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.

Jovan Knežević, founder of the first Serbian theater
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Jovan Knežević, founder of the first Serbian theater

Jovan Knežević-Caca, the founder of the first Serbian theater, was born in Vranjevo on September 26, 1818. His father was Mojsije, a merchant, and his mother was Sofija, a housewife. After completing elementary school in Vranjevo, he went to Kečkemet for further education. There, he completed six grades of the Latin school, which was a decent educational achievement for the time.

During the establishment of an amateur theater group in Novi Bečej in 1830, which was a remarkable event, Knežević was twelve years old and was preparing to continue his education in Kečkemet. His time in Kečkemet gave him the opportunity to see professional actors on stage, further solidifying his love for the theatrical arts. It was also an opportunity for him to gain some theatrical education and to distinguish between professional and amateur stage performances.

After completing his education, he returned to Vranjevo but didn't stay long. Disappointed by the performances of the amateur theater group in Novi Bečej compared to what he had seen in Kečkemet, his love for the theater led him to many cities where Serbian amateur theater groups emerged.

In 1846, he went to Kikinda where he participated in the activities of the local amateur theater group as an actor and director. Joining the Pančevačka — Đurkovićeva amateur theater group in Belgrade was a special challenge for Knežević. He joined the group and performed with them on the Belgrade stage.

After the establishment of the Youth Theater in Belgrade in 1857, he became a member, and in the autumn of the same year, he founded a new amateur theater group in Vranjevo, with which he worked until 1860, when he left for Srpski Čanad.

Going to Čanad, Knežević left his job in the Vranjevo municipality and secure monthly income necessary to support his family of four, embarking on a very risky venture. However, for his patriotic aspirations and his enthusiasm for the theatrical arts bordering on fanaticism, the material aspect was secondary.

By the time he arrived in Srpski Čanad, Knežević had gained considerable acting and directing experience, performing in groups led by the most skilled Serbian directors of the time. In Čanad, he formed an amateur theater group with five or six amateurs from Vranjevo and Kikinda, and a few young men from Čanad, with whom he soon performed in Semikluš (Romania) and Velika Kikinda. Disagreements arose between Knežević and Andrija Putić and Stevan Protić, who felt they were the founders of the Čanad group.

Knežević and his group from Kikinda returned to Vranjevo, where he spent two months preparing new plays and giving performances in Vranjevo and Novi Bečej. There, in Vranjevo, in early October 1860, he founded the first Serbian professional theater. All members of the new theater were paid, and acting became their sole profession.

With the newly established theater, Knežević successfully toured major towns in Vojvodina, and by the end of November 1860, he arrived in Novi Sad. Thanks to the performances of Knežević's theater, the audience developed a love for the theater, and the need for it was emphasized on every occasion. Discussions arose everywhere about the need to establish a permanent Serbian theater in Novi Sad.

In the History of Novi Sad, Erdujhelji, among other things, it is written:
"A strong movement arises and stands up for the theater, when in 1860, the Knežević troupe comes to Novi Sad and with their performances causes such enthusiasm that for years the temple of Thalia was packed to the brim, and the general interest sparked by it created the future of acting."

Novosadska Danica reported in its issue at the end of November 1860 about this visit:
"Unexpected, yet more delightful guests came to our town. The Serbian theatrical company of Mr. J. Knežević, which was formed a few months ago in our glorious Kikinda district, came to visit us these days — and God willing, they won't leave us again. The temple of the Serbian Thalia opened only once, after so many attempts, and if our sweet hope doesn't deceive us, it will never close again, but will be established in Novi Sad on a permanent basis..."

All performances in Novi Sad were held in the hall near Carica Jelisaveta with a full house, and tickets were in high demand. Due to the collapse of a wall in the hall, Knežević was forced to leave Novi Sad and continue touring larger towns such as Ruma, Sremska Mitrovica, and other towns in Bačka and Banat.

Knežević, like all Serbian public, confidently counted on his theater evolving into a permanent national theater based in Novi Sad, a fact corroborated by a news item published in Danica, which was not unaware of the movements towards the establishment of a national theater. Danica was a literary journal and a primary platform for Serbian national romanticism.

Everyone awaited Knežević's return to Novi Sad to realize their vision of creating a national theater. However, Jovan Đorđević had different plans. He was preparing the ground for himself and secretly discussing with actors about a new theater. He aimed to capitalize on the existing enthusiasm for theater among the audience and the excellent and particularly abundant acting ensemble of Jovan Knežević's theater, which was difficult to assemble for successful theater operations.

