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The National Theatre in Warsaw


Plac Teatralny 3
Warszawa, Poland

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The National Theatre in Warsaw was established in 1765 by King Stanislaus Augustus Poniatowski. It was the country's first stage to have a permanent, professional ensemble composed of Polish stage artists.

The National Theatre premiered Bielawski's The Interlopers in its inaugural activities on November 19, 1765 at Warsaw's Operalnia (Opernhaus) on Krolewska Street. Even though the Polish troupe shared the theatre with French, German and Italian ensembles, it was initially referred to as the 'national' because it offered Polish language performances of plays by Polish authors. An institution officially referred to as the National Theatre had yet to be created at the time, and many years  passed before this name was finally sanctioned.

The theatre on Krolewska Street was originally conceived as a venue that would promote the ideas of the Enlightenment and engage in debate with the Sarmatian culture of the nobility. Jesuit priest Franciszek Bohomolec was perhaps the most interesting contributor to the repertoire during the initial seasons, using his dramatic works to juxtapose the 'old' Pole with the hero of 'modern times'  a man open to the world, one who looked critically upon tradition and contemporary social relations. Z. Raszewski describes in A Brief History of the Polish Theatre: 

For the next one hundred years, Poles were to write plays whose central theme was the struggle between two characters of this kind. (...) The 'kontusz' [traditional long coat of the nobility and 'frak' [tailcoat] became symbols, expressing the conflict between admiration for Western civilization and attachment to national individuality, two social stances that surfaced in Poland when the country was in deep isolation. 
In 1774 the theatre moved to Radziwill Palace on Krakowskie Przedmiescie. Four years later it was given a new purpose-built edifice. The opening celebration of this building on Plac Krasinskich (Krasinski Square) was held on the 15th anniversary of Stanislaus Augustus' election to the Polish throne. The theatre continued to host German and French theatre troupes as well as Italian opera artists. This international mix benefited the Polish troupe, whose members had an opportunity to observe various performance styles and forms. The ensemble of the National Theatre grew to include approximately twenty actors employed on a permanent basis. Competition forced the Polish ensemble to work incessantly on developing its skills and on making their repertoire in the national language ever more interesting. The repertoire thus included original Polish plays as well as translations and adaptations of foreign texts, and by 1794 the troupe had offered more than one hundred ninety premieres. 

In 1778 Wojciech Boguslawski debuted on stage in the role of a leading man; his influence on the history of the National Theatre would remain strong for decades to come. Boguslawski was director of the theatre in the years 1783-85, 1790-94 and 1799-1814. He remained an actor there even longer, appearing on stage until 1827. Boguslawski's second tenure as director of the Warsaw theatre proved especially heated as it coincided with the Sejm Czteroletni (Four-Year Sejm) and the Kosciuszko Insurrection. At the time, the National Theatre's productions included Wybicki's political comedy  The Nobleman Becomes a Burgher (1791) and Niemcewicz's The Return of the Envoy (1791), a play that metaphorically expressed the desires of the political reformers who gathered in Warsaw at the time. Following the fall of the May 3rd Constitution and the second partition of Poland, and on the eve of the Kosciuszko Insurrection, Boguslawski staged his famous sung play The Presumed Miracle, or Krakovians and Highlanders (1794). This production proved "a beginning that heated people's hearts to revolution in the future, was the theme of discussions carried on in homes and the source of hope for happiness - the promise which this play seemed to contain," wrote commentators who saw the play at that time (Z. Raszewski, "Krotka historia teatru polskiego"). Countering the edicts of censors appointed by the partitioning powers, the National Theatre expressed the desires of all of patriotically inclined society at the time.

Boguslawski had three roles at the theatre. He was its director, as well as an actor and author of most of the plays in its repertoire. With the support of a group of new actors, outstanding musicians Jozef Elsner and Karol Kurpinski, and stage designer Antoni Smuglewicz, he proved quite successful at mounting theatre projects. Apart from popular vaudeville plays and dramas, the National Theatre was first to mount productions of Polish adaptations of Shakespeare's Othello (1801) and King Lear (1805), as well as Mozart's The Magic Flute (1802) and Schiller's The Robbers (1803).

