Subversive Conventionality: Vienna Undervalues its Small Stages

Vienna’s changed cultural policy forces the International Theatre to close its doors

Opinion | Veronica Buckley | June 2012

At the end of June, after 38 years of exits and entrances, the curtain at the International Theatre on Porzellangasse will fall for the last time. It’s not known what will happen to the building: It’s possible that another theatre company will take over where the International has left off.

It’s possible, but it’s not likely.

Over the past five years in particular, subsidies for small theatres have been steadily declining, and there’s no reason to expect a reversal of this policy in the short term. No small theatre, perhaps no theatre at all, can survive any length of time from box office takings alone. And Austrian tax law doesn’t encourage private donations, as in the United States. This makes it hard to run a non-profit theatre here without substantial subsidies.

Public support for the arts in Austria has been enshrined in law since the Federal Arts Promotion Act of 1988, and overall it is generous. But since 2007, larger, already successful enterprises have been favoured over smaller ones, while recent changes to the Schauspielhausgesetz, requiring freelancers to be put on salary, will make it even harder for small houses to keep going. Meanwhile, the city’s appetite for other than German-language theatre remains hearty: The Wiener Festwochen of May and June this year offered six weeks of plays not only in English but also in Spanish, French, Hungarian, Estonian, Greek and Sanskrit – happily with surtitles.

It can be argued that small theatres need subsidies to encourage experimentation. Without them, companies stick to the old tried and true repertoire, so that over the long run, it all turns into a museum of what theatre used to be. With a subsidy, the company can commission new plays and discover new talent that will eventually make their way into the big time. Small houses are the garage-startups of the theatre world; subsidies keep theatre alive.

Something of the sort has indeed been going on at the International Theatre, but in reverse. For the 38 years of its subsidized life, it’s been a conventional house, presenting fairly traditional stagings of mostly mainstream plays. Paradoxically, this very conventionality has been something subversive on Vienna’s theatre scene, dominated as it is by a permanent, professional avant-garde, a hangover from the 1960s that hasn’t actually been avant-garde for decades. Long abandoned by the big houses of Paris or London or New York, self-indulgent Regietheater has settled in here to a comfortable, predictable orthodoxy.

The actors presenting this paradox are among the finest in Europe: Artists they certainly are, but as employees, they are effectively highly paid civil servants, with positions guaranteed until retirement and good pensions thereafter. This is exactly the sort of setup that turns a theatre into a museum, and it’s exactly the situation that subsidies are supposed to prevent.

In theory, Regietheater challenges the audience, but who’s honestly still challenged by a man coming on stage in nothing but hat and boots (as in a recent Lorenzaccio), or a lesbian Cleopatra, or a Weite Land with all the funny lines, along with the characters who speak them, simply removed from the play altogether?

The surest way to épater les bourgeois these days would be to present a play complete as the playwright wrote it – the original characters, the original words, the original stage directions. And if you really want to scandalize a Viennese audience, stage a play in period costume with sets appropriate to the time the thing was written – you’ll have people booing, firing programmes at the actors, storming out in disgust, writing to the papers – it could unleash more outrage than anything in the theatre since Nijinsky simulated masturbation on stage in the 1912 Après-midi d’un faune.

Since then we’ve seen everything. Is it too much to hope that, just for once, one of our great Viennese theatres might dare to create a different kind of shock for the twenty-first century, the shock of the werktreu – of seeing, for once in our blasé, over-intellectualized theatre-going lives, what the playwright actually intended? With all those subsidies, can’t they afford to take a risk?

Apparently not. It’s been left to the humble International Theatre and its ilk to challenge the civil service fashionistas with a homespun bravery, approaching the plays on their own terms, with a dose of directorial humility. In its very conventionality, Vienna’s International Theatre has been a quiet force of subversion.

But that little light is now going out. We wish them well, wherever they find themselves: They may have played their last hour in the Porzellangasse - but all the world’s a stage.


Veronica Buckley is a New Zealand-born biographer of the 17th Century Swedish Queen Christina and Madame de Maintenant. She lives in Vienna with husband, the writer Philipp Blom.

For more on this topic, see Austria News: "Facing the Final Curtain" by Vera Mair

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