Activities of the National Theatre’s Drama Company is most often divided into four periods: from the establishment of the Theatre until the First World War; period between the two world wars; from the liberation until the disintegration of ex-Yugoslavia; and the period since 1991 to today. The Drama Company has been formed of prominent actors of already existing professional theatres from the region, primarily from the Serbian National Theatre and Croatian National Theatre, and of selected artists from larger travelling theatre companies. In the first decades, in small Belgrade, the productions often had a premiere and two or three performances, and only the rare and very popular plays had up to ten performances. In these circumstances of hyper production, one cannot imagine that production would be anything similar to what it is today. Actors would memorize the text, and rely on a prompter to a great degree, and the leading actor would try to agree with other actors and rehearse the basic mise en scène in a few rehearsals before the opening. Pathetic and romantic acting style prevailed. The productions were placed in only a few sets (a room that often served as a peasant home or European salon; a forest; a city square). At the beginning, the actors were dressed in their own costumes and actresses were given a small addition to their salaries for this purpose. Later, the costumes, mostly type ones, were commissioned for each production. In the years just before the First World War, situation regarding directing and set designing changed to a degree, due to arrival of a professional director, Alexander Ivanovich Andreyev, who introduced a certain richness of décor on the stage. Besides the pieces of international classics that were a compulsory part of the repertoire (Sophocles, Shakespeare, Calderon, Moliere, Racine, Goldoni, Corneille, Rostand, Schiller, Goethe, Ibsen, Strindberg, Gogol, Ostrovsky, Chekhov, Gorky…), the National Theatre immediately started to support national play writing. Naturally, in the beginning there were only a few good texts. At the time of stirring of national identity awareness, the plays with national themes were especially popular, prevalently tragedies and plays inspired by events from medieval and recent period, namely: Death of Uroš V, by Stefan Stefanović, Miloš Obilić (The Battle of Kosovo), by Jovan Subotić, Hajduk Veljko by Jovan Dragašević, etc. As the time went by, good authors who will stand the test of history appeared (Milovan Đ. Glišić, young Branislav Nušić, Borisav Stanković, Matija Ban, Simo Matavulj, Laza Kostić...). The so-called plays with singing were extremely popular at the time, and later. Such were dramatizations of Stevan Sremac’s novels – Zona Zamfirova and Ivkova Slava (music by Stevan Mokranjac); Djida by Janko Veselinović and Dragomir Brzak (music by Davorin Jenko); and the most popular one - Koštana by Borisav Stanković (music by Stevan Mokranjac). Koštana became a cult play, and as such remained on the repertoire from 1901 until today, only with occasional short breaks. Translation activities were quite intensive at the time. It was often the case that a modern French or German text was produced only a few months after its first performance abroad. The so-called Serbizations were made. However, most of these pieces, dating from the first decades of the National Theatre’s work, did not stand the test of history and no one knows about them today. At the turn of the century, the management gave additional effort to urge writers to write dramas. Amongst other things, there were regular annual competitions for new drama texts. At that time a new and great name in national play writing appears – Branislav Nušić. Besides him, there were other young writers amongst whom one should mention Simo Matavulj, Svetozar Ćorović, Vojislav Jovanović Marambo and Milivoj Predić. Jovan Sterija Popović was recognized as a national drama classic; his plays were regularly on the repertoire and, in addition, the Theatre organized special Sterija’s Evening each year on the day of his birth. Leading artists at the time were the following: Aleksa Bačvanski, Adam Mandrović, Miloš Cvetić, Toša Jovanović, Đura Rajković, Milorad Gavrilović, Sava Todorović, Ilija Stanojević Čiča, Svetislav Dinulović (actors and actor-directors), and Pera Dobrinović, Dobrica Milutinović, Milka Grgurova, Vela Nigrinova, Sofija Coca Đorđević (the only Belgrade-born in the group), Zorka Todosić, Teodora Arsenović, Persa Pavlović...

