Ceremonious Opening of the Theatre Building in Varaždin
A Brief Historical Overview of the Theatre to 1873
The theatre building was opened in 1873 as the Civic Theatre in Varaždin. This name remained until 1945, when it was named the Croatian National Theatre in Varaždin, but after four months it became the Augusta Cesarec National Theatre. Although it was civic, it has been called the Croatian National Theatre in Varaždin since 1994, and in 2013 it was formally granted national status, and thus the name itself gained true significance.
The theatre in Varaždin has a long tradition; in the Student Theatre of the Jesuit High School in Varaždin, Dr. M. Vanino, in 1917, recorded data on performances from 1636 to 1771. The performances in the high school building were of religious significance, in the moral – educational spirit of the Catholic Counter-Reformation – the actors were students, and the spectators were wealthy citizens, clerks and officers. Jesuit plays were performed in Latin, and the first recorded play in the Croatian language in Varaždin was Tomirida – Croatico idiomate in 1771.
In the middle of the 18th century, when Varaždin was the capital, performances were held in noble palaces as part of frequent dances and unrestrained parties of fashionable high society. Count Patačić, wanting to build a theatre in Varaždin, bought two plots of land for that purpose in 1768, but because of his luxurious life, he soon gave up and sold them to settle his debts.
The abolition of the Jesuit order in 1773, followed by a great fire, suppressed the idea of the need for a theatre. Since the end of the 18th century, German troops have performed in the former chapel of the former Marian confraternity, rebuilt in 1825 as part of the high school building.
The Mekovec House in Kranjčevićeva ulica served as a theatre for fifty years; performances were staged in the adapted space, and it was also a redoubt hall. A small stage with a red curtain, lighting with wax candles, insufficient in size for more lavish backdrops, could accommodate up to 350 visitors, and was almost always packed. Dramas and comedies and operas with a military orchestra were mostly performed by German troops. Dissatisfaction with the continuous tours of German troops led to the founding of the Society of Croatian Theatre Volunteers in 1860. There was also a guest appearance by Freuderich’s National Theatre Company from Zagreb, which performed plays in the Croatian language for three months. However, a further concession is given to the German theatre again. In 1870, outraged Varaždin patriots founded the Society of Volunteers for Croatian Theatre Performances, and Dragutin Antolek – Orešek, a well-known Varaždin lawyer, was elected president. In the same year, the Nemčić’s Varmeđinska Tavern or Who Will be the Great Judge? was premiered. The Pučki prijatelj notes that “the theatre rooms are completely full at every show” (May 19, 1870). No matter how successful the plays were, and the Volunteers were determined to have a permanent Croatian theatre in Varaždin, that did not happen.
The desire of the people in Varaždin to build a building where the Croatian word would be heard was a natural sequence, and the old theatre, i.e. the Mekovec House, was visited by German troops for some time, and the German season was announced even before the very opening of the new building.
“Small Things Grow with Harmony”
“The temple of art and, by good chance even nationality, the theatre is being built, and the construction is progressing well, since up to 200 workers are busy around it. As far as can be seen from the laid foundations, it will be one of the most beautiful buildings of our homeland.” (The Pučki prijatelj, 27, September 1, 1971) From a brief overview of the theatre circumstances in Varaždin immediately before, the great anticipation of the opening of the magnificent building was completely understandable.
“The theatre building in Varaždin is completely finished, and now only the interior decoration is being worked on. Decorations are put up in the theatre, which were beautifully painted by Mr. Rostok from Gradac, and closed chairs, upholstered in black leather, are placed in the ground floor. The vault of the auditorium, whose basic colours are black, white and blue, is luxuriously gilded, the boxes are semi-open, covered with black silk (!), and its edges are upholstered with black leather. The front ends of the boxes are white, but excessively gilded. On the front of the theatre, which was beautifully decorated by Mr. Halleker from Maribor, there is the coat of arms of the city of Varaždin, and on the front of the diplomatic (!) box on the right side of the theatre, the coat of arms of the triune kingdom…” ( The Pučki prijatelj, August 22, 1873.)
