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The Urner Tellenspiel of 1512: Strategies of Early Political Drama.

The early sixteenth-century text known as the Urner Tellspiel or Tellenspiel (The Canton Uri Tell Play) has been called the earliest political drama of the German language.(1) Given Switzerland's role as the avant-garde of Western democracy, it might well be considered the first purely secular, political drama of Western Europe. As the first theatrical treatment of the Wilhelm Tell saga, it is naturally overshadowed by its illustrious descendant, the great romantic drama of Schiller. Even in its own century this anonymous "folk" drama was recast into a more respectable literary form by Jakob Ruf of Zurich. It is this 1545, post-Reformation version that has received the lion's share of critical attention among scholars of the early Swiss stage. My purpose here will be to examine the earlier play, this first-ever "political drama." I shall be asking some basic questions. How might the piece have been realized? What were its original intentions? What dramatic strategies did it employ?

The Urner play dramatizes the well-known episodes of the Tell saga, beginning with the tyrannies of the Austrian Landvogt (bailif) Gessler, particularly his arrogant gesture of placing his hat aloft on a pole in the marketplace of Altdorf and compelling the Swiss to do it homage. When the renowned marksman Tell ignores the object, he is arrested and the sadistic Gessler proposes the famous test--Tell must shoot an apple off his youngest child's head to gain his freedom. Tell succeeds in the amazing shot (der Apfelschu[Beta]) but when asked why he had readied an additional crossbow bolt, he replies that if he had injured his son, the second bolt would have been for the Landvogt. Tell is then led away in chains to a lakeboat. A fierce storm, however, soon breaks over Lake Lucerne (Vierwaldstatersee) and none of the men-at-arms are capable of handling the craft in the raging waves. Tell is freed to ply his boatman's skills and save them all, but instead he maneuvers the craft toward a shelf of rock (site of the present Tell Chapel), leaps to safety while snatching up his crossbow, and shoves the boat back into the turbulent waters. The boat eventually lands and Tell heads off the party and manages to ambush and kill the Landvogt in a sunken lane (die Hohlegasse) near Kussnacht. Tell thus becomes a hero of the Swiss resistance, newly enkindled by the semi-legendary oath of confederation on Rutli field.

The consensus as to the facts about and reasonable suppositions regarding the text of the Urner Tellenspiel are as follows.(2) It was printed by Augustin Friess in Zurich about 1545. It is this version which Ruf then reworked to create Das neue Tellenspiel. An earlier printed version might have existed affording an opportunity for some additions, for there appears to be more epilogue material than one could reasonably imagine being performed. This was apparently added after the crisis to Swiss confidence occasioned by the disastrous Milanese campaign of 1515, since it broods upon the Confederation's sins of greed and presumption and makes unfavorable comments upon mercenary service.

The original play was "performed in Uri" as Friess' title page affirms. An internal reference to the Winter campaign (Winterzug) of 1511 provides a firm terminus ante quem. The play was therefore produced in some form in 1512 or shortly thereafter, most likely in Altdorf, chief market town of the canton and legendary birthplace of the Swiss Confederation. There are no further details as to this production. The fact that its playscript was printed some thirty years later strongly suggests that the production was not an isolated affair but had something of a performance tradition in the intervening years. Internal evidence suggests, as well, that there may have been an earlier dramatic kernel, namely, the famous Apfelschu[Beta].

Two distinct lines of source material appear to have influenced the play. One is the White Book of Sarnen, a chronicle compiled between 1470 and 1472, which contains the first mention of those events of the late thirteenth century that allegedly gave rise to the Confederation. The sources behind the White Book are unknown. Petermann Etterlin's Schweizer Chronik (1505-07), which contains the first Tell illustration, presumably served as the intermediary between the White Book and the Tell playwright.

The other source of the play is a ballad, Das Lied yom vrsprung der Eydgnoschaft, composed about 1477, and surviving in four extant versions. This was obviously a vehicle for public performance since an audience is addressed: Nun merckent, lieben heren gutt [Now pay attention, dear good people, (Mu text, stanza 3)]; Ich wil uch singen den rechten grundt [I will sing to you of the true cause, (B text, stanza 9)]. Heightened recitation must have accompanied the dramatic changes of voice found in its Apfelschu[Beta] section, which is the only part of the story that is so developed. The ballad then proceeds to chronicle the successes of the Swiss in the Burgundian War of 1474-77. Since the play is also more developed in the Apfelschu[beta] area than in the other equally dramatic parts of the saga, it is not unreasonable to suppose that the first movement of the ballad furnished the dramatic core from which a full-scale play developed. This core-drama might have coalesced with various contemporary Tell enactments or archery contests, in a way parallel to that of the sixteenth-century Robin Hood Play in England, a joint product of an indigenous ballad tradition and the "May Games:"(3) Although one can only speculate here, a proto-dramatic Apfelschu[beta], complete with dummy figure of Tell's son, is well within the range of possibility for late medieval Switzerland, as are other games, mummeries, or tableaux involving the Tell saga. In any case, with the final establishment of Swiss independence through the Swabian War of 1499, a fully dramatic text evolved in Uri, complete with an apparatus to instruct as well as a spectacle to delight.

