In 1817, when the Banat region was celebrating the 100th anniversary of its liberation from the Ottoman Oppression, a historic moment took place in Oraviţa: the inauguration of the Old Theatre, the first theatre ever founded in the entire present-day Romanian territory.
Back in 1868, the theatre threshold was crossed by none other than Mihai Eminescu, who at that time was on tour with Mihail Pascaly’s troupe as a prompter and second secretary to the director. Only later when the importance of this building was realised during the Communist regime was the name changed to the Old Mihai Eminescu Theatre. Since 1957, it has been listed as a historic monument (code LMI – CS-II-m-A-11154).
Today, Oraviţa has stopped hosting theatre shows and musicals as it did in the old days; but the director of the Old Mihai Eminescu Theatre, Prof. Dr. Ionel Bota, is doing everything he can to ensure that the doors of the first Romanian theatre stay open for visitors.
From the mineral processing industry to theatre shows in improvised locations
The first documented proof of Oraviţa’s existence dates back to 1697 when this settlement belonged to the Palanca district (documentation can be found in the Conscription of Marsigli). In 1717, immediately after the Turkish people were chased out of the Banat area, the Oraviţa region became purely Romanian, as is clear from Lieutenant Franz Albert Kraussen’s report regarding colonisation possibilities: “Oraviţa, located half an hour from the Proştian/Broşteni commune, is today inhabited by Wallachians, and I undertake that, as these could be taken from here, to immediately bring 300 families into these settlements.”1)Nicolae Ilieşiu – Monografia istorică a Banatului, Mica Valahie, Bucureşti, 2011
The Count Florimund de Mercy, the governor of Banat, stood against Kraussen’s proposal, claiming that the Romanians of Oraviţa were not obliged to leave the region. Therefore, starting in the year 1719, over 450 colonists were brought from Tirol in order to aid with the exploitation of minerals. They built houses for themselves in the eastern part of Oraviţa, and, as a result, German Oraviţa (or Mountainous Oraviţa) was born. In 1722, in order to aid in the development of the mineral processing industry and to oversee the workforce, between 3,000 and 5,000 Romanians were brought from Oltenia and Muntenia, and were known by the generic name “bufeni”, as opposed to the locals who were known as “frătuţi”.2)Ion Crişan – Teatrul din Oraviţa (1817-1967), Reşiţa, 1968
In this way, by the end of the 18th century Oraviţa had already become one of the most important economic regions of the Habsburg Empire. This news also reached the professional theatre groups of Europe, the artistic education of the Austrian miner-colonists being well known, an education they’d brought all the way from their native country where the high arts comprised an earnest tradition. As such, after the year 1720, theatre shows began to be held in improvised locations in Oraviţa, such as the post office, the Mining Treasury Headquarters, and a former professional school.
Testimonials of these performances are plenteous. In the “Magistrate transcript of Kudritz”, the death of the actor Arnold Bacher on 9 August 1763 is recorded.3)Ionel Bota – O prioritate culturală românească în Mitteleuropa. Teatrul Vechi din Oraviţa, 1817, ediţia a II-a, Grupul de Publicaţii “Caraşul”, Oraviţa, 2011; cf. I. Bota, Istoria Teatrului Vechi din Oraviţa, volumul I, Reşiţa, Editura TIM, 2003; volumul II, 2005; volumul III, 2007 He was only 33 years old and was part of Antonius Eintrag’s troupe, which was returning from Oraviţa where it had held shows. Another play, Graf von Waltron, was performed in 1788 for the officers of an artillery regiment from Ticvaniul Mare. The performance was staged at the post office with the collaboration of local dilettantes.
According to Vasile Vărădeanu’s records of the performance of Graf von Waltron, “the outfits were very skimpy, because an oberkanonier (an artillery sergeant who played the part of a Catholic cardinal sent from Rome), lacking a pair of violet socks, went on stage with his feet bare up to his knees, painted by his comrades with carmine.”4)Ion Crişan – Teatrul din Oraviţa (1817-1967), Reşiţa, 1968
In 1793, Peter Eiric, the owner of the Crown Hotel, arranged a permanent theatre space in the conference hall of his hotel. There, in addition to performances put on by touring theatre troupes, other shows were also organised by the Dilettante Club of Oraviţa, which was founded prior to 1800 and whose members would end up contributing to the effective construction of the first theatre in the present-day Romanian territory.
