Culture & Arts: Theatre


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August 2016
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Today's form of the National Theatre comprises three artistic ensembles - opera, ballet and drama - which alternate in performances in the historical building of the National Theatre, the Theatre of the Estates and the Kolowrat Theatre. All three artistic ensembles select their repertoire from the wealth of classic legacy, making use also of domestic authors as well as taking heed of modern international works.


National Theatre -- The Historical Building
The National Theatre constitutes the embodiment of the Czech nation's desire to come into its own. People from all strata of society contributed generously to a fund to build this symbol of nationhood and the ceremonious laying of the foundation stone of this edifice on 16th May 1868 proved to be an all-nation political demonstration.

The brainchild to build a grand edifice to serve as a national theatre took shape in the autumn of 1844 at meetings of patriots in Prague. The initial idea began to take on a more concrete form when historian and statesman František Palacký submitted to the Estate Committee of the Czech Parliament an application "for the authorization to construct, establish, maintain and manage" an independent Czech Theatre on 29th January 1845. The authorization was granted in April 1845. But then it took another six years - until April 1851 before the Constitutional Board for the establishment of a Czech National Theatre in Prague issued the first public appeal to launch a campaign to raise funds for the project. One year later, the yields from the first round of collections served to purchase the plot of land of a former salt storehouse measuring not quite 2,800 sq.m. The plot predetermined the splendid site for the theatre on the banks of the river Vltava opposite the panorama of Prague Castle, but at the same time this however created a considerable challenge to the architects bearing in mind the limited size of the plot and its trapezium shape.

The current period of Bach's repressive absolutism halted preparations for construction work and supported the concept of a more modest provisional structure which was built on the southern section of the theatre site by architect Ignác Ullmann and was inaugurated on 18th November 1862. The building of the Provisional Theatre subsequently became a part of the final edifice of the National Theatre. The outside wall on the raised section at the rear of the theatre evinces this original structure to this day, while the formerly conceived interior was only modified during the most recent reconstruction work on the National Theatre in 1977-1983.

Whereas F.L. Rieger and the Committee of the Czech Lands asserted this minimal programme, the younger, more progressive generation launched a mighty offensive to implement the original grandiose concept for the edifice (Sladkovský, Tyrš, Neruda, Hálek). The latter managed to gain sway over the Assembly in 1865. They then appealed to architect Josef Zítek, a thirty-three-year old professor at the Prague Technical College, to design the building of the National Theatre. He later came out top of the subsequently declared public competition, and work was launched on the site in 1867. The ceremonious laying of the foundation stone took place on 16th May 1868. November saw the completion of the foundations, by 1875 the walls reached their top level and by 1877 the theatre was roofed over. Simultaneously as of 1837 artists engaged in a competition to decorate the interior. A special commission, headed by Sladkovský, was established to elaborate a scenario: the themes put forward were on the one hand classical in the spirit of a Neo-Renaissance concept of the building, on the other hand they were inspired by the period enthusiasm for Slavonic mythology and the stories of the Královodvorský and Zelenohorský Manuscripts (referring to a glorious past). Both these concepts, deriving inspiration in the paintings by Mánes and connected with the current fashion of romantic landscape paintings, (also with reference to themes in Czech history) served as an ideological basis for the mode of artistic expression, which is termed today as the art of the National Theatre generation.

The National Theatre was opened for the first time on 11th June 1881 to honour the visit of Crown Prince Rudolf. Subsequently there were 11 more shows after which the theatre was closed down to finish the building work. While this was in progress a fire broke out on 12th August 1881 which destroyed the copper dome, both the stage and auditorium. The fire was regarded as an all-nation catastrophe and generated immense determination to raise funds once more: within 47 days one million florins were amassed.

However, the national enthusiasm failed to correspond to the post-catastrophe tussles ignited behind the scenes. Architect Josef Zítek was sidetracked and the reconstruction work was assigned to his pupil architect Josef Schulz. It was he who asserted an extension to the theatre to include the block of flats belonging to Dr Polák which used to stand behind the building of the Provisional Theatre, and incorporate it in the structure of the National Theatre and simultaneously to modify somewhat the area of the auditorium to improve the spectators' vision of the stage. He did, however, regard with great deference Zítek's style and he succeeded in combining three buildings by various authors into an absolute unity of style.

The National Theatre was officially opened on 18th November 1883 with a performance of Smetana's opera Libuše composed for this gala occasion. This theatre which was perfectly designed and equipped (with electric lighting, a steel-constructed stage), served its purpose without any radical modifications for almost one hundred years. It was not until 1st April 1977 that the National Theatre staged Alois Jirásek's "The Lantern" as the last performance before the theatre was closed down for over six years. Under the supervision of civil engineer and architect Zdeněk Vávra an overall reconstruction project was launched. The all-embracing project combined with additional work on the theatre surroundings was finished according to plan, notably the date of 100th anniversary of its opening on 18th November 1983. On this night a performance of Smetana's opera "Libuše" again symbolized the dedication of this historical monument to the general public. Currently this historically extremely important and beautiful edifice, together with the annex of a modern building which is home to the administration and also includes the main box office, serves as the main stage of three National Theatre ensembles: drama, opera and ballet.

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