“I believe we have the same views on this point. / Most importantly, we shall have a front theatre on the front. / I will not ruin my talent at home any more, / I shed my arts on the holy altar of my country. / And, since that’s what the battlefield requires most, / I shall get some sets of pike-grey vests. / I am not given any room at home as a rival, / I will be then a primadonna on the battlefield. / The Hungarian country wanted a front theatre, / I will be the singing lark of front theatres, / Zsazsa, the singing lark.”
(Színházi Élet, 1917/40)
Theatre as a form of entertainment has been present in people’s lives since antiquity. Its function has been constantly changing and developing throughout the decades, it has often served as a form of therapy: it has shown events that people could not talk about in any other framework.
The Hungarian front theatre, established in the First World War and operated for around a year and a half, did not seek the company of trench fighters for entertainment purposes only: on the one hand, theatre performances created a community among the officers and the troop, and on the other hand, they improved the mental state of soldiers by recalling the home world on the front.
The front theatre was founded by the National Actors Association, initiated by the Armee Oberkommando, in March 1917, following the concepts of the German military leadership. Their activities were reported by the Budapest Hírlap as well: the organization and direction of the front theatre was undertaken by János Komjáthy, former theatre director of Kosice, who sought to recruit a company of 12-14 – mostly rural – actors. Komjáthy took the lead completely free of charge, but the members, of course, got good money for it, officers’ allowance, which was disbursed by the Ministry of Culture. There was no shortage of applicants wanting to be members of the company, and a few familiar names were also present on the list, like Margit Makay and Gyula Csortos – they were both members of Vígszínház at that time. Their performance on the front is also reflected in an urban legend, cited by Színházi Élet:
“– I have a brilliant idea! – told once Csortos when Makay’s trip [i.e. her front theatre performance] came up again. – When you sing, stop in the middle and tell them to come and listen to the rest at home.
– What would that be for? – Makay asked in surprise.
– So that they would finally come home. It would really be high time.”
Eventually, all members were selected from rural theatres, which was not left unmentioned by papers in the capital city: oh but “there are many big names among the actors and actresses of the Austrian front theatre” – said the preliminary criticism.
The 15-member company, whose work was assisted by technical staff, departed to the Eastern front after a 10-day trial period, they debuted in Lemberg in April 3, 1917 under the name of First Hungarian Camp Theatre. Their journey was completely supported by the Ministry, they made available a separate train for the actors, which also served as a sleeping room in the stations. The costumes and decorations of performances were also transported this way – the latter were designed by Jenő Kéméndy and created in the studio of the Opera House. The exact route of the company was not reported on – it was considered a military secret –, but they did talk about the ovation received on the front. They performed Géza Gárdonyi’s A bor – “a rural story in three acts with singing and dancing” –, Károly Gerő’s Próbaházasság – “a merry drama of the life in the capital with singing and dancing” –, and they also performed a comedy. They made sure that officers and the troop would also have a great time during the performances. On the first tour, they visited most of Galicia; they usually played two or three times a day. Harsh circumstances – the trench theatre performances and bad hygienic conditions – shattered the actors. After their one-month tour, they returned to Budapest, where the company was reorganized – the majority of actresses did not undertake further work.
At the same time with the establishment of the front theatre, some regiments also arranged their own entertainment: the 32nd infantry regiment organized their own cabaret under the leadership of Aladár Ligeti corporal, who was a former member of the Opera House. The members and audience also came from the regiment. Proving the popularity of the genre, the first front cabaret was founded in April 1917, modelled on the front theatre: the 25-member company led by Sándor Gärtner (the ‘Blonde Beard’) visited the Romanian theatre of operations in the first place.
The second tour led to the Southern theatre in May 1917, now officially under the name of First Hungarian Front Theatre. Members of the company – now under the direction of Ferenc Pázmán – were happily and proudly posing for the camera of the photographer in Valjevo. At that time, they headed for Cattaro, but they also planned performances in Shkodër and Sarajevo. They arrived to the latter in July 19; this was the last stop for the tour. The nearly two-month long tour was followed by a two-week break in the capital again, and the company was directed to the Italian theatre.
Papers of the capital did not report on these performances, therefore we only know that they visited the garrison along Isonzo. In autumn, early September, they performed again on the Russian front, then the Serbian theatre, and finally, in December 1917, the Romanian front. This was followed by a long break: the touring company visited the soldiers on the front again only in May 1918 – this time for the last time. The performers were welcomed with ovation by the soldiers everywhere; they played their performances with full house. The theatre’s one and a half years of operation was also symbolically acknowledged in 1923: the director of the front theatre, Ferenc Pázmán – or as he was called in the theatre world, Paci – was honoured with the cross of the German legion of honour.
Frontszínház = Budapesti Hírlap, 1917. március 9.
A magyar frontszínház = Budapesti Hírlap, 1917. március 11.
A frontszínház = Budapesti Hírlap, 1917. március 18.
Makay missziója = Színházi Élet, 1917/14.
Thália a fronton = Színházi Élet, 1917/16.
Útban a frontszínház = Színházi Élet, 1917/26.
Elindult az első frontkabaré = Pesti Hírlap, 1917. április 19.
Színházi Élet, 1923/17.
Színészkatonák, fogolyprimadonnák. Frontszínházak, hadifogolyszínházak az első világháborúban. Created by: Mirella Csiszár and Mariann Sipőcz. [Budapest], 2014.
Written by: Eszter Kaba