Meanwhile, Warsaw's literary community had begun a campaign promoting Classicism in Poland, and in time this would also reach the stage. In 1814 Ludwik Osinski was appointed the new "entrepreneur" of the National Theatre with the support of the Teatralne Towarzystwo Iksow / Exes Theatre Society which was created in 1815. For several seasons, the National Theatre became a school of lofty poetry and beautiful recitation. The repertoire included Racine's tragedies and a number of new Polish tragedies. The Classicists lost momentum by the early 1820s and the National began to look favorably upon plays from the pre-Romantic repertoire. Leading this movement was a production of Nodier's The Vampire, which was performed to great success from 1821 until the outbreak of the November Insurrection in 1831.

In 1829 the National Theatre opened a second venue known as the Teatr Rozmaitosci (Variety Theatre), located on Krakowskie Przedmiescie, and in 1833 an impressive new building on Theatre Square was made available to the actors and ensemble of the National Theatre. Designed by Antonio Corazzi, the new theatre had four levels of boxes, a balcony with rafter seats and a ground floor with chairs. The adjective "National," however, was not engraved on the building's façade because the Russian authorities disapproved, and the building, named the Grand Theatre, played host primarily to musical performances, with the theatrical ensemble relegated to a temporary chamber stage. In 1836 an eight hundred-seat theatre, known as the new Variety Theatre, was created in the western wing of the Grand. In the calm periods between national uprisings the dramatic repertoire proved inferior to that from before 1831, with French melodramas dominating the stage. Productions included only one Shakespeare play and two plays by Schiller, whereas the first tragedy by Hugo - The Burgraves - did not premiere until 1860. The interference of Tsarist censors proved significant in all this, stubbornly eliminating all productions that contained a hint of liberal or independent thought. Comedies proved to be the most interesting offerings. In the 1850s the theatre began staging fashionable Parisian 'well-made plays' by authors like Scribe, Ponsard and Augier. Korzeniowski was one of the most popular authors, producing successful comedies in the modern style time and again. Quality at this time was determined not the repertoire but by excellent actors like Ludwik Panczykowski, Jozef Rychter and the public's favorite, Alojzy Zolkowski (the younger). The true golden age of Warsaw's theatre stars arrived somewhat later, between 1868 and 1880. "In 1868 the public, professional theatre in Warsaw already had a century of experience behind it and was a strong institution. It had survived the partitions of Poland, several periods of disastrous financial management, the fall of several national insurrections (...) If there was a century-long continuity to be observed, it was, of course, in the realm acting" (J. Szczublewski, "Wielki i smutny teatr warszawski 1868-1880" / "The Great and Sad Warsaw Theatre 1868-1880"). Zolkowski provided a string of comedy successes, while Jan Krolikowski and Boleslaw Leszczynski ruled tragedy. Helena Modrzejewska (Modjeska) was Poland's most famous actress. At this time, productions on the stage on Theatre Square were hardly cohesive. What mattered were the actors and their showpiece performances. It was for them that crowds stormed the box office. The theatre in Warsaw was in no way a part of the European avant-garde. For political reasons, there was no room for productions that would even touch upon issues of national importance.

At the turn of the 20th century, the core of theatre life moved south to the province of Galicia. Warsaw audiences found it hard to accept modernism, the plays of Przybyszewski and Wyspianski's dramas. The stage on Theatre Square declined in status and the Teatr Polski (Polish Theatre), which opened in Warsaw in 1913, inherited the "National" name. The Variety Theatre burned down in 1919 and its ensemble spent a series of years performing in the wooden building of the Teatr Letni (Summer Theatre) located in the park known as the Saxon Gardens. Reconstruction of the building on Theatre Square, according to a design by Czeslaw Przybylski, lasted five years and upon its completion the theatre reopened under its former name. Finally, in 1924, the Variety Theatre was transformed into the National Theatre. "The tradition of having a national stage reentered everyone's minds, as did its program, tasks and mission. The 'Przeglad Warszawski' ('Warsaw Review') published a questionnaire entitled 'Organizacja i program Teatru Narodowego w Warszawie' ('Organization and Program of the National Theatre in Warsaw'), receiving responses from outstanding artists, writers and critics. People dreamed of a living National Theatre, a 'theatre of the future,' a monumental Polish theatre of the great Romantics, a Polish national style of theatre. Juliusz Osterwa was appointed its first director and swore a solemn oath on its new stage that the National would serve the 'evangelists of the Polish spirit: Mickiewicz, Slowacki, Krasinski and Norwid.' That it would be a model theatre, 'the shared ambition of all Polish stages, a shining example for them in the fulfillment of their mission' " (E. Krasinski, 'The National Theatre,' in the program of the National Theatre, Boguslawski Room, published subsequent to its reconstruction).