The printed playscript is 758 verses long, a full 451 of which comprise prologue and epilogue speeches. The last two sections of epilogue material, Der Beschlussz (the Conclusion) and Des Narrenbeschlussz (the Fool's Conclusion) are probably later additions, as I have indicated. I will follow Max Wehrli in not considering them directly part of the play-in-performance.(4) This still leaves some 239 lines of prologue/epilogue material, amounting to more than 40 percent of the whole. This preponderance of didactic, non-dramatic material surrounding the theatrical event, unusual even by medieval standards, is the first thing we must recognize about this deceptively "primitive" play-text. If this material was delivered in its entirety, then the Altdorfer audience was given a virtual primer of Swiss history, the recitation of which must have been fully as important as the action-packed play itself. It is the dialectic of bold deeds and their detailed contextualization which above all characterizes the Urner Tellenspiel.

The play begins with three consecutive Heralds who supply historical background. The action proper, a mere 307 verses, proceeds then through the major incidents of the Tell saga: the instalation of the bailiffs hat, Tell's defiance, his arrest, the "Apple-shot," the storm on the lake, Tell's leap from the boat, and the killing of Gessler culminating in the "obilgatory scene" of the oath of confederation at Rutli. A Fourth Herald, which serves as the epilogue (115 lines), brings the audience up to date, summarizing the intervening history, from the events dramatized to the latest military successes of the Confederation.

The fact that there are three prologue Heralds may in itself be significant since they could conveniently bear the blazons of the three original Forest Cantons, Uri, Schwytz, and Unterwalden, this traditional order being maintained throughout the text (as in 11. 40-41). The Fourth Herald might then represent Luzern, the next canton to join the Confederation (in 1332), thus making the fourth of the Vierwaldstatte. The incorporation of Luzern is the only addition mentioned in the Epilogue, even though the Confederation had twelve member cantons at the time of the play's performance.

The First Herald begins with a prayer to God and a summary of the apple-shooting incident, leading to a rather unusual comparison of the tribulations of Tell with the Rape of Lucretia:
 Dann Lucretia das fromm wyblich bild
 Ward zwungen, drungen gantz vnmilt
 Vnd wider jren willen fibers zyl;
 Verglycht sich wol de[Beta] Thellen spyl,
 Vnd hand beid historien glyche gstalt.

 [For Lucretia that pious model of womankind
 Was forced, so roughly compelled,
 And overcome against her will;
 The Tell affair might well compare with it,
 And both histories take the same form.] (ll. 27-31)

Later, Northern Renaissance artists like Lucas Cranach would take up the Lucretia motif with great enthusiasm during the Reformation. It is interesting to find its use here in the Tellenspiel in a directly political rather than allegorical context, probably betraying northern Italian influences.(5) Tell, needless to say, plays Brutus to his own Lucretia.

Having made a significant equation of the Forest Cantons with early Republican Rome, the Herald outlines in general terms the oppressions of the arrogant Landvogte and returns to the apple-shot and subsequent revenge which the pious Tell "right wisely undertook, as a righteous man in all justice should do" [Darumb gryffts der Thell gar wyslich an,/Als dann billich thut ein bydermann, (ll. 55-56)].

The Second Herald then recounts the folk genealogies of the forest peoples as reflected in the White Book--how the Urner are a remnant of the Gotthi vnd Huni driven out of Italy over the Gotthard Pass in 588 C.E. The folk of Schwytz are said to have come originally from Schweden (this through confusion over their Latin appellation, Schwidones), while the Unterwaldeners are said to be descendants of a Romanized population (as indeed are the Romansh speakers to the east in Grisons).(6)

The Third Herald brings us up to the reign of Charlemagne, who is credited with Christianizing the region in 801, i.e., after his coronation as emperor in Rome by Pope Leo III. The lands later voluntarily submitted to Emperor Rudolf von Hapsburg, here set at 1243, which however, left them open to dynastic ambitions and subsequent oppression by later Hapsburgs. These thirteenth-century oppressors are left somewhat vague as mention is made of the legendary assassinations carried out by Cunno Abatzellen in Unterwalden, and by Tell in Uri, from which individual acts of vengeance "sprang the Confederation." The audience is then directed to witness the play:
 Ir werdends yetz im spyl ba[Beta] verstan.
 Darumb so losend eben vnd wol!

