Austrian theater, origins as with other European nations in the Christian Middle Ages.
The Passion Play in particular was staged with great effort by the clergy and the male population. In an institutional sense, one can speak of a specifically Austrian theater since the founding of today’s Burgtheater in 1741. At the same time, topics, acting practices, dramaturgies and stage forms remain anchored in the European context; Due to the German language on the stage, there are in particular relationships with theaters in Germany and Switzerland.
Forms of play in the Middle Ages and early modern times
The Neidhartspiele, which get their name from the poet Neidhart von Reuenthal, addressed the emergence of love with the arrival of spring. The manuscript from the St. Paul monastery in the Lavant valley in Carinthia, which was created around 1350, only contains 66 verses. It is the oldest surviving version of a secular game in the German-speaking world. In the 15th century, the text basis of the Spring Game grew to over 2000 verses; more than 100 actors could now be seen as part of the so-called “Großer Neidhartspiel”.
In the 15th century, the carnival games began to spread in Austria with the urban development. In contrast to the Carnival Games, the Latin humanist theater at the end of the 15th century and in the 16th century was reserved exclusively for the intellectual elite, who rediscovered antiquity with the Renaissance drama.
In “Speculum vitae humanae”, performed at the Innsbruck court in 1584, Archduke Ferdinand II of Austria took up elements of the Jesuit theater and the Commedia dell’Arte. Italian and English traveling troupes gave various suggestions for the establishment of the professional theater. The religious theaters of the Jesuits, Cistercians and Benedictines conveyed the legends and values of the Catholic faith to all strata of the population. J. A. Stranitzky founded the old Viennese folk comedy with his troops and became known for his role as Hanswurst. In 1711 he leased the Theater am Kärntnertor, which had been built two years earlier. G. Prehauser joined from 1725on the stage there as a buffoon, from 1737 v. a. J. F. v. In short, also known by the name of his comic character Bernardon, he was successful at the Theater am Kärntnertor.
Steps in founding the K. K. Hof-Burgtheater (1741 and 1776)
In 1741, Empress Maria Theresa declared the former court ballroom on Michaelerplatz to be the “Royal Theater next to the Castle”. The political potential of this stage with its often improvised and uncontrollable performances – as was common at the time – is reflected in the ban on extemporaries issued by Maria Theresa in 1751/52, which forbade playing off the cuff. It was written by the writer and dramaturge J. v. Sonnenfels prepared, went along with the censorship of drama texts and should v. a. Avoid criticism of the absolutist idea of the state. By a decree of Emperor Joseph II. the Burgtheater was elevated to court and national theater in 1776. German comedies, French plays, Italian singspiele as well as opera and ballet performances determined the repertoire. Similar to France with the Comédie-Française in Paris, Austria now had a theater center that gained great influence over the entire country and the other European nations. The so-called Burgtheater style developed among the actors through careful language treatment and elegant conversational tone.
City and State Theaters in the 18th and 19th centuries
At the end of the 18th century and the beginning of the 19th century, the city and state theaters in Austria were built. The Graz National Theater was opened in 1776, the Linz State Theater in 1803. At the Graz National Theater in 1804 “The Schroffenstein Family” by H. v. Kleist premiered. Even Kleist 1807/08 Resulting drama “Cathy of Heilbronn, or the ordeal” experienced in Austria its first performance (1810, Theater an der Wien). In addition, the theaters in the provincial capitals of Salzburg, Innsbruck, Klagenfurt and St. Pölten provided impulses for regional cultural life.
The career of the playwright and actor J. N. Nestroy began in Graz. Success soon made him go to Vienna. Since the theater audience of the 19th century placed great emphasis on varied repertoire, Nestroy was obliged to write at least two to three pieces each year. By the end of his life he had written over 80 dramas, including antics with couplets and duets.
The playwright and actor F. J. Raimund often appeared himself in the world premieres of his plays. In 1824 “The Diamond of the Ghost King”, 1826 “The Girl from the Fairy World, or: The Farmer as Millionaire”, 1828 “The Fettered Fantasy” and “The Alpine King and the Misanthrope” were staged for the first time (all in the theater in Leopoldstadt). »Der Verschwender«, an »original magical fairy tale in three acts«, was premiered in 1834 in the Theater in der Josefstadt (Josefstadt) with Raimund as Valentin.
Just like the Burgtheater, the so-called suburban theaters (Theater in der Josefstadt, Theater in Leopoldstadt) were important places for public debate and opinion-forming. In contrast to the Burgtheater, however, the suburban theaters primarily attracted audiences from the bourgeois and socially disadvantaged classes, and the arsenal of figures in the prosperous Vienna Volkstheater with farmers, servants and craftsmen was tailored to this. While Raimund aimed at improving people with his magic games, Nestroy defended himself against the reactionary political climate with his plays. Nestroy repeatedly violated the ban on extemporaries and had to accept fines and imprisonment for it.
