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A tiny stage fit for a king

SITTING in the Drottningholm Court Theatre is like being shrunk to the size of a pea and placed in one of those large, white, sugar eggs sold at Easter time - the ones with paper cut-out scenes inside. This delightful theater-in-miniature takes up a tiny corner on the sumptuous grounds of Drottningholm Palace.

King Carl XVI Gustav and family have made this their official residence since 1981. The handsome Baroque-style palace stands on the banks of Lake M"alaren, just outside Stockholm.

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But we have to go back several generations to thank Queen Louisa Ulrika for the tiny theater. Drottningholm was a wedding gift to Louisa from her father-in-law upon her engagement to Crown Prince Adolph Frederick. But this whittled-down Versailles just wasn't enough to make Louisa feel comfy.

Her move from Berlin to Stockholm was in some ways a bit of a culture shock. Her majesty was not amused by the long miserable winters and especially the general lack of artistic sophistication at the Swedish court.

Becoming Queen of Sweden brought her some power, but not the power to alter the weather. She did, however, have a few things to say about the arts here - or lack thereof.

Louisa promptly had a little theater built on the grounds and proceeded to bring in French theatrical and Italian opera troupes - the prevailing ideals - to teach the Swedes a few things about real culture. The theater was completed in 1754.

After some years of success, it burned to the ground in 1762 when a young candle-bearer stumbled and fell.

The queen summoned court architect Carl Fredrik Adelcrantz to the drawing board when the ashes were barely cool. With spareness of design and a good dose of Scandinavian thrift, Adelcrantz completed the theater four years later. It stands today much as it did in 1766.

The simple, classic, pale yellow fa,cade warmed by four large carriage lanterns is otherwise unadorned. Only when you step inside, with the scrutinizing eye of the sun as your detective, is Adelcrantz's bag of tricks revealed. Illusion here is not confined to the stage.

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The auditorium itself is a kind of theater within a theater. Most of the decoration is painted. Faux marble columns and pedestals support the walls; papier m^ach'e ``marble'' nonstructural brackets are mounted under boxes; there are doors that won't open. The whole effect is one of trompe l'oeil with touches of whimsy.

On stage, Italian pantomime, opera, French plays, and music entertained - and educated - the Swedish court. Louisa's theater was a triumph.

Enter her son King Gustav III in 1771.

The new king moved the summer court to Drottningholm Palace. Gustav III was a munificent patron of the arts. He shared his mother's love of theater, poetry, music, and science.

His love in fact encompassed everything except his mother. Constant quarreling and bitterness between the two finally drove Louisa from the palace. Only her death ended the feud.

This renaissance king was an accomplished playwright and even drafted the plot to the opera ``Gustav Vasa.'' His reign, with its political, historical, and cultural emphasis, is referred to as the Gustavian age.

The king took special delight in appearing on stage, often incognito.

Theater was alive and doing well in Sweden, but withered after Gustav was struck down by an assassin's bullet in 1792. Shortly after his death, the lights went out in Drottningholm Theatre. The theater closed but did not die with Gustav. It merely slept.

For over 100 years it lay shrouded in cobwebs and served as nothing more than a convenient palace warehouse and pigeon roost.

In 1921 a young art history student - candle in hand - entered the building in search of a particular painting he was researching. What he found, along with the painting, was an 18th-century theater perfectly intact - saved from all ``modernization'' and ``improvements'' that years of use would have brought.

Stage sets, scenery, curtains, everything was there. Beneath the stage were all the sophisticated Italian wooden reels and ropes used to change scenes. A tug on a few ropes could change a scene from heaven to Hades in five seconds.

In the wings were found beautiful hand-painted sliding panels depicting forests, drawing rooms, floating clouds, and village scenes.

A long wooden box filled with huge rocks was there. Lifted at one end, the stones would rumble down like a thunderstorm. Nearby, a barrel and canvas wind machine made galelike sounds when it was turned.

A series of spiral-carved wooden cylinders was found. Turned like a giant wringer in an old-fashioned washing machine, they created the surflike effect of waves lapping onto the stage.

Labels tacked to benches marked seats for everyone from the court barber to highest officials and household servants.

After a year of moderate restoration and refurbishing the theater reopened in 1922. Since then visitors have been entertained again with Mozart and Rossini operas, 18th-century theater, Italian mime, and whatever productions are appropriate for the sets and stage to accommodate.

Torch-carrying guides in period costume usher the 400 guests to their seats. Musicians in costume and powdered wigs, playing old instruments, pick up the overture. A curtain decorated with Minerva - goddess of the arts - goes up and Drottningholm Theater rolls back the centuries, bringing the audience the last word, and note, in 18th-century theater anywhere.

An interesting historical footnote: Gustav III was assassinated in 1792 while attending a masked ball at midnight at the opera house in Stockholm. When Giuseppe Verdi heard of the tragedy, he began writing his opera ``Gustavo III'' based on the event. He later reworked the opera and retitled it ``Un Ballo in Maschera'' - ``The Masked Ball.''

If you go

Theater productions are done only during summer months. Tickets sell out well in advance. If you're fortunate enough to get some, plan to spend most of the day there wandering through the formal Baroque or casual English gardens. Take the boat at least one way if you can.

Guided tours in several languages through Drottningholm Court Theatre and Theatrical Exhibition are conducted May through August every half hour from 12 to 4:30. In September from 1 to 3 pm.

Be sure to see the charming Chinese Pavilion, a ``pleasure palace'' built in 1753 on the occasion of Queen Louisa Ulrika's 34th birthday.

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