The benefits of increasing the digital availability of Alsatian theater:

paper, specified "short paper"
  1. 1. Pablo Ruiz Fabo

    Université de Strasbourg, France

  2. 2. Carole Werner

    Université de Strasbourg, France

  3. 3. Delphine Bernhard

    Université de Strasbourg, France

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Extensive efforts have been made to create digital corpora for major European dramatic traditions. A recent corpus hub is DraCor (Fischer & Börner, 2019), offering programmatic access to theater collections in 11 languages.

lists corpora and languages. Our first 25 TEI-encoded Alsatian plays were also accepted in DraCor.

The creation of such corpora was accompanied by computational literary research on their traditions. Focusing on German and French drama (immediately relevant for our work), one may name projects like DLINA (Fischer et al., 2017),

QuaDramA and Q:TRACK (Reiter, 2020)

Emotions in Drama (cf. Schmidt et al., 2021), for German; for French, studies like Schöch’s (2017), or works in the
Revue Historiographique du Théâtre’s special issue on Digital Humanities and theater (Galleron, 2017).

Journal for Theater Historiography. Special issue:

Alsatian refers to Germanic varieties from Alsace (Eastern France), the main oral communication language in the area for over 14 centuries, until their decline vs. French in the last third of the 20th century (Huck et al., 2007: 11–17). Despite Alsatian’s mainly oral status, it has a rich theatrical tradition, where comedic and popular genres predominate (Gall, 1974). Unlike major European traditions, digital resources for Alsatian theater are scarce, which precludes related computational literary research. To help make such research feasible, our project

MeThAL, “Towards a macroanalysis of theater in Alsatian” (

is building a large TEI-encoded corpus of Alsatian theater, annotated with rich metadata, and making this corpus publicly available in formats appropriate for research and for the non-specialist community, covering mostly the 1870-1940 period. Our proposal discusses the relevance of developing such materials, in terms of opportunities for (computational) literary studies (CLS) and natural language processing (NLP), besides their potential to promote linguistic diversity through the digital medium.

Our corpus both complements and challenges existing knowledge of Alsatian theater. Earlier studies on the corpus period (Cerf, 1972, 1975; Huck, 1998, 2005; Hülsen, 2003) examined plots, plays’ social groups, and dialect representation in character speech, based on corpora with under 40 plays. Annotating the characters’ socio-professional groups in 109 plays (Ruiz Fabo and Werner, 2021) revealed the importance of artisans in plays set in small towns, contrary to claims in earlier studies, which presented agricultural professions as almost exclusive in such settings (Cerf, 1972: 340). The corpus also has potential for comparisons with the two hegemonic dramatic traditions that surround Alsatian theater: French and German. Hülsen (2003: 98 ff.) described the influence of German popular comedy in Alsatian theater, based on thirteen major Alsatian plays around 1900. Our corpus could be used for a larger-sample comparison, covering a longer period, with German and French plays from the same timeframe. A concrete first aspect to compare could be the
dramatis personae, following our work on character annotation, cited above.

Digital literary collections for under-resourced languages also benefit NLP. Current NLP models like contextual embeddings (e.g. Devlin et al., 2018) require large amounts of text, yet unavailable for languages like Alsatian. However, the NLP community is interested in improving the viability of these technologies for low-resource languages, and in developing corpora in such languages (cf. Bernhard et al., 2019). Increasing the availability of Alsatian electronic text contributes to this effort and is a test-bed for new technology developments.
Towards our goals, we selected a varied corpus mixing major and lesser-known works. We performed optical character recognition (OCR) on National Library digitizations,

Numistral portal, BNU Strasbourg:

creating 25 TEI plays (300,000 tokens). OCR was also manually corrected for 28 further plays, awaiting TEI conversion. Bibliographical metadata were transcribed for 359 plays, and the settings and
dramatis personae for 257 plays (2,253 characters). We also annotated characters’ social variables when possible (gender, professional group, estimated social class, age). Synopses were written for 38 plays. TEI materials are publicly available

and accepted at the DraCor platform. Publication with a DOI on open repository Nakala was also carried out.

Nakala set
contains our data

A corpus exploration interface exposes all data.

Reiter et al. (2017) warn that a graphical user interface does not always help literary research. However, our project intends to promote public interest in Alsatian beyond research, and we believe that a web interface is a suitable means. Our interface gives access to all plays with corrected OCR output, TEI-encoded or not, searching by author, author gender, dates or publisher. It also allows filtering the corpus based on the presence of characters with different social attributes (professional group, social class, gender, see Figure 1). We believe that such navigation workflows are an attractive way for the public to engage with the corpus and with the social picture it conveys, and will assess this hypothesis with a user sample. Character co-occurrence is also relevant for research on plot and for sociolinguistic studies on character speech representation according to social variables.

Regarding limitations, male authors predominate, even if we sought variety. There are only five female authors, with 14 plays. Deeper research in non-digitized collections should counter this bias. Note also that sexism and racism are present in the corpus, and, even if the interface targets the general public, it does not at this point provide means that would help non-specialists be aware of these biases and critically question such social representations. This is important future work.
In sum, we present a digital corpus of plays in Alsatian varieties with rich metadata, including character annotations for social variables. TEI encoding is ongoing; where not available, corrected OCR output is provided. This material helps CLS research on Alsatian theater, impossible before given lack of a corpus, and has shown potential to challenge existing knowledge on the tradition. The texts also have relevance for NLP research on low-resource languages. To promote interest in the corpus’ language varieties, a corpus exploration interface opens up these resources to the community.

Character cooccurrences in cast list per professional group.
Top: Plays by female authors.
Bottom: Plays by male authors. Proportion of female characters with profession in cast list is 45.71% with female authors and 11.30% with male authors.

We thank further project members, Dominique Huck and Pascale Erhart, for advice on corpus selection and other project aspects. We also thank all interns who contributed to corpus or interface development: Nathanaël Beiner, Andrew Briand, Lena Camillone, Hoda Chouaib, Audrey Deck, Barbara Hoff, Valentine Jung, Salomé Klein, Audrey Li-Thiao-Te, Kévin Michoud and Vedisha Toory.


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Conference Info

In review

ADHO - 2022
"Responding to Asian Diversity"

Tokyo, Japan

July 25, 2022 - July 29, 2022

361 works by 945 authors indexed

Held in Tokyo and remote (hybrid) on account of COVID-19

Conference website:

Contributors: Scott B. Weingart, James Cummings

Series: ADHO (16)

Organizers: ADHO