German-speaking Swiss Theaters

German-speaking Switzerland until 1950

A document with the scene of the three Marys at the tomb of Christ from the 10th century, kept in the monastery of St. Gallen, attests to the beginnings of the Easter play. An Easter play manuscript from 1250 discovered in the Muri Monastery (Canton Aargau) is the oldest extant purely German-language theater text ever. Easter and Passion plays were performed in numerous Swiss cities in the 15th and 16th centuries. An Easter play tradition is documented for Lucerne from the middle of the 15th century. The plays of 1583 (preserved stage plan) and 1597 edited and staged the town clerk Renward Cysat (* 1545, † 1614). In 1616 the Jesuits took over gaming operations in Lucerne. The pieces by P. Gengenbach from Baselare considered to be the first secular printed dramas in the German language. Tellstoff first appeared in 1511 in the »Urner Tellenspiel«. At the turn of the modern era, theater proved to be an instrument for cities to assert their political independence and to take a stand in the religious struggle. At the Bern Carnival in 1523, the carnival games “From the Pope and His Priesthood” and “From Pope and Christ’s Opposition” were performed by N. Manuel staged as a mass spectacle. Strictly puritanical thinking led to the rejection of theater in cities like Geneva and Zurich in the 17th century. But even in the Catholic areas, domestic gambling activity declined in favor of foreign troops. As early as the 18th century, individual voices suggested a national theater, with separate troops for German and French-speaking Switzerland. Discussions about national identity as well as the construction of numerous theater buildings (stock theater, lease system) in the larger cities also contributed – as a counter-movement – to a revival of dialect theater (Volkstheater) in the country. Most of the city theaters were played or at least directed by foreigners – something that has continued to this day. Such cultural imports were repeatedly dealt with together with the question of whether the popular theater was not the actual Swiss theater.

After Geneva in 1783, new theaters followed in 1805 in Lugano, 1834 in Basel and Zurich and in 1839 in Lucerne. From 1837–42, Charlotte Birch-Pfeiffer, actress and director, successfully led the Zurich City Theater. She wrote pieces of all genres, adapted trivial clichés to the prevailing taste using emotion, humor and tension. The performance of primarily German and Austrian plays in the second half of the century only gradually increased the support of the theater among the population.

After the festival and a popular theater debate came to the fore at the turn of the century, a special situation arose for theater creation in the 1930s: numerous emigrants from neighboring countries found refuge in the theaters of the individual language regions, at the same time many Swiss artists returned to theirs Back home. The Zürcher Schauspielhaus in particular has become known as the »emigrant theater«. Outstanding actors and directors found a new place of work at this private theater: the director L. Lindtberg , the actor and director L. Steckel , the actress T. Giehse and the set designer T. Otto. From 1938, O. Wältin was in charge the theater until his death, which became the most important German-speaking stage during the Second World War. B. Brecht’s plays “Mother Courage and Her Children” (1941), “The Good Man of Sezuan” and “Galileo Galilei” (both 1943) were premiered. In 1948 Brecht took part in the world premiere of “Herr Puntila und seine Knecht Matti”. Important German-language premieres by French, English and Spanish authors took place. Shortly before the end of the war, Zurich saw the world premiere of M. Frisch’s “Now They Sing Again”, followed by almost all of his dramatic works. In 1947, K. Horwitz directed at the F. Dürrenmatts playhouse »It is written«, further Dürrenmatt premieres followed.

German-speaking Switzerland after 1950

With the opening of the first basement theater in Bern in 1949, the foundation stone was laid for the “small theater” boom of the 1960s. Authors who were not performed on the big stages and experimental theater concepts became trademarks of the small theaters, which, as alternative theaters in competition with the city theaters, brought about their renewal. The independent theater scene (drama, dance, and later music theater) that formed from the 1970s onwards, turned to alternative venues in the 1980s (Zurich: Gessnerallee, Rote Fabrik; Lucerne: Boa; Bern: Dampfzentrale, riding school etc.), revives this competitive relationship to this day. – Innovative theater, with premieres and premieres e.g. B. by P. Handke (“The unreasonable die out”, 1974), was often seen in Zurich in the small “Theater am Neumarkt” founded in 1966. The team of Volker Hesse (* 1944) and Stephan Müller (* 1951) led the stage to a second bloom from 1993–99; i.a. 1996 with »Top Dogs« by Urs Widmer. – In 1981 T. Hürlimann’s first drama “Grandfather and Half-Brother” by W. Düggelin premiered at the Schauspielhaus Zürich. M. Frisch’s committed stage dialogue on the 1989 army abolition initiative “Jonas and his veteran” was staged by B. Besson. C. Marthaler Headed the Schauspielhaus from 2000–04 after setting standards in Basel, Berlin and Hamburg. He opened his first season with “Hotel Angst” and a new venue with Schiffbau, a converted factory hall. In 2003 he dealt with the bankruptcy of the airline Swissair and Zurich theater politics in »Groundings«. – At the Stadttheater Basel in 1949, under the direction of K. Horwitz, “Romulus the Great” by F. Dürrenmatt and directed by E. Ginsberg waspremiered. In the following year Egon Karter (* 1911, † 2006) founded the »Komödie« with its own ensemble, which joined the Stadttheater in 1968 and, to the splendor of the »Basler Theater« under W. Düggelin contributed. From 1988–93, F. Baumbauer , who left Basel in the face of cuts in subsidies, was characterized by a high artistic level; 1998–2006 the theater was directed by Michael Schindhelm (* 1960), in the 2006/07 season Georges Delnon (* 1958) took over the management (until 2015). – Walter Oberer (* 1911, † 2001), who headed the Lucerne City Theater from 1957–60, shaped the Bern City Theater from 1960–79. He made a name for himself as the discoverer of previously unknown operas of the 17th and 18th centuries. After a renovation of the neoclassical building, the opera director Eike Gramss (* 1942, † 2015) took over in 1991the directorship, the v. a. receives national attention with performances of recent music-dramatic works. -  Horst Gnekow (* 1916, † 1982) went to the Stadttheater Luzern from 1960–68 with his pluralistic, modern repertoire design, among others. first successful musical performances, consciously on the region and the audience, but also demanded it (several Brecht productions). Horst Statkus (* 1929, † 2016) worked with many young actors to work on numerous Swiss premieres as well as world premieres by Swiss dramatists such as Hansjörg Schneider’s “Stoffmann und Herz” (1988). 1999–2004 was headed by Barbara Mundel (* 1959) the theater in ongoing critical dialogue with the city. – In 1968, in St. Gallen, a modern three-division house with a studio was opened in terms of stage technology. 1993–2004 Peter Schweiger (* 1939) directedthe theater; he took on a number of contemporary authors in the repertoire, inter alia. M. Zschokke and E. Jelinek .

German-speaking Swiss Theater