Jozsef Katona of Kecskemet – A Tragedy Followed By Triumph (For The Love of Hungary Part 46)

Visiting a new place in provincial Hungary always seems to bring me into contact with historical personages that I knew nothing about prior to my arrival. Names such as Erkel, Jokai, Kodaly, Balissi and Dobo have become familiar to me because I have visited a city or village where their exploits loom large. Many of these men have statues in Budapest and a prominent place in the national psyche, but their legacies are most alive at the places where they came of age. These are usually hometowns or places that played host to their greatest achievements. A provincial city needs it heroes much more than a nation’s capital. Local heroes offer hope, a sense of pride and a shared connection to the local citizenry. Smaller cities, towns and villages are always proud to extol the virtues of one of their own. Homegrown talent that made a name for themselves and at the same time brought a bit of fame to their hometown.

A Call For Justice - Jozsef Katona

A Call For Justice – Jozsef Katona (Credit: Miklos Barabas)

The Famously Anonymous – Provincial Hungarian Heroes
Anytime someone says I am an expert on Hungary a sense of irritation sweeps over me. Knowing the ins, outs and nuances of an entire country is an impossible learning curve. My attempts to master Hungary always falter when I visit a new city or town. That is when I am suddenly standing face to face with a famous historical personage who is anonymous to me. This happens to be someone famous who is immortalized in sculpture or statuary, whose name is etched on a plinth or plaque. These personages are almost always “local” men. I use “local” with quotation marks because many of those deified in provincial cities and towns happen to be national heroes. The proverbial local boy who was better than good, they were great. Those whose deeds far exceeded the modest cities and towns they sprang from. This was the case in Kecskemet, where I was confronted with the life, death and legacy of Jozsef Katona. Katona’s legacy makes an unforgettable appearance in the city center.

It was difficult not to notice the references in Kecskemet to Katona. A few hundred meters from the railway station was the Jozsef Katona Museum which stands in Jozsef Katona Park. The city’s lavishly ornate neo-Baroque theater is named after Katona. The ultimate and heartbreakingly tragic tribute to the man comes with a memorial stone located a stone’s throw from the Kecskemet City Hall. A flower bed located in front of the building holds a split block of stone. The monument’s sad poignancy is expressed in the fact that it records the exact spot where Katona succumbed to a massive heart attack at the age of 39. The stone is meant to symbolize Katona’s broken heart. During his lifetime, Katona was not given proper appreciation for Bank Ban. A play that still dominates Hungarian drama today.

Strokes of Genius - Manuscript Cover for Bank Ban

Strokes of Genius – Manuscript Cover for Bank Ban

For King Or Country – A Contentious Relationship
Jozsef Katona’s life did not make him an obvious candidate for great renown. He was born in 1791 in Kecskemet, the son of a weaver who lived modestly. During his youth, Katona was often ill, but was blessed with a brilliant intellect. He excelled in his studies at a local Roman Catholic school. At the age of eleven his parents took him to study in Pest. He lasted only a year before returning home mainly due to illness. Katona would regain his academic equilibrium during the ensuing years, eventually matriculating to school in Szeged before returning to Pest. He excelled in philosophy and judicial studies leading him towards a career as an attorney. This made him little different from other upwardly mobile Hungarian men who used their intelligence to advance their position in life. What made Katona different was his passion for drama. He had an artistic side that expressed itself with dramatic intent.

While studying and later practicing law, Katona became increasingly involved in Pest’s theatrical scene. He acted in many plays and during a five-year period wrote or reconfigured twenty-two different dramas. During this time Katona submitted his original work, Bank Ban, in a competition held by the Transylvanian Museum in Kolozsvar (present day Cluj, Romania) for a play to be performed at the opening of a National Theater in the city. The play was rooted in medieval Hungarian history. The central character, Bank, is acting on behalf of King Andrew II (1205-1235) while the king is away fighting in a foreign campaign. Unfortunately, Bank gets himself involved in a nefarious plot to murder the king’s German born wife, Queen Gertrude. He first tries to stop the rebellious plot, but then ends up killing the queen. Bank is forced to wrestle with the question of personal and professional loyalties. The moral quandary he finds himself in regarding his duties is fascinating.

The play touched on contemporary issues concerning the Hungarian’s contentious relationship with their foreign overlords, the Austrian Habsburgs. This would have made the play a lightning rod for controversy if it had been selected as one of the top entries. Instead the committee judging the play did not mention it at all. This may have been because it drew uneasy parallels between past and present attitudes to foreign rulers. Katona revised the play and published it four years later to no avail. It was only several years after his death that it finally received acclaim. Bank Ban soared in popularity to the point that on the first day of the Hungarian Revolution on March 15, 1848 the play was performed at the National Theater. It was later made into an opera by the composer Ferenc Erkel. That rendition of Bank Ban has proved wildly popular with Hungarians ever since. The play is a touchstone of Hungarian drama. As for Katona, he died in 1830 long before his play became famous.

Remember Me When I'm Gone - Jozsef Katona statue in Kecskemet

Remember Me When I’m Gone – Jozsef Katona statue in Kecskemet (Credit: Mister No)

A Dramatic Legacy – Speaking Across The Ages
The legacy of Jozsef Katona is paradoxical. He was a successful attorney whose talent as a dramatist was not discovered until many years after his death. While Katona toiled in theatrical obscurity, he was able to create one of the great Hungarian dramas of all time. Katona may never have achieved the fame and notoriety he deserved, but Bank Ban’s meaning and message has lasted well beyond his life. All any artist can ask for is that their work speaks across the ages to universal experiences that everyone has in common. Allowing each observer to see something of themselves in the work. They might then come to understand the world in which they live much better. Bank Ban has managed to do this for each new generation of Hungarians. It might be said that Jozsef Katona knew his people better than they knew themselves. It is also true that they hardly knew him at all.