The Warsaw Theatreland

In graphics and photographs from the turn of the 19th and 20th century

"Great Theatre", postcard (early 20th century)Teatr Wielki - Polish National Opera

The name “theaterland” comes from 19th century Warsaw's local slang of the early-19th century Warsaw. A theaterplace is a place with theaters – we are easily reminded of similar words, such as marketplace, workplace, landing place. An association with the marketplace is not without merit – after all, the theater started to grow in a place where Marywil, a shopping center, used to be. We can also think of theaterplace as a sort of a marketplace for theaters, for actors, not to mention a vanity fair... Theaterplace rhymes naturally with the word showplace, too.

In the 20th century Mieczysław Rulikowski and Józef Szczublewski, theater historians, reminded us of the “theaterland”. The latter, in particular, has gone to great lengths to restore the use of this word. In its most basic meaning, theaterland described the edifices of Teatr Wielki and Teatr Rozmaitości. The broader meaning also encompassed the city squares in front of the buildings, as well as other stages nearby with organizational links to Teatry Warszawskie: Teatr Letni, Teatr Mały, Teatr Nowości, Teatr Nowy.

"Theatre Square" (1873) by E. Boulay after H. PillatiTeatr Wielki - Polish National Opera

Almost each evening Janina would stroll on Theater Place. If she was in a great hurry, she would only pass through the place, get a glimpse of the Grand Theater and return home again, but if she had plenty of time she would find a seat on the square or on a bench near the tramcar station and from there gaze at the rows of columns, at the lofty profile of the theater's facade and lose herself in dreaming. She somehow felt that those walls drew her irresistibly to them. She experienced moments of deep delight when passing under the colonnade, or when in the calm of a bright night she viewed the long gray mass of the edifice.

That huge stone giant seemed to speak to her and she would listen to the whispers, the echoes, and the sounds that floated from it. Spread out before her in the dim twilight and visible to her soul alone, there would pass before her imagination the scenes that were acted there not long ago.

The Comedienne (1896)
by Władysław Reymont
Translated from Polish by Edmund Obecny

"Theatre Square", postcard (early 20th century)Teatr Wielki - Polish National Opera

The theaterland was one of the liveliest spots in Warsaw around the year 1900. It was close to the Teatralny Square, where a city hall, a cloister, militia headquarters, a church, and numerous shops, were located. Social life was booming in shows, concerts organized by the Warsaw Music Society, and nally – during balls in the city hall and the Redutowe Rooms in Teatr Wielki.

"Theatre Square", postcard (early 20th century)Teatr Wielki - Polish National Opera

This is how one theatregoer remembered a winter night in 1947:

I remember, it was a snowy evening, just like today. Gas lanterns were alight in front of the Town Hall. A ward was walking from one to another with a long stick, adjusting the flame. It was bright around the Town Hall. You could see dozens of candles in candelabra. The streets were full of carts, carriages and trams. (...) I was standing exactly in the same place. I was already dressed up, wearing a tailcoat under an overcoat. I was still wondering whether to head back home or to go to the Wielki.

The windows of the theatre were bright too. Bright is an understatement, the light was blinding. Sleighs kept coming. Whole processions of sleighs. It was all jingling, all snorting. People were staggering out of them, from under sheepskins, with coats and furs barely covering their shoulders, so as not to ruin their costumes. The jingling of sleighs was mixed with a woman’s laughter, incessant, creating some real, enchanted melody. (...)

"The fourth masquerade in Redutowe Rooms" (1883) by S. WolskiTeatr Wielki - Polish National Opera

And it was that womanly, seductive laughter that influenced my decision. I don’t remember leaving my overcoat in the cloakroom, I don’t remember how, caught in a wave of people, I found myself inside. I was overcome by dazzling lights, smell of perfume and a whole chaos of colours. (...) Everything was spinning around, intertwining, melting into one with the music, which, hanging somewhere high above, was Strauss’ most fashionable waltz. The music seemed to penetrate the walls, was mingling with the light. Even the marble pillars seemed to be swaying to the rhythm. (...) I couldn’t recognize the room.

