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© Hrvatsko narodno kazalište u Varaždinu

Marijan Varjačić-Varaždinsko kazalište, 1873. – 1945.

Marijan Varjačić


The Varaždin Theatre 1873-1945

In the period from the construction of the present theatre building to 1945, the attempts to establish a permanent theatre ensemble (1898 and 1899), the establishment and operation of the Croatian Drama Society (1900-1915), the establishment and operation of a permanent theatre (1915-1925), guest appearances by the Croatian National Theatre (HNK) in Osijek and the activities of the Society of Croatian Theatre Volunteers and the Workers’ Theatre during the Second World War were prominent.


  1. Varaždin Croatian Theatre Society (1898 -1899)

At the end of 1897, a permanent Croatian theatre was founded in Varaždin under the management of Varaždin native Adolf pl. Femen. Information has been preserved about all members of the theatre; at the beginning of the activity there were 15 actors and 9 employees in auxiliary artistic and technical-administrative jobs. The establishment of a permanent Croatian theatre was supported by the town government: its assembly, the town council, that gave the theatre building to “theatre entrepreneur Adolf Femen” for free. Femen’s venture in Varaždin thus did not remain exclusively private in nature, as it also functioned as a public theatre (free use of the theatre building was a form of subsidy from the local authorities).

 From 30 January to 17 April 1898 Femen staged 37 performances in Varaždin. The repertoire included as many as 15 works by Croatian writers, which was a lot for that time. Folk plays, “singing plays”, “jokes”, “cheerful plays” etc. predominate; many of these pieces were shown in the 80s and 90s in Zagreb, some just before the performance in Varaždin. Among the more ambitious repertoire moves, let’s mention Ivo Vojnović’s The Equinox and Psyche, and real discovery on Femen’s menu was the premiere performance of the operetta Matek i Janica. The operetta is entirely from Varaždin; the libretto in the Kajkavian dialect was sung by Ljudevit Varjačić, and the music was composed by Ante Stöhr, both from Varaždin. In a revival, Janica was sung by Gabrijela Horvat from Varaždin, who became the principal singer in the Narodno divadle (National Theatre) in Prague for decades.

Dragutin Freudenreich, Paula Grbić, Ljerka Šram, Arnošt Grund and Sofija Borštnik, all then members of the Croatian National Theatre in Zagreb, performed as guests in the plays. We assume that all the performances were directed by Adolf Femen, and he also played in most of them.

At the end of April 1898, Femen’s theatre went on a tour in Croatia, which would last until the end of that year. It is evidenced that it visited Bjelovar, Đakovo, Vinkovci, Vukovar, Gospić and Karlovac, and it certainly performed in many other Croatian towns. For example, in Đakovo, Bishop J. J. Strossmayer received Femen and the actress Borštnikova in the audience and they had lunch with him. The theatre visited Karlovac from 4 to 29 December 1898 with 17 performances. On the tour, the performances that had been staged in Varaždin were performed, and many new theatre plays were staged, as well (for example The Return and The Rotten Home by Srđan Tucić, The Power of Darkness by L. N. Tolstoy, Guys on Board operetta by I. Zajc).

In January 1899 Femen returned to Varaždin, where his theatre was performing until the end of March and then stopped activities. In the several last performances, Andrija Fijan, Ljerka Šram and Micika Huth Freudenreich acted as guest players. Femen’s theatre in Varaždin and on tour staged 70 titles (that much is known so far), with more than 30 actors, not including guest players from the National Theatre in Zagreb.

The people of Varaždin hoped that Femen would succeed in “establishing” their theatre and that it would become “another permanent drama society, as the already one existing in Zagreb” (Hrvatska pošta, Varaždin, No. 31, 26 October 1898).  However, due to the lack of substantial financial support from the local authorities, he was unable to maintain its activity. However, Femen’s theatre is an important episode in Varaždin and Croatian theatre history; although it was working for only one year and spent most of that time on tours in Croatia, it remained, after the one in Zagreb, the second professional theatre in Croatia.

Finally, something about the name Varaždin Croatian Theatre Society. In newspapers from that time, several names that are very similar can be found (e.g. the Varaždin Croatian Theatre and the Varaždin Theatre Society). It is believed that it is appropriate to opt for the name that Femen himself chose, that is found on preserved posters; it is precisely the Varaždin Croatian Theatre Society.


