The historical date of the foundation of the Croatian National Theatre in Zagreb, November 24, 1860, when a performance in the German language was interrupted and the actor Vilim Lesić announced that from that date onwards performances will be given only in the Croatian language, is also taken as the date of the foundation of the Drama of the central national theatre house. The previous thirty years in the context of all cultural endeavours of the Croatian national revival movement show the contours of its future profile, especially in the short-lived activities of the Domorodno teatralno drustvo (1840 –1841). After its departure, German companies were dominant again, but the stage life was occasionally stirred by the efforts of Dimitrije Demeter and a group of Zagreb citizens. As a dramaturge, the writer D. Demeter invited Josip Freudenreich, an actor, director and writer from Vienna to Zagreb, whose world opening night of the folk play Graničari ili proštenje na Ilijevu (Border- guards or the Parish fair at Ilijevo) on February 7, 1857 was a significant date in the creation of a national repertoire, as well as the entire contribution of this versatile artist and his family to the Zagreb theatre of the 19th century. It was with the performance of Freudenreich's Black Queen given on September 29, 1860 that an uninterrupted playing in the Croatian language began in the season of 1860/61. It was still for a while a mixture of languages, but the modest ensemble of Croatian actors, as a core of a future professional Drama ensemble, performed both Croatian authors and translations of foreign dramatists. In general, the connection between our theatre and Croatian literature was getting stronger, which resulted in the creation of a fruitful and continuous Croatian drama literature.
The first season 1860/61 saw the establishment of the Drama ensemble under the leadership of D. Demeter and J. Freudenreich. But a young writer, August Senoa, gave strong critical objections of the German domination in the repertoire, standing up for the Slavic, French and Italian repertoire. In 1868, Senoa took over the position of the artistic director, but stayed only for a short while (until 1870), because he did not succeed in realising his programme ideas. In the first period, J. Freudenreich was at the head of the Drama as an actor, director and pedagogue, but Adam Mandrovic had been getting more and more acclaim beside him as an actor and director, and from 1874, he was at the head of the Drama for full twenty years. In mid 1870s, Andrija Fijan appeared on stage, a contemporary interpreter of a 'hero' of the classical, and later on, even modern literature. He directed around one hundred performances and he was the Drama director (1898 – 1907) and general manager (1907 – 1908), in general, a legendary actor with the 19th century stage pathos. Marija Ruzicka Strozzi, his stage partner and an artist who interpreted hundreds of roles in a very diverse repertoire connecting the 19th and the 20th century, became a symbol of a Croatian actress and a legend. Since the period of Senoa, the Drama repertoire of a serious national house had been profiled – Shakespeare, Molière, Goldoni, the Russian realists and contemporaries of the salon repertoire. A large number of national dramatists had their works played (M. Bogovic, J. E. Tomić, E. Kumicic, A. Tresic Pavicic...), but also those that were heritage (Gundulic's Dubravka, 1888). That became a regular part of the repertoire, since the mandate of Miletic.
The realistic-naturalistic and modern impulses of European literature were echoing more strongly as the end of the century was approaching and the pathway towards modern Croatian literature was opened by the general manager Stjepan Miletic (1894 – 1898). The world premiere of Vojnovic's Equinox on the stage of the new building in 1895 and Tucic's Return in 1898 announced the new flows in Croatian drama and theatre. Based on the fundamental principles of Meiningen's historical realism, Miletic was the creator of modern staging, especially his productions of Shakespeare. He expanded the Drama ensemble to fifty members, engaged Slovenes Ignjat and Sofija Borstnik and Mila Dimitrijevic, Borivoj Rasković and Arnost Grund. Misa Dimitrijević, Dragutin Freudenreich, Milica Mihicic and Ljerka Sram stood out in their interpretations of the new repertoire and were complemented by new students of Miletic's drama school – Nina Vavra, Josip Bach and Ivo Raic, as representatives of a new style of acting. During the first years of the 20th century, the characteristics of the Miletic period still prevailed. When the Opera was annulled, the Drama had to perform more than one hundred and fifty opening nights, of which sixty were Croatian works. During the mandate of the general manager Vladimir Trescec Branjski (1909 – 1914), Josip Bach won recognition as a stage director and Drama director (1908 – 1919), Ivo Raic returned from abroad and Branko Gavella entered the stage practice from the area of critics. The veristic and symbolic interpretative features in acting, stage direction and set design were developing during the style pluralism of the modern Bach's drama repertoire –Ibsen, Hauptmann, Sudermann, Schnitzler, Strindberg and Maeterlinck were dominant, just as Croatian dramatists I. Vojnovic, F. Galovic, S. Tucic, M. Juric Zagorka, J. Kosor, M. Ogrizovic and M. Begovic.