During the World War I, the only time in its history, the National Theatre was closed for the duration of all four years. Male staff of the Theatre was mobilized; “army theatres” were formed in many camps led by our actors. The “army theatres” performed a popular, but very demanding repertoire. Archive and library of dramatic texts were kept in crates, which were transported, together with the army and people, through Albania…

Immediately after the War, the Theatre opened its door again and soon the opera and ballet companies were formed. Lack of space due to one stage that was to be used by three companies has been resolved by adaptation of horse-riders’ school Manjež, which became known as The Stage on Vračar; it was somewhat more intimate than the one in the building “near the monument”, it was much liked both by actors and theatregoers. With several interruptions, the National Theatre used the building until after the World War II, when it became the base of newly-formed Yugoslav Drama Theatre. The end of WWI coincides with the October Revolution, it was the period when many Russians and other nations fled their country before the communist regime of the Soviet Union. Many artists were amongst the refugees and some of them remained in Belgrade. This is how the National Theatre got professional directors (first, Yuri Lvovich Rakitin, and later the couple Vera Grech and Polycarp Pavlov, former members of Moscow Hudozestveni Theatre), set and costume designers (Leonid and Rimma Brailowsky, Anani Verbitski, Vladimir Zhedrinski, Vladimir Zagorodnjuk). Owing to the Russians, the theatre directing becomes an art of its own in the Theatre, acting becomes enriched with realistic principles of “acting out” of Stanislavski. Set and costumes were produced for each premiere (in accordance to financial possibilities), and brought predominant styles in art to the stage. Classical repertoire was still present, as well as modern international writers (Bernard Shaw, Luigi Pirandello, John Goldsworthy, Eugene O’Neill, etc.); however, the so-called boulevard repertoire boomed, especially the French “light” plays, which the audience adored and critics despised. Besides the international writers and Sterija, one can freely say that Nušić, whose prime was between the wars, became a national classic, even during his lifetime. At the time of his creative prime, between the wars, he was a kind of a “in-house writer” in the National Theatre; he wrote all his plays having in mind the drama company of the Theatre, and he often participated in casting. Although the critics did not think the same, the audience found Nušić their favourite playwright. Every new piece was impatiently anticipated and when produced, his dramas became so popular that they broke records. Belgrade became a European city and theatre productions were being performed several tens of times, without any difficulty. There were fewer premiers, but the productions were significantly more professional, contemporary and better. National repertoire consisted of Serbian, Slovenian, Croatian and Macedonian writers’ texts (Milutin Bojić, Borisav Stanković, Ivo Vojnović, Milan Begović, Ivan Cankar, Petar Petrović Pecija, Vladimir Velmar Janković, Josip Kosor, Velimir Živojinović Masuka, Todor Manojlović, Miroslav Krleža, Đura Jakšić, Milivoj Predić, etc. and the first female author Milica Jakovljević, better known under alias of Mir-Jam). Besides the Russian ones, there were our professional directors and actor-directors: Mihailo Isailović, Branko Gavela, Josip Kulundžić, Vitomir Bogić, Dragoljub Gošić, Dimitrije Ginić, Mata Milošević, Radomir Raša Plaović... Besides the already mentioned actors and actor-directors, there were many experienced actors who started their careers before the war, like Žanka Stokić, Mara Taborska, Desa Dugalić, Marica Popović, Nevenka Urbanova, Ljubinka Bobić, Aleksandar and Zora Zlatković, Milivoje Živanović, Viktor Starčić, Jovan Gec, Božidar Drnić...

We should, by all means, mention our first professional costume designer Milica Babić Jovanović, who designed most productions between 1931 and 1964; as well as painters-set designers Jovan Bijelić, Stanislav Staša Beložanski, and subsequently Miomir Denić, Bojan Stupica and Milica Bešević. During German occupation of Belgrade 1941-1944, the National Theatre continued working, although it was little written and less spoken about it, until recently. All three ensembles gave regular performances at midday or in afternoon because of curfew; however, the Theatre worked in somewhat difficult circumstances and some of ensemble members were absent, either captured or fighting Germans. Immediately upon liberation of the City, the Theatre of National Liberation – a company formed in National Liberation Army, gives performances at the Stage near the Monument. However, the National Theatre’s ensembles returned to the stage soon, with addition of some of Partisan theatres’ members, but the newly formed national government closely watched the Theatre. During the first several years after the war, plays with clear political messages dominated the repertoire, the plays were selected, written and produced with clear influence of the “official” style – socialistic realism, and Russian writers were given primacy. As early as the beginning of 1950s, the state’s influence on the Theatre’s work diminishes and everything goes back to natural, artistic state of affairs: the repertoire again consisted of plays by international and national classics. In early 1960s, plays of contemporary, avant-garde plays, drama of absurd, anti-plays find their way to the stage… Modern national play writing is at full swing, and the plays by Miroslav Krleža, Borislav Mihailović Mihiz, Aleksandar Popović, Ljubomir Simović, Jovan Hristić, Velimir Lukić, etc. are the most popular ones.

Written and organized by Jelica Stevanović
Texts written by Milica Jovanović, Aleksandar Radovanović, Mirjana Odavić were used