  1. Permanent Theatre of the Croatian Drama Society in Varaždin (1899– 1900)

The Croatian Drama Society was founded in Varaždin on 2 February 1898. The well-known philologist and literary historian Ivan Milčetić was elected president of the Society. In paragraph 3 of the Rules of the Society, it is defined: “The Society shall achieve its purpose: a) By making efforts to enable a permanent Croatian theatre in Varaždin, and until this is possible, the Society will be subsidy, for a particular season, a Croatian troupe, drama or opera, (…).”

As early as on 22 October 1899, at the extraordinary assembly of the Croatian Drama Society, a decision was made to establish a permanent Croatian theatre. The Society hired actors, determined the repertoire, and appointed Dragutin Freudenreich as artistic director. The ensemble consisted of 15 actors, and Freudenreich also performing in most of the plays. The ensemble involved six actors from Femen’s theatre. The Society performed 28 titles in Varaždin in the period from 9 September 1899 to 14 January 1900. Then it went on tour in Croatia and Bosnia and until the end of 1900 performed under name the Croatian Drama Theatre in Varaždin. For example, in Karlovac it weas performing from 4 August 1900 and in Mostar during the entire month of November. The Society repertoire was well-considered as a combination of lighter pieces and classic plays (Molièr’s comedies The Miser, The Imaginary Invalid, The Pretentious Young Ladies, Shakespeare’s The Merchant of Venice, Goldoni’s Mirandolina, Schiller’s The Robbers). In addition to the actors permanently engaged, Marija Ružička-Strozzi, Ljerka Šram (in three performances), Mišo Dimitrijević, Ignjat Borštnik and Vera Hržić, all from the Croatian National Theatre in Zagreb, acted as guest players). This second permanent Croatian Theatre in Varaždin did not manage to survive either, and thus Varaždin again remained without a permanent theatre until 1915.


3.  Croatian Drama Society in Varaždin (1900 – 1915)

The permanent Croatian Drama Theatre did not survive, but the Society continues to work in accordance with its rules; organizing theatre life in the town, not forgetting its main goal: the establishment of a permanent theatre.

From 1900 to 1915, Croatian Drama Theatre managed to engage the Croatian National Theatre from Zagreb (1900-1901), Croatian National Regional Theatre (1911), Petar Ćirić’s Theatre Company (1902, 1903-1904, 1904-1905, 1906-1907), the Croatian National Theatre from Osijek (1907, drama group 1908, 1910, 1912 and 1913), the Slovenian National Theatre from Ljubljana (1905 and 1907), drama group of Sofija Borštnik’s (1909) and others in Varaždin.

As early as in 1903, the Society “confidently hopes (…) to create a permanent company by autumn”. The idea of a permanent theatre did not come true. In 1905, the Society again revived the idea of a permanent theatre, this time for several Croatian towns. Osijek and Varaždin were the first to support this idea. The mayor of Varaždin, Gustav Breitenfeld, convened a conference of town representatives, which was held in Zagreb on 7 December 1905, related to founding a permanent theatre “for all our towns except Zagreb” (because it, in fact, had a theatre). The official representatives of Osijek, Bjelovar, Sisak, Križevci, Koprivnica, Kostajnica, Krapina and, of course, Varaždin responded. The Basis of the Second Croatian Theatre, compiled by Nikola Milan, was discussed; it was proposed that the new theatre start operating on 1 October 1906 in Varaždin. primarily because not all the towns wanted or could not support it financially. It was supported mostly by Osijek and Varaždin, which eventually each established a permanent theatre separately.

The Croatian Drama Theatre, once again, in 1906, on the occasion of the arrival of the Ban/Viceroy Count Pejačević in Varaždin, presented its idea of establishing theatres in several Croatian towns, and also submitted a “memorandum on that matter” to the Ban. The Ban offered them a land subsidy “if the provincial towns provide their support”. The towns “accepted the idea with enthusiasm”, but did not provide support. At the main regular assembly of the Croatian Drama Theatre in 1908, the long-time president of the Society (since its foundation in 1898) Ivan Milčetić “relinquished his honour”, and Oskar Lypolt was elected president (I. Milčetić remained a member of the Board).

One of the sources of funding the Croatian Drama Theatre was a subsidy from the town of Varaždin (1,000 crowns around 1909). Then the Society did not pay for the use of the theatre building. From today’s point of view, the Croatian Drama Theatre had the status of a “theatre house” (a theatre without a permanent ensemble). We do not know when the Society formally ceased to exist; there is no news about its activity after 1915. The raison d`être of the Society ends in the autumn of 1915 with the achievement of the goal – the establishment of a permanent theatre in Varaždin.


