The Founder of the Puppet Theatre – Lajos Kós (1924-2008)

" An amateur is one who loves what he is doing. Very often, I'm afraid, the professional hates what he is doing. So, I'd rather be an amateur. "
(Yehudi Menuhin)


After deciding to establish a puppet theatre in Budapest, the leaders of the Hungarian Democratic Federation of Women, were eager to declare at a press conference that „do not expect that some fairground comedians will play here, these people are professional puppet artists."
The comment referred to those fairground comedians who, just like the oriental folk artists, had been learning the intricacies of their craft from their fathers and grandfathers since their childhood. At the same time, "professional" puppet artists, i.e. the first actors of the “Story Cave” launched in 1948 first held puppets in their hands at the time of the signature of their respective contracts. Just like in other areas of art, this not very deeply-rooting division that was supported by both the sudden arrogance of professionals and the inferiority complex of amateurs was kept alive for a long time in puppetry as well.
Lajos Kós, the founder of Bóbita Puppet Ensemble and its official successor Bóbita Puppet theatre always declared himself an amateur. He writes the following in his book describing the history of the ensemble (where the above quotation was taken from) "Amateurism as such must be interpreted differently after 1961 and 1965 than in 1992. But even then it did not refer to the standards but to a certain behaviour. A lifestyle."
He learnt to respect craftsmen early. His stepfather was a silversmith and he himself learned the trade to be a taylor then a furrier. Later he prepared drawings, linoleum engravings and woodprints at Károly Koffán’s free school at Erzsébet square. He was admitted to the Academy of Art in 1943, where he studied painting first. Later, however, following the advice of Róbert Berény, he transferred to the class of Nándor Lajos Varga to study graphic art. He was already working as an assistant professor with the excellent master of line engraving and etching when “the pivotal year” in Hungarian history brought a sharp turn into both of their respective lives: Nándor Lajost Varga was removed from the Academy while the first mentor of Kós, Károly Koffán was appointed to take his place. "His life took a left turn since we had departed, while I was considered apolitical in that political atmosphere”. He was forced to leave the academy in his year of graduation so suddenly that the school administration did not even complete his school certificate.
Even in 1947 the college notice board displayed a notice that the Puppet Association is looking for young artists to provide successors for the older generation. Kós, driven by curiosity, applied for the position advertised, and he got into an evening course where he acquired the basics of puppetry. Then, after completing a seminar in culture-politics, he got a position at the then Institute of Folk Art (later Popular Education). He worked there until 1961, with some shorter and longer intermissions then he was appointed to be the head of the puppet ensemble in Pécs.
The Institute of Folk Art, founded in 1951 boasted with an extraordinary staff: the contemporary writers who were deprived of being published due to political reasons got occasional jobs there, such as, Áron Tamási, Sándor Weöres, Miklós Mészöly, Miklós Szentkuthy Miklós (all wrote excellent puppet-plays at that time). Here could find an opportunity to earn a modest living one of the long-time lover of puppetry, Antal Németh, whom Lajós Kós met again during his first year in Pécs. When he took over the leading position of the Puppet Department of the Cultural Centre of Pécs from his predecessor, Gyula Zágon, a painter by profession, Antal Németh had been a director for the National Theatre of Pécs fo three years. In the spring of 1961 he prepared the puppet opera of Lajos Vass according to the libretto of Magda Donászi called The Diamond of the Cockerel and the children piece by Prokofiev, Peter and the Wolf. The performance was on display and part of the program of the ensemble for several years.
By autumn the ensemble was not only given a new leader but a new name as well: on its tenth birthday it was given the name Bóbita (topknot) after the poem by Sándor Weöres. (The godmother was Katalin Honti.) After one year of preparation the renewed puppet department started its regular operation during the autumn of 1962.
