Establishment of Slovak professional theatre and its development in the 20th century

After the establishment of the Czechoslovak Republic in 1918, Slovak theatre underwent several substantial changes. Space for the impact of Czech theatre culture was opened in the new social and political situation. Theatre life concentrated in Bratislava, which became the capital of Slovakia. German, Hungarian, Czech and later Slovak theatre groups performed in the Municipal Theatre of Bratislava. One of the most important cultural and political events in the new State was the foundation of the Slovak National Theatre in 1920.
The first opening night of the drama stage at the SND was the presentation of the play Maryša on 2 March 1920 by the brothers Mrstik. During the 1920s manager, composer and conductor O Nedbal played the leading role in the artistic development of the SND. During the same period Slovak drama gradually developed thanks to the first professional Slovak director, J Borodac. The creative search of Borodac and his efforts in the gradual emancipation of the Slovak dramatic works was connected with his orientation towards Slovak classical and contemporary drama and Russian drama (VHV, I Stodola, J Gregor-Tajovsky, N V Ostrovskij, M Gorkij). Part of Borodac’s programme in developing Slovak drama was also the foundation of the dramatic department of the Academy of Music and Drama (1926).
Of particular note during this period was the work of the SND’s touring group Marška, which was active from August 1921 until June 1922 and made a great contribution by promoting theatre in rural areas. After studying at the Prague Conservatory, several early Slovak professional theatre-makers including Borodac, O Borodacova-Orszaghova, A Bagar, J Kello and G Arbet began their dramatic careers with Marška.
The years 1938-1945 represented a key period of Slovak theatre culture. Against the background of a very complicated political and social situation, theatre art caught up with the developmental delay and tried to join the modern European theatre of the 20th century. SND now chose to confront important works of world drama, starting with works from antiquity, progressing through Enlightenment, Classicist, Romantic and Realistic works and ending with the modern dramatic works of the 20th century.
The Modernist and Avant Garde tendencies of director J Jamnicky, enhanced by the scenography of E Bellus and costumes of L Podobova, stand out in this period.
Efforts to organise theatre outside Bratislava became more intensive in the period of the Slovak State. In 1944 two new professional theatres were opened – the Slovak Chamber Theatre in Martin and the Slovak Theatre in Prešov.
During the immediate post-war period theatrical life enjoyed relative freedom (one totality had ended and the other was still hardly anticipated). During this period the personality of director A Bagar played an important role. One of the developmental stimuli for dramatic creation was the creative dialogue between directors of the traditional, more realistic orientation (J Borodac, K L Zachar) and directors who represented efforts to develop the modern theatre creativity of the 20th century (J Budsky, I Lichard, T Rakovsky and J Jamnicky). L Vychodil, founder of modern Slovak scenography, also played an important role. Contemporary works by then active domestic playwrights (I Stodola, J Barc-Ivan, P Karvas, L Lahola, S Kralik) contributed an important part of the Slovak dramatic output during this period. Through their works, these playwrights addressed the contemporary problems connected with the immediate experience of the war and the Slovak National Uprising. The event that stands out in this period is the foundation of the Academy of Music and Dramatic Arts (VŠMU) (1949).
In 1945 J Borodac founded the Eastern Slovakia National Theatre in Košice, while Prešov acquired its first Ukrainian National Theatre (a theatre of the Ruthenian minority living in eastern Slovakia). Nová scéna Theatre was established in Bratislava in 1946 and led by playwright and drama producer P Karvas, whose dramaturgy was focused on the demanding works of world theatre and above all on the modern playwriting of the 20th century.
