When Stanisław August Poniatowski – as time would tell, the last monarch of the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth – began his reign in November 1764, he attempted to restore the condition of his shattered country. In the spirit of the Enlightenment, faithful to the ideals of the epoch, Stanisław August perceived theatre as a powerful means of public communication, an educational institution and a political instrument aiding a sovereign implementing reforms. As the opening move, he created a permanent company of Polish actors in Warsaw offering a repertoire that was well thought out and addressed to the masses, in addition to French and Italian companies already in operation, supported by their respective sovereigns and by their very nature devoted to the elites. After a year of preparations and a run of newspaper articles written in support of the undertaking, Teatr Narodowy – the Polish National Theatre – was inaugurated on 19 November 1765 with a performance of Józef Bielawski’s comedy “The Interlopers” (“Natręci”).
Stanisław August’s political activity proved inefficient and ineffective; Poland had suffered heavily from rebellions and successive partitions inflicted by powerful neighbouring countries. The first Teatr Narodowy company broke up after two short seasons. Nevertheless, Stanisław August had created a precedent and a point of reference; various political circles attempted to revive the Theatre in the following years, contributing to a fascinating history of intrigues and battles for power over the most effective mass medium of its day.
The Theatre did not have its own place of residence. It was located with other theatre groups in the so-called Operalnia (Place of Operas) at the corner of today’s Marszałkowska and Królewska Streets in central Warsaw. Currently a prominent architectural installation at the site where that building once stood presenting information about the Theatre and its early achievements. The Theatre frequently reappeared then re-disappeared. It changed locations – for a while, it was situated in the rear quarters of the present Presidential Palace.
In 1779, the Theatre acquired its own residence next to Krasiński Square, where the Supreme Court building is currently located. This became the established seat of Teatr Narodowy for the next fifty years – a significant time in the history of the institution, containing the origins of its legend.
In 1783, Wojciech Bogusławski became the first managing director of Teatr Narodowy: actor, opera singer, playwright, translator, excellent organizer – a versatile and enterprising man of the theatre. Bogusławski managed the Theatre with hiatuses until 1814.
Around this time, the final attempt to resolve the shattered condition of the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth was undertaken, crowned by the signing of the first constitution on the continent of Europe on 3 May 1791. Civil war and foreign intervention by neighbouring powers were followed by the partition of the prevailing part of Polish lands; then the unsuccessful insurrection of 1794 – concluding when the Russian army captured Warsaw and conducted a massive slaughter of civilians on the right bank of the Vistula River – was followed by the final partition that ended the existence of the sovereign Polish state. For the following twelve years, Warsaw was incorporated into the Kingdom of Prussia then, with the support of Napoleon, it became the capital of an ephemeral princedom – an ersatz Polish country.
In this time of turmoil, Bogusławski succeeded in devoting the Teatr Narodowy to current affairs vital to the public's interests, and simultaneously created and developed a theatre culture that allowed him to comment on contemporary events. He demanded equality among states, in the name of the Constitution of 3 May 1791. He stigmatized the nobility for plotting with foreign governments. He called for social solidarity prior to the eruption of insurrection, in the comic opera “A Supposed Miracle or Cracovians and Mountaineers” (“Cud mniemany czyli Krakowiacyi i Górale”) – operating under foreign rule, he was forced to use the form of allusion. Historical circumstances have caused allusiveness to become a characteristic feature in the Polish repertoire for the next two hundred years.
Bogusławski introduced highbrow literature to Polish theatre; he staged Shakespeare dramas; he was particular about staging performances à grand spectacle. Most importantly, he created the formula of civil theatre, wisely – and not always directly – referring to current affairs crucial to the Polish audience. Bogusławski is considered the true father of the national stage, although he joined Teatr Narodowy a dozen years after the institution's birth. His stands stands in front of the Theatre, and a medallion with his profile remains the emblem of the institution.
"Cud mniemany, czyli Krakowiacy i Górale" / "The Pretended Miracle, or Krakovians and Highlanders", the vaudeville with Jan Stefani’s music to Wojciech Bogusławski’s libretto was staged on Sunday, 1st March 1794, in Teatr Narodowy in Warsaw. It is considered the first national opera. In view of the tense political situation before the third partition of Poland, the Polish text can be regarded as a masterpiece of allusion. It is no accident that the words "freedom" and "whole" appear in its choral parts; the aim of the libretto was to raise the spirits of Poles in the period of the partitions.
"La Brouette du Vinaigrier" / "The Vinegar Seller’s" - the French bourgeois drama by Louis-Sébastien Mercier praises the third estate – small merchants and craftsmen. It supports their right to social advancement. The work was translated into Polish for Teatr Narodowy and staged in 1790 by Wojciech Bogusławski, who played the title role of the vinegar seller, Dominique.
