History of Czech Theatre

The birth of modern Czech theatre is closely related to national self-awareness. Theatre played a significant role in the development of the Czech identity, acquiring a strong social function that continued to determine its development.

At the beginning of the national revival (at the close of the 18th century), the Patriotic Theatre (Vlastenecké divadlo) (1786–1802) became the centre of Czech theatre, for which domestic authors wrote. The theatre occupied the 'Hut' building, and later the 'U Hybernů' building. In the Nostic (Estates) Theatre, which opened in 1783, German performances prevailed and Czech performances were the minority.

The role of theatre in the national emancipation process and in the moral education of the national society, was emphasised by the generation of the 1830s and 1840s, led by the dramatist J. K. Tyl. The first Czech travelling companies, which started to emerge in the late 1840s, performed his play.

In 1862, the lengthy effort to establish an independent theatrical institution culminated in the construction of the Temporary Theatre. From the 1860s onwards, many travelling companies, amateur ensembles, and new theatre houses were established. 1883 marked the final opening of the showpiece National Theatre building, whose construction was largely financed by a nationwide collection. Regular theatre operations commenced in Plzeň and Brno as well. Most theatres specialised in one genre (drama, opera, operetta, or ballet), and this model has survived to the present day.

From the start of the 20th century, Czech theatre followed determinative style trends: psychological realism, impressionism, symbolism (J. Kvapil, J. Wenig, E. Vojan, H. Kvapilová), and expressionism (K. H. Hilar, V. Hofman).
After the establishment of an independent Czechoslovakia (1918), the number of theatres and ensembles grew. Playwrights such as Karel Čapek and František Langer achieved international acclaim. In the mid-1920s, the development of Czech theatre was significantly influenced by the establishment of the small avant-garde scenes of the young generation. These, in turn, were inspired by the Russian and French avant-garde: the Liberated Theatre (Osvobozené divadlo, 1925, directors J. Frejka and J. Honzl; later the theatre of the author and actor duo of J. Voskovec and J. Werich), as well as the Dada Theatre and the Modern Studio. Avant-garde tendencies peaked in the works of E. F. Burian, whose poetic synthetic theatre influenced many post-war directors (Radok, Krejča).

During the Nazi occupation, theatres bolstered the resistance of Czech society by defending humanist values; however, all theatres were closed in September 1944. After the war, theatres were put under public administration (socialisation) and after the communist coup d’état, in February 1948, they were subjected to the ideological norms of socialist realism, which became the sole creative method.

The political détente after 1956 allowed theatrical creativity to thrive again, and new stages (so-called small theatres) began to form around major artistic figures (Reduta, Divadlo Na zábradlí, Semafor). They were followed by theatres such as the Činoherní klub, Divadlo za branou, and Studio Y in Liberec.

A truly exceptional star, which has shone brightly from 1967 to the present day, is the Jára Cimrman Theatre. It is sustained by plays about a fictitious Czech genius, a parody of a national myth. Ladislav Fialka in the Na zábradlí theatre revived the genre of pantomime, being one of the first in the world to stage ensemble productions.

At the end of the 1950s, Czech scenography achieved worldwide success in the work of F. Tröster and J. Svoboda. The Laterna Magica (established by J. Svoboda, and E. and A. Radok) also achieved international acclaim, combining theatrical and film techniques.

Direction by A. Radok, O. Krejča, J. Grossman, or J. Kačer, in combination with the plays of V. Havel, M. Kundera, J. Topol and L. Smoček, guaranteed an excellent level of Czech theatre in the reform atmosphere of the 1960s.

Following the eradication of the Czechoslovak reform movement by the Warsaw Pact armies, and during the subsequent re-institution of the totalitarian regime, the continuity of theatrical developments was violently disrupted. Many major Czech theatrical authors, directors, and actors were not allowed to work, and the natural centre of the theatre world moved from the closely observed large stages in Prague and Brno to small studio theatres (Divadlo na provázku in Brno, HaDivadlo in Prostějov, the Činoherní studio in Ústí nad Labem) and to provincial scenes. Pantomime productions (C. Turba, B. Hybner, and B. Polívka) and puppet plays (Drak, Naivní divadlo) came to the forefront, enriching the legacy of traditional puppet theatre by animating various objects and combining the use of puppets and live actors.

In the second half of the 1980s, the ideological pressure began to weaken, and theatres started to speak against the regime – clandestinely at first, but subsequently in a direct and open manner. In 1989, people from the world of theatre immediately joined the student strike. Together with students, and dissidents, headed by the dramatist V. Havel, they played a major role in the “Velvet” Revolution.

After the revolution, the artistic authority of large scenes was not successfully renewed. The strong ascending generation of directors (P. Lébl, J. A. Pitínský, H. Burešová, V. Morávek or J. Nebeský) came to the fore in smaller theatres, which were often newly formed. A characteristic trait of recent years has been the development of cross-over disciplines, especially in the sphere of movement and dance theatre and fine-art performances.

Czech Opera

The modern tradition of opera in the Czech language started at the turn of the 19th century, when Czech translations of German and Italian works were frequently staged in Prague (Mozart’s Magic Flute, 1794).

A modern milestone in the history of original Czech work was the 1826 premiere of František Škoup’s opera ‘The Tinker.’ At that time, a Czech ensemble formed in the German opera of the Estates Theatre.

The opening of the Temporary Theatre (1862) gave the mature generation of composers, such as Bedřich Smetana and Antonín Dvořák, an opportunity to lay the creative and interpretative foundations of Czech operatic culture. The National Theatre provided a highly developed orchestra and modern staging options for the opera.

In the 1920s, the composer Leoš Janáček found success abroad. In 1938, the Prague National Theatre became a major scene after staging the premiere of Bohuslav Martinů’s opera Juliette, conducted by Václav Talich. During the post-war era, even opera was adversely affected by the official ideology. Starting in the 1960s, though, major figures came to the fore, especially among directors (Václav Kašlík, after 1990 David Radok) and painters (Josef Svoboda). A representative of the most developed generation of composers of this era is Petr Eben (Jeremiah, 1997).

Last update: 16.8.2011 16:01

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