The Theatrical Heritage of the City of Cluj

At present, the city of Cluj-Napoca is host to two repertory theatres (each with a resident company and regular seasons) subsidized by the Romanian state: the Lucian Blaga National Theatre, which houses the Romanian company of actors and shares its headquarters with the National Opera, and the Hungarian State Theatre, which houses the Hungarian company of actors and where the shows usually have subtitles in Romanian and, sometimes, English. Both institutions are led by important directors who rose to prominence on the stages of Romania in the 1980s: Mihai Măniuțiu, manager of the Romanian company, and Tompa Gábor, manager of the Hungarian company. The latter has also been, since 2018, the manager of the Union des Théâtres de l’Europe (UTE). A third state-subsidized theatre operating in Cluj, mainly for children, is the Puck Puppet Theatre, established in 1950. It has two sections, Romanian and Hungarian, and offers shows in both languages.

In 1990, after the fall of the communist regime, through an initiative started by professor and literary critic Ion Vartic (former manager of the Cluj Lucian Blaga National Theatre from 2000 to 2010), a theatre department was established in the Faculty of Letters of the Babeș-Bolyai University of Cluj, the largest state university of Romania. The department has a Romanian line of study and a Hungarian one. Over time, this department has grown into a self-standing faculty that currently offers courses in acting, directing, and theatre studies and, additionally, courses in filmmaking, photography, media, and film studies. It draws and trains students from all around the country and from the neighboring Hungary.

Although there is room for improvement, the close theatrical work of the Romanians and Hungarians is a reality in Cluj. Romanian directors work in the Hungarian theatre and vice versa, though the actors of one theatre work less frequently on the stage of the other. In 2019, the Romanian company of Cluj celebrated one hundred years of existence, and the catchword of the International Meetings of Cluj—the annual festival organized by the Lucian Blaga National Theatre—was “together.” This related first of all to the relationship between the Romanian and Hungarian communities cohabiting in the city—a relationship that, regrettably, has not always been a harmonious one. A brief review of the city’s theatrical past takes us along the twists and turns of this relationship.

black and white drawing of a large interior

The Refectorium of the Franciscan monastery where the first recorded theatrical production in Cluj took place.

Beginnings of Theatre in Cluj

The first mention of a theatrical production in Cluj dates back to 1626. Back then, the town on the Someș River was part of the Autonomous Principality of Transylvania with the capital in Alba Iulia, and it was thriving. With a population of approximately ten thousand people, most of them Hungarians (the Transylvanian Saxons came in second in terms of share in the ethnical composition of the town, while the Romanians would live mostly in the surrounding villages), Cluj was, like now, the most important economic and cultural hub.

The performers of the oldest theatrical presentation of Cluj were students of the Calvinist school. They performed in the dining room before the prince of Transylvania, Gabriel Bethlen, on one of his visits to Cluj. At the end of the seventeenth century and in the eighteenth century, school theatre was intensely pursued in Cluj. On 6 July, 1702, the Jesuit Academy of Cluj hosted a theatrical production of wide scope in Latin, called The Marriage of Honesty, or Prisoner Matthias Corvinus Becomes the Son-in-law of the Bohemian King. Most of the twenty-five performers were children of nobles of various ethnic groups (Hungarians, Székelys, and Transylvanian Saxons, but also Romanians, Slovakians, and Polish). The students of the Unitarian college of Cluj would also perform in Latin and in Hungarian.

In 1696, one of its graduates, György Felvinczi, obtained from Emperor Leopold the approval to put on stage tragedies and comedies in those same languages. Some researchers believe he was the first professional theatre producer in the history of Hungarian theatre. Felvinczi also wrote a play, Comicotragedia (1690–93). It is said that he presented his shows in the attics of some houses in the town’s Great Square (now Unirii Square).

Cluj was, like now, the most important economic and cultural hub.

The First Hungarian Acting Company

Almost a century after Felvinczi’s initiative and two years after Transylvania’s parliament was moved from Sibiu to Cluj, in 1792, countess Rhédey’s palace in the same square became the host of the first permanent acting company of Cluj, called Erdély Magyar Nemes Jádzó Társaság (the Noble Hungarian Acting Company from Transylvania). Its members performed their shows in the palace ballroom. Most of the actors were from Transylvania, and they had stood out in school theatre productions.

