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With generous subsidies now gone, many Eastern European theaters close


As the Berlin wall crumbled, a few ominous signs of a bleaker life to come were hardly noticed amid the general jubilation. If the hundreds of national, state and city theaters throughout Eastern Europe lost their handsome subsidies, what would become of them?

Most European nations have long traditions of government support for the theater. This is because the various arts of theater -- whether they be employed in dance, drama or opera performance -- are admired and respected as expressions of a country's culture. Metaphorically, to echo Hamlet, their theaters hold a mirror up to life.

Like other East European capitals, Budapest had more than a score of subsidized theaters. Their repertories ranged from opera, through operetta, musicals, drama, farce, ballet, modern dance -- even puppetry. In some smaller towns, the single theater tried to provide the entire spectrum of performing arts.

Theater tickets were amazingly cheap, thanks to the subsidy. In Warsaw, for example, Wagner's complete "Ring of the Nibelungen" could be seen for about $6. Tickets could be obtained at the office or the factory.

But now the generous subsidies are gone. With the cost of a loaf of bread zooming upward in response to market forces, the choice between a sandwich and an opera is an easy one.

The free market has proved a double whammy for Eastern Europe's theaters. Most of them were overstaffed and offered too wide a repertory. But even with sharp reductions in programs and personnel -- some of the best artists rapidly departed for the West anyway -- ticket prices had to go up in response to wage increases and the higher costs of sets and costumes. Even for those who still have the price of a ticket, however, Western films and videos provide strong competition. Not to mention the attractions of television, now that it can transmit shows from the West.

So scores of theaters in Eastern Europe have closed or soon will. Some communities will no longer have producing ensembles. And, as surviving theaters are paring their rosters of artists and technicians, hundreds will have to find work elsewhere. There is also the matter of settling scores: Some theater chiefs have been removed because of their politics; others, because of jealousy.

After the fall of the wall, the intendant of the Dresden State Opera was forced out, charged with being a Stalinist. Soon after, the purgers were themselves purged by a West German chief they'd brought in from Hamburg. In Berlin, the former directors of Bertolt Brecht's theater, the Berliner Ensemble, were forced to resign by authorities in what was formerly West Berlin. Even their replacement was recently discharged: Perhaps he was too sympathetic to this most socialist of theaters?

In the short run, Prague, Moscow, Budapest and Warsaw may save some money by canceling, or sharply reducing, theater subsidies. But ultimately the damage that will have been done -- the loss to the audiences of opera and drama and dance of a

very high standard -- cannot be measured. Not to mention the loss of major tourist attractions.

Fortunately, there are signs that, even in the current economic chaos, the new governments are aware of the prestige value of their major performing ensembles and mean to prevent their collapse. Subsidies continue for the most important theaters. Still, many theaters are dead or dying, and many artist and technicians will never work in theaters again.

There is some danger that will happen in the United States as well, and not only on Broadway. The free market is no friend of the more serious performing arts. To live, to excel, they need and deserve subsidy. And not only from wealthy patrons. At all levels, our government can do more to show its awareness of the importance of the theater to creating lives of quality -- and as an expression of who we are as Americans. The Europeans already know that that can be done.

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