Macedonia theatre in 20 century
We assume that this was the first theatre building - after the antic ones - built on the Macedonian soil. Unfortunately, there are no remains of this building. On the square of Bitola, the city of Consuls, where it was located, there is a new, modern theatre building now. However, there are no mystical stories relating to its construction in comparison with that old, small one - all wrapped in legends.
In one of these legends, maybe the most charming one, the theatre building was constructed within a very short time - almost for several weeks as if built by fairies - just due to the will or the caprice of its builder-patron Abdul Kerim, Turkish nobleman of Bitola. This nobleman seemed to have heard that the gorgeous Sara Bernard, the most popular actress of that time, was to come in a nearby city (maybe in Thessaloniki) and he decided to do everything he could in order to bring her to Bitola. So it seems that he had done even the impossible - in 1894 he hurriedly built the theatre building!
Later on, even in our days, several passionate researchers of the Bitola cultural history, have made great efforts to find out any evidence that the gorgeous Sara Bernard really played in the theatre of this nobleman. Unfortunately, or luckily, they have failed. Although it is proved that Sara Bernard, starting from 1880, was a guest throughout Europe and all over America and in 1899 she was in Zagreb and Belgrade, while in 1909 in Thessaloniki, there are no grounds for believing that she was in Bitola.
Since the theatre deals with legends more easily than with naked truths, the legend about Sara Bernard will fly with temptation over the shadows of the Abdul Kerim's theatre building, which was ruined long time ago. One of the recent Macedonian dramatists, Zanina Mircevska (1967) in one of her humorous pieces with a significant title "An Inn on the Way to Jeurope", wittily made game of this powerful and nice theatregraphical story.
There are no remains of this theatre, too. It is supposed that it was built in 1906 in Skopje, on the left bank of the Vardar river, on the place where previously there had been a similar construction , so called Ada-Cafe. Exactly in the Ada-Cafe, which used to be a water-mill on one of the isles on the Vardar River, and then an inn, whole generations of karagoz-masters (karagoz-a satirical character in the Turkish puppet theatre) amused the citizens of Skopje at that time.
The builder-patron of this new and modern ("Turkish") theatre, was the Shefkey Pasha, the then mayor of Skopje. The theatre according to the records, was constructed according to the Turkish and not the European model - presumably it did not have an elevated stage, but a four angle parterre stage, surrounded by seats on all four sides, thus it was more suitable for acrobatic, not for theatre performances. Unfortunately, its Turkish repertoire, whatever like it was, has not been researched yet. This building is of great importance for the further history of the theatre of Skopje: it was the place where the first institutional professional theatre, starting its work in 1912, was seated, but the building vanished in a fire only after a month.
It is recorded in history that the initiative and inspiration for the final "Europeanization" of the Skopje theatre was given by one of the most relevant Balkan theatre professionals of the 20th century, Mr. Branislav Nusik. The legacy of Nusik contains unpublished scripts, among which there is a non-descriptive black cover notebook. It contains very intimate writings, among which there is an exciting lamentation over his origin: I do not have my own family name. The family name I have is the family name of a Belgrade grocery shop owner, a family name adopted by my father, since he did not have a family name of his own. Who would know what my real family name is? But this is not all. I do not know even who I am. Undoubtedly, I am by origin from the Balkans. I have a little Albanian, a little Vlach and a little Serbian blood. My mother was Serbian by origin. So, mostly I am a Serbian. I have travelled through Macedonia, through the parts around the Prespa Lake where my ancestors, on my fathers side come from. I have not found any traces...." The life story of the famous Balkan comedian really begins somewhere at the shores of the Prespa Lake, but it continues like this: In the Vlach village of Klisura, situated in today's Aegean Macedonia ... the beautiful and proud girl Gocha was thinking who to choose from the numerous suitors as a fiancй. But, suddenly Albanians came down from the mountain, among which a man called Belo, robbed the village and took Gocha with them. After a few months they decided to return her - but she was pregnant! In order to hide the shame, the family sent the girl to Solun (Thessaloniki) to deliver the baby there. Five or six years later, travelling with a Vlach caravan from Thessaloniki to the north, looking for happiness, came Gocha too: still beautiful, with a son called Georgias.
In Belgrade, where the caravan finally stopped, Gocha was noticed by an old bachelor, the Vlach trader, Geras Nusa. It is not certain what happened with her later, but it is definite that the child was taken by the grocery shop owner Nusa, who introduced him to the business, and in addition to taking good care of him he also gave the child his family name. Later the sons of Georgias turned the Vlach family name Nusa into a Serbian one: Nusik.
