William Tell remains topical 500 years on

An estimated 90,000 people will watch productions of William Tell this year

The legend of William Tell has been performed in canton Uri since 1512. The proto-Swiss freedom fighter celebrates several anniversaries this year and will be shooting fruit off his son’s head on many stages this summer.

This content was published on August 1, 2012 minutes

The subjugated people of Uri are suffering. Almost 100 of them are shuffling around the stage, which is framed by two three-metre high curving walls made of rusty metal.

They turn to Baumgarten, who is trying to flee having just killed the evil tyrant Wolfshot.

“You used the axe …” they shout in unison. “… to split his skull,” comes Baumgarten’s reply.

No one wants to save him from Wolfshot’s henchmen – until Tell turns up and guides him to safety.

Watching rehearsals in Altdorf, the capital of Uri where Tell is said to have shot an apple from his son’s head, one can really feel the brutality of the oppression: the amateur actors repeatedly wince and sigh as one.

Director Volker Hesse, who previously had success with Tell in Uri in 2008, said he is trying to “exploit the power of this large collective”, and added that it wouldn’t be possible to get so many people together on a professional stage.

“One word I often use to describe the new production is ‘passion’. I’m trying to show that all these people are going through a collective ordeal, a cruel period of political unrest,” he said.

“Political play”

To mark the 500th anniversary of the Tell play in Uri, Altdorf is putting on a modern interpretation of the most famous version: the one written by German dramatist Friedrich Schiller in 1804.

Until now it was always the Uri version which was born out of the festival culture of central Switzerland and would be staged during carnival, according to Tell expert Heidy Greco, who teaches theatre studies at Bern University.

“In those days there was no central government in Switzerland – only individual places,” she said. “These communicated with each other via culture. In that respect, carnival was an important means of exchanging information and communicating.”

Tell is said to be the first political drama in German. Greco says older carnival plays exist, but Tell was a “political play”.

“It’s all about formulating a common political voice,” she said.

Greco said the performances became a tradition because this voice would constantly have to be redefined with the times, resulting in repetitions of the whole “liberation myth”.

For Greco, it’s logical that Switzerland of all places dealt with political theatre so early on.

“Unlike its neighbours, Switzerland has a democratic tradition of freedom of speech. At the time, theatre was linked in those other countries to the princely court or cities and wasn’t so independent that people could express their opinions to such an explicit extent,” she said.

Universal theme

And then there was Schiller. He actually owes his most successful work to countryman Goethe, who originally wanted to use the story as a basis for a poem but later asked Schiller to turn it into a stage play.

“I’m always fascinated that Schiller described Tell as not a political leader,” Hesse said. “He’s an awkward outsider who wants nothing to do with politics. His murder of a tyrant [Gessler] triggers a rebellion and he became an ‘unwilling hero’.”

This is a universal theme, Hesse adds, and can currently be applied well to the Arab Spring. “One sees jubilant crowds, but one also learns how tough fighting for freedom can be.”

Heidy Greco says when Schiller wrote his version of Tell in the 19th century, national awareness was at the front of people’s minds.

She sees in his Tell a “leading figure of theatre history” who is always being instrumentalised to get across political messages – “from the revolutionary to the  reactionary”.

But ultimately, according to Greco, the Tell legend is about a Swiss national hero – who never actually existed – embodying a myth, a fiction.

“The central point is that everyone believes this fiction and stands behind it. It thereby creates identity.”


Other Tell performances that can be caught this year include the musical version on the shores of Lake Walen and the cultural exchange between Switzerland and Iran in Altdorf (see video).

Up to 90,000 theatre-goers will watch the play somewhere, according to the Neue Zürcher Zeitung.

One of those with the best view will be Michael Horn, a 40-year-old laboratory supervisor. Horn is taking on the role of Tell in Interlaken.

The open-air performance there is also celebrating an anniversary: its centenary. This year’s show is traditional, with cows coming down from the meadows and mounted baddies.

“It’s a timeless piece,” said Horn, whose father also played the role in Interlaken. “Many countries wish they had a figure like Tell.”

Schiller’s William Tell

According to legend, William Tell came from Bürglen, canton Uri, and was an expert shot with the crossbow.

At the beginning of the 14th century, the Habsburg emperors of Austria were seeking to dominate canton Uri. Gessler, the newly appointed reeve of Altdorf, raised a pole in the village’s central square, placed his hat on top of it, demanding that all the townsfolk bow before the hat. When Tell passed by the hat without bowing, he was arrested. 

As a punishment, he was forced to shoot an apple off the head of his son, Walter, otherwise both would be executed. Tell was promised freedom if he successfully made the shot – which he did, on November 18, 1307.


But Gessler noticed that before the shot Tell had removed two crossbow bolts from his quiver, and after the shot asked him why. Tell replied that if he had killed his son, he would have turned the crossbow on Gessler.

This didn’t go down well, and Tell was bound and brought to Gessler's ship to be taken to his castle at Küssnacht. A storm broke on Lake Lucerne and Tell escaped. He ran to Küssnacht and when Gessler arrived, shot him.


William Tell is said to have died in 1354 while trying to save a child from drowning in the River Schächenbach in Uri.

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