Political events after February 1948 brought fundamental changes in social and cultural life, and theatre was henceforward submitted to political and ideological pressure. It acquired the attribute of ‘socialist’ and was thereafter considered one of the most efficient means of political propaganda and an ‘arm’ of the ideological fight. The politically-enforced and ideologically-motivated method of the so-called Socialist Realism was often identified with the naturalist imitation of life on the stage. The political and ideological dictatorship pushed dramatic creation to a position of uniformity and dullness. After 1954 theatre makers started to perceive the hopelessness of the situation and tried to seek some solutions. This process was fully realised only after the political situation changed in 1956. The revolutionary development of the theatre infrastructure was considered the most positive means of democratisation and of drawing theatre culture closer to public; this was reflected in the opening of the Workers Theatre in Považská Bystrica (1949, later renamed the Peter Jilemnicky Theatre, now Žilina City Theatre), the Central Slovak Theatre in Zvolen (1949, now the Jozef Gregor Tajovsky Theatre), the Regional Theatre in Nitra (1949, now the Andrej Bagar Theatre), and the Hungarian Regional Theatre in Komárno (1952).
The 1956 thaw found reflection in efforts to overcome the ruling dogmatism and schemes. Although theatrical creativity could not contradict the basic doctrine of socialist ideology and Marxism, theatre-makers found space in more complex and interesting statements. The dramatic branch of the SND became the key ensemble of the theatre culture. Some active and valuable tendencies also manifested themselves in the dramaturgy of theatres outside Bratislava, for example the Regional Theatre in Nitra, led by the young director P Haspra.
The second half of the 1960s witnessed an explosion of social activity connected with political liberalisation and the search for ‘socialism with human face’. Against a background of weakened ideological supervision and censorship, more freedom for artistic creation strengthened contacts with Western culture, bringing changes in dramaturgy and composition of repertoires (J P Sartre, A Camus, T Williams, F Durrenmatt, M Frisch, E Albee, A Miller).
In this context, the interval of politically-engaged and critical theatre in dramas presented at Nová Scéna in Bratislava (by dramaturgist S Micinec and director M Husakova-Lokvencova) and at the SNP Theatre in Martin (by director M Pietor) was of great significance.
During this period the blank spots on the map of Slovak theatre culture, attributable to the short timespan in which Slovak professional theatre had developed, were gradually filled through the opening of new institutions such as the Theatre of Poetry, the Tatra Revue cabaret and the professional pantomime stage led by M Sladek in Bratislava. However, this promising development ceased when Czechoslovakia was occupied in August 1968. Among the protesters were Slovak theatre-makers from the drama department of the SND, who created anti-occupation dramas such as Krvavé sonety (Bloody Sonnets) and Marína Havranová.
The activity of the cult Theatre on Korzo (1968-1971), led by dramaturgist M Porubjak and director V Strnisko and featuring distinguished actors like M Labuda, S Danciak, P Mikulik, M Huba, Z Furkova, Z Kolinska, M Knazko, M Vasaryova, J Kukura and P Debnar, was also very important. Their opening piece was the play Waiting for Godot by S Beckett.
Other noteworthy developments of this period included the movement of stage forms and a number of significant manifestations in the field of amateur theatre, notably the origins and formation of the Naïve theatre of Radošiná.
The subsequent periods of ‘normalisation’ and ‘consolidation’ in occupied Czechoslovakia negatively impacted the theatre culture. Ideological censorship practices were refreshed, while dictatorship and supervision over the approval of dramaturgical plans were in many ways similar to those applied in the first half of the 1950s (including obligatory presentation of contemporary Slovak and Czech dramas, including those of ‘people’s Republics’ of the Eastern Blok and of the Soviet Union). However, the situation improved in the late 1970s and 1980s, when the greater part of theatrical creativity came to express resistance to the totalitarian system, resulting in the engaged participation of Slovak theatre makers in the events of November 1989.
Thereafter the focus of progressive developmental impulses shifted to the theatres outside Bratislava with the arrival of a younger generation of theatre makers and manifestations of post-modernist trends (director L Vajdicka at the SNP Theatre in Martin, director J Bednarik at the A Bagar Theatre in Nitra, the authored theatre of B Uhlas and the era of director J Nvota at the Theatre for Children and Young People).
The influence of the action scenography carried out by J Ciller and J Zavarsky as well as the arrival of the new wave of scenographers and costume artists (A Votava, P Canecky, J Fabry, M Matejka, J Valek, M Ferencik, V Cap, F Liptak, E Farkasova, L Varossova, L Jariabkova and M Havran) characterise the 1980s and early 1990s.