The son to be born as the fourth child on 8 October, 1864 was to be named Alkibijades, and about 23 years later he wrote his first comedy entitled "A Suspicious Person". Four decades later, exactly through the interpretation of the main role - the clumsy Prefect- called Jerotie Pantic, one of the most typical representatives of the Balkans in the whole Balkan dramaturgy, the Macedonian actor, Mr. Petre Prlicko, started his long and unstoppable way to the stars.
Branislav Nusik, who declared himself as ser-varvanito-vulgaro-vlaos, arrived in Skopje immediately after the end of the First Balkan War, in 1912. He came to assume the office first as the chief of the military police! And in this office he intended to prove himself as a man that can restore order in a chaotic situation. Could there be a better reference for a (future) theatre manager!
Establishing the first Skopje professional theatre institution, Nusik received strong support from Belgrade: considering Macedonia to be Ancient/South Serbia, for centuries occupied by the Turks, but at last freed and returned to the mother land, the state authorities considered the theatre as the most powerful weapon in the forthcoming process of making the Macedonian nation Serbian (Serbianization). The repertoire that Nusik established for his new theatre - a repertoire based mainly on national-romantic Serbian quasi-historic melodramas - most evidently proves this utilitarian/ political, not aesthetic theatre concept.
The history of each theatre building is mainly complicated, filled with intrigues, sometimes by shocking episodes. Thus, the history of the Skopje theatre building is no exception: it was burned to the ground several times and on several locations, at one time it was situated in this colourful clumsy wooden construction called the "Arena", that at that time was situated on today's "Macedonia" square. When at last, in 1927, the representative theatre building was constructed at the left bank of the Vardar River, the botch construction "Arena" was demolished-thus putting a stop to the continuos complaints (the Skopje newspapers kept a regular record of this) that the theatre could not be approached due to the tones of mud around it.
This beautiful and functional building faithfully served the stage craft for 36 years: from 1927 to 1963. In the disastrous earthquake it was seriously damaged and then completely demolished - the legends that are always spread about theatre buildings say that the building could have been saved, that not engineers-statisticians have been its executors, but the political snobs: the latter wanted that the city gets a new theatre (without "history"), a theatre for the 21st century.
Twenty years later, in 1983, this "theatre of the 21st century" started functioning: the quasi-futuristic concrete-and-metal building with huge dimension and facilities, which have not been properly put in use, neither have they been creatively identified, in two decades did not manage to get its proper name-it is still called the "new building"!
As it is the case with all other cultural environments, the development of the Macedonian national actors, or of the Macedonian theatre phenomenon as such, begins through the vital organisational model: strolling actors. The road that Cernodrinski started walking, was successfully continued by the numerous this century known and unknown spielers and jongleurs. One could say that the greatest of them all, the last Macedonian scomrah (Ancient Slav strolling actor) Petre Prlicko, alone carried the burden of the national Macedonian theatre from its entertaining and amateur stage to its established and professional stage.
From that same city of Veles - maybe the most theatre loving city in Macedonia, the city of Dzinot and Genoveva - Prlicko started exactly as Thespis did 25 centuries ago: he ran away from home, to join a group of strolling actors. He passed long years wondering everywhere, from city to city, from inn to inn, nurturing his talent and overcoming by himself even the most demanding finesses of the actors skill. Undoubtedly, a genius mime artist, Prlicko was at last accepted by the official theatre institution, by the then Skopje Theatre, just before the Second World War. In this symbolic way, through the personality and talent of one man- the so called established/artistic Macedonian and Balkan theatre recognised and accepted as legitimate and as its own the centuries old mime character of its roots.
Prlicko himself, practically to the end of his long and fruitful life, he died in 1995, marked the repertoire not only of the theatre he performed continuously in - the Macedonian National Theatre - but also of the whole theatre life in Macedonia. Undoubtedly, he is still the most popular Macedonia actor.
This is the salon of the former Macedonian National Theatre as it was in the first 10 to 15 years of its functioning: lively, interesting, relevant, each seat always taken... One of the new century theatre legends tells of the rows before the box office: especially in the first years, to get a ticket for a theatre performance, no matter whether it was a drama, ballet or opera performance, the legend goes that you should have had the right connections. Happy days!
