IV. SOME CONCLUDING OBSERVATIONS AND THOUGHTS
1. On turkeys and a ‘bear’, and how clothes make the woman
As demonstrated with the foregoing analysed example of ‘Siegfried’ Act III, Scene 3, the deconstruction-based approach of postdramatic theatre facilitates a rich array of resonances throughout the vast tetralogy, and thus facilitates Wagner’s objective to invite new audiences to explore novel insights and recreate the myth of the Rape of the Gold of the Rhine for their own time, as he translated that same myth from ancient and varied source material into the symbolic language of his own era. At all times, it is an approach that honours Wagner’s dictum that opera is drama, and it treats that drama as seriously as it respects the ‘letter’ of the score. Literally, any moment in this staging of the ‘Ring’ can be analysed to yield alternative meanings as compelling and in keeping with the underlying concept of the production as that demonstrated for the closing hour of ‘Siegfried’.
During the course of describing this production and its dramaturgical elements, many images have been already briefly indicated, but, as a further more detailed example, consider one that is perhaps initially particularly jarring: the two caged turkeys seen onstage throughout the duration of Act I of ‘Walküre’. The axis to which this image seems at first most readily to belong is ‘characterological’ in that it is clearly a projection of the immediate situation of the Volsung twins – they, like the birds, are prisoners of Hunding and of the system he represents. It is characterological too with reference to Hunding’s character as the brutish captor of these birds, as he is of this woman and this man. On closer examination, this is also a foreshadowing of the death of Siegmund and Sieglinde, as these caged turkeys are not being kept indefinitely but will be sacrificed to feed their captor. Carrying this further, one considers the commonly held attitudes about poultry and livestock in general – they are believed not to have an appreciation of their fate. Likewise, the human lovers do not fully appreciate the peril of their situation. In particular, the cluelessness of Siegmund as to his origins is in direct parallel to the seemingly unwitting nature of these birds. Finally, on the characterological axis, the sight of birds causes us to recall the very different predatory bird species, the raven, that symbolizes the very different nature of the father; his offspring are prey, not hunters, and these children are the mirror opposites of their War Father. The image of the turkeys in a cage is also an environmental analogy for nature enslaved. On one level these caged animals are another representation of the gold/oil – natural power harnessed by humans. Finally, this latter reference to perversion of the natural order reminds us of the consumerism rampant through much of this ‘Ring’, and, specifically of the capitalist exploitation of resources for power. Thus, the image of the turkeys also has ties to the socio-political axis, and this is further reinforced when one recalls that livestock are a product to sell for profit in industrial societies. Indeed, the sight of the turkeys can elicit a variety of associations and feeling states in the audience that, regardless of which predominate, all serve to move Wagner’s storyline forward within the framework of the Castorf production concept.
The previously briefly described serf/bear mime character in ‘Siegfried’ Act I provides a particularly striking example of how we all ‘see’ differently, and how a postdramatic production facilitates alternative interpretations within the frame of the unifying concept. This tethered, scantily clad, grim, oil-tinged character’s inquisitive rooting and climbing into the stacked books strewn around the trailer home of Mime does mimic that of a bear cub rummaging around an interesting camp site, but it can have other connotations within this production as well, if the audience is open to consider further. Knowledge is power in this new world, and Mime has it and seeks to hold it as zealously for himself as Fafner hoards the purloined black ‘gold’. The ‘bear’ is also a symbol of the downtrodden proletariat from the prior drama – workers compelled to labour for the ruling class, deprived of education or comfort, and confined on a short tether which they long to break in order to experience the world more fully. This bear is also the symbol of the people – the Russian Bear broken loose from its chains in the rebellions of 1905 and 1917, the period of the prior drama. It is now struggling to find its new place in the world against the resistance of a new set of masters who prove to be no more accepting than the previous controllers. The ‘bear’ works the bellows to forge the armaments for the empowerment of the new master, just as he worked the oil fields for the old ones. The bear evokes characterological resonances as well as socio-political associations of the time and the environmental force of a being still struggling to express its essence. Thinking about it still further, we can project that it is also a representation of Siegfried, the wild boy/man who acts through animal instinct, is deprived of knowledge of his origins, and also longs to break his tether to Mime. As the act ends and Siegfried at last wields a weapon and frees himself from his trailer/prison, the ‘bear’ dons a wedding dress – a symbol of the sexual awakening of his new master, Siegfried, a foreshadowing of the constricting binds to come (as this is how Siegfried will view marriage), and/or a representation of the yearned-for bond of the people with this new hope for their future in the post-Revolutionary world. Patric Seibert, as the bear/serf, can evoke all of these associations and more and all are in line with the drama; depending on one’s perspective, the bear can represent any or all of these and it can alternately bring comic relief, evoke rage at oppression, engender sympathy, and provoke our exhilaration at the new possibilities now opened up in the drama. Ideally, before the conclusion of Act I of ‘Siegfried’ this image will accomplish all of these objectives in rapid succession, but, if it only triggers some of these associations, it still works as a powerful mechanism for stimulating thought pertinent to the ‘Ring’.
