1945 – 1975
A Long Way towards Professionalism
The Varaždin theatre entered the new state and political union in 1945 without an ensemble, but with clear guidelines of the new educational and cultural policy that the Communist Party had set before the war as one of the decisive instruments of the revolutionary struggle. Namely, after the establishment of the new government, the theatre and general cultural life in Yugoslavia, equally so in Croatia, was open to the broadly conceived possibilities of comprehensive development, which was entirely dedicated to the so-called new artist, but also to the new consumers of culture, who were called the awakened parts of the people in the reports of the ideologues. The task of art in the new era became so great and lofty, i.e. decisive for “creating a better and more beautiful life”1. Their basic idea was the renewal in the spirit of the widely proclaimed construction of a country in which art becomes a weapon in the fight for a new society.
So as early as in June 1945, and in accordance with the decision of the town’s People’s Committee, the first professional theatre in its history was established in Varaždin, which continues to operate to this day. The high-set goals were a great challenge for the new government, aware of the chronic lack of local artists, so the help, in accordance with the long Osijek-Varaždin tradition, (again!) came from Slavonia, where a large number of artists, mainly from partisan troops, worked. Thus, on June 17, 1945, the first play was performed, it was the nationwide extremely popular one-act play Hard Lessons by Matej Bor, the first Slovenian author to be performed after the war, not only on the Varaždin stage, but also on the Zagreb stage. In accordance with the new rules, the ensemble was formed by autumn, and the head of the first management was Mirko Perković, a young director, former playwright of the Zagreb theatre. The theatre soon gets a new name, in memory of the writer August Cesarac, who was killed by the Ustashas in 1941, but also of the partisan troupe named after him, founded in 19422. The stylistic approach in the first few post-war seasons was strictly imposed – it was about the ubiquitous doctrine of socialist realism as the only possible style in art, which was adopted in our country immediately after the Soviet style in 1945. This
1 D. Dujšin: “Artists see only in the people’s government a full guarantee for the free development and progress of art.” Vjesnik, October 14, 1945, No. 151, 4.
2 Until June 1945, this troupe performed 344 performances in Lika, Kordun and Bania, Moslavina, Slavonia, Primorje, Istria and Slovenia and soon became the Central Theatre Company “August Cesarec”. It experienced the final victory in Trieste in April 1945.
doctrine, under the comprehensive supervision of the Communist Party and its offices for agitation and propaganda (Agitprop), was introduced in all areas of the artistic life of the Second Yugoslavia, including in the newly programmed theatre system. On the stage, one had to look for the bare artistic truth – about the people, about the time, about reality, and in the works of the classics (mostly Russian) the thread that would be used to point the audience to the horrors and monstrosities of capitalism, the degrading life of the exploiting class, and the bad taste of the capitalists. Nevertheless, thanks to the deeply traditional framework of Croatian theatre based on the model that other theatres were emerging at that time, socialist realism remained without clear rules and, accordingly, without a unique implementation and response of artists, surviving on the stages until 1949, when, after the Tito’s conflict with Stalin, the entire Yugoslav culture turned to Western influences.3
The ensemble, which began its first season on October 10, 1945, with the same title as the Zagreb Drama, Bogović’s Matija Gubec, is joined by some members of the Zagreb ensemble: actor and director Viktor Bek, a favourite of Varaždin audiences in the twenties, character comedian Zvonko Strmac who will rehearse his first professional steps precisely on this stage, before going to other Croatian theatres. Then, Zvonimir Đukes (a native of Varaždin) arrived in Varaždin from Zagreb, who would remain in the ensemble until 1949, when he moved to Zagreb, then Rijeka and Priština (where he would stay until his retirement and the end of his life in 1979), then Dragica Pregarac-Stiplošek, Nevenka Stazić, Marica Stilinović, Sabrija Biser, Eugen Franjković and Franjo Majetić, a member of the August Cesarec troupe, who, after a previous rich amateur career in Varaždin, will develop into one of our best comedians, both on stage, film and TV productions, especially directed by Kreša Golik. He died in Varaždin at the end of 1991, and he was a member of the ensemble (in which he also excelled in operetta performances) on two occasions: 1945-1947 and 1964-1969. In 1947, partisan Dujam Biluš comes, for just one season, before leaving for Karlovac as director.