During our visit to Oraviţa, the director of the Old Mihai Eminescu Theatre, Prof. Dr. Ionel Bota, pointed out to us that expressions such as “the first theatre” can often lead to misunderstandings. The shows which took place in improvised spaces happened not just in Oraviţa, but also in Sibiu and Arad long before the first building dedicated to theatre was established. “There is a tower in Sibiu where the swabians used to smoke bacon. That space was also used for shows but only when it was necessary. They would set up a stage and that was it. If you go to Arad, you will hear the same story: the goods storage belonging to the Jewish man Jakob Hierschl was the place where they held theatre shows, but only when it was necessary. Here, this building (the Old Mihai Eminescu Theatre) was built specially for this,” Prof. Bota told us.
Inaugurated in the presence of the Austrian Emperor Francisc I
Sim. Sam. Moldovan, a researcher during the interwar periodMacedon-Romanians, remarked that the Old Theatre of Oraviţa (today the Old Mihai Eminescu Theatre) had existed since 18165)Sim. Sam. Moldovan – Oraviţa de altădată şi teatrul cel mai vechiu din ţară, Oraviţa, 1938; but, according to Prof. Bota, construction on the building was completed as early as the fall of 1815.6)Ionel Bota – O prioritate culturală românească în Mitteleuropa. Teatrul Vechi din Oraviţa, 1817, ediţia a II-a, Grupul de Publicaţii “Caraşul”, Oraviţa, 2011
The construction of this building began due to the initiative of the Dilettante Club of Oraviţa by means of donations in the amount of 8,622.50 Viennese florins, which came from the representatives of all the ethnicities of Oraviţa, from the workers and operators of the Iron Plants of Ferdinandsberg, Moldova Nouă, Bocşa Montană, Dognecea, Gladna, Rusca Montană, from the Mining Cooperatives of Oraviţa Montană, Sasca Montană, Dognecea, Moldova Nouă and Gârlişte, and also from contributions made by the Masonic Lodges “Glück auf!” and “Kosmos” of Oraviţa. Also, both Romanians and Macedon-Romanians are included on the contributors’ list; among these are archpriest Petru Iorgovici, Alexandra Şaguna (the aunt of the future Metropolitan of Transylvania), Ion Costa and Dimitrie Demetroviciu, and even Ion Niuny (Niuni), who was to become the theatre’s architect.7)Ionel Bota – O prioritate culturală românească în Mitteleuropa. Teatrul Vechi din Oraviţa, 1817, ediţia a II-a, Grupul de Publicaţii “Caraşul”, Oraviţa, 2011
The idea of building the Theatre was also due to the work of many women. “An Austrian operator was not a man who could stay and rest his bones in Vienna, but was rather a man always waiting for surprises. When the Emperor would want something: ‘Ah, you’re an iron specialist! You take your family and move to that place!’ And they wouldn’t come back. And then, the women form this first series of economic elites—of course, through cultural and spiritual extension—put out the idea of building a theatre. Because they were upset, right? ‘The men have their business and what are we supposed to do?’ Then there was also their envy for their friends in Vienna”, Prof. Bota told us.
In 1817, while the entire Banat area was celebrating a century since its liberation from Ottoman rule, the Oraviţa locals were preparing for the inauguration of the theatre. The big event was scheduled for the 1st of July, but things got pushed back until October, since it was known that the imperial family (Francis I of Habsburg-Lorena and Caroline-Augusta of Bavaria) were about to arrive in the lands of Caras and Almaj.
