Plzeňské sympozia

Vlasta Reittererová – Hubert Reitterer

The fire at the Vienna Ringtheater in 1881

pp. 79–92 (Czech), Summary 90–91 (English), 91–92 (Deutsch)

Theatre fires were among the most dreadful and feared disasters in the 19th century from the economic standpoint (with the destruction of buildings, movables and archives and the threat to theatre ensemble members), often resulting in a loss of life. However, the precautions taken against such occurrences, the security measures undertaken at theatres and ultimately the directives for rescue operations only slowly and inconsistently gained traction, partly due to the fact that technical progress, which in spite of its advantages also brought with it new dangers, was developing faster than the relevant institutions were able to respond. This paper specifically focuses on one of the largest theatre disasters ever, the fire at the Ringtheater in Vienna on 8th December 1881. The fire broke out on the stage just before a performance and spread into the audience with extraordinary speed, taking a toll of almost 400 lives. Several factors were jointly responsible for the extent of the tragedy – the disadvantageous building layout, neglect of the safety measures in effect, the confused and incompetent conduct of the staff and the poor coordination of the rescue work. The court trial of eight accused, which was followed by the broad public, resulted in five release verdicts with the highest punishment was handed down to theatre director Franz Jauner. One immediate result of the disaster was the establishment of the volunteers' rescue organization Wiener freiwillige Rettungsgesellschaft. In 1887 a law came into effect throughout the Habsburg Empire setting out the rules for the construction of new theatre premises. It ordered construction in an unbuilt-up area, division of the space for performers from the space for the audience, use of non-flammable material for the stage structure, auxiliary catwalks and ladders in the gridiron and side portals area, an all-metal iron curtain, impregnation of decorations, a special exit from the orchestra pit, entrance doors that open outwards and other measures, often valid to this day.

 

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