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Deconstruction and the Modern Bayreuth Festival

Edward A. Bortnichak and Paula M. Bortnichak



‘Du bist nicht, was du dich wähnst!’(You are not what you believe yourself!)

The Wanderer to Erda, ‘Siegfried’, Act III, Scene 1


Richard Wagner’s oft-quoted rallying cry of ‘Children! Create something new! Something new! And again something new!’, takes on renewed meaning today due to the remarkable stream of bold interpretations of his works at Bayreuth over the past decade beginning with Christoph Schlingensief’s ‘Parsifal’ in 2004 and continuing without interruption up to the bicentenary production of the ‘Ring’ by director Frank Castorf.1 These productions have revealed a plethora of new interpretative potential embedded in Wagner’s rich musical and poetic language.


We will discuss the origins and logic of these new modes of dramaturgical narrative, examine how they can flow naturally from the fabric of the text and music of the works, and conclude by providing a dramaturgical analysis of the Castorf ‘Ring’ which will demonstrate how a post-dramatic approach to Wagner’s great tetralogy opens up new vistas of understanding. An appreciation of this production requires nothing less than for us to engage with the ever-vital ‘Artwork of the Future’ of Richard Wagner by becoming that audience of the future that he envisioned – audience partners who are open to emerging trends in world theatre, as Wagnerian music drama is both an integral part of, and a potent force in shaping, those prevailing currents.

1. The relativity of meaning

Before we consider the modern stage representations of Wagner, we must first consider the context for those presentations. That context ultimately requires a basic understanding of the options available to us for how we communicate with and understand one another, and an appreciation that the range and nature of those options have taken major strides forward over the past half-century. Pivotal scholarship in philosophy, linguistics, literary criticism and the social sciences has advanced our knowledge of how we interact and have had a profound impact in shaping contemporary society and, with it, contemporary artistic expression.

Although recognition of the elusive meaning of words and actions is not new, allowing this very imprecision to take ‘centre stage’ certainly is. Consider an example from one of the most cherished icons of Western culture, Shakespeare’s ‘Hamlet’, specifically the following, apparently straightforward, exchange between Polonius and Hamlet in Act II, Scene 2:

Polonius: ‘What do you read, my lord?’

Hamlet: ‘Words, words, words.’

Polonius: ‘What is the matter, my lord?’

Hamlet: ‘Between who?’

Polonius: ‘I mean, the matter that you read, my lord?’2

It is still an open question as to what either of these characters intends to communicate in this brief exchange (one of a myriad of such enigmatic exchanges in this play) and, more importantly, what the play, ‘Hamlet’, indeed may ‘mean’. Each of us, with each new exposure to the play, may perceive the meaning of any line differently, and the shifting nuance of meaning drives our personal interpretation of the characters, their situations and, ultimately, of the drama itself. Seen on a different day, in a different personal context and with a cast ‘feeling’ the play differently, we might take away something entirely different from the experience. The essential elusiveness of Hamlet’s meaning here, or of Wotan’s rationalisation that Brünnhilde is an extension of his ‘will’ in Act II of ‘Die Walküre’ (e.g. certainly Brünnhilde fails to ‘read’ her father correctly in that instance, or does she?), or to something as seemingly mundane as greeting our neighbour with the expression/question, ‘How are you?’, are symptoms of the inherent imprecision of language and the root of our (mis)communications. The ultimate struggle of our common humanity, and the engine that sets in motion the events and concepts that shape our existence – our friendships formed, our business transacted, our battles fought, and our deities worshipped – is our perpetual struggle to be comprehended and to comprehend. It is the defining feature of our current era that we can no longer ignore this reality. Theoreticians from a plethora of fields have focused our attention on this fact of our human condition, and our art over the past half-century, to various degrees, reflects that new-found focus. Contemporary ‘legitimate’ experimental theatre has taken the vanguard in expressing the ambiguity of meaning with movements, such as the Theatre of the Absurd, and modern opera production, in the form of the imprecisely named Regietheater, has more recently taken up the challenge.