Grillparzer’s dramas were mainly premiered at the Burgtheater. In “Sappho” (first performance in 1818) Grillparzer reflects on the contrast between art and culture, in “The Golden Fleece” – conceived as a merger of three independent dramas and premiered in 1821 – the collision of two cultures. In the tragedy “King Ottokar’s Glück und Ende” (first performance in 1825) there is a song of praise for Austria. Grillparzer’s rich oeuvre is part of the traditional Weimar Classicism context; he considered himself the best playwright after Goethe and Schiller.
First half of the 20th century
At the beginning of the 20th century, the interest of many theater performances shifted towards exploring the inner worlds. The study »The Interpretation of Dreams« by S. Freud, published in 1900, had a major influence on Austrian drama of the 20th century. The dramas by A. Schnitzler in particular show the characters with narcissistic or hysterical personality structures, which can be shown particularly impressively on the drama stage due to the physical embodiment possibilities by actors. “Liebelei” was premiered in 1895 at the K. K. Hof-Burgtheater, “Der Grüne Kakadu” premiered there in 1899. The first performance of the entire sequence of scenes from »Anatol« (1893) was realized in 1910 at the Deutsches Volkstheater in Vienna. “Das weite Land” – a “tragic comedy in five acts”, as the subtitle of the analysis of Viennese society at the beginning of the 20th century – was premiered in 1911 at the Burgtheater. The comedy “Professor Bernhardi” was banned in Vienna by the imperial censorship authorities because it supposedly portrayed political circumstances in a tendentious manner. It was premiered in 1912 at the Lessing Theater in Berlin.
The dramas of Ö. v. Horváth, who talk about the longings and disappointments of “little” people, had a hard time asserting themselves at the Burgtheater. It was not until 1974 that the »Stories from the Vienna Woods« were staged at the Burgtheater (premiered in 1931 at the Deutsches Theater Berlin).
The Salzburg Festival and Vienna Festival Weeks are of particular importance in Austria’s theater history. In 1917 a festival hall community was founded by M. Reinhardt, H. v. Hofmannsthal, H. Bahr and R. Strauss.
Hofmannsthal, one of the most important representatives of Austrian Impressionism and Symbolism, took up a tradition of the Middle Ages in his mystery play “Jedermann”, which shows people in their moral responsibility before God. M. Reinhardt, who had already taken over the direction of the first performance of the play in the Berlin circus Schumann in 1911, was also responsible as director for the first performance on Domplatz in Salzburg in 1920. Even today, the annual “Jedermann” productions held there attract a large audience as part of the festival.
After the collapse of the monarchy, the K. K. Hof-Burgtheater was simply called the Burgtheater. Dramas by H. Ibsen and A. Strindberg were performed. With the Akademietheater, a second venue was added in 1922. During the “annexation” to the German Reich, the game plan was geared towards the Nazi ideology. In 1942 W. Krauss played the anti-Semitic caricature of the Jew Shylock in William Shakespeare’s The Merchant of Venice.
After the Second World War until today
More than ten years passed from the unconditional surrender of National Socialist Germany on May 8, 1945 to the complete repair of the war damage and the reopening of the Burgtheater on October 14, 1955. This time is understood as the “exile” of the Burgtheater in the Ronacher Varieté. The reconstruction was carried out at great expense and effort.
From 1972 onwards, the Salzburg Festival premiered several dramas by Thomas Bernhard, including 1972 “The Ignorant and the Crazy” and 1985 “The Theater Maker” (both directed by Claus Peymann). Klaus Maria Brandauer, Helmuth Lohner, Gert Voss and Ulrich Tukur were popular actors for everyone in the second half of the 20th century.
The Burgtheater remained the center of Austrian theater. Under the directorship of Peymann (1986-99), in particular, it developed into one of the most important premiere venues for younger German-speaking theater as a whole. The staging of the hateful tirades and hymns of praise by Bernhard, the dramas by Elfriede Jelinek, the language experiments by Peter Handke, the reflections on home country by Peter Turrini, the language worlds by Werner Schwab and Gert Friedrich Jonkeformed the panorama of important world premieres. Public debates – traditionally often sparked at the theater in Austria – were triggered repeatedly, for example when the premiere of Bernhard’s »Heldenplatz« (1988) addressed the role of Austria during the Nazi era.
The most important artists gathered at the Burgtheater were and still are: the actors Klaus Maria Brandauer, Traugott Buhre, Kirsten Dene, Ignaz Kirchner, Susanne Lothar, Josef Meinrad, Birgit Minichmayr, Elisabeth Orth, Udo Samel and Gert Voss. The Burgtheater has been under the direction of Karin Bergmann since 2014.
The youngest generation of Austrian playwrights is represented by Kathrin Röggla , Petra Maria Kraxner (* 1982), Ferdinand Schmalz and Thomas Köck (* 1986), among others.