Pavol Országh Hviezdoslav in Slovak theatre

Pavol Országh (1849 – 1921) was a Slovak writer, poet, translator, and playwright.

By The Theatre Institute

Portrait, Pavol Országh Hviezdoslav (1891/1912) by Pavol SocháňThe Theatre Institute

Pavol Országh (1849 – 1921)

was a Slovak writer, poet, translator, and playwright. His early work included mostly poetry written in Hungarian and later also German. However, he gradually realized that he should write in his mother tongue – in Slovak. Hviezdoslav became an avid reader of Slovak literature. His work was critical of the life of people and society, but expressed through high poetry which he used to address the broadest possible group of recipients.

Portrait, Pavol Országh Hviezdoslav (1891/1912) by Pavol SocháňThe Theatre Institute

Pavol Országh became known as a writer under the name Pavol Országh Hviezdoslav. He chose the name “Hviezdoslav” (which means “the one who celebrates the stars”) because he had always been fascinated by the night sky and the stars in it. In one of his poems, he referred to himself as an admirer of night lights. He started signing his name as Pavol Országh Hviezdoslav in 1877. During his life, he also used many other pseudonyms (H.; Hviezdoslav; P. O.; Son of the People). 

Manuscript – Hviezdoslav's translation of Shakespeare's Hamlet (1903) by Pavol Országh HviezdoslavThe Theatre Institute

Manuscript – Hviezdoslav's translation of Hamlet

Hviezdoslav also worked as a translator and helped several international theatre plays to be produced on Slovak stages. He translated such works as Goethe’s Iphigenia in Tauris, or Shakespeare’s Midsummer Night’s Dream and Hamlet. Following the example of the great Elizabethan playwright, Hviezdoslav wrote the tragedy Herodes and Herodias, which metaphorically reflected on the destiny of the Slovak nation. 

Pavol Országh Hviezdoslav: Herodes and Herodias (20th Century) by Slovak National Theatre, BratislavaThe Theatre Institute

Pavol Országh Hviezdoslav: Herodes and Herodias, 1925

The theatre play Herodes and Herodias was staged by the Slovak National Theatre several times – the first production premiered in 1925, on the occasion of the fifth anniversary of the establishment of the first Slovak theatre scene.

Production photograph, P. O. Hviezdoslav: Herodes and Herodias (1925) by Slovak National Theatre, BratislavaThe Theatre Institute

Pavol Országh Hviezdoslav: Herodes and Herodias, 1925

Directorial approach of Václav Jiřikovský caught the attention of the public and became a success. The production was well rehearsed and meticulously staged.  The premiere was attended by many eminent personalities, including Hviezdoslav’s widow Ilona Országh. 

Costume design, Pavol Országh Hviezdoslav: Herodes and Herodias (1925) by Ľudovít HradskýThe Theatre Institute

Pavol Országh Hviezdoslav: Herodes and Herodias, 1925

Herodes and Herodias relies on a Biblical theme and makes use of pathos enhanced by Hviezdoslav’s verse. The production itself used a great deal of opulent costumes and the stage was dominated by a monumental set – both designed by Ľudovít Hradský, who is now considered to be the first Slovak stage designer.

Costume design, Pavol Országh Hviezdoslav: Herodes and Herodias (1937) by Ľudovít HradskýThe Theatre Institute

So far, Hviezdoslav’s play Herodes and Herodias has been produced nine times – in Bratislava, Košice, Martin, and Nitra. Three productions were directed by Ján Borodáč (1892 – 1964), the eminent member of the founding generation of the Slovak National Theatre.

Production photograph, Pavol Országh Hviezdoslav: Herodes and Herodias (1955) by Slovak National Theatre, BratislavaThe Theatre Institute

Oľga Borodáčová Országhová as Tamar, 1955

Ján Borodáč and his wife Oľga Borodáčová Országhová – two members of the founding generation of the Slovak National Theatre – participated in several productions of Hviezdoslav’s play. 

In the very first production (1925) Borodáčová played the character Johana. In the three following productions, she played the central character of Herodes’s wife Tamar. Her last appearance in the play was the character of the Old Woman in the 1970 production of the Slovak National Theatre.

Stage design, Pavol Országh Hviezdoslav: Herodes and Herodias (1955) by Ladislav VychodilThe Theatre Institute

Hviezdoslav and Ladislav Vychodil

In 1955, a new staging of Herodes and Herodias by director Ján Borodáč was the opening production of a new stage space of the Slovak National Theatre – named after Pavol Országh Hviezdoslav.

Eminent artist Ladislav Vychodil became the stage designer for the opening production.

Stage model, Pavol Országh Hviezdoslav: Herodes and Herodias (1955) by Ladislav VychodilThe Theatre Institute

Hviezdoslav and Ladislav Vychodil

Vychodil’s stage design contained realistic features of the period in which the story takes place. There were massive columns, staircases, oriental and antique props and details in the form of various ornaments. 

Production photograph, Pavol Országh Hviezdoslav: Herodes and Herodias (1955) by Gejza PodhorskýThe Theatre Institute

Pavol Országh Hviezdoslav: Herodes and Herodias, 1955

The production was unique in many respects. It also commemorated the 35th anniversary of the establishment of the National Theatre and the 10th anniversary of the liberation of the country. 
Nevertheless, it lasted 4.5 hours – but the critics did not consider this a problem because of the high-quality staging.