  1. Civic Theatre as a Permanent Croatian Theatre in Varaždin (1915 – 1925)

The Town Theatre was opened as a permanent Croatian Theatre in Varaždin with the performance of Kálmán’s operetta The Good Comrade on 11 December 1915. The Theatre was founded during the First World War, when theatres were usually closed (e.g. in regions: in Ljubljana and Novi Sad). At that time, it was one of only three professional theatres in Croatia.

From December 1915 to the spring of 1925, 225 plays were premiered: 191 dramas and 34 musicals. The main feature of the repertoire is diversity. All significant names of Croatian dramatic literature are represented (Srđan Tucić, Milan Ogrizović, Milan Begović, P. Petrović Pecija, Josip Kulundžić, Ulderiko Donadini, Ivo Vojnović, Tituš Brezovački and others). In Varaždin, the works of Croatian authors were premiered or they were staged very quickly. Many representative names among foreign authors were also represented (A. Strindberg, G. B. Shaw, F. Schiller, Molière, A. P. Chekhov, H. Ibsen, A. Schnitzler, H. Sudermann, K. Schönherr, F. Molnár and others). There were also Croatian premieres of foreign playwrights (e.g. Liliom by F. Molnár, Scampolo by D. Niccodemi, Ono by K. Schönherr).

 The operetta repertoire is rich, and operas are also performed. The most performed authors are I. Kálmán, L. Fall, F. Hervé, F. Lehár, F. Flotow. Croatian composers Ivan Zajc and Srećko Albini were also performed. Some operettas were performed for the first time in Croatia. Concerts of opera arias and operetta evenings were organized. The Theatre also performed plays for children in its repertoire.

In ten years, there were more than a hundred artists (actors, singers, conductors, directors) in constant engagement. For example, in the 1918-1919 season, there were 37 actors and singers in the ensemble. In Varaždin at that time, many known names of the Croatian theatre were active: Zvonimir Rogoz, August Cilić, Branko Tepavac, Ančica Mitrović, Milan Šepec, Viktor Bek, Alfred Grünhut, Milan Orlović, Dejan Dubajić, Josip Martinčević, Đuro Trbuhović, Vatroslav Hladić and others.

 Although the ensemble was numerous, the principals of the Zagreb theatre are also engaged as guest actors: Ivo Raić, Marija Ružička-Strozzi, Nina Vavra, Milica Mihičić, Borivoj Rašković, Ignac Borštnik and Ivan Badalić.

The largest number of plays were directed by Branko Tepavac, Zvonimir Rogoz, August Cilić, K. K. Bachmann, Viktor Bek and Andro Mitrović.

Andro Mitrović was the director for seven seasons (1915-1922). He was distinguished by his education, determination, enthusiasm for actors; we can without hesitation count him among the most deserving in the history of the professional theatre in Varaždin.

After Mitrović’s leaving Varaždin, the Theatre fell into a crisis; its new director Josif Osipović, to put it mildly, did not cope and left Varaždin after a short season.

Branko Tepavac was appointed managing director in 1924. He managed the Theatre for only one season (1924-25), but achieved exceptional results. His idea of an intimate theatre and its, albeit short-lived, realization in Varaždin left a mark on the Croatian theatre scene. It was a chamber theatre, characterized by very serious work in the preparation of the play and a high artistic reach as the primary goal. A representative example in this regard was Josip Kulundžić’s performance of Midnight, about which some critics wrote with enthusiasm.

From spring of 1925 Varaždin was without a permanent theatre; its Theatre did not receive the status of a “regional” theatre, its state subsidy was terminated, and “the town of Varaždin had a completely platonic attitude towards the Theatre.” (Filić)


5. Varaždin as the Second Focal Point of Osijek Theatre

Theatrical connections between Osijek and Varaždin were established as early as 1905, when the Croatian Drama Society in Varaždin, led by Ivan Milčetić, proposed the establishment of a kind of joint theatre for several Croatian towns, with focal point in Varaždin and Osijek. The idea was not realised, but it encouraged the people of Osijek to do it alone.

In 1907, a permanent Croatian theatre was established in Osijek. The Osijek theatre began to operate due to a combination of circumstances in Varaždin; it performed its first 13 premiers here.

From 1907 to 1942, in the periods when Varaždin did not have a permanent theatre, the Osijek theatre held theatre seasons in the Varaždin (that’s what we can sometimes call as multi-month visits): there were 17 of them in total! According to information found so far, the repertoire includes 303 titles (dramas, operas and operettas).