 [You will now understand better in the play.
 Therefore let it proceed well and truly!] (ll. 122-23)

These 124 lines of prologue divided between three speakers are perfectly tolerable to an audience used to oral delivery of all sorts. The dates underscored in the prologue, while not precise, are generally plausible. Only the earliest seems to be off, though the changing tides of Byzantine reconquest and Ostrogoth supremacy in Italy are dimly perceived. The career of Totila is generally accurate, for example, but the St. Gotthard Pass was not opened until the twelfth century. One is reminded of Brecht's technique of inventing quite detailed dates and locales for the scene-headings in his Life of Galileo. What runs as a thread throughout the prologue is a Roman connection, from the Lucretia typology, through the Unterwaldener ancestry, to the seemingly personal conquest of paganism in the area by the new Roman Emperor, Charlemagne. This is evidence for some rather sophisticated political symbology coming over the Gotthard along with southern merchandise.

The Fourth or "Luzern" Herald, serving as epilogue, picks up the historical narrative from 1296, the supposed year of the events just witnessed in the play proper. He makes a point of the Forest Cantons' voluntary submission the following year to the non-Hapsburg Emperor, Adolf of Nassau (reigned 1294-98), earning them the designation of frylut (free people) of the realm. He then proceeds to a virtual litany of Swiss victories, great and small, through the fourteenth and fifteenth centuries, paying particular attention to the decisive engagements of Morgarten (1315) and Sempach (1386), and rising to a rattling crescendo of battles "too many to count" (l. 561). The piece ends as it began, with a prayer of thanksgiving.

Thus the first half of the play's theatrical dialectic is established in what might justly be called "history lessons." The dramatic action proper now presents interesting, if rather primitive features as far as "political drama" is concerned. The first moment belongs to Gessler, Landvogt of the Austrian Duke Albrecht (soon to defeat Kaiser Adolf), who addresses the assembled people of Uri. This gemeind must be an onstage audience, but it is not impossible that the spectators were included in the action by extension, the actors of the gemeind simply positioning themselves as a kind of first row between audience and speaker. This fairly simple but powerful device of medieval drama is one that modern political drama often hopes to recreate, usually unsuccessfully. This gemeind is called upon at regular intervals throughout the performance. From Tell's formulae of address--Jr frommen frouwen, ouch jr mann (You pious women and also you men, l. 300) and Jr erbaren frouwen vnd bydermann (You merciful woman and upright men, l. 439)--it is clear that this on-stage "community" was composed of men and women. Children were present as well since we have Tell's entire brood brought before Gessler in the trial scene. In other words, the stage gemeind represents a genuine cross section of' the Urner population. It is not accidental that they are listed in the Personen dises spyls (Dramatis Personae) as if they were a single, collective dramatic character, unlike Gessler's many henchmen who are not so designated.

Gessler expresses his tyrannical will in a manner more subdued but nonetheless identical to a Herod or a Pharoah in the mystery plays. This crowd scene then dissolves and we see Tell approaching the perplexed Stouffacher and "not liking the situation," as the stage direction specifies. This is not quite the same as the Elizabethan technique of precipitating a pair of main characters out of a large, fluid public scene, but it comes remarkably close. Stouffacher is already complaining of the Landvogt's tyranny, how he has been driven from "house and home"--tryben von hu[Beta] vnd heim (1. 143). During Stouffacher's speech, Erni of Melchtal joins them. There is actually a stage direction to that effect. Erni in turn relates his experience of oppression, how in resisting the impoundment of his father's oxen he had slashed the finger of one of the Landvogt's agents. When Erni fled, his father was arrested and his eyes put out. There is a clear progression from crimes against property to atrocities against the family. Tell stands there as the next victim as acts of oppression pass from aged parent to youngest son. One notices, too, the quite deliberate triplication, mirroring the three prologue Heralds. It is not surprising that like the Heralds, the speakers come from Uri, Schwyz, and Unterwalden respectively.

The playwright has made an important alteration in the White Book account of this incident in which a possibly historical Stouffacher flees to Uri to link up with members of the Furst and Zur Frauen clans, and where a poor fugitive from Melchtal joins them in their compact. In the play, Tell is substituted for the historical, but prosaic, Urner families, achieving a much stronger sense of an original, originating trio.(7) This could well be the first deliberate attempt to fuse together the individual local accounts of the origin of the Confederacy into a single coherent, and in this case, theatrical history.

