Novi Bečej and Vranjevo through History

Explore the extraordinary past of Novi Bečej and Vranjevo through the pages of the book 'Novi Bečej and Vranjevo through History.' Uncover political events, economic development, and cultural heritage of these Banat towns through richly documented stories. Follow the evolution from the earliest days to the present, delving into the intricate threads of political intrigues, economic transformations, and cultural ascensions. Experience the past through the eyes of the author as the pages of the book unfold before you, providing a unique perspective on the life and legacy of these significant locales.

The development of theater art among Serbs in Vojvodina
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The development of theater art among Serbs in Vojvodina: The path from dilettante troupes to professional theaters

In painting, architecture, and literature, a rich heritage from the Middle Ages has been preserved. Hence the fact that Serbian painting in the regions of present-day Vojvodina took deep roots already by the mid-eighteenth century, reaching such proportions by the end of that century that this period is considered a kind of renaissance among Serbs. In painting, the Serbian identity in Vojvodina had artists who had completed the highest schools of that time, while more numerous neighboring nations such as Hungarians, Romanians, and Bulgarians had not yet considered their own painting.

In the performing arts, as well as in music, there wasn't any significant legacy. Therefore, the Middle Ages in the performing arts couldn't serve as inspiration for the creation of Serbian theater. It, among other reasons, resulted in a much slower development.

Additionally, there were no schools where necessary knowledge could be acquired to nurture and develop theater based on tradition and the spirit of the people. Everything had to be created from scratch, following the example of neighboring nations, which had already achieved good results in this field. Simultaneously, everything seen and learned from Germans and Hungarians had to be adapted to the conditions and needs of their own people.

Because of all this, theater makers faced tougher conditions in this area. Unlike other forms of art, authorities also posed certain obstacles in theater, as they didn't see the creation and development of Serbian theater solely as a cultural endeavor.

Creating theater and its development required a lot of effort to become established among the Serbian people. There were many attempts, and considerable time passed before the first theater groups were formed whose performances the people could understand and then accept.

The first Serbian theater performances emerged concurrently with the founding of secondary schools where priests and teachers were trained. School performances appeared among Serbs in Vojvodina already in the second half of the eighteenth century. They had a religious character, which was almost a rule, to a greater or lesser extent among all peoples, as theater originated from religious rituals.

In the 1780s and 1790s, secular school performances also appeared in Sremska Mitrovica, Veliki Bečkerek, and other places. According to records in the chronicle of the Serbian Orthodox Church in Vranjevo, Joakim Vujić, along with his school group, performed while he was a teacher in Stari Bečej in the last years of the eighteenth century.

It's significant to note that in September 1812, the Hungarian theater in Budapest presented the play "Crni Đorđe" in which the first Serbian uprising was discussed in the Hungarian language. The play was performed twice to full audiences. This example simultaneously illustrates how relations between Hungarians and Serbs were developing at that time in Budapest itself.

Probably, this performance by the Hungarian theater prompted Joakim Vujić to expedite the organization of his group of students and students in Sentandreja. That group gave its first performance on August 12, 1813, in the building of the Hungarian theater in Budapest.

The romantic spirit that emerged in almost the entire Europe at the end of the eighteenth and beginning of the nineteenth century also gripped the Serbs in Vojvodina. It marked a period of national fervor and cultural enthusiasm. In such conditions, theater performances became one of the special forms of struggle for awakening national consciousness and spreading culture.

In Vojvodina, many initiatives emerged for the creation of theater groups not only in cities but also in larger villages inhabited by Serbs. Much effort was invested in organizing amateur groups.

In Novi Bečej, Antonije Brežovski founded the first amateur group in 1830, which was warmly accepted by the wealthiest merchants, craftsmen, and affluent farmers. Not only did they provide material support, but they also participated in the group's work as amateurs. The fact that, from the very first days of its existence, the most respected citizens and their wives joined the group made participating in the activities of the amateur group seen by the youth not only as a cultural action but also as a patriotic act, so every young person in Novi Bečej aspired to become a member of the group.

The amateur group quickly became something like a school or church, or a similar institution embraced by the entire Serbian population at that time. No celebration or major holiday could be imagined without the participation of the amateur group with some theatrical piece.

Before the appearance of the amateur theater group in Novi Bečej, it is not recorded that any earlier group lasted so long or had such a wide repertoire. The Novi Bečej amateur group lasted from 1830 to 1848. The repertoire was very rich for the time. In addition to translations of foreign plays (from Hungarian, German, Italian, and French), works by domestic authors were also included in the repertoire of the Novi Bečej amateur group.

After Brežovski's death in 1840, the group was led by Šandor Dada, a grain merchant who had been an amateur in the group until then. Lazar Mirosavljević, who was one of the most prominent amateurs and was the "right hand" of Brežovski, and later Dada, recalls in his memoirs that in 1844, Jovan Knežević Caca founded a new group in Vranjevo, but not for long. Already in 1845, the people of Novi Bečej returned to the old group and worked under the leadership of Šandor Dada until 1848. It is interesting to highlight an event during the performance of the play "Miloš Obilić". Mirosavljević recounts:

"A wealthy lady, Mrs. Papić, entered the dressing room and, acknowledging their patriotism, placed a golden chain on my chest and adorned my hands with diamond rings to make me look truly royal. The audience, full of patriotism and enthusiasm, provided them with beautiful costumes."

