Following centuries of unrest and a myriad of conquerors, the rule of the Military Order of St. John brought about a period of unprecedented stability and development to the Maltese Islands. The newly constructed fortified capital, Valletta, administrative centre and home to the variety of nationalities forming the Order, witnessed a further development as the islands’ cultural and entertainment hub.
Throughout the 17th and early 18th centuries, the demand for operas, pageants, theatrical and dramatic productions boomed as the Maltese embraced what had previously been entertainment reserved solely for the Nobility. Shows put on by amateurs and theatre professionals were then housed at the Knight’s Auberges around the city or in the open.
In 1731, António Manoel de Vilhena, Grand Master of the Knights of Malta, commissioned and personally funded the construction of this central building to serve as a Public Theatre.It was constructed in just ten months and cost 2,184 scudi. The Portuguese Grand Master built the theatre to keep the young knights of the Order of St. John out of mischief but also to provide the general public with “honest entertainment.” This motto was inscribed above the main entrance to the theatre, which still reads today: “ad honestam populi oblectationem”. The first performance on the 19th January 1732 , was a classic Italian tragedy, Scipione Maffei’s Merope. The players in that production were the Knights themselves, and the set was designed by the Knights` chief architect, Francois Mondion.