There is conveyed at the same time, however, a sense of confederate purpose preceding the dramatic events of the Tell saga. Tell moreover points his comrades ahead, toward Rutli, as a place to air their grievances and determine their future course of action (ll. 185-88). The trio then parts after taking an oath of secrecy, each going his separate way. Tell exits to his fateful encounter. The playwright here is working parallel to the historical realities, for some form of confederation had existed before the supposed events of the Tell story, here set at 1296, as evidenced by the 1291 "Everlasting Alliance," itself implying even earlier compacts among the Forest Cantons. It was twenty-five years later, after the supposed life span of Tell, that the Confederation emerged into the full light of history with the Battle of Morgarten and the Agreement of Brunnen. Our play then belies the modern notion of Tell as "founder" of the Confederation. Indeed the play's own 1545 rifle enshrines the logical impossibility of Tell as "first of the Confederates" From the outset of the urdrama, however, we see Tell in the context of a history of oppression. The preliminary exchange of oaths with Stouffacher and Erni, of course, prefigures the great compact at Rutli, but the two scenes together also serve to frame, very strictly, the agon of a single "founding" hero.

The center of the play is taken up with the powerful scenes of the Tell story, the one-on-one conflict of simple freeman and tyrannous bailiff. Here one encounters many interesting indications as to original staging. After giving orders for the raising of his hat, for example, Gessler appears to ride off on a real horse. He is the only character on horseback, which in itself is significant. If the illustrations to Ruf's version of 1545 are any indication, Gessler tries Tell in a typical Thingplatz, a half-square of low stone benches under a large tree, where a rather modest hat elevated on a pole can also be seen.(8) Evidently a wheeled lakeboat was employed for the storm scene, and audiences would certainly not want to be shortchanged in spectacle or athletic feats at this juncture: Nun nimpt der Thell sinen schie[Beta]ziig, als er zu der platten kam vnd sprang zum schiff v[Beta], vnnd/ stie[Beta] das schiff von jm [Now Tell grabs his crossbow as he comes up on the flatstone, and leaps out of the boat, and/shoves the boat away from him (after l. 376)]. Much more elaborate stage ships are well documented for medieval drama.(9) The two complementary shooting scenes would require only a bit of sleight of hand to be fairly convincing, just a little short of stage gunfire in their realistic shock appeal.(10) The Ruf woodcut unabashedly shows Tell shooting Gessler in the back. Presuming some kind of structure or adapted feature of the marketplace to convey the Hohle Gasse, a protruding bolt between the shoulder blades would then be adequately screened as the Gessler-actor rode toward the audience down this "sunken lane" and Tell reared up behind him to shoot. These are technicalities, and largely speculative, but they may be related to ideological concerns as well.

The central Apfelschu[beta] scene is the only area of the Tell material where one encounters what one may call "internal" development. The playwright is competent enough to show Tell's backwoods evasiveness in his confrontation with Heinz Vogeli, the Landvogt's deputy, and, given his articulate presence in the previous scene, his perhaps deliberate employment of the mask of the slow-witted bumpkin when condemned by Gessler:
 Ach herr, thund uwern zorn stillen!
 Wer ich vernunfftig witzig vnd schnell,
 So were ich nit genant der Thell

 [Ah, my Lord, calm your rage!
 If I were foresightful, witty and quick,
 I would not be called the "Tell" (Fool).] (ll.284-86)

This apparently represents an older layer of the tradition where Tell's simplicity was made much of, his very name deriving from dalen, to act childishly.(11) But given the Lucretia reference in the prologue, the playwright could also be recalling the feigned folly of Brutus the Liberator. Tell in any case is a plain-dealer (he would pay homage to the Landvogt but sees no purpose in bowing to a "felt hat"), but his very honesty becomes his undoing.

Tell, of course, is easily trapped in Gessler's sadistic wager, and the play presents a poignant and pathetic scene between father and son, strongly reminiscent of an Abraham and Isaac play. This could have developed out of the ballad passage without direct borrowing from religious drama, but the scene is preceded by a formal planctus on Tell's part, which eventually implicates the gemeind:
 Darumb sehend an,
 Jr frommen frouwen, ouch jr mann,
 Nemmend dise tyranni zu hertzen,
 Hand ein mitlyden vnd mit mir schmertzen,
 Bittend ouch Gott truwlich fur mich,
 Das ouch Jesus Christ erbarme sich
 Vnd mich behut vnd min liebstes kind!
 O jr v[Beta]erwelten lieben frund,
 Zu sterben wer mir ein kleine bu[Beta],
 Dan das ich zu minem kind schiessen mu[Beta].

