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, costing 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".
Teatru Manoel is built in the traditional style – a théâtre à l'italienne. It is reputed to be the oldest national theatre in the world. Constructed in a U-shape with boxes decorated with gold leaf, the theatre style is reminiscent of the theatres designed by the Galli Bibiena family, an idea born in the late 17th and early 18th century.
The theatre presents quality artistic productions ranging from recitals, concerts, drama, musicals, opera, dance, and more; providing a principal platform for both local and international artists.
Despite numerous alterations over the years, the theatre retains many of its old architectural features, such as the chandeliers and the white Carrara marble staircase. Over the last couple of years, the theatre has been climatised, thus extending the season to 11 months. It has also undergone renovation, with new seating and parquet floors.
The theatre is listed on the National Inventory of the Cultural Property of the Maltese Islands and is a Grade 1 listed building as noted by Malta’s Superintendence of Cultural Heritage.