Joakim Vujic (1772-1847) was born in Baja (Hungary), a small place on the bank of the Danube which had been granted, as early as 1696, special privileges by Emperor Leopold as a "Serbian town". His ancestors had come to this region seeking refuge from the Turks.
Vujic went to school in Baja. First he attended a Slav-Serbian school and then he proceeded to Latin, German and Hungarian schools. He was further educated in Novi Sad, Kalocsa and Bratislava (the Evangelical Licaeum and the Roman-Catholic Academy). He became a teacher and earned his living chiefly as a teacher of foreign languages. He was an ardent supporter of Enlightenment and his model was Dositej Obradovic, whom he knew personally. Vujic was a polyglot and knew Italian, German, French, English, Hungarian and, of course, Greek and Latin. He also learnt some Hebrew.
He was one of the most productive Serbian writers of his time and left about fifty works. He published slightly more than a half of them. Some are still in manuscript, and one was destroyed in World War II, when the National Library in Belgrade, in which his manuscripts were kept, was demolished in an air raid. He translated and adapted dramatic works (from German and Hungarian), wrote travel books, geographical text-books and translated novels. He compiled the first French grammar in the Serbian language (1805). He wrote in the so-called Slav-Serbian language, a variant very close to the language of the people. Many Serbs subscribed to his publications, and he was, together with Milan Vidakovic, one of the most widely read Serbian authors of his time. As such, he exercised a considerable influence on the broadening of the reading public among the Serbs. He seems to have also been the first Serbian writer of travel books, for he began to write his first travel account as early as 1803, while touring Italy. His more important books of this kind are Travels in Serbia (1828) and Travels in Hungary, Wallachia, Russia… (1845). His famous autobiography (My Life) was also written in the form of a travel book.
Vujic lived and wrote in the time of the French Revolution (1789). He was a witness of the Napoleonic Wars, the Serbian Revolutions, the actions of the Holy Alliance, and other great events in Europe in the period between the two revolutions (1789-1848): He wrote at the time of the awakening of the nations in the Balkans and South-East Europe. In his writings and theatrical work he propagated progressive views, liberty, human rights, ethical ideas, and international co-operation. Although he belonged by birth
to a distant and alienated branch of the Serbian people, he was determined to get to know his mother country well, to return to it and to serve it as an intellectual and patriot.
Vujic is best known and most esteemed for his work for the theatre. He organised the first theatrical performance in Serbian, which took place in the Hungarian theatre "Rondella" in Budapest on the 24th of August 1813. From 1813 (and possibly even earlier) to 1839 he organised, with the help of secondary school pupils and adult amateurs, performances in the Serbian language in many towns of the Austrian Empire and Hungarian Kingdom – in Sent Andrea (1810-1813), Budapest (1813), Baja (1815), Szeged (1815), Novi Sad (1815, 1838), Pančevo (1824, 1833, 1835, 1837, 1839), Zemun (1824), Temeswar (1824), Arad (1832) and Karlovac (1833). He helped to found the Serbian Theatre in Kragujevac, the capital of the restored Serbian state, and became its first director (1834-1836). This was the first state and court theatre in the Serbia of Milos Obrenovic; J. Vujic was the only professional in it and he had the entire capital at his disposal when he prepared performances for the Prince and the representatives of the people.
He advocated the presentation of plays in the Serbian language in Novi Sad (1833), where he collaborated with the so-called Flying Dilettante Theatre, which gave the first performance in Serbo-Croat in Zagreb at the invitation of the Illyrian Library and which became the first professional theatrical company in the Balkans (1840-1842). A considerable number of the members of this company came later to Belgrade, where they took part in the work of the "Theatre at Djumruk" and helped establish the first professional theatre in Belgrade in 1842.
Vujic has been justly called the "Serbian Thespis" and "the father of the Serbian theatre", for he was the first Serb to engage in practical theatrical work and to organise theatrical performances. In this activity he profited much by the experience of Italian, German and Hungarian theatres.
Vujic translated or adapted 28 dramatic works. He was chiefly interested in German drama and August Kotzebue seems to have been his favourite playwright, for he translated eight of Kotzebue’s plays. He began his "studies of theatre arts" in Bratislava during his regular studies; he continued them in Trieste in Italy, and completed them in Budapest (1810-1815). The crucial event in his theatrical career was the performance of I. Balog’s heroic play about Karageorge and the liberation of Belgrade, presented in the Hungarian Theatre in Budapest in 1812. Later Vujic translated this play into Serbian, but he was not permitted to publish it. Nevertheless, he used his manuscript in preparing the play. The translation was published only 40 years later (Novi Sad, 1843).
