by Friedrich Schiller
When on Alpine heights
The beacons all are kindled and shine forth
And tyrants' strongholds fall in smoking ruins,
Then shall the Switzers to your cottage come
And bear the joyous tidings to your ear:
So, bright in your dark night, shall freedom dawn.
- Wilhelm Tell, Schiller (lines 745-750)
Seldom does a play include fewer scenes or lines for the title character, yet Wilhelm Tell is in few scenes and has relatively little to say in this great play, the last completed, by Friedrich Schiller. Nature looms as the play begins during a tempest on Lake Lucerne when Tell braves the angry waves to row to safety a peasant who is pursued by the Governor's horsemen. "The lake may take pity on him; but the Governor, never," says Tell. And yes, there is the famous scene where Tell refuses to bow to the "hat", the symbol of repressive Habsburg power, and is in turn forced to shoot the apple off his son's head. And there is the ultimate act which makes him a patriotic hero when he kills the Governor Gessler, the imperial representative hated by Tell's fellow countrymen and women. Beyond that the scenes in this play demonstrate the importance of those countrymen and their closeness to the land and traditions of their forefathers.
This is a powerful romantic drama about the desire for freedom, but it is also an Arcadian idyll that presents the best of nature. It seems almost Rousseauian in the opening scenes that are set in a seeming "state of nature". Eden like as the country may be it is also beset by tyranny from the dreaded imperial Hapsburg empire. We see the attraction this life has for Ulrich von Rudenz, the nephew of Baron von Attinghausen. While Attinghausen is a patriot his nephew is attracted to the other side and is brought back to support his countrymen only through the intervention of his love for young Berta. The importance of Berta and Lady Gertrud in their influence over the men closest to them is worth noting.
Schiller's play, the culmination of his dramatic art, is a joy to read. Over the years it, along with other plays by Schiller, has found its way to the operatic stage, in this case through the pen of Rossini, while Verdi was attracted to other of Schiller's works. While the large cast and number of different scenic locations make this a difficult work to stage I could not help thinking that we are overdue for a cinematic traversal of this tremendous literary resource.
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