Envisaged as the central ("state") theatre institution the so called national theatre (based on the model of the London National Theatre of the Paris Comedy Francaise) - the Macedonian national theatre (MNT) was established by way of a political decision: a decision adopted by the then Macedonian Government - the Presidium of the Anti-Fascist Assembly for the National Liberation of Macedonia, published in a form of a decree on 31 January 1945. Three months later on 3 April the same year, the Macedonian National Theatre had its first performance: the drama "Plato Krechet", written by a minor significance Soviet Union writer by the name of Alexander Kornejcuk. The person who would be eventually interested in his work, would have to spend great efforts to discover this typically socialist-realistic ready-made-author, "preserved" to day in the footnotes of some marginal books of literary history. Therefore, the fact that the same person is de facto the author with whom the modern history of the Macedonian theatre begins, to put it politely, is absurd!
However, even this clumsy repertoire move, such as Plato Crechet undoubtedly is, resulted in extraordinary achievement- not only aesthetic ones. The complete theatre ensemble that participated in the preparations was composed of actors that later became true Macedonian theatre legends, actors that marked whole eras by their personality: The director, Dimitar Kostarov, promoter and long year disciple of the so called Stanislavski system, methods of acting and directing that were predominant in the Macedonian theatre for years: Ilija Milcin, actor, and in later years a very successful director, disciple of a different ("pro-west") theatre model, who until today has remained one of the best theatre play translator, and one the best connoisseurs of the Macedonian literary language. A whole pleiad of great actors: Krum Stojanov, Todor Nikolovski, Ilija Dzuvalekovski, Petre Prlicko, Trajko Corevski, Todorka Kondova, Meri Boskova ...
However unfortunate the choice of the text to be staged as the first Macedonian theatre premiere, it has certain historical significance. Primarily this refers to the language:
At the beginning of April 1945, at the moment when from the stage of the Macedonian National Theatre for the first time the Macedonian language was freely used in a performance or to be more exact it was freely spoken for the first time- the Macedonian literary language was not still formally standardised at that time. Namely linguistic committees were still working on its standardisation, which were to yet adopt the rules to govern the language practice. On 5 May, 1945 the Macedonian alphabet was published and a month later, on 7 June, the first Macedonian Orthography.
These dates thus suggest that the Macedonian literary language was officially spoken from the Macedonia theatre stage a few months before its alphabet and orthography had been determined. The merits for this important, or rather revolutionary step forward, belongs to the then theatre dramaturgic and language editor, signed modestly on the playbill of the first Macedonian premiere as Blaze Koneski - translator. Ever since making its first steps, the Macedonian National Theatre, using undoubtedly its privileged status of highest rank national institution - on its mission of spreading the culture gathered the best and most creative human resources that Macedonia had at its disposal at that time: painters, musicians, writers, journalists and critics, managers.....
Already in its third season - in May 1947 - the Macedonian National Theatre promoted its opera ensemble. Two seasons later, in January 1949 - it put up its first ballet performance. Thus, the desired model of representative state theatre institution was finalised: theatre composed of three ensembles: drama, opera and ballet. Courageously embarking on a theatre adventure of the greatest calibre-namely deciding to stage operas and ballets in a cultural environment which at that time had absolutely no opera and ballet tradition-the Macedonia National Theatre had to rely on external assistance. Not only renowned opera and ballet solo artists, directors, co-repeaters, choreographs and conductors, but whole orchestras were guests in those early years in Skopje, from different parts of the then Yugoslavia, but also from abroad. The Macedonian state, most probably because it considered itself responsible for the fate of the Macedonia theatre institution (but also because the same institution was considered as a sample of the national culture), in those early years was very gallant towards the Macedonian National Theatre. Not only when it was matter of money!
Lovro fon Matacik, one of the world's greatest conductors, spent one of the most crisis years of his life and career in Skopje, in the just established Skopje Opera. The circumstances that defined his "Skopje stage", despite the fact in the end they proved to be eminently aesthetic, at the start they were very banal- they were purely political.
