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The Urner Tellenspiel of 1512: Strategies ofEarly Political Drama Martin W. Walsh The early sixteenth-century text known as the Urner Tellspiel or Tellenspiel (The Canton Uri TellPlay) has been called the earliest political drama of the German language.1 Given Switzerland's role as the avant-garde ofWestern democracy, it might well be considered the first purely secular, political drama ofWestern 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, postReformation version that has received the lion's share of critical attention among scholars ofthe 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, beginningwith the tyrannies ofdieAustrian Landvogt (bailif) Gessler,particularly his arrogant gesture of placing his hat aloft on a pole in the marketplace ofAltdorf and compelling me Swiss to do it homage. When the renowned marksman Tell ignores the object, he is arrested and die 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 155 156Comparative Drama shot (der Apfelschuf,) but when asked why he had readied an additional crossbow bolt, he replies that if he had injured his son, the second bolt wouldhavebeenfordieLandvogtTellismenled awayin chainstoalakeboat. A fierce storm,however, soon breaks over Lake Lucerne (Vterwaldstatersee) and none ofthe men-at-arms are capable ofhandling die 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 shelfof rock (site of the present Tell Chapel), leaps to safety while snatching up his crossbow, and shoves die boat back into the turbulentwaters.The boat eventuallylands and Tell heads off the party and manages to ambush and kill the Landvogt in a sunken lane (die Hohlegasse) near Küssnacht. Tell thus becomes a hero of the Swiss resistance, newly enkindled by the semi-legendary oath ofconfederation on Rudi field. The consensus as to the facts about and reasonable suppositions regarding the text ofthe Urner Tellenspielare 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. Thiswas apparently added after the crisis to Swiss confidence occasioned bythe 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 playwas"performed in Uri" as Friess' tide page affirms. An internal reference to the Winter campaign (Winterzug) of 1511 provides a firm terminus ante quern. 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 , aswell, thatthere mayhavebeen an earlier dramatic kernel, namely, the famous Apfelschuf,. Two distinct lines of source material appear to have influenced the play. One is the WhiteBookofSarnen, a chroniclecompiled between 1470 Martin W. Walsh157 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...


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