The Story of the Slovak National Theatre

The establishment of the Slovak National Theatre was not an easy task

By The Theatre Institute

Photograph, the ensemble of the Slovak Choir (1913) by unknownThe Theatre Institute

The establishment of the Slovak National Theatre was not an easy task – socially, artistically, managerially, or financially. While other national theatres were created more or less spontaneously following the will and desire of their founders, theatre activities on the Slovak territory were based on the strong tradition of amateur theatre.

Postcard, the City Theatre in Bratislava (the historical building of the Slovak National Theatre) (1919) by unknownThe Theatre Institute

There were a few social and historical obstacles to the foundation of a national theatre: first and foremost, Slovakia was not an independent state, it was part of Austria-Hungary. Bratislava was a nationally diverse city that included Austrians, Hungarians, and Czechs, while the Slovak population was in a minority. The building of what was then the City Theatre (and the future National Theatre) was constructed in late 19th century. 

Collage, members of the Slovak National Theatre Collective (1919) by unknownThe Theatre Institute

The establishment of a national theatre in Slovakia required the implementation of a system which could fund the theatre’s operation. Therefore, the Slovak National Theatre Collective was created in 1919 with the aim to take care of the theatre’s funding and run its economic operations. During the initial years, this financing model brought the theatre to an almost permanent financial crisis, which was why the funding system was soon adapted to a private and entrepreneurial model (1923).

However, it was unthinkable to build independent and professional Slovak theatre using solely Slovak resources. There might have been a very positive attitude to amateur theatre in the Slovak society, but professional theatre was perceived in a negative light. Making a living as an “actor” or “performer” was economically and socially risky, if not morally unacceptable.

Ensemble photograph, Jeřábek’s theatre company, Košice (1919) by unknownThe Theatre Institute

Because there were no professional actors in Slovakia and the theatre wanted to start its operation, the Slovak National Theatre Collective invited the East Bohemian Theatre Company – the Theatre of Associated East Bohemian Cities led by Bedřich Jeřábek. The 1920 opening productions of the National Theatre were Bedřich Smetana’s opera The Kiss, Léo Delibes’s ballet Coppélia, and Czecho-Slovak drama Marysha by Alois and Vilém Mrštík.

Ensemble photograph, Marška, unknown, 1921, From the collection of: The Theatre Institute
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Map, Marška's tour of Slovakia, Soňa Sadilková, 2020, From the collection of: The Theatre Institute
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However, the Slovak National Theatre needed to have Slovak actors in its ensemble. Therefore, it published a bid with the aim to find members of the acting ensemble – after a selection process, the theatre successfully drafted Slovaks Jozef Kello, Andrej Bagar, and Gašpar Arbét. In addition, Janko Borodáč and his future wife Oľga Borodáčová Országhová came from their studies in Prague. In order to promote the newly established National Theatre, the country drama touring company called “Marška” was set up in the 1921–1922 season. Its objective was to tour the whole of Slovakia and spread culture and raise theatre awareness in larger towns. However, because the project was financially very demanding, the touring company operated only for a single season.

Photograph, the building of the Music and Drama Academy for Slovakia (1925/1935) by unknownThe Theatre Institute

Janko Borodáč’s initiative in 1925 led to the opening of the field of drama studies in acting at the private Music School for Slovakia. In 1932, its graduates helped establish an ensemble of Slovak drama at the National Theatre and became useful members of the opera group. The academy gradually became the foundation for future drama education in Slovakia.

Photograph, the City Theatre (Stadttheater) (1934) by unknownThe Theatre Institute

At that time, the Slovak National Theatre had only one building for its operation – the previously mentioned City Theatre. Its Slovak acting ensemble was growing, along its repertory staged in Slovak, but a single stage had to accommodate all kinds of productions – the National Theatre ones (drama, opera, ballet), as well as Hungarian and German productions. Besides, companies from Austria, Germany, and the Czech territory performed there, too.

Photograph, actors of the drama department of the Slovak National Theatre in the radio (1936) by unknownThe Theatre Institute

In the 1932–1933 season, the Czech and Slovak drama department was divided into two separate ensembles. It allowed an extension of the Slovak repertory, catalyzed an advancement of the creative potential in direction, dramaturgy, and acting, and started a rivalry and creative dialogue between the two drama departments.