The big turning point for the ensemble was brought by the year 1965 due to the national contest called „Ho Knows What?” where they gained overwhelming success. They became known for the whole country. They became famous thanks to the musical puppet parodies made for adults. At the introductory performance they surprised the audience by a glove-puppet play. In their production called Rhythm Fantasy (for the music by Kern: Smoke goes into Your Eyes) hands dressed in colourful gloves were dancing. In the semi finals glove-puppets played for the Dixieland music called The Song of the Yellow Dog. The Bach-Rossini pieces performed in the finals of the contest (the f-minor prelude and fugue was performed by Swingle Singers, while the overture of The Barber of Seville was performed by the band Double Six) duly crowned the interest awoken in the wake of the appearance of Bóbita: again bare hands were dancing in the former while “masked” hands in the latter, referring to the poultry being of the players. At the 1968 and 1972 "Who Knows What?" appearance the ensemble performed like-minded etudes that met similar success and brought national recognition for them.
In the first half of the 20th century the significant creative artists of puppetry both in Hungary and across Europe were attracted to the genre from either the theatre or art. Of course, in both cases it is essential to thoroughly know the other branch of art, still different pathways were chosen by the Artists Richard Teschner, Josef Skupa, Géza Blattner, Sándor A. Tóth, Béla Büky Béla and István until they found the ideal medium for artistic expression in puppetry, like Gaston Baty, Yves Joli, or the first really great personality of Hungarian puppetry Lóránt Orbók, who had a literary inspiration and background. (Synthesis is represented by Edward Gordon Craig and Obrazcov: they both discovered puppetry while they were in the attraction of both theatre and art.)
The whole life of Lajos Kós was determined by artistic inspiration. In all of his performances where, apart from some exceptions, he was both the designer and the director, sight was the starting point. The artist was looking for a theme, however, his productions were not inspired by a landscape, a face or an object, rather the metamorphosis of a literary work or musical piece. The premiere of the philosophical pantomime, Little Man by Miklós Mészöly was an important milestone both in his career and in the life of Bóbita. The world premiere of the piece took place in Bucharest in 1958, at the first international Puppet Festival of UNIMA (Union Internationale de la Marionnette or else The Worldwide Puppetry Organisation). The performance of the Puppet Theatre of Oradea was directed by Ildikó Kovacs. (It is also part of the story that the Romanian censorship only allowed to show the first half, so the second part of the story was performed for the first time in front of audience only twelve years later, in Pécs.)
There were a number of works among the works of Lajos Kós, which he put on stage several occasions but always with a different approach. A good example of this is the Pictures at an Exhibition, where he was inspired not only by the original piano suite, but several pop music adaptations (by Emerson and Tomita) as well. The presence of the Mussorgsy piece in his career is also emblematic because it includes the double bond of the designer-director: it is both a painting and a musical piece. Another recurring struggle of him was fought against Bluebeard’s Castle by Bartók for which he made two adaptations: for the first time the actors were present on stage in their own personality, holding the puppets in front of themselves, while in the second version they were hidden behind the screen, bringing Bartók’s opera to life in a traditional puppetry form.
1981 is a notable not only for Bóbita, but for the whole Hungarian puppetry: the country’s second official puppet theatre was created in that year. The ensemble, as the branch of the National Theatre of Pécs, started its second era. Lajos Kós, as the founder of the puppet theatre and a faithful amateur accepted this challenge with mixed feelings. He realised that he would have to do a lot of things differently. He realised that the next generations and the ensembles that we going to become professionals would learn the lesson at his expense. Still the main work of his life was Bóbita. Both as an amateur and as a professional he educated a generations that is a decisive force in Hungarian puppetry today.
During the operation of Lajos Kós in Pécs, then later Ildikó Kovács in Kecskemét, those puppeteers were brought up who today either in a form of a family, private theatre form or as soloists or as institutionalised leaders of some theatres go on the way they set off. And the spirit of the recently deceased mentors, Ildikó Kovács and Lajos Kós shall be kept alive int he further generations of Hungarian puppetry.
Int he epilogue of his book, published in 1993, Lajos Kósa cited the words of Albert Szent-Györgyi, who sighed on his 90th birthday ”I wish I was seventy-five again” then he added: "I wish I could sigh the same way on my ninetieth birthday!"
During his career he could realise several of his dreams. This, however, was not fulfilled.

by Géza Balogh