Vujic was one of the rare writers and cultural workers of his time who made his living by writing. His autobiography was a remarkable achievement of the printing craft: the work is written in Serbian (or rather Slav-Serbian), but is contains a number of passages, letters, documents and fragments quoted in several modern and classical languages, and each of them is printed in the corresponding type. Thus the book contains Serbian, Latin, Italian, French, Hungarian, English, German, Hebrew and Greek texts, all printed in the appropriate alphabet.
For a long time, Vujic was a solitary theatrical enthusiast among the Serbs. He himself was a veritable theatrical laboratory – he was not only the translator and adapter of the plays he produced, but also the director, chief organiser, actor, scenographer, costume designer, prompter and technical manager. He advocated the establishment of a national theatre for the people, but he also carried in his luggage neatly transcribed roles and cords for stage curtains. In short, he himself represented an entire small theatrical system. He gave successful performances, in each town he visited, relying on the support of Serbian schools and churches. He left behind him groups of inspired young people who continued his work, establishing theatres in their own language. He worked in the time of the monstrous censorship of Metternich’s police regime and he was fully aware of the rigidity of the official measures, for his work was under constant police surveillance.
His productions of Black George or The Liberation of Belgrade from the Turksin Szeged (1815) and Novi Sad (1815) set into motion the complex machinery of the Imperial military and civilian censorship, which put a stop to the further presentation of the play.
He produced about 25-30 plays in all, each of which represented a specific national and cultural achievement. He usually staged his own translations and adaptations, and he ended his theatrical career with a production of J. Sterija Popovic’s popular comedy Kir Janja (Pancevo, 1839).
His theatre was a theatre of Enlightenment, and its aim was to edify the people and to heighten their national consciousness. Although he cherished the idea of a national theatre as a permanent professional system, he did not succeed in creating a lasting national theatre in the Slav-Serbian language. Nevertheless, he constantly insisted upon it as an aim to be aspired to. He believed that such a theatre would provide an important link with the cultures of the other European countries. The permanent national theatre was to come into being a little later, after the triumph of Vuk’s linguistic and cultural reform, when the Serbian National Theatre in Novi Sad (1861) and the National Theatre in Belgrade (1868) were established.
The versatile activity of J. Vujic belongs to many cultural spheres and disciplines. His work is of interest to various students of the Serbian cultural heritage – to ethnologists, philologists, philosophers, historians, culturologists, historians of art, historians of education and andragogy, experts on theatrical organisation, folklorists, theatrologists, costume designers, psychologists, sociologists, aestheticians, and, in a broader sense, Balcanologists and all those involved in the study of the general position of cultural workers and intelligentsia in repressive societies.
Towards the end of his life Vujic applied to the court of the Karadjordjevics for a pension in recognition of his edificatory, cultural, literary and theatrical work. He did not get it, but he was one of the first cultural workers and authors in Serbia to claim social recognition and material reward for his service to the people.
Vujic was a mediator between the Serbian and Yugoslav culture and the cultures in the Italian, German, Hungarian, French and English languages. He was also interested in the life, customs, laws, language and religion of the Mohammedans. In fact, he was one of the rare mediators between the Western Christian and the Eastern Islamic cultures. His activity was of great value to the Serbs, because it helped them to become integrated, at least partly, into the European cultural system.
The earliest and least polished stone in the foundations of the Serbian and Yugoslav theatre was laid by Joakim Vujic as far back as 1813, when he produced the first secular play in the Serbian language. It is the 175th anniversary of that event that we are celebrating today. His work was almost completely forgotten for a long time, and the first to draw attention to him was the great Serbian comediographer Branislav Nusic, who proposed in 1900 to publish Vujic’s plays in his projectedSerbian Dramatic Miscellany. Unfortunately, the Miscellany was never published. Only the Royal National Theatre in Belgrade produced two of Vujic’s works on the occasion of its 30th anniversary, thus playing homage to the "father of the Serbian theatre". Between the two World Wars his works were not staged in Serbian professional theatres.
Soon after World War II and the formation of socialist Yugoslavia, the Yugoslav dramatic heritage was made an object of study in the newly-established Academies for Theatre Arts in Belgrade, Zagreb and Ljubljana. The events of 1948 contributed further to this search for cultural identity. The well-known production "The Theatre of Joakim Vujic", first shown in the vanguard theatre "Atelje 212" in Belgrade on the 13th of November 1958 (produced by Vladimir Petric and directed by Josip Kulundzic, the founder of the Department of Dramaturgy in the Academy for Theatre Arts in Belgrade) marked not only the return of Vujic’s works to the Serbian stage, but also his artistic and personal rehabilitation.
The present exhibition, illustrating Vujic’s theatrical activity, and the international symposium on his work which will be held in the Serbian Academy of Sciences and Arts and the Matica srpska in Novi Sad in January 1989 will no doubt contribute to the better understanding of Joakim Vujic and his work.
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