Society, dust, and resistance. Venturing into the Wiener Festwochen archive

The entrance to the Wiener Festwochen archive is located one floor below ground, next to the server room. To access the archive, we must first find the main switch, walk down the stairs and pass boxes of printed T-shirts. And it’s probably best not to wear anything dark as there is several decades’ worth of dust down there, guaranteed to earn you a pitying look or two. Sifting through archives seems like a particularly antisocial activity, even in times of a collective lack of social contact. And yet, archives have the ability to take us straight to the heart of society. Sometimes, especially in the case of theatre archives, it can give you access to past experiences: sensuous, culinary, or otherwise. What might sound rather heavy, pathos-wise, has to be taken literally in the case of the Festwochen archive. For here, among programme booklets and production photos, we find a massage chair, a kettle and, indeed, a convection oven – as if someone had chosen to settle here on a permanent basis. With barbecue tongs and a halogen heating element designed for ‘cooking, roasting, baking, and braising’. Next to it, a somewhat antediluvian ticket printer that has long ceased to spew out its tickets into eagerly awaiting hands, but is aesthetically so clearly 1990s, you can still hear its loud rattling. In a nutshell, the archive is alive.

The ‘indifference of things’

First let’s take a closer look at the things in the archive. With their sheer quantity, their silent witnessing of contemporary events and time-based detachment, they are overwhelming. The Festwochen archive is packed with cardboard boxes stacked to the ceiling, filled with printed materials from past decades, VHS tapes, and production photos, all sorted chronologically. Sticking out on top of a pile of rolled-up posters is one that’s within reach, featuring – once unrolled – Mozart with a rather pained expression, his eyes rolling. At us? On the programme booklets from 1970 it’s a rueful-looking Beethoven who’s peeking out from the archive box, but then he probably always looked like that – and will do for all eternity. Confronted with all these things, we could be forgiven for thinking that they have a life all of their own. Yet it’s their ‘lofty indifference’ that invites us to ascribe some sort of mystical quality to them. ‘Things are indifferent to everything’ writes Peter Geimer in his Theorie der Gegenstände [theory of objects], claiming that they are ‘very discreet creatures’ that do not express themselves and do not have us in mind.

Many people have pondered why archives give the impression of being special. Indeed, archive objects per se never stand alone: instead, they bear witness to the practices of earlier theatre makers and their audiences. As the material relics of what has passed, they have been chosen to perdure while hinting at everything that has not been archived. They project into the present, a sort of solicitation. We may turn to them, ignore them, attribute meaning to them, or find a use for them. The archive is therefore a matter for the present.

In praise of historicity

So how could we use the archive? A comprehensive reconstruction of earlier festivals is impossible and pointless insofar as the present is also meaningful to us. It is possible to over-fetishize things, but that does tend to miss the point. Instead, we can use the archival documents to acknowledge the past and present of the festival, its people, and the city, in a continual process of referencing back to ourselves. Inseparably linked with the objects themselves are those who made them, used them, and archived them. Everything from the structure of the archive to the design of a programme booklet and the angles of the theatre photography has something to tell us about the theatrical preferences, thematic requirements, and formal approaches adopted by each era. A helpful term when associating objects and the people involved in them is that of ‘affordance’, which Caroline Levine borrowed from design theory. It refers to the tacit offer that is inherent in an object and predefines how it is to be used. In this way it refers to the intentions and contexts with which it was manufactured. The archive, then, right down to its systematic order, always has declarations of intent and certain ideas of festival within it. They are diverse and historically variable.

Curtain up in red-white-red

Let’s dive right into the boxes and the folders, which have preserved all manner of ideas, (origin) myths, drafts, and counter-drafts. 1951 saw the first Wiener Festwochen to be staged after the Second World War, following on from the music and theatre festivals of “Red Vienna” in the 1920s and 30s. The programme imagery chosen by the Department for Cultural Affairs under city councillor Hans Mandl was unambiguous, with a small marble angel heralding the first Festwochen. A year later, a red-white-red curtain went up to reveal a peaceful city, with City Hall and Parliament as symbols of the city and democracy, brightly illuminated. As the first programme booklet states, there had merely been an interval. The Second World War is referred to in a roundabout way as a ‘time of plight’ and ‘destiny’. The programme sought to renew the ties with old musical traditions as well as the modern era. The dancers Rosalia Chladek and Grete Wiesenthal performed on stage as exponents of the dance scene in the interwar period. Many of their colleagues, however, had been persecuted and murdered or forced to flee into exile. This notwithstanding, the first Festwochen celebrated Viennese hospitality and a cultural tradition which, under the motto ‘Immortal Vienna’, was to give new faith in the future.