To take a very different set of examples of imagery in this production and analyse it at some depth, consider the contribution that the costume design of Adriana Braga Peretzki makes to integrate the production concept and further enrich audience associations and promote new interpretations of characters and events. Specifically, consider how the costuming of Brünnhilde changes as her role evolves. She first appears as a ‘tomboy’ figure in unisex-style black and grey costume for ‘Walküre’, signifying her bond to her father and to the prevailing oil wealth culture of her ruling oil baron ‘class’ for most of that opera. Upon her awakening in ‘Siegfried’, her costume incorporates flecks of gold, reflecting the vibrancy of emerging daylight and her own sexual dawning, transitioning to a spotted gold and black leopard-pattern housecoat signifying her domesticity by Act I of ‘Götterdämmerung’, and she appears in predominantly gold-coloured dress only from Act II of ‘Götterdämmerung’ onward.
It is as if she is only fully awake when betrayed. Gutrune’s leopard dress at the end of Act III of ‘Götterdämmerung’ is patterned after Brünnhilde’s earlier Hausfrau robe, and forces us to draw an association between the two women who, ultimately, have become very similar with respect to their traditional objectives for home, hearth and marital stability. This domestic sensibility of the two women is in stark contrast to the seductive costuming of the Rhinemaidens or showgirl ‘Forest Bird’ who are so much more to the taste of Siegfried, or the fur-and-jewel glamour-girl garb of Wotan’s mistress, Erda.
Contrast all of this with the vaguely reptilian costuming of Waltraute as she appears in Act II of ‘Götterdämmerung’ – a woman whose demands are threatening to Brünnhilde, much as the crocodiles in ‘Siegfried’ should have inspired fear in her husband. All of this, and more, can be seen encoded in the costuming alone of these interconnected characters. Against all of the complexity of the sets and costumes is the constant reminder of the simple unifying truth of this production that the world of the ‘Ring’ is a precarious oil-soaked tinderbox primed to explode. Oil is everywhere; it stains nearly every costume and it is mixed with the red of blood in much of the makeup of characters – note especially the oily black and gory red besmirched faces of the three Norns, their costumes reminiscent of ethnic Sinti and Roma peoples, the half oil-black face of Fafner, and the black streaks covering the body of the proletariat serf/’bear’.
2. Are cherished symbols missing?
‘Ring’ audiences have become accustomed to expecting certain objects referred to in the libretto, and often accompanied by thematic material in the score, to be visible in the staging. In their efforts to open up interpretation of a work, postdramatic presentations are often accused of neglecting such ties to traditional storytelling. Is this the case in the present production?