The insight that we have today into the structure and function of language is largely due to the remarkable achievements of 20th-century scholars, especially in post-World War II France, building on the vast cultural history and philosophical traditions passed down to them through the ages. This will, perforce, be a selective overview of those achievements, but it will attempt to identify what is essential to understand from this scholarship before considering the Castorf ‘Ring’ at Bayreuth. We will focus on the two schools of thought that most directly frame our understanding of current staging practice, structuralism and post-structuralism, and the two philosophers/linguistic scholars, Ferdinand de Saussure and Jacques Derrida that respectively led these movements toward a richer understanding of the mechanics, function and ‘meaning’ of language, and of all cultural applications, including theatre (and opera), dependent on it.

Ferdinand de Saussure and structuralism

The origins of structuralism can be traced back to the work of the Swiss linguist and semiotician Ferdinand de Saussure (1857–1913).3

item1Ferdinand de Saussure

Saussure’s theories fuelled applications in early 20th-century philosophy (e.g. Louis Althusser), psychoanalysis (e.g. Jacques Lacan), and anthropology (e.g. Claude Lévi–Strauss); the last of these, Lévi-Strauss, first labelled the movement ‘structuralism’. Other prominent thinkers who expanded the horizons of the movement and led to its evolution into post-structuralism were the literary theorist/philosopher Roland Barthes and the social historian/philosopher Michel Foucault.

Structuralism can be summarised as the belief that the phenomena of human life can only be understood through interrelations between the various components/facets of existence, and that this complex web of defining, essential connections (i.e. ‘structure’) is governed by fixed, abstract, cultural principles. Furthermore, structuralists, across all disciplines, hold that analyses of language, in all its constituent components of sound, structure and sense, provide the key to deciphering the structures governing human existence. This structure behind everything may not be immediately apparent, but, through linguistic study, it is discoverable. Language encodes as well as determines the structure of our culture, in that language, and our resultant perceptions as based on it, are built up of largely binary opposites: yes or no, have or have nots, agreement or disagreement, belonging to a specific group or not, etc. The concentration on language as the key for making sense of everything stems from the foundational work of Saussure that held that linguistic signs (i.e. words) can be divided into two components: a signifier (i.e. sound pattern) and a signified (i.e. a meaning or idea). These signs are arbitrary and are assigned differently in various languages and cultural systems. Finally, the meanings of signs are based on their relationships and their contrasts with other signs. ‘Meaning’ is not universal; it does not come from any external reference point in the world, but, rather, it is the unique invention by language in each culture. This inherent quality of difference as the driving force of all language and the relativity of meaning had profound implications for understanding the world from the perspectives of every field (including national politics) and as represented in all the arts. Saussure’s study of semiotics was published, posthumously, in 1916 in his monumental ‘Course in General Linguistics’. This model for how we communicate and derive meaning from our words, as based on principles derived from analysing the structure of language, provided the framework for understanding human interaction, in general, for the first half of the 20th century.

Jacques Derrida and post-structuralism

The post-structuralists began by expanding on their structuralist roots and eventually concluded that attempts to discern the structure underlying everything (pivoting, as always, on the dissection of language) were futile and misguided. Instead, post-structuralists hold that our communications, and indeed the totality of our interactions, as reflected in human discourse, can only be interpreted by exposing the alternatives and inconsistencies in that discourse. The goal of their efforts is to liberate language and us from all socially embedded conceptual constraints, and to enable each of us to derive the associations that we perceive to be most meaningful to us at any given moment. Vive la différence! It is important to clear up a common misunderstanding from the start and emphasise that the post-structuralists are not arguing that words and symbols and the text/speech streams of which they consist have no meaning, but rather that they can have a variety of meanings and that choosing between these alternatives is each reader/hearer’s responsibility. Reading, listening and, by extension, theatre and opera-going are not spectator sports for adherents to this school of thought – they demand active participation from their audiences.

