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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.


With the downfall of socialistic realism, which had turned into the official aesthetic of Belgrade as a cultural support, the avant-garde drama lost its heretical aura. At the same time several political and social problems occurred, and for some time students and critical intellectuals did some serious demonstrating.

Dedicated drama under Tito
The constantly alert Serbian playwrights reacted immediately. A new middle-aged generation distinguished itself, and "a few new lads" performed very critical plays, which were partly declared as subversive and anti-socialistic. A few (at Tito's personal command) were prohibited, like the play "When pumpkins blossomed" after the novel by Dragoslav Mihailović. It is about the fate of a person who decided for Stalin and against Tito in 1948 and was brought to the Goli Otok camp, a kind of Gulag, where the author had been himself. The author's thesis: "Tito fought Stalinists by means of Stalinistic methods."

The most interesting and distinctive figure amongst the playwrights of that time was Aleksandar Popović (1929 – 1996). This author, who one could call a Lope de Vega due to his extensive works, distinguishes himself with the avant-garde manner, unusual fragmented structure and slang of the suburbs which he used in his plays, which is why they can be hardly translated. At the same time he was the initiator and supporter of the new dedicated Serbian drama.

Poetry and Society
This individual author was followed by many dedicated playwrights, who however belonged to the realistic direction. In first place was Dušan Kovačević (1948), who's many popular comedies with verbal humour stand in tradition to Branislav Nušić (1894 – 1938). Furthermore the young female playwrights should be mentioned, who are all graduates of the Belgrade Faculty of Dramatic Art. In the seventies there were Deana Leskovar and Milica Novković and from the eighties onwards Biljana Srbljanović, whose plays were produced about a hundred times across the world, especially in Germany after the introduction of the "Belgrade Trilogy" at the biannual festival in Bonn in 1998.

After Biljana Srbljanović, Milena Marković became known, less mimetic, with poetic flights, an innovative technique and daydream elements. Other young female playwrights who have different styles but all deal with the problems of today's society are readily produced, like Milena Bogavac (one of the few authors who works with the stage director when preparing her plays), Maja Pelević, Jelena Kajga et al.

Special emphasis must be put on the great Serbian poet and academy member Ljubomir Simović (1935). His plays are characterised by clear contents and well-defined characters, but also by an extraordinary poetic aura and rich language. The young playwrights Nebojša Romčević, Uglješa Šajtinac and Filip Vujošević are less poetic than Ljubomir Simović, but nevertheless deal more directly with the present problems.

Concerning the topics of the new playwrights of both genders, it is hard to define a similarity, although they all deal with the present situation. Like almost every young playwright they devote themselves to the generation conflict, whereby they take account for the display of specific Serbian traits. In several plays the fate of Serbians abroad is an issue, especially the young Serbian intellectuals as a special kind of guest-worker. Perhaps it would be interesting to mention that 47 year-old Nebojša Romčević dealt with this topic that is still present today in his play "Caroline Neuber" by using the example of the famous "Neuberin", the German fighter of non-commercial theatre in the 18th century.

The Serbian festivals
An important part of Serbia's theatrical landscape are the theatre festivals, which take place in every large town, similar to as in Germany. The most well-known on an international level is the Belgrade International Theatre Festival BITEF, and on a national level Sterijino Pozorje, which up until recently only performed Serbian classical and contemporary plays. It is a forum in which new playwrights individuate and new interpretations of Serbian classics are intended to be presented, especially the work of the satirical comedy writer and sharp critic of Serbian chauvinism Jovan Sterija Popović (1806 – 1856). Theatre people from the successor countries of Yugoslavia, who aren't as narrow-minded as hot-headed politicians and evoked the disputes of the nineties in the Balkans, recently enjoy taking part at this festival.

Thanks to BITEF, Belgrade has been one of the most important theatre centres in the world for over four decades in September every year. At this festival the then almost unknown stage directors Grotowski, Barba, Ronconi, Schechner, Wilson, Vasilev presented themselves in Serbia. Due to BITEF the German theatre has been appreciated and loved, for apart from the German stage directors Lietzau, Tabori, Zadek, Besson and Castorf, early productions of Stein, Peymann, Ciulli, Piplits, Flimm, Pina Bausch, Sasha Waltz, Pollesch, Marthaler, Kaegi, Goebbels were also shown in Belgrade.

In connection to this it must be mentioned that not only well-known German-speaking authors like Heiner Müller, Kroetz, Fassbinder und Jelinek are shown in the theatres in Belgrade and the whole of Serbia other, but some representatives of the new generation as well, like Schimmelpfennig (who will be on the panel of jury for this year's BITEF), Marius von Mayenburg, Dea Loher, Albert Ostermaier, Ingrid Lausund et al.

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Read more about Maja Pelevic.

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