The inauguration was also delayed due to some anonymous accusations made against some associates of the initiative committee, claiming that they had stolen money from the donations which were supposed to help build the theatre. These accusations arrived as letters to Emperor Francis I. But after an investigation coordinated by the Court Councillor Francisc of Ulményi, it was found that the accusations had been fabricated.8)Ionel Bota – O prioritate culturală românească în Mitteleuropa. Teatrul Vechi din Oraviţa, 1817, ediţia a II-a, Grupul de Publicaţii “Caraşul”, Oraviţa, 2011
The official inauguration of the Old Theatre of Oraviţa was a bit unusual. Instead of one show, there were two: one on 5 October and another on 7 October 1817. In order to avoid an official announcement or press coverage of the imperial family’s upcoming visit to the theatre in Oraviţa, an elaborate travel route was devised which also included Sasca Montana and Bozovici. It was all arranged so that the royal retinue and 77 other officials could attend at least one of the shows, the first a work by J. von Weissenthurm and the second by Fr. Ziegler.
A small-scale copy of the Burgtheater in Vienna
The Old Mihai Eminescu theatre was built on land known as “Goldberger Gewerkschaft”, which had been donated by the wife of the Macedon-Romanian Lhotka of Zmislov, treasury councillor and director of the Mining Court, and also a member of the Dilettante Club of Oraviţa. The designer architect of the theatre edifice was also a Macedon-Romanian, Ion Niuny, the son-in-law of Lhotka of Zmislov, who sent a request to his colleague in Vienna, Ieronimus Platzger, to copy the exterior and interior layout of the Burgtheater, a theatre in the imperial capital. On the basis of Platzger’s plans, Francisc Knee, the painter, made notes and sketches onsite, all inspired by the Viennese model.9)Ionel Bota – O prioritate culturală românească în Mitteleuropa. Teatrul Vechi din Oraviţa, 1817, ediţia a II-a, Grupul de Publicaţii “Caraşul”, Oraviţa, 2011
At the present moment, the Old Mihai Eminescu Theatre of Oraviţa is one of the most representative buildings of the mountainous region of the Banat area, which dates back to the period of Viennese expansion. From 1817 until today, the architecture of the edifice in Oraviţa has not changed; in contrast, its model, the Burgtheater in Vienna, suffered a series of alterations and, between 1886-1890 fell into disuse. “The conclusion is this sad truth: the copy based on a model became, after [the original’s] disappearance, the actual version”, claims Prof. Bota.
Recipe 24, Gustave Eiffel, and the Theatre of Oraviţa
Between 1872 and 1873, the structural strength of the building was modified, the main construction elements being until then made of only stone and wood. In this period, the Resita steelworkers applied an experiment: a recipe that had steel, cast iron, and carbon as its core. Named in the universal classification as Recipe 24, the concoction was used to reinforce the theatre. Later, the same recipe was requested from the steelworkers of Resita by Gustave Eiffel.
“Same goes for the steelworkers of Graz, where the imperial steel mills functioned. On the basis of the recipes from Graz and Resita, he built the fragments of the base and up to the first level of the Eiffel Tower at the Creuso plants near Paris. If you go to Paris and you listen to the city guides, especially the ‘unofficial’ ones, you will hear them mentioning Graz and Resita. And then remember that this theatre was the first place to use Recipe 24.” The stamp of fabrication can be seen inside the theatre, with the name of Resita written in Hungarian: Resicza.
On the first floor of the Old Theatre is the Casino Room, dedicated to the activities of the associates, societies, and cultural unions of the city and all of Caras, which was reorganised first in 1826, again between 1831 and 1832, and then by statute in 1836-1837. Today, the Casino Room is used by the Mitteleuropa Club, which organises cultural events such as book launches, painting exhibitions, documentary exhibitions, and more.
In 1911, for unknown reasons, the original chandelier from the showroom of the theatre (which was gifted with an acetylene illuminating installation in 1857) was removed and taken to the White Church (Serbia). In its place, another one was mounted, made by a local firm, but this didn’t hold up either, being looted by the Serbian army in their retreat prior to 3 August 1919. In 1953, the chandelier which had been mounted in the interwar period, the third of its kind, was replaced with what can be seen in the theatre today, which was received as a donation from the Guban Firm of Timisoara.
