National Theater

Národní divadlo (National Theater)

 On a bank of the river Vltava, with its front towards the Národní trída (National Avenue), stands the lofty neo-renaissance building of the National Theater. Some of the houses of Thalia have a considerable historic value, but none of them enjoys such great honour as this dome of art, also called the “Golden Chapel”.

The clue to its magic, mythical for Czechs and for foreigners hard to understand, can be found in the text above the stage: “Národ sobe” (Nation to itself). In the first decades of the last century the idea already arose to build a theatre, where plays would be performed in Czech only. Performances in Czech took place, but under quite poor condititions and at rather improvised locations, it is best not to mention the performances which were suffered in the Stavovské divadlo, where the German language usually ruled. The Viennese government, and especially its bureaucracy, did not have much comprehension for the wishes of the Czech people. But the idea found its way through gradually and was victorious in the end.

Besides the disinterest of the ruling classes, the problem of a lack of finances also existed. Although they often raised mere pennies, the national collections became the most important source of finances. Over the years so much money was gathered, that a piece of land could be bought and the building could begin. The corner stone was cut out of the memorable mountain Ríp, on which, according to legend, the founding father of the Czech nation stood with his tribe, looking over their country for the first time.

The occassion spontaneously became a national feast. Accompanied by cheering crowds, the corner stone was brought to Prague by three pairs of white horses escorted by cavalry. At the same time stones were brought in from other memorable places in Bohemia and Moravia. To grat applause the foundation charter, sealed into a metal box, was placed into the corner stone on the 16th of May 1868.

In spite of various problems, the National Theatre was finished and officially opened on the 11th of June 1881, in honour of the wedding of Crown Prince Rudolf von Habsburg with the Belgian Princess Stephanie. After some performances it was closed again, in order to complete several changes. The real opening celebration was to be in Autumn, but on the 12th of September in the same year, the building was engulfed by a pernicious fire. That day, ironically, two labourers installed lightning conductors, which were to protect the building against fire caused by lightning. Insufficiently extinguished coal, on which the soldering irons were heated, was the cause of the disaster. First the gilded crest with the four cupolas fell off the roof. Then the magnificent crystal chandelier crashed down, followed by the iron curtain. In the end the whole roof collapsed, the iron joists smashed through the auditorium and concluded the devastation.

It was a national catastrophe. People in the street cried out loud… After the first shock, the nation was mobilized. There were new collections. The curtain in the renewed theater was raised on the 18th of November 1883.

The National Theater has an interesting architecture, whose designer and builder was Josef Zítek. He was influenced especially by Italian Renaissance with which he became acquainted during his studies in Italy. It gave him the idea of replicating this style in the design of the National Theatre. Considering the uneveness of the ground and the density of the surrounding buildings, he did not have an easy task. However, he demonstrated an immeasurable feeling for art, personal fantasy and understanding in order to fit this monumental building into the city. Every side of it is formed differently, since each required individual arrangements. The facade is turned towards Národní trída.

Whereas the lowest part is plain and solid, the central part is ablaze with decorations. The third part above its loggii is decorated with sculptures, symbolizing all art forms in the likeness of Muse and Apollo. The three other sides are built with sense for the aesthetic and for practical functions.

The best Czech artists of the 19th century contributed to the decoration of the theatre. They are mentioned as “the generation of the National Theatre”. The sculptural groups Cinohra (Drama) and Zpevohra (Chorus) of Josef Václav Myslbek are two of the most beautiful of the sculptural decorations. They were meant for the side entrance on the embankment. Also the carriages-and-three of Bohuslav Schnirch at the corner pillars of the front section, are superb sculptures.