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The National Theatre - history

Idea of building a stately theatre for the Czech nation

The National Theatre is the embodiment of the will of the Czech nation for a national identity and independence. Collections of money among the broad mass of the people facilitated its construction and hence the ceremonial laying of its foundation stone on 16 May 1868 was tantamount a nationwide political manifestation.

The idea of building a stately edifice to serve as a theatre was first mooted in the autumn of 1844 at meetings of patriots in Prague. It began to materialise through a request for “the privilege of constructing, furnishing, maintaining and managing” an independent Czech theatre, which was submitted to the Provincial Committee of the Czech Assembly by František Palacký on 29 January 1845. The privilege was granted in April 1845. Yet it was not until six years later – in April 1851 – that the Society for the Establishment of a Czech National Theatre in Prague (founded in the meantime) made its first public appeal to start collections. A year later the proceeds of the first collections allowed for the purchase of land belonging to a former salt works with the area of less than 28 acres, which predetermined the magnificent location of the theatre on the bank of the river Vltava facing the panorama of Prague Castle, yet at the same time the cramped area and trapezoidal shape posed challenging problems for the building’s designers.

The Provisional Theatre

The era of Bach’s absolutism brought to a halt preparations for the construction and gave rise to the concept of a modest provisional building, which was duly erected on the south side of the land according to the plans of the architect Ignac Ullmann and opened on 18 November 1862. The Provisional Theatre building subsequently became a constituent part of the final version of the National Theatre – its external cladding is still visible in the elevated section of the rear part of the building and the interior layout was only effaced during the latest reconstruction of the National Theatre (between 1977 and 1983).

Art of the National Theatre Generation

Concurrently with the implementation of this minimal programme asserted by F. L. Rieger and the Provincial Committee, the young progressive advocates of the original ambitious concept of the building (Sladkovský, Tyrš, Neruda, Hálek) went on the offensive. In 1865 they attained leading positions in the Society and asked a 33-year-old professor of civil engineering at the Prague Technical College, the architect Josef Zítek, to draft a design for the National Theatre. He then won a later-invited tender and in 1867 construction works began. On 16 May 1868 the foundation stones were laid, and by November the foundations themselves were complete. In 1875 the new building reached its full height and in 1877 the theatre was roofed over. From 1873 there were ongoing competitions for the interior decoration of the building, whose scenario had been elaborated by a special commission headed by Sladkovský: the themes were, on the one hand, classical, in the spirit of the Neo Renaissance concept, while on the other they were inspired by the contemporary enthusiasm for Slavonic mythology and the stories of the Manuscripts – both these concepts, based on Mánes-style painting and connected with contemporary Romantic landscape painting (also thematically linked to Czech history), provided the fundamental conceptual base for the artistic expression which today is designated as the art of the National Theatre Generation.

First opening of the National Theatre; the fire

The National Theatre opened on 11 June 1881 to honour the visit of Crown Prince Rudolf of Austria. It staged another 11 performances before the building was closed down to enable the completion of the finishing touches. While the work was under way, a fire broke out on 12 August 1881 which destroyed the copper dome, the auditorium and stage of the theatre. The fire was considered a national disaster and induced an immense resolve for new collections: within 47 days a million gulden had been collected. This national enthusiasm, however, was in marked contrast to the behind-the-scenes battles that raged following the catastrophe. The architect Josef Zítek was pushed aside and his pupil Josef Schulz was summoned to work on the reconstruction. He was the one to insist on the extension of the building to include a lodging house owned by Dr Polák that was situated behind the building of the Provisional Theatre. He made this building a part of the National Theatre and also changed the layout of the auditorium somewhat in order to improve visibility. He respected with the utmost sensitivity the style of Zítek’s building and managed to merge three buildings by different architects to form an absolute unity of style.

Reopening of the National Theatre

The National Theatre was inaugurated on 18 November 1883 with a performance of Smetana’s festive opera Libuše, specially composed for this occasion. The building, in technical terms perfectly equipped (electric lighting, a steel stage structure), served without any major modifications for almost one hundred years. It was only on 1 April 1977, following a performance of Jirásek’s Lantern, that the theatre was closed down for six years. The architect Zdeněk Vávra was appointed to take charge of the overall reconstruction. This extensive redevelopment, combined with finishing works on the entire surroundings of the theatre, was completed to meet a binding deadline, the date marking the 100th anniversary of the opening of the National Theatre: 18 November 1983. On that day the historical building opened again to the public with a performance of Smetana’s Libuše. At the present time, this beautiful and historically extremely important building, together with the modern operational building, which also includes the main box office, is the main stage of the three artistic ensembles of the National Theatre: the Drama, Opera and Ballet.