The chairs from the showroom of the theatre were installed in 1893 during a renovation which lasted approximately a year. Their purchase was personally funded by two men: Aurel Maniu, who was at that time representative from the Romanian electoral district of Caras-Severin, which had its parliamentary office in Oraviţa; and the Hungarian writer Mor Jokai, representative from the Hungarian electoral district of Caras-Severin, whose parliamentary office was in Anina.
When referring to the theatre’s acoustics, Prof. Bota told us that the theatre of Oraviţa was built in the Bibiena System. “This system meant transmitting a sort of professional secret in this small town separated into professional groups, all of which implied activities tied to construction (joiners , carpenters , masons, etc). They weren’t solicited for this sort of work for their physical effort, but rather to supervise; so, in the end, the acoustics would be perfect. When reinforcing the theatre, craftsmen brought from the same town (from another generation, of course!), took care, just as before, to see that the acoustics were perfectly maintained. Same goes for 1902, when another generation of craftsmen were requested. For the repairs of 1927, a local, curious if he could enlist other craftsmen, didn’t manage to find any. With the disappearance of the empire, the traditions went too. But the acoustics are good even today.”
The audience had patience for the cultural act on stage.
Up until 1918, professional theatre, music, and ballet troupes were brought to Oraviţa from all over Europe and even from around the world (e.g., New York). “If we imagine the map of Europe, the westernmost example would be the city of Alicante (in Spain). In the East, we have Moskova and Saint Petersburg as extremes. But the majority of troupes were coming from Central Europe, Mitteleuropa: Budapest, Vienna, Innsbruck, Torino, Padova, Milano, Rome, Berlin, Munich, and so on.”
The multiculturalism of Oraviţa was demonstrated through its theatre shows, which were put on by ethnic and cultural societies. “Here, in Oraviţa, the Germans, Hungarians, Romanians, Serbs, and Czechs would put on a theatre piece together that would start at 3 or 4 o’clock mid-afternoon and would last until 10 or 11 at night. The audience had patience for the cultural act on the stage; each actor would tell his line in two, three, or even four languages. Multiculturalism in those times wasn’t even described in the dictionaries, but the people would practice it.”
Mihai Eminescu at the Old Oraviţa Theatre
There are many Romanian theatre groups listed in the contract archives of the Old Mihai Eminescu Theatre in Oraviţa. Among these is the troupe of Mihail Pascaly, which performed in Oraviţa through the end of August 1868 into the first two days of September. A member of this group was the poet Mihai Eminescu, who had the roles of prompter and also second secretary to Pascaly, who was the leader of the Dramatic Artists Society of Bucureşti in the Old Kingdom. At that time, the locals from Oraviţa did not yet know about Eminescu.
Later, in 1974, meetings and debates were held in the theatre in order to create a Romanian theatre fund, in which Ilie Traila, a local writer, participated. He went on stage and read the interrogative title of the conference, “What is the theatre?”, and took advantage of the opportunity to speak about the poet Eminescu, who had visited six years prior. “At that moment, Eminescu’s reputation had risen. He was known not only inside the Romanian community, but also outside of it due to the appearance of the first translations of his poems into the German language, translations realised by Ludwig Vincenz Fischer, a local of Resita whose mother was from Oraviţa and had later relocated to Munich.”
In order to commemorate Mihai Eminescu’s passing through the Oraviţa theatre (along with Mihail Pascaly’s band), the Old Theatre took the poet’s name in 1949, becoming the Old Mihai Eminescu Theatre. “Of course we have kept the building’s name—he’s our national poet, we take pride in him. Some of the people don’t have the patience to hear about it, many times making faces. But it’s their business!” Prof. Bota tells us.
A historic monument of highest national importance
The first dedicated theatre became a historic monument in 1957 by means of HCM 1369. Prof. Bota says that “during those times, in rotation, every year, a historian—a specialist in these kinds of problems—would end up secretary of the Committee of Historic Monuments. In 1957, the secretary of this committee was a representative of the Hebrew community in Oraviţa, Oliver Hamburger (Oliver Velescu).”
