While the Polish theatre flourished in the 1960s and 1970s, modernisation came slowly to Hungary. Most Hungarian theatres had a limited repertory; innovative staging of the classics and some modern Western playwrights was rare and usually caused an uproar. József Ruszt was one of the few theatre directors whose contribution to the modernisation of the Hungarian theatre was first crucial, then steady and decisive.
Ruszt was born in 1937 and studied at the Theatre and Film Academy of Budapest. During the 1960s he had a dual career directing Universitas productions staged by the theatre group of Loránd Eötvös University, and also working in the provincial repertory theatre of Debrecen. He managed to harmonise these two activities; according to a critic he was able to reconcile happily "strident avant-gardism with the unavoidable compromises of the professional theatre". It was with Universitas that he visited Birmingham in 1966, where the two productions directed by him, a classic comedy and a modern musical, both by Hungarian authors and performed in Hungarian, made a lasting impression on English audiences.
In 1973 he became director of another provincial but experimental theatre at Kecskemét, a post he held until 1978. During these years his reputation was steadily growing - he was one of the few directors who not only had the courage to take risks, but could enchant with excellent modern productions that drew large audiences to Kecskemét from Budapest. One of the main influences on his work was the "poor theatre" of Jerzy Grotowski, so his own productions were often "ritualised".
Ruszt led an intense theatrical life in the 1980s, first working at Szeged and in 1982 becoming one of the founders of the Sándor Hevesi Theatre at Zalaegerszeg. Between 1984 and 1987 he was its manager and chief director, but he returned to Budapest to direct at the National Theatre for a year (1987-88), and then to Szeged once again to reorganise the local repertory theatre. In 1989 he founded Független Szinpad ("Independent Stage") at Szeged but a year later he had to move his group to Budapest, where it staged performances until 1994.
In 1995 he became Artistic Leader of the Kamaraszinház at Budapest, and he staged there a number of memorable productions, for example Marlowe's Edward II and Shakespeare's Othello. He also kept his loyalty to Zalaegerszeg, where as late as last year he once again directed a stunning production of the Hungarian classic Az ember tragédiája ("The Tragedy of Man") by Imre Madách. Previous productions of Ruszt's included plays by Tennessee Williams, Eugene O'Neill, Strindberg, Calderón, Schiller's Don Carlos, and Romeo and Juliet.
His work was acknowledged by numerous awards, including the Mari Jászai Prize (1975), the titles of Distinguished Artist (1977) and Outstanding Artist (1985), and finally, after the change of regime, by the Kossuth Prize in 1993.