The Love of the Stage

I love performing on stage. Not just the moment of performance, but everything surrounding it: the rehearsals, the working out of details, the practice at home, the dress rehearsal, the backstage, the different stages of waiting on the day of the performance itself, the performance itself. I love even those times when I think I don’t want to do it, when I can’t wait for it to be over, because that’s just one of the many moods along the way. I love the tension of performance, the relaxation too, the things that come out in the moment. This week I had the great joy of playing cello in the performance of Varga’s drama club (the Varga Diákszínpad) in the gala Ádámok és Évák show, which took place at Szolnok’s big theatre house, the Szigligeti Színház, and featured groups from many schools. This year’s theme was the poet Sándor Petőfi; the performances drew on his poetry and themes. Ours centered around the theme of love. The other musician was the Varga student Brigitta Szabados, who played with me in the Shakespeare festival too.

It was the drama teacher, my colleague Zsuzsanna Kovácsné Boross, who invited me to be part of this. I had seen the Ádámok és Évák performances several times before and was excited to be in one. This meant many rehearsals close to the last minute (since they had put so much into the Shakespeare festival and now had to switch gears rather quickly). Brigi and I figured out the music between us; instead of playing as a duo, as we did in the Shakespeare performance, we traded back and forth. My parts were tiny—a few seconds at a time—but like the Dude’s rug in The Big Lebowski, they helped tie everything together.

Rehearsals and rehearsals: at the Verseghy Library, in the Drama room at Varga, and then at the Szigligeti Theatre, where the performance was to be. The piece, which told a story of the thrills, bitter disappointments, and ultimate promise of love, wove poetry, movement, and ingenious touches together. Streamers, roses, dances, punctuation of words and feet.

The day came. The final dress rehearsal. Then the waiting backstage, the actors getting ready, putting their makeup on. Announcements coming through the speakers, telling this group, then that group, to get ready. Then our turn came to get ready, then to go down near the stage. Another long wait. Then, at last, the stage. The rows and rows of faces in the audience, down below and up in the balcony.

The whole thing swam by, but it looked lovely out of the corner of my eye. I hit what I thought was a sour note toward the end (not out of tune, but slightly dry and squeaky), and felt bad about it, but it seems no one noticed, and in a recording I later heard, that note actually sounds fittingly fragile. It’s in the background, behind the two lovers who are coming together.

There will always be mistakes in performances—but, while no one wants to mess up, the tiny slips here and there can even give something to the show, if the performer stays focused and goes beyond them. The show was beautiful. Afterwards a student told me that he appreciated how I kept on going despite the mistakes. I thought he was referring to my mistakes, but no, he meant his own—and I hadn’t even noticed them.

After all the performances, there was an intermission, and then we all reassembled to hear the jury’s decisions. István Sasvári (in the red shirt, above and upper left corner below) won the award for male lead, and Varga Milla (who played opposite him) won a special prize. Other performances and schools won prizes as well. The prize for best overall performance was carried off by the Tiszaparti Roman Catholic school—but even at the level of awards, the Varga group held its own. Never mind that that’s just one level.

For a little while, I was still worrying: had I let them down with that sour note? But no, they hadn’t even noticed it; what’s more, it was accompaniment, and brief accompaniment at that. And they were so happy to have the cello and flute in their performance and to have pulled this off so well, with so much spirit and grace.

Today the Drama Club had a farewell celebration for its graduating seniors: gifts, refreshments, games, and a wonderful tradition of leaving handprints on the wall. I will leave off with that. We will be receiving a high-quality video of the performance; if it’s something that I can share here, I will add an update later.

Photo credits: The top photo was originally posted by Ferenc Szalay, the mayor of Szolnok. The other two I took.

The Spring 2023 Issue of Folyosó

Folyosó came out on Monday—the third anniversary issue—but I delayed the announcement for a day, because I was trying to resolve an SSL certificate problem. First the host company said they had fixed it and I should give it 24-72 hours to resolve. After 24 hours, I contacted them again; apparently it hadn’t been fixed yet, because they fixed it immediately.

Then, after announcing it and all, I noticed a boldface error on the main page but couldn’t correct it all day, since I didn’t have the login information with me and couldn’t retrieve it remotely. I fixed it upon returning home, and all was well.