The chief analytic method used to expose the imprecision of all signs and symbols is the semiotic process of ‘deconstruction’, and the French linguist and philosopher Jacques Derrida (1930–2004) in his magnum opus ‘Of Grammatology’ (1967) is the pivot point for the analytic method of deconstruction and for the entire post-structuralist movement which hinges upon it.4




Post-structuralism, or ‘Anti-structuralism’ as Derrida preferred to call it, is a component of ‘postmodern’ thought and society – the broad designation for the period that we now live in which is marked by the ideas of Derrida and other, similar-minded ‘Cold War’-era thinkers and artists.5 Derrida’s ‘Of Grammatology’ is an essential, but, admittedly, difficult book, and the concepts contained in it are probably most readily grasped by considering the changes in literary criticism and artistic expression that were directly catalysed by its publication.6 In a sense, it is best seen and appreciated by its reflected light, and that light was, indeed, bright. Its impact on the theatre has been especially pronounced in that it either directly or indirectly provided the theoretical framework for all forms of contemporary experimental theatre practice, including Absurdist Theatre, multimedia stage installations and Regietheater.

What are the essential principles of a post-structuralist analysis of a text, or of any phenomenon, using the deconstructive approach proposed by Derrida? At the core of deconstruction is the hypothesis that, to quote the excellent introduction by Christopher Butler, ‘the relationship of language to reality is not given, or even reliable, since all language systems are inherently unreliable cultural constructs.’7 This is in direct contradistinction to the pervading assumption throughout prior centuries of western philosophy, including ‘pure’ structuralist thought, that there is an inherent and discernible fixed relationship between language (i.e. how we express things) and the world – that is, there is an absolute meaning that is uncovered once one deciphers the governing structure of a given sign system. Ultimately, ‘God’ is traditionally considered in most cultures to be the ur-structure, the grandest of all grand narratives, and the font of all meaning, but a Derridean analyst would not automatically conclude that even such a culturally endorsed and cherished construct is the sole explanation for a given phenomenon. Deconstruction is a method of analysis that begins by rejecting the existence of any grand narrative, and this renders it completely unpalatable to some who are wedded to a single social, political, or spiritual ur-solution. It removes the traditional anchors, and forces the individual to reassess and reset balances; this can be intolerably disruptive and disturbing for some, and herein lies the continued controversy surrounding post-structuralism and its methods. It must be stressed that deconstruction is not synonymous with destruction; Derrida was emphatic about countering that common misreading of his work. The deconstructionist is, rather, like a fine arts restorer who painstakingly, and with reverence for his object, scrapes away the layers of accumulated materials that have, over the ages, served to obfuscate the work, in his attempt to reveal again the nuanced masterpiece that lies beneath. Derrida’s method of deconstruction can also be likened to Freudian psychoanalysis in that thought associations float in and out of consciousness and morph in meaning and significance as the analysand lives, reflects and continually integrates old memories with new experiences. Indeed, Derrida frequently acknowledged Freud as the immediate precursor to his own work. Derridean philosophy, like Freudian psychology, also shares parallels with the fluid, non-representational and integrative nature of the Buddhist spiritual tradition. (We note here Richard Wagner’s enormous attraction to Buddhist thought from the early 1850s onward.8)

To propel his arguments forward, Derrida introduced a plethora of linguistic and semiotic principles and technical/operational terms, but, for our present purposes, we will offer the following distillation of the principles of deconstruction (sans jargon, wherever possible), as is generally useful to understand applications to theatre, and, by extension, to opera:

a) Neither the written nor the spoken word (de Saussure posited speech as the preeminent form of expression, but Derrida does not give pride of place to either), or musical notation, as heard or written, is definite; all signs and symbols are open to a myriad of meanings depending on context, and we constantly construct and deconstruct meanings from such fragments.

b) Any artwork always accommodates and transitions between multiple meanings. There is no one or even a small set of inherent meanings placed into the work by its author, as the author’s thoughts and words (or music, in the case of a composer) are subject to the same natural evolutionary process of deconstruction as are those of his audiences. This point concerning the author is made especially powerfully by another post-structuralist pioneer, Roland Barthes, in his seminal 1967 essay ‘The Death of the Author’.9

item3Roland Barthes

Barthes’ observation that the author (or composer) is, figuratively and often quite literally, dead, in the sense that he cannot now, or ever could, ‘set’ the one true meaning for his work, is an essential principle underlying all deconstructions. Nothing is fixed or ‘given’; there is complete relativity in everything. As in particle physics, the building blocks of nature – atoms in the physical sciences and words in semiotics – are in constant motion and transformation. Structures are ultimately mutable and indeterminate; only change is a constant. This is a basic principle for how a post-structuralist perceives the world.

