Art as a political football? - The Vienna stage in the First Republic

An extensive new collection of original documents compiled by the University of Vienna Institute of Theatre, Film and Media Studies provides fascinating insights into the influence of politics on historical drama between 1918-1938. The collection, published on CD-ROM, for the first time reveals the connections between details of productions at Vienna theatres and the political developments of the period. The bibliographical study, supported by the Austrian Science Fund (FWF), shows how the theatrical portrayal of historical events was employed for political ends.

Performance of Prince Eugene of Savoy, a historical drama in five acts by Hans Sassmann, at the Vienna Burgtheater on 10 June 1933.
© Use of this photo for editorial purposes is free of charge, subject to attribution: Österreichisches Theatermuseum, Vienna

The Institute's project has resulted in the establishment of a digital archive of documents relating to productions of historical dramas at Vienna theatres classed as "eligible for support" during the Austrian First Republic, from 1918-1938. Project leader Dr. Edda Fuhrich and co-researcher Dr. Julia Danielczyk took the productions of the various plays as their starting point. In addition to programmes, play bills and details of premieres they compiled data on the lengths of the runs and the casts. Reviews and newspaper reports referring to the themes of the plays enable links to be made between productions and the political currents at the time.

Dr. Julia Danielczyk said: "During the period that followed the collapse of the Habsburg Empire, and particularly after the economic crisis of 1929, Austrian democracy was widely perceived as a shambles. Costume drama was a means of demonstrating the country's cultural independence to the population. Identification with the past helped people to accept the present - and the political system."

The fact that the Government exploited this opportunity is shown by the way that the number of productions at state supported Vienna theatres soared after 1929. The establishment of "subscription clubs" by the government Austrian Arts Office (Oe.K.) meant that tickets for performances selected by the Oe.K. were cheap. This served to channel public interest and increased the demand for some plays.

For instance, the Austria Trilogy by Hans Sassmann - whose conservative attitudes are reflected in his heroisation of Prince Windischgrätz, who regained control of Vienna from the republican revolutionaries in 1848 - was subsidised. The glorification of key figures in Austrian history bolstered national pride and belief in the future of the Austrian rump state. Plays like this were used as a mouthpiece for contemporary political messages, but were also stage hits. They included such dramas as Emperor Franz Josef I of Austria, Prince Eugene of Savoy, Empress Elisabeth of Austria and Josef II.

"There are still similar hit shows today, but their main purpose is commercial," said Dr. Danielczyk, creating an interesting parallel to the present. The marketing of kitsched up historical figures by productions like Sissi, staged at the Schönnbrunner Schlosstheater in 1997, and by successful musicals such as Freudiana, Elisabeth and Amadeus is a boon to the Austrian tourist industry. Dr. Danielczyk commented: "Our database shows that the Austrian theatre has a long tradition of recycling historical personalities. The way that this is done is a product of social and political conditions at the time." The point is further proof that the FWF supported project is not merely an important contribution to Austrian theatrical history but also sheds light on presentday stage life.

Dr. Julia Danielczyk
c/o Vienna City Library
Collection of Manuscripts and Letters
A-1082 Vienna
Tel: +43/1/4000-84 947

This release by
PR&D - Public Relations for Research & Development
Margaretenstrasse 70
A-1050 Vienna
Tel: +43/1/505 70 44

Vienna, April 14, 2003