Yes, the journal has been in existence for three years! And while it takes a lot of work at many stages (recruiting, selecting, editing, formatting the pieces; finding the cover art; setting up each issue; planning and holding international contests; sending out annoucements; and more), I know it is worthwhile, not only for the students, but for the sake of literature itself. There are treasures in here—with imperfections, surprises, boldnesses. When editing the pieces, I try to fix errors but do not interfere much with the style, since I want this to remain the students’ work. Considering, also, that they are writing not in their native language, but in English, I welcome the idiosyncrasies, the expressions that a native speaker might not say but that flash with energy. “Heeeeey! Can you hear me, you toy-freak pianist?” is one of my favorite exclamations in this issue (from Lilla Kassai’s story “The Missing Piece“). When has anyone ever called anyone a “toy-freak pianist”? Let this be the first.

I was delighted both last fall and this spring, when two students whom I have never taught individually submitted poems. Milán Galics’s “Season of Death” appeared in the fall issue, and Zalán Nagykovácsi’s “Silent Reflection” in this one. I could say a lot about what I like in each poem, but I’ll leave this to the reader to discover. Then again, I can’t resist. Here’s the penultimate stanza of “Silent Reflection”:

My thoughts, like ripples in a pond,
Are soft and gentle, and then they’re gone.
As I am lost in this moment of peace,
A short time that will never cease.

As I pointed out to my students yesterday, the stanza ends with a paradox, “A short time that will never cease”—which resembles the ripples, instantaneous but spreading outward, vanishing but somehow never going away. The paradox becomes part of the meaning of the whole poem. But there is much more! Read the whole thing.

Many of the pieces speak to students’ dilemmas and preoccupations: Lili Forgács’s story “What Is Always Coming, but Never Arrives” depicts a contestant in a game show who is bewildered by a particular question that seems to have more than one correct answer. How many times has something similar happened to students, to anyone? We see more than one correct answer but are expected to satisfy someone’s premise that there is only one.

I must run, so that is all.

Forms of Attention

Attention is so vast and varied, its forms may seem to have nothing in common. It can involve alertness or a lack of it, an inward focus, or a focus on something beyond the self. The object of attention may be single or multiple, or it may not be an object at all. That is, you can pay attention without knowing exactly what it is you are paying attention to. It could be something other than what you think. Attention can take you somewhere you didn’t expect to go.

If I had to explain the joy of going to hear Platon Karataev—the duo or the full band—in different settings, different cities, I would say that most of it can’t be explained; it goes far beyond what I can put words or ideas to. But it’s about as far from “groupiness” as you can get. It has to do with the music, the lyrics, the musicians, the attention that fills all the layers of their concerts. The attention within the songs, the attention they give each other, in the moment, the audience’s attention, their attention to the audience. It isn’t all about attention—there’s much more to it—but the attention at any of their concerts becomes part of my life. What I bring as an audience member, what each audience member brings, also takes part in the event and follows us, slightly or greatly changed, out the door.

Yesterday I went to the beautiful old city of Győr—for the first time—to hear the Platon Karataev duo play at the Protestant (Református) church, as part of the Öt Templom Fesztivál (Five Churches Festival), a week of concerts and other events at five of their religious sites: the Evangelical Old Church, the Catholic Church, the Protestant Church, the Synagogue, and the Greek Catholic Church. I had decided to go only if I could get enough done beforehand: I am playing cello in a big citywide student theatre performance this week at the Szigligeti Szinház, and working on a new song, so I needed to practice; also, I needed to make enough headway with Folyosó that the spring issue could come out on Monday (tomorrow). I accomplished both of these and set out by train.

The concert was special: an absolutely hushed audience, not even any clapping except at the beginning and end. Beloved songs, new details that I heard in them, a new song too, warm, large lights that poured out slowly changing color, and an attention that began before the concert, grew and grew during it, and lingered long after its ending.

I took no pictures during the concert, but the picture above is of the keyhole, while I was still outside and they were doing a soundcheck. I was listening through the door for a minute or two and glimpsing the red light through the crack.

Getting there was simple enough: a train to the Budapest Keleti station, then a train to Győr from the same station. The return took a few more steps: a train to the Kelenföld station, a metro to Kálvin tér, a transfer to another metro line (amazingly, the M3 is now in full operation, after five years of repairs), a metro to the Nyugati station, and a slow train back to Szolnok. But it all worked out without a hitch, and I walked home from the Szolnok station and even stayed up a little longer afterward, past 2 a.m.