The Hungarian theatre company, whose first manager was the actor János Kótsi Patkó, had the support of the local noblemen, and its main mission was the audience’s moral education and the promotion of the Hungarian language. (That said, its repertoire was composed largely of translations from German dramaturgy, especially Fr. Schiller, but also from the English one, first and foremost being William Shakespeare.) In 1795, when the Transylvanian Diet approved the plans for the construction of a theatre in Cluj, the company’s position was formalized. The theatre would be under the protection of the state. However, the material support was long in coming. Furthermore, the company dealt with competition from a German theatre company that managed to “steal” its audience and, in 1810, even its headquarters in the Rhédey Palace.

Until the inauguration of the theatre on Farkas street (now Mihail Kogălniceanu no 5), in 1821, the Hungarian acting theatre in Cluj had to perform its shows in the former stables of the Wesselényis and in other towns. The theatre erected on the site, owned by the University of Cluj, was the first headquarters in stone for a Hungarian acting company in the whole Transylvania and in Hungary. This was designed by Viennese architects as a replica of Theatre an der Wien (the Theatre on the Wien River) and it could host between 1200 and 1500 spectators.

The theatre had state-of-the-art equipment. The German acting company also performed several shows there in the beginning, but they left the town quickly after some of their members were attacked by a group of young Hungarian nationalists. From then on and until the end of the First World War, Hungarian was the only language spoken on the main public stage of Cluj—with one exception. In 1870, the great Romanian comedy actor Matei Millo, born in Iasi (Moldavia), was touring in Transylvania and stopped in Cluj. Given his immense renown in the region, he was allowed to perform a number of plays in his native language. The shows were assisted by many Romanians from around Cluj and the neighboring localities, but also by Hungarians and Jews. Everybody was pleased to have been there. Despite this fact, the theatre manager was later reprimanded because he had deviated from the rule that established the exclusive domination of Hungarian on the stage of the Hungarian National Theatre.

black and white photo of a building

The Old Hungarian Theatre in Cluj.

The First Romanian Acting Company

Millo’s shows encouraged several Romanian students of the Romanian-Catholic high school in town to found, in the same year, the Amateur Society of the Romanian Students of Cluj, the first Romanian acting company in the city. It held its rehearsals in a barn in the yard of the rectory and the Romanian Greek-Catholic School of Cluj, as well as in the town’s Casina in the Great Square (a sort of club of the local noblemen). Most of the plays performed were borrowed from Millo’s repertoire, which included mainly creations by Vasile Alecsandri, one of the most popular Romanian poets and playwrights of the nineteenth century.

In the summer of 1872, accompanied by two professional actors from Millo’s company, the Romanian students went on their first and longest tour to a number of smaller Transylvanian localities, where the population was mostly Romanian. That was followed by shorter and less adventurous tours. The company was dissolved in 1875, when the Hungarian government banned the Romanian shows performed without a prior concession from the Ministry of the Interior.

The Golden Age of Hungarian Theatre in Cluj

The second half of the nineteenth century and the first decades of the twentieth century were the golden age of the Hungarian theatre in Cluj, before the fall of the Austrian-Hungarian Empire and Transylvania’s union with Romania. The two personalities who left their mark on this period were the actors and directors Gyula E. Kovács, a creator and performer of an important cycle of Shakespearian dramas, and Jenő Janovics, who was also manager of the Hungarian company from 1905 to 1932, and again in 1945.

Janovics, also a pioneer of Hungarian filmmaking, initiated a number of thematic cycles of theatrical productions, preceded by lectures: the cycle of Hungarian dramaturgy, the Ancient cycle, the Shakespeare cycle, the Molière cycle. Some of the most important shows directed by him included Bánk bán by József Katona; Imre Madách’s Az ember tragédiája / The Tragedy of Man, where he used film projections, and Shakespeare’s Hamlet, where he had the leading role. Janovics supervised the completion of the works for the new (Hungarian) National Theatre of the town in Hunyadi Square (now Ștefan cel Mare Square), which was inaugurated in 1906.

The second half of the nineteenth century and the first decades of the twentieth century were the golden age of the Hungarian theatre in Cluj.

The impressive structure, in Secession style with neo-Baroque elements, was built by the prestigious company of Austrian architects Ferdinand Fellner and Hermann Helmer. The old Hungarian theatre building, deserted by Janovics’s company in 1906, survived until 1934, when it was fully reconfigured; now, it hosts the Academic College and the concerts of the Transylvania State Philharmonic.

In 1874, on the site where the Hungarian Theatre of Cluj is located now (near the Central Park, on the bank of the river Someș), the town’s summer theatre building was inaugurated. Initially, it was made from wood and had no central heating, as it was meant for use, as its name suggested, only during summer. Janovics rebuilt it in an art nouveau style with his own resources, using brick instead of wood, and it was inaugurated in 1910.

