Theater

   Religious spectacle had a central place at the Habsburg courts of the early modern era and in educational programs of monastic foundations, especially the Jesuits and Benedictines, throughout the monarchy’s lands. The central theme in all of these settings was the struggle between the sacred and the secular for control of the human spirit. By the end of the 17th century, two stage genres, each devoted to entertainment, had intruded upon this lofty theme. Italian and, occasionally, English improvisatory theater was immensely popular among all social classes, and opera whetted local appetites for musical interludes on stage and eye-catching visual effects. When combined, they created a distinctive theatrical tradition in the Austrian lands.
   A central step was the installation of the theatrical company of Josef Anton Stranitzky in Vienna’s Theater at the Carinthian Gate around 1711. Highly popular, his productions frequently featured stock peasant figures speaking the language of stereotypical rural Austrians. These performances were derusticated to a certain extent by the middle of the 18th century, as stage bumpkins became more urbane and magical interventions took the place of religious mystery in scenarios. Playwright Philipp Hafner’s (1735–1764) Megära the Terrible Witch (1755) fixed the genre in Viennese theaters. The government, however, particularly under Emperor Joseph II, for a time discouraged conventional popular comedy as a way of promoting a standard oral German and the habit of empirical reasoning. In support of both programs, Joseph converted the court theater (Burgtheater) into a German National Theater in 1776.
   Though the Burg quickly lost that exclusively German focus, graceful elocution, naturalness of presentation, and seamless ensemble work made it the premier theater of the German-speaking world in the 19th century. Crucial in this development were two directors, Joseph Schreyvogel (1788–1832) and Heinrich Laube (1806–1884), who incorporated plays from several European traditions into the repertory and encouraged the acting style for which the company was famous. The classical drama at the heart of its program, represented by Franz Grillparzer, one of the great dramatic poets of the German language, however, had to make some room for the popular comedy. This was especially the case in the second half of the 19th century, when Eduard von Bauernfeld (1802–1890), a general man of letters who cleaned these materials up a bit to suit middle-class and noble audiences. But it was in the hands of the masters of Viennese comedy, Ferdinand Raimund and Johann Nestroy, that the genre flourished, critical interpolations, music, and all. The work of both frequently appeared on other Vienna stages, such as the Theater in the Josefstadt.
   At the beginning of the 20th century, writers like Arthur Schnitzler and Hermann Bahr (1863–1934) had introduced Viennese audiences to European realism and naturalism in houses such as the German People’s Theater (Deutsches Volkstheater, 1889). Such changes came at the expense of popular comedy. Indeed, Vienna was beginning to yield to Berlin as the premier city of theater in German central Europe. Expressionist or highly abstract modernist drama never took hold in the Viennese theater.
   One of the city’s most successful stage styles, cabaret theater or “cellar theater” (Kellertheater), was a borrowing from the new German capital. In 1901, Felix Salten (Siegmund Salzmann, 1869–1945), the author of Bambi, opened his Theater zum lieben Augustin (Theater at Friend Augustine’s) for a few performances. At first specializing in light entertainment and small ensemble revues, even magic shows, it flourished after 1906. The Simplicissimus theater, which opened in 1912 in the Café Simpl, has performed since then, except when the Nazis closed it from 1944 until the end of World War II. Although the regime tolerated light entertainment, it was implacably hostile to the political and social criticism that was among the staples of cellar theater entertainment in the interwar period. The genre also took hold in Graz, Innsbruck, and Linz. But it was once again in Vienna that notable cabarettists appeared, especially in the 1960s: Gerhard Bronner (1922–2007), Carl Merz (Carl Czell, 1906–1979), and Helmut Qualtinger.
   Although serious Austrian theater continued to program work with traditional themes between 1919 and 1938, it was heavily politicized by every major movement along the ideological spectrum. The right wing was especially critical of foreign plays, especially explicitly modernist ones. It took the Theater am Fleischmarkt (Theater at the Meat Market, 1958) to introduce Austrian audiences at large to French avant gardists such as Eugene Ionesco, Jean Cocteau, Jean Genet, and Samuel Beckett. From the perspective of the 21st century, however, the most influential Austrian voice in its postwar theater may have been Ödön von Horvath. His merciless stripping of cliché from everyday Viennese life in Tales from the Vienna Woods (Geschichten aus dem Wiener Wald, 1931) and focus on human degradation, particularly the female variety, in Faith, Hope, and Charity (Glaube, Liebe, Hoffnung, 1936), were not well received in his lifetime. They did, however, inspire the modern, and socially very negative, folk play (Volksstück) as conceived by Wolfgang Bauer (1941–2005) and Peter Turrini (1944–). Another significant body of work, more linguistically surrealistic but with a similar social thrust, has come from the Vienna Circle. Austrian dramatists with worldwide audiences, such as Peter Handke and Thomas Bernhard, have often replicated its local themes and settings.

Historical dictionary of Austria. . 2014.

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