In 1993, the Old Mihai Eminescu Theatre entered a restoration process which lasted until 1997. Upon the project’s completion, the History of Caras Culture Museum was opened in the building, including exhibits on history, historical geography, ethnography, and folklore, as well as document archives, books, and an old press library (Sim. Sam. Moldovan – Ionel Bota), all of which belong to the collection of Prof. Bota.10)Muzee şi Colecţii din România – Muzeul de Istoria Culturii Cărăşene Since 1998, the Old Mihai Eminescu Theatre has had superior status: monument of highest national importance.11)Dan Gheorghe – FOTO. Extraordinara poveste a teatrului vienez de la Oraviţa, România Liberă, 9 iunie 2011
Even though the historical monument looks very good at first glance, Prof. Bota says that it’s actually in a state of degradation—the consequence of a lack of funding, especially for heating. “The building looks fine, even after six years of 0 and below 0 temperatures during winter, against the technical book’s recommendations. During the last restoration it was clearly established that the temperature should not drop below 15 degrees. It looks good enough, but if the situation continues then the “mixture” will be affected, a product whose recipe has been followed since 1890. When it starts to detach, it will be difficult.”
The old Mihai Eminescu Theatre is on Mihai Eminescu Street, No. 18, and can be visited Tuesday through Sunday, between 10 A.M and 6 P.M. Also, every year at the beginning of August, the theatre hosts the International Festival Days of Music of Oraviţa.
You can reach Oraviţa from Timisoara by DN59/E70 and DN57 (see map). In terms of accommodations and restaurants, the city has a pretty good array on offer.
In Oraviţa, you can also visit the first pharmacy established in a mountainous region of Romania, which has been transformed into the Museum of Mountain Pharmacy History, and can be reached by means of the gorgeous Oraviţa-Anina railway. The Tower upon the Hill of Grădinari is also only 13 km away.
We owe many thanks to Prof. Dr. Ionel Bota for the information and help he has provided, which led to the completion of this article!
Written by Alexandra Palconi
Translated by Doinița Spuză & edited by Jeffrey Giering
Photo: Flavius Neamciuc
|↲1||Nicolae Ilieşiu – Monografia istorică a Banatului, Mica Valahie, Bucureşti, 2011|
|↲2||Ion Crişan – Teatrul din Oraviţa (1817-1967), Reşiţa, 1968|
|↲3||Ionel Bota – O prioritate culturală românească în Mitteleuropa. Teatrul Vechi din Oraviţa, 1817, ediţia a II-a, Grupul de Publicaţii “Caraşul”, Oraviţa, 2011; cf. I. Bota, Istoria Teatrului Vechi din Oraviţa, volumul I, Reşiţa, Editura TIM, 2003; volumul II, 2005; volumul III, 2007|
|↲4||Ion Crişan – Teatrul din Oraviţa (1817-1967), Reşiţa, 1968|
|↲5||Sim. Sam. Moldovan – Oraviţa de altădată şi teatrul cel mai vechiu din ţară, Oraviţa, 1938|
|↲6||Ionel Bota – O prioritate culturală românească în Mitteleuropa. Teatrul Vechi din Oraviţa, 1817, ediţia a II-a, Grupul de Publicaţii “Caraşul”, Oraviţa, 2011|
|↲7||Ionel Bota – O prioritate culturală românească în Mitteleuropa. Teatrul Vechi din Oraviţa, 1817, ediţia a II-a, Grupul de Publicaţii “Caraşul”, Oraviţa, 2011|
|↲8||Ionel Bota – O prioritate culturală românească în Mitteleuropa. Teatrul Vechi din Oraviţa, 1817, ediţia a II-a, Grupul de Publicaţii “Caraşul”, Oraviţa, 2011|
|↲10||Muzee şi Colecţii din România – Muzeul de Istoria Culturii Cărăşene|
|↲11||Dan Gheorghe – FOTO. Extraordinara poveste a teatrului vienez de la Oraviţa, România Liberă, 9 iunie 2011|