At the same time, in addition to drama, a musical branch is also organized (primarily operetta, rarely opera and ballet), and the orchestra is made up of volunteers, part-time members and members of the military orchestra. Some members of the choir of the Zagreb Opera joined the ensemble, for example baritone Ante Jolić Sladoljev, who stays in Varaždin until 1949, when he leaves for Subotica.
3 In that period, the following dramatic texts were performed in Varaždin: T. Brezovacki, Diogeneš; B. Nušić, A Suspicious Person; M. Božić, Retraction and The Bridge; L. A. Ostrovski, Guilty without Guilt; M. Kranjec, The Way of Crime; M. Pucova, Fire and Ashes and Operation; R. Filipović, Ambushes; D. Gervais, The Ship Has Sailed Away; G. B. Shaw, Pygmalion; J. B. P. Molière, Scapin the Schemer; L. de Vega, The Knight of Miracles.
Soon, in the late 40s and early 50s, a new wave of “newcomers” from Zagreb will follow: Gizela Huml, Branko Špoljar, Josip Martinčević – another native of Varaždin who will stay for several seasons and many others – things changed by the end of that “self-governing” decade, about 70 of them. They were directed by: Viktor Bek, Marko Fotez, Mirko Perković, Branko Špoljar, Slavko Andres, Borivoj Šembera… and almost all sets and costumes, in over 40 plays, were designed by the exceptionally gifted painter Pavle Vojković, a theatre student of Tomislav Krizman.4
The new, only apparently transformed theatre that retains the pre-war organizational and management model, soon, after the decline of the first revolutionary enthusiasm, is faced with more than limited financial and personnel opportunities in which, in addition to the chronic lack of professional and artistic personnel, on the one hand, excessive cultural political visions on the other hand. In such a rather chaotic implementation of the new political-economic reorientation of the entire society, the bourgeois class, in accordance with the ideological framework, had to give way to the worker-peasant class, which did not know any theatrical tradition. Although there was a huge interest in the so-called broad masses of the people for theatre and theatre art, it could not be satisfied due to the lack of schools that would train both artistic, management, administrative and technical staff, and in the first years, people who had no experience with theatre were placed at the head of most theatre administrations in Yugoslavia. Many of them came from partisan and amateur groups that were founded across the country in numerous centres of culture, and which had a great pedagogical, cultural and political-educational function. It was from their music, drama and folklore sections that new members were recruited in all the new provincial theatres. Those that filled the most of their personnel from such a personnel pool were Zadar, Rijeka, Osijek and – Varaždin. Thus, it was not until 1948 that a permanent orchestra was founded in Varaždin, which also performed in the surrounding area, and which, performing operettas (only one opera!), gradually grew in strength, until in 1955 it had as many as 32 permanent members. It is the year in which the decade-long consolidation of both the ensemble and the entire Theatre was completed. The most prominent directors in this period are Milan Drašković, actor and director (1947-1949), and then, in addition to the aforementioned, Biluš and Perković and the conductors Josip Vrhovski (1948/49) and Joso Martinčević (1949/50), Ivo Torić (1950/51), Robert Horn (1951-1953), Ivan Milčetić Jr. (1955/56) and Franjo Vukalović (in short periods between all of the above, i.e. from 1948 to 1955) – few of them are artists, most of them only have administrative-political functions.
4 Among Vojković’s designs, Shakespeare’s As You Like It (1949), Ostrovski’s The Forest (1956), Nušić’s Autobiography (1962) and Krleža’s Vučjak (1975) cannot be overlooked.
The most chronic problem of all our theatre administrations was the lack of directing staff. There were few directors in the whole country – in Varaždin (as well as in Dubrovnik, Bjelovar and Karlovac, for example), there was not a single one, so this duty was performed by older actors who often had young trainees with them, the so-called assistant directors, i.e. those actors “who, over a year or two, gained directing experience from professional directors” (Theatre in Yugoslavia. 1955, 2) In addition to directors, especially those of the musical branch, there was a chronic lack of conductors, singers, dancers, choreographers and musicians in general. Only in Zagreb and Rijeka were the operas complete and of high quality. All this had an impact on the artistic level of the performances, which the insufficiently developed local criticism did not yet know how to point out.