"Ludgarda” by Kropiński; Wojciech Bogusławski (Nałęcz) – a tragedy staged in 1816. As a poet and playwright, he combined the elements of classicism and sentimentalism.
Agnieszka Truskolaska (1755–1831), the most outstanding Polish actress of the Enlightenment and a singer. In the team of Teatr Narodowy she gained the leading position as the performer of the first romantic leads. Her best parts include the eponymous role in Voltaire’s "Mérope" (1792) and Camille in Corneille’s "Horace" (1802). In 1795, after the third partition of Poland, Truskolaska together with her husband organized a group of Polish Actors who performed in the building of the former Teatr Narodowy. After her husband’s death in 1797 she took sole charge of the group. Although she ensured the continuity of the Polish cultural institution after the country lost its independence, her company was a run of incessant troubles. Thus, in 1799 she handed the direction over to Wojciech Bogusławski.
The Theatre specialised in Aleksander Fredro’s masterful highbrow comedy. Beginning with his debut play, “Mr Geldhab” (“Pan Geldhab”), the Teatr Narodowy became Fredro's “home”: it staged his dramas during his life, when they belonged to the contemporary repertoire, and once they started to become classics – works that today constitute the classical core of Polish theatre.
In 1831, the decision was taken to construct a multi-branch theatre complex according to Antonio Corazzi’s design, located by the Teatralny (Theatre) Square, as this central location has been called ever since. In the aftermath of a defeated uprising, the Russian authorities prohibited the use of the word National ("Narodowy") and, hence, the edifice bore the name of the Grand Theatre (Teatr Wielki). The Drama company performed most frequently in the right wing of the complex, initially called Varieties (Rozmaitości). Teatr Narodowy has been located in this building ever since.
The Theatre developed into a vast corporation that took the name the Warsaw Government Theatres. The corporation comprised five companies: Opera, Ballet, Drama, Operetta and Farce. The Theatre used several other halls in the neighbourhood; in total there were seven stages in the "district of theatres" and its vicinity – the most characteristic of which was the wooden Summer Theatre (Teatr Letni) in the Saski Garden. Contrary to what its name implies, it was suitable for all-year-round performances and survived until World War II.
As with almost any other theatre stage of the era, the Rozmaitości suffered from numerous fires. The second of these took place on 2 November 1919, less than a year after Poland regained its national independence; this date is considered the symbolic end of the Warsaw Government Theatres. The building was renovated and re-inaugurated as Teatr Narodowy on 2 October 1924 and the Theatre continues to operate in this location to date.
Teatr Wielki – the edifice by the present-day Teatralny Square was built in place of the demolished Marywil (a commercial and service centre). The author of the architectural design, Antonio Corazzi, decided to adapt the eastern wing of Marywil which had been added to the building at the beginning of the 19th century according to Piotr Aigner’s design. It survived until today as the eastern part of the theatre’s facade. After the November Uprising (1830–1831), an unsuccessful attempt to regain independence, the Russian tsar did not agree either to the name “National Theatre” or to the performance of a Polish work on the theatre’s inauguration. Eventually, the Grand Theatre opened with the premiere of “The Barber of Seville” by Gioacchino Rossini (24th February 1833).
Teatr Letni – the wooden building of the theatre was built in 1870 in Saski Garden – it served artists and spectators when the Rozmaitości closed due to hot weather. The auditorium could sit 1000 people, the theatre’s characteristic feature was its perfect acoustics and a spacious stage. In 1890 the building was adapted for all-year-round use. It featured a light repertoire – its opening performance was Offenbach’s “La belle Hélène”. An important detail – the theatre’s walls were built from small planks which functioned like blinds: were placed on bars and overlapped. When needed, the “blinds” were opened and the theatre had full ventilation. Such construction allowed theatregoers without tickets to enjoy the show, at least its auditory aspect. The wooden, temporary construction survived nearly 70 years. The theatre burnt down at the beginning of World War II, in September 1939.
Helena Modrzejewska (1840–1909) – the most outstanding Polish actress of the 19th century, specialising in Shakespearean and tragic roles, the star of Polish stages who conquered American ones too. The ambassador of the Polish cause and culture around the world (predominantly in the USA), promoted the dramatic works of Juliusz Słowacki and – by the end of her career – of Stanisław Wyspiański. She became a legendary artist already in her lifetime.
