Hungarian fairground puppet show character, relative of Hanswurst and Kasperl. Vitéz László is a glove puppet with a very human appearance, dressed in breeches and a red blouse, and wearing a peaked hat. He handles a range of props with skill, particularly cudgels and frying pans of different sizes. Contrary to Kasperl and Punch, he is not an anarchist and his crimes are committed for a good cause.

His origins are obscure. It is thought that he was created in the 16th or 17th centuries, but proof has not been established. It is more likely that Vitéz László appeared around 1850, during the reign of the Chancellor Bach, which followed the suppression of the revolution and independent movements of 1848-1849. Vitéz László acted as a cunning representative of the oppressed and – like his foreign compatriots Guignol, Punch, Petrushka, Kasperl, Kašpárek, Pulcinella, Polichinelle – he inevitably gained the upper hand.

German, Czech, and Moravian puppeteers first appeared in the 18th century in large Hungarian towns where they settled. Two or three generations later they joined forces when German puppeteers began playing performances of Faust in Hungary. One of the most famous companies was that of the Korngut-Kemény family. Salamon Korngut (Galicia, 1853 – Budapest, 1930), a former shoemaker turned circus director, puppeteer and family entrepreneur of puppets, operated his travelling shows until the beginning of the 1920s. In 1912, with his son Henrik Kemény (1888-1944) – who had changed his German family name to make it more Magyar Hungarian – Korngut founded the Columbia Hungarian Mechanical Theatre (a grandiose name describing a simple puppet theatre) that went bankrupt after just a few months. In the spring of 1920, Korngut and Kemény started a new business and asked for permission to build a puppet theatre in the elite section of Budapest. Salamon retired a month later, leaving the theatre to his son. In 1926, Henrik moved to the Népliget (People’s Park) in the poor section of the city, and performed there for eighteen years in a wooden booth. He was arrested in 1944 and accused of desertion: this is the last-known fact of his life.

Henrik Kemény is the author of more than twenty plays for Vitéz László, particularly Az elátkozott malom (The Haunted Mill) and Vitéz László és a többiek – Borbélysegéd  (Lazlo, the Brave and the Others – The Barber’s Assistant), a similar number of synopses and also theatre programmes. His hand-written archive is the summary and synthesis of a classic style of performance and is the embodiment of a living and surviving tradition.

Representing the third generation, Henrik Kemény Junior (1925-2011) was born in Budapest. He was only ten years old when he began performing with his father and less than twenty when he took over from him. His art recalls the loud-mouthed manner and acting style of the 19th century and the clichés appealing to child audiences. In his performances, he represents the coarse bantering voices of barkers, clowns and comedians of cabaret and circus, who see and get across the essential in each situation. Another element characteristic of his style is the language – the use of distorted and broken words, whose origins are found in the difficulty with which his grandparents learned the Hungarian language. They made a virtue of this handicap and the strong accent, poor pronunciation and mix-up of words became a source of humour – all of which were carried by rhythm, tempo and dramatic drive.

(See Hungary.)



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