The theater's return to Novi Sad in June 1861 proved fatal for Knežević. Fourteen actors left him and joined the Serbian Reading Room in Novi Sad, which took on the role of founding the Serbian National Theater.

Thus, on July 16, 1861, Knežević bid farewell to the Novi Sad audience with the play "Zla žena," and on the same day, the Serbian National Theater was founded under the leadership of Jovan Đorđević, which, just eight days after receiving Knežević's actors, began performances in Novi Sad.

When evaluating the contribution of Knežević's theater to the development of Serbian theater, one must consider the role of the theater itself. After 1848/49, the Serbian people in Hungary faced a period of struggle for national preservation. With the restoration of constitutional life in Hungary in 1860, a movement emerged among the Serbian people for awakening national consciousness. The work on building this consciousness gained momentum. The theaters of Jovan Knežević and the Serbian National Theater perhaps played the most significant role in the success of this movement. The Serbian National Theater was considered to be as culturally and nationally significant for the Serbian people in Vojvodina as the Matica Srpska, and it was even credited with a greater practical impact, that is, it did more for the Serbian cause than Matica Srpska. The public recognition of the Serbian National Theater for its cultural mission was manifested in its nickname, the Serbian Darling.

Jovan Knežević skillfully selected talented young individuals for the theater when the pool from which to choose was extremely limited. In fact, there was no pool; he had to persuade those whom he believed, or heard, had potential to pursue acting. It took tremendous strength, skill, knowledge, and ability to first select such a large number of young people and then to train them in theater skills and integrate them into a harmonious and industrious theater troupe. It required exceptional courage to embark on tours with such a large group, especially at a time when the only means of transport were horse-drawn carriages. There were no theater committees like the later ones in the Serbian National Theater to make the necessary preparations for tours in advance; Knežević had to do it all himself. It was pioneering work, deserving of admiration. Later tours of the Serbian National Theater or subsequently established traveling theater groups cannot be compared to this work, as they all benefited from Knežević's experience and followed somewhat established paths.

At the time of the establishment of the first Serbian theater company, there were no schools for training actors, nor did they have the opportunity to gain prior experience in other theaters; they essentially came onto the stage straight from the streets. Although they were young talented individuals full of enthusiasm, they mostly came from the ranks of rural, artisanal, and commercial youth with minimal education. In such conditions, the role of the director was of special importance, very difficult, and responsible. In this light, one should appreciate the pioneering work of Jovan Knežević not only as an actor and manager but especially as a director and educator.

Through Knežević's theater troupe, the Serbian audience grew to love the theater, which made it considerably easier for subsequently established companies to perform. In Knežević's theater, the first young actors left their parental homes and embraced what seemed to be an enticing but very arduous nomadic life at first glance. This may have been a naive problem, and Knežević played a significant role in it, a role that is difficult to evaluate today.

In a patriarchal way of life, especially in smaller towns - most of the first actors were from Vranjevo and Čanad - it wasn't easy to convince parents to allow their children to venture into the uncertain "white world." In such circumstances, the theater manager couldn't be merely an "employer"; he had to replace the parent who cared for each individual, making every member of the troupe feel safe.

The director of such a theater had to instill trust not only in the members of the troupe but also in their parents. Each individual wanted the path they chose, which was magnificent from the standpoint of national interests, to provide a life perspective.

All of this demanded extraordinary effort, exceptional skill and resourcefulness, significant financial means, and, above all, care. Only a fanatic would be ready to impose such obligations on himself, and when it came to Serbian theater, Knežević was precisely that.

Knežević was a man of indomitable energy but not of health. Even after the dissolution of his two companies, he did not give up but formed a third one in Vranjevo and continued touring with it.

It didn't take long, and Jovan Knežević parted ways with the theater and life itself. Even in the final days of his theater activities, he thought about the Serbian National Theater in Novi Sad. He intended to donate the proceeds from the performances because, at that time, the Serbian National Theater was not flourishing; several of its best actors had left.

The following summer, on June 3, 1863, Jovan Knežević died in Vranjevo. The Serbian daily newspaper published only a brief note about his death:

"The renowned manager of a private theater company, Jovan Knežević, passed away on the 3rd of this month in Vranjevo after a long illness. The deceased has made significant contributions to the establishment of Thalia's temple among the Serbian people. May he rest in peace."

Certainly, this does not highlight the full magnitude of Jovan Knežević's work, but even what has been presented places him among the most prominent theater pioneers.

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