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Czech Theatre at the Lower Side in the Kajetán House

alias Kajetán Theatre
history of the theatresupplementtechnical dataHistoric equipment

Important events

(detail)27.7.1834 | opening

(detail)11.6.1837 | closure


Revivalist patriots conceived their nation as a transcendent entity exceeding ephemeral beings, from which it was constituted, existing over the barrier of centuries.  According to them, the nation belonged among one of the most important values.  At the same time, they were witnessing daily that the nation was not only enough appreciated by the majority of the members of the community but even completely ignored.  A revivalist was confronted with the fact on a daily basis that there was no interest in the nation not only in his presence but apparently it didn't exist in the past as well.  This contradiction in the perception is something that tormented the patriots and this feeling lays deep in the foundations of nationalism, a phenomenon that determined to a large degree the cultural character of Europe in the 19th and 20th century.  Many versions of nationalism solves this by stating a metaphor that the nation had been sleeping for a certain period of time and now the time had come to revive it.  The component of the revivalist's programme was not only that his fellows should prosper, but that they would be aware of their allegiance and understand the nation as a value i.e. that they be "nationally aware" as they used to call it.


In the 1830s, the Czech Revivalist Movement found itself in the phase, in which a small group of intellectuals led an agitation campaign with a centre in cultural expression for revival of the Czech language in all its forms.  Apart of the artistic impact, the theatre had an ideological function in it as well.  Similarly as philosophers of Enlightenment valued highly the theatre for its ability to direct the spectator towards civic values, therefore as a tool of education, the theatre in the eyes of Revivalists should contribute to national awareness apart of its aesthetic dimension.  The role of the theatre was similarly perceived by Jesuits for spreading the faith or by politics of Communist party for spreading of Communistic awareness that was mirrored in the support of theatre activities at its material side as well and it's visible in its architectural aspect as a wave of new theatre organizations that were equipped by buildings, often just quickly rebuilt in constructive enthusiasm from buildings with another original purpose.   In the eyes of Josef Kajetán Tyl, the theatre carried an agitation function among other and its goal should have been creation of plays, "in which the national life was reflected in as many variable forms as possible".   Original repertoire also should have revitalized the quality of Czech language and it would have been a proof in its developed form that the Czech language could be of the same quality as German.  It would have been a proof of expressing qualities of Czech language that would strengthen self-confidence of the members of community.


However, there was no independent professional Czech theatre in Prague in this period of time.  Czech plays were being staged in the afternoons at Sunday and holidays in the Estates Theatre.  When this theatre was rented by the estate committee to Johann August Stöger, the Czechs interested in the issue were afraid that even these constricted performances would be cancelled.  A group of young patriots led by 26 year old Josef Kajetán Tyl attempted to find a new solution to the issue and they founded their own theatre company.  It was a circle, of which Josef Jungmann was a spiritual leader and which was concentrated around periodicals Kwěty and Jindy a nyní.  Many of these young men would enter into the pantheon of the Czech Revival as J. K. Tyl himself, also Karel Sabina or Karel Hynek Mácha and from the less known Boleslav Jablonský, Karel Slavoj Amerling, František Dittrich or Josef Jiří Kolár. Other Czech patriots expressed their ostentatious support to the theatre or they acted in the role of patrons and a collection was organized in the patriots' circles to obtain theatre equipment.  The ideological and generational aspect played its role as an impulse as well: dissatisfaction with the state of Czech theatre that lacked the institution of a national theatre and that agitation component.


The amateur actors were negotiating the possibility of playing in a private theatre in the former Saint Nicolas monastery at the Old Town, but they didn't reach any conclusion for its owner  J. K. Švestka didn't want to grant the exclusivity for staging only Czech plays in the theatre.  The group found their shelter in the former refectory of the Theatines monastery.  The building went through a long building history with several reconstruction, the Theatines order acquired it in 1672.  It still stands in the slope between gardens below the Prague castle next to Old Castle Stairs.   After the monastery was abolished by Joseph II. in 1781, the building was sold in an auction and converted into residential flats.  The former dining hall for the monks was a part of the flat of the owner of the house J. D. Arbeiter, a patriot as well, in this moment.  He run amateur theatre here already from 1824.


Certain complications arose concerning approval for public staging of individual plays from local authorities, which looked with displeasure at such activities for they might mean possible political or moral danger in their world view.  It took the whole year before they got approval for public performances for a limited period of time and for a certain number of plays and so only private performances were being staged so far.  Later, the viceregency later  permitted a limited number of performances two times more and the profit from the entrance fee was dedicated to a poorhouse.   Together, 22 performances were approved, although the total number of performances reached the number of 35 in the course of the theatre existence.  Apart of that, also the consent from the director of the Estates Theatre was necessary and neither other activity might not impair its business, so the amateurs could perform only when no Czech play was staged in the Estates Theatre.  In reality, it meant during the Shrovetide and from the end of May to the end of September.  The performances might not be announced publicly and so invitation could occur only in personal contact.  Also the staged plays should have been constituted only of those that were already censored and staged somewhere else.


