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( 1912 - 1979 )


1912 born in Budapest
1932-1934 studies Pharmacology at Semmelweiss University, Budapest
1939 lives in Paris
1940 returns to Hungary
1943-1946 prisoner of war in the USSR
1949-1951 works as a scriptwriter
1958-1963 banned from publication for his participation in the 1956 Revolution
1971 Collected Works begin to be published
1979 dies in Budapest

His prizes include:
1955, 1967 Attila József Prize
1973 Kossuth Prize


As a dramatist, novelist and short story writer, István Örkény is one of the most popular authors in Hungary; his sense of the absurd and his special genre, the "one-minute story", have a place of their own in world literature. He is distinguished from the other masters of the absurd in his special choice of setting and characters: Örkény's writings are about Hungarians struggling with the absurdities of twentieth-century history. His first short stories were published by Attila József's literary journal; his story "Tengertánc" foretold the Nazi terror. In the title story the inmates of an insane asylum seize power over a city and introduce many insane, dictatorial measures which are impossible to abide by - among others, a linguistic reform.

The Tót Family, Cats Play

These two grotesque tragicomedies are perhaps Örkény's most famous and most frequently performed plays. Both are based on prose written in the early Sixties, and were later developed into dramas and film scripts. Thanks to Örkény's mosaic-like compositional technique, they were equally successful in book form as on stage and screen. Both feature ordinary people as their main characters and both are set in Hungary. Macskajáték (1963, Cats Play) is a comedy about an aged Budapest widow whose only joy is to treat a once celebrated tenor to dinner. But another woman who is even older manages to seduce the object of her affections. The drama version is even more efficient than the novel. Örkény's authorial instruction to the drama: "This play should be acted throughout as if it consisted of a single sentence. It does not allow for any slowing down, interval or change of scene, for from beginning to end it is nothing but an increasingly tense and nervous argument which the increasingly tense and nervous heroine, Mrs Orbán, carries on with herself, her sister, the whole world." Cats Play is in fact a drama about the freedom of the individual. Tóték (1967, The Tót Family) resembles Cats Play in many respects; it is simultaneously funny, tragic and absurd; it presents the struggle of zealous middle-class people to survive. The book centres on a village couple, the Tóts, who are visited by a neurotic army officer. He gradually engulfs his hosts in terror. The family's endurance is due solely to their belief that they can help their only son, who is on the Russian front, to a better and safer service by pleasing his commanding officer. The absurdity of the situation comes from the fact that their son - unbeknownst to them - is already dead. According to critic Anna Földes, the major "represents the system itself, keeping the ordinary man in fright and humiliating subjugation."

One Minute Stories

This book is a collection of Örkény's most popular genre, the so-called "one-minute story". Critic László Varga explains: "These stories are generally between two and four hundred words long and often run only a few lines, but their spare structure bursts with power. The essence of Örkény's experiment is to break down the short story into its basic constituents: he keeps stripping off individual layers until he reaches the core, which is an integrated work.... These one-minute stories are little gems representing all shades of humour from gentle irony to morbid "black humour"; they are epigrams in prose."

Pisti in the Bloodbath

Pisti in the Bloodbath This is probably Örkény’s most complex play, written in 1969. Still, it could not be published until 1972, and it was performed only in 1979. As Örkény said in an interview: „Actually, this is a biographical work, a grotesque biography based on our shared experiences. This play has neither plot - in its traditional sense - nor dramatic characters any longer. … The characters in Pisti are shaped only by the given situation, moreover, one can be replaced by the other seomtimes.” (Dialogue on the Grotesque, Palatinus, 2000, p.219) So the dramaturgical structure of the piece is rather complicated. In the 1979 version there is not only on Pisti, but there are four. Their thousand faces are represented in absurd, though apparently realistic situations ranging from the nineteen-thirties through the years of World War II and the Rákosy-period till the consolidation after the supressed revolution. The life situations and possible attitudes of Örkény’s generation are shocking and absurd, just like the political history of the twentieth century. Pisti represents the weird twists of history from the perspective of Everyman. This must have made the drama problematic for the cultural politics of its age, since history written from a bottom-view does not obediently repeat the dogmas of resolute saviours of the world. Although the drama is intertwined with seeking redemption, it refers to the Bible several times (e.g. walking on water, the three magi), and at a certain point even the chief rabbi of New York admits that Pisit is the Messiah. However, the grotesque tone of the play does not hide its primary suggestion: one must survive and restart, by all means. Our social roles are manifold: Örkény’s representation of people is dynamic. Any time, anything can be restarted.

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