c) The job of the interpreter/director of an artwork, especially evident in live theatre and opera, is to search for and creatively utilise the points of alternatives inherent in the work that could lead to major new avenues of interpretation. The emphasis on ‘major’ is important; as the moral philosopher Bernard Williams has pointed out, an effective post-structuralist production will never be a mere comment on the work, but rather will materially change how an audience perceives that work.10 These points of alternatives upon which the deconstruction pivots are generally referred to as ‘deconstructive nodes’. Interpretative concentration along such naturally occurring ‘fault lines’ within the work will help the audience realise potential alternative meanings for their consideration and integration. Also, particularly relevant in applications to Wagnerian music drama, with its heavy reliance on characters recalling past events as supported by new leitmotif underpinnings, is the Derridean principle that ‘iterability alters’ – that is repetition is a signpost for the presence of deconstructive nodes in that no repeat/recollection carries identical meaning to prior instances.11

d) The task for the director/artist is not to resolve conflict, but rather to enable it to enrich how we perceive the work and its relevance to our lives. Authors/composers of genius have given us especially rich vehicles to stimulate valuable and highly personal associations once their work is freed from convention through such deconstruction-driven production approaches. It is our job, as an audience, to integrate, interpret and, indeed, ‘co-create’ the work anew with each exposure to it.

These constantly evolving meanings are driven by the inherent opposition in meaning embedded in all sign systems, already observed by Saussure and others during the structuralist period. For example: traditionally, we can force an understanding of what is ‘male’ only by knowing what is ‘female’. However, a Derridean would expand this example by noting (correctly, as we now recognise from transgender studies in a variety of both natural and social sciences) that even gender is ultimately a social construct and not just a binary choice dictated by biology. Every word association, in context or in isolation, is made up of such choices between options, and, upon closer inspection, the options for meanings are not as limited as first thought. To capture this essence of language, either written or oral, Derrida coined the term ‘différance’ (with the ‘a’), which is deliberately homophonous with the word ‘différence’.12 Différance makes use of the fact that the French word différer means both ‘to defer’ and ‘to differ’. Thus, in this invented term which sounds like either root, Derrida demonstrates the fluidity of meaning in all language. Finally, the deconstructive nodes inherent in the text of any language are marked by such literary devices (and their musical complements if we are considering opera) as irony (in many forms), parody, mirroring, metaphor and ‘erasure’. The latter, ‘erasure’, is the practice sometimes encountered (and a favourite of Derrida’s) of leaving ‘cross-outs’ in a text and thereby visibly acknowledging that a term that one is forced to select is inadequate yet necessary because nothing better exists. All of these literary devices are signposts pointing to deconstructive nodal points. In the following two sections we will explore these ideas further with respect to the works of Richard Wagner. Wagner’s music dramas have already been ‘mapped’, both in theory and in actual theatrical practice, as to the possible location of these deconstructive nodes. Indeed, the Bayreuth Festival in recent seasons has provided an especially vital laboratory for such theatrical voyages of discovery.

2. Wagner as post-structuralist visionary

Richard Wagner died approximately 80 years before the formal exposition of post-structuralist thought, but we contend that a close examination of his output for the stage, as well as his theories of art, shows him to be a visionary in the interpretation of text that makes his artwork especially ripe for, and compatible with, contemporary deconstructionist treatment. The usual question asked by audiences when evaluating a new production of a Wagner work, or, for that matter, any stage work, is ‘what did the author/composer intend?’, or, alternatively, ‘is this staging being true to the author/composer (Werktreue)?’ However, to follow through with Derridean logic, we must conclude that these are not useful or answerable questions. Indeed, there exists an extensive and complex literature within aesthetic philosophy on ‘intention’ in works of art, and this body of scholarship is unanimous, through various lines of reasoning, that we can never definitively know what an artist ‘had in mind’ (i.e. ‘intended’) with a work of art. Thus, there can be no ‘right’ answer to what a piece of art means. This has been famously dubbed the ‘intentional fallacy’, originally by Winsatt and Beardsley in 1946, and it argues against limiting the interpretation of a work to its source and to aspects of the artist’s biography.13 Those who still today cling to the illusion that we can determine what is faithful to the intent of the artist either do not know or deny the existence of this long-standing body of scholarly work. We are also reminded by the previously cited Roland Barthes paper that our author, Richard Wagner, is most certainly ‘dead’, in every sense of that designation, and that is true even in Bayreuth where, ever since his physical death in 1883 and continuing until only recently, powerful production biases, abetted by an unusually tradition-bound audience, have conspired to convince us otherwise. Instead, let us employ a Derridean perspective to turn this question into something potentially meaningful and instead ask ‘what is the evidence from within the works, and from the author’s biography and theories of art, that points to viable options for relevant interpretations in our own time? Recognising that it is not possible ever to obtain one ultimate answer, and that judgmental positions are anathema to free discourse (Derridean or otherwise), we will investigate what paths open up wide before us when we employ post-structuralist analytic methods.

