King Stephen and the European-Hungarian Political Conflict: A Performance Visit

Thierry L. Jaquemet

In times when numerous governments around the globe rule under some type of emergency law, the political environment transforms at an incredible speed. While most of the governmental orders aim to prevent the uncontrolled spread of the Corona virus, a few governments use the current political dynamics to implement extensive legal changes that would face long-lasting discussions in normal times. In the case of Hungary, Prime Minister Viktor Orbán’s government submitted a sketch that foresees critical definitions of the term “family” to be inserted into the country’s constitution on November 10, 2020. It demanded that the mother shall explicitly be a woman and the father a man1 .

Since that definition excludes homosexual couples from legally forming a family, the sketch internationally triggered heavy reactions, not only from the LGBTQA+ community. For me, however, the announcement was not such a big surprise, because an earlier performance visit in Hungary had taught me how highly conservative Hungarians value the traditional form of family.

On September 9, 2018, I attended a performance of the rock opera István, a király (“Stephen, the King”) at a national theatre in west-Hungary2 . The plot tells the story in a stylized way of how the first Hungarian king came to power in the 10th century. Right before his death, the ruling prince Géza, who had converted to the Christian faith, declares his son Stephen as his heir based on a new rule. However, Géza’s brother and tribal elder Koppány claims the throne for himself, referring to the tribe’s old regulation. After negotiations fail, a violent fight breaks out between Koppány and his pagan supporters on the one hand and Stephen with his Christian allies on the other. Stephen triumphs. In order to create an example and to complete his father’s Christianization work, he orders that all his enemies shall be quartered.

Eventually, Stephen is crowned first King of Hungary with the blessing of Pope Silvester II. The coronation celebrates symbolically the superiority of Christianity over paganism and simultaneously the supremacy of the family over the tribe as the foundation of the Hungarian nation.

Religion, the right form of family, the nation, shutting others out—one could readily use these terms to summarize the rock opera’s plot. In fact, the back-then Member of the European Parliament Frank Engel used them to sum up Viktor Orbán’s politics in the European Parliament three days after my performance visit3 . Engel heavily criticized the Prime Minister’s behavior and encouraged the European Union to sanction Hungary for endangering the European Union’s fundamental values, which subsequently happened4 . The MEP probably was not conscious of the fact that his four terms were and are the reason for the “trench between Brussels and the Hungarian people,” as Orbán put it5 . For Orbán himself takes those four themes internally for Hungary’s non-negotiable core values.

The Prime Minister tries to legitimate this nationalistic approach with a look back on his country’s history. After occupations by Ottomans, Hapsburgs, and communists over the course of the last centuries, Hungary is in his eyes finally sovereign and self-determined today. By isolating the country, he seeks to protect the state from being patronized by yet another foreign power.

In his view, the EU is such a great power, and any international intervention reinforces his argument. Thus, every larger disagreement between the Union and Hungary’s government gains Orbán domestic support to continue his in fact illiberal politics. Therefore, this conflict can only be solved if the EU manages to convince the Hungarian voters that the Union actually strengthens democratic processes and liberalism.

Now back to the performance of István, a király. After the last scene, the Holy Crown of Hungary was projected on a large screen. The orchestra started playing the national anthem. The public reverently stood up. Despite her sore throat, my seat neighbor sang as loudly as she could. A woman standing diagonally in front of me dried off a tear from her cheek. The show had obviously touched their souls.

Then, the artists repeated the performance’s last number. The public stayed upright and clapped to the beat of the music. Enthusiastic vastaps (“iron clapping,” a form of rhythmical clapping common in Hungary to express special appreciation) thundered during the final bow and did not fall silent before the iron fire curtain had closed abruptly.

Hopefully, the fire curtains will remain the only iron curtains in and around Hungary.


1. Attila Rovó, “Beleteszik az Alaptörvénybe a keresztény nevelést, és azt, hogy az apa férfi, az anya nő,” newsportal, November 10, 2020. (accessed December 12, 2020) back to text

2. István, a király (music: Levente Szörényi, lyrics: János Bródy, direction: Péter Forgács, Gergely Csanád Kováts), September 9, 2018, Győr National Theatre. back to text

3. Frank Engel, speech in the European Parliament, September 11, 2018. (accessed December 12, 2020) back to text

4. EU report A8-0250/2018, July 4, 2018. (accessed December 12, 2020) back to text

5. Viktor Orbán, speech in the European Parliament, September 11, 2018. (accessed December 12, 2020) back to text