The opening performance took place on 27th July of  7. 1834 with the play Three Fathers at Once by August Kotzebue, Tyl's adaptation of I. F. Castelli's Both the Beasts and one-act play the Strawman by J. N. Štěpánek in a private performance.  The first public performance took place on 22nd February of 1835 when the play „Žižka' Sword “ by Josef Kajetán Tyl was staged.


The theatre hall was a narrow, long hall of a rectangular plan in the first floor of a rental house, arched by a Baroque lunette vault.   With their own work, the amateur actors built here a simple wooden stage of roughly 30 m2 dimension that occupied around a third of the length of the room.  The height of the room didn't allow the stage to be raised too high.  Similarly, they also acquired costumes and scenery sets, some of which were painted by Tyl himself.  A scaffolding for attaching set pieces, soffits and backdrop was installed in the stage.   There were about ten rows of benches in the auditorium that could have been filled by 80 spectators and other 100 standing rooms.  The distribution of volumes was inducing rather a cramped impression and when the room was filled with people, it was quickly hard to breathe.   Also the location of the theatre was in a distance from the clientèle, to which it was dedicated to.  For the Lower Side with many aristocratic palaces didn't accommodate many Czech speaking inhabitants and it was quite far away from the centres of Czech community at the Old and New Town.

It the Tyl's program, it should have been a theatre with a clearly Czech character that would develop the quality of Czech culture by staging the domestic plays, especially by V. K. Klicpera, Štěpánek and Tyl himself. Later, the composition of the repertoire shifted its focus of attention to translations of foreign plays that were in a certain sense too demanding for the Czech audience, composed mainly of lower stratas of society, and so the devotees of theatre were disappearing after the initial success during the year of 1836.  Nor the attempt to be forthcoming to general taste was actually successful.  Apart of that, conflicts resonated among the members of the company, especially between Tyl and Mácha whose relation transformed from close friends into irreconcilable enemies.   So the theatre didn't enjoyed large attendance and the authorities also didn't allow other plays.  The last public performance took place on 11th July of 1837.


In 1867,  the building was bought by Empress Maria Anna of Savoy who donated it to the Redemptorist order, to which it was nationalized from in 1950 and later used by the Ministry of Interior.  Its last reconstruction was carried out in 2015.


The theatre itself ended in failure, but not its protagonists, many of which became important personalities of the Czech public life and broke through at other venues including the Estates Theatre.  Tyl became the director of Czech plays in the Estates Theatre in five years.  Despite its ephemeral existence, the theatre became a part of a story about successful awakening of the Czech nation, about how the program of the Revivalists reached universal acceptance between Czechs. Awareness of its existence is a subject of curriculum and it occupies an important spot in the history of memory, although with little significance for theatre architecture.   It is a component of a narrative, which culminated with the National Theatre as a representation of Czech culture being equally valuable as the German one.





Sources and literature: 


ŠORMOVÁ, Eva et al. Česká divadla: encyklopedie divadelních souborů. Praha: Divadelní ústav, 2000, xvi, 615 p. ISBN 80-700-8107-4. Str. 202, 203

BARTOŠ, Jaroslav et al. Dějiny českého divadla.: 2. [díl], Národní obrození. Praha: Academia, 1969. str. 269 - 270

VONDRÁČEK, Jan. Dějiny českého divadla. Doba předbřeznová 1824-1846. 1. vyd. Praha: Orbis, 1957. 490, [ii] s., [46] s. obr. příl. Knihovna divadelní tvorby.

CZESANÝ, Alois, ed. Památník českých divadel: historický nástin vývoje českého divadla. V Praze: Družstvo Národního divadla, 1891. 135 s., [7] s. obr. příl. Str. 33 - 37

KAŠKA, Jan. Kajetánské divadlo. Praha: Přemysl Šámal, 1937. 32 s.

KOTEK, Matouš. Kajetánské divadlo v Praze (1834-1837), jeho dramaturgie a herecký soubor.  Ústí nad Labem, 2011. bakalářská práce (Bc.). Univerzita Jana Evangelisty Purkyně v Ústí nad Labem. Pedagogická fakulta

BLESÍK, Jan. U sv. Kajetána pod hradem pražským: Bývalé divadlo J.K. Tyla. Vyd. 1. Praha: Kolej redemptoristů, 1947. 58-[III] s.

KOPŠ, Jaroslav. České divadlo u zámeckých schodů. Amatérská scéna. Roč. 21 (Ochotnické divadlo 31), č. 9 (1984), s. 23


Tags: Austrian Empire, Biedermeier


Author: Jan Purkert

Translator: Jan Purkert

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