3. Wagner in theory and practice

Even a casual review of the composer’s biography and theoretical writings quickly leads to the over-riding conclusion that we are dealing with a highly progressive and unconventional thinker with regard to the arts. His views were considered incendiary in his own time, and are still considered ‘cutting edge’ today. This impression is confirmed in countless biographical accounts and critical studies of his life and art, and is well documented by the tepid or even hostile reception by the operatic power-brokers in his lifetime of his major ideas, and by the active debate that such theoretical works as ‘The Artwork of the Future, ‘Opera and Drama’, and ‘Religion and Art’ can still stimulate today. Clearly, one well-established context for understanding the works and the man himself is as social revolutionary, and a long line of Wagner scholarship from the early 20th-century commentaries of Bernard Shaw on the ‘Ring’ to the work of the present authors on bioethical themes in recent Bayreuth productions, certainly fits into this category.14, 15 Another well-travelled avenue for placing the artist and his accomplishments in perspective is that of Wagner as insight-oriented psychological pioneer, as the compelling Jungian analysis by Donington of the ‘Ring’, or of a multitude of Freudian analysts of the man and his work, such as Otto Rank’s analysis of ‘Lohengrin’ or of Richard Chessick’s evaluation of the ‘Ring’ as the composer’s fantasy of pre-oedipal destruction, clearly attest.16, 17, 18

The masterly study by Patrick Carnegy, ‘Wagner and the Art of the Theatre’, provides a detailed account of Wagner’s many innovations, both before his Bayreuth period when he was hostage to the routine of the established theatres of his day, and, of course, afterwards when he enjoyed relative control over staging and acting practices in his own theatre at Bayreuth.19 Carnegy makes the essential point that what Wagner theorised and what he could actually achieve on stage, even in his Festspielhaus, were often divergent, and that this can be attributed to the practical, technical limitations of stagecraft in his day. His achievements must be seen in the context of his time. After the inaugural ‘Ring’ production of 1876, he was sufficiently dissatisfied with the theatrical realisation of his work famously to remark to his staging assistant and movement consultant, Richard Fricke, that ‘next year we will do it all differently!’20 ‘Parsifal’ in 1882 was more of a success in terms of staging, but even then he was especially pleased with unconventional choices that did not always please his colleagues or audiences, for example, the impressionistic, carnivorous, over-sized and menacing flowers in Klingsor’s magic garden.21 His choice of scenic designer for that inaugural ‘Parsifal’ production was Paul von Joukowsky, a modernist portrait painter who had never before designed sets for the theatre.22 Joukowsky’s lack of prior theatre experience, and consequently the absence of any traditional preconceptions that would have come with such experience, were considered by Wagner to be major points in favour of Joukowsky’s selection as a collaborator – a fact we would do well to consider before criticising the relative inexperience with opera of some of the stage production talents engaged at Bayreuth in recent years. In contradistinction to many of his late Romantic era contemporaries, ‘realism’ was not a literal mandate for Wagner; he sought to represent the inner essence of a scene with whatever means were available. Verisimilitude to Wagner meant faithfulness to the ‘spirit’ of a moment, not necessarily to its ‘letter’. Although an accomplished conductor himself, it is significant that he entrusted Hans Richter, whom he admired but did not consider fully authoritative on musical aspects of his ‘Ring’, with the conducting duties of the 1876 Bayreuth premiere, while he himself concentrated on the stage direction of those first performances. He paid meticulous attention to nuances of acting and preferred to refer to his cast as ‘singing actors’. His direction of his 1876 ‘Ring’ cast, as documented in the accounts of Richard Fricke and of Heinrich Porges, show him to have been predisposed to what we would now term Personregie.23, 24 He also especially admired the use of mime – as exemplified by the acting of Joseph Jefferson as Rip van Winkle – as a compelling means for suggesting meaning.25

