„If there was a theater in our country before Caragea, we don’t know; history doesn’t tell us anything about it; even the popular traditions don’t show us anything apart from the coming of several Arab and Turkish illusionists, who would pull ribbons out of their mouths, stick needles in the muscles of their hands, pour bird seed out of their noses and took many hats off their heads”, wrote Nicolae Filimon, considered to be the first theater historian in Romania.
Was there Romanian theater in Bucharest before 1814? Moreover, did it have its own premises? It’s hard to tell. There are both for and against arguments.
The blazon of Muntenia with the year 1814 and the inscription “THEATRVM/ VLACHICVM/ BVCHARESTINI” can be found on the particular effigy of ruler Caragea. This image is engraved on the front of a medal, on its back being a figure of a woman standing and holding a square rule in her right hand, and a theatre mask in her left hand. The legend is “FRATIBVS/ PROVANIS”. Certainly, the medal was made at the order of the ruler or his daughter, lady Ralu.
The historian Ioan Massoff came out with the hypothesis that the Provani brother, the ones mentioned on the medal, the leaders of a theater band, would have asked for an authorization to build a theater building in Bucharest. The same happened in 1792 when the request of a certain Francesco was declined, “as the circumstances did not allow it”. It is possible that there was a project in 1814. And it is just as possible that is was a highly important one for Ralu, and as a consequence, the Provani brothers rushed to make the medal, thus anticipating the start of the project. But as the financial situation of the plague-hit country was disastrous, it is hard to believe that there was enough money to build a theater.
Regarding the inscription “Theatrum Vlachicum”, one must not forget that, around that time, the notion of Roman or Wallachian was not precise. It could just refer to the existence of the theater in Wallachia. At that time shows of various foreign troupes were held.
All these are hypotheses. There is no historical source claiming the certain existence of a Romanian theater in 1814.
In Bucharest, in the “scholar ceremonies hall”, “the young pupils of Saint Sava” had performed a theatre play in Romanian for the first time, in Muntenia. The fact was due to the efforts of bookman Gheorghe Lazar. It was year 1818.
A theater was, however, built in 1817, at the desire and perseverance of the cosmopolitan lady Ralu. It was called “The Red Fountain”, and it was located at today’s crossroad between Victory Way and Berthelot. Until 1820, acts in German, Greek and Romanian have been performed here.
The first Romanian vestryman was Iancu Vacarescu, the author of the famous Prologue, helped by the launch of the Romanian shows played by the amateurs in St. Sava.
“I have given you theater, guard it,
Like a bower for muses,
With it you will soon be famous,
Through faraway words.”
On the 7th of February 1825, “The Red Fountain” theater gets caught in a fire.
A period of time followed when shows would take place in the house of Ion Campineanu, in the hall of Andronache from Sarindar and in the one built by the innkeeper Momulo, at the crossroad between the Academy street and Edgar Quinet street. All along this time, there had been numerous projects of raising a dedicated building, but, one by one, they were abandoned.
An essential role in the birth of the national theater had The Philharmonic Society. The Adrianopol Treaty announced the beginning of the freeing of the Romanian people from the Turkish vassalage. The Romanian countries have gained autonomy, guaranteed by Russia. It was, therefore, the moment of a renewal, received through the Organic Statute. The middle class under development needed to be acknowledged and claims its right to lead the political matters. The new ideas would be housed in Muntenia, by a publication that also owned the literary supplement, The Romanian Express, whose soul was Ion Heliade Radulescu. He, together with Ion Campineanu and Costache Aristia would found the Philharmonic Society, in 1831. In the statute of the Society, under art.5 the following words were written: “The aim of the philharmonic Society is the culture of the Romanian language and the progression of literature, the broadening of the vocal and instrumental music in the Principality, and towards this the forming of a new national theater”.
“Building a national theater became a priority in 1834. A project is started and brought forward to the ruler. The building process should have started in 1835, “following the measurement and making of the Hungarian theater in Buda-Pesta”. In April 1836 the place called the Inn of Campineanca is bought, the start of the building process being due at the beginning of July at the latest. This didn’t happen. Bucharest continued to only have Momulo’s hall.
It was not until 1843 when the issue of building a national theater was brought up again to the authorities. The procedures restarted in 1846, following the plans of the Viennese architect Heft. These were interrupted during the 1848 revolution and continued in 1850. No wonder, stealing wasn’t absent either. Here is what Constantin Nottara wrote: “And the walls were getting taller each day, the carts with bricks and whitewash, as well as those with logs, were all in line, apart from those turning right and left around the building, in certain yards, for the necessity of other private buildings, some of which even today, lay stiff near the theater, as obvious proof of the trickery in those times”.
After many years of waiting, in the evening of the 31st of December 1852, The Grand Theater is inaugurated with the play “Zoe or A Romanian love”. The first director was Costache Caragiale.
In 1875, Alexandru Odobescu, director of the theater, places the name of the institution on the facade: “National Theater”.
A fatidic day remained in the stormy history of the National Theater: 24th of August 1944. The building on Victory Way is ruined during the bombardment at the end of the second world war.
(1964-1973) was signed by architect Horia Maicu, Romeo Belea, Nicolae Cucu, and the resistance structure by engineer Alexandru Cismigiu. The architecture of the building was part of the 60’s modernism, but remained unfinished on the outside. The “hat” shape that became its symbol, was fatidic for it.
The fact that the shape of the building did not remind of a “house” in the classic meaning and was similar to a hat, seemed to be the reason why Ceausescu asked in 1978, after a fire in the Great Hall, to remodel it, both on the outside, as well as on the inside. Following the changes a new hall was created, the “Amphitheatre Hall”.
The building survived to the earthquake in 1977, but after a fire in the Great Hall, in 1978, Nicolae Ceasusescu demanded that this show hall would be enlarged from around 900 seats to over 1.200 as well as that an official lodge would be built. For this purpose, anti-seismic resistance systems had been taken out from the sides of the hall and replaced with simple poles, so that that Great Hall lost its acoustics and visibility.
“Around 70% of the previous Korean inspired facade, weighting around 1.400 tons, ordered by Ceausescu, now rested on the parking space of the Intercontinental Hotel, and, in the case of an earthquake of minimum 6,5 on the Richter scale, the entire edifice would collapse”, said Ion Caramitru, the director of the National Theater.
Therefore, the rehabilitation of the building has been going on for 4 years. The new National Theater will have 7 show halls, becoming the theater with the largest number of dedicated halls in the world.
After years of struggle, after a history including grand shows performed by renowned directors and actors, T.N.B. (Bucharest National Theater), comes back to the lives of Bucharest and the entire country.
Perhaps it is a good reason to remember Heliade’s words: “When the habits of the people sickened, when they gangrened, the theaters, accompanied by the public instruction, straightened the morals of the society”.