William Tell, by Friedrich Schiller
by Paul Mathers
Oh, let’s get this out of the way first:
Yes, it was made into an opera by Rossini.
The play takes place in Switzerland while under Austrian occupation. I found it to be gripping with action, but also posed questions to the audience about liberty, morality, and the cost of revolution. While, perhaps, I might not be entirely on-board with Schiller’s conclusions at times, I loved the manner in which they were framed.
The play begins with a storm and a man on the run from the Viceroy for having cleaved the head of one of his men for attempting to rape his wife, or something like that. The boatman is afraid of the storm, but William Tell, our larger-than-life folk hero, is not afraid to row the man to safety.
The Viceroy, in a bid to be the object of the people’s worship, decides to puts his own cap on a pole in the town square and force everyone who passes it to kneel. Instead, everyone avoids it and takes much longer routes on their way through town. William Tell is taking his son Walter to bring grandfather a basket of goodies or something like that. William Tell did not get the cap memo. He walks by and is stopped by the knights guarding the cap.
The governor comes by and questions Tell, who pleads ignorance rather than disrespect. For some reason, the conversation drifts to Tell’s archery prowess and the most famous scene is set. Tell is to shoot an apple off the head of his son. This is to test his ability, but, at the same time, to humiliate him and display the power of the governor over the people. It is, in effect, a terrorist act on the part of the government.
What is so often lost in retellings of the story is the bravery of WALTER Tell. The boy is the only person not protesting, having full faith in the ability of his father. He refuses to be bound and pledges to stand still as the arrow flies towards him.
Tell consents under the duress of the tyrant. Takes an arrow, puts a second arrow in his belt, takes 80 paces, and shoots the apple. You might expect cheers, but the reaction of the crowd is more one of relief and a bit of fear. The governor asks Tell what the second arrow was for. Tell, after being promised not to be killed for the answer, admits that if he had missed and hit his son, that second arrow was for the governor. As you might well agree, the endurance of this story is on account of the brilliance of its dramatic tension.
In the end, the people overthrow the tyrants, Tell becomes a hero in spite of an act of moral turn-around which I sure affected a good deal of after-theater discussion over the years. (As an aside of trivia, I am given to understand that Hitler finally banned the play after an assassination attempt which bore resemblance to Tell’s successful assassination.)
Again, this was one of my favorite plays. Dr. Eliot even managed to locate a decent translation. I would love to produce this play, although, in reading it, I was a little surprised to find that it is very often produced. My surprise is over the production demands of the piece. I would imagine that this would either be an extraordinarily expensive production (a fierce storm occurring onstage, many shifting scenes through great outdoorsy vistas like only the 19th century could do) or a bare-bones production where the changes are suggested in imaginative ways. I almost think the latter would be more fun.
Fresh from reading it, I would unhesitatingly put it on my “You must read it before you die” list. However, as I often say about reading plays, reading plays is a fine thing to do, but one mustn’t forget that they are meant to be seen.