item5Joseph Jefferson as Rip Van

He saw theatre as public ritual/ceremony, and he envisioned each stage representation to be a unique event, after which he even indicated that he would like to ‘burn the score’.26 Again, this demonstrates that he did not view his works as museum pieces, but rather as living, evolving canvases. One is reminded of a recent, great Bayreuth practitioner, Christoph Schlingensief, who would select fresh video images and blockings for each performance to accompany the stage installation used as the environment for his ‘Parsifal’ production. This is very much in keeping with the sentiments that Wagner expressed in his ‘burn the score’ and ‘do something new’ comments, and it is all very post-structuralist (as well as Buddhist) in orientation. All of this is evidence that Richard Wagner was moving toward a fluidity of expression and openness to ‘meaning’ that is consistent with modern-day post-structuralist thought and practice. Directors and scenic artists, starting with Adolphe Appia and Edward Gordon Craig in the late 1880s, and continuing to the postmodernists of today, look to Wagner’s writings on the theatre, as well as to the unique design features of his Bayreuth Festspielhaus in promoting illusion, mysticism and total immersion and concentration of an audience, to support their own uniquely different interpretations of his works.

Wagner’s theoretical pronouncements about art show great consistency with regard to his desire to produce innovative works that would invite and demand interpretation. His main theoretical manifesto, ‘Opera and Drama’, has, as its central purpose, the objective of breaking with the artistic practices of his day, uniting the fragmented arts of the theatre, and resurrecting the function and status of performance art as the potent socio-political, integrative force in the community that he (correctly) surmised it had once served in ancient Hellenic society.27 ‘Opera and Drama’ also clearly presents his expectation that generations to come would re-interpret all myths handed down to them, including those new ones that he constructed as vehicles for his own works, as warranted by the unique needs and perspectives of those future audiences which would be, of course, unknowable to him. Wagner had no illusion that a single, ‘right’ meaning could ever be assigned to complex mythic/legendary material for all peoples in all times. Scholars such as Theodor Adorno and Mary Cicora have compellingly argued that Wagner’s own philosophy of art, as detailed in ‘Opera and Drama’, and as evidenced by the structure and function of the ‘texts’, both literary and musical, of each work in the Bayreuth canon, was a precursor of Derrida, deconstruction and the post-structuralist movement.28, 29, 30 It follows that the origin of the Regietheater approach to the presentation of his music dramas is rooted in the deep musings of the artist about the ephemeral meanings of words and music. Significantly, he struggled with the problem of how even to name his works from the very beginning – his early references to ‘Fliegender Holländer’ are as a ‘dramatic ballad’, the ‘Ring’ was ‘a stage festival play’, ‘Tristan und Isolde’ was an ‘action in three acts’ and ‘Parsifal’ is still referred to by his original characterisation of it as a ‘stage consecrating festival play’. All very Derridean, indeed!

