Czech arts and patriotism at Národní Divadlo
I felt like Daddy Warbucks (or perhaps more like his female counterpart Grace) the other evening as I led Anna Lee up the carpeted stairs and into the regal magnificence of Prague’s Národní divadlo. Dressed in her holiday finest down to her shiny patent leather shoes, blond hair slightly askew, Anna looked every bit as wide-eyed as the orphan Annie had in the unforgettable scene from the 1980s movie Annie. When billionaire Warbucks took the night off and rented out the theater so that he could take Annie to see the stars, it was a night to remember. But it wasn’t just any theater we were going to; it was the national theater, a symbol of Czech patriotism and national pride.
I’d taken the night off, or more literally, enlisted Radek to help with the boys, so that Anna Lee and I could finally enjoy a long-promised evening together. I was just as excited as Anna for my first glimpse at the interior of the country’s most impressive stage, not to mention eager to see the ballet we’d selected together. Although I’d been to see dramas and had even taken Anna Lee to the ballet at the Stavovské divadlo in the past, neither of us had ever been to Národní divadlo. The theater’s playlist is comprised of a rotating repertoire of operas, dramas and ballets, and more than once I’d found a show that I wanted to attend, only to check the tickets and find them sold-out or showing only on a day when we had a scheduling conflict. I had also purposefully waited until Anna was old enough to appreciate the 7 o’clock start time for the evening performances and likely to keep quiet for the full two-and-half-hours.
This fall, though, I declared the time was right and had purchased tickets in early autumn for Anna’s two top ballet choices, Louskáček (The Nutcracker) and Labutí jezero (Swan Lake), which were playing during the holiday season. At seven Anna, is already a well-versed theatergoer, having attended children’s productions and ballets in the US and the Czech Republic from an early age. Still, the national theater was the fanciest theater setting either of us had been in. As we crossed the river from Malá Strana and headed along it on the other side, I pointed out the theater’s distinctive gilded-gold dome top, “the golden chapel,” as it was lit up against the night sky. With views from the theater of the river, the Prague Castle, Old Town and the Petřin hill, it was a perfect location. I had counted on Anna being taken aback by the theater’s plush interior, balconies, ornate decorative ceiling and the fancy chandeliers. But she quickly pointed out, perhaps the most important detail I’d overlooked, the carved lettering above the stage, “NÁROD SOBĚ,” and asked me what it meant. It sounded like the beginning of a national anthem I thought, but I told her we’d better wait and find out for sure from her father (or the Internet) at home.
Once the ballet began, Anna was memorized by the talented dancers and the detailed props and scenery. I had naively expected her to be speechless, but instead, her avid interest in following the storyline (which differed from the version she was familiar with) provoked her to repeatedly whisper urgent questions or declarations in my ear. She kept her voice low though and apart from a few plaintive requests for a drink and a bathroom break, we both enjoyed ourselves through the end of the first act. She also asked me how she should know when to clap and when we should go to our seats when the bell chimed. I glanced over a few times and caught her trying to go on tippy-toes or waving her arms like the dancers on stage. Luckily, she didn’t seem to disturb anyone else, and I reminded her that we were here to watch the show, not to perform.
When intermission came, we made a bee-line for the toilets and the café. Waiting in line for the bathroom, Anna struck up a conversation with a lively four-year-old Czech who’d also come to the theater with her mother. Initially, the two girls exchanged shy compliments, “You have a pretty dress,” and “I like your fancy shoes,” but they were soon in fast conversation about the show, their own dancing classes and their little siblings, left at home. We followed them to the café bar, where Anna guzzled down an orange juice before I’d even lifted my glass to my lips. The little girl’s mother then read both girls the storyline for the second act. She’d cleverly thought to buy a program, which would have certainly helped me in the first act.
Toward the end of the second act, I looked over once and realized Anna had fallen fast asleep. I tried to wake her up so she wouldn’t miss the final dances and the curtain calls, but to no avail. She clapped once or twice in her sleep and kept right on sleeping, even when the house lights came up and people began to file out of the theater. Eventually, she awoke enough to stand and we groggily stepped into the cold, Prague night. Anna was thirsty again so we walked the streets looking for a drink. When I asked her how she’d liked the ballet, she said it was good. I commented how special the theater was and what an extraordinary experience it had been for both of us. She paused then remarked that she liked it, but she liked the small theater in my parents’ hometown better. Surprised, I asked her why, and she just smiled. Last summer, she’d performed in her first play during a one-week theater workshop at that local theater, so I suspected her reasons. Although she enjoyed being a spectator, I think in her heart, she wanted to be one of the stars on the stage. It didn’t matter how fancy the theater was or how skilled the performers were.
When we got home, I asked Radek about the “NÁROD SOBĚ” lettering above the stage and he told me that the saying literally meant “nation to itself.” He remarked how special the national theater is in the eyes of the Czech people and how it was said to have been funded by donations from citizens across the nation. In the Czech people’s eyes, the theater is truly a physical manifestation of national pride, Czech culture and independence. An article from Radio Prague details the history of the development of the national theater and its current role in modern-day Czech culture. According to history, the theater was the brainstorm of the Czech intelligentsia in the mid-1800s who wanted to revive the Czech national language, culture and pride during a time when Czech was a part of the Austrian Empire and the German language was taking root in the streets and in the country’s theaters. There were major setbacks, including a fire shortly after its initial 1881 opening that destroyed the existing theater, necessitating a second-round of mass donations from Czech citizens and requiring additional years of construction, as well prompting complaints from the citizens that the theater they’d sponsored wasn’t even open for public performances. Still, Národní divadlo finally came into its own in the 20th century as a theater living up to the dedication lettered above the main stage. Today, the gilded gold roof remains a symbol of Czech arts and national patriotism, though it is only one of the numerous stages associated with the Czech national theater.
When we were returning to our seats at the end of the break, we accidentally missed our balcony and climbed the winding stairs all the way to the top. There was a splendid view of the city beneath us, and we peeked down in awe before the final bell called us to our seats.
All together, the night was one to remember, and I’m looking forward to having another theater experience there one day. Yet when talking with Radek, I found out that he’s never been to Narodni divadlo either. It looks like next time it’ll be “dad’s night” at the theater.