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Centenary of the Birth of Mira Trailović

Lady Was Her Name

When famous playwright Eugène Ionesco was asked, back in 1971, what he’d seen in Belgrade, he responded: “Mira Trailović. Is that not quite enough?”

Tere is no encyclopaedia of theatre anywhere around the world that doesn’t include Serbian theatre director Mira Trailović, the woman whose brainchild was the Belgrade International Theatre Festival – BITEF, the manager of Atelje 212 theatre, who was born almost precisely 100 years ago – on 22nd January, 1924.

It is difficult from today’s perspective to even imagine just how much personal courage and perseverance were needed back in 1967 to come up with a concept like BITEF, representing one of the greatest cultural benchmarks of the then Yugoslavia. Mira had wanted to create a festival of new theatrical tendencies and, fortunately for her, she had the support of the then thinking world… And gaining such support was no mean feat. That’s because Mira Trailović, née Milićević, was for decades the only person to become a leader of a house of culture without also being a member of ‘The Party’. Complicating matters even further, she only knew the precise function of Josip Broz Tito. When it came to the rest of the party’s figures, she simply guessed at their function and was usually wrong. This remissness was often attributed to her ‘bourgeois origins’, which she neither hid nor flaunted. Mira’s grandmother, Katarina, had been a lady-in-waiting to Queen Natalie Obrenović, while one of her maternal ancestors was Aleksa Simić (1800- 1872), who had served the Principality of Serbia as finance minister, interior minister, justice and education minister and minister of foreign affairs. Mira’s father, Andreja Milićević, was an accomplished translator who translated around 40 French classics into Serbian. Her mother, Radmila Simić, was also a teacher of the French language. Her maternal grandfather, Milan Simić, was a manager of the National Theatre.

Mira completed her schooling at the Second Belgrade Gymnasium High School, music secondary school and acting secondary school, after which she graduated from the Academy of Music. She was also a graduate of the then Film High School, before graduating in theatre direction studies at the Academy, where she would lecture on radio drama direction many years later. It was while directing radio dramas for Radio Belgrade, at the beginning of her career, that she met Dragoljub ‘Guca’ Trailović, who was then a radio announcer and would later become the Paris correspondent of Belgrade-based daily newspaper Politika and subsequently the director of this oldest daily newspaper in the Balkans. They wed and she took his surname, but they never had any children.

It was thanks to her engagement during the years of her work at BITEF that Belgrade was visited by the likes of Samuel Beckett, Peter Brook, Jean-Paul Sartre, Bob Wilson, the Living Theatre, Pina Bausch, La MaMa, Grotowski and many others who brought the spirit of the wide world to these lands

As a theatre director, Mira gave us approximately 30 plays, but her historical, groundbreaking work was the famous hippie musical Hair, the local adaptation of which premiered on the stage of Atelje 212 on 19th May 1969. After the American original, her version became the fourth premiere in Europe and the first in Eastern Europe – according to the then division of the continent. Mira ensured that the story of Hair became more than myth and legend; that it remained as proof of the conquest of freedom immediately following the student demonstrations of 1968 and represented one of the flowers in Tito’s lapel of democratic freedoms.

As a theatre director whose works were always avant-garde, she despised the term, despite her directing work having introduced new policies and cultural trends to the theatrical life of Belgrade. She was the first to present to the Belgrade audience the most important figures of the world’s experimental, avant-garde theatre: Sartre, Ionesco, Albee et al. As a theatre administrator, she was responsible for some popular yet controversial plays that extended the limits of freedom of expression in a political sense. She brought the spirit of the West to Serbia. It was thanks to her engagement during the years of her work at BITEF that Belgrade was visited by the likes of Samuel Beckett, Peter Brook, Jean-Paul Sartre, Bob Wilson, the Living Theatre, Pina Bausch, La MaMa, Grotowski and many others who brought the spirit of the wide world to these lands.

Alongside all the relevant domestic awards that she won, Mira – as a true citizen of the world – would also receive recognition from the Association of American Theatre Artists, from the German Embassy for her contribution to culture, but also from Italy, with that accolade even presented to her by Italian President Giuseppe Saragat. She received the French Order of the Legion of Honour in the rank of Commander from then French Minister of Culture Jack Lang, in recognition of her great contribution and merit in expanding cultural links between France and Yugoslavia.

After many years of professional cooperation and having become close acquaintances, I was once personally invited to coffee in the then new apartment of Mira Trailović and her husband Guce Trailović, in central Belgrade’s Kopitareva Gradina neighbourhood. I had the honour of being made coffee by Mira, which she served in a beautiful porcelain cup. I hadn’t even started drinking the coffee when my wonderful fellow media professional, Guca, said to me in jest: ‘You have the privilege of Mira offering you coffee from the cup of her grandmother Katarina’. I instantaneously headed to the kitchen, found an ordinary, large milk mug and transferred the coffee into it. I was so horrified at the thought of breaking a cup that could no longer be bought and that contained the stamp of the royal court.

After Mira and Guca departed, that flat changed hands several times, only to be finally bought by Maja and Emir Kusturica.

Mira had been ground down by cancer that summer and ultimately succumbed on 7th August 1989. Her funeral was held at the New Cemetery and was attended, according to her own wishes, by her family and closest friends.

The area in front of BITEF Theatre was renamed Mira Trailović Square, while the main stage of Atelje 212 has been named after her since 2014.

Instead of attempting to compose some sort of conclusion by myself, I will offer you one recollection of famous actor Dragan Nikolić, which so convincingly portrays her uniqueness.

“Mira Trailović was a lady, and that was virtually her name. When I made my theatre debut in Paris, Mira Trailović was director of the Theatre of Nations in Nancy, and she spent the weekend in Paris. And she came to all of my rehearsals. One evening, she waited for my rehearsal to end and set out to show Paris to me. We went to the ‘Odeon’, where a show was playing that had a waiting list several weeks long. I told her that there was no way we could get in, but she just smiled and headed for the main entrance, where the doorman bowed and let us through with a polite ‘Bonsoir, Madame Trailovik!’

He led us to the manager’s box, where we remained until Mira declared it boring and said we should move on. Yes, it’s a little rude when someone honours you like that and you leave after 10-15 minutes, but Mira didn’t find the situation at all unpleasant. We then went to the restaurant La Closerie des Lilas, which at that time required a reservation made at least a week in advance. Mira entered and I followed, then the maître d’ approached us and melted with kindness as he said ‘Bonsoir, Madame Trailovik’, before seating us at a table. Without any kind of reservation. Once we’d dined, Mira said: “Right, now we’re going to Pigalle, Chez Madame Arthur, that’s a closed club…” I listened and knew that was an elite place at that time, and that you couldn’t enter without a special recommendation. We arrived in front of metal doors that almost appeared to be armoured, while they had a small opening like a hatch. Mira rang the bell and a French nightwatchman appeared and said: ‘Oh, bonsoir, Madame Trailovik’. Well, it was then that I bowed to the floor and said: “Madame, hats off!”