Due to his 'activities' in the period of occupation, when he just continued performing his conducting job in Zagreb (but also throughout Europe!), after the establishment of the communist authority, fon Matacik was not only removed from the public life, but also convicted to several years camp imprisonment and to removal of his civil rights. However, his "status" somehow became known in Macedonia, what resulted in a truly dramatic turning point: under unclear circumstances, which were definitely decided upon by high political authorities, fon Matacik was taken out of the camp and sent to the "solitary" and "distant" Skopje, for the purpose of assisting in the establishment of the Macedonian opera, but without the right to do so publicly. In the practice the so called assistance consisted of taking care of everything connected with the performance and its preparations- but there was no possibility of announcing this publicly, .i.e., to put the name of the author on the poster. In March 1949, again through a political decision of some powerful people-Lovro fon Matacik at last signed his name on the opera "Abduction from the seraglio"- the first Skopje opera performance in which he was no longer "underground" conductor:
In the course of the first fifteen years, by the end of the 50's- the Macedonia theatre life was intensively developed not only in the "most important" theatre institution in the country - the Macedonian National Theatre, but also throughout the state, and even outside its borders: for a brief period, only one theatre season (1947-1948) in Gorna Dzumaja, Bulgaria, Ilija Milcin and Krum Stojanov managed the Regional Macedonian Theatre - its performances were staged in the Macedonia language for theatregoers who were Macedonians by origin, i.e. for the children and grandchildren of those for whom Cernodrinski and his strolling actors had performed for. After the conflict with Stalin, in 1948, when almost all contacts were broken with the Pirin Macedonia, the Regional Macedonian Theatre in Gorna Dzumaja stopped its activities.
In Macedonia, in the sixth decade of this century, dozens of the so called people's theatres: in Ohrid, Kocani, Tetovo, Gevgelija ... , were active, but also stopped functioning in that same period. Until today only few of them have remained (Veles, Kumanovo, Strumica, Stip, Prilep), but only one of them the People's Theatre of Bitola continuously manages to maintain the high aesthetic standards almost in all its performances. As in the long passed times of consuls, Bitola is still extraordinarily relevant socio-cultural destination at the theatre map of Macedonia!
One of the specific features of the Macedonian theatre life undoubtedly is its cultural diversity. In Macedonia, not only in the period of the last fifty years, the theatre performances - not only amateur performances - are staged in several languages, within the framework of several organisational and aesthetic models and cultural circles. The still un-researched decades of the last and this century signalise that in several Macedonian cities, primarily in Bitola, there were numerous performances staged in the Vlach, Greek, French, Yiddish language...
In 1950, the Theatre of the Nationalities was established, an institution in which the Albanian and Turkish drama are successfully functioning. Both ensembles, specially during the last decade, have significantly changed the manner of their functioning and at the same time they have also changed their attitude towards the public: instead of courting to it by staging melodramatic and "simple" plays, these two ensembles, especially the Albanian Drama Ensemble, decisively experiment with different models and manners of theatre communication. The reception of their performances , especially at foreign theatre festivals at which they often guest, is more than affirmative.
The third national minority theatre in Macedonia has had continuos and remarkable success abroad: the theatre of the Rhoma "Pralipe", which since 1970 has been led by Rahim Burhan, director with an extraordinary sensibility - for what I could call - indigenous/authentic Balkan anthropological theatre. Recognising his mythic (archetypal) theatre sensibility as extraordinarily original (post-modern?) the famous European director, Roberto Ciuli, invited and took the whole Pralipe Theatre in Germany. Within the framework of the multi-cultural theatre that the German Italian Ciuli developed in Mьllheim, a city on the Ruhr River, the Pralipe Ensemble, as an alternative, marginal, so called "amateur" theatre was institutionalised seriously for the first time. Walking thus the same organisational/modality road that for decades and centuries before it was walked by all (Balkan) theatre troupes - groups - guilds: from Thespis until today!
Undoubtedly, the theatre is not only made up of buildings, institutions and artistic ensembles, the theatre is also made up of plays, whose texts represents the basis for creating the theatre sensations, events, spectacles-performances. The theatrology, starting with Aristotle, traditionally advocates the opinion that the soul of every theatre are its playwrights.
If really the great grandfather of all Macedonian modern writers is the fanatic Jordan Hadzi-Konsantinov Dzinot, then we should conclude that the Macedonian dramatics has made significant steps forward in several directions, in the last 150 years.
Starting with almost nothing- with scholarly, para-theatre/utilitarian practice - the Macedonian dramatics managed to accumulate considerable assets: its bibliography covers more then 1300 plays, signed by almost 250 playwrights. The most important thing however, is the development of the Macedonian drama literature, its transposing and transformation through different dramaturgic models.
The model that is directly connected to the tradition of Cernodrinski and his ancestors, and that reached its absolute climax in the years between the two World Wars, is labelled by the modern theatrology usually as "folklore". Its dramaturgic matrix consists of variations of the so called plays about the ordinary people's lives, with singing and shooting, which were very popular and current until the end of the 50's of this century, in the Macedonian theatre practice.