The history of stage venues in Zagreb began in the Mediaeval period, when since the 11th century, as in Western Europe, liturgical dramas were performed in cathedrals (Easter, Epiphany) and profane carnival plays were performed in our public city places from the middle of the 14th century. In the 16th century, performances were given in the Cathedral School of Kaptol. In 1607, the Jesuits in their school continually performed in Latin, and later on in the Croatian Kajkavian dialect. Until 1772, they had performed 400 stage works, privately or publicly, on ten city locations. After the abolition of the Jesuit order, less frequently but still continually, Kajkavian translations and adaptations of comedies and plays were performed at the Kaptol seminary between 1791 and 1834. At the end of the 18th century, German companies began to arrive in Zagreb; they performed at Harmica (today the Ban Jelacic Square) and inns, and sometimes even in the upper town noble palaces. The first public hall in Zagreb was situated in the renovated dining room of the convent of St. Clare’s (today the Museum of the City of Zagreb, Opaticka 20). In general, at the end of the 18th century, the audience had become more conscious of the theatre and more demanding, being aware of the fact that the theatre halls in European cities were on a much higher level than our venue improvisations.
The first public theatre hall in Zagreb was located in the noble palace and had characteristics of a public theatre (notes, tickets): the so-called Pejacevic-Amadé Theatre (today the building of the Croatian Natural History Museum, Demetrova 1). It was active between 1797 and 1834 and carried the name of the last owner of the palace (after family Kulmer-Pejacevic) count Antun Amadé de Várkony, the great Zagreb district prefect. The Amadé theatre was rented by the owner solely to German troupes, but in 1832 and 1833, the German actors gave several performances in the Kajkavian dialect.
In the context of a general flourishing of the European theatre life, Zagreb was also constructing its first professional theatre. In 1833, the Zagreb merchant and landowner Kristofor Stankovic won the Viennese lottery jackpot in the amount of 30,000 ducats and decided to build a theatre building as a private investment. The City magistrate decided to grant him the land on the corner of St. Mark’s Square and the Freudenreich Street and the construction of the theatre began that same summer; a theatre that remained in private ownership all until 1851. Architects of Italian origin, father Christofor and son Anton Cragnolini who arrived from Ljubljana designed the building in a neoclassical order. It was opened on October 4, 1834 and was exclusively used by German companies all until June 10, 1840 when with the ‘heroic play’ by Ivan Kukuljevic Sakcinski Juran and Sophia or The Turks at Sisak performed by the national theatre company from Novi Sad, the Croatian National Theatre in Zagreb began its activity. Within the so-called Stankovic theatre (old upper town theatre) there was a dancing hall in which the Croatian Parliament had its session in 1848. For the Zagreb of that time, the upper town theatre had a large auditorium (more than 750 seats), but it lacked good technical equipment. Nevertheless, it served as a centre of theatre and public cultural city life. When the new building was opened in 1895, due to incomprehensible reasons, it was turned into an administrative space, so today it is a hall for the meetings of the Town Council.
The development of European cities in the second half of the 19th century and the new urban renewal in which theatres held an exceptionally significant place, were an indicator of the power of liberal citizenry; between the end of the 19th century and the beginning of WWI, 1,500 theatre buildings were erected in Europe.
New theatre buildings were built throughout Croatia; in Zadar (1865), Dubrovnik (1865), Osijek (1866), Sibenik (1870), Varazdin (1873), Rijeka (1885) and Split (1893), so the capital could not have lingered behind. In a hastened development of the theatre in general, in Zagreb the artistic and technical demands, especially after the foundation of the Opera in 1870, were far surpassing the capabilities of the upper town stage.
The idea of erecting a more equipped building had already appeared in 1871, but no action was taken all until the earthquake in 1880, which considerably damaged the upper town theatre, therefore raising the issue of a new theatre. The theatre council, led by the Croatian writer and Member of Parliament Marijan Derencina appointed in April 1880, began the action of gathering funds and submitted to the Government a detailed petition on the need for constructing a new building. From two architects who specialised in theatre buildings Helmer and Fellner, he ordered blueprints. In June 1881, the Croatian Parliament passed the Act on constructing a new national theatre in Zagreb, which was certified on October 31, by the emperor Franz Joseph I. But with the departure of Derencina from the theatre, all the attempts for a new building of a national theatre ceased. Count Karlo Khuen-Héderváry, as the new Croatian governor from 1883, restored the discussions on the location in 1885 and only Isidor Krsnjavi, as the new head of the department for religious affairs and education in 1893 succeeded to convince him to make the final decision on the construction, since the emperor’s visit to Zagreb was planned for the autumn of 1895. The town discussion on the location was interrupted by Khuen-Héderváry’s decision that the future theatre will be built on the location of the city market; despite the disputes of that time that this location was on the outskirts of the city, from a developmental vision of the city, his decision proved to be good. The new theatre (today on the Marshal Tito Square) is surrounded by numerous buildings of high monumental value from the end of the 19th and beginning of the 20th century.
In the fall of 1893, the architectural company Helmer and Fellner from Vienna sent a new project and on January 5, a new agreement on the construction of a new theatre building was signed. The work had to begin in spring 1894 and be finished by October 1, 1895. In the meantime the governor appointed Stjepan Miletic (1868–1908) the general manager of the Croatian National Theatre beginning from the season of 1894/1895. The first season of Miletic in which he already began with reforms was also the last season in the upper town theatre, where he finally succeeded in installing electricity, both in the auditorium and on the stage.
In April 1894, there was an invitation for tenders for construction works and companies and workers from Zagreb got the job, except for work that was highly specialised. On May 22, 1894 more than two hundred workers began the construction. After four months, the building was under the roof and the interior works began. The Government accepted Miletic’s proposition that the ceremonial curtain be painted by Vlaho Bukovac – The Reformation of Croatian Literature and Art, today known under the title Croatian Reformation.
The paintings on the ceiling of the auditorium were created by the Viennese painter and decorator Alexander Demetrius Goltz. The ceiling of the Foyer on the first floor was painted by Ivan Tisov (in 1911). The author of four busts, on the forepart (Ivan Gundulic and Junije Palmotic), on the eastern (Dimitrije Demeter) and on the western side of the building (Vatroslav Lisinski) is unknown. The construction was progressing according to plan and after sixteen months, on October 8, 1895, the building received its certificate of occupancy.
The new theatre was ceremoniously opened on October 14, 1895, when at 2 pm the emperor Franz Joseph I on a balcony column before numerous citizens of Zagreb and people from other Croatian regions, symbolically performed the final blow with a silver hammer that was sculpted for that occasion by Robert Franges Mihanovic. The first ceremonial performance in the new building was held in the presence of the emperor and numerous dignitaries at 7 pm – The Glory of Art, an allegorical ‘stage prologue in three scenes’ by Stjepan Miletic with music by Ivan noble Zajc in which principals of Drama and Ballet participated and the eighth scene from the opera Nikola Subic Zrinjski by Ivan noble Zajc.
In 115 years of its existence the building of the Croatian National Theatre in Zagreb underwent two renovations. The first one was between May 18 and October 14, 1937 when only the technical equipment was reconstructed and the only complete construction renovation until today commenced on February 1, 1967 and was completed for the ceremonial opening on November 27, 1969. The western wing of the building of Kolo, erected for the needs of the theatre during its construction, was also renovated and connected with the main Croatian National Theatre building with an underground tunnel below the Hebrang Street.