First theatre to stage Václav Havel's plays turns 50

This month marks exactly 50 years since the first performance at Divadlo Na Zábradlí, a theatre which has become famous mainly for staging former President Václav Havel’s plays. To mark the anniversary, the theatre has prepared a number of special events both for its former employees and its spectators.

Divadlo Na Zábradlí or The Theatre on the Ballustrade was named after a street that leads to the theatre from the river. It opened on December 9, 1958, with a staging of a series of sketches called Kdyby tisíc klarinetů. The play became an immediate success, bringing a gust of fresh air into the stifling atmosphere of the 1950s. Doubravka Svobodová is the theatre’s director:

“This play opened the wave of the avant-garde theatre of the 1960s. It was the first breach from the rigid artistic direction of the 1950s communist regime. It became very popular and at one point had to be staged even twice a day. People were standing in queues to see it. After all those years of totalitarian regime, they were longing to see something new.”

Most people, however, associate Divadlo Na Zábradlí mainly with former president and playwright Václav Havel. His cooperation with the theatre dates back to the late 1950s. He was employed by the new director Jan Grosmann, who immediately spotted his talent.

“However, since it was in the 1950s, he couldn’t work in any creative post. So he worked here as a stage hand during the day and at night he selected plays and wrote his own ones. Gradually he was promoted, first to a post of lighting technician and eventually he became an artistic director. All the plays he wrote at that time were written for this stage. This is where they had their world premiere.”

Both Václav Havel and Jan Grosmann were forced to leave after 1968, but the theatre managed to keep up its high artistic standards. That was thanks to some famous film directors of the Czech New Wave, such as Juraj Herz, Jiří Menzel, Evald Schorm, who were not allowed to make films during the 1970s and 80s and found a refuge in Divadlo na Zábradlí.

To mark the 50th anniversary, the theatre prepared a number of special events, starting this weekend, when it opens its doors to the public. Doubravka Svobodová once again:

“We want to give the viewers a chance to peek backstage. For the actual anniversary on December 9, we invited everybody who is associated with our theatre. The capacity is 200 seats and we sent out nearly one thousand invitations, so we hope all the people will be able to fit. We are also preparing a premiere of a play by Jean-Luc Lagarce, which is very critical towards people who work in theatres, so this is how we want to celebrate the anniversary.”

Despite recent problems with theatre funding, Divadlo Na Zábradlí has managed to survive, thanks to its loyal audience and generous sponsors. Its performances are always sold out at least one month ahead.