At the end of the Second World War, after the Romanian troops occupied Cluj (fortunately without bloodshed), Janovics and his company were forced to move and transfer the Hungarian theatre’s main building to the Romanians.

Romanians in Cluj

According to a census conducted in the nineteenth century, the Romanians, who mostly lived in rural environments, were the largest ethnic group in Transylvania, followed by Hungarians and Transylvanian Saxons, who were concentrated in the villages. Nevertheless, Romanians did not have the same political and civil rights as the two other groups, which created constant tension and discontent. These circumstances reflected negatively in the theatre, and Transylvanian Romanians were frequently prohibited from erecting a national theatre and setting in motion a professional theatrical movement.

In 1918, the Transylvanian Romanians chose to unite with the Kingdom of Romania, and the union was ratified by the Trianon Peace Treaty of 1920. However, the first Romanian theatre season had opened in Cluj earlier, in December 1919. It was led by Zaharia Bârsan, a Romanian actor and dramatist born in Transylvania but trained in Bucharest, the capital of Romania, where he had also been employed after he graduated the conservatory.

Before the union (and not without challenges), Bârsan had been in a series of tours in Transylvania, where he had performed for the Romanian audience keen on hearing their language on stage. His appointment for the management of the Cluj (Romanian) National Theatre was a reward for the efforts he had made for the Romanian theatre in Transylvania before the war. Bârsan’s relationship with Janovics was a cordial one of mutual respect.

fisheye photograph of a building

The Hungarian State Theatre of Cluj.

The Hungarian company continued to be active in Cluj between the First World War and the Second World War, but in much more precarious conditions due to lack of financial aid from the Romanian state (during the first years after the war) and the inadequacies of the summer theatre building, in which the troupe had to move after 1918, and which had no central heating. Janovics spent the entire wealth he had gathered (especially from filmmaking) to make the living and working conditions of his actors bearable. The Romanian company also encountered hardships: the funding was deficient because Romania had suffered huge losses in the war, the audience was scarce in Cluj, and the actors had to be brought from the other provinces and not all of them adapted to the conditions.

During the years between the two wars, the repertoire of the Romanian company of Cluj was dominated by French plays (especially Molière) and by national plays, and the playwright most often put on stage was Ion Luca Caragiale, the tutelary personality of Romanian theatre. Lucian Blaga, the most important Romanian writer, philosopher, and playwright born in Transylvania, who came to be known after the Second World War, hardly found a place on the stage of the Romanian stage in Cluj until the 1929–30 season. However, at the invitation of Janovics, Blaga’s first play, Zamolxis, premiered in 1921 by the Hungarian company (directed by Janovics himself). At the time, the Hungarian company and their audience were more open to dramatic experiments, given their longer and richer theatrical tradition.

The Opening of the Conservatory and the Second World War

In 1920, the Conservatory of Music and Dramatic Art opened in Cluj, led by the Romanian composer Gheorghe Dima. Later, in 1931, it was promoted to the ranks of the higher education institutions, and its name changed to the Academy of Music and Dramatic Art. In 1940, during the Second World War, both the Academy and the (Romanian) National Theatre were evacuated and temporarily moved to Timișoara, because Cluj and a part of Transylvania had become part of Hungary again. The Hungarian company once again occupied the grand theatre downtown, until the end of the war in 1945, when Cluj and Northern Transylvania were reincorporated in Romania (under Soviet occupation).

The Romanian company returned from Timișoara and retook its place in the grand theatre, where it continues to reside, and the Hungarian moved back into the theatre on the bank of Someș. Both buildings underwent important changes in the following years, the former being extended and the latter enhanced, between 1959 and 1961, with a post-Stalinist classicist lounge. After 1990, several studio halls were added.

In 1946, the communist authorities established the Hungarian Conservatory of Music and Dramatic Art of Cluj, in addition to the Romanian one, which had been established in between the two world wars. In 1948, the two education institutions were renamed Institutes of Art and, in 1950, they were joined together as the Szentgyörgyi István Theatre Institute, with courses in Romanian and Hungarian. In 1954, however, the theatrical education of Cluj was dismantled by the transfer of the departments to Bucharest and Târgu-Mureș—resumed only after the fall of the communist regime.

Transylvanian Romanians were frequently prohibited from erecting a national theatre and setting in motion a professional theatrical movement.