In contrast to Polish theatres in the regions of the Austrian Partition, which enjoyed more freedom, theatres in Warsaw could only develop via sublimation of the performing arts. Acting skills developed; the 19th century saw the flourishing careers of legendary actors and actresses in Teatr Narodowy. Some continued their careers outside Warsaw, including Bogumił Dawison who had made his debut there but became famous in Germany, and the heroine Helena Modrzejewska (known internationally as Helena Modjeska); others remained faithful for life to the national stage, such as Alojzy Żółkowski, probably the greatest legend in the history of Polish acting. Other outstanding actors of the Warsaw stage included: Jan Królikowski, Bolesław Leszczyński, Bolesław Ładnowski.
The theatre reached the peak of its development under the chairmanship of Sergiej Muchanow, supported by his wife, Maria Kalergis – an eminent figure in the social life of Europe and the promoter of many artists. Limited by omnipresent legal barriers, but, in spite of them, staging exquisite works , the theatre of that time was called "great and sad" by the historian, Józef Szczublewski.
Unnatural conditions in which Teatr Narodowy operated started to prevail over its vitality at the close of the 19th century. In the aftermath of Muchanow’s resignation, under the rule of less competent, though greedy, chairmen, the Theatre was more renowned for its financial scandals than artistic achievements. The most famous of them was the so-called “prince-nez scandal” which involved a leaseholder renting opera glasses and then sharing profits with almost all directors of the Theatres.
Debates over the change in the organization of the Warsaw Government Theatres were never-ending while the stages themselves were in stagnation – despite the constant presence of great actors in the company. At that time, the Theatre became a secondary stage.
As with most any other theatre stage of the era, the Rozmaitości suffered from numerous fires. The second of these took place on 2 November 1919, less than a year after Poland regained its national independence; this date is considered the symbolic end of the Warsaw Government Theatres. The building was renovated and re-inaugurated as Teatr Narodowy (the National Theatre) on 3 October 1924. Despite the name, it was not a state public theatre. The new Teatr Narodowy was managed by municipal authorities, and when an economic crisis caused this patronage to end, a sequence of good and bad fortune followed until finally, in the 1930s, the national stage was incorporated into yet another concern: the Society for Propagation of Theatrical Culture, a public-private partnership.
Apart from organizational issues, the revived Polish nation set enormous, exceedingly high expectations on the restored Teatr Narodowy. Although the Theatre was initially managed by one of the most prominent stage reformers of the time, Juliusz Osterwa (1885–1947), and afterwards by other leading artists of the period including Ludwik Solski, it did not develop a unique style, or even a distinct profile. It presented a handful of extraordinary productions, yet its achievements were overshadowed by other, more distinct and more effectively managed theatres.
During the Second World War, Teatr Narodowy was partly consumed by fire during the bombardment of September 1939, then burned down completely in autumn 1944 during the methodical campaign to demolish Warsaw conducted by German forces after the fall of the Warsaw Uprising.
Ludwik Solski (1855–1954) – Polish actor, director, one of the heads of the National Theatre in the interwar period. As an actor, he impressed with his comprehensive specialization and stylistic diversity, but his roles in the realistic repertoire won him the greatest renown. A person of phenomenal vitality, he appeared on stage for the last time six months before his death.
Stefan Żeromski (author) and Juliusz Osterwa (director, performer of the role of Przełęcki) at work on the play "Uciekła mi przepióreczka…" / "My quail has fled". The premiere was held on 7th February 1925. Żeromski wrote the part of Przełęcki especially for Osterwa. The premiere turned out to be "the best-known presentation of a Polish contemporary actor in the entire interwar period".
Teatr Narodowy was promptly rebuilt after the Second World War with the help of the army; it reopened in December 1949. Then, with the onset of the darkest period of Stalinist terror, culture surrendered to the principles of socialist realism. Although managed by commendable artists such as Władysław Krasnowiecki (1900–1983) and Bohdan Korzeniewski (1905–1992), the Theatre lacked definite shape in the first five years of its existence after the renovation and failed to produce memorable masterpieces.
It had its chance during the period of cultural thaw in the mid 1950s, when it was managed by the prominent director Erwin Axer (1917–2012). He was the first to return to the works of Juliusz Słowacki; ten years after the war, the renovated Theatre presented its first notable production – "Kordian", the symbolic drama studying vagueness in the Polish collective consciousness and its demolition. The excellent main part was performed by Tadeusz Łomnicki, one of the most significant actors of the post-war period. Axer introduced contemporary Polish non-propagandistic drama to the national stage and, most importantly, foreign contemporary drama, including works of Jean-Paul Sartre and Jean Anouilh – a manifestation of "bourgeois ideology”, as it was perceived by the authorities. He also established contemporary, collaborative theatre practice founded on artistic freedom.