In the years preceding World War II, the National Theatre was managed in turn by Juliusz Osterwa, Kazimierz Kaminski, Jan Lorentowicz, Emil Chaberski and Stefan Krzywoszewski. During the 1933/34 season, administration was handed over to the Towarzystwo Krzewienia Kultury Teatralnej (Society for the Encouragement of Theatre Culture), and in 1936 the aged Ludwik Solski ascended to the post of director. In the last years before the war, the National was run by Aleksander Zelwerowicz and Wilam Horzyca. Between the two world wars, the theatre focused on contemporary Polish dramas, mounting productions of plays by Szaniawski and Zeromski. Osterwa directed a famous production of Zeromski's My Little Quail Has Flown (1925), and Fredro's comedies proved great successes. Collaborators of the National Theatre included the exceptional scenery designer Wincenty Drabik, while the ensemble's permanent and temporary members were some of the best actors and actresses of the day, among them Stanislawa Wysocka, Irena Solska, Kazimierz Junosza-Stepowski, Jozef Wegrzyn and Karol Adwentowicz. Productions were directed by the likes of Leon Schiller, Aleksander Zelwerowicz and Karol Adwentowicz. In 1928 the Redutowe (Redoubt) Rooms of the Grand Theatre were transformed into a small dramatic stage called the Teatr Nowy (New Theatre). Performances continued on both national stages through the first days of September 1939.

In December of 1945 it was decided that the destroyed edifice of the Grand and National theatres would be rebuilt. The first post-war production, Gorky's Yegor Bulychov and Others (directed by Wladyslaw Krasnowiecki), premiered on December 13, 1949, displaying all the trappings of the Socialist Realist style that had been proclaimed as mandatory only a few months earlier. Wladyslaw Krasnowiecki was the first to be appointed artistic director after the war. He was followed by Bohdan Korzeniewski (1952-55) and later by Erwin Axer (1954-1957), who directed productions that quickly gained fame. His greatest achievements included Lutowski's Emergency Room (1955) and Slowacki's Kordian (1956) with scenery designed by Wladyslaw Daszewski and a memorable performance by Jan Kurnakowicz as Grand Duke Constantine. During Wilam Horzyca's tenure as director (1957-59) the theatre offered two important premieres - Kleist's Prince Friedrich von Homburg (1958) and Norwid's In the Wings (1959), both directed by Horzyca. While Korzeniewski and Horzyca had the ambition of turning the National Theatre into a Polish equivalent of the Comédie-Française with Polish and foreign classics as the pillars of the repertoire, the next individual to assume the position of director, Wladyslaw Daszewski (1959-1961), turned his attention to popular theatre and offered productions marked by fast action and large doses of humor. Thus, the National entered a period when it sought to compete with Warsaw's other theatres for the mass audience.

The turning point in the theatre's post-war history came with the tenure of its next director, Kazimierz Dejmek. His staging of Mikolaj of Wilkowiecko's "Historya o Chwalebnym Zmartwychwstaniu Panskim" / "The Story of the Glorious Resurrection," mounted immediately after Dejmek assumed the directorship in 1962, proved an important event. "Its significance was beyond national as a discovery of hitherto untapped emotional realms, the possibilities of old religious and lay theatre, and of the inexhaustible resources of folklore. Dejmek (...) offered the original beauty of mystery plays styled in line with late 20th century tastes. The combination proved both humorous and deeply moving" (S. Marczak-Oborski, "Teatr Polski w latach 1918-1965" / "The Polish Theatre in the Years 1918-1965").

Dejmek, saturated with Socialist ideas and impressed by Schiller's popular and monumental theatre, placed the National Theatre at the center of the Polish art scene and, more broadly, at the center of Polish society. He recruited the country's best actors as well as exceptional scenery designer Andrzej Stopka. As staged by Dejmek, classical plays of various periods sounded contemporary and proved very much in line with audience sensitivities. Classic Polish comedies like Rittner's Wolves at Night (1962) directed by Henryk Szletynski or Balucki's Big Fish (1964) directed by Marian Wyrzykowski proved humorous and popular among audiences. While he was artistic director, Dejmek staged numerous productions, including Rej's The Life of Joseph (1965), Slowacki's Kordian (1965) and Forefathers' Eve (1967). The latter, a drama by Mickiewicz featuring prominent actor Gustaw Holoubek as Gustaw-Konrad, proved to be the last of Dejmek's stagings as the National's artistic director. This particular production of Forefathers' Eve, somewhat against the director's will, became a political fact and precipitated the student protests of March 1968. As a result, Dejmek was stripped of his Communist Party membership and ousted from his position as the theatre's artistic director.

