The National Theatre - the "golden chapel" of Czech culture

27-01-2010

No visit to Prague is complete without paying homage to one of the most important buildings in the country in terms of history, symbolism and function: the National Theatre, a physical manifestation of Czech national pride.

The prelude to Bedřich Smetana’s opera Libuše marked the first performance in the Czech National Theatre on the 11th of June, 1881. It’s the most appropriate music imaginable for this defining event in Czech history – in fact it had been composed just for the occasion, ten years earlier. It must have been a tremendously powerful scene to the 2500 people assembled; the nationalistic Czech masterpiece striking through the golden auditorium up to the ears of the newly-wed Austrian Crown Prince Rudolf and his Belgian bride, and all playing out under the famous slogan above the arch “Národ sobě” – “a nation unto itself”.

It is hard to exaggerate the importance of the National Theatre to Czech nationhood. Suffice to say, it was conceived to be the crowning achievement of the national awakening and the cornerstone of Czech culture into the future. The ambition to build it in the mid-19th century is one of the key stories in Czech history and it is told in epic form on the ceremonial curtain of the theatre itself, the largest painting ever made at the time by a Czech artist, first despised and later lauded by the fickle critics of the day. Hemmed by the crests of the towns that lent their stones to make the building’s foundation, Vojtěch Hynais’s work shows the meeting of the artists and craftsmen with the Czech commoners around personifications of Comedy and Tragedy to begin their enterprise. Standing beneath the curtain and against the backdrop of technicians preparing for Jacques Offenbach’s Tales of Hoffman, the theatre’s Olga Simlari helped me imagine the atmosphere in which the National Theatre was conceived.

“The Czech language was disappearing, people were speaking Czech only in the small villages, in Prague there was great influence of German language and German intellectual work, German theatre everywhere. So this Czech intelligentsia started giving rise to these national feelings after the French Revolution in 1848 and they wanted to build their own theatre where they could have plays in the Czech language and celebrate Czech culture.”

And so the story goes that the huddled masses of Czech commoners under the yoke of the Austrian Empire shelled out what little they had to the Czech intelligentsia yearning for their culture to breathe free, the foremost artisans from across the land came together to form what would be called the Generation of the National Theatre. And, interestingly, it’s actually true: the theatre keeps a large book attesting to every sum donated by Czech peasants and villages, with even beggars giving money towards the building of a theatre of the nation. The legend merely omits the fuller picture of the 30-year process of financing, a constant struggle supplemented by absolutely modern methods such as a lottery, corporate donations and royal subsidies. But the building of the National Theatre was never easy, as conservator Petra Straková told me.

“The history of our building is very complicated. For a long time, from 1850, they were trying to buy a construction site from which they could see Prague Castle, Old Town, Petřín – a panorama. They found a very nice place with a salt works, but it was very contaminated and they had to purify it. So after buying the lot, cleaning it and so on, they could start thinking about architects. They had three competitions because they wanted a theatre where people would see only Czech performances under the design of a Czech architect. And the winner was Josef Zítek.”

Zítek was also the architect behind Prague’s grandiose centre of music, Rudofinum, and the famous Mill Colonnade of thermal fountains in the West Bohemian town of Karlovy Vary. But the fact that he was Czech was not the reason for his being selected. His design was immediately appreciated on many levels. For one, it was considered strikingly modern – even for Vienna at the time. For another, it was ideologically perfect – it being said that of all the candidates only Zítek had “grasped the all-important purpose of the monument”. And not least of all the design was exceedingly innovative in the way it worked with its confined space. Owing to the narrow area of the salt-works lot, the final structure was forced into the shape of a trapezoid. To seat 2,500 on such a lot, Zítek thought up a unique, chimney-like auditorium, the height of which presents a challenge for singers and the cheaper seats of which are nothing for the acrophobic.

After 16 years of work on the National Theatre, Zítek never set foot in the finished building though. Nothing about the opening had gone quite according to plan, he was in a row with the building committee. The actors were complaining about the tight space back stage and the public was complaining that they were not allowed in to the theatre that had been intended for the people (the first performance for the proletariat would not in fact be held for another 17 years. 12 performances were held before the National Theatre closed for the summer, and burned to the ground one day in August. Most say it was the fault of tinsmiths installing lightening rods on the wood and copper roof; other theories include nothing less than an act of anti-nationalist terrorists, as we would call them today. Whatever the case, allegedly incompetent firemen obstructed by huge crowds of shocked onlookers failed to save a third of the building, most importantly the auditorium, in what was felt to be a tremendous national tragedy.

“So it’s built in ’81, and suddenly there is a big fire. It was a big tragedy, a big tragedy for everyone who had been giving money and waiting to have their own theatre, and then suddenly nothing. So in the two years that followed, the people collected money again to rebuild the part that was built.”

And thus continues the great tale of the National Theatre. The result is a tour de force of national feeling, with murals by the great artists of the 19th century sprawling from the walls to the ceilings and depicting the romantic history of the Czech lands, an endless gallery of busts immortalising the supermen of Czech culture, and the grand elegance of the design. The importance of this memorial tradition is something that the theatre has to honour even as it navigates the tastes of modern audiences. The director of the National Theatre, Ondřej Černý in his cavernous office overlooking the Prague skyline:

“I think the National Theatre has to be seen in two lines: one is he history and the special place of the National Theatre in social culture in the Czech Republic, because it is really one of the main symbols of the national identity even today. So on the one hand we are obliged to maintain this quite strong historical background. On the other hand is the theatre art we do in the theatres. At this level we have to do innovative and not only classical performances.”

As it moved into the 20th century, the National Theatre expanded far beyond the confines of its central building to become an institution caring for the performance of drama, dance and opera, with roughly a thousand employees and stages ranging from the traditional to the experimental scattered around the city, with the illustrious building with its gold roof as its heart, that Praguers lovingly refer to as the "golden chapel".

27-01-2010