Andrzej Kobyłecki, Inexprimable w prążki. Wspomnienia karnawałowe, "Stolica” 1947 No. 6

"Christmas Fair in Redutowe Rooms" (1872) by J. Styfi A. Zajkowski after X. PillatiTeatr Wielki - Polish National Opera

In the west wing, since the 1830 up until the second world war, a famous café operated under various names: Teatralna, Lourse, Semadeni, Pod Filarami. Its rst owner, Wawrzyniec Lourse, died in 1833, before the café even opened. In 1880 the place was purchased by Bernard Semadeni, and this is when the name Pod Filarami came into usage. The café was spacious, with a cake shop inside, as well as several rooms with tables and a billiard table upstairs. This was the favorite place of all the actors, a peculiar professional meeting place. Luxury stores, where you could buy (or merely look at) jewelry, silver, crystal tableware, and other fancy trinkets, operated right next door.

Scene from Ludzie bez jutra directed by Aleksander Hertz, screenplay by Stanisław Jerzy Kozłowski (premiere 1921)Teatr Wielki - Polish National Opera

A scene from Ludzie bez jutra [People With No Tomorrow], a 1921 film written by Stanisław Jerzy Kozłowski and directed by Aleksander Hertz.

"Great Theatre" (1840) by M. ScholtzTeatr Wielki - Polish National Opera

Teatry Warszawskie (the Warsaw Government Theaters) that the theatreplace consisted of were a huge dramatic company. It all began in 1833, when a building, which was supposed to be named Teatr Narodowy, the National Theater was opened. After the November uprising, however, the Tzar’s authorities censored the use of this name, therefore another one, which was popular already, was used – Teatr Wielki, the Grand Theater.

Teatr Wielki - Polish National Opera today as seen from Teatralny Square.

"In front of the Great Theatre" (1885) by J. Jarmużyński after J. EjsmondTeatr Wielki - Polish National Opera

Three years later, in 1836, a theater stage in the west wing was inaugurated – Teatr Rozmaitości, which was renamed to Teatr Narodowy in 1924. On these two stages opera, drama and ballet were performed. It was only at the end of the 19th century that a distinction arose: Teatr Wielki hosted the opera, Teatr Rozmaitości the dramatic performance.

Illustrations for Miotełki (1829) by Jan Nepomucen LewickiTeatr Wielki - Polish National Opera

Jan Nepomucen Lewicki's illustrations for Miotełki, couplets by Jan Nepomucen Nowakowski for Ferdinand Raimund's play Chłop milionowy, czyli Dziewczyna z świata czarownego staged with music by Jopeph Drechsler at Teatr Narodowy in 1829

"Summer Theatre" (1873) by E. Gorazdowski after H. PillatiTeatr Wielki - Polish National Opera

Summers in the theater building were hot and stuffy; Henryk Sienkiewicz wrote: “the artists on the stage experience all the blessed effects of a steam bath”. Thankfully Teatr Letni, the Summer Theater, was inaugurated in the Saxon Garden in July 1870. It was airy and made of wood. This seat was planned as a temporary one, but in the end it served its purpose for nearly 70 years; it was burned down at the beginning of the second world war.

"Opening of Summer Theatre in Saxon Garden" (1870) by F. ZabłockiTeatr Wielki - Polish National Opera

"Mały Theatre" (1880) by J. S Schübeler after X. PillatiTeatr Wielki - Polish National Opera

Teatr Mały and Teatr Nowości were essential for the beginnings of Warsaw operetta genre.

"Mały Theatre" (1881) by A. Musiałowski, J. Telakowski after X PillatiTeatr Wielki - Polish National Opera

Since 1880 Teatr Mały operated on Daniłowiczowska street.

"Nowości Theatre", postcard (early 20th century)Teatr Wielki - Polish National Opera

It was not a very popular place, as it seems – we have no drawing of it left, no photograph. After its closure at the end of the 19th century, the operetta became successful in the new, comfortable, “smiling” theater – Teatr Nowości.