It is a narrative that would run through the Festwochen like a red thread for a long time yet: the future of the city made possible thanks to a nostalgically and proudly imagined past. In this guise, the Festwochen were a calling card to the world at large and a means of self-reassurance for the world within – but also a political player as both Austria and Vienna sought to reposition themselves. From 1958 onwards, the Festwochen would incorporate European talks, in which phenomena particular to the modern city and to East-West politics are negotiated. At the official inauguration of these talks in 1965, Federal President Franz Jonas emphasised the importance of economic relations within Europe. In addition, the anniversaries of ‘great musicians’ were continuously on the programme. In 1970, a ‘Beethoven bus’ drove festival visitors around the city to visit the composer’s former places of residence and work, with the film Ludwig Van (directed by Mauricio Kagel) setting the counterpoint. Featured on the programme as part of the [avant-garde cultural centre] Arena 70, it was intended as a means of ‘blatantly exposing the mindless tributes to Beethoven’ and accompanied Beethoven as he went to his own bathroom. By contrast, in the Mozart anniversary year 2006, the then artistic director Luc Bondy wrote almost apologetically: ‘In the year of Mozart, the Festwochen cannot help but show you, hopefully with a modicum of grace, that we cannot do without Mozart.’

Archive of utopian drafts and daring settings

Always intertwined with the celebration of high culture were issues relating to the involvement of the Viennese themselves in their city’s very own festival. Municipal districts took part with events of their own and, as the Neubau district administration wrote in 1951, ‘Neubau’s residents’ were keen to be part of the ‘powerful demonstration of artistic joie de vivre’. Participation took on many forms and was anchored officially or institutionally. In 1960 the police choir sang on Heldenplatz, and in 1980 the boat rental companies down at the Danube invited people to take part in their parade. Concurrently, a counter-festival emerged within the festival itself, attracting youth movements to the Festwochen with Arena 70 and, later on, the 80er-Haus. Within the established festival structures, the alternative scene engaged in a critique of society: an anti-nuclear theatre play was performed; music from Anatolia was played; and the Eisenerz Lehrlingstheatre parodied the Austrian chancellor Bruno Kreisky. In 1980, a van with an integrated printing shop – the ‘Printbus’ – drove around the city’s districts, lending a voice to marginalised positions.

In 1981, oversized blocks of ice were left to melt on Rathausplatz. Under the stewardship of Ursula Pasterk, who would later become artistic director herself, the alternative programme proclaimed the motto: ‘End the Ice Age – Thaw out the City’. In keeping with the emotive culture of the 1980s, it levelled its criticism at the chilly social and technological climate. In search of ‘warmth, imagination, and purpose’, George Tabori was invited to stage The Sinking of the Titanic (Hans Magnus Enzensberger). During rehearsals, actor Murray Levi smashed an ice block and handed out chunks of it; a dripping ice pack hung from the ceiling of the rehearsal room. The troupe discussed the fact that ‘the iceberg is everywhere, not just on stage’. Meanwhile utopian scenarios of living and ideas of a ‘Different Theatre’ (1982) unfolded. Elfriede Gerstl paid visits to Viennese residents in their flats, drawing attention to the Festwochen’s potential audience. Helmut P., a merchant, talked about his reticulated python called Anna and deplored the lack of music venues, saying that ‘those like the Arena are such a long way away’.