Upon the fall of the Austro-Hungarian monarchy after WWI, texts that glorified the spirit of the Yugoslav unity were predominant in the drama repertoire. Very soon, during the mandate of the general manager Julije Benesic (1921 – 1926), there was an artistic ascent in the Drama. His ensemble director and stage director Branko Gavella staged dramas by Miroslav Krleza, from Golgotha in 1922 and Vucjak in 1923 to Michelangelo Buonarotti and Adam and Eve in 1925, cooperating with the set designer Ljubo Babic, who won acclaim for this artistic profession according to European criteria. Together they staged Shakespeare's Richard III, Twelfth Night and Diogenes by T. Brezovacki as a stage revelation. Along new dramas of mentioned authors of modernist literature, young writers like Josip Kulundzic, Kalman Mesaric, Ahmed Muradbegovic and Tito Strozzi wrote expressionist texts that were also premiered. Beside Gavella, Ivo Raic and Tito Strozzi were dominant as stage directors (they were actors as well), and along Marija Ruzicka Strozzi, the dynamic repertoire was acted by Dragutin Freudenreich, Milica Mihicic, Nina Vavra, August Cilic, Hinko Nucic and Josip Pavic. The ensemble was refreshed by the students of the State school for acting (1920–1929): Nada Babic, Ervina Dragman, Dubravko Dujsin, Bozena Kraljeva, Vjekoslav Afric, Jozo Laurencic and Niksa Stefanini. In the historically turbulent times of neo-realism of the 1930s and on the eve of and during the wartime 1940s, despite all types of censorship, many new drama texts appeared (Krleza's cycle of The Glembays, Bela Krleza had her debut as Baroness Castelli), heritage discoveries (Fotez's adaptation of Uncle Maroje, 1938, Gavella's and Kombol's adaptation of Lucic's The Female Slave and Drzic's Tirena as The Feast of the Young Derenčin, 1939), as well as new dramatists (G. Senecic, M. Matkovic, M. Feldman and R. Marinkovic). Beside Strozzi and Mesaric, Alfons Verli won recognition as a stage director. Within the framework of a national theatre between 1931 and 1935 there was a Drama studio and in 1943, Mato Grkovic initiated a short-lived chamber stage on which French authors were performed. In 1942, Vjekoslav Afric and Joza Rutic took a group of actors to the Partisans. After the war, the stage of the CNT (both the large and the small theatre) was a host to the partisan Theatre of national freedom of Croatia which merged with the Drama ensemble already in July 1945.
After WWII, significant artistic and repertoire changes took place in the 1950s during the era of Matkovic (1949 – 1953): young dramatists were performed (S. Kolar, M. Bozic and R. Marinkovic), Gavella returned in 1949, then Strozzi, the young Kosta Spaic and Mladen Skiljan established themselves as drama stage directors, Vlado Habunek was affirmed and new set designers became recognised (Kamilo Tompa, Zvonimir Agbaba and Aleksandar Augustincic). But a group of younger actors separated themselves from the ensemble and in 1953, under the leadership of Branko Gavella, established the Zagreb Drama ensemble (in the building in Frankopanska street), seeking a new acting style in contemporary literature. At the same time the Drama engaged the stage director Bojan Stupica who created large scale ensemble performances in the period between 1955 and 1957. The same year on the newly opened chamber stage, the quickly rejuvenated acting ensemble performed the works of J.P. Sartre, T. Williams, A. Miller, J. Anouilh, S. Beckett and E. Ionesco, as well as on the permanent stage in Sisak in 1958. Significant drama texts like Marinkovic's Glorija (B. Stupica), Matkovic's Heracles (V. Habunek), Krleza's Aretej (M. Perkovic), Bozic's The Righteous Man (young stage director Dino Radojevic) were performed on the large stage. The Drama ensemble had a very diverse generations of actors, the mature Emil Kutijaro as Aretej and the young Vanja Drach as Heracles, as well as August Cilic, Bozena Kraljeva, Ervina Dragman, Tito Strozzi, Ljudevit Galica, Mira Zupan, Eliza Gerner, Miroslava Nikolic and Marija Paro. The loss of the Small theatre as the second stage has been an irrecoverable loss until today. For a short while in 1965, a Small stage was opened in the building of the Academy of Dramatic Art, but it remained open only until 1967. In the 1960s, a new generation of stage directors won recognition and they have been creating performances all until today– Georgij Paro, Bozidar Violic, Petar Sarcevic and Josko Juvancic. The Drama ensemble included actors like Jurica Dijakovic, Spiro Guberina, Kruno Valentic, Relja Basic, Zvonko Strmac, Ivo Kadic, Ivo Serdar, Dragan Milivojevic, Sasa Dabetic, Ivka Dabetic and by the end of the 1960s, Koraljka Hrs, Iva Marjanovic, Melanija Dugandzic, Tonko Lonza and Neva Rosic joined in. During the reconstruction of the building (1966–67) the venues used for productions were the stages of the Cultural centre Mosa Pijade, Cultural centre Tresnjevka and the Headquarters of the Yugoslav Army and there were many tours as well. During the 1970s, a Theatre club was opened in the large theatre studio in 1976 and in studio Lado in 1980, and the large stage gave some noticeable innovative interpretations of Croatian and foreign classics of various poetics (from Ibsen's Peer Gynt, Ogrizovic's Hasanaginica to Marinkovic's Cyclops directed by Kosta Spaic, Krleza's The Banquet in Blitva directed by Georgij Paro and Drzic's Uncle Maroje directed by Ivica Kuncevic), but also Croatian contemporary authors (S. Snajder, I. Bakmaz). From the 1970s until today, the Drama ensemble has been constantly reinforced with new generations of actors that were led by Boris Buzancic, Mustafa Nadarevic, Rade Serbedzija, Zvonimir Zoricic, Bozidar Oreskovic, Krunoslav Saric, Bozidar Boban, Mira Furlan, Dragan Despot, Zijad Gracic, Ena Begovic, Alma Prica, Sinisa Popovic...
In the history of the Drama ensemble whose tradition was always created by the most prominent actors, there were also numerous tours, both in Croatia and abroad.