On the train to Győr, I was rereading Milan Kundera’s The Unbearable Lightness of Being, and came to the sentence (which repeats with variations in the novel), “They felt they were standing on a snow-covered plain, shivering with cold.” The Platon Karataev song “Atoms” (the title song of their second album) quotes it almost directly; I started hearing the song in the novel and vice versa. I thought about the genius of the translator and editor who did not make the mistake of deeming “shivering with cold” redundant and reducing it to just plain “shivering.” If it had been just “shivering,” would “Atoms” have come into existence? Or if it had, would it be anything like the song we know?

We can get caught up in foolishness: dogmatic, mechanical ideas about anything at all, including editing, including reduction. There’s a misconception that writing should be reduced, always, to the minimum words needed; if words seem to repeat each other’s meaning, then all but one should go, according to rigid dictates. But this is wrong; “shivering with cold” is not a redundancy, even after the mention of the snow-covered plain. It adds to the layers of cold; it also suggests that you could be shivering with something else. Also, it’s beautiful. When I listen to it, I know it must stay. It is the song that opened up this sentence to me.

Aristophanes plays with necessary redundancies (which are not redundancies, in fact) in Frogs: in the contest between Euripides and Aeschylus, Euripides chides Aeschylus for his repetitions, but both Aeschylus and Dionysos suggest that he has missed the point. (While the whole exchange is playful, I sense Aristophanes siding with Aeschylus just a little here.) Here is the passage (in the translation of B.B. Rogers):

DIO. Give him another: (to Eur.) you, look out for faults.

AESCH. Be thou my saviour and mine aid to-day, For here I come, and
hither I return

EUR. The same thing twice says clever Aeschylus.

DIO. How twice?

EUR. Why, just consider: I’ll explain. “I come,” says he; and “I
return,” says he: It’s the same thing, to “come” and to “return.”

DIO. Aye, just as if you said, “Good fellow, lend me
A kneading trough: likewise, a trough to knead in.”

AESCH. It is not so, you everlasting talker,
They’re not the same, the words are right enough.

DIO. How so? inform me how you use the words.

AESCH. A man, not banished from his home, may “come”
To any land, with no especial chance.
A home-bound exile both “returns” and “comes.”

DIO. O good, by Apollo! What do you say, Euripides, to that?

EUR. I say Orestes never did “return.” He came in secret: nobody
recalled him.

DIO. O good, by Hermes! (Aside.) I’ve not the least suspicion what he

EUR. Repeat another line.

DIO. Ay, Aeschylus, Repeat one instantly: you, mark what’s wrong.

AESCH. Now on this funeral mound I call my father To hear, to

EUR. There he is again. To “hear,” to “hearken”; the same thing,

DIO. Aye, but he’s speaking to the dead, you knave,
Who cannot hear us though we call them thrice.

AESCH. And how do you make your prologues?

EUR. You shall hear; And if you find one single thing said twice,
Or any useless padding, spit upon me.

“Useless padding” does exist and should be avoided; often, when you strip down a sentence, you make it much stronger and fresher than before. But not always. One must dare the distinctions. Aristophanes’ Euripides seems a bit obtuse in this regard.

This brings up the question of repetition: even very close echoes of a word or phrase can bring something new. So can a supposedly repeated experience, like a concert. You can feel the samenesses and differences mixing. Last night I thought I heard something new at the end of “Lassú madár,” which is sometimes my favorite of all the Platon Karataev songs. It was nothing added or taken away: just (in my ears) a different articulation just before the end, a minuscule pause before the final “gyorsabb az égboltnál.” A tiny detail in the midst of the larger magic.

And this was even with an imperfect sound system; something was crackling here and there in the wires, but this little crackle became beautiful, wrapped up in the whole.

Part of The Unbearable Lightness of Being has to do with misunderstood words, or words that people understand in different, sometimes contradictory ways. “Attention” could be one of these words. People’s different forms of attention can sometimes be confused with lack of attention. When people say, “You’re not listening!” or “You’re not paying attention!” they often mean, “You’re not paying attention in the way that I expect you to pay attention.” One of the most moving aspects of a Platon Karataev duo concert is the way Sebő and Gergő pay such close attention to each other, even while differing (somewhat) in their forms of attention. This could be said about many musicians who play well together, but here it takes a form and depth not quite like anything else.