At first glance, certain familiar physical props seem to be missing, and this has caused consternation in some quarters. On closer inspection, this can be shown not to be the case if, indeed, one examines the essence of those expected properties. What Castorf gives us is a distillation of that essence, if not the physical object itself specified in Wagner’s text. There are many striking examples of this. Fricka’s rams in ‘Walküre’ are muscle-men labourers under her whip in keeping with the Russian Revolution period of this staging. Likewise, the fallen heroes collected by the Valkyries are victims of the workers’ sabotage explosion of the oil drilling platforms of their masters. Hagen’s spear becomes the club which he uses to enforce order and bludgeon Siegfried to death – the effect is the same even if the weapon’s point (Spitze) is not as sharp as specified. Death is meted out in particularly brutal fashion in this production – nothing is rose-tinted in our messy modern era either in the East or the West, and consequently this staging presents that griminess. Oil is highly flammable, and this, of course, is convenient for the multiple fire effects needed in any ‘Ring’ – less so a controlled ‘magic’ fire set by Wotan than the dynamite blaze indiscriminately lit by Loge’s pyromania from liquid explosives prepared by Brünnhilde in Act II of ‘Walküre’. During the Magic Fire sequence in ‘Walküre’ the audience’s recollections of more recent history from their own lifetimes, and its parallel to the earlier 20th-century destruction shown onstage, are further enhanced by background silent films of the Nazi invasion of Baku in an attempt to possess the ‘gold’ beneath that ground. (This is but one of multiple references to the abuses of mankind and nature during the more recent Nazi era at telling junctures throughout this production, as especially well documented in Tash Siddiqui’s 2014 review, already cited.) The wood of Hunding’s hut and the tree that grows within it may not be literally shown, but, again, in keeping with man’s increasing perversion of nature, trees are now represented by the wood of workers’ sheds and oil-drilling structures.
Finally, Wotan’s spear of authority and Freia’s life-giving apples are not missing; instead, they are incorporated in the very anatomies of their characters: the phallus of Wotan is the manifestation of his potency as expressed by his incessant sexual activity, and the breasts of a nubile Freia amplified by her costuming. (In this regard, Wotan’s initial ‘entrance’ into the drama in ‘Rheingold’ is truly memorable in that he is engaged at the time in ‘entering’ both Fricka and Freia on a motel bed.) The music accompanying such symbols, if anything, gains in power since it is now freed to underline the essence of these characters and not just objects more vaguely tied to their natures.
3. Allusions to the culture of our times and homage to ‘Rings’ of the past
An additional important way the production team creates resonances uniquely meaningful to modern audiences is to provide images that trigger recollections of relevant popular culture, and, for the experienced Wagnerian (such as one finds generally in Bayreuth), images that recall and pay homage to past ‘Ring’ productions of note. We call out several of these, first, with reference to popular non-Wagnerian art. The Norns are portrayed as truly ‘Macbeth’-like ‘weird sisters’, and their colourful, unusual costuming marks them as ‘others’, potentially Sinti and Roma, and if seen as members of that ethnic group, then it conjures up recollections of the xenophobia of Germany during National Socialism and the persecution of these people at that time. Seen this way, these Norns not only foretell the future, they are like ghosts that haunt the memory of contemporary Europe in that they represent the atrocities of the recent past. While Siegmund makes honest, passionate overtures toward Sieglinde in the recognition scene that closes Act I of ‘Walküre’, a film projected behind them shows the womanising oil baron, Wotan, ‘phoning in’ his affections to his mistress, Erda, as she unwraps his gift to her of a party dress. It is impossible for an American not to see this as a reference to former President Bill Clinton and Monica Lewinsky in the little blue dress so much in the US news two decades ago. Irreverent, perhaps, but it is a part of history and it does fit with the characterisation of Wotan in this production. During the interlude of the Rhine Journey between the Siegfried–Brünnhilde duet of the Prologue and the first act proper of ‘Götterdämmerung’, Siegfried assumes the foetal position – it is the birth of the new hero into a new world, but it is also the posture of a deeply troubled and immature man. It can be seen as a symbol of the ennui-rampant depression of the ‘lost generation’, a term coined by Ernest Hemingway to portray the generation that came of age during the Great War, or to reflect the lost children of our own more recent time of economic recession. Finally, the prominent staircase leading up into the darkness seen at the conclusion of Act II of ‘Götterdämmerung’, and again at the end of that opera, is a reference to the Odessa steps in Sergei Eisenstein’s iconic silent film of the 1905 Russian sailors’ revolt, ‘Battleship Potemkin’.
As in that film’s climactic Odessa Steps sequence, all order is broken once this moment is past; Brünnhilde’s fury at her betrayal unleashes the final cataclysm in much the same way that the charge of the Cossack imperial guard at the crowd on the steps ignites the general rebellion of the Russian people. In all cases, new associations that are uniquely powerful for modern audiences, and all in the service of making the eternal ‘Ring’ myth palpably real once again.
