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The wide stage of Swiss theatre

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Switzerland claims one of the world's longest theatrical traditions and most diverse theatrical landscapes.

This content was published on December 21, 2001 - 18:06

This claim - and evidence to support it - is contained in a book covering 500 years of Swiss theatre history, which has just been published in English.

Published by Pro Helvetia, the Arts Council of Switzerland, the book begins by asking: Is there such a thing as Swiss theatre?

"There is, of course, no such theatre," replies author Beat Schläpfer to his question. "On the contrary many different forms coexist. Variety is the hallmark of Swiss theatre: the variety of spoken languages and dialects, of dramatic forms, of backers and of institutions."

Having played a wide range of influential backstage roles on the drama scene and as a man clearly in love with his subject, Schläpfer is well qualified to raise and answer questions about the past, present and future of Swiss theatre.

Five centuries

And what a wide theatrical landscape he covers in his book, "Theatre in Switzerland - Five Centuries of Stagecraft".

"It is surprising to learn," he writes, "that there have been periods in history when Switzerland was one of the truly great theatrical nations of Europe or at least of the German-speaking world...too few people know this."

A manuscript discovered in the monastery at Muri in Canton Aargau and dating back to about 1300 is considered to be the first theatrical text written in German.

"Swiss theatre really started as a kind of propaganda machine for the Catholic, and then the Protestant Church," said Schläpfer in an interview with swissinfo.

Monasteries to markets

Religious plays began to spread from the confines of monasteries to the open-air market places, marking the birth of folk drama. By the 15th century, theatre had become a focus of Swiss cultural and business life and was already taking a political stand on the major issues of the time.

Performances testified to the widespread desire for freedom and independence from foreign rule. Not surprisingly the legend of William Tell struck a chord with these early theatregoers. Written by an unknown author in Canton Uri, the Tell Pageant had its première in 1511, and to this day there are "Tellspiele" productions in Altdorf and Interlaken.

Less serious forms of theatrical entertainment also flourished, but eventually there was a backlash. "For a time the theatre was banned by the very same Church which had once used it an instrument of propaganda," said Schläpfer, "because religious leaders considered it to be too frivolous and a bad influence on the public."

But freedom of expression was waiting in the wings, and thanks to the libertarian influences of the French revolution in the 19th century, censorship made its final exit from Swiss theatres.

The Nazi period

During the period of Nazi rule in Germany, Zurich's Schauspielhaus became virtually the last bastion of free German-language theatre. Many well-known German and Austrian actors took professional refuge there, and Swiss audiences were able to witness a freedom of artistic expression which was being suppressed in the theatres of neighbouring countries.

Theatre is today alive and reasonably well in Switzerland thanks to the creativity of a new generation of actors and directors, and the talented young playwrights following in the footsteps of such internationally successful dramatists as Max Frisch and Friedrich Dürrenmatt.

There is as much diversity as ever in a country which embraces the German, French, Italian and Romansch languages, dialects and cultures.

Dimming Lights

But in at least one respect, the stage lights are dimming. Until a few years ago, the drama scene in Bern and several other cities was enlivened by small cellar theatres, often with seating for just 50-60 people. Some survive but many have been forced to close because of cuts in local subsidies.

In his book, Schläpfer explains how Swiss theatres both great and small often manage to retain their vitality despite facing a perpetual financial crisis. Thanks to local support from cities and cantons which is often supplemented by corporate sponsorship, the show goes on. But in some cases only just while in others, the final curtain is constantly hovering.

"What I would like to see," he told swissinfo, "is a national theatre policy formulated by the Swiss Confederation, to ensure the survival, diversity and eventually the growth of theatres throughout the country."

By Richard Dawson

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