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William Tell turns 200

A monument dedicated to writers Schiller (right) and Goethe, in Weimar swissinfo.ch

Switzerland’s founding cantons, together with the German town of Weimar, are this year jointly celebrating the 200th anniversary of Friedrich Schiller’s play, “William Tell”.

This content was published on March 20, 2004 - 14:05

Festivities kicked off earlier this week in Weimar to mark the very first performance of Schiller’s masterpiece.

Schiller’s best-known play, William Tell, was first performed on stage in Weimar on March 17, 1804, and was directed by none other than, Johann Wolfgang von Goethe.

It is believed that the medieval legend of a hunter who kills a tyrant originated in Scandinavia.

But its southerly migration stopped once it reached central Switzerland, the birthplace of the Swiss Confederation.

Although the story of William Tell is at least 500 years old, the success of Schiller’s drama turned the mythical crossbow-toting figure into a national hero.

Switzerland is as proud of William Tell as other countries are of their flesh-and-blood heroes, whether it be Abraham Lincoln in the United States or France’s Joan of Arc.

Tell Overture

In the Swiss parliament, where a statue of William Tell looks down on the country’s lawmakers, the “William Tell Overture” was played at the opening of Wednesday’s parliamentary session.

At the same time in Weimar, the town’s mayor, Volkhardt Germer, spoke from the stage of the German National Theatre and declared that William Tell embodied the meaning of freedom more than any other work.

Barbara Piatti, author of a cultural history on the importance of Schiller’s play, told swissinfo that William Tell was also an important symbol for the founding of the German state in the late 19th century.

“Tell carried out his heroic deeds not just for Switzerland,” she said. “Tell was for a long time a model of Germany’s liberals in much the same way as his story formed the background to the founding of the modern Swiss state in 1848.”

Mythical meadow

The German National Theatre will relocate this summer to the Rütli Meadow in central Switzerland, where the three founding cantons signed a pact in 1291.

The company will give a series of open-air performances of Schiller’s Tell at the Rütli, beginning on July 23.

There will be competition from a new adaptation of the drama in the Tell Playhouse located in the central Swiss town of Altdorf.

William Tell has been performed in Altdorf for the past 500 years – 300 years before Schiller decided to tackle the theme.

But in contrast to the production at the Rütli Meadow, the amateur actors of the Altdorf company will present a modern interpretation of the story.

Swiss history

In the nearby town of Schwyz, the Forum for Swiss History will host a special exhibition entitled, “Tell, please step forward”, focusing on William Tell’s cultural impact.

The museum is also organising a student exchange between Swiss and German schools.

But what would Weimar and Switzerland have in common if it were not for William Tell?

“Weimar and central Switzerland are both provincial,” answered Piatti. “And both places have strong, symbolic characters, not only because of Tell, but because both are closely tied to the history of their countries.”

Weimar was the centre of German classicism and was once the capital of the country. But it was also home to the Nazi concentration camp, Buchenwald, before eventually becoming part of communist East Germany.

The central Swiss cantons have had to bear the burden as the birthplace of the confederation, which has always had a very symbolic nature.

“Interestingly,” added Piatti, “Weimar and central Swiss towns are places far from main population centres like London, Paris or Berlin.”

swissinfo, Etienne Strebel in Weimar (translation: Dale Bechtel)

In brief

2004 is the 200th anniversary of the first performance of Friedrich Schiller’s William Tell in the German town of Weimar.

Johann Wolfgang von Goethe collected material on the Tell legend during his Swiss travels and informed Schiller about the legend on his return to Weimar.

The Tell drama was the last work completed by Schiller and would prove to be his most famous.

Organisations in Switzerland and Germany are using the occasion to host a series of events to forge links between the central Swiss cantons and Weimar.

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