An apple, an arrow, and Swiss freedom

By , Contributor to The Christian Science Monitor

William Tell was an unlikely hero. When he and his small son walked from Bürglen to Altdorf, they never imagined they would galvanize the idea of a free Switzerland. In fact, father and son went right by the pole with the hat on top. Who would expect Hermann Gessler, Austria's autocratic man in charge of Switzerland, to demand that people bow to his hat?

Gessler took Tell's lack of obsequiousness personally, of course. Either execution on the spot, he declared, or the bumpkin with the crossbow could try to shoot an apple off his son's head. Reluctantly Tell drew his bow, then neatly split the apple with his arrow.

Annoyed, Gessler mocked him: Why did he carry a second arrow since one would suffice? Tell replied that if the first arrow had harmed his son, he would have aimed the second one at Gessler, adding, "I would not have missed."

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The defiant words are actually those of German poet/dramatist Friedrich von Schiller, and without him this might have been just another heroic legend. But Schiller's play, "William Tell," was a resounding success, and the tale went around the world.

A celebration of 'William Tell'

The play had its première 200 years ago in Weimar, Germany. But in Switzerland - especially in the cantons around Lake Lucerne - the playwright and his "William Tell" are being widely honored.

The German National Theatre Weimar will travel to Switzerland to present the Lukas Leuenberger production of Schiller's masterpiece as part of Kulturschweiz 2004 and its theme, "200 Years of 'William Tell.' " The performance outdoors in Rütli Meadow, historic site of Swiss independence, will be the high point in a summer of special events.

At Interlaken's Rugen Wood, the play will be staged for the 92nd season as a cultural pageant with a cast of 185 in the William Tell Open-Air Theater. In medieval Altdorf, the Tell Play & Theater Association will do a new and contemporary interpretation in the Tell Theatre (Tellspielhaus), which was built in 1899 solely to present the saga.

Rütli Meadow is more than a venue. Here on Aug. 1, 1291, men from the forest cantons of Schwyz, Uri, and Unterwalden formed the "Everlasting League," swearing never again to be ruled by a foreign power.

Today, Rütli belongs to Swiss schoolchildren, who collected money to save it from developers, and is the center of Confederation Day celebrated each Aug. 1.

Because the Swiss officially declared their freedom on Jan. 1, 1308, Schiller, outspoken lover of liberty, called his play "A New Year's Gift to the World."

Yet Schiller never set foot in Switzerland. Instead, he heard the tale in Weimar from his friend and colleague Johann Wolfgang von Goethe, who had visited. Like Goethe, Schiller thrilled to the story, though he had to ask his publisher for a map of Lake Lucerne and environs.

Tell's deed did not end with the apple. The enraged Gessler ordered him arrested and sentenced to life imprisonment in the dungeon of his castle at Küssnacht. But the boat carrying the prisoner was soon engulfed in a storm, and the frightened boatmen released Tell (who providentially was also an expert pilot) to steer them to shore. Once there, he leapt to safety on a rock, pushed the boat back into the raging water, and escaped through the forest. It was only a matter of time until he intercepted Gessler in a gully and dispatched the evil tyrant with that extra arrow.

Is it a legend or truth?

If this story seems a bit of a stretch, never mind. The end of Gessler was the first step to throwing out the Hapsburgs - and of Swiss freedom. A bronze statue of Tell and his son dominates the town square in Altdorf, and the crossbow is the trademark of Switzerland.

Was he a man or a myth? In The Forum of Swiss History in Schwyz, an exhibition will not try to answer this, but will explore the social and the historical ramifications of the tale (and the play) nationwide.

The story has certainly entered national consciousness. On Chapel Bridge, the 17th-century triangular paintings include one of the national hero. Schiller's drama opened the City Theater in 1838. The floating restaurant is the "William Tell."

From May to October, the William Tell Express, a six-hour boat and train excursion, begins in Lucerne aboard a paddle-wheel steamer. At Flüelen, passengers transfer to a train where panoramic windows look out on wooded countryside as well as a dramatic 9.25 mile ride through the St. Gotthard Rail Tunnel.

Rütli Meadow was once reachable only by boat, but in 1991, the cantons created the Swiss Path from Rütli to Brünnen to celebrate Switzerland's 700th anniversary. It may be walked in its entirety or accessed from the lake or by car and enjoyed in segments.

At Kussnacht are the ruins of Gessler's castle (Gesslerburg) and the sunken road (Hohle Gasse) between Kussnacht and Immensee where he died. There is Tell's Rock (Tellsplatte) with its chapel and murals of the Tell story. Nearly opposite Brunnen, a granite spire called Schiller's Stone (Schillerstein) bears an inscription honoring the playwright.

Burglen, Tell's village, has a museum located in a 13th-century tower. There's no gravesite, since it's said that Tell died while heroically rescuing a drowning child.

"Guglielmo Tell," the Italian opera by Gioacchino Rossini that was based on the play, was first performed in 1829. Its famous overture will be played in 2004 at the 65th annual Lucerne Festival by the Cleveland Orchestra, with Franz Welser-Most conducting. The music is familiar to most Americans because it was the theme for "The Lone Ranger" on radio and TV.

But the very name William Tell has never lost its magic. It's a symbol of Swiss freedom and a worldwide metaphor for outstanding marksmanship.

Celebrating 200 years of 'William Tell'

From June through November in and around Lucerne, Switzerland, there will be numerous events to mark the 200th anniversary of the première of the play "William Tell."

June 19-Oct. 31: Swiss Museum Forum of Swiss History, Schwyz, Jubilee Exhibition (www.museenschwyz.ch)

July 23-Aug. 9: Festival interpretation of the story in the William Tell Open-Air Theater, Interlaken (www.tellspiele.ch)

July 24-Aug. 29: Friedrich Schiller's "William Tell," by the German National Theater Weimar, outdoors on the Rütli Meadow. Aug.1 is the National Confederation Day performance. (www.kulturschweiz2004.ch)

Aug. 13: Lucerne Festival: Symphony Concert 3, Rossini's Overture to "Guglielmo Tell," Cleveland Orchestra, Franz Welser-Most conductor (www.lucernefestival.ch)

Aug. 14-Oct.16 (Saturdays): Innovative version of the Tell legend by the Tell Play & Theater Association in historic Tell Theater, Altdorf (www.tellspiele-altdorf.ch)

For more Information: William Tell, www.Tell.ch; Lucerne Tourist Board, www.Lucerne.org; Switzerland Tourism, 608 Fifth Avenue, New York, NY 10020; 877-794-8037; www.myswitzerland.com. Swiss Travel System (William Tell Express), 1-888-382-7245, www.raileurope.com

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