I leave off with some pictures from the day. The first one was taken from the train window; if you zoom in, you can see a bird in the bare tree. The second was shortly after my arrival in Győr; the third, during my wandering around the old part of the city; the fourth and fifth, as I headed over to the concert (you can see the Platon Karataev duo mentioned on the billboard, and the synagogue in the background); the sixth, after the concert, on the way back to the train station, and the seventh, in Budapest, just before I boarded the train to Szolnok. Now back to the cello and Folyosó.

Update: Here are some photos of the concert, taken by someone other than me.

“North Maine Woods” (a few thoughts in fewer words)

Cz.K. Sebő’s new capsule boy song, “North Maine Woods,” came out just a few hours ago. (capsule boy is his electronic project.) This dreamy, veiled piece is (in part) a love song to the place in Maine where he worked one summer, years ago, and where he has never returned. The immediate feeling is recognizable: a place that you love and can never return to, because even if you do go back there one day, it will be different and so will you. A loss that can’t be taken away. But also a sense of being there forever, always carrying it. Both of these at the same time.

But then what the song does with this is so gentle and subtle that even the idea seems like a passageway into something else. I love the part in the middle where the keyboards sound like trees on fire. And the part where everything pares down, then slowly builds up, rises up again. The sound has many different textures wrapping and unwrapping slowly. Individual notes take me by surprise. It evokes some sort of memory or else creates it from scratch, sending me on a search.

It evokes other music too—I can’t figure out what. Maybe Brendan Perry’s 1999 solo album Eye of the Hunter, for instance, the song “Death Will Be My Bride.” Perry’s sound is different, though: more upfront and pristine. I don’t think I’ll figure out what this reminds me of, since it’s an indirect likeness. For that matter, it might be reminding me of itself, since I have heard it a couple times at concerts. This can happen with a song I love: it seems to bring up another song, but that other song is like the woods in Maine, lost but present.

I don’t know whether this or “Funeral Circular” is my favorite capsule boy song so far. Let them both be, in different ways.

Congratulations to Cz.K. Sebő for this song and to Fruzsina Balogh for the cover art.


My favorite school tradition in Hungary is the serenade. This is where graduating seniors sing to their teachers (and, on one occasion, vice versa). In the “old days” (up to about a decade ago, from what I hear), the students used to go to the teachers’ houses and sing outside. The teachers would then invite them in and offer them a beverage (tea, lemonade, soda, sometimes beer or pálinka).* That practice was abandoned, but the school serenades and end-of-year banquet have taken their place. First of all, students serenade individual teachers just before their last class with them. This is happening in the photo above (I was the serenaded teacher). Sometimes the serenades are more formal and practiced, sometimes more spontaneous.

Then, in the midst of the individual serendades, there is also a big serenade one evening (we held it on Tuesday). There, all the seniors sing, class by class, for all the teachers, and the teachers (holding candles) sing a few songs in return.

At the end of the serenade week (that is, today), we hold the graduation ceremony. This year, the schoolwide and citywide ceremonies are on the same day, one after another. The schoolwide ceremony is much like a graduation in the U.S., except that parents typically aren’t present, and before the ceremony begins, the seniors and their homeroom teachers walk hand in hand through the school, from classroom to classroom, singing (and the classrooms are decorated with flowers). The citywide ceremony is a grand procession through the streets, with songs and flowers, and a final release of balloons. I will be in the procession for the first time, since I am the “pótosztályfőnök” (approximately: substitute homeroom teacher) for one of the classes. In past years, I was on the sidelines along with large crowds of parents, teachers, and students.

The seniors don’t have classes after this week; their exams begin. The underclassmen continue with their classes through mid-June, and exams continue until the end of June. When the seniors finish their last exam, another ceremony takes place, followed by a banquet (an informal gathering of students and teachers, hosted by the students, at a local restaurant). Our school year officially ends on July 3.

I have to end here, since the festivities will shortly begin!