Wilam Horzyca (1889–1959), a director who had been removed from public life during the Stalinist period, succeeded Axer after three seasons. He had reached the peak of his artistic career during the interwar period, creating the concept of “Polish monumental theatre” founded on Romantic repertoire. He selected highbrow repertoire for Teatr Narodowy: Racine, Kleist and Cyprian Kamil Norwid, the Polish Romantic whose complex dramas had up until then been regarded as unfit for staging. Horzyca died after the final rehearsal of Norwid’s "Behind the Scenes" ("Za kulisami"), creating and directing the production but not surviving to see the premiere. Władysław Daszewski (1902–1971), a scenographer, became the next managing director of the Theatre for a brief, transitory time.
"Kordian" by Słowacki, director: Erwin Axer, stage design: Władysław Daszewski; Tadeusz Łomnicki (Kordian).The performance was created when the terror of the Stalin regime lessened and the "pre-October" thaw started. Erwin Axer’s adaptation was an apology for the Romantic non-conformism. Against the tide of tradition, the director offered his audience a theatre of the word, reflective drama instead of a monumental performance. Tadeusz Łomnicki (1927–1992) played the title character.
Irena Eichlerówna (1908–1990) – one of the most original and outstanding Polish actresses of the 20th century. She co-operated with Teatr Narodowy for over half a century. Her characteristic, melodious intonation when uttering her lines became legendary.
Kazimierz Dejmek (1924–2002) became director of Teatr Narodowy in 1962. He is recognized as the most prominent managing director of the national stage since Wojciech Bogusławski; furthermore, he transformed the Theatre into the heart of social affairs – even more, an inadvertent initiator of social response.
Dejmek worked systematically and academically towards transforming the Theatre into a genuine centre of Polish theatre tradition: with room for language experiments and practical reflection on past achievements, while seeking new forms of articulation. He introduced 16th-century Polish dramas that had not been staged since their era, thereby familiarizing the audience with the language and pronunciation of former times, as well as re-creating past theatre conventions. He also paid attention to modernity and introduced works by Stanisław Ignacy Witkiewicz, the recently rediscovered interwar avant-garde artist, and new dramas by Tadeusz Różewicz. Fundamental to Dejmek's work was creation of "staple repertoire" – a permanent collection of works to receive various productions on the national stage over the years. He made his programme declaration in 1965 during the Theatre’s two-hundredth anniversary; he had also prepared a statute of the Theatre, which was later rejected by the authorities.
In autumn 1967, Dejmek staged Adam Mickiewicz’s "Forefathers’ Eve" ("Dziady"), a text that is at the core of the Polish theatre tradition, a poetic mystery-drama comprising four parts – loosely fitting, as these were composed in various periods of Mickiewicz's life, with the principal part drawing on persecutions of Polish-Lithuanian youth by the Russian government in Vilnius in 1824. The Dejmek production, with the lead role performed by Gustaw Holoubek (1923–2008), was a great success – received with standing ovations, then shortly after classified by the government as an anti-Soviet manifestation. The staging of "Forefathers’ Eve" was cancelled in the beginning of 1968; the last performance took place on 29 January, concluding with a tempestuous demonstration. The audience left the Theatre and marched towards the Mickiewicz monument on Krakowskie Przedmieście, one of the capital's central thoroughfares; police intervened and arrested the activists. The event initiated a series of academic manifestations that led to one of the most significant transformations in the history of the communist Poland, resulting in the ignominious anti-intelligentsia, anti-Semitic campaign imposed by dark inner circles of the Party. Dejmek was removed from his position in spring 1968.
Adam Hanuszkiewicz (1924–2011) took up the director's post, but suffered the contempt of the theatre community, which believed that by replacing Dejmek, who had been forced out and persecuted, he acted against social solidarity. Yet Hanuszkiewicz became the longest-operating managing director of Teatr Narodowy; he lost his post only after the celebrations of Solidarity then its suppression by martial law in 1982 – paradoxically, because of his vast independence from the authorities. Hanuszkiewicz reached towards the new audience characteristic of a country undergoing a rapid urbanization process – newly educated people unfamiliar with highbrow art, but craving modernity identified with cultural promotion. A new stage, the Small Theatre (Teatr Mały), opened in the city centre, in the basement of one of the largest shopping malls, and the managing director became most noted for his popular, largely progressive productions of Słowacki plays, including “Kordian”, “Beniowski”, and above all, ”Balladyna".
