Since last Autumn (2004), one of the most outstanding theatrical performances in Britain has been Michael Grandage’s production of Schiller’s early play Don Carlos, with Derek Jacobi as King Philip of Spain. It began at the Crucible Theatre, Sheffield (in September 2004), transferred to London in February 2005, played to packed and enthusiastic audiences in the West End’s Gielgud Theatre (till the end of April), and was subsequently broadcast by BBC Radio 3. Jokes were made about Schiller transferring from Scheffield to Schaftesbury Avenue, and new productions of his later masterpiece Mary Stuart followed.
Libris knew nothing of all this when, to mark this year’s 200th anniversary of Schiller’s early death (in May 1805, aged 44), it commissioned a new translation of his last completed play, William Tell. Libris did this because no new full edition had appeared in English for over thirty years of this popular play whose climax – a father forced to shoot an apple from his own son’s head – everybody knows from a picture or children’s book, and because, despite this, this most approachable and straightforwardly political of Schiller’s plays remains very little known in the English-speaking world. Could this be because ‘our island story’ does not on the whole involve the horrors and humiliation of long, oppressive occupation, which is the setting of Schiller’s play?
Whether or not this is the case, the speech of Stauffacher, one of the leaders of the Swiss against Austrian oppression, in Act Two –
‘A thousand years this land is ours, by right
Of settlement – and shall this princely slave
Come from abroad, forge chains for us to bear
And shame us on this soil we call our own?
Is there no help against such brazen force?
No, there are limits to the tyrants’ power.
When a man finds that justice is denied him,
When he can bear no more, then he will look
To Heaven at last with bold assurance
And claim from Heaven his eternal rights,
Which hang there like the very stars themselves,
Inalienable, indestructible.’ –
is so famous throughout Europe and beyond as an appeal to both individual and national liberation that even a reader who has never come across it before will seem to recognize it. It is as celebrated and noble a piece of Schiller as his Ode to Joy, set by Beethoven.
This nobility could be seen to be a problem when moving from the chiaroscuro of the equally noble Don Carlos and its menacing claustrophobia to the light, fresh air and mountain-and-lake scenery and sounds of William Tell – which is a popular and ultimately festive ‘people’s play’, written to involve as large a cast as possible in an enactment of collective liberation. It can all seem a little too good to be true. However, there is nothing formulaic or static about the issues fought out in Tell. There are no ready-made heroes; political and narrative development are shown through the lives of representative but real people. Tell himself, who commits the ultimate political act of assassination, is by nature a private person upon whom action is imposed by historical circumstance.
William Tell shares with Don Carlos the theme of liberation from arbitrary rule. Its celebration of democratic freedom and human rights had to be watered down for performance at the Weimar Court Theatre. Only the outcomes of the two plays are the opposite – in Don Carlos failure and tragedy, in Tell success and celebration. As readers of literature we are more familiar with the first, but as human beings we can welcome the second. Sadly, we have been programmed to think of chocolate-boxes when we think of Switzerland. But a good production of William Tell works against this and conveys the physicality and rusticity of this part history-part legend which both marks and enacts the achievement of one of the first fundamental steps to democracy in European history.
The translator, Francis Lamport, was responsible for the translation of Schiller’s great trilogy Wallenstein (Penguin Classics), which was used in the famous Royal Shakespeare Company production some years ago. His translations of Schiller’s Robbers and Mary Stuart are also Penguin Classics.
Lithograph by Ernst Milster taken from a posthumous oil-painting of Schiller by Emma Körner, reproduced by kind permission of the Schiller-Nationalmuseum, Marbach am Neckar.