Also worth noting is that the name of this section is not arbitrary; in the booklet “Guest Performance in Varaždin”, which was printed by the people of Osijek in 1942, it was recorded: “The Croatian National Theatre in Osijek began its regular guest performances to Varaždin on 16 May 1942, its second focal point.”


6. The Theatre during the Second World War (1941 – 1945)

Nothing was written (nor spoken!) about the Theatre during the Independent State of Croatia (NDH).  Even in 1991, when I started collecting sources for the matter, I noticed caution, even fear. Little by little, it was revealed that theatre life in Varaždin flourished, so to speak, during the Second World War.

 At the end of 1942, the Society of Croatian Theatre Volunteers was established, in which the painter Pavle Vojković was the most prominent personality, and Rudolf Kutnjak headed the board. Most of the Society’s members were active before the war in the Croatian Catholic Educational Society, which organized plays in the Catholic Home: it seems that its last plays were the operetta The Radio Device by R. Kutnjak in September 1941 (Josip Klima played in the orchestra) and the comedy The Controllor by Ivo Lamza in September 1942.

The Society of Croatian Theatre Volunteers sets itself the main goal of re-establishing a permanent theatre in Varaždin, and until then it will perform voluntary plays. It received financial support from the Town, the Ministry of Culture and many Varaždin companies. From 1944, it was called the Privileged Theatre of Croatian Theatre Volunteers; it is probably related to the state subsidy.

In three seasons, the Society premiered 17 titles, which were performed over 70 times (the last performance was held on 11 March 1945). News reports say that the theatre was always full.  The repertoire is of very high quality considering it is prepared by volunteers; for example; Diogeneš by Tituš Brezovacki, Scampolo by Darius Niccodemi, The Lordly Child by Kalman Mesarić. Milan Drašković directed most of the plays.

During the Second World War, Varaždin had another volunteer theatre: I. Croatian Privileged Workers’ Theatre, founded in December 1942 within the Cultural and Educational Community of Croatian Workers Union. This theatre also had its own building (former The Temple). The Workers’ Theatre staged, as far as has been determined, 17 plays (the last performance was on 25 March 1945). The artistic director of the theatre was Toni Hunjet, a member of the ensemble of the Croatian National Theatre in Osijek before coming to Varaždin. Milan Remar prepared some theatrical plays for children.

In addition to those mentioned ones, many people from Varaždin were active in the Society of Croatian Theatre Volunteers and in the Workers’ Theatre, and were also active in the theatre and cultural life of the town after the war: for example, Milan Drašković, Zvonko Đukes, Jelka Bendelja, Adela Špac, Antun Kujavec, Franjo Vukalović, Milka Jerbić, Stjepan Kancijan, Joža Vresk, Vera Kuntner, Andrija Kuštović.



Varjačić, Marijan, Varaždinsko hrvatsko kazališno društvo, Repertoar hrvatskih kazališta, knjiga 3,

prepared and edited by Branko Hećimović, HAZU, Agm, Zagreb, 2002., page 313-317.

Varjačić, Marijan, Hrvatsko dramatsko društvo u Varaždinu, Repertoar hrvatskih kazališta, knjiga 3,

prepared and edited by Branko Hećimović, HAZU, Agm, Zagreb, 2002., page 320-323.

Varjačić, Marijan, Povlašćeno kazalište Društva hrvatskih kazališnih dobrovoljaca, Repertoar hrvatskih kazališta, Book 3, prepared and edited by Hećimović, HAZU, Agm, Zagreb, 2002, page 476-478.

Varjačić, Marijan, I. hrvatsko povlašćeno kazalište HRS-a u Varaždinu, Repertoar hrvatskih kazališta,

Book 3, prepared and edited by Branko Hećimović, HAZU, Agm, Zagreb, 2002, page 478-479.

Varjačić, Marijan, Vrhunci kazališta u Varaždinu u 20. stoljeću, in: Zbornik radova s međunarodnog

znanstvenog skupa održanog 3. i 4. prosinca 2009. u Varaždinu, HAZU, Zavod za znanstveni rad u

Varaždinu, Grad Varaždin, Varaždinska županija, Zagreb-Varaždin 2009., page 644-656.

Varjačić, Marijan, Kazališne veze Osijeka i Varaždina u: Krležini dani u Osijeku 1996., HNK u Osijeku,

Pedagoški fakultet Osijek, Odsjek za povijest hrvatskog kazališta HAZU; Osijek-Zagreb, 1997, page 221-237.