In the spring of 1958, the theatre space was given to four theatre professionals: Helena Phillippová, Vladimír Vodička, Jiří Suchý and Ivan Vyskočil. The hall that the young theatre artists were given to use was actually just a junk store full of dust and dirt. The founders named the newly established theatre after the alley leading from the riverside to Anenské náměstí, and despite the improvised operating conditions, the first premiere took place there on December 9, 1958, with Antonín Moskalyk’s production If a Thousand Clarinets. Incidentally, this musical production was the basis for the successful 1965 film of the same name by Ján Roháč and Vladimír Svitáček.
Until 1962, the theatre’s repertoire consisted exclusively of original productions by Jiří Suchý, Miloš Macourek and Ivan Vyskočil. In addition to the drama troupe, however, a pantomime troupe of Ladislav Fialka was founded in March 1959. Soon Fialka and his pantomime group became a phenomenon well-known and popular at home and abroad. Already in 1960 the pantomime group went on its first foreign tour to the GDR. In the following years, the group toured abroad regularly, performing in Cuba, the USSR, North and South America, Africa and South Asia. Moreover, in 1969 the theatre managed to organize the prestigious International Festival of Pantomime, which was attended by the world’s leading mimes – Marcel Marceau, Dimitri of Ascona and Pierre Byland. Pantomime was an integral part of the theatre until the 1990s.
From Grossman to Lébl
When Jiří Suchý and Ivan Vyskočil decided to leave the theatre after conflicts of opinion, director Jan Grossman took over as artistic director in 1962. Under Grossman’s leadership, the theatre began to develop the Czech form of the theatre of the absurd. During this period, Václav Havel’s plays such as The Garden Party, The Memorandum and The Increased Difficulty of Concentration were premiered at Na zábradlí. Alongside them, however, the theatre’s repertoire was filled with world classics of absurd drama – productions of Jarry’s Ubu Roi, Ionesco’s The Bald Soprano or The Lesson, and Beckett’s Waiting for Godot were staged here under Grossman’s direction. Among other theatres, it stood out for its intimate atmosphere and its strong need to communicate and share a common topics with the audience.
Following the Soviet-led crackdown on the liberal Prague Spring reform movement in 1968, Grossman and Havel were forced to leave the theatre for political reasons. With the 1970s being a period of “normalisation“, meaning most of the outstanding directors of the time were forbidden to work, film directors of the so-called Czech New Wave, who were not allowed to work at the Barrandov film studios, were invited to work at Na zábradlí. The repertoire was thus shaped by personalities such as Juraj Herz, Jiří Menzel, Jaromil Jireš, Jan Kačer, Ivan Rajmont or Evald Schorm, who between 1976 and 1987 managed to create another significant era of the Theatre Na zábradlí with his productions of Hamlet, Macbeth or The Brothers Karamazov. At the end of the 1980s, thanks to the gradual political liberation, some of the previously “banned” personalities returned. In 1989, Jan Grossman also made a comeback, subsequently staging his own productions of Molière’s Don Juan or Havel’s Largo desolato and Temptation at Na zábradlí, and in 1991 he also replaced Vladimír Vodička as director of the theatre.
After Grossman’s sudden demise in 1993, Doubravka Svobodová became the director of the theatre. Together with artistic director Petr Lébl, she started an iconic era of the theatre, which was ended by Lébl’s tragic death in 1999. Under his artistic direction, the theatre won several Alfréd Radok Awards and was named Theatre of the Year in 1994 and 1997. Lébl’s direction of Chekhov’s plays Ivanov, The Seagull and Uncle Vanya, Örkény’s Catsplay and the musical Cabaret are forever indelibly etched in the Czech theatre history.
Lébl’s death affected not only the lives of his colleagues and friends, but also the artistic course of the theatre. The artistic leadership was rather unstable during the first decade of the new millennium. Besides the actor Jiří Ornest and the dramaturge Ivana Slámová, the theatre’s key personalities included directors such as Jan Antonín Pitínský, Jiří Pokorný, Juraj Nvota and Jan Nebeský. A new, dramaturgically coherent period of Theatre Na zábradlí began again in 2013, with the arrival of a management that is still in charge today…