With respect to allusion to admired ‘Rings’ of the past, we briefly note some examples. We have already discussed earlier how the revolving sets of the Castorf production, especially in the latter stages of the cycle, create the same impression of parallel universes so remarkable from the immediately prior ‘Ring’ at Bayreuth staged by Tankred Dorst. Likewise, reminiscences of the swinging clock pendulum behind Wotan during his Act II monologue in ‘Walküre’, from the iconic centenary production at Bayreuth in 1976 directed by Patrice Chéreau, are evoked by the incessant movement of the oil drill machinery at the same moment in the Castorf production. Keith Warner is also a much admired director by this production team, and the esteemed British colleague underscores the conflicted, overtly sexual tension in Wotan’s relationship with Brünnhilde by the father’s passionate final kiss of the daughter, and her consequent recoil in confusion, in Act III of ‘Walküre’ in his Covent Garden production of the ‘Ring’, first seen in 2007. In the Castorf production, the drunken Wotan engages in the same behaviour. Finally, Harry Kupfer‘s trademark set in his Bayreuth ‘Ring’ during the early 1990s was an evocative, vast, ‘highway of history’ or endless road stretching out into the far back-reaches of the stage. In Castorf’s production, this is mirrored in his Route 66 backdrop for ‘Rheingold’ and by the railroad tracks stretching out into the unknown in the second and last acts of ‘Walküre’. The bond between this band of brother directors is thus acknowledged and celebrated.
4. One final thought
We have already established that the Castorf ‘Ring’ is an inherently musical achievement in the way that the drama internalises the music. To recap in brief, the leitmotif system is mirrored in the fluidity of the stage imagery and the sound of the piece is integrated, often in an ironic but always systematically purposeful manner, with how it is acted and seen. Even so, the charge has been levelled against this production in some quarters that it does not respect the score. It is true that the production is not Wagner hagiography – like all post-structuralist work it does not accept any ur-explanations, either Wagnerian or otherwise, and instead thrives on presenting alternatives. It may not tie word and sound and image together along traditionally accepted lines, but, as we have attempted to show, this does not mean that these elements are not in relationship to each other. The criticism sometimes heard that the Castorf staging ‘fights’ the music is rooted in the belief that the author/composer is the authority on what any given moment in the work ‘means’, and, consequently, that the traditionally accepted associations, originating from the time of the author, are the only ones possible. This critical stance accepts no alternatives other than relatively cosmetic variances that do no violence to the traditionally accepted meanings. However, if we accept that Wagner was a forerunner of Derrida, and therefore that he would have acknowledged intentional fallacy and appreciated Barthes’ principle that ‘the author is dead’, then the potentials, even the requirement, for a postdramatic approach to the ‘Ring’ become apparent. If Wagner could not have been the authority on what his work meant, and given that he realised that all myth had to be recreated for and by each new audience member in the context of their unique time and place, then how could a theatrical tradition which honours those principles be unmusical? It could only be so if it divorced Wagner’s score from his text, but the Castorf production in Bayreuth does not diverge in the slightest from the published score or the text. Was it not Wagner who set these words to that music? If so, then was perhaps Wagner unmusical? One sees the impossible dilemma resulting from the natural extension of this logic. Castorf takes the work exactly as it was bequeathed to us by Wagner, and he then presents the audience with possible alternatives for what it might mean to them given their own time and place in history. Nothing could honour both us and the legacy of Richard Wagner more.
1. Selected Letters of Richard Wagner, tr. and ed. Stewart Spencer and Barry Millington (London, 1987), letter to Franz Liszt, 8 September 1852, 267–9.
2. See Jonathan Bate, The Royal Shakespeare Company ‘Hamlet’, ed. Jonathan Bate and Eric Rasmussen (New York, 2008), 45.
3. Catherine Belsey, Poststructuralism: A Very Short Introduction (New York, 2002), 8–13, 42–4.
4. Ibid, 73–81.
5. See Christopher Butler, Postmodernism: A Very Short Introduction (New York, 2002).
6. Jacques Derrida, Of Grammatology, tr. Gayatri Chakravorty Spivak (Baltimore, MD, and London, 1976).
7. Butler, Postmodernism (note 5), 17.
8. See Ulrike Kienzle, entry on ‘Religion’, tr. Holly Wermter, The Cambridge Wagner Encyclopedia, ed. Nicholas Vazsonyi (Cambridge, 2013), 469–79.
