She was at the helm of the Hungarian Theatre of Cluj for sixteen years, a period that can historically be linked with Ceaușescu’s Cultural Revolution, as only the first two years of her mandate were spent exempt from strict censorship.
If we scroll through the repertoire of said sixteen years, we encounter a remarkable number of classical Hungarian dramas, comedies, folk plays, musical farces, as well as works written by 20th century contemporary Hungarian authors. There were productions created during this period that were performed up to three or four hundred times, such as A falu rossza (The Village Rogue) or Zsuzsi, or even the Piros bugyelláris (The Red Wallet), all of which survived Mária Bisztrai’s tenure.
As the daughter of Romanian Prime Minister Petru Groza and actress Duci Kabdebó, Mária Bistrai was aware of the cultural taste of the Hungarian audience in Transylvania, and considered it important that the dramatic masterpieces of Hungarian literature be continuously present in the company’s repertoire and due to her position, she was able to achieve this goal. In those years, the Hungarian Theatre of Cluj featured works by far more Hungarian authors than any other Hungarian company in Transylvania.
At the same time, her name is associated with the era of the first true renewal of the Cluj company, with the hiring of György Harag. Although her perspective did not always match that of Harag, Mária Bistrai recognized in Harag the most important Hungarian theatre director of that age, the innovative spirit that created in the 1970s and early 1980s, one of the most prosperous and artistically valued periods in the theatre's history. With her sober levelheadedness, education, calm and sensible decisions, she was able to balance the staging of such performances with those that were of great public success. This is how performances such as Tornyot választok (Selecting a Tower), A fekete macska (The Black Cat), the Sütő Trilogy, Öreg ház (Old House), A műtét (Surgery), Nem élhetek muzsikaszó nélkül (I Can't Live Without Music), Éjjeli menedékhely (The Lower Depths), A szerető (The Lover) and Csongor and Tünde, alongside other titles that remained in the repertoire, such as Fenn az ernyő nincsen kas, A kőszívű ember fiai (The Baron’s Sons), Az aranyember (The Man with the Golden Touch), A néma levente (The Silent Levente), or Egérút (The Way of the Mouse).
Although she played numerous important roles on the Cluj stage throughout her acting career, from Natasha in Three Sisters, Eszter Rhédey in Úri Muri, Zilia in The Silent Levente or Gertrudis in Bánk bán, to Schiller’s Mary Stuart, as an actress she was not keen to be included in Harag’s team, preferring instead, as the head of the company, to maintain a healthy balance in the repertoire, as well as create a favorable artistic atmosphere for György Harag, that would allow him to enact the ideas that would renew the entire approach to Hungarian theatre in Transylvania. She unconditionally accepted all of his artistic suggestions because she recognized in him the great artist and theatre reformer. She was the one who helped Harag get a passport from the second half of the 1970s onward, and travel yearly to Novi Sad in order to stage a performance, this location quickly becoming the location of Harag’s most daring theatrical experiments.
She was also my first director. At Harag’s suggestion, she hired me within the Cluj company, and arranged for me to be “delegated” from Oradea immediately, as at that time, after graduating from university, everyone was randomly placed around the country at a random theatre that had a vacancy.
It was already the beginning of a much stricter era in terms of censorship, and yet I was able to stage performances such as Meşterul Manole, which had been placed in a labor camp, or Bulgakov’s Ivan the Terrible, where at the end the actors pounded on the inside of the Iron Curtain. Mary had always disguised the legitimate fright of ideological dress rehearsals, so-called “viewings” attended by supervising comrads with a superior smile, and when she could finally breathe easy that Ivan the Terrible was allowed to be performed without cuts, she called me into her office, offered me a glass of cognac, and said: "Half of all of it is my work!"
Looking back to that time, after nearly forty years, while in the maze of a turbulent and devaluated age, I think back with love and gratitude to those “years of apprenticeship,” and I strive to show the “other half” at our next encounter, unspoiled and unharmed.
May you rest in peace,