San José’s National Theatre

teatro nacional, san Jose, costa rica Costa Rica: Egalitarian from the Start

It’s the Switzerland of the Americas. Costa Rica is known for having no army. There’s no need. They seem to get along with all their neighbors, and they’ve hung out the shingle as being a peace-loving country.  It’s also a fairly egalitarian society, for Latin America, and has been, since its independence from Spain.

In the 1840s, after the independence, the country sought out intellectual and cultural changes, a docent explains. Among the missions was free and mandatory education for boys — and girls. On the economic side, the country built railroads early on to connect the banana,  pineapple, and other plantations to the Atlantic Ocean.

Despite Costa Rica being a major exporter of bananas, it does NOT fit the negative connotation of a “banana republic.” In fact, in 1884, San José was at the forefront of change. It became the third city in the world, after New York and Paris, to introduce wide-scale electric lighting.

While it’s easy to point to advances such as railroads and electricity, it’s harder to recognize and remember the cultural progress.  Daniel, a guide at the Teatro Nacional explains that this cultural treasure was one of the first built as part of a “movimiento liberalista.” Before the liberal movement, high-quality cultural events generally took place in rented spaces. Hence, they were reserved for the wealthy. Only the elite guests or hosts could afford to pay for the venue. The idea with the construction of the Teatro Nacional was that the arts should be appreciated by all. In 1890, the theatre was envisioned with the objective of providing the finest in cultural events to people regardless of their social standing. Campesinos could sit next to landowners. All could appreciate the arts.

The Teatro Nacional was a prime example of a bit of luxury for all. It opened in 1897 with the opera “Faust” featuring 80 artists from France. Admission was just one colón. If you didn’t have the best attire, you could rent formal wear for one and a half colones.

Another example of making cultural activities affordable and accessible was the creation of Tuesday matinees. These were also part of the theatre’s first offerings. Now, some 150 years later, Tuesday noontime productions are popular for school children and others that wouldn’t normally attend an evening function. Today, the Tuesday noontime performances cost about $2.50 for students and seniors. General admission is only $5. However, an upcoming evening performance of “Swan Lake” by the Havana National School of Ballet ranges in price from $26 to $70.

The Best of European Art in San José 

As evidenced by“Faust,” the Teatro Nacional was a stage for stellar European acts. Aside from the performances, the theatre was a reflection in fashionable European art in interior and exterior architecture and design. Most everything was imported. The finest of white Carrara marble was carved for the floors, staircases, and sculptures. Frescos were painted in Italy, in sections, to fit on horse-drawn carts that would bring them from the port to San José. One of the ceiling paintings evokes life on a banana plantation in Limón. However, the artist had never stepped foot in Costa Rica.  That allegorical masterpiece made its way to a five colón bill in 1971. It’s no longer in circulation, as five colones is equivalent today to about .009 cents in the U.S.

The luxuriousness of the theatre is also visible in the gold laminate work. This was imported from Germany.  Belgian bronze lamps line the walls. Furthermore, there are at least seven architectural styles here, ranging from middle-eastern to allegorical.

In the lobby, there is one white marble sculpture created by a Costa Rican, Juan Ramon Bonilla in 1907. It’s front and center for all to appreciate. The artist crafted the beauty when he was only 19 years old. He was learning from the best of the best in Carrara, Italy.

The Stage as Metaphor for Life

All the above are reasons why the municipal theatre in San José is an example of social change.

Perhaps what strikes me, an American, most unusual is how the theatre has a reserved palco for the President of Costa Rica. It’s not the best seat in the house. But, it is smack dab first-row center in the mezzanine. The presidential alcove is indiscreetly tucked away behind beautiful heavy engraved doors. Identical to the other mezzanine doors.

Inside the doors, the only difference is the actual seats. These have a bit more of an old-world elaborately carved wood French feel. But, they blend in with the other red seats on the mezzanine.

There are no walls between the presidential seating area and those around it. The President’s seat is the middle one in a row of just three. That means that the people from the neighboring sections can easily stretch their arms across and shake his or her (there has been a female President of Costa Rica) hand.  While the seating area doesn’t fit more than a dozen people, it’s not always filled with the president’s contingency. Only one security guard typically is stationed in that zone, and anyone who has a ticket could end up sitting in the presidential area. A laborer. A nurse. Or, a student. The luck of the dice reflects that all Costa Ricans are created equal.

“There’s no distinction between the president and anyone else. The president is just one more citizen. Not better or worse (than anyone else). We don’t perceive much of a difference,” says Daniel, the tour guide at the theatre. And, “everyone knows if the president is there, or not.”

Daniel shows me a black and white photo from 1963 of John F. Kennedy at the Teatro Nacional just a few months before he was assassinated in Dallas. Although the word was already out (in some circles) that JFK was a target, while in San Jose, he walked a kilometer with minimal security.

When President Barack Obama visited Costa Rica during Laura Chinchilla’s term as President in 2013, people were able to go right up and touch him. Daniel believes that this is one of the things that makes Costa Rica Costa Rica.  Beyond constitutional rights, actions reflect that this is an egalitarian nation. He believes that its core principles are what has created a peaceful nation. There has never been a killing spree nor act of terrorism.

During Obama’s visit, President Chinchilla said: “As I was telling President Obama, we were born as one of the poorest provinces of the colony, and we have become little by little a nation with great opportunities in the subject of economic development and of well-being for the people, and a fundamental factor, an essential factor has been precisely education. Much before many other nations of the world, Costa Rica decreed free and mandatory access to education. ”

Perhaps that philosophy and lifestyle is what gives deeper meaning to the expression that is widespread in Costa Rica to say hello or goodbye. Pura Vida. 


If you visit the Teatro Nacional, it’s worth your while to join a guided tour. There’s also a coffee shop with pastries, quiche, and other light foods.

The theatre is smack dab in the middle of downtown. It’s just a few blocks away from other museums, and the main cathedral.

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