After his removal, the splendid company of actors fell apart and new management, including the otherwise respectable directors Krystyna Skuszanka (1924–2011) and Jerzy Krasowski (1925–2008), failed to gain public acceptance and was treated as a delegate of the military-government junta. Teatr Narodowy was gutted by fire for the fifth time in its history on 9 March 1985, due to a short circuit in electrical circuitry and hazardous conditions. As was then commonly stated, it burned down in humiliation. Apart from th adage just mentioned, probably no other national theatre in Europe has been hit by fire as frequently.
“Balladyna” – the most renowned performance of Adam Hanuszkiewicz’s Teatr Narodowy was seen by a record number of 336,911 spectators. Enchanted by the “multi-styled” and “multi-layered” nature of Słowacki’s masterpiece, the director chose pop culture aesthetics finding the right effects for this romantic play in the theatre machine of the 1970s. Bożena Dykiel as Goplana was wearing a costume stylized to resemble Jane Fonda from “Barbarella” and was riding a Honda motor bike on stage.
In 1997, Krzysztof Torończyk was appointed managing director of the renovated Theatre and Jerzy Grzegorzewski (1939–2005); became artistic director – a former director of theatres in Wrocław and Warsaw, widely perceived as one of the prominent and most original postwar theatre makers in Poland.
Grzegorzewski composed the new theatre company of artists from Warsaw and from the National Stary (Old) Teatr in Kraków, recognized as the best theatre in Poland. His management ran under the banner of the “The House of Wyspiański”. The pivot of the repertoire and the reference point for all artistic undertakings became the Kraków-based playwright, painter, poet, visionary and theatre reformer Stanisław Wyspiański, who died in 1907, and, more broadly, the most prominent works of the Polish 20th-century avant-garde, which usually referred to Wyspiański.
References to Wyspiański also appear in Grzegorzewski's other performances. Having mastered signature theatre he typically worked with unstageable texts, or wrote his own scripts – collages of text fragments cut from various works of his favourite authors, included classics of the 20th century: Różewicz, Witkiewicz and James Joyce. Grzegorzewski introduced Witold Gombrowicz’s plays to Teatr Narodowy.
In his performances, Grzegorzewski created a characteristic, immediately recognizable theatre universe. It was extremely sophisticated visually, filled with “ready-mades”, objects transformed by him to his own needs and reused throughout performances; these included old tram pantographs, boats, plane wings, the insides of grand pianos or old house equipment. Indirect, symbolic artistic performance defined this universe. His productions were so original that many viewers failed to acclimate to his aesthetic and to reach the deep, genuine ideas and feelings behind the performance.
From the very beginning of Grzegorzewski’s tenure, the Theatre struggled with lack of understanding and aversion on the part of critics. The renovated national stage had to face excessive expectations – frequently contrary and at the same time impossible to meet – of extraordinary austerity, even open hostility; all the less-successful productions were harshly judged and the Theatre was accused of not producing enough premieres. Teatr Narodowy was criticized for relying on the work of one artist – moreover, a hermetic, sophisticated artist, and too aristocratic for a broad audience. These accusations were frequently unjust and biased, the claims unattainable, and the burden of expectation placed on the Theatre was impossible for a single institution to carry. Grzegorzewski resigned from his post at the end of the season 2002-03 – ill and approaching retirement age.
In 2003 Jan Englert was appointed a new Artistic Director of Teatr Narodowy in Warsaw. In accordance with the intentions of the current director, Teatr Narodowy became a broad artistic forum, a meeting place for various theatrical aesthetics and artists of all generations.
Jerzy Grzegorzewski remained in the Theatre and directed performances until his death in 2005. The second leading theatre director after Grzegorzewski was one of the noted contemporary Polish theatre makers, Jerzy Jarocki (1929–2012), who cooperated with the National Theatre for the last ten years of his life and made his last five performances there. The Theatre regularly employs young directors. Some have had their Warsaw debuts in Teatr Narodowy; Maja Kleczewska, Agnieszka Olsten and Michał Zadara, all of them widely recognized today, have started this way. Teatr Narodowy regularly invites foreign directors to work, from Jacques Lassalle to Konstantin Bogomolov. Around seven premieres are held each year.
Today, performances in Teatr Narodowy take place on three stages while the company comprises sixty actors. The Theatre is active in the publishing domain and education, and has numerous international links. On average, one performance in its every season is recorded by the Television Theatre.
The National Theatre is often listed as the best stage in the country on critics’ annual rankings.
scenariusz — Tomasz Kubikowski, Michał Smolis - Teatr Narodowy w Warszawie
współpraca — Jakub Drzewiecki - Instytut Teatralny im. Z. Raszewskiego
realizacja dźwięku — Mariusz Maszewski - Teatr Narodowy w Warszawie
realizacja video — Mariusz Chałubek - Teatr Narodowy w Warszawie