The Phoenix of Prague

While walking along the banks in Prague, the capital of Czechia, you will encounter the majestic building of the Czech National Theatre. The building was built with contributions from everyday Czechs and… burned down right after its completion.

swan lake ballet
Petr Iljič Čajkovskij: Swan Lake. Photo: Pavel Hejný, Serghei Gherciu, Martin Divíšek / National Theatre

The story of the Czech National Theater is a story of national pride, happiness, tragedy, and unshakeable determination. And you will find out why! Because it is no wordplay to call Czech National Theater a phoenix, it literary rose from the ashes.

The Czech National Revival

The idea to build a Czech National Theater directly resulted from the Czech National Revival. Czech artists, writers, dramatics, philosophers, and politicians in the early 18th century noticed that the Czech language and culture were slowly fading away from society. The main reason for that was the strong German influence from Vienna, the capital of the Austro-Hungarian empire, which Czechia was part of during those times.

All significant theatres in Czechia performed only in German. Czech artists were allowed to stage Czech plays in minor establishments. One of them was “The Shed Theater.” Yes, a shed. And yes, it was a shed made of wood. Unhappy with the situation, Czech revivalists devised a plan to build a Czech theater. From Czechs, by Czechs, and for Czechs.

After initial planning, Czech revivalists officially applied to “constructing, furnishing, maintaining and managing” an independent Czech theatre on 29 January 1845. A few months later, Austrian authorities approved the application despite fears of possible nationalistic upheaval in Czech lands.

The Phoenix is Born

The construction began on 16 May 1868. The symbolism of the building was omnipresent. The revivalists carefully picked each cornerstone for the Czech National Theater and its place of origin. Each location of cornerstone origin held an essential part in Czech History. Transportation of cornerstones was turned into celebratory parades. Horses hauled them on carriages through towns and villages decorated with national colors. 

The funds for the Theatre came from everyday people of the Czech Lands. Public collections were the primary source of money, with thousands and thousands of people contributing. Despite initial fears, even the Emperor Franz Josef I. of the Austro-Hungarian empire contributed five thousand goldens (the currency at the time).

Eventually, with the help of prominent Czech painters, sculptors, and architects, the building of the Czech National Theater was finished. The construction of the exteriors took over nine years. The completion of interiors took over four additional years. The result was astonishing.

Cech National Theater rising from the ashes

The Grand opening of the Czech National Theater took place on 11 June 1881. The guest of honor at the grand opening was the Crown Prince Rudolf of Austria. After a few more days and eleven more performances, the theatre was closed down for the finishing touches. During these finishing touches, a destructive fire broke out due to an error of one of the workers. The fire destroyed the dome of the theatre, the auditorium, and the theatre’s stage.

The wave of solidarity swung through the Czech Lands, and new public collections started. More ordinary people contributed, joined later by the Czech Nobility families, Russian Tsar, and Austrian Emperor.

The reconstruction of the Czech National Theater took two years, reopening on 18 November 1883. Due to more funding, the reconstructed National Theatre became one of the most modern theatres of its time in Europe. It surpassed the glory of the previous version of itself. You can call it creative destruction!

A living work of art

The National Theatre is not only a beautiful building but also a living and functioning theater worth visiting. We highly encourage you to see a play there when you visit Prague. There are many options you can choose from. You can catch international classics such as Romeo and Juliet or The Swan Lake, or you can try Czech operas and plays like Rusalka or The Bartered Bride.

Mirroring current world affairs, one of the longest playing and consecutively sold-out performances of the Czech National Theatre you can see is The Audience by Peter MorganIt is a play about Queen Elizabeth II, her life, and the Prime Ministers of the UK she had met.

No matter what you choose from the wide selection of the Czech National Theatre, we know it will be worth it. And what’s more, you can roam through and explore the beautiful interiors of the Czech National Theatre during the performance break. Spoiler alert: you can get to the roof and take some fantastic Prague pictures!

So, if you ever visit Prague, you should visit Czech National Theater and see a play, opera, ballet, or a Laterna Magika performance. Trust us, it’s worth it!

Marek Koten

A Ph.D. student in economics, specializing in nuclear energy from the Czech Republic, he also serves as a political consultant to the Czech government and the U.S. Republican Party.

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