*Alcohol is never provided at school events involving students. However, at the end-of-year banquet (for graduated seniors and their teachers), it is common for students and teachers to have a drink together; this symbolizes the students’ transition to adulthood and a new stage of education. From what I hear, alcohol was sometimes also part of the home serenades as well.

A bit of catching up

First of all, last night I went to Martfű (about half an hour away by train) to see a gala folk dance performance featuring the Tisza Táncegyüttes and several other groups. Two of my students and a former student were in it; they have been dancing for years, and you can see their love and expertise. They put so much zest, skill, and care into each gesture, each step, each syllable of the songs (they are often singing and dancing at the same time) that I couldn’t help getting caught up in the joy. The performers (in different groups) ranged from about 5 to 50. With the dancers in their late teens, you could see their work and talent taking distinctive form. They know how to work together, but each has a particular personality that comes out through the dances.

The week has been a bit of a whirlwind. Monday was the Shakespeare festival, a rousing success. That evening, my cats escaped through the window (the screen popped open and rolled upward while I had fallen asleep at my desk and actually fallen from the chair). I retrieved Sziszi right away but couldn’t manage to get Dominó, although I spotted him many times that night. The next day was my birthday, and while I sat outside early in the morning and late at night, I didn’t see him at all. On Wednesday night, my neighbor and I saw him, but he wouldn’t let me come close. On Thursday I went out with his favorite treat, chicken ham, and he came out from under a car to me and cuddled against me when I picked him up. He seemed delighted to be back home; he rolled over and over.

On Wednesday, for the professional development week, I gave a demo lesson (observed by two colleagues) in which my students and I read and discussed Elizabeth Bishop’s poem “The Fish.” My colleagues were duly impressed by my students’ ability to understand and talk about this complex poem in such a short time. We began by looking at the first and last lines (“I caught a tremendous fish”; “And I let the fish go.”). I told them, “So our goal is to figure out how the poem goes from here to there.” We considered the vocabulary closely, looking not only at the meanings of the words but at their role in the poem. At the end, I asked my students to connect the poem, in any way they saw fit, with Rilke’s “Archaic Torso of Apollo” (which they had already read); not only did they have a lot to say (a student pointed out that Rilke’s “You must change your life” actually happens—the changed life, that is—in Bishop’s poem), but just when I thought we had brought an end to the discussion, a student had more to say: she pointed out how, in Rilke’s poem, the speaker perceives the beauty of the torso right away, whereas in “The Fish,” it’s a gradual perception that ultimately becomes so overwhelming that the speaker has no regrets when she lets the fish go.

All week I was working on an exciting translation project that I finished today. It will be released soon, and I will say more about it then.

Speaking of translations, my translation of Sándor Jászberényi’s story “Nyugati történet” (“A Western Tale”) was published yesterday in the Spring 2023 issue of BODY. That’s the first of my Jászberényi translations to be published, as far as I know. In 2021 I translated his story collection A varjúkirály (King of the Crows); this is one of the stories. The translated book will find a publisher before long, I think.

I will leave off with some photos taken in the past few weeks.

That Was the Festival That Was

Looking back on yesterday as a whole, after a thick sleep, I would call it a big success. We had a day of inspired performances, workshops (with themes ranging from Renaissance dance to constructing the balcony of Romeo and Juliet), professional performances, a lecture, comments from the jury, and a closing ceremony with special awards and gifts. In the morning, there were a few technical glitches and glitches of space (in one case the technical setup didn’t succeed, and we didn’t have nearly enough seats for the audience), but we recognized the problems and worked them out as quickly as we could, to the extent possible. Even with that, our morning program fell only twenty minutes behind schedule, which meant we still had a substantial break between the morning and afternoon.

My students in Class 10.C gave a delightful Renaissance dance workshop that began with their performance of a shortened version of Act 1, Scene 5 of Romeo and Juliet. For the performance, they were completely on point, and then the workshop part had the whole room dancing, or close.

One of the most rewarding aspects of the day was the way it brought people together: the library and Varga, the various visiting schools and performers (I hadn’t even realized that Gergő Karácsony and his group had come all the way from Szeged), and the audience members (the attendance was large in both parts of the day, and the grandmothers of two of my students were there together). After the festival was over, I enjoyed talking with members of the Híd Színhaz and others.

