“None of is us perfect, and each one of us has their own secrets, no doubt. None of is is flawless…but we are sane fanatics of reality living in a treadmill of good compromises.” That is what Comrade Pánczél tells István Balla Bán to get him to spy on his best friend; to get him to give the government incriminating evidence on his friend in exchange for keeping his own dark secret private. None of us is perfect.
This scene comes from a play I saw last night: Our Secrets, by Hungarian actor, playwright, and director Béla Pintér. It’s about government surveillance and control in Communist Hungary, a topic which seemed particularly timely as our own country – which has been no stranger to mass surveillance efforts – prepares to transfer power to a strongly nationalist leader.
There are shows through the weekend at the Emerson/Paramount Center in Boston’s Theater district. I highly recommend you get tickets and go. Spoilers below.
The story focuses on a group of Hungarian folk-music performers. As the play synopsis describes, “Communist Hungary’s dictatorship labeled the cultural acts and their corresponding community events throughout the country as either ‘banned,’ ‘tolerated,’ or ‘supported.’ The folk music scene was labeled ‘supported’ by the authoritarian government, therefore becoming a supposedly safe space for anti-Communist organizers to operate clandestinely, with little government oversight or interference to disrupt communications.”
The staging of the show fully incorporates the role of music in the era, with a giant reel-to-reel playing in the background and the musicians/cast members playing on the sides of the stage.
The story explores the individual tragedies of its characters and “exposes the hypocrisy and violence of the Communist regime, which infiltrated every corner of society to stamp out any whiff of dissent and by any means necessary.”
István Balla Bán and his friend Imre Tatár are both great folk performers. And while Tatár’s girlfriend is zealously pro-Communist, he secretly works as the editor for the underground, ant-Communist magazine, The Iron Curtain. Balla Bán is a pedophile and when the government finds out they offer him a deal: inform on your friend or go to jail. None of us is perfect.
The whole show is fantastic, but perhaps the most startling moment – though undertoned in it’s drama – is when the government turns Balla Bán. They bring him in and Comrade Pánczél asks him to spy. Balla Bán refuses. Comrade Pánczél excuses himself for a moment.
Then out of nowhere another folk-dancer friend comes in. It’s disorienting at first – what is that person doing here? The friend reveals that he’s been working with the government the whole time; that he placed bugs in people’s apartments and therefore recorded Balla Bán confiding in his therapist. The government knows everything because they already have informers.
It reminded me of that moment in 1984 when heroes Winston Smith and Julia seem like they’re going to escape control of the Thought Police, only to discover that the shop keeper who was helping them was actually a Thought Police agent. The whole world gets turned upside down.
And this, perhaps, is the most insidious thing about this kind of government surveillance; about a regime’s domineering demand for control. It’s not just that the possibility of dissent carries grave punishment. It’s that anyone may be turned against you; even your closest friends.
In part, it is this ability to isolate which gives a regime it’s power: if you can’t trust your neighbors; if you have no one in whom to confide, if at any moment your very thoughts could be used against you – organized resistance becomes impossible.
Yet I can’t help but think of the saying: they tried to bury us; they didn’t know we were seeds.