In 1857, Jovan Knežević founded another amateur group in Vranjevo, which operated until 1860, when he left for Srpski Čanad. Knežević's request for permission to operate the amateur group in Vranjevo was rejected by the authorities with the following explanation from Koronin, the governor of Banat:

"I will tell you immediately why. Among you Serbs, it is not a wandering theater society, which travels out of necessity to feed itself, but your aim is to instill chivalrous spirit into the people, to awaken their consciousness, and to inspire them for everything that is Serbian and national, and this must not be."

Jovan Knežević's constant preoccupation was the establishment of a Serbian theater, and as soon as he received an invitation from Srpski Čanad to come and organize the work of the newly established amateur group there in May 1860, he went to Čanad. He took several actors (amateurs) from Vranjevo and Velika Kikinda with him.

Before Knežević's arrival, the Čanad group had only performed one play with the help of the director of a traveling German theater that was then touring Čanad. With the group strengthened by amateurs from Vranjevo and Kikinda, they performed in Semikluš (Romania) and Velika Kikinda.

Knowing that without the appropriate permission, the group could not survive for long, Knežević timely submitted a request to the authorities to obtain the license, which he received relatively quickly. After receiving the permit, he brought the group to Vranjevo, where they spent two months preparing new plays and performing them.

There, in Vranjevo, Jovan Knežević turned that amateur group into the first Serbian professional theater. Unlike amateur groups, the actors in this theater were paid, and it became their sole profession. The theater had its own wardrobe and a modest library.

In the fall of 1860, Knežević and his theater toured northern Banat and Bačka, and wherever they went, they were warmly welcomed.

In late November 1860, Knežević arrived in Novi Sad with his theater. The people of Novi Sad, eager for theater performances in the Serbian language, welcomed Knežević's theater very warmly and cordially. In general enthusiasm, they saw in the actors the bearers of national ideas, people who awaken national consciousness, so they embraced and respected them especially. Novi Sad had not had Serbian-language theater performances since the abolition of the Flying Amateur Theater in 1840. Knežević intended to stay in Novi Sad until spring, but there was an accident with the hall where the performances were held (a supporting wall collapsed), and since Novi Sad did not have other suitable halls at that time, he had to set out on a journey to larger towns in Vojvodina. During that time, they visited: Ruma, Sremska Mitrovica, Zemun, Veliki Bečkerek, Novi and Stari Bečej, and Srbobran. Wherever they performed, they were warmly welcomed and enthusiastically greeted.

During its stay in Novi Sad, Knežević's theater performed thirteen plays in twenty-five days, which was not only incomprehensible for the theater standards of that time but also quite demanding even for experienced professionals to appear with a new role on stage almost every other day. The level of these performances was modest, but it had to meet the most elementary criteria that part of the Novi Sad audience already possessed, having watched German and Hungarian theaters that were widely touring Novi Sad.

The success of Knežević's theater, not only in Novi Sad but also in all other places where it performed, encouraged Dr. Svetozar Miletić, as the president of the Serbian Reading Room in Novi Sad, Jovan Đorđević, the editor of the Serbian Journal, Jovan Jovanović Zmaj, and other prominent Serbs from Novi Sad to accelerate preparations for the establishment of a national theater in Novi Sad.

Understanding the role of theater in spreading the Serbian language and preserving the nation from assimilation, Jovan Đorđević sought to capitalize on the public mood, especially leveraging the solid and very large theatrical ensemble of Knežević's theater for those circumstances. He published several articles in the Serbian Journal and called on citizens to contribute to the establishment of a permanent national theater in Novi Sad.

Upon the return of Knežević's theater to Novi Sad in June 1861, there was a weaker attendance due to cold weather and frequent rains, and the performances were given under the open sky because there was no suitable hall. Because of this, Knežević had to reduce the actors' salaries, which Jovan Đorđević used to his advantage. As soon as the actors complained about Knežević's actions, Đorđević took them to Dr. Miletić and negotiated with him to initially admit them to the Serbian Reading Room, which would be the founder of the Serbian National Theater in Novi Sad. Out of the seventeen actors in Knežević's theater, fourteen joined the Serbian National Theater. As soon as they submitted the application on July 15, 1861, the next day the Serbian Reading Room held its session and admitted them all as members of the new theater. Eight days after the admission of Knežević's actors, the Serbian National Theater began performing in Novi Sad.

Jovan Knežević, with the remaining three members of his theater: Laza Popović from Vranjevo, Đura Rajković from Kikinda, and his wife, went to Vranjevo, where he gathered new actors, formed a group, and soon continued to perform in larger towns in Vojvodina.

Knežević's theater is now credited with the role of the first Serbian traveling theater. Considering the fact that fourteen actors from Knežević's theater moved to the Serbian National Theater, it was actually just a change of name and director. Jovan Đorđević took over as the head of that theater. So, the theater remained the same, the actors were the same, and they traveled to all major towns, just as Knežević's theater did. These travels were considered one of the exceptional tasks of the theater, its primary mission. Ultimately, these travels were a necessity for the theater's survival. All Serbian towns at that time were too small to support their theater solely from the proceeds of performances.

Knežević's theater consisted of eighteen members, including himself as director, director, and actor. This composition remained the basis of the Serbian National Theater for a long time after most of the actors moved to Novi Sad, and even when the National Theater in Belgrade was established in 1868, a certain number of former Knežević's actors formed the backbone of the National Theater in Belgrade.

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