The Sárospatak group set out at four in the morning to get there on time; they arrived back home close to ten at night. The performance was one of the highlights of the day and was recognized with a special award; the video version, shown here below, won an award in a short film contest and festival held by Miskolc University. It’s a Romeo and Juliet tale of a boy and a girl who go to the same high school and both love to go to the library. They discover, in addition, that they both love Shakespeare. But what is it they love in his work? The Fool and many other characters bring this to life. (The video is in English, as was the performance yesterday.)

For my own relative tranquility, I might try to simplify my role in the festival in the future; it was a bit frazzling to be in so many roles at once: running the festival along with my colleagues at the library, performing in it, directing a part of it. Or at the very least, if directing a piece, I will try to work with a smaller group of students; my group of 33 had numerous requests and needs during the day, and we didn’t even have room for them in the audience in the morning (or the afternoon, for that matter). But they pulled off the scene and workshop with aplomb.

Next year, I hope we will find a larger venue, with a real auditorium and a built-in sound system and projector. We have some ideas. But this year’s festival brought joy and received a glowing review in I leave off with some pictures.

Disguises upon Disguises

One of the most fascinating and moving aspects of Shakespeare’s plays is the employment of disguise. Hamlet suggests to his companions that he is going to affect an “antic disposition”; Juliet, advised by Friar Laurence, fakes her death; theg witches fool Macbeth with their elusive prophesies; Beatrice and Benedick pretend to abhor each other; and so on. Shakespeare understood what Tom in Tennessee Williams’ The Glass Menagerie would articulate centuries later: “But I am the opposite of a stage magician. He gives you illusion that has the appearance of truth. I give you truth in the pleasant disguise of illusion.” (But in Shakespeare’s plays, the disguise can work both ways.)

Disguise is filled with irony too; Cordelia’s sincere words frame her as the ungrateful child. Iago’s treachery cloaks itself in the guises of honesty.

The plays may lead us to ask ourselves what disguises we are wearing, what layers of disguises. Even the performances involve disguises: not only masks and costumes, not only the assumption of roles, but other wrappings as well. For example, in the beginning, when we were just starting to prepare the scene from Romeo and Juliet, none of the boys wanted to be Romeo—partly, I think, because of all the lines involved, and partly because of his smittenness. So we broke the part in three: one Romeo notices Juliet at the ball, and then, when the silhouette part begins, a different Romeo says the lines while yet a third takes part in the silhouette. Also, we emphasized the dances in the scene, thus taking some of the pressure off of Romeo and Juliet both. They liked this solution and took to it enthusiastically. Capulet is the one who speaks the most—calling for more fire and light, urging the guests to dance, reminiscing with his cousin, and trying to calm Tybalt down. Although he is not in a mask, as host he wears many disguises, trying to tend to others, while also yearning for a successful party, which not only helps assure his daughter’s future but brings back memories of his youth.

All of this leads me to a beloved song in three versions (and possibly disguises): “Disguise” by Cz.K. Sebő. It has more in common with Shakespearean disguises than may seem on the surface, even though, to my knowledge, it is not directly influenced by Shakespeare’s work. The original version, solo acoustic guitar and voice, was released by Cz.K. Sebő in 2015, when he was in his early twenties; versions by Platon Karataev and capsule boy (Cz.K. Sebő’s electronic subproject) followed. The original Cz.K. Sebő song is my favorite of the three; the bareness, simplicity, and vulnerability come together. It comes close to breaking my heart (but doesn’t, because it soars, and also because I’ve been through so much like this). It brings to mind Hamlet’s “But I have that within which passes show, / These but the trappings and the suits of woe.”

But the next two versions (disguises?) bring something out of it that might not be obvious in the original. The Platon Karataev version not only gives it a big sound, not only makes the guitar part richer, but also reveals a vastness that was there all along. This song is about all of us; we are all wearing disguises, all waiting and hoping that someone or other will talk to us and see us. The Platon version also makes me wonder: what is the “this” in “this is just a disguise”? Even the statement may be a disguise. We’re made of disguises upon disguises; what may seem our deepest, most honest revelation may actually be a mask or shroud, or someone else’s favorite clothes.

Then comes the capsule boy remix of the Platon Karataev version: a return to the origin, in a way (in that Cz.K. Sebő and capsule boy are the same person), but with changes. This electronic version brings out both the terror of the first part (“so please look at me… so please talk to me”) and the possibilities of the second part, which here become downright sweet and playful.