 [Therefore look on,
 You pious women and also you men,
 Taking this tyranny to heart,
 Act with compassion and feel my pain,
 Praying truly to God for me as well,
 That Jesus Christ himself show mercy
 And guard me and my dearest child!
 Oh, you dear, choice friends,
 To die would be a light penance for me,
 But that I must take aim at my child!] (11. 299-308)

This is an extraordinary passage in several respects. One can see how the appeal to the onstage audience, including particular "friends," i.e. the named characters of the second scene, opens out to include the actual audience. We are called upon to witness this tyranny and commiserate with the suffering father. Catharsis is directly solicited, with no aesthetic distancing. This is very much like Christ's appeal to the spectators from the arms of the cross in the York Cycle. An even more striking analogy, chiefly because of its simultaneously political function, is the Ta'ziyeh, the Shiite "Passion Plays" of eighteenth-century Persia. These brief scenes separately dramatize every suffering and humiliation of Imam Hussain and his followers at the hands of the annihilating Sunnis, with constant rupturing of the dramatic fiction to elicit powerful responses of sorrow in the audience.(12)

The Urner gemeind is now emotionally preconditioned to behold the meister schutz, the equivalent of a miracle in a saint's play, though of course here an earthly demonstration of superior skill. (The ballad gives the distance as either 120 schritt [paces, B] or 130 schou [shoe-lengths, C] and medieval apples were, of course, somewhat smaller than our hybrids.) From the moment of this miraculous delivery the play moves on with great speed. Gessler perverts the Biblical wisdom that "the truth shall make you free" tricking Tell into admitting the reason for the second bolt he had placed in his baldric. The ensuing "beats" of action then quite deliberately rely upon broad, spectacular effects, as words are now faithless or impotent. Tell is thrown down, bound, and led to the boat in a scene closely reminiscent of Christ's treatment at the hands of His torturers. The storm scene and the release of Tell is accomplished in under twenty lines of dialogue, and the assassination of Gessler is portrayed without any words at all:
 Also zoch der Thell den berg vf gegen Schwytz vnnd verbarg sich by der
 holen gassen, daher der/vogt ryten mu[Beta]t, dann er fur noch ein klein
 vff dem/wasser, do lender er, vnd sitzt vff sin pferdt, vnnd/als er in die
 holen gassen kumpt, so schu[Beta]t jn der/Thell zetod.

 [Then Tell climbs the mountain by Schwyz and conceals himself by the sunken
 lane, through which the bailiff must ride. Then he (the bailiff) sails a
 bit more over the water, lands there and mounts his horse, and then as he
 comes into the sunken lane, Tell shoots him dead.] (after l. 378)

Ruf, and Schiller after him, would feel compelled to give Tell a soliloquy in the Hohle Gasse. The original Urner audience watched the revenge being accomplished by performers acting out the event in complete, one could almost say "religious," silence. One could well argue that the dramatic moment was too important for dialogue, that the witnessing of the deed took precedence over representing the private emotions of the agonists themselves. This holds true even if one credits the textual underdevelopment of this episode to the peculiar genesis of the playscript as outlined above. The working of justice is here seen in all its cruel purity, in strictly theatrical terms.

The play then moves Tell immediately back to the space of the gemeind, where language has value again, and where Tell's friends greet him with genuine relief. Mirroring the entrance of Erni of Melchtal in the earlier trio scene, the stage direction now calls for Kuno of Abaltzellen to join the group during Tell's recapitulation of his escape and revenge. Kuno in turn relates his killing of the Landvogt of Unterwalden, how upon finding his wife forced to bathe the lecherous bailiff, he "blessed" him "warmly" with his woodcutter's axe. An extraneous seventeen-line narrative at this point may seem anticlimactic, but the events are certainly lurid enough to command attention, and the report moreover amplifies the Hapburg assault upon the Alpine family--neither houses, oxen, fathers, children, nor wives are safe. The inclusion of Kuno also reflects a conscious attempt to bring the major revenge-heroes together, to acknowledge, as it were, a strong rival tradition (Kuno, remember, was mentioned by the Third Herald).(13) The Kuno saga apparently never enjoyed dramatic presentation. Perhaps it was too close to a fabliau situation to guarantee a suitably elevated tone in live performance. Nevertheless, as a simple narrative it does do dramatic work, especially if Kuno's axe is handy to punctuate his tale (all we have of "comic relief").(14) The Kuno episode also helps move the ensemble on to the Rutli scene with an even stronger sense of common danger, Stouffacher and Uly of Grub being the chief advocates for united action in repudiation of the lords:
 Nun gond sy zum rechten hufen des volcks, vnd
 redt der Thell zu der gmeind.

 [Now they go to the group of people on the right
 and Tell speaks to the community.] (after 1. 438)

Here again we have the probable incorporation of the actual spectators into the dramatic fiction. Indeed, the final two stage directions (Die gemeind redt einheilligklich [The community says with one accord] and Der Thell gibt jnen den eyd [Tell administers the oath to them]), imply something more. It may not be nostalgia for the 1960s and its ideal of audience participation to suggest that the four lines of oath which Tell administers, the last lines of the play proper, were delivered by all, actors and spectators alike, in a genuinely communal, even sacramental act of national rededication:
 Das wir keinen tyrannen mee dulden,
 Verspechend wit by unsern hulden.
 Also sol Gott ratter mit sim sun,
 Ouch heiliger Geist vns helffen nun.