9. Roland Barthes, ‘The Death of the Author’, Image–Music–Text, Roland Barthes, tr. Stephen Heath (New York, 1978), 142–8.
10. Bernard Williams, ‘Richard Wagner and the Transcendence of Politics’, On Opera (New Haven, CT, and London, 2006), 77.
11. Jacques Derrida, ‘Limited Inc abc…’, Glyph, ii (1977), 167ff.
12. See ‘Différance’, Wikipedia online entry, wikipedia.org, 1–10.
13. David Summers, ‘Intentions in the History of Art’, New Literary History, xvii/2, Interpretation and Culture (Winter, 1986), 305–21.
14. George Bernard Shaw, The Perfect Wagnerite: A Commentary on the Niblung’s ‘Ring’ (New York, 1967; repr. of 4th edn, 1923)
15. Edward A. Bortnichak and Paula M. Bortnichak, ‘The New Wagnerian Menagerie: Bayreuth as Social Evolution and Bioethics Laboratory’, The Wagner Journal, vi/2 (2012), 4–16.
16. Robert Donington, Wagner’s ‘Ring’ and its Symbols: The Music and the Myth (London, 1963)
17. Otto Rank, The Myth of the Birth of the Hero, ed. Phillip Freund, (New York, 1914; republished 1964), 3–96.
18. Richard D. Chessick, ‘The “Ring”: Richard Wagner’s Dream of Pre-Oedipal Destruction’, The American Journal of Psychoanalysis, xliii/4 (1983), 361–74.
19. Patrick Carnegy, Wagner and the Art of the Theatre (New Haven, CT, and London, 2006).
20. Richard Fricke, Wagner in Rehearsal 1875–1876: The Diaries of Richard Fricke, tr. George Fricke, ed. James Deaville and Evan Baker, (Stuyvesant, NY, 1998), 99.
21. Oswald Georg Bauer, Richard Wagner: The Stage Designs and Productions from the Premieres to the Present, tr. Stewart Spencer (New York, 1983), 274–8.
22. Carnegy, Wagner and the Art of the Theatre (note 19), 110.
23. Richard Fricke, Wagner in Rehearsal (note 20).
24. Heinrich Porges, Wagner Rehearsing the ‘Ring’: An Eye-Witness Account of the Stage Rehearsals of the First Bayreuth Festival, tr. Robert L. Jacobs (Cambridge, 1983).
25. See Cosima Wagner’s Diaries 1869–1883, tr. and ed. Geoffrey Skelton, 2 vols. (London, 1978–80), 29 April 1878 and associated note on p. 1031. See also 8 May 1877 and associated note on p. 1150.
26. Hans-Thies Lehmann, Postdramatic Theatre, tr. Karen Jürs-Munby (London and New York, 2006), 70.
27. Richard Wagner, Opera and Drama, tr. W. Ashton Ellis, (London, 1890, facsimile repr.Lincoln, NE, and London, 1995).
28. See Theodor W. Adorno, In Search of Wagner, tr. Rodney Livingstone (London and New York, 2005), 47–50, 74–85.
29. Mary A. Cicora, Modern Myths and Wagnerian Deconstructions: Hermeneutic Approaches to Wagner’s Music–Dramas (Westport, CT, and London, 2000).
30. Mary A. Cicora, Mythology as Metaphor: Romantic Irony, Critical Theory, and Wagner’s ‘Ring’ (Westport, CT, and London, 1998).
31. Cicora, Modern Myths (note 29).
32. Cicora, Mythology as Metaphor (note 30).
33. See both references by Mary A. Cicora, already cited, in multiple places, especially on p. 4 of Modern Myths (note 29) and p. 24 of Mythology as Metaphor (note 30). See also entry for ‘Romantic Irony’ in Oxford Dictionary of Literary Terms (3rd edn.), online, Oxford University Press, 2014.