This song is beloved by many because it speaks to our yearning to show someone who we really are. But it also plays with this “really.” Do we know who the “real” self is? Is there one?

I believe that there is a real self, but (as hackneyed as this may sound), to find it we also have to lose it, and it is not discrete but porous, blurry, unbounded. One of my favorite moments of the song is “I am full of yellowness ’cause i was never enough.” The very word “yellowness” is a disguise, because the stress (on the “o”) is different from what I would expect in English. But I love that pronunciation and stress–it sounds like “lowness” and makes a connection between “yellow” and “low.”

I have felt throughout my life that “this is just a disguise,” not because I put on a front, but rather because attention is in short supply. The exceptions are times like now: in the preparations for the Shakespeare festival, it really doesn’t matter what people think of me, as something else is at stake involving many people. We will all be in disguises of many sorts, but through this, we will play ourselves. The disguises enable the release.

“Disguise” is not the most Shakespearean song in the Platon Karataev/Cz.K. Sebő repertoire, but it evokes Shakespeare for me and has been on my mind and in my ears. Platon songs with a more direct Shakespeare connection include “Lady Macbeth” and “Aphelion” (at times I hear “aphelion” as “Ophelia” in disguise; in any case, the song evokes Hamlet strongly) but there are others with subtle allusions and influences—for instance (I think), “Most magamba,” “Litmus Heart,” “Bitter Steps,” and “Light Trap.”

I am moved by my students’ dedication to the project; they have shown openness, excitement, and true attention. One of the challenges, early on, lay in slowing things down: having the opening processional and the later pavane dance be truly slow. Tempo is a disguise in its own right: fast things disguise themselves as slow, present as future, and vice versa. Hamlet says, “There is special providence in the fall of sparrow. If it be now, ’tis not to come; if it be not to come, it will be now; if it be not now, yet it will come. The readiness is all. Since no man, of aught he leaves, knows aught, what is’t to leave betimes? Let be.”

Speaking of Platon Karataev, Gergely Balla sent us a wonderful message about the festival:

“Shakespeare drámái az eddigi Platon Karataev szövegekre is hatottak és ez valószínűleg így lesz a jövőben is. Fontosnak tartom a szolnoki Varga Katalin Gimnázium, valamint a Verseghy Könyvtár közös kezdeményezését, mert újra és újra vizsgálnunk kell, hogy mit tudunk meríteni ezekből a művekből. Változatosnak és izgalmasnak ígérkezik a program, mely pont egybeesik két új Poket kiadással (Hamlet, Rómeó és Júlia). Szóval jó fesztivált kivánunk!”


“Shakespeare’s plays have influenced Platon Karataev’s lyrics up to this point and probably will continue to do so. I consider the joint initiative of Katalin Varga High School and the Verseghy Library important, because again and again we must consider what we can draw from these works. The program looks varied and exciting, and it coincides with two new Poket releases (Hamlet, Romeo and Juliet). We wish you a good festival!

I added a lot to this piece after posting it.

Shakespeare in the Air

Yesterday Shakespeare was all over the place: in song, dance, acting, reading, planning, and thoughts; in classrooms, the Drama room, the courtyard, Szolnok’s rose garden, the banks of the Tisza. The Shakespeare festival will be on Monday, and not only have we been preparing, but I have tried to expose all my classes to at least some Shakespeare, whether a song, or a scene from Hamlet, or a film. (One of my classes didn’t get any Shakespeare this week, but I’ll make it up to them.)

By no means is this coming from me alone, or anywhere close; the Drama Club has been practicing day after day, the Ferenc Verseghy librarians and staff have been working hard on preparations, and yesterday one of my students had to miss one of my rehearsals because he was also in a Drama Club rehearsal, also for the festival! The students have been dedicated and excited, colleagues have been stopping by to see the rehearsals, and the many flying details seem to have found a common orbital path.

In the video below, some students are skipping in a circle at the end of one outdoor rehearsal; the singing comes from a different group, with me leading. Yet another group sang the same song, and we walked outside to the rose garden and to the river to sing it again. I asked who would like to be in the group photo, and the girls and one of the boys promptly removed themselves, but the other boys proudly stayed. They are holding the lyrics to the song (“It was a lover and his lass,” from As You Like It).