 [That we shall not suffer a tyrant anymore,
 We promise, on our honor.
 And so may God the Father with his Son
 And the Holy Ghost now help us.] (Il. 465-68)

This moment of participatory "political theater" has definite parallels in religious drama, for example, in the exhortations to the audience to sing the Te Deum at the end of liturgical dramas and the later English mystery cycles. German Easter plays frequently end with a joint singing of the vernacular hymn "Christ is Risen," for instance in the Innsbrucker Osterspiel (1391)--Vnd syngit all gliche:/ Christ is enstandin yon hymmelriche, etc. [And all sing as one: Christ is risen, from Heaven ..., (11.1316-17)], and the Redentiner Osterspiel (1464)--Des wille wy uns vrowen in allen landen/ Unde synghe: Cristus is up ghestanden! [Therefore we would rejoice in all places and sing: Christ is up risen!, (ll.2024-25)].(15)

At the climax of the Urner Tellenspiel the Trinity is employed to seal the eternal compact of the Three Forest Cantons. And the final image of Tell with his three fingers raised in oath-taking, echoed by both the fictive audience on the stage and the actual audience surrounding the playing area, can not help but also conjure up images of the only begotten Son, the Suffering Servant and his Church.

Let me conclude with some broader observations on this play as a medieval and as a "political" drama. As a medieval drama, it inevitably shares many characteristics of the religious stage, as I have noted throughout this essay. At the other end of the Vierwaldstattersee was one of the most important sites for religious drama in Europe. Luzern had a Passion Play that was performed regularly through the second half of the fifteenth-century, survived the turmoil of the Reformation, and in 1583 left behind the most complete document of medieval theatrical production that we possess.(16) The Urner playwright could hardly have been ignorant of this tradition. Indeed, the Tellenspiel betrays qualities of a Passion or Saint's Play with its exemplary protagonist, multiple persecutions, verbal abuse by a tyrant, miraculous deliveries, and an apotheosis of sorts--even if we did not know that Tellskapellen with their annual processions were to become part of the Swiss landscape later on in the century. Unlike Robin Hood, Tell seems to have acquired distinctly hagiographic aspects. Stress is continually placed upon his piety throughout the play. From (pious) is the adjective most frequently applied to him, and one which he uses himself to address the gemeind. He is the bydermann, the upright man. We are some distance from from the Wilhelm Thell was ein zornig man [William Tell was an angry man, (C, 6a)] of the ballad. The fact that the play was likely performed in the Altdorfer Marketplace, the very site of Tell's greatest trial, infuses it with an aura comparable to that of a Saint's Play being performed in or before the church containing his or her relics. Its highly symmetrical patterning also betrays deep affinities with religious art.

And yet the world of the Tellenspiel is decidedly secular. Deeply pious though its Swiss characters may be, there is no trace of supernatural intervention anywhere in the play. There is not even a hint of demonic forces around Gessler. Though the Forest Cantons were to remain staunchly Catholic in the decades to follow, there is almost a Protestant chasteness in the play's separation of the Christians present on the stage from the panoply of Christian mythology. There are no appeals to the Virgin or the saints.(17) The deeds of Tell stand out as deeds of an individual realized strictly through his own powers. The play enacts the spectacle of the athlete more than of the saint, or more accurately, the spectacle of the athlete as saint. Such a thoroughgoing secularity that is not comic in impulse is indeed unusual in early sixteenth-century drama. The politically oriented morality plays of such English poets as Skelton and Lindsay are still heavily infused with personifications of spiritual forces. Only in the French tradition do we find anything remotely comparable. The mid-fifteenth-century Mystere de S. Louis and Mystere du siege d'Orleans are in essence history plays, imbued with a nearly modern sense of nationalism, rather than mysteres in the older sense. And yet they both resort to the supernatural. The former features diableries and makes much of the saintly king's posthumous miracles. The latter, the first Joan of Arc play, portrays la Pucelle fairly accurately and unsensationally but includes, as well, several scenes in Heaven and repeated interventions by Joan's angelic patron Michael. The French warrior maiden, for all her "realism" is unlike the pious alpine athlete as her historical actions remain circumscribed by the conventions of earlier religious drama.(18)