Theatre, always, but with a difference

The Festwochen have always been in search of a theatre of a different kind, not just since 1982 when the focus was on ‘Das Andere Theater’. The archive materials attest to a continuous reflection on theatre and the very idea of a festival. In the early years, sporting events, ice-skating shows and arts and crafts fairs were all a part of it, as a matter of course. The football match between Austria and Scotland in 1951 took place as part of the Festwochen, along with billiards and golf tournaments and horse racing at the Freudenau race course. Many productions by cutting-edge theatre-makers, some of which have since acquired iconic status – Ariane Mnouchkine, Dario Fo, Franca Rame and Romeo Castellucci among others – also testify to the exploration of what can and should happen on a stage and/or between actors and audiences. Productions that were hotly debated in public became a – Skandal! – that is they contributed to the renegotiation of social lines of discourse. Often it was about politics, sexuality, and morality. The demonstrations against the opera Jesu Hochzeit (1980, Gottfried von Einem and Lotte Ingrisch) and the furor over Christoph Schlingensief’s production Bitte liebt Österreich! (2000) are perhaps the most impressive examples of this. They showed how theatre questioned Austria’s self-image, its religious and moral foundations. Furthermore, the stage production of Mountain Hotel by Czech author and politician Václav Havel provoked political reactions. The Soviet Union and Czechoslovakia banned their artists from participating in the 1981 Festwochen due to its programming.

Festival history and resistance

The festival history we can glean from the archive materials often seems far removed from our present; but certain themes are very close. In 1999, the opera Bählamms Fest was prominently highlighted as a production by two women – Olga Neuwirth and Elfriede Jelinek; but wouldn’t such a showcase be just as necessary today? Would we in 2021 still be establishing a diagnosis of a social ‘ice age’ – or are we not more likely to perceive our present as ‘overheated’? These archival materials are capable of triggering understanding, surprise, and alienation. They often help to correct official narratives or retrospective nostalgia. Internal town hall reports from 1951, for example, testify to a self-critical debate over the music events of the festival; two choral concerts are described as a ‘barely veiled debacle.’ The lack of interest in Gustav Mahler’s 8th Symphony had caused a deficit of 32,000 shillings in the same year. Finally, the sometimes mundane reality of festival making comes to light in the correspondences about ticket sales, rebooking of artists or weather conditions.

The history to which we have access through the archive, thus, disrupts a linear narrative of the evolution of the festival. Instead, it reveals it as a forum where the relationship between past, present and future, the connections between Vienna and the world, thematic and formal ruptures as well as continuities are forever being renegotiated. The attempts to establish a multi-media theatre (1971) or a comedy ‘from below’ (1968) can make our present-day theatre practices more readily comprehensible against such a broader historical backdrop. In this sense, theatre historian Jan Lazardzig has pleaded in favour of ‘literally giving theatre a memory’. He adds that the (theatre) archive could counteract the de-historicisation of theatre practice and thus make it resistant to political ideas of flexibilisation. It is a matter, therefore, of celebrating the historicity of theatre ‘as a prerequisite for the possibility of critical contemporary art’. Through the Festwochen archive we are able to remember for the sake of the future. Let’s dare to venture into it. And, since it is a relatively young archive, let’s talk about our Festwochen experiences through the archive materials. We could even pull up the massage chair and dust off the kettle and the oven; knead the objects thoroughly; bring the past up to the boil; and allow the Festwochen as a whole to simmer away gently.

Further reading

Peter Geimer, Theorie der Gegenstände. ‘Die Menschen sind nicht mehr unter sich’, in: Jörg Huber (ed.), Person/Schauplatz, Zurich/New York 2003, 209–222.

Caroline Levine, Forms: Whole, Rhythm, Hierarchy, Network, Princeton, N. J., 2017.

Jan Lazardzig, Theater archivieren. Drei Thesen zu einer zeitgemäßen Überlieferungsstrategie des theaterkulturellen Erbes, published lecture as part of the ‘Was bleibt’ event, Runder Tisch Berliner Theaterarchive, January 2018.

  • Theresa Eisele

    Theresa Eisele is a theatre scholar and author. She studied in Leipzig, Madrid and Vienna, and is currently conducting research on the history of theatre in Vienna in the modern era and theatre-based thought models that pertain to society. In 2021 she became a Visiting Fellow at the Institute of Theatre Studies at the Free University Berlin. Her book Szenen der Wiener Moderne. Drei Artefakte und ihre Vorstellungswelten des Jüdischen was recently published as part of the Leipzig toldot series.

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