The Burgtheater (Imperial Court Theatre), originally known as K.K. Theater an der Burg, then until 1918 as the K.K. Hofburgtheater, is the Austrian National Theatre in Vienna and one of the most important German language theatres in the world. The Burgtheater was created in 1741 and has become known as “die Burg” by the Viennese population; its theatre company of more or less regular members has created a traditional style and speech typical of Burgtheater performances.
in 1741, the Habsburg Empress Maria Theresa of Austria authorized the theatre manager Joseph Selliers to convert the festival and banquet hall which had been added to the north-eastern angle of the Imperial Palace (Hofburg) into a theatre. The newly adapted theatre “next to the Burg” was inaugurated in 1748; the back wall of the stage was moved further out onto Michaelerplatz in 1756. The auditorium of the old Burgtheater was a wooden structure which created an excellent atmosphere and had superb acoustic properties. The Burgtheater was always closely linked to the Imperial family, who enjoyed the privilege of theatre boxes that could be reached directly from the imperial rooms. Maria Theresa’s son, Emperor Joseph II, called it the “German National Theatre” in 1776.
Between 1741 and 1752 the Burgtheater was leased to various theatre managers; gala performances were, however, organized for the Imperial family, who still enjoyed the privilege of theatre boxes. The stage performed both opera and drama; plays were mostly performed in Italian and French, rarely in German. In 1752, Empress Maria Theresa put the theatre under Court administration. The reform operas of C. W. Gluck were performed for the first time during this period. However, several managers of the Burgtheater had suffered financial losses after 1756; accordingly, Emperor Joseph II declared the Burgtheater the “National Theatre next to the Burg” in 1776 and entrusted a joint committee of actors and directors with its management; later J. F. Brockmann assumed responsibility for the management of the Burgtheater.
1776 is generally considered the foundation year of the Burgtheater as we know it today. The actors finally obtained the status of “civil servants of the state”, or court civil servants, and they were even granted old age pensions. Much money was spent on opera and ballet performances, on performances of “well-done” translations and plays written in German. However, the management and direction of the Burgtheater were once again entrusted to freelance theatre managers between 1794 and 1817. Beginning in 1794, the theatre was called the K.K. Hoftheater nächst der Burg.
Three Mozart operas premiered at the Burgtheater: Die Entführung aus dem Serail (1782), Le nozze di Figaro (1786) and Così fan tutte (1790), as well as his Piano Conerto #24 in C Minor (1786). Beethoven’s 1st Symphony premiered there on April 2, 1800.
Under the management of H. Laube (1849-1867) the Burgtheater finally achieved its leading position among German stages. Its broad repertoire (164 plays) comprised excellent performances of German classical drama and contemporary drawing-room plays. Whereas Laube was praised for his excellence as a stage and speech director, his successor F. Dingelstedt (1870-1881) was much admired for his stage design and sumptuous productions. His repertoire consisted of 109 plays. Under the management of M. Burckhard (1890-1898) an increasing number of plays by contemporary authors were performed in the Burgtheater, including plays by naturalist dramatists such as H. Ibsen and G. Hauptmann as well as plays by A. Schnitzler. The repertoire developed by Burgtheater manager P. Schlenther (1898-1910) focused on plays by Austrian dramatists such as F. Raimund and J. Nestroy.
The theatre’s first building adjoined the Hofburg at Michaelerplatz, opposite St. Michael’s Church. The last performance in this building was of Goethe’s Iphigenie auf Tauris. on October 12, 1888. The Burgtheater company then moved to a new building at the Ringstraße designed by Gottfried Semper and Karl Freiherr von Hasenauer. Both actors and audiences, however, complained about the bad acoustics and the new Burgtheater no longer enjoyed the reputation of its predecessor. St. Michael’s Wing of the Hofburg Palace was erected at the vacated site. The auditorium was redone in 1897.
A decisive change in the style of acting was noticed under the management of A. Berger (1910-1912), a strict opponent of naturalism who concentrated on the psychological aspects of contemporary plays and favored star actors such as F. Mitterwurzer and J. Kainz with new roles. ManagerHeine (1918-1921) tried in vain to hire M. Reinhardt and his theatrical company. The writer A. Wildgans was twice manager of the Burgtheater, from 1921 to 1922 and from 1930 to 1931. H. Röbbeling (1932-1938) introduced a repertoire organized in various cycles, i.e. each play was performed for a limited period of time in rotation with other plays. His aim was to realize an international repertoire in which the works of Austrian dramatists were balanced with those of writers from other countries. M. Eis and F. Liewehr were among the most famous actors employed by him. Manager L. Müthel (1939-1945), who was assisted by the dramaturge Erhard Buschbeck, strove to implement a classical repertoire free from Nazi propaganda.
After the Schönbrunner Schloßtheater had become temporarily affiliated to the Burgtheater in 1919 the Akademietheater, which was housed in the Konzerthaus (concert hall building), became affiliated to the Burgtheater as a studio theatre from 1922 to 1923.