What is clearly appropriated from the practice of religious drama in the Tellenspiel, however, are techniques for implicating the audience, involving them in an alternating current of interest, now as spectators, now as participants. Indeed, this play may be said to have taken these relatively automatic effects to a new level of conscious development, not to predispose one for future bliss through examination of conscience--all rather abstract despite the high emotional involvement of medieval audiences generally--but to root one in real, local history and prepare one for action in this present world. It must not be forgotten that the Tellenspiel is a demonstration, almost a celebration of salutary violence, free from judicial systems or specific archaic codes, of assassination as totally justifiable political action. (Gessler is an outsider, true, but he is no pagan or infidel assumed to be subhuman). The play is agit prop in a nearly pure form, aiming at the empowerment of a present population, with all due deference to Christ and the Trinity, but with no apocalyptic overtones. In this it is unmedieval, only qualifiedly Christian, and more radical and "modern" than any other expressions of peasant rebellion in its era.

At the same time, the play displays a certain self-consciousness. It appears to be shaping the Tell mythos, critiquing it in quite deliberate ways, contextualizing the saga material in a much larger picture. For all the excitement of his deeds performed before our eyes, Tell is eminently self-effacing and ultimately effacable. In the end the hero of the play is the gemeind, a lesson that the framing speeches, those "history lectures" of the Heralds, very strictly determine.

Lope de Vega in Fuente Ovejuna (1612-14) or Gerhart Hauptmann in Die Weber (1892) have variously been credited with creating the first collective hero in drama. I would put forward, rather, the Urner Tellenspiel, a recognizably modern political play that knows perfectly well what it is doing ideologically and dramatically, erecting a nation on the shoulders of a fabulous giant who is, in fact, its own collective past. The Tellenspiel surfaced at a crucial period in the evolution of Swiss national consciousness as the Confederation was nearing the limit of its expansionist, militaristic phase during the mid- to late fifteenth century. What would prove to be the last Hapsburg threat, that of Maximilian I, had been handily disposed of in a single year of fighting, 1499. The incorporations of Basel and Schaffhausen (1501) and Appenzell (1513), events which bracket the composition of our play, had completed the Eidgenossenschaft of thirteen confederated states. Yet the bubble was soon to burst. First would come retreat from the international arena after the Battle of Marignano (1515), then the pangs of civil war during the Zwinglian Reformation. It might not be fanciful to see in the Tellenspiel, beneath its ideological certainties, traces of guilt and seeds of self-doubt. The desire for renewal, to make chronological sense of the founding fathers, to recover a purer sense of the gemeind, these all might be, already, nostalgic. This might better account for the almost fulsome piety in the character of Tell, who goes about his deeds with all the solemnity of a churchman. There is much more of the "happy warrior" in the Bundeslied where military campaigning is likened to a May Dance:
 Si zugen dutch ein grunen walt,
 sij waren frolich iung vnd alt,
 die panner detten sij schwingen,
 auf einer grunen haiden, die was beit,
 si zugen frolich an den streitt,
 als wolten si zum tantz springen.

 [They marched through a greenwood,
 they were jolly both young and old,
 they waved their banners;
 upon a green meadow that was wide,
 they marched joyfully into battle,
 as if they were leaping into a dance.] (B, 25)

Our playwright, by contrast, seems to look forward to a "kinder and gentler Eidgenossenschaft" but not, it would seem, with total confidence.


University of Michigan


(1) Max Wehrli, ed., Das Lied von der Entstehung der Eidgenossenschaft/Das Urner Tellenspiel. Quellenwerk zur Entstehung der Schweizerischen Eidgenossenschaft, Abteilung III, Band 2, Erster Tell (Aarau: H. R. Sauerlander & Co., 1952). Other edition consulted: Jakob Baechtold, ed., Schweizerische Schauspiele des sechszehten Jahrhunderts (Zurich: J. Huber, 1893). All translations are the author's own, preparatory to a fully rhymed, English acting version. For early Swiss history and the Tell mythos see E. Bonjour, H. S. Offler, and G. R. Potter, A Short History of Switzerland (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1952); W. D. McCracken, The Rise of the Swiss Republic [1901] (New York: AMS Press, 1970); Wilhelm Oechsli, History of Switzerland, 1499-1914 (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1922); Anton Gisler, Die Tellfrage: Versuch ihrer Geschichte und Losung (Bern: K. J. Wyss, 1895); and the richly illustrated Tell: Werden und Wandern eines Mythos, ed. Lilly Stunzi (Bern/Stuttgart: Hallwag Verlag, 1973).

(2) Much of what follows is indebted to Wehrli with reference as well to Jakob Baechtold, Geschichteder deutschen Literatur in der Schweiz (Frauenfeld: J. Huber, 1892); Wilhelm Widmann, Wilhelm Tells dramatische Laufbahn und politische Sendung (Berlin: F. Fontane, 1925); and Elsbeth Merz, Tell im Drama vor und nach Schiller (Bern: Paul Haupt, 1925).