Finally, in the mid-1950s, in Varaždin, despite all the problems with the implementation of the new doctrine of self-management, the first major deprovincialization, i.e. the renewal of the ensemble with young professional forces, mainly students of Branko Gavella and Bojan Stupica, actors of the first generation of actors who graduated from the Zagreb Academy, founded in 1950, will follow. Sanda Langerholz, Branka Lončar, Žuža Ergeny, Ivan Rogulja and Martin Bahmec got involved. The season before, Martin Sagner was hired, and a little later Ivo Serdar, who immediately became the most prominent champion and one of the best Yugoslav actors of his generation. Along with him are Zvonimir Torjanac, Tomislav Lipljin, and young directors Mladen Feman, Slavko Andres, Vid Fijan and Vladimir Gerić, who will leave the biggest artistic mark of all. The theatre is increasingly turning towards high repertory achievements, among which are some of the greatest successes in its history so far (e.g. Camus’s The Misunderstanding, edited by V. Gerić, 1961). In addition, the Chamber Stage is being renovated, which turns to experimentation and mainly performs contemporary world repertoire from Sartre to Camus to O’Neill and Krleža. In just five seasons, the Theatre produced as many as 67 premieres, of which 14 were Croatian. It continues, with many world classics and research in the Kajkavian repertoire (Brezovački, Kolar), but also in contemporary Croatian drama (Matković, Roksandić, Cesarec, Horvat…). As many as 18 of them were directed by Gerić, he also acted as set designer for 29 of them, and for some as a translator.
Except for the 1963-1964 season, when it was closed by the decision of the founders and due to the catastrophic financial situation, most of the employees were fired, until the end of this period it operated continuously as a drama theatre that recorded only occasional ups and downs, a significant decrease in the audience in the auditorium, and mostly provincial repertoire. In addition to the occasional operetta, ballet and the occasional opera performance, the theatre choir and orchestra (led by Hauptfeld, Ščedrov, Oreški and Peharda) presents mostly symphony concerts. In 1964, 18 new actors from almost all parts of Yugoslavia were recruited to the theatre based on a public call. Among them are Franjo Majetić (for the second time), Nevenka Stazić, Smiljka Bencet, Mirko Švec, Antonija Ćutić, Ivan Lovriček, Ljudevit Gerovac… Performances are increasingly being performed in smaller provincial towns where comedies achieve the most success (the most successful of all Goldoni’s The Liar, The Bald Singer, Matijaš Grabancijaš the Student, and Tonka’s Only Love by A. Cesarac), unfortunately, too often also the commercial ones that flatter the audience.
Finally, director Vid Fijan, a true theatre man with an artistic vision, insists on Croatian titles, of which the contemporary ones are remembered to this day, such as Krleža’s Leda, Matković’s The Case of the Graduate Wagner, and the most successful – The Death of Stjepan Radić by Tomislav Bakarić directed by Petar Veček and Brešan’s A Preformance in the Village of Mrduša Donja… In Fijan’s only three seasons in office, the basement stage was also revived, but the audience still does not return to the Theatre, which was his plan, which he worked diligently on, but he failed to stick to his position. He is being replaced, in order to “clear up the situation”, by Mladen Zorko, a political figure with no theatre experience who started out as a puppet in the hands of a few actors, but fell in love with the theatre and helped it survive despite the wishes of political circles to close it down. However, in the seasons that followed, until 1975, disintegration in the ensemble continued, many left (e.g. longtime champion Nevenka Stazić), but young future champions Ivica Plovanić and Jagoda Kralj arrived. However, the most important thing for the future of this theatre was the arrival of Petar Veček as manager and chief director, who will mark a new period in the history of this theatre, which many rightly call developmental, integrative, even renaissance, with advances in direction and repertoire and professional theatre organization. In this mission, he will primarily be helped by many actors, but also by some directors, the most outstanding of whom is Miro Međimorec. The two of them will lead the Varaždin theatre into prosperous years of continuity, which – with minor and only rarely major falls – has been maintained until today.