Dejmek's six-year tenure was the first period in National's post-war history when the artistic director's personality shaped the artistic profile of the stage. The National Theatre acquired just as clear a profile with Adam Hanuszkiewicz at its helm (1968-1982). Hanuszkiewicz's approach, however, was to turn the institution into a "National Anti-Theatre" through a series of popular stagings that settled accounts with Polish theatrical and dramatic tradition. He employed thoroughly modern "props" drawn from popular culture and offered a theatre that catered to an audience better acquainted with the mass media world than with high art. Hanuszkiewicz claimed to create a theatre for everyone. During his tenure, the leading actors in the National's ensemble included Andrzej Lapicki, Wojciech Siemion, Zofia Kucowna and Daniel Olbrychski. Hanuszkiewicz also gladly recruited young, debuting actors and entrusted them with leading roles. The National Theatre's profile became the source of numerous controversies. Hanuszkiewicz's most famous productions - among them Sophocles' Antigone (1973) with the young cast dressed in fashionable, contemporary clothing and Slowacki's Balladyna (1974) featuring the mythical character Goplana entering on a motorcycle - provoked as much excitement as they did criticism.

When Martial Law was declared in Poland in December of 1981, many of the young actors at the National abandoned their jobs. Jerzy Krasowski was appointed director in 1983, but just two years later a vast fire interrupted all activity. In 1986 the National Theatre found a temporary home for itself in the Teatr na Woli (Wola District Theatre), however, the political events of the 1980s coupled with the ongoing reconstruction of the building on Theatre Square (which would ultimately take many years) effectively rendered the National an artistic non-entity. It was finally reborn in November of 1996, when reconstruction was completed and the theatre reopened with a celebratory production titled Forefathers' Eve - 12 Improvisations, directed by Jerzy Grzegorzewski and prepared by the Stary Teatr (Old Theatre) in Krakow. Grzegorzewski simultaneously became the theatre's new artistic director and a spate of actors who had worked with him at the Teatr Studio (Studio Theatre), including Wojciech Malajkat and Zbigniew Zamachowski, migrated to the National. Grzegorzewski also enlisted the services of a number of actors from Krakow theatres. Exceptional talents like Jerzy Trela, Jerzy Radziwilowicz and Beata Fudelaj began appearing regularly in Grzegorzewski's productions, which also featured often excellent performances by actors of the older generation, including Jerzy Lapinski, Ignacy Gogolewski and Igor Przegrodzki. At the same time, the playbills of the National Theatre boasted of such notable directors as Henryk Tomaszewski, Maciej Prus and Kazimierz Kutz. In 1998 the National Theatre inaugurated operations of its small stage known as the Scena przy Wierzbowej (Stage on Willow Street). The new artistic director's first production was Stanislaw Wyspianski's A November Night (1997). This play was to delineate the theatre's direction for subsequent seasons. Grzegorzewski sought to turn the National into the "House of Wyspianski," admiring this artist for combining the Romantic theatre tradition with a vision of a theatre for the future in his plays. Grzegorzewski directed productions of Wyspianski's The Judges (1999), The Wedding (2000), and a new version of A November Night (2000). In addition, he invited Ryszard Peryt to stage this same playwright's Acropolis (2001). Like his predecessors, Grzegorzewski imposed his artistic vision on the National Theatre. His productions of The New Bloomusalem According to Joyce (1999) and Gombrowicz's The Marriage and Operetta (2000) were marked by his unique and highly original style. Grzegorzewski's final production as artistic director of the National Theatre was The Sea and the Mirror based on the writings of W.H. Auden, which premiered in December of 2002.

Jan Englert has been the National Theatre's artistic director since September of 2003.
Monika Mokrzycka-Pokora
January 2003

Teatr Narodowy w Warszawie
Plac Teatralny 3
00-077 Warszawa
Phone: (+48 22) 692 07 70, 692 07 72
Fax: (+48 22) 692 07 41
Email: e-mail: [email protected]



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