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America's BeethovenBeethoven in Theater

For many of the same reasons that Beethoven appealed to Hollywood—a universally recognized icon, a tragic life, a volatile complex person, and emotionally powerful music—he has intrigued playwrights. Beethoven has been a principal character in a number of plays ranging from more or less straight biographies to avant-garde works. Beethoven in the theater occupies an entirely different cultural space than Beethoven in films. Plays with Beethoven are aimed at a more elite, sophisticated audience. They are experimental, complex, and best understood by those with familiar with both Beethoven’s music and persona.    

David Bispham

David Bispham as Beethoven in the play Adelaide
Autographed and dated “Xmas [18]99”


“David Bispham explains interesting details of ‘Adelaïde’ production to a Musical Courier representative,” Musical Courier, New York, June 30, 1915.

YouTube: Hear David Bispham sing "Annie Laurie" (1908)

Article on David Bispham

A Quaker Singer’s Recollections by David Bispham. New York: Macmillan, 1920.
This book includes a chapter on “Beethoven in Drama” in which Bispham explains the circumstances behind his production of the play “Adelaïde,” which was first performed in America at the ballroom of the new Waldorf-Astoria Hotel in New York in 1897. He subsequently took to play to Philadelphia, Boston, Chicago, and London.

A Quaker Singer's Recollections

Beethoven's Tenth by Peter Ustinov

Beethoven’s Tenth, a play written by Peter Ustinov and starring Peter Ustinov, is neither experimental nor ambiguous. Beethoven arrives to straighten out a dysfunctional family consisting of a music-critic father, his composer-son, and long suffering wife. The play is sprinkled with many jokes as Beethoven encounters the modern world with all its technology, including the ability to restore his hearing. 
YouTube: A Tribute to Peter Ustinov

Playbill for performances at the Morris A. Mechanic Theatre, Baltimore, Maryland in 1983, autographed by Peter Ustinov and Fritz Weaver.

Playbill for the performances at the Nederlander Theatre, New York, which opened on April 22, 1984, starring Peter Ustinov as Beethoven.

Color photographs in the program book for the performances at the Chichester Festival Theatre, May 29-July 21, 1996. The play was first produced in the United States by the Centre Theatre Group/Ahmanson Theater, Los Angeles.

Peter Ustinov as Beethoven Peter Ustinov as Beethoven
Peter Ustinov as Beethoven
Title page of script for Beethoven's Tenth Preface to Beethoven's Tenth by Ustinov

George Rose and Peter Ustinov in a scene from Beethoven’s Tenth
Publicity photograph for the performance at the Nederlander Theatre, New York, which opened on April 22, 1984.

Peter Ustinov as Beethoven

"She Talks to Beethoven" by Adrienne Kennedy, from The Alexander Plays

Adrienne Kennedy is an African-American playwright of mixed ethnic background, although she vehemently resists being identified as a black writer. Her experimental plays are written for an idealized theatrical world that often makes them difficult to stage. Many have autobiographical connections. In She Talks to Beethoven, her alter ego Suzanne, who is in Ghana and suffering an undisclosed illness, anxiously awaits the return of her husband David, who is in trouble for his politics. She is comforted by Beethoven when he talks to her, although at times we don’t know if we are hearing Beethoven’s or David’s voice. 

This play was first produced by River Arts in Woodstock, New York, and directed by Clinton Turner Davis in June 1989. It was published by University of Minnesota Press in 1992.

Adrienne Kennedy
Title page of the Alexander Plays

33 Variations, written and directed by Moisés Kaufman

33 Variations, by Moises Kaufman, features a musicologist, Katherine, modeled on the real musicologist Katherine Syer and the Beethoven sketches. Katherine, suffering from ALS, seeks to understand questions surrounding the creation of Beethoven’s Diabelli Variations before she succumbs to the disease.  33 Variations has striking similarities to Kennedy’s She Talks to Beethoven. In both plays, the heroine, who is fascinated with Beethoven, deals with an infirmity, and in both Beethoven visits them to support them in their struggles.  In both plays Beethoven’s own problems with illness are paralleled with the heroine’s. —Michael Broyles

YouTube: 33 Variations (2007)

Cover of playbill for 33 Variations

Autographed playbill for the performances at Eugene O’Neill Theatre, New York, where the play opened on March 9, 2009. The play premiered on August 30, 2007, at Arena Stage, Washington, D.C. This playbill was signed by Jane Fonda and most of the other the principal actors.


Photographs of the performance in New York in 2009, starring Jane Fonda

Photograph of the set of 33 Variations
Photograph of a scene from 33 Variations