Compiled by Tina Edward Gunawardhana and Jerusha Noah
Respected Sinhala playwright and actor, Henry Jayasena was born in the rural hamlet of Bendiyamulla, Gampaha in 1931. He spent his early years as a student at the Gampaha branch of Lorenz College and later moved on to Nalanda College, one of the leading schools in Colombo, to complete his education. Young Henry first showed off his acting prowess during a school concert at Nalanda College where he earned the admiration of Dr Gunapala Malalasekera, a famous educator and founding father of Nalanda College who prophesied that Henry Jayasena would one day have a great career as an actor. This praise from Dr. Malalasekera buoyed Jayasena and planted the seed of acting in the aspiring thespian’s impressionable mind.
After leaving school Jayasena embarked on a teaching career at the Dehipe Primary School in Padiyapellela where he taught English to rural school children. While in this sleepy hamlet in the outskirts of Nuwara Eliya, Jayasena directed his first play Janaki which was based on the Ramayana. This was his first endeavour to stage a complete production. Of his initial experience Jayasena said that it was difficult to get the costumes, actors, and even guests for the event. Not a man to give up lightly he pursued with his maiden production and the play was staged to an appreciate audience who showered him with praise and applause.
After a few months in the wilderness of Padiyapellela, he left this post to begin work with the Public Works Department of Sri Lanka after passing the General Clerical Service Examination. It was while working here that his creativity began to shine, as he created a number of plays like Pawkarayo (1958), Janelaya (1962), Kuweni (1963), Thavath Udesenak (1964), Manaranjana Wedawarjana (1965), Ahas Malilga (1966), Hunuwataye Kathawa(1967), Apata Puthey Magak Nethey (1968), Diriya Mawa (1972), Makara(1973) and Sarana Siyoth Se Puthini Habha Yana (1975). With his adaptation of Bertolt Brecht’s ‘Caucasian Chalk Circle’ as Hunuwataye Kathawa (1967) and ‘Mother Courage” as Diriya Mawa Saha Agey Daruwo (1972) Henry introduced the dynamics of Bretcht’s theory of Epic Theatre thereby adding a new and refreshing dimension to the sphere of Sinhala Theatre. His dramatic works were received to great critical acclaim and the his audiences came to appreciate him as a gifted playwright.
As an actor Henry Jayasena’s debut role was in Sri 296 (1959). His cinematic performances as the main actor in the award winning Gamperaliya as Piyal (1964) and the performance of Azdak in the stage play Hunuwataye Kathawa (1967), where his young son, Sudaraka and wife, Manel also performed as Prince Michael and Grushe respectively, and as Lalith in the film Dahasak Sithuwili (1968) made long lasting impressions. He also acted in Hansavilak, Gehenu Geta, Kaliyugaya and Raththaran Neth. His tele drama career was also well acclaimed. One of the most famous characters he portrayed as a tele drama actor was the role of “Sudu Seeya” in the tele drama “Doo Daruwo”, directed by Nalan Mendis and written by Somaweera Senanayaka. It went on to become the longest running tele drama telecast in the 1990s. Many of his roles in cinema and television ended up making him a household name mainly due to his splendid performances.
Not only was he a marvelous actor and playwright but he was also a superb author as well. In addition to writing books, he also contributed to the local paper by writing for the Artscope page of the Ceylon Daily News for a number of years.
The veteran dramatist married the talented actress, Manel Ilangakoon in the year 1962. She was the lead actress in Jayasena’s play, ‘Kuweni’ for which she won the best actress award for her performance. Their union produced a son, Sudaraka who also dipped his toes in drama during his school years.
In 1975, Henry Jayasena went on to work as the Deputy Director for the National Youth Services Council (Arts and Sports Division) and the Sri Lanka Rupavahini Corporation (Programmes Division).
Jayasena retired from his acting career in the year 1999 while he was undergoing treatment for a terminal disease. In recognition of his contribution to the world of acting, Henry Jayasena was honoured by the Old Boys Association of his alma mater, Nalanda College and was presented the Nalanda Keerthi Sri Award in 2003. In 2004 Jayasena was awarded a Doctorate in Literature by the Sri Jayawardenepura University. An elite and eminent literary figure in the theatre of Sri Lanka, his contributions spanned almost four decades.
He was considered a star amongst contemporaries such as Sarachchandra, Gunasena Galappatty, Dayananda Gunawardhana, Dhamma Jagoda and Sugathapala de Silva who together pioneered the cultural renaissance and ushered in and sustained the Golden Age of Sinhala Theatre in Sri Lanka.
A humble man, oft found with a smile on his face, Henry Jayasena was a much beloved actor who entertained millions of Sri Lankans through his regular appearances in teledramas. Generations later his legacy still shines though and he will be rememebered as a role model in the field of arts and culture.