A prolific Hungarian poet, fiction-writer, essayist and playwright, Csaba Lászlóffy (1938–2015), member of the Hungarian ethnic minority in Romania, lived part of his life under the dictator, Nicolae Ceauşescu, in a world that strongly resembled that pictured in George Orwell’s 1984.
Hungarians living inside the Romanian borders had to endure in the 1960s, 70s, and especially in the 80s various forms of cultural genocide in addition to the atrocities of the police state visited upon and shared by all the other inhabitants of the country. In his efforts to find ways of expressing unspeakable truths, Lászlóffy constantly experimented with different genres and forms, including besides dozens of plays, pseudo-historical short stories, historical fantasy-novels, diary-writing, pseudo-memoirs, parables and essays. In The Heretic (1970), an absurdist dystopia, he daringly incorporates brutal scenes of police torture by making use of material from previously published sources, such as Jean-Paul Sartre, Morts sans sépulture and the Czech Communist martyr Julius Fučik, A Report from under the Gallows, thus he could plausibly claim that he merely borrowed the scenes from historical or fictional sources, rather than transcribing contemporary Romanian events.(1)
Lászlóffy employs satire in The Heretic to focus deeply on the logic underlying the Secret Police’s omnipotence through a reductio ad absurdum dramatic situation where that very logic, which forms the basis of all Secret Police action, is taken to its utter limit. Set in the far future when there are no more victims – because of no more resistance to the Secret Police – the play asks, what function could such police now have? What is their raison d’être? Their skills as torturers are no longer needed, the officers’ manhood is painfully called into question, they lack – but will never know – what Harold Pinter calls “the joy of having absolute power”.(2) Lászlóffy’s Secret Police thus become not only bureaucrats trying to keep their positions, prisons and budgets, but also professionals who aspire to emulate their heroes: those torturers who through their hard work in the past helped bring about “today’s peace and organised structure”. They suffocate in their own perversity while the police interrogation room becomes a space where despotism turns into its own parody.
As one of us (Morse) has written elsewhere:
Lászlóffy said in The Heretic precisely what that state would not permit its artists to say, but which nevertheless had to be said: that the state was mad to devote all Romanian resources to the essentially preposterous pursuit of complete conformity and uniformity. He also satirised the burgeoning bureaucracy, and, more daringly still, ridiculed the motives and operations of the secret police and the police state itself through presenting the dystopia … which ultimately must prove self-defeating.(3)
Ironically, within a few years the world depicted in the play became close to Romanian reality as, for instance, the Secret Police accumulated files on all citizens to the extent that The New York Times reports that one “archive of Secret Police documents in Bucharest [contains] 1.8 million files [occupying] about 10 miles of shelf space”(4) (not counting the piles of documents annihilated by the old authorities just before the regime change).
The Heretic, Csaba Lászlóffy’s fantasy of the ideal police state, has yet to be performed in his native country or in Hungarian. Instead, the play premiered in an earlier version of this translation in the United States at the International Conference on the Fantastic in the Arts, Fort Lauderdale, 1993, directed by David Nixon.
1 Because of The Heretic’s being set in the future, these vivid, borrowed torture scenes, when viewed with reference to the time of production, occur in the audience’s present time.
2 Harold Pinter, “A Play and Its Politics: a Conversation between Harold Pinter and Nicholas Hern”. One for the Road. London: Methuen, 1985, 17.
3 Donald E. Morse, “The Ditches of Hell: Csaba Lászlóffy’s The Heretic or a Plague of Slugs”. Theatre Journal 43 (1991), 218.
4 Craig S. Smith, “Eastern Europe Still Struggles to Purge Its Security Services”. The New York Times, 12 December 2006, A8.