34. Cicora, Mythology as Metaphor (note 30).
35. Ibid., 75–6 (and elsewhere).
36. Richard Wagner, Opera and Drama (note 27).
37. Cicora, Mythology as Metaphor (note 30), 54–5.
38. Robert W. Gutman, Richard Wagner: The Man, His Mind, and His Music (New York, 1968), 399–403.
39. Bernard Williams, ‘Richard Wagner and the Transcendence of Politics’ (note 10), 81–2.
40. See: Cicora, Mythology as Metaphor (note 30), 110.
41. Carnegy, Wagner and the Art of the Theatre (note 19), 382.
42. Hans-Thies Lehmann, Postdramatic Theatre (note 26), 122.
43. J. Douglas Kneale, ‘Deconstruction: 1. Derrida, de Man, and the Yale Critics’, Contemporary Literary and Cultural Theory – The Johns Hopkins Guide, ed. Michael Groden, Martin Kreiswirth and Imre Szeman (Baltimore, 2012), 104–10.
44. Jan Plug, ‘Deconstruction: 2. The 1980s and After’, Contemporary Literary and Cultural Theory (note 43), 110–16.
45. In support of this point, note the following date and place of birth of Bayreuth directors from 2004 to 2013: C. Schlingensief (1960, Oberhausen, Germany), C. Marthaler (1951, Zurich, Switzerland), T. Dorst (1925, Sonneberg, Germany), K. Wagner (1978, Bayreuth, Germany), S. Herheim (1970, Oslo, Norway; currently based in Germany), H. Neuenfels (1941, Krefeld, Germany), S. Baumgarten (1969, East Berlin, Germany), J. P. Gloger (1981, Hagen, Germany), F. Castorf (1951, East Berlin, Germany).
46. ‘Everyman’s Bayreuth’ designation coined by the authors and first appearing in: Edward A. Bortnichak and Paula M. Bortnichak, ‘Jedermanns Bayreuth’, The Wagner Journal, v/3 (2009), 84–90. It has since been used elsewhere.
47. Götz Friedrich’s immensely important first production for Bayreuth was 'Tannhäuser’ in 1972, but we do not include it in this list of deconstruction-based milestone productions because the significance of that production owed more to its overt theatricality in offering an East German Marxist-inspired socio-political perspective for a predominantly western capitalist audience than to its employment, specifically, of deconstructionist techniques.
48. See Bortnichak and Bortnichak, ‘The New Wagnerian Menagerie’ (note 15). Also, reviews of current Bayreuth ‘Holländer’, ‘Tannhäuser’ and ‘Lohengrin’ productions by these same authors at www.thewagnerjournal online site.
49. Patric Seibert, ‘Oil I, II, III, IV’ and ‘Primordial Depths’, Bayreuther Festspiele: Programmheft, Der Ring des Nibelungen (2013), 40–43, 48–69 (English text).
50. Posthumanism refers to the state of over-reliance on the unrestrained use of technology and science to the point where individual human characteristics and values are altered, as portrayed in Aldous Huxley’s classic novel Brave New World (1932), and in the social critiques of C. S. Lewis and Feodor Dostoyevsky. Many contemporary philosophers and bioethicists view the ‘posthuman’condition as the near-future negative extreme of our current, generally positive, emphasis on life-extending and life-enhancing biotechnology; our interim state is commonly referred to as ‘transhuman’ or transhumanism. For an excellent, comprehensive discussion of these topics, especially the threat that some hypothesise posthumanism will pose to our present social integration and understanding of personhood, see Francis Fukuyama, Our Posthuman Future: Consequences of the Biotechnology Revolution (New York, 2002).
51. Michael P. Steinberg, Listening to Reason: Culture, Subjectivity, and Nineteenth-Century Music (Princeton, NJ, 2004), 148.
52. Edward A. Bortnichak and Paula M. Bortnichak, ‘The “Missing Link” in the Evolution of Wagner’s Siegfried’, The Wagner Journal, x/2 (2016), 4–17.
53. See note 50.
54. Patric Seibert, Bayreuther Festspiele: Programmheft, Der Ring des Nibelungen (2015), 73 (English text for direct reference by Dr. Seibert).
55. Tash Siddiqui, ‘Sex, Lies and Videotape’, The Wagner Journal, viii/3 (2014), 52–9.
56. Anselm Ritter von Feuerbach, ‘Kaspar Hauser’, The Wild Child: The Unsolved Mystery of Kaspar Hauser, tr. and introduced by Jeffrey Moussaieff Masson (New York, London, Toronto, Sydney, Singapore, 1997), 85.
57. Feodor Dostoyevsky, The Crocodile (Create Space Independent Publishing Platform, 2014), 1–42.