Document, work permits for the employees of the Slovak National Theatre (1940) by unknownThe Theatre Institute

After the disintegration of the First Czecho-Slovak republic and the outbreak of World War II, the independent Slovak State was established in 1939. The tense situation and the escalating attempts at a universal “Slovakization”, most of the members of the Czech drama department were laid off in 1938. Some of the Czech actors, those who had already managed to adapt to Slovak drama, were granted an exception and could continue developing Slovak culture.

Document, application to keep Martin Gregor in the ensemble of the Slovak National Theatre (1939) by unknownThe Theatre Institute

The country’s new political orientation (the independent Slovak State was virtually under the control of the German Third Reich) resulted in many Czech, as well as Jewish-Slovak artists being forced to leave the theatre. This was in spite of the fact that the artistic director of the drama department, Janko Borodáč, wrote extensive letters explaining to senior institutions why these artists were essential for a due operation of the drama ensemble.

Production photograph, Mária Rázusová-Martáková: Jánošík (1941) by unknownThe Theatre Institute

It was an interesting paradox that in the interwar period, Slovak theatre grew in unexpected ways – more theatres were founded in various towns and cities in Slovakia, all with the tendency to become professional. After the forced departure of the Czech drama department, the Slovak National Theatre started to give opportunities to new artists.

One of these artists was Ferdinand Hoffmann, director, translator, and pioneer of modern Slovak theatre criticism. At that time, Hoffmann was one of the most outstanding and interesting personalities of the Slovak National Theatre. As a director, Hoffmann favoured strong metaphorization and tried contemporize the staged material. This, of course, became a fly in the ointment of the political regime.

In the production Jánošík, Hoffmann used allegory to criticize the contemporary society, highlighting the conflict between Christian principles and human behaviour. It was an evident reference to the rule of Jozef Tiso, president of the Slovak State, a Catholic priest in charge of the fascist Slovak war-time state. In consequence, Hoffmann’s contract with the National Theatre was not renewed for the following season.   

Stage design, Karel Čapek: The White Disease (1958) by Ladislav VychodilThe Theatre Institute

After World War II, the situation in the National Theatre changed once again. One by one, many of the actors who had had to leave the theatre during the war, or who had worked in other newly established Slovak theatres, started to come back to the National Theatre. It was in this period that eminent stage designer Ladislav Vychodil joined the Slovak National Theatre. In addition to other achievements, Vychodil stood at the establishment of theatre art workshops.

Photograph, the New Stage of the Slovak National Theatre (1946) by unknownThe Theatre Institute

If the theatre struggled with minimal numbers of Slovak actors in the beginning, the post-war period brought along the opposite problem – there were as many as forty. In 1946, the New Stage of the National Theatre in Bratislava was established, initially in an administrative and artistic affiliation to the National Theatre. In the early 1950s, it separated from the National Theatre and later developed into a theatre housing two ensembles – drama and opera.

The dramaturgy of the New Stage tried to attract audiences by staging contemporary Slovak drama, in the desire to address as many people as possible. Every director at the New Stage had a distinctive poetic style. In addition, it was in this early stage that the first female director – Magda Husáková-Lokvencová – started doing her first productions.

Photograph, the interior of the historical building of the Slovak National Theatre (2009) by Ľubo StachoThe Theatre Institute

The political regime vastly influenced not only the society, but also the operation of theatre. The post-war euphoria, which brought along the repeated establishment of Czechoslovakia, then quickly disappeared when the Communist Party came to power in February 1948. Theatre repertories were suddenly restricted and ideologically controlled – this was also because the Soviet Union supported culture extensively.

The main protagonist of productions was the new socialist, working man. This, of course, greatly interfered with the modern development of dramaturgy of not just the Slovak National Theatre, but theatres in general. 