That is all, because as usual, I have to run, and there will be much more to say after the festival on Monday!

More on Sacrifice

I brought up sacrifice in a recent post but didn’t explain what I meant by it. The word can evoke strong reactions and associations: slaughtered animals on the altar, Christ on the cross, children’s guilt (“just think of how much we have sacrificed for you”). But there is a simpler way of thinking about it.

“Sacrifice” derives from the concept of “making something sacred” through an offering to God. Yet in secular terms it may mean that we are mortal and can’t have or do everything. Having one thing means not having something else; doing one thing means not doing something else. Not only do we have to choose, but we have to give something up.

We come under pressure to be and do everything, or at least to believe that we can (and to speak the jargon of such belief). Especially in U.S. American culture, with growth mindset, positivity, happiness movements, and such, it is shameful to suggest that we have limits.

Limits mean not having something, giving something up, letting something go. There is something sacred (even for the secular) in those relinquishments, as insignificant as they may seem, because we make them for eternity. True, at a different future moment we could take a different tack, but that’s already a different moment.

Understood in this way, sacrifices don’t have to be particularly virtuous, grandiose, or even conscious. They happen whether we like it or not, whether we know it or not. Sometimes they do stand out; sometimes they do involve some kind of greatness of spirit. But often they escape our notice or just dimly cross our mind.

Wait, someone might protest, aren’t you betraying the meaning of sacrifice here? Isn’t it supposed to involve the holy? Well, holiness hides in unlikely places. Maybe Abraham’s not sacrificing Isaac was a sacrifice in its own right. Maybe holiness lies not in grand acts, but in the willingness, here and there, even invisibly, to let something go. Or, in some cases, to insist on something, even to the point of alienating others. Or to live quietly, without fanfare.

This all seems to get confusing and equivocal: if anything can be a sacrifice, then sacrifice means nothing. But that isn’t so. Each person has to live out a life that won’t be anyone else’s. Within it, nothing can be undone. Some choices, directions are better than others, but every life will have its mistakes.

This gives no guidance about right and wrong, but at least it makes room for a certain kind of finiteness, the kind which in turn may open into infinity.

  • “Setting Poetry to Music,” 2022 ALSCW Conference, Yale University

  • Always Different



    Diana Senechal is the author of Republic of Noise: The Loss of Solitude in Schools and Culture and the 2011 winner of the Hiett Prize in the Humanities, awarded by the Dallas Institute of Humanities and Culture. Her second book, Mind over Memes: Passive Listening, Toxic Talk, and Other Modern Language Follies, was published by Rowman & Littlefield in October 2018. In April 2022, Deep Vellum published her translation of Gyula Jenei's 2018 poetry collection Mindig Más.

    Since November 2017, she has been teaching English, American civilization, and British civilization at the Varga Katalin Gimnázium in Szolnok, Hungary. From 2011 to 2016, she helped shape and teach the philosophy program at Columbia Secondary School for Math, Science & Engineering in New York City. In 2014, she and her students founded the philosophy journal CONTRARIWISE, which now has international participation and readership. In 2020, at the Varga Katalin Gimnázium, she and her students released the first issue of the online literary journal Folyosó.


    On April 26, 2016, Diana Senechal delivered her talk "Take Away the Takeaway (Including This One)" at TEDx Upper West Side.

    Here is a video from the Dallas Institute's 2015 Education Forum.  Also see the video "Hiett Prize Winners Discuss the Future of the Humanities." 

    On April 19–21, 2014, Diana Senechal took part in a discussion of solitude on BBC World Service's programme The Forum.  

    On February 22, 2013, Diana Senechal was interviewed by Leah Wescott, editor-in-chief of The Cronk of Higher Education. Here is the podcast.


    All blog contents are copyright © Diana Senechal. Anything on this blog may be quoted with proper attribution. Comments are welcome.

    On this blog, Take Away the Takeaway, I discuss literature, music, education, and other things. Some of the pieces are satirical and assigned (for clarity) to the satire category.

    When I revise a piece substantially after posting it, I note this at the end. Minor corrections (e.g., of punctuation and spelling) may go unannounced.

    Speaking of imperfection, my other blog, Megfogalmazások, abounds with imperfect Hungarian.

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