General importance of theater
It might seem that theatre as an institution hasn’t been the main focal point in the past decades.
Theaters are being pushed aside especially by mass media and modern cinema that turned into a phenomenal multibillion business at the beginning of the 21st century. The silver screen became a platform for more or less open reactions to the current political, economic and social situation in the country and the world, although theatres served this purpose already in the past. Satire embedded in classical works of art was cultured, offering an indirect reflection on what was happening around.
The indisputable importance of theatre lies in its expression of a nation‘s cultural state. Whether it‘s music, dance or purely dramatic performances, their quality and topicality inform about the state of a society as such, the current political environment and even the intelligence and emotionality of a nation. Acceptance of art in any country is one of the main indicators of its freedom which is also the reason why certain eccentric and sometimes even tasteless plays are not always appreciated in Slovakia, although they find many viewers and are quite commonly spread in the US. Even Slovak alternative plays are still not willing to cross certain moral standards where dignity is at stake perhaps fearing negative reactions.
The history of world theater
Most of us are aware that ancient Greece was the cradle of theater which however applied rules that would be totally unacceptable today. For example, only men were allowed on stage, portraying even female characters; actors were wearing masks and their number on stage was limited. Nevertheless, what is considered to be the very roots of theatre and acting can be found already in 6th century BC.
Prehistoric men could not explain natural phenomena and therefore considered lightning or rain to be supernatural forces, so he tried to remain in their favor with the help of dances, animal masks and various dramatic ceremonies. Theatre evolved further in ancient Rome and became so to speak more professional than in ancient Greece – female actors were allowed to participate, the number of actors in a play was not limited and even dedicated buildings – real theatres were built.
A rich use of demonstrative facial expressions and body language left verbal expression behind compared to acting as we know it today. Although Roman theater was not as successful as the Greek one, it certainly was a contribution on an international scale because Rome spurred an expansion of theatres to rest of Europe. It is interesting to observe that theater was banned with a decline of the empire as it was simply unwelcome by the Christian elite. In spite of that the church saved all prohibited antic plays, literature and the entire antic scholarship, just like it introduced theatre once again in 9th century AD as a tool to reach the masses.
According to historical sources Latin dramas were played at Easter masses (so-called Easter tropes). Church became theatre and it gave rise to various religious genres such as mystery, miracle and morality plays but also ignoble secular genres – farce and pastoral plays. Theater evolved from a period of humanism and renaissance to baroque and preromanticism and finally realism and romanticism in the 19th century. Impressionistic moods, ideas and the expressions of immediate sensory perceptions started to prevail in the first half of the 20th century. At this time Slovak National Theatre and professional acting emerged.
The history of Slovak National Theatre
1919 plays a major role in the history of Slovak theater since it was decided to build a professional stage in the form of the Slovak National Theatre as a cooperative. It started operating in 1920 with three ensembles in the building of the former city theatre in Bratislava under the baton of the director of Eastern-Czech theatrical society Bedřich Jeřábek.
The opera ensemble started performing on 1st March 1920 with the Czech opera Hubička by the Czech composer Bedřich Smetana. The drama ensemble introduced the play Mariša by Alois and Viléma Mrštík a day later while the opera ensemble debuted with Coppelia by Léo Delibes on 19th May 1920. Andrej Bagar, Ján Borodáč and Oľga Borodáčová-Országhová were the first professional Slovak actors; Jozef Kello and Gašpar Arbét were the core of the wandering drama company so often called Marška.
Interestingly, the majority of plays were in Czech. Slovakization of Slovak National Theatre came to an end in 1938 after Slovakia gained autonomy inside Czechoslovakia The Czech Drama Company ceased to operate and many Czech actors and singers left Slovakia. SNT introduced Slovak plays, among them many national classics one year later after the birth of Slovak republic or the so-called Slovak state. Already at this time top professionals together with an art society experienced both in domestic and international plays represented the theatre.
Historically speaking the most important year appears to be 1989 with its revolution, which was followed by a broader choice of drama topics and a deeper focus on creative portrayal. At the same time however completely new questions emerged, especially the operating cost of a theater and therefore the need to address not only demanding, but also mainstream audiences – a decision which doesn’t seem to decrease its quality, quite on the contrary.
The future of theater
Running a theatre can be a lucrative business, as the ever-increasing number of smaller or alternative theater scenes tells you. It can be assumed that even mainstream audiences will eventually lose interest in modern cinema and shift their focus to the real performing arts on stage. T
his leaves us with a guess that theatre will seek to attract increasingly more visitors not only in classical and sophisticated ways but also with tasteless and exaggerated expressiveness. This trend is known especially from abroad where morality doesn’t play any significant role in the choice of repertoire. A different approach to cultivating art is expected from the SNT.
Progress cannot be stopped and there certainly are more daring plays waiting for us; however there is always the path of artistic and cultural maturity that doesn’t succumb to short-term economic pressures and therefore represents a path to a culturally educated nation.
„The educational significance of theater is also reflected in its audience which evolves with the portrayed characters; emotions are awakened that would otherwise be asleep. Dramas and tragedies soften, deepen and perfect our emotions; comedies show you how to joke subtly instead of harshly. Theatre keeps social life of a particular village or town alive. Diverse audiences come together and meet at theatre performances, thus theatre contributes to the understanding of a healthy democracy.“ Ferko Urbanek