Production photograph, The Song of Our Spring (1956) by Gejza PodhorskýThe Theatre Institute

In the 1940s and early 1950s, the theatre was experiencing a crisis of spectatorship. The intricate political situation was relieved by the death of Joseph Stalin in 1953. Despite the fact that the Communist regime remained in power, the situation in theatre loosened up and artists could revisit the poetics and innovative approaches to theatremaking of the period before February 1948. The late 1950s and early 1960s were the “golden era” of the Slovak National Theatre.

Photograph, interior of the Pavol Országh Hviezdoslav Theatre (2009) by Olja Triaška StefanovićThe Theatre Institute

In 1955, the drama department of the Slovak National Theatre moved to the new premises on Laurinská street in Bratislava, the building of the Pavol Országh Hviezdoslav Theatre. The opera and ballet ensembles stayed in the historical building.

Production photograph 1, Milan Sládek – Eduard Žlábek: The Bump (1962) by Alexander NagyThe Theatre Institute

The establishment of another theatre, the Small Stage in 1962, initially provided a chance to give the National Theatre an experimental scene; however, the project did not quite meet its expectations. At that time, the outstanding mime artist Milan Sládek settled in the Small Stage (Milan Sládek’s Mime Theatre under the Slovak National Theatre brand). In the 1966–1967 season, however, the theatre was transformed into the independent studio of the Slovak National Theatre. It operated in this format until 2007.   

Photograph, the year ´89 in the Slovak National Theatre (1989) by Jozef BaranThe Theatre Institute

The Slovak National Theatre was present at important social and political moments in Slovak history and initiated many changes. In 1989, the political changes that brought about the fall of the Communist regime and the onset of democracy (the Velvet Revolution) was started in the historical building of the Slovak National Theatre.

Architectural proposals, the new building of the Slovak National Theatre, Ing. arch. Peter Bauer, Ing. arch. Martin Kusý, Ing. arch. Pavol Paňák, 1993, From the collection of: The Theatre Institute
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Model, the new building of the Slovak National Theatre, Ing. arch. Peter Bauer, Ing. arch. Martin Kusý, Ing. arch. Pavol Paňák, 1993, From the collection of: The Theatre Institute
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  Today, the Slovak National Theatre resides in a modern neighbourhood of Bratislava, near the bank of the Danube river. The issue of building a new, representative building for the National Theatre goes back to the late 1960s. A nationwide, anonymous public competition was announced in 1979 to select an urbanistic and architectural project to construct a new National Theatre building in Bratislava. The jury evaluated 53 proposals out of the total number of 162 applicants. Before the project was assessed, the location for the new building was selected. There were several potential locations – including places in Bratislava’s historical centre – but eventually the location in the greater centre was chosen because there was a potential for expansion and growth.

Panoramic photograph, the new building of the Slovak National Theatre (2014) by Viera HelbichováThe Theatre Institute

The winning project was proposal No. 20 designed by architects Peter Bauer, Martin Kusý, and Pavol Paňák. The construction of the new building had a very peculiar history because it took nearly thirty years from the competition until completion (1979–2007). The construction itself was made more difficult also because of the fall of Communism in 1989, as well as following the 2004 government decision to pass the construction on to a private international investor with the aim to turn the building into a congress and cultural centre.

A revolt of artists, a petition against the decision, and a public initiative to raise funds to finish the construction eventually prevented the building from being sold to the international investor. At present, all ensembles reside in the new National Theatre building – opera, drama, and ballet. The historical building is also still used for some performances. Metaphorically speaking, the Slovak National Theatre has returned to its roots – all ensembles are under one roof once again.

Credits: Story

The Story of the Slovak National Theatre 
Author: Bohuslava Vaňková 
Slovak proofreading: Mária Kvaššayová 
English translation: Ivan Lacko 
Editors: Vladislava Fekete, Dominika Zaťková 
Production: Marko Popović 
In cooperation withSlovenské národné divadlo

The Theatre Institute has made all possible efforts to identify the authors of the graphic or photographic works used in this publication, as well as to obtain legal permission for their use. If you are the holder of the rights to any of the works used herein, please contact the Theatre Institute: du@theatre.sk.

Credits: All media
The story featured may in some cases have been created by an independent third party and may not always represent the views of the institutions, listed below, who have supplied the content.
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