(3) See especially David Wiles, The Early Plays of Robin Hood (Cambridge: D. S. Brewer, 1981).

(4) Given the presence of sermons and other religious ceremonies around medieval religious drama generally, there is no inherent reason why the Beschlussz could not have been performed. It does, in fact, take the form of a sermon, complete with thirty-odd citations from both the Old and New Testaments. Its speaker would naturally be in religious garb. Des Narrenbeschlussz is not particularly funny, and betrays the same churchly hand. The very inclusion of the ubiquitous epilogue figure of the Narr, however, is argument for an intent, at least, to graft this material onto a performance. For the "Fool's Closing" see Heinz Wyss, Der Narr im schweizerischen Drama des 16. Jahrhunderts (Bern: Paul Haupt, 1959), 78-85.

(5) For a recent study see Ian Donaldson, The Rapes of Lucretia: A Myth and its Transformations (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1982) which does not, however, mention the Tell Play. See also Stephanie H. Jed, Chaste Thinking: The Rape of Lucretia and the Birth of Humanism (Bloomington: Indian University Press, 1989).

(6) McCracken, 79.

(7) Eighteenth- and nineteenth-century scholars could turn up no trace of a Tell, Thell, or similar family in Canton Uri. Indeed there is a remarkable absence of even the slightest of clues upon which to build any hypothesis of an historical Tell. It is likely that an Urner audience of 1512 would have been even more aware of the lack of Tell descendants in their midst and, consequently, would have had a different relationship to Tell from their relationship to important historical families like the Stauffacher. Perhaps they already believed in Tell in the same way we "believe" in Santa Claus.

(8) Reproduced in Widmann, 8-9. Although these woodcuts form a continuous narrative, it is impossible to prove that they were in any way influenced by early Tell drama. They remain, however, a primary visual source for reconstructing the original drama and have many interesting features. For example, in common with the early Etterlin woodcut, the Ruf panels portray a relatively young and beardless Tell, in contrast to our modern, largely Schillerian image of a middle-aged hero.

(9) For the German tradition of stage ships, see esp. Max Herrmann, Forschungen zur deutschen Theatergeschichte des Mittelalters und der Renaissance (Berlin: Weidmannsche Buchhandlung, 1914), 87-89.

(10) For realistic archery in the Luzern Passion Play, see Peter Meredith and John E. Tailby, eds., The Staging of Religious Drama in Europe in the Later Middle Ages: Texts and Documents in English Translation (Kalamazoo: Medieval Institute Publications, 1983), 118.

(11) McCracken, 97.

(12) See especially Peter J. Chelkowski, ed., Ta'ziyeh: Ritual and Drama in Iran (New York: New York University Press, 1979). I wish to thank Prof. Milla Riggio for introducing the Ta'ziyeh to specialists in medieval drama through the conference she organized at Trinity College, Hartford in May 1988.

(13) One of the best studies of the Kuno saga is Rudolf Hallo, "Vom Vogt von Wolfenschiessen, dem mit der Axt das Bad gesegnet wurde." Schweizerisches Archiv fur Volkskunde 27 (1926): 1-26. The avenging hero is also known as Baumgarten (as in Schiller), and his wife was sometimes depicted as actually bathing with the Landvogt.

(14) The use of internal story-telling has long been part of modern political drama, Brecht's Scene 8 (Finnish Tales) of Puntila and His Hired Man being a prime example.

(15) Das Innsbrucker Osterspiel/ Das Osterspiel von Muri, ed. Rudolf Meier (Stuttgart: Philipp Reclam, 1962), 110, and Das Reddentiner Osterspie, ed. Brigitta Schottmann (Stuttgart: Philipp Reclam, 1975), 170.

(16) Baechtold, Geschichte, 207.

(17) It is impossible to tell if appeals to the Virgin or the saints, or other "popish" elements, were purged preparatory to printing the Tellspiel in Zwinglian Zurich. Certainly no specifically Protestant propaganda was added. It is probably safest to assume that the printed text accurately represents the Urner performance tradition.

(18) For "secular" French saint's plays, see especially Lynette R. Muir, "The Saint Play in Medieval France" in the The Saint Play in Medieval Europe, ed. Clifford Davidson (Kalamazoo: Medieval Institute Publications, 1986), 123-80. One might also mention other fifteenth-century proto-history plays or "secular" mysteries in the French tradition, Eustace Marcade's Vengeance de Nostre Seigneur Jhesucrist sur les Juifs par Vespasien et Titus (c. 1420) and Jacques Milet's Historie de la destruction de Troye le grant (1450-52).
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Date:Jun 22, 2000
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