Bulgarian Theater Enters the Stage

A new permanent exhibition in the city of Shumen will soon tell the story of Bulgaria’s first theater performance in 1856. One issue: Another Bulgarian town claims they got there first.

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Moving Stage Curtains
Each May, the city of Shumen, Bulgaria hosts the prestigious New Bulgarian Drama Festival. Photo: iStock.com / MarioLisovski

Where did Bulgarian theatre begin? For decades now, the cities of Shumen and Lom have both claimed that in 1856, the first theatrical performance in Bulgaria, back then still part of the Ottoman Empire, took place within their city limits. The (thankfully friendly) debate continues, but so far, historical facts and evidence are in favor of the northeastern city of Shumen, Bulgaria’s tenth-largest city.

Crimean War theater

“During the Crimean War /1853-1856/, the people of Shumen gradually adopted the new cultural entertainment brought from Europe by the resident English and French troops. As the cultural needs of Shumen society grew, the idea of establishing a community center was born. It was founded on the initiative of one Sava Dobroplodni in 1856 and was one of the first community centers in the country,” writes in her research Beta Haralanova, a revered local historian with the Regional History Museum in Shumen. At first, the community center was housed fittingly in the popular Kavrakov café before moving to a new building built by Hungarian immigrants.

That same year, on 15 August, Sava Dobroplodni, a prominent Bulgarian educator, presented the comedy “Mihal Mishkoed” on stage. Dobroplodni used his students as actors. The cast included Vasil Drumev, a writer, clergyman, and politician who later went on to become independent Bulgaria’s prime minister two times.

The premiere was a success, attended by intellectuals, members of the Turkish military, and community leaders representing all ethnic communities in town. “I remember well that there was a desire to perform the comedy ‘Mihal.’ A stage was set up, and my actors practiced as much as possible, and the performance was highly successful. With applause,” writes Dobroplodni in his memoirs.

The Bulgarian theater race

But little did he know that preparations were on the way for another theatrical performance, also believed to be Bulgaria’s first. In Lom, a town on the banks of the Danube in northwestern Bulgaria, actors were rehearsing “Long-Suffering Genevieve,” a German drama based on a medieval legend, translated and directed by local teacher Krustyo Pishurka, who also starred in the play.

At the time, the play’s plot, which told the story of a countess banished to the forest with her young child, spoke to Bulgarians who, still part of the Ottoman empire and yearning for freedom, saw their fate mirrored in Genevieve’s story. The production in Lom was bankrolled by Angelaki Jovanchov, a wealthy trader who participated in public life by supporting cultural events. On November 12, 1856, the premiere of “Long-Suffering Genevieve” took place in the community center of Lom, also one of the first such institutions in Bulgaria.

Although the two plays premiered a few months apart, the question lingers, Who got there first? “Soon, we are opening a permanent theatre exhibition that tells the story of theatre in Bulgaria. The documents that we have show that its beginning is here, in Shumen,” tells 3Seas Europe Ilia Videlinov, director of the Vasil Drumev Drama and Puppet Theater in Shumen.

The dubious timing

Historian Beta Haralanova also insists that that evening on 15 August 1856 marks the birth of modern Bulgarian theater. “The success of that theater event confirmed the conviction of the artists and the public in Shumen that theatre art is not alien and inaccessible to Bulgarians,” Haralanova writes.

Professor Ana Topaldzhikova, lecturer at the National Academy for Theater and Film and Arts in Sofia specializing in the history of Bulgarian theatre, in conversation with 3Seas Europe, adds: “Previous research indicates that the first Bulgarian theatre performance took place in Shumen. If there is any new information and evidence that Lom is where Bulgarian theater was born, I will accept it. Historically, it is always possible to find some new documents.” But for theater lovers in Shumen, the question has been long settled. To prove it, the city hosts every year in May the prestigious New Bulgarian Drama Festival. You’re cordially invited.

Galina Ganeva

a journalist with experience working for some of the most influential Bulgarian publications. She mostly writes about the intersection of society and culture

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