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Theatrical Landscape of Serbia

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Theatrical Landscape of Serbia
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How Godot came to Serbia

by Jovan Ćirilov

Theatre is Serbia's darling. The first substantial theatres were founded in the sixties of the 19th century as part of the battle for national independence. In 1861 a national theatre was founded on Austrian-Hungarian ground in the town of Novi Sad, which was and still is mostly inhabited by Serbians. The second one was founded in Belgrade in 1868 after the Turkish reign that had lasted for centuries.

The programme was based on a solid foundation from the beginning. Theatre was seen as a temple of the Muses, in which dramas with a scenic and literary value were intended to be performed. As the national theatres remained the only theatre institutions until the mid 20th century, popular dramas were also performed, along with farces with songs, light comedies by Kotzebue and Scribe in the 19th century, and Parisian boulevard plays between the world wars, as well as Pirandello and Čapek.

Modernists vs. Realists
After the Second World War during the communistic reign under Tito several theatres were added, including the representative Yugoslavian Theatre JDP (which is about the same as the French TNP) or the Belgrade Drama Theatre, which acquainted the public to Arthur Miller, Tennessee Williams and Salacrou.

The repertoire went through strong changes during the rough years in which Tito broke with Stalin and with rejection of the dogma of socialistic realism by Belgrade artists. This was neither an automatic reaction, nor an order from above. It was far rather an influence from the Belgrade surrealists, whose liberal representatives were already seen as anti-dogmatists before the war, as well as the significant support of the great Croatian writer, the "Yugoslavian Karl Kraus": Mirosav Krleža (1893 – 1982).

In the conflict between the so-called "modernists" and "realists", the modernists prevailed. The result of this was the theatre "Atelje 212" with its avant-garde repertoire. The battle was led around the question if Beckett's pessimistic play "Waiting for Godot" was allowed to be played in a socialist country. This foremost abstract play about the absurdity of human existence was, as Jan Kott mentioned, a political play for Poland in 1954. The same applied to Yugoslavia.

Antisocialist (anti-)realism
After several delays "Godot" finally came to Belgrade and with it "Atelje 212" was opened, thus clearing the path for other plays seen as "decadent" and "subversive", such as the plays of the international avant-garde like Ionesco, Sartre (Huis Clos), Adamov, Mrožek, Billedoux, Saunders, Albee and others.

A few years ago I formulated a theory concerning the development of art in socialistic Yugoslavia which sounds like a wordplay: At first there was socialistic realism, then socialistic anti-realism and in the end the anti-socialistic realism.