The opening ceremony began on September 24, 1873 at 11 a.m. The guests and the theatre – construction committee headed by the president Antun Milinčević in the city hall invited the judge, the city mayor Mihajlo Kovačec – to come to the theatre. On arrival, the orchestra of the 16th Varaždin Infantry Regiment from Bjelovar played. After a short speech, the president of the construction committee handed over a memorial to the mayor, which was signed by all the guests present. On that occasion, the mayor pointed out, among other things, that “small things grow with harmony, and that in harmony the citizens of Varaždin are not given proper care and neglected everywhere, they came to the conviction that they must help themselves, so in a short time they built two large and beautiful buildings: the high school and this theatre” (Filić, 1955:32). Isn’t education and culture the foundation of Varaždin’s development?
They signed the memorial and it was placed together with various coins in a box in a small recess above the staircase, covered with a marble slab.
In the afternoon, at 2 p.m., a banquet was held for numerous local and foreign guests, including representatives of the people. Toasts were held, primarily to the newly appointed viceroy Ivan Mažuranić, accompanied by the sound of the local civic orchestra. The general rejoicing lasted until 8 p.m., when the concert hall “which, even today, has no equal” was opened. (Filić, 1955:33) The musical chapel of the 16th Regiment held a concert to the general delight of those present, who celebrated this historic day by dancing until dawn.
“Who Can Be His Own, Let Him Not Be Someone Else’s!”
„The theatre itself”, as Filić calls the auditorium, opened the following evening, on September 25, with the performance of Poturica, by Ivan Kukuljević Sakcinski from Varaždin, one of the first Croatian revivalists, the most prolific Croatian writer of the 19th century.1 Poturica is a tragedy in four acts written in decasyllable with the theme of South Slavic defectors in the Turkish service. Before the very beginning of the performance, the actor Adam Mandrović spoke the lines with “fervour and enthusiasm” (Filić, 1955:35), which were sung by Vladimir Vežić2 for this special occasion.
1 Ivan Kukuljević Sakcinski
The municipality was thrilled with enthusiasm; with the tendencies of the national revival that came true in this temple of Thalia, it was undoubtedly enchanted, filled with pride and hope.
The celebration lasted for the following days. On the September 27, a cheerful play The Maiden’s Vow was played in a crowded auditorium, and on the 28th, the play The Manufacturer and a Padlock, a joke with singing. Civic music band from Varaždin played in the opening and interludes.
In later reviews of the opening of the theatre building, we also encounter critical attitudes, so Filić writes: “The theatre itself was so beautifully arranged, and richly decorated for the occasion, that the writer of the celebration claims with pride that it can compete with those in big cities” (1955:33), but complains that no other Croatian piece was performed alongside Poturica, as well as the fact that the Zagreb Opera did not respond to the celebration, citing an article in the “Vienac” in 1877 in which The people of Varaždin who built the theatre building stand out as complementary example, with a scathing comment that Zagreb does not have such a “very beautiful theatre” because it is waiting for the state to do it. “Yes, it should be proudly stated that our Varaždin built its own theatre and did not wait for someone else to do it for it.” (Filić, 1955:37)
“The voices of the national theatre celebration had barely fallen silent when, on October 4, 1973, the German theatre began its activities.” (Drašković, 1955:39) Following this historic act, the opening of the theatre building in Varaždin, there were almost no similar joyful events in the following decades – it is one thing to build a building, and another to breathe life into it; the conditions for a permanent Croatian theatre and a continuous program were miserable, but the efforts to achieve the mission from the construction and the opening itself, despite material, socio-political and other obstacles, did not abate, primarily thanks to individuals – enthusiasts and occasional theatrical flare-ups. Attempts and failures, political arrangements, wars, crises alternated, and the building defied time and circumstances to become – “a living theatre”.