The Burgtheater, the national theatre of Austria in Vienna, traces its roots back to 1741, when the conversion of the Ball House, a stable-like building used for ball games, was undertaken to house the Royal Theatre at the Castle. The Ball House was built as early as 1540, during the reign of Emperor Ferdinand I, in the lower pleasure garden of the former principal imperial palace of the Habsburg dynasty, after the collapse of the old Ball House due to a massive fire in 1526. The new theatre was the creation of Empress Maria Theresa, who wanted a theatre next to her palace.
Unfortunately, despite the royal support, the new theatre struggled to establish itself, which continued till 1776, when Emperor Josef II, the eldest son of Empress Maria Theresa, turned the building into the official court and national theatre, the Hofburgtheater, the first of its kind in German-speaking Europe.
Emperor Joseph II had a different idea. He regarded the theatre as more than a recreation centre, rather a noble institution, by means of which social Enlightenment can be achieved.
After years of discussion and planning, he decided to construct a set of magnificent buildings for his dream project, the Kaiserforum or Emperor’s Forum, a landmark town planning project, a monumental complex intended to unite the entire ensemble of the Habsburg on Ringstrasse. At the same time, he also commissioned Gottfried Semper and Karl Hasenauer as architects for the construction of the new theatre building at today’s Burgtheater site. Finally, the theatre was moved to a new building on 14 October 1888.
Built in Neo-Baroque style, the Burgtheater is the monumental manifestation of the late Ringstrasse era, complete with the ascending boxes, galleries and tiers, proudly reﬂecting the grandeur of aristocratic and courtly traditions.
Apart from that, the ascending boxes, galleries and tiers of the Burgtheater pompously reflected the dignity of aristocracy. But the unique auditorium had a number of fundamental constructional defects. Its beautiful lyre-shaped arrangement of the boxes proved to be detrimental to acoustic and visual effects, creating an imbalance between the relatively small floor space and the height of the room, along with the arrangement of the fourth gallery. However, all those constructional defects were subsequently corrected by Emil von Förster in 1898, who altered the lyre-shaped box configuration and completely redesigned the fourth gallery and the side rooms.
The responsibility of artistic decoration of the interior of the theatre was primarily entrusted to the art studio of the Klimt Brothers and Franz Matsch. Young Gustav Klimt, who a decade later was to become famous and president of the Vienna Secession, painted the ceiling of the magnificent stairwells, along with his brothers, Ernst and Franz Matsch. Their work was profusely appreciated by Emperor Franz Joseph, who awarded them the Golden Cross of Merit. It is interesting to note that a few years ago, the preliminary drawings for the ceiling paintings were discovered in the attic of the theatre.
During the last lap of World War II, the Burgtheater was severely damaged in a bombing raid by America on 12 March 1945 and a month later a fire of unknown origin destroyed both the stage and the auditorium on 12 April 1945. After the end of the war, it was decided to rebuild the invaluable building and Architects Michael Engelhart and Otto Niedermoser were commissioned to redesign the new house. However, immediately after the cessation of hostilities and much before the proposed new building took shape, the Burgtheater found refuge in the Ronacher and presented the premiere of Grillparzer’s Sappho on 30th April 1945. The theatre was rebuilt between 1953 and 1955, equipped with state-of-the-art technology including a revolving stage by Sepp Nordegg. The new Burgtheater was opened on 15th October 1955 with the presentation of König Ottokars Glück und Ende, a tragedy in five acts written by the renowned 19th-century Austrian writer Franz Grillparzer.
The new Burgtheater, a cultural bastion in a city replete with historical significance, symbolises the identity of the Republic of Austria and is reckoned one of the world’s most important theatres.