Collections for the construction of the National Theatre

The entire nation collected money for the National Theatre. When looking into period documents, we realise the truly toilsome endeavour preceding these collections. Let us strive for a sober analysis, one devoid of folkloric sentiment, focused on highlighting the facts. It is true that the so-called kreutzer and gulden collections were a large source of income. However, a number of other sources existed besides them. All receipts and expenditures were meticulously recorded in the account books – one for Prague, one for other Czech municipalities and one for places beyond the Czech lands. The collection for the National Theatre was not the only one at the time; finance was also gathered for other purposes, for example, the completion of St Vitus Cathedral. The enthusiasm and self-sacrifice were immense and hence it comes as no surprise that during the 30 years in question the flow of money varied significantly, depending on the economic and political situation. For instance, the situation was negatively affected by Bach’s absolutism in the second half of the 1850s and the crash on the Vienna stock exchange in 1873. The accounting and period materials reveal plenty of interesting things. For example, even before the official announcement of the collections the first contributions had arrived from Polička and Litomyšl. Significant sums were donated by the nobility (Prince Lobkowitz: 6,000 gulden, one of the largest donations by a single individual; the Count of Chotkov’s family: over 4,500; Count Kolowrat-Krakowsky: 4,000; the Schwarzenbegs, Kinskys, Černíns, Nostitzes, Harrachs...), with the bourgeoisie, scientists, artists (Ringhoffer, Rott, Palacký, Rieger, J. R. Vilímek...) not lagging far behind. Money arrived from Moravia and Slovakia, as well as from Krakow, Graz, Lvov, and even Cambridge. Grains of washed gold worth one ducat came from California. Worthy of mention too are monies acquired through purchase of gifts, some of them rather quaint from today’s point of view (Mr Hostivít Hušek from Kutná Hora donated for sale 60 copies of "Instructions for dealing with pests on mangel-wurzel"). In the autumn of 1866 the construction designs were put on display at the Old Town Hall. The exhibition was visited by Emperor Franz Joseph I, who on this occasion donated his first personal contribution, amounting to 5,000 gulden, and later on added another 13,000. Photographs of the plans went on sale, the Provincial Committee of the Kingdom of Bohemia released 14,700 gulden, Czech female patriots held a jumble sale on Žofín island (which brought in almost 6,000 gulden). The 1877 Great National Lottery yielded another 238,000. House-to-house, municipal and club collections, informal meetings, balls, trips, auctions were organised too. To give a better picture – the annual salary of a clerk at the time was about 300 gulden, the daily wage of a mason about 1 gulden, 3 kreutzer. Nor did the funds dry up after the fire. Besides the settlement of insurance and a voluntary contribution from the insurance company, interest and other earnings, 634,000 gulden arrived from Bohemia (of which 223,000 from Prague and its suburbs alone), 50,000 from Moravia and Silesia, over 17,000 from other provinces of Austria-Hungary, 26,000 from the imperial family and 16,600 from abroad (including America, Asia and even Africa). It is also necessary to mention material building aid and handicraft works provided both by individuals and companies free of charge. Total incomes from 21 August 1850 to 30 June 1884 were 3,204,129 gulden, total expenditures, including taxes and fees, 3,204,129 gulden. Everything was recorded in detail and accounted.

The National Theatre legends

A number of minor and major myths, legends and interesting stories are connected with the National Theatre. For example, it is said (and written) that in 1868 a cask containing the holy water with which St Cyril baptised the Slavs was walled into the foundation stones. Another matter of interest can also be read in period documents. The first donors during the public collections included Otylka, a little girl from Vienna (she and her little brothers gave a gulden each). Her name also appeared years later during other benefit projects aimed at supporting the Theatre’s construction which she organised throughout the countryside, sending the yields on to Prague. Later on, her name would become famous on the stage of the National Theatre - Otýlie Sklenářová-Malá. Some interesting stories, both documented and undocumented, date from recent times. For instance, a story is told at the Theatre that during the latest reconstruction in the 1980s the actor Josef Kemr, with the assistance of workers, climbed up above the stage and screwed in three golden screws with the engraved names of his wife Eva Fousková, his colleague Rudolf Hrušínský and himself.

The National Theatre personalities

A plethora of illustrious personalities spanning all the arts are connected with the National Theatre. To name but a few: the painters František Ženíšek, Mikoláš Aleš and Vojtěch Hynais; the sculptors Bohuslav Schnirch, J. V. Myslbek and Antonín Wagner; the writers and playwrights J. K. Tyl, V. K. Klicpera, Ladislav Stroupežnický, Julius Zeyer, Alois Jirásek, Jaroslav Kvapil and Karel Čapek; the dramaturge K. H. Hilar; the composers Bedřich Smetana, Antonín Dvořák, Leoš Janáček, Karel Kovařovic and Bohuslav Martinů; the conductors Václav Talich, Zdeněk Chalabala, Jaroslav Krombholc, Zdeněk Košler; the legendary opera singers and divas Vilém Zítek, Emil Pollert, Otakar Mařák, Beno Blachut, Eduard Haken, Růžena Maturová, Ema Destinnová, Jarmila Novotná, Marie Podvalová, Marta Krásová; the brilliant dancers, prima ballerinas and choreographers Augustin Berger, Saša Machov, Joe Jenčík, Marta Drottnerová; the unforgettable actors and actresses Eduard Vojan, Jindřich Mošna, Zdeněk Štěpánek, Václav Vydra, Marie Hübnerová, Hana Kvapilová, Otýlie Sklenářová-Malá, Leopolda Dostalová, Hugo Haas, Jaroslav Vojta, Ladislav Pešek, Jaroslav Marvan, Karel Höger, Dana Medřická, Rudolf Hrušínský, Josef Kemr and Boris Rösner. The list will, fortunately, never be complete.