Ferenc Bessenyei

The Gielgud or Olivier of post-war Hungarian theatre
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The Independent Online

Ferenc Bessenyei, actor and singer: born Hódmezövásárhely, Hungary 10 February 1919; married Eszter Elthes; died Budapest 27 December 2004.

In each generation there are two or three actors who, by consensus, are referred to as the "greatest", the most representative of a nation's theatre. England had its Gielgud and Olivier; Hungary its Mensáros and Bessenyei. While the range and respective merits of each could be discussed separately, most people over 30 in present-day Hungary would count Ferenc Bessenyei amongst the greatest actors of the Hungarian theatre since the Second World War.

Born in 1919 at Hódmezövásárhely in south-east Hungary, Bessenyei started his stage career as a member of the choir at the Szeged City Theatre in 1940. Two years later he left for Miskolc, another provincial town, and from the local theatre there moved to Budapest at the end of the war, acting first in the Buda Theatre (1945-50) and then joining the National Theatre. From then on he alternated between the National (1950-63 and 1967-73) and the Madách Theatre (1963-67, 1973-81), finally becoming a Life Member of the former.

His otherwise brilliant career was briefly interrupted in 1956 when during the students' demonstration which led to the October uprising he recited a patriotic poem to the crowd at the statue of General Joseph Bem, and also because in November 1956 he was elected to the Revolutionary Council of the Hungarian Intelligentsia. Unlike other actors (e.g. Iván Darvas) he was not jailed, but for a while banished to provincial theatres. From 1958 onwards, however, he got roles in Hungarian films and could also return to the stage of the National.

Bessenyei was an actor with a broad range of roles. A tall, impressive-looking man with a deep, booming voice, he played leading roles in national classics as well as in plays by Shakespeare and Brecht. His Othello and King Lear were memorable as well as his Adam in Madách's The Tragedy of Man and Bánk in Katona's Bánk bán. He would be an impressive Galilei and an excellent Astrov in Chekhov's Uncle Vanya, but his versatility went beyond that: when in the late 1960s and 1970s musicals became popular in Hungary, he scored great successes as Higgins in My Fair Lady and the milkman Tevje in The Fiddler on the Roof. He also played the title role in Zorba the Greek and once even joined the cast of the Operetta Theatre to play Dragomir in The Princess Maritza.

His talent was equally recognised by the Communist authorities and the governments of independent Hungary - he won the Kossuth Prize twice (1953 and 1955), became Actor of Merit in 1954 and Actor of Excellence in 1970. Some years after the change of regime he was awarded for his life work with the honorary title "The Nation's Actor".

Although he played in many Hungarian films, most of them are typical products of the period, painfully slowly acted national classics filmed with much rhetorical flourish (these include Egy magyar nábob, "A Hungarian Nabob", 1966, and Egri csillagok or Stars of Eger, 1968). Some of his television roles were more memorable, for example he was said to be particularly successful in the 1975 production of László Németh's Széchenyi.

After his retirement from the National Theatre in 1981 several books were written about Bessenyei, the best known of which is probably Tamás Tarján's Bessenyei Ferenc (1983). Recently his much younger wife, Eszter B. Elthes, published a book entitled Férjem a komédiás ("My Husband, the Comedian", 2004).

George Gömöri