In 1943, under Nazi rule, a notoriously extreme production of The Merchant of Venice was staged at the Burgtheater — with Werner Krauss as Shylock, one of several theatre and film roles by this actor pandering to anti-Semitic stereotypes.
On March 12, 1945, the Burgtheater was largely destroyed in a bombing raid, and one month later, on April 12, 1945, it was further damaged by a fire of unknown origin. Accordingly, the Burgtheater company temporarily moved to the Ronacher variety theatre. The Burgtheater was finally rebuilt between 1953 and 1955; M. Engelhart was responsible for the new design of the auditorium, O. Niedermoser and S. Nordegg were responsible for the new stage design. The new Burgtheater building was finally inaugurated on October 15, 1955.
The classic Burgtheater style and the Burgtheater-German language were trend-setting for German language theatres. The Burgtheater remained a strongly traditional stage with a distinct culture until the late 1960s. From the early 1970s on, it became a venue for some of Europe’s most important stage director and designers. With many debut performances of plays written by Thomas Bernhard, Elfriede Jelinek, Peter Handke, Peter Turrini and George Tabori, Claus Peymann managed to affirm the Burgtheater’s reputation as one of Europe’s foremost stages.
Among the best known actors in the ensemble of about 120 members are: Sven-Eric Bechtolf, Klaus Maria Brandauer, Kirsten Dene, Andrea Clausen, Bruno Ganz, Karlheinz Hackl, Robert Meyer, Gertraud Jesserer, August Diehl, Jutta Lampe, Susanne Lothar, Michael Maertens, Tamara Metelka, Birgit Minichmayr, Nicholas Ofczarek, Hedwig Pistorius, Elisabeth Orth, Martin Schwab, Peter Simonischek, Ulrich Tukur, Franz Tscherne and Gert Voss.
Some famous former members of the ensemble were Max Devrient, Josef Kainz, Josef Lewinsky, Joseph Schreyvogel, Adolf von Sonnenthal, Charlotte Wolter, Ludwig Gabillon, Zerline Gabillon, Attila Hörbiger, Paula Wessely, Curd Jürgens, O. W. Fischer, Paul Hörbiger, Otto Tausig, Peter Weck, Fritz Muliar, and Christoph Waltz. Particularly deserving artists may be designated honorable members. Their names are engraved in marble at the bottom end of the ceremonial stairs at the side of the theatre facing the Volksgarten. Members of honor include: Annemarie Düringer, Wolfgang Gasser, Heinrich Schweiger, Gusti Wolf, Klaus Maria Brandauer and Michael Heltau.
The Burgtheater has seen productions staged by directors like Otto Schenk, Peter Hall, Giorgio Strehler, Luca Ronconi, Hans Neuenfels, Terry Hands, Jonathan Miller, Peter Zadek, Paulus Manker, Luc Bondy, Christoph Schlingensief, and Thomas Vinterberg. Among the staged and costume designers were Fritz Wotruba, Luciano Damiani, Pier Luigi Pizzi, Ezio Frigerio, Franca Squarciapino, Josef Svoboda, Anselm Kiefer, Moidele Bickel, and Milena Canonero.
Notable recent performances have included the world premiere of Des Feux dans la Nuit in 1999 which was the first solo created for a man by internationally acclaimed choreographer Marie Chouinard. It was created specifically for Elijah Brown who went on to tour the solo internationally before becoming the lead character in Celine Dion’s stage show “A New Day” created by world-famous director Franco Dragone.
The ceiling of the Buirgtheater is lined with frescoes, and a statue of Apollo stands guard over the main entrance on the Ringstraße. The interior is the height of opulence, decorated in rich red, cream, and gold with marble floors and paintings of great actors on the walls called the Burgtheater Gallery — a collection of portraits of members of the Burgtheater in the course of its 200-year history. Tours are offered several times a day in various languages.
The early work of Gustav Klimt encompasses a number of paintings he created together with his brother Ernst and Franz Matsch in the context of the Künstler-Compagnie (a studio collective) they had set up. Among these early works are the ceiling paintings created in 1887 for the Burgtheater’s grand staircases. Although still informed by the tradition of history painting, they already point towards the symbolistic phase of the fin-de-siècle in Vienna.In 1886, the artists were commissioned to portray the history of the theatre on the ceilings of the two magnificent grand staircases. Gustav Klimt created four of the total number of ten paintings: Thespiskarren, Shakespeares Globetheater, Altar des Dionysos (grand staircase on the Volksgarten side) and Theater in Taormina (grand staircase on the Landtmann side).
Austria released a miniature sheet commemorating the 200th anniversary of the Burgtheater on April 8, 1976 (Scott #1030). The pane consisted of two 3-schilling stamps separated by a non-denominated label. Printed by recess engraving, the left stamp portrays the old Burgtheater in violet blue (Scott #1030a) and the right stamp pictures the grand staircase inside the new Burgtheater printed in deep brown (Scott #1030b). The head of the Greek god of nature, Pan, is featured on the center label; the inscription and label are printed in vermillion. The stamps are perforated 13½ x 14 while the borders of the miniature sheet are perforated 14. There were 3,450,000 of each miniature sheet printed.