The Mount Olympus of Vienna’s theater landscape is the Burgtheater (known locally as the Burg).
As an institution, the Burg transcends its role as a mere stage. It’s part of the Viennese consciousness; a place to be seen and to see, a one-time plaything of political intrigue and a symbol of Vienna’s rise, fall and rise again from the ashes of war.
The theater traces its roots back to 1741 when an enterprising entrepreneur sought permission to convert a disused building on the Michaelerplatz into a stage. Despite the initial blessing of the Empress Maria Theresia, the new theater struggled to establish itself.
That changed in 1776 when Emperor Josef II turned the building into the official court and national theater, the first of its kind in German-speaking Europe.
More importantly, he invested much of his own time in the theater, both behind the scenes and as a regular member of the audience.
His presence – quite literally – drove the theater’s success. Now a ticket to a play afforded the chance to see the Emperor himself. Quite an attraction to both the gawping masses and to the rest of the aristocracy, who fell over themselves to be seen at a production graced by the presence of his imperial majesty.
Not that court influence was ideal for artistic freedom. Censorship was rife at the time, and few performances escaped a rewrite. Shakespeare’s Rome and Juliet, for example, lacked a certain tragic element when the Viennese performance ended with the star-crossed couple living happily ever after.
In 1874, work began on a new building for the theater, one that could better meet the demands of modern theatrical productions.
The planners picked a choice spot opposite the town hall on Vienna’s Ring, the boulevard that encircles the city center. The new imperial Hofburgtheater opened in 1888, with a refurbishment 11 years later to correct poor seating arrangements.
The new building was afforded little peace, though, as the conclusion of WWI saw the end of an empire and the emergence of Austria, the republic. The imperial theater became the Burgtheater in 1918 (the first time the current name was used officially) and passed into the ownership of a state more concerned with rebuilding a new country than financing artistic endeavors.
The Burg persevered though, despite the economic deprivations of the time, until another war and Hitler brought further trouble.
The arrival of the Nazis in the 1930s saw Jewish members of the theater company “removed”, the exclusion of works from “inappropriate” playwrights, and performances beginning with a Nazi salute from an attending officer or party member.
In 1945, things came to a head. Already damaged from American bombs, the Burgtheater caught fire as the Soviet army took control of the city. It was ten years before the Burg reopened in all its finery, in 1955 – the same year Austria regained its independence from the allied powers.
It now remains one of the world’s most important theaters, a cultural bastion in a city replete with historical significance. The Emperors and dictators are long departed, but the show goes on…see here for visitor information and more trivia about the Burg.