From the Communist Era to Today

The communist era in Romania was marked by struggles of artists to bypass censorship. Several names of theatre directors who worked in Cluj during this time stand out: Ștefan Braborescu, Radu Stanca, Vlad Mugur, György Harag, Alexa Visarion, Aureliu Manea, Dan Micu, Alexandru Tatos, Victor Ioan Frunză, Alexandru Dabija, Tompa Gábor, and Mihai Măniuțiu. Some of these directors fled into exile after years of confrontations with political pressures, among them Mugur and Andrei Șerban. Several of them were lucky enough to see the fall of the communist dictatorship in 1989 and were able to return to Romania and resume their activity, fully enjoying the freedom of art. Since then, for example, Mugur and Șerban have both staged many memorable and important productions at the Lucian Blaga National Theatre and the Hungarian State Theatre.

The creation of the first few independent theatrical companies after 1989 opened a new chapter in the vibrant and complex theatrical life of Cluj. Their emergence was stimulated by the resumption of theatrical university education in the city. Some of these companies, like Teatrul Imposibil (the Impossible Theatre), founded in 2003, had a short-lived life, due to lack of funds. Yet Teatrul Imposibil made a mark through its programs meant to promote contemporary playrights and reading-performances or shows that were staged in unconventional spaces (courts, bars, rented premises). Under its tutelage, theatre books and a magazine were edited and a festival was even held, which had an international focus at the beginning, but which then had to limit itself to the national stage.

The year 1998 saw the opening of an independent art and cultural centre, named Tranzit House, in a former synagogue close to the city centre. To this day it hosts all sorts of exhibitions, concerts, and performances. Beginning in 2009 until last year, Fabrica de Pensule (the former brush factory of the city) was an important cultural centre that hosted and co-produced visual art exhibitions and independent theatre and dance productions, a theatre festival, and all sorts of debates. It was dismantled due to disagreements between its founding members, who decided to separate and look for a fresh start elsewhere.

In 2010, the first independent Hungarian acting company from Cluj was founded, under the name of Váróterem Projekt (Waiting Room Project). Some of its performances, which are usually in Hungarian, are addressed to Romanian audiences as well. Reactor de creație și experiment (Reactor of creation and experiment) is currently the most active independent theatre in Cluj. Founded in 2014, it focuses on young audiences and has developed programs, such as artistic residencies, aimed at encouraging young performers, directors, and playrights. It also organizes workshops, performances, and other activities for children.

interior of a large, ornate, early 20th century theatre

The National Theatre of Cluj-Napoca, the former Hungarian Theatre which opened in 1906. Photo by Nicu Cherciu.

Independent Theatre in Cluj

All of these independent initiatives address, through theatre, stringent social issues like poverty and marginalization, gender equality, sexual freedom, LGBT rights, discrimination of all sorts, ethnicity, domestic violence, child abuse and neglect, gentrification, and animal welfare. The language of these productions is quite different from the sophisticated and often twisted, Aesopic theatrical language cultivated in state-subsidized theatres before 1989 (when one was not allowed to talk freely about political, social, or economic problems); independent productions today are more simple and direct, and sometimes more personal. This is linked to poverty of means (that is: lack of money for lavish costumes, scenography, and props).

Another phenomenon linked to the emergence of independent theatre in Cluj is the transition from the director’s theatre (“Regietheatre”), in which the director-auteur has almost dictatorial powers over the production (the norm in Romanian theatre before 1989), to collective creation. The independent theatre scene in Cluj attracts, as collaborators, not only freelance theatre practitioners or students enrolled at the Faculty of Theatre and Film of the Babeș-Bolyai University, but also actors who are employed at the Lucian Blaga National Theatre of Cluj or at the Hungarian State Theatre. The independent scene is in a position of influence, in all sorts of ways, over the main stages of the city and the teaching processes at the Faculty of Theatre and Film.

Theatre in Cluj has come a long way since the first production in 1626. There have been lots of twists and turns over the years, especially regarding the balance of power between the Romanian and Hungarian state companies. But we are now at a time when both companies are being treated equally and their audiences show mutual respect. Cooperation is the key word that defines their relationship, something that also extends to the independent theatres. Now, luckily, the theatrical landscape of Cluj is enjoyable to all audiences, and I have hope for an even better future for the art form in the city.

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Thoughts from the curator

Imagine that you are sitting down on a bench in Cluj, let’s say on top of Fellegvár (Cetățuie), a hill in the middle of the city from where you can see all its corners and landscape. And now imagine that the authors of these articles have joined you—one after another— to tell you their version of Cluj. That’s what this series does: introduces you to the city they are living in.

Exploring the Multiple Identities of Cluj

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