Newspaper article, Pavol Országh Hviezdoslav: The Blood Sonnets – Rachel (1968) by Mária KorcováThe Theatre Institute

Pavol Országh Hviezdoslav: The Blood Sonets - Rachel

Hviezdoslav’s work was also at important events in Slovakia’s history. After the armies of the Warsaw Pact invaded the territory of Czechoslovakia in August 1968, director Jozef Budský worked with the acting ensemble of the Slovak National Theatre to create an artistic reaction to the events. Only 17 days after the invasion, the staged the production of The Bloody Sonnets – Rachel. The text of the play was made from the verses written by Hviezdoslav.

Costume design, Pavol Országh Hviezdoslav: The Blood Sonnets – Rachel (1968) by Helena BezákováThe Theatre Institute

Pavol Országh Hviezdoslav: The Blood Sonnets – Rachel

The production of The Blood Sonnets – Rachel premiered of 7 September 1968 and enjoyed a total of fifteen repeat performances.
The costume design was created by Helena Bezáková.

Production photograph, Pavol Országh Hviezdoslav: Herodes and Herodias (1968) by Jaroslav BarákThe Theatre Institute

Herodes and Herodias in Martin

Herodes and Herodias was staged also in other Slovak theatres. The Slovak National Uprising Theatre in Martin staged the play on the occasion of the 50th anniversary of the establishment of Czechoslovakia, and the 25th anniversary of the foundation of a professional theatre in Martin.

Herodes and Herodias in Martin

The directorial and dramaturgical concept of director Ivan Petrovický set out to focus on the image of a weak man who succumbs to temptation – Herodes as a puppet that is being manipulated and controlled by more powerful people but is still trying to survive and stay in power. 
The idea was very topical considering the social and political situation in Czechoslovakia at that time (the premiere took place in December 1968).

Production photograph, Pavol Országh Hviezdoslav: Herodes and Herodias (1983) by Andrej Bagar Theatre in NitraThe Theatre Institute

Herodes and Herodias in Nitra

Martin Kákoš’s ambitious directorial and dramaturgical concept applied in the 1983 production in the Andrej Bagar Theatre in Nitra introduced various new ideas. The creators eliminated the pathos and the historical-documentary descriptiveness. Stage designer Milan Ferenčík created a big, meaningful stage dominated by a large throne, with a bird of prey hanging above it as a symbol of power. During the performance, the throne kept rising and when it reached the top, it collapsed.

Herodes and Herodias in Nitra

Stage designer Milan Ferenčík created a big, meaningful stage dominated by a large throne, with a bird of prey hanging above it as a symbol of power. During the performance, the throne kept rising and when it reached the top, it collapsed.

Production photograph, Pavol Országh Hviezdoslav: Herodes and Herodias (1990) by Slovak National Theatre, BratislavaThe Theatre Institute

Herodes and Herodias in Slovak National Theatre, 1990

Herodes and Herodias has become a representative play, usually picked by directors and producers to present at various anniversaries. The 1990 production at the Slovak National Theatre (right after the events of the Velvet Revolution in November 1989) were no exception.  

Herodes and Herodias in Slovak National Theatre, 1990

The new director of the theatre Miloš Pietor came up with his own directorial-dramaturgical concept – the main character, Herodes, was viewed as a totalitarian ruler. However, the totalitarian regime the production criticized fell and the message of the play thus became only a memento. 

Production photograph, Pavol Országh Hviezdoslav: Herodes and Herodias (2009) by Andrej ČaneckýThe Theatre Institute

Herodes and Herodias in Slovak National Theatre, 2009

The most recent production of Herodes and Herodias was staged in 2009 by the Slovak National Theatre. Director Roman Polák and his creative team – dramaturg Martin Porubjak and poet Ľubomír Feldek – tried to minimize the aspect of reverence and national promotion feel the play had gradually acquired in the numerous stagings in Slovakia.

Production photograph, Pavol Országh Hviezdoslav: Herodes and Herodias (2009) by Andrej ČaneckýThe Theatre Institute

Herodes and Herodias in Slovak National Theatre, 2009

Pavol Borák created a stage design that was no longer monumental, or with stone stairs, but that used a staircase filled with books – as a literal attribute of Hviezdoslav’s drama, which is considered to be more literary than dramatic.
Costume artist Peter Čanecký combined the elements of quality period materials and their colourfulness with modern clothing.  

Portrait, Pavol Országh Hviezdoslav (1891/1912) by Pavol SocháňThe Theatre Institute

Pavol Országh Hviezdoslav

is, without a doubt, a personality of great importance not only in Slovak literature, but also an author whose work essentially influenced the dramatic arts as well. 
Herodes and Herodias has remained his representative work which will always be a challenge to stage, update, and search for meaning and messages hidden between the lines of blank verse. 

Credits: Story

Pavol Országh Hviezdoslav in Slovak theatre 
Author: Bohuslava Vaňková 
Slovak proofreading: Mária Kvaššayová 
English translation: Ivan Lacko 
Editors: Vladislava Fekete, Dominika Zaťková 
Production: Marko Popović
In cooperation with: Literary Archive of the Slovak National Library, Martin

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