While rural amateur theatres in other places are content to shift their repertoires from once beloved rural theatre performances to no-longer-fresh-from-the-shelf tabloid comedies, the Theaterverein Bizau Theatre Association decided to go in a different direction. In the spring of 2022, they successfully staged Eugene Ionesco’s “Exit the King,” which was justifiably acclaimed by both audiences and critics. In doing so, the association remained true to its nearly 160-year tradition. Following the revolution of 1848, party politics crystallised in the Bregenzerwald, as in other places. The liberal and Catholic-conservative camps emerged as the two groups whose disputes would shape the region’s history in the decades that followed.
Among the “progressives” were the Schoppernau poet and social reformer Franz Michael Felder (1839-1869), the lithographer, innkeeper, community leader of Bezau and member of the provincial parliament Josef Feuerstein (1832-1903), and the long-time community leader of Schnepfau, Franz Xaver Moosmann (1839-1891), who, as a self-taught farmer, had learned Latin, Greek, Old High German and Gothic. In Bizau, they were joined by Gebhard Wölfle (1848-1904), one of the Bregenzerwald’s many multi-talented personalities. He was a carpenter, fountain builder, mechanic, photographer and powerful dialect poet. In 1866, Wölfle assumed leadership of an amateur drama group that had been assembled two years earlier and was centred around Anton Rüscher, a sculptor from Bizau, and two German migrant workers.
After first trying their hand at August von Kotzebue’s comedy plays, they soon staged Friedrich Schiller’s “Intrigue and Love” and “The Robbers.” In 1868 alone, the people of Bizau staged eight plays on what was initially an improvised stage in the main hall of the Schwanen inn. They commissioned texts from Vienna, including plays by Johann Nestroy, gave “guest performances” in other towns in the valley, and invited travelling theatre groups. In light of the noticeably harsher political climate, this could not remain without consequences: “For Schiller, in particular, was considered a revolutionary and an enemy of the faith by the Catholic conservatives. Anyone who read, quoted or enacted his works could be clearly positioned ideologically, i.e. as a ‘liberal.’ ‘Schiller’ was a cultural code word that defined camp boundaries and demarcated political classifications,” writes social scientist Kurt Greussing. From the pulpit, the local priest condemned the poet Franz Michael Felder as a “heretic,” “freemason” and an “antichrist.”
The clergy called for people to disobey the “May Laws” of 1868, which removed the supervision of schools from the Catholic Church, allowed civil marriage and a change of creed, and assigned marriage jurisdiction to the state authorities. It is therefore no surprise that such headwinds were also felt in Bizau, especially considering that the Catholic Conservative Party’s triumph in the provincial elections of 1870 heralded the end of political liberalism in the Bregenzerwald. Schiller continued to be staged, as did William Tell, Lessing’s Minna von Barnhelm, Nestroy’s Lumpazivagabundus and even Shakespeare’s King Lear, the latter, however, as the Viennese newspaper Neue Freie Presse wrote in 1892, “… to all but empty seats.” The vicar of Bizau and his brethren in the neighbourhood took credit for this success. Because every performance incurred expenses, yet required an audience, ‘King Lear’ became the final performance. Gebhard Wölfle informed the Germanist and historian Hermann Sander (1840-1919) that the theatre had been “virtually beaten to death by zealots.” Of course, they did not let this get them down for long. At the beginning of the 20th century, the newly founded “Dilettanten Theatergesellschaft” (Dilettante Theatre Company) revived the theatre and, interrupted only by the two world wars and the worst years of the economic crisis, continued it until the present day. By the way: “As it is in Heaven” by Kay Pollak is on the programme in Bizau in 2023.
Author: Alois Niederstätter
Issue: Bregenzerwald Travel Magazine – Summer 2023