As an institution, the Burgtheater 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 institution dates back to the 1740s
- The current building opened in 1888
- Damaged by fire in 1945, it reopened in 1955
- See also: Burgtheater tours | Guide to the Habsburgs
From court to national theatre
(Late 19th-century photo of the old Hofburgtheater (right) on Michaelerplatz (now replaced by an extension to the Hofburg Palace). Photo courtesy of the Rijksmuseum)
The Burgtheater 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 Theresa, the new theatre struggled to establish itself. Its fortunes changed in 1776, however, when Emperor Josef II turned the building into the official court and national theater (the Hofburgtheater – the first of its kind in German-speaking Europe).
Josef 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 theatre’s success.
A ticket to a play now came with the chance to see the Emperor himself. This was 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 proved 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.
The “new” Burgtheater
(“Gargoyle” on the new Burgtheater building)
In 1874, work began on new premises 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 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 country post-WWI 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 begin with a Nazi salute from an attending officer or party member.
In 1945, the theatre’s troubles came to a head. Already damaged from American bombs, the Burgtheater caught fire as the Soviet army “liberated” the city. The Burg only reopened in all its finery in 1955 – the same year Austria regained its independence from the allied powers.
The Burgtheater 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…