At the newly renovated Gaja Bulata Square, artists of the Croatian National Theater performed a festive concert as a present to citizens of Split. There were more than a few important reasons for this celebration, Split Theatre was founded in May 128 years ago, it was Statehood Day and Croatian Veterans Day of the City of Split, the 500th anniversary of the publication of the Marko Marulic’s Judita, the first literary work in the Croatian language. All these epoch-making events were a unique opportunity to remember Split’s Mayor Gajo Bulat by revealing his new statue at the renovated Square. Major Bulat has run the city from 1885 – 1893 and was a supporter of the Croatian national idea.
A tradition that cherishes theatrical art has been present in Split for centuries. A monumental national theatre building, constructed 128 years ago, represents the city’s cultural growth and its people. Its construction marked the creation of a modern, new Split, where the stage became the centre of cultural and political life. It is a place that gave birth to many popular, iconic actors and actresses like Boris Dvornik, Zdravka Krstulović, Zoja Odak, Asja Kisić, and many others. Today the National Theatre is the epicentre of culture and social life and is the birthplace of prolific events that shape Split’s daily life.
The first records of plays being performed in Split date back to the 17th century. The prominent archbishop Stjepan Cosmi had mentioned the first secular plays held in a seminary in his will. He warned his successors to dedicate special attention to this new trend.
The archbishop believed that similar acts would be harmful to the youth. Soon after his death, the seminary continued having recitals warning of the negative trend, while the secular theatre was formed in the Venetian city hall in the heart of town.
Venetians who ruled in Split introduced the routine of having theatrical events, emphasizing Venice’s glory in carefully selected plays.
City hall became the first improvised theatre, where members of noble families set up the stage with floor seats and boxes. Electricity was paid by public money, and boxes were sold to prominent citizens from both Split and other coastal towns.
Box owners gave permission as to which plays could be performed and when. The original building was expanded as the city hall was converted to a proper theatre. One part had a backstage for the actors, a coffee bar, and even prison cells.
With the Austrian-Hungarian administration’s arrival, a big part of the structure was demolished, and the theatre was closed.
Citizens, desperate to reactivate their public theatre, wanted to adapt the central building of a then Benedictine monastery of St. Mary. Declined by Austrian authorities, locals decide to construct a temporary wooden theatre by the main waterfront.
It was used for twenty years until authorities finally took it down due to the structure’s poor condition.
Split didn’t have an official theatre again until 1859 when mayor Antonio Bajamonti constructed Teatro Bajamonti, unfortunately though, it burned down in 1882. That was when the city council decided to build a new building which is still in use today, making it the fourth theatre building constructed in Split.
The new cultural and political centre of Split
The new theatre was finished in two years and was the largest theatre in the CEE. It could accommodate 1000 visitors, which is impressive considering that Split, at that time, only had 16,000 citizens.
The City council considered inviting an ensemble from Zagreb to open the new building and promote cultural ties of the south and north, in the spirit of the political situation at the time.
The ensemble stayed for the whole month and performed 27 different plays. The repertoire was carefully selected, the program was promoted, and Split in the days of the opening saw people coming from Rijeka, Karlovac, and Zagreb for the show.
The first play was the tragedy, Teuta, which had strong patriotic elements arousing euphoria from the audience.
Festivities lasted for a month and have been reported as the biggest cultural event to occur in Split in centuries. Once established as a theatrical landmark, many acting troops passed through Split, including both domestic and international performers.
Finally in 1898, Split got its first official drama ensemble. Primarily made up of amateur actors and theatre enthusiasts, it was actively performing for only two years when they formed the program.
In 1920 the building got its first extensive refurbishment, and a second professional drama ensemble was formed. Eight years later, the professional theatre was closed and joined with the National Theatre in Sarajevo in Bosnia and Herzegovina, due to a lack of popularity.
Local artists, actors, and composers tried to keep the theatre active, forming the first association of theatres in Dalmatia, led by the iconic Ivo Tijardović. Many operas and operettas were created during this period.
Ivo Tijardović managed to reopen and reactivate the theatre building with his work and influence while founding the Croatian National Theatre of Split.
It was formed with three ensembles, drama, ballet, and opera. The Second World War stopped the activities of the newly formed theatre until 1945. Since then, the theatre has remained open and still operates from the main building. The most recent renovation was during the 1980s after a severe fire destroyed most of the original structure.
The National Theatre of Split continues to promote theatrical art, as the new commissary Srećko Šestan was elected in 2019. Under his supervision, the National Theatre acquired new members for their ensembles, expanded the season, and continue to work on Split Summer Festival as the central annual cultural event.
The repertoire is a combination of traditional and contemporary plays, both of international and domestic authors. The emphasis for this season is on local and regional events, promoting the Mediterranean’s spirit.