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2005, iss. 6, pp. 9-44
article language: Serbian
document type: unclassified
published on: 02/06/2007
The national theatre in Belgrade: A temple of patriotic religion


The constitution of the Serbian state in the nineteenth century led to the establishment of many national institutions, the National Theatre being one of the first in the field of culture. The idea of a national theatre was first proposed in the earl 1840s, but it was not until 30 October 1869 that after a series of hitches, it was formally opened. The building was erected in the heart of the capital city according to the design of the architect Aleksandar Bugarski, also entrusted with its interior design. At the time the proposal was first put forward, the Theatre was often interpreted as a temple of patriotic religion am compared with the churches of historic Serbian monasteries. Such a parallel rested on the idea that both churches and theatres are temples, the only difference being in that in the former the Christian and in the latter a patriotic religion was preached. The concept of the National Theatre as a temple of patriotic religion fully determined the decoration of its interior Special attention was paid to the auditorium painted as a national pantheon. The stage portal was surmounted by a cartouche enclosing the profile portrait of the assassinated prince Mihailo Obrenović, in the dynastic and state programme honored as the founder of the National Theatre. The ceiling above the auditorium received wall-paintings. Their content is unknown, as the paintings were soon destroyed by gas lighting. The second gallery parapets bore medallions enclosing the coat-of-arms of the Serbian lands, and those of the first the portraits of national heroes done by the painter Johann Jai Kautsky, the scenographer of the Vienna court theatre. The concept of the theatre as a pantheon had already been formulated. As an illustration of its promotion may serve the production of The Dream of Kraljević Marko, a play by Jovan Sterij; Popović which had its première on 30 September 1847. The original painted programme of the auditorium was completely altered by subsequent reconstructions. The ceiling now bears compositions by Stepan Fyodorovich Kolesnikov, a Russian born painter who left Russia after the October Revolution. Soon after the theatre was formally opened, a bust of Prince Mihailo Obrenović was set up in the foyer. It was a gift from the sculptor Petar Ubavkić, a state scholarship holder. Of another two busts of the prince that came later only one has survived, carved in marble in 1872 by the Florentine sculptor Enrico Pazzi. Pazzi was also entrusted with the execution of, monument to the prince, set up in front of the National Theatre building. Early in the twentieth century the foyer received new busts commissioned from Petar Ubavkić by the theatre director Branislav Nušić. Next to the bust of King Alekanda Obrenović were set up those of the writers Joakim Vujić and Jovan Sterija Popović, the architect of a national theatrica repertoire. Branislav Nušić Intended to put busts of the most prominent national actors on display in the foyer. The bust were commissioned, but never executed. His idea was not realized until a few decades later. The understanding of the national theatre as a temple of patriotic religion determined a good part of its repertoire. Ii its early decades, the repertoire included a number of productions with national themes, which may be seen as patriotic religious rituals. Those rituals epitomized concepts underlying the national idea, making them acceptable and understandable to any one member of the public. Celebration of the cult of the nation was common to all patriotic theatrical rituals, which despite all diversity, may be classified into three basic groups. The first included political productions for special occasion such as national holidays official events, anniversaries and jubilees. Those were the so-called "festive productions", for the most part suited to the calendar of state holidays. The second group of patriotic theatrical rituals was intended to celebrate the past, and the third to celebrate the contemporary life of the people. During the theatre's early decades such productions were enthusiastically received by the public, but from the late nine tenth century the subject-matter was increasingly losing interest. As a result, the management was keen on taking them off but the Ministry of Education and Religion, to which the management was directly answerable, insisted on keeping them and for quite obvious political reasons. Pressures came even from the Parliament, which in 1887 required that the theatre should embrace a wider range of "national productions". The state of affairs remained unchanged until World War One when the repertoire of the National Theatre of the newly-formed Kingdom of Serbs, Croats and Slovenes was brought into line with the ideology of integral Yugoslavism.


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