It all started with one marriage and then came laughter, tears, glamour, and later fire and explosion. What is hidden in the tumultuous history of one of the most important theatres in Serbia, whose extraordinary building is one of the symbols of Novi Sad.
1. Centuries-old History of the Theatre
Theatre plays have been performed and watched since the ancient times on the territory of today’s Vojvodina. The remains of the buildings of the Roman theatre and ivory numeration on the seats, found on the archaeological sites in Sirmium from the second half of the 3rd century, speak on behalf of that.
2. It All Started with a Wedding
The Serbian National Theatre, the oldest professional theatre in Serbia, was founded on 16 July 1861, as a consequence of raising national awareness. The name itself carries a strong message – the acknowledgement of Serbs as a nation in Hungary. The theatre first had nine actors, out of whom – Dimitrije Ružić and Draginja Popović married soon afterwards. Jovan Đorđević, today the name of the great hall of the theatre, was made general manager. He gathered a team, including the famous poet Jovan Jovanović Zmaj as a secretary of the theatre board.
3. 3. Wine, Apples or Theatre?
In 1868, when Jovan Đorđević along with eleven actors accepted the invitation from the Serbian Prince Mihailo Obrenović to move to Belgrade and form the national theatre, Antonije Tona Hadžić replaced him as general manager. Antonije Tona Hadžić built strong connections with the official Hungarian statesmen, gaining their trust and respect, during the big political changes in the former Austro-Hungary. At the same time, he attracted a wider audience by enabling the students from Novi Sad Grammar School to attend the plays by giving them free tickets. At the time, the ticket was 10 kreutzers or 20 deniers, the amount for which you could buy three kilos of apples or two litres of wine.
4. Travelling Ensemble
For a long time, the Serbian National Theatre was a travelling theatre which, after the short season in Novi Sad, used to travel across Vojvodina to perform. Before the building of the theatre came to be, the ensemble was performing the plays in the inns amongst which the most famous were: Zeleni venac, located in the yard of today’s Vojvođanska bank in the Liberty Square; great hall on the second floor of the hotel’s Sun taver, at the corner of Poštanska and Jevrejska streets; hall of the hotel Carica Jelisaveta, at the time when the owner of the hotel was Lazar Dunđerski. Today’s name of the hotel is Vojvodina hotel.
5. The Only Time It Was Warm in the Theatre
Between 1872 and 1892, plays of the Serbian National Theatre were performed in the Civil chateau (former Redoutensaal) in Trifkovićev square. Later, they were forced to leave the chateau due to certain political decisions, with an explanation that the building is dilapidated and likely to fall. A solution was offered by the owner Lazar Dunđerski, who was a big theatre lover. He started building another place for the theatre in the spacious yard of his hotel Carica Jelisaveta. Former extraordinary experts and eminent names in architecture, interior and painting worked on the building. The theatre had 650 seats and together with the hotel was the only building in Novi Sad which had electric light. For 33 years, plays have been performed here, until the huge fire broke out and destroyed the whole building in 1928. ‘That was the only time it was warm in the theatre,’ noticed one cynical citizen, since the heating was so bad the audience had to sit and watch the plays in their coats for years. There was some gloomy symbolism in the fact that the last play performed in the Dunđerski theatre was named Raspikuća (Profligate).
6. Explosion in the City Centre
Construction of today’s building of the Serbian National Theatre started according to a draft of the Polish architect, PhD Viktor Jackijevič, but the cooperation with him was stopped and the main projects were changed. The author of the architectural solution was Arsa Dimitrijević, while the interior designer was Aleksandar Šaletić. When construction work came to an end, nine old houses in the Jevrejska Street were destroyed with an explosive, as well as a couple of houses in the Uspenska Street. Porta in the Uspenska Church was also destroyed. That’s why, when the building was officially opened on 28 March 1981, the citizens didn’t look very pleased when passing by the building of the Serbian National Theatre. Today, the situation is completely different. This building is so accepted and fits so well in the lifestyle of people from Novi Sad that it’s sometimes hard to believe it didn’t exist there from the start.
Author: Ljiljana Dragosavljević Savin, master historian
Photo: Vladimir Veličković, Jelena Ivanović