rehearse; I created the characters I was playing right in the moment, from nothing. I treasured this inner vacuum. I was trying to use a secretive alchemy: I didn’t feel I was good enough for what I wanted to do, and this method allowed me to be much more than I was. Everyone in the production would be panicking because my characters were not anything they could expect or prepare for. This didn’t make me any friends in the theatre, understandably. My “empty-me” method wasn’t going to lead to a successful career in the theatre. But at that time I considered success to be a disgusting option. I didn’t want to succeed in that society.

Kiskörös, 1974

Recruiting the audience for the show of the wandering theater. 1974, Kiskörös.

My empty-me self was dreaming about a new kind of theatre, where the boundaries between stage artist and stage workers and even between actors and the audience would melt away. And where better to find soil to cultivate this kind of “limitless” theatre than in the virgin lands of small villages where people had no idea about conventional theatre? So I brought together a wandering theatre ensemble. We called it Tanyaszinház (Hamlet Theater). My little troupe and I traveled by horse cart from village to village, playing short farces in marketplaces. Our payment was food, a place to sleep, laughter, and applause. It was indeed “happiness as a subversive act,” as my writer friend Ronald L. Boyer dubbed it. I didn’t mind chopping wood for someone in exchange for a good anecdote for a new farce, or waiting half a day at the local train station for a talk with someone who would share a story with me, or going to the camps up in the hillside of a village to learn songs and dances from gypsies. This is how I worked during the first two summers of my wandering theatre, and then my restless hunger for myths resurfaced. I began to search for mythological, legendary tales in the villages, looking for them in the shamanic traditions of Hungary that were hidden but not lost, for example in children’s rhyming games and in beautiful and powerful healing prayers. During the three years I did the wandering theatre, my troupe and I were on the road in the summertime. In the other seasons of the year, I did theatre work in Szeged, a southern city. That’s where I was in the spring of 1970. On June 3, the play I was performing in was closed because the countryside near the city was being ravaged by a historic flood as the Szamos River overflowed its banks. With free time on my hands, I got a ride to the levy. I took my empty-me self out of the theatre to see the real world.

Nagygéc floods, 1970

Nagygéc during the flood, June 1970. Village houses were built using mud and cow dung, so they were easy prey for the water. As the water receded, houses collapsed into humps of mud. The streets looked like graveyards.

As the driver who gave me a lift dropped me off by the levy in the small village of Nagygec, which I had never heard of before that moment, I stepped into a scene of chaos. It was nighttime, and women were holding torches so the men could pile up sandbags. The men were stomping in the mud in the flickering light. Some slipped and fell into the river as they lost their balance from exhaustion, and their friends had to pull them out. Everything seemed disorganized and hopeless. Several nearby villages were already under water. A few hours earlier nobody had believed that such a thing could happen. I had my initiation in mud too. After I had been there for an hour or two, helping the men with the sandbags, I looked in my dirty summer suit just like them. Then I heard that people were needed on the trucks to help evacuate villagers. I decided to try that. I was empty, unemotional, detached, like I was watching a film from outside at the same time that I was playing a role in it, as if in a dream. Let’s see that film again.

Military trucks patrol the village. They stop at a house, and soldiers with machine guns force the residents onto the trucks. All they can take with them is a tiny bundle. Another side-scene of chaos: one old man has a heart attack. The doctor pumps on his chest while a soldier holds a flashlight over them. When the truck is full, the soldiers drive it to a village 15 miles away. We unload the people in a place that is completely unknown to them.  The soldiers shout “Go, find someone who will let you in!” and then rush back to Nagygec for another load. The truck is so full that I have to stand on the running board, clinging to an open window.

I was in Nagyec for three days as we desperately raced against time to get the villagers to safety. How I got back to Szeged I couldn’t remember. The only thing I could remember was hearing shreds of mythological words or curses. The men would say things like “The Judge of Blood has fucked the four corners of the world.” In Hungarian, the word for “fucking” is almost a synonym for the word for taking revenge, and this type of creative language, sarcastically combining two ideas in a tragic moment, is typical of the Hungarian spirit. As my “empty-I,” emotionless self was absorbing all of this, I suddenly realized that I was hearing words from a myth. When we took short breaks to rest, I asked the men about what they were saying. They told me a story about how many times the Judge of Blood returned in the image of a big dog. He would cross the bridge into the village, strolling under his magic cart that had no horse and no driver. And then came the hero of the story. A bold man of the village approached the cart and slammed a big axe into the shaft. The cart stopped, the shaft started to bleed, and as the mythical episode ended, the big dog ran away from under the cart, yelping. Perhaps because I wasn’t experiencing emotion, I was able to see the bigger picture. I opened up my empty selfto the mythological words. I had the sudden realization that I had entered a mythological context. Even more than that, I had become a participant in the myth during that big flood. However, as I look back, even today I feel regret that I couldn’t give more. I missed an opportunity to give people in great distress my love as I offered them my help. This is an emotion that today I value even more than I value the myth that gave me the compass for my life.