The legendary Helena Modrzejewska National Old Theatre (Narodowy Teatr Stary im. Heleny Modrzejewskiej) is the second oldest theatre in Poland and an institution of great importance to Polish culture. It is also the only theatre in the country that is a member of the European Theatre Network Mitos 21 that brings together the most important theatres in Europe.
Like most Krakow repertory theatres, the National Old Theatre runs several playhouses of varied capacity, including its sizable main venue in the 200-year-old theatre building, Poland’s oldest, at 1 Jagiellońska street. The institution has mounted numerous renowned, highly innovative performances. In 1991 it became a “national stage.” Currently the National Old Theatre presents classic as well as modern plays, linked by the theatre’s high artistic standard.
Founded in 1781, the Old Theatre did not initially have its own venue and performances were held at the Spiski Palace. The troupe moved to the current location in 1799. Despite several adjustments, the building was not suited to serve as a theatre, which necessitated the erection of a new edifice, now known as the Juliusz Słowacki Theatre.
The Krakow City Theatre, as it was called then, quickly acquired the reputation of being a national stage and in the 1820s it began touring with its productions, performing in Poznan and Wroclaw among other cities. The turn of the 19th and 20th century turned out to be a golden era for theatre in Krakow. In 1893 the Krakow City Theatre moved to a new building, the eclectic jewel that is now occupied by the Juliusz Słowacki Theatre. With the new, modern and specially built edifice, the theatre blossomed under careful and broadminded guidance of its directors: the visionary Tadeusz Pawlikowski and Józef Kotarbiński. At that time, the theatre staged modern plays by both foreign and Polish authors, as well as some classic repertory. The troupe included a number of outstanding actors, such as Helena Modrzejewska (Modjeska), Antonina Hoffmann, Feliks Benda, Bolesław Ładnowski, Boleslaw Leszczyński and Wincenty Rapacki. However, the interiors of the Old Theatre building were converted to house ballrooms and concert halls.
Paradoxically, the restoration of the Polish National Old Theatre was facilitated by the Nazis, who, during World War II, returned the Jagiellonska street building to its former role of a theatre to stage their own plays. Thanks to them it was much easier to re-establish the National Old Theatre after the war ended in 1945. Since the 1950s the theatre has mounted numerous renowned, highly innovative performances and in 1991 it became a “national stage.”