"Nowy Alkazar Theatre", 1881 (1881) by P. Boczkowski after B. PodbielskiTeatr Wielki - Polish National Opera

Since 1881 Teatr Nowy was situated on Królewska street, where a garden theater Alkazar was formerly situated.

"Nowy Theatre" (1881) by A. Malinowski after X. PillatiTeatr Wielki - Polish National Opera

The theater was supposed to be a competition for privately funded dramatic enterprises. Teatr Nowy was the realm of the raunchy muse, the revue and the cabaret. Operetta and farce ensembles from the Warsaw stages performed here.

Warsaw audience by Animation by Przemysław GrelaTeatr Wielki - Polish National Opera

Warsaw theatre audience

"Theatre on the Island" (1868) by L. DymitrowiczTeatr Wielki - Polish National Opera

From time to time the ensembles from Teatry Warszawskie performed in Łazienki Park. The theater in Stara Pomarańczarnia would revive during the Tzar's visits.

"Theatre on the Island", postcard (early 20th century)Teatr Wielki - Polish National Opera

More frequently, plays were given for the Warsaw public in Teatr na Wodzie.

The Amphitheatre in the Łazienki Park today.

"Tivoli Theatre" (1871) by A. Zajkowski, K. Olszewski after H. PillatiTeatr Wielki - Polish National Opera

For a long time there were numerous bans concerning the work of Warsaw private theater ensembles. The first garden theater in Warsaw – Tivoli, under the direction of Jan Russanowski – was opened on Królewska street for the general public only in 1868.

"Eldorado Garden Theater" (1871) by E. Gorzdowski after X. PillatiTeatr Wielki - Polish National Opera

The name of garden theaters was derived from beer gardens and open-air restaurants for which they were founded. The character of those places was matched by their repertoire – comedies, operettas, and vaudevilles were were the most frequent sight there.

"Summer Theatre Alhambra" (1870) by K. PrzykorskiTeatr Wielki - Polish National Opera

The popularity of garden theaters lasted for nearly 40 years. In 1907 there were close to 50 of them operating in Warsaw.

"Garden Theaters: Wodewil, Bellevue, Alhambra, Eldorado" (1889) by W. SandeckiTeatr Wielki - Polish National Opera

Among them many performed in proximity to the theaterplace: on Królewska street – Tivoli, Alkazar, Arkadia; on Miodowa street – Alhambra, Orfeum; or on Długa street – Eldorado.

"Polski Theatre", photo (1913)Teatr Wielki - Polish National Opera

Two important private ventures are associated with doctor Arnold Szyfman. He founded the first literary cabaret in Warsaw “Momus”, which operated from 1908 to 1910 in Wierzbowa street, in a restaurant called Oaza. The name referred to a comedy magazine published in 1820 by an erstwhile actor of Teatr Narodowy, a distinguished comedian Alojzy Fortunat Żółkowski (the father). Among the authors writing for the Szyfman’s cabaret were some outstanding ones: Adolf Nowaczyński, Leon Schiller, Tadeusz Żeleński-Boy.
Three years after closing down the cabaret, Szyfman surprised everyone by opening Teatr Polski – a private theater with modern equipment (the first revolving stage in Poland) that was a competition for the government theaters. This was the beginning of a new theatre era in Warsaw.

Teatr Polski today as seen from Karasia Street, Warsaw.

Credits: Story

The Warsaw Theatreland

Katarzyna Wodarska-Ogidel

Paweł Płoski

English translation
Hanna Johannesen

Przemysław Grela

The fragment of the film Ludzie bez jutra is presented courtesy of the National Film Archive – Audiovisual Institute, Warsaw



The Warsaw Theatreland was prepared in conjunction with the exhibition The Warsaw Theatreland in graphics and photographs from the turn of the 19th and 20th century

Katarzyna Wodarska-Ogidel

Exhibition script
Katarzyna Wodarska-Ogidel

Organised by
Theatre Museum, Warsaw

Supported by the City of Warsaw

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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