The National Theatre throughout history


The online collection THE NATIONAL THEATRE THROUGHOUT HISTORY consists of 35 newsreel segments illustrating events from the first half of the 20th century related to the institution. The founding of the most important Czech theatre was at the time an assertion of the nation’s cultural and political emancipation. Over time, the Theatre became a symbol of national identity and a part of the European cultural scene.

The section charting the period of the First Republic (1918-38) includes newsreel segments primarily by the film production company Bratři Deglové (Degl Brothers), while the period of the Protectorate of Bohemia and Moravia (1939-45) is represented by segments from Český zvukový týdeník Aktualita (Czech Aktualita Sound Newsreel).

The collection is prefaced by footage from a spectacular celebration held between 16 and 18 May 1918, the 50th anniversary of the National Theatre’s cornerstone laying. The ceremony took place in the presence of representatives of each Slavic nation of the Austro-Hungarian Empire. The May 1868 laying ceremony of the 26 cornerstones, transported from landmarks all over the country, was already a nationwide political manifestation, and the celebrations caught on camera half a century later followed in its footsteps. Similar to the ceremonial tapping on the stones in 1868, attended by the most important cultural and political figures of the time (František Palacký, Jan Evangelista Purkyně, Josef Wenzig, Josef Jiří Kolár, Bedřich Smetana, Josef Zítek, and others), the celebrations in May 1918 were also attended by the social elite of the time (Karel Kramář, Alois Rašín, Václav Klofáč, Adolf Heyduk, Pavol Országh Hviezdoslav, Alois Jirásek, Karel Kovařovic, Ignát Herrmann, and others). Many prominent public figures associated with the theatre make an appearance in the included newsreel segments from the period of the First Republic, for example, Jaroslav Šafařovič, Stanislav Mojžíš Lom and Karel Neumann, the directors of the theatre; director Karel Hugo Hilar and playwright Otokar Fischer, the heads of drama; composers Karel Kovařovic and Otakar Ostrčil and conductor Václav Talich, the heads of opera; composer Leoš Janáček; the singers Emil Pollert and Marie Calma-Veselá; directors Jiří Frejka, Karel Dostal and Jan Bor; and conductors Karel Nedbal and Zdeněk Chalabala.

Among some important filmed events were, for example, the ceremonial gathering marking the 50 years since the devastating fire of the National Theatre (August 1881) or the recurrent public funerals of leading theatre personalities, such as the actor Eduard Vojan (June 1920) or the opera singer Otakar Mařák (July 1939). International and regional cultural relations are documented in a segment from a guest appearance of the French Théâtre national de L'Opér - Comique in Prague in 1929 or a segment from a rehearsal of Werner Egk's 1942 ballet Joan of Zarissa, which featured the Russian dancer Yelizaveta Nikolska. The collection features famous premieres, such as the 1932 production of Sophocles' tragedy Oedipus Rex with innovative spatial design by Vlastislav Hofman, or the 1939 premiere of Goethe's Faust directed by Karel Dostal. At the turn of the 1920s and 1930s, artists from the avant-garde milieu were also invited to the National Theatre. Jiří Frejka, Vladimír Gamza, and Václav Šulc built upon the creative contributions of K. H. Hilar and attempted to functionally combine traditional theatrical practices with modern avant-garde aesthetics. One of the segments from the 1944 newsreel Aktualita follows Frejka's activities at the Czechoslovak Radio, where he sought to preserve the National Theatre's performances in the form of sound recordings. The clip shows Jiří Frejka and actors Karel Höger, Vlasta Matulová, Jiří Steimar, and Růžena Nasková working on a production of The Winter's Tale in the radio's studio.

The Prague ensemble of the National Theatre staged a performance of Bedřich Smetana's opera Prodaná nevěsta (The Bartered Bride) for the occasion of the opening night of the municipal theatre in Písek in February 1940. The National Theatre’s drama team also appeared as guests in the first performance of Josef Kajetán Tyl's play Incendiary's Daughter at the Vinohrady Theatre in 1944 as part of the 5th-anniversary celebrations of the establishment of the Protectorate.

The collection also includes segments that let viewers look behind the scenes and at the National Theatre’s facilities. One of them shows the construction of sets for a production of the Čapek brothers' play Pictures from the Insects' Life (1932). Another provides a glimpse into the painting workshop at the Apolinář Hospital complex (1940), where set designer Josef Matěj Gottlieb and director Aleš Podhorský oversee the set creation of František Zavřel's Valdštýn production. The set painting workshop also appears in a 1943 segment showing the preparations for a new production of Bedřich Smetana's opera Prodaná nevěsta (The Bartered Bride). Footage from the staff canteen where lunches are being prepared for the employees is also included in the collection. The extras are having lunch, still in costumes. Another segment shows the maintenance and repairing of costumes from the theatre's wardrobe. Unused footage from a 1944 Český zvukový týdeník Aktualita (Czech Aktualita Sound Newsreel) segment peeks into the air raid shelter on the ground floor of the theatre's historic building during a mock alarm. We see people clearing out the presidential box and the costume room and transporting the theatre furnishings and written archival materials to safety in vans.

After the occupation of the Czech lands by German forces and the establishment of the Protectorate of Bohemia and Moravia, the cultural sphere came under the sole control of the Nazi authorities. The leading Czech theatre had to face all kinds of political and administrative duress, restrictions of their repertoire, censorship, demands for propaganda, and banning of artists of Jewish origin and those who didn't comply with the regime. The Protectorate authorities intended to make theatre accessible to the socially weaker sections of the population, especially workers and youth, and the style and contents of performances were gradually tailored to that. In 1939, the drama department moved to the Provisional Theatre located in the Musical Theatre in Karlín. The final preparations of the theatre were attended by actors Zdeněk Štěpánek, Eduard Kohout, and director Jan Bor, were recorded in a Paramount newsreel, while the ceremonial opening of the Provisional National Theatre commenced with a production of The Bartered Bride directed by Hanuš Thein was recorded by the cameras of the Český zvukový týdeník Aktualita (Czech Aktualita Sound Newsreel) in September 1939.

During the Second World War, the National Theatre's activities were somewhat limited, but the extremely successful opera Prodaná nevěsta (The Bartered Bride) was newly staged and performed several more times. Newsreel segments record its showing during the Reich Minister Joseph Goebbels' visit to Prague on 5 November 1940, on the first anniversary of the Protectorate, or as part of the 1943 “Art for Youth” event organised by the Curatorium for the Education of Youth in Bohemia and Moravia. A sad chapter in the theatre's history is revealed in the footage from the 24 June 1942 demonstration “The Czech Theatre Industry’s Pledge to the Reich”, which was held to condemn the assassination of the acting Reich Protector Reinhard Heydrich.

The collection concludes with unassembled film footage from the streets of Prague after the air raid of 14 February 1945, which fortunately didn't damage the historic building of the National Theatre. The warehouse of stage decorations and the set painting workshop near the Apolinář Hospital, however, was greatly affected. Most of the warehouse's large-format works by famous artists were destroyed, as well as some parts of the neo-renaissance building including the set painting workshop, the carpenter's workshop, the prop-making atelier, the painting and photography studios, and the tailor's workshop.

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