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Saving the Drottningholm Court Theater

Stage, Drottningholms SlottsteaterThe idea of a time capsule is exciting for kids, but the things that people put in time capsules, when they are doing it intentionally, will probably never be of much interest to anyone. It's the unintentional time capsules, like what was buried at Pompeii, that prove fascinating. There is such a thing, although not quite that old, in the suburbs of Stockholm. In imitation of the Bourbon kings of France, the royal family of Sweden, just like many others in Europe in the 18th century, built a Versailles-style palace and gardens in a place called Drottningholm. In the 1760s, Queen Lovisa Ulrika commanded an architect named Carl Fredrik Adelcrantz to build a Baroque theater for the court at Drottningholm, to replace one that had burned down. The court theater had machinery and equipment built by an imported Italian machinist named Donato Stopani, representing the best of Baroque theatrical art at the time, moving waves, trapdoors, cloud cars, lighting machinery, wind and thunder apparatus, and machines for quick set changes. Machine plays, ballets, and operas in the French style were produced there up until the death of King Gustaf III, and in the 1790s the Drottningholm theater went permanently dark.

There it sat, virtually undisturbed because it was sealed up and tucked away safely on the royal grounds, until the 1920s, when it was studied by a historian named Agne Beijer. It was literally a time capsule, with 15 complete sets from the 18th century and another score of incomplete ones, all the machinery, the original stage lit by wax candles, and a history of live performance under the layers of dust. Since most of the Baroque theaters in France by this time had been destroyed, people interested in French Baroque theater started to go to Sweden to study the place. Since 1922, there have been a few productions most years, generally in the summer, for audiences at Drottningholm. On an improbable car trip that Mrs. Ionarts and I made several years ago, from Paris all the way up to Stockholm, we made our way out to Drottningholm and saw the place, but as it was winter, there were no productions to be seen.

Now it comes to my attention that the Drottningholms Slottsteater is having to scale back its performance calendar because state funding is drying up. I didn't think such a thing could happen in Sweden, but the directorial staff has made a plea for international donations to help the theater cover the gap in funding. The Swedish Royal Opera used to support Drottningholm, too, and did a guest production at the theater every year. Since 2003, that source of funding has been reduced, and the government subsidy has not been adjusted, which effectively means that it is shrinking because of inflation. As a result, as a letter from the director of Drottningholm called Sleeping Beauty explains, the theater has had to cut back on its performing activities.

Clearly, they need a group like the American Friends of Versailles for Drottningholm. There must be one or two Ionarts readers who are not impoverished artist types, and we hope that one of you will get this organized (and support the Sveriges Teatermuseum, which has a collection of historical theater items, while you're at it). When you need to fly a star lecturer to Stockholm for the fundraiser, you know my e-mail address.

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