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The Bard and the Burgtheater: Transforming Shakespeare on the Stage of Austria's National Theatre in the 20th and 21st Centuries

Ludwig Schnauder

The project examines the changing appropriations of Shakespeare on the stage of Austria's national theatre, the Burgtheater, in the 20th and 21st centuries. The focus is on the productions themselves, the translations used, the reception, cultural mediators and the interplay between the changing historical and political contexts and the manners of Shakespearean appropriation. The project is a contribution to the burgeoning research field of Shakespeare in Europe and makes use of the theoretical framework of the Weltbühne Wien/World Stage Vienna project.

Although Shakespeare has of course also been performed at other Viennese theatres, it is the Burgtheater which is Shakespeare's stage in Vienna. The importance of Shakespeare for the theatre is already signalled by the fact that his bust can be found on its facade, next to Goethe, Schiller, Grillparzer and others. Performance statistics show that in the history of the Burgtheater Shakespeare's plays were as often performed as those by the German and Austrian classics. This is one of the reasons why the study's focus is on the latter theatre. Furthermore, the Burgtheater is Austria's national theatre and has therefore always been an essential part of the way the country conceives of and represents itself. Which authors and plays are performed in which manner at the Burgtheater is therefore never just a matter of autonomous artistic choice. This also holds true for the staging of a classic like Shakespeare. Changes in the translations used or in the mise-en-scène which challenge received views will not go unnoticed. Because of the close ties between the Burgtheater and the Austrian state large-scale historical, political and ideological changes have always had an influence on the theatre and its productions. The Burgtheater is therefore an ideal place to examine the mechanisms of what Pierre Bourdieu has termed "literary field" which, in the context of the Burgtheater, is constituted by agents such as politicians, intendants, directors, actors, critics and the audience. One of the project's aims is to examine in how far and in which way changes in the constitution of the literary field in the course of recent Austrian history have influenced the staging of Shakespeare's plays.

In contrast to the other Anglophone dramatists examined in the Weltbühne Wien/World-Stage Vienna project, Shakespeare had long attained the status of a classic in Vienna at the beginning of the 20th century. As is well known, it was from the 18th century onwards that German culture absorbed Shakespeare to such a degree that the playwright came to be regarded as one of the founding fathers of German national literature. The myth of Shakespeare as the third German classic was reinforced by the Schlegel/Tieck/Baudissin translation which dominated German stages for one and a half centuries. It is still regarded by many German speakers as the definitive translation and is accorded a status almost equal to that of the English original. Although the translation’s shortcomings have long been recognized, it is only since the late 1960s that theatres such as the Burgtheater have begun to use new translations consistently, thus re-discovering aspects of Shakespeare obscured or blocked by the canonized rendering. The project investigates in how far the Schlegel/Tieck/Baudissin translation has shaped the image of Shakespeare as a classic at the Burgtheater and has led to a certain tradition in staging his plays. In contrast, new translations that have been used as performance-texts are examined to find out whether there is a correlation between the translation and a particular performance aesthetic, which image of Shakespeare the translation conveys and how it is received by the audience and the critics.


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