4. The deconstructive potential in Wagner’s music dramas

The comparative literature scholar Mary Cicora published a remarkable series of books in the late 1990s to early 2000s that map the potential deconstructive elements in all ten of Wagner’s mature stage works. 31, 32 This was the first such comprehensive attempt to dissect the works from a post-structuralist perspective, and it remains singularly important amid the vast literature available on this composer. It deserves to be much better known than it appears to be, judging from its infrequent referencing in both popular and scholarly recent encyclopaedic publications on Wagner. Cicora’s analysis holds Wagner to be a forerunner of Derridean deconstruction. The composer’s complex and multifaceted blending of history, contemporary social criticism and re-fashioning/retro-fitting of myth (i.e. second-order mythology), combined with the creation of introspective and strikingly modern characters who undermine the structures of signification of their own storylines along deconstructive nodal points in the drama and score, is recognisable today as being completely consistent with the principles of Derridean literary criticism. Cicora is especially concerned with a type of literary device that regularly serves to mark deconstructive nodes in Wagnerian opera, and in the literature of the 19th century in general, especially evident in the works of E.T.A. Hoffmann, one of Wagner’s favourite authors: Romantic irony. Romantic irony is a specific form of expression in which an author ‘breaks character’ within a work and reveals his recognition of his work as a fictional illusion.33 It is the literary expression of self–consciousness, and Wagner, through the words and leitmotif underpinnings of his characters, regularly exhibits this trait of switching back and forth between planes of perspective. The persistent reflection and self-insight of nearly all principal characters in Wagner (one may think of Wotan and Amfortas as especially notable examples of this) underscore the composer’s heavy reliance on Romantic irony as a prime device in his works and thus the opening-up of deconstruction of meaning. Deconstruction yields significant new interpretative possibilities for contemporary directors and scenic artists. Cicora provides detailed examples from each of the music dramas in the Bayreuth canon, and her exhaustive investigations will reward careful study.

Cicora dedicates an entire book to evaluating the post-structuralist essence of Wagner’s vast ‘Der Ring des Nibelungen’; we will attempt to summarise both the points she raises and our own, as stimulated by her scholarship, in just a couple of paragraphs.34 In brief, the main deconstructive textual elements occurring in the non-’Ring’ works are clearly operating in the ‘Ring’ as well: the invented myth that merges contemporary history and social critique with the epic world of the sagas, the creation of an archaic-sounding poetry (i.e. Stabreim), the dominance of the literary devices of deconstruction – especially metaphor and Romantic irony – and the evolution of a new and uniquely multivalent system of signification for the symbols presented. Added to all of this, the ‘Ring’ is the ideal vehicle to concentrate attention on one more essential building block of the Wagnerian art of transition and musical organisation: the leitmotif system. It is a system that is first developed to its full range in the composition of the ‘Ring’. The leitmotif structure is, in itself, the ultimate deconstructive weapon in the Wagnerian arsenal by virtue of its ability constantly and seamlessly to trigger reminiscences and associations in the hearer and thereby to stimulate the listener continually to re-evaluate and, perhaps, alter meaning, within the work.

Wagner’s literary magnum opus, ‘Opera and Drama’, published in 1852 but the product, like the ‘Ring’, of many years of labour, stands as the theoretical blueprint for his magnum opus for the stage, Der Ring des Nibelungen.35, 36




Cicora persuasively argues that the far–ranging political and aesthetic programme proposed for opera in ‘Opera and Drama’ is practically demonstrated in the complex, multilayered sequence of alternative meanings in the ‘Ring’, and that the cycle is a vast example of a ‘myth as metaphor’ (Cicora’s phrase) which the composer openly invites every generation to interpret anew with the statement, in ‘Opera and Drama’, that the ‘highest possible task of the poet (is to) clearly and consciously re-create myth to suit the needs and world view of the present day and bring this modern myth to an understandable presentation in drama.’37 It follows, then, that the ‘meaning’ of the ‘Ring’ is expected by the composer to be constantly changing and open to debate; the work is constructed in both words and sound to be a dynamic system which emerges out of the primal E flat major of the ‘Rheingold’ prelude and the nonsense syllables of the Rhinemaidens, and never settles into a single system of signification that can adequately embrace it in its totality and for all time. This is entirely by Wagner’s design. It is ‘peopled’ with self–reflective, richly drawn characters infused with Romantic irony, of whom Wotan is the most striking example, that continually question, probe, analyse, evolve and morph in their perspectives on the drama. As they progress through the experience, so do we also have that same opportunity to reassess and reset how we consider the work. This entire manufactured myth is set within a Gesamtkunstwerk frame, as specified in ‘Opera and Drama’, that seeks to drive synergy between the disparate arts that had become fragmented in the grand opera model of Wagner’s day, and that he attempted to harness into the service of a comprehensive, communal, theatrical/ritualistic/socio-political experience which could rival ancient Hellenic models, as he understood them. This attempt to enable layers of meaning, many of which carry ‘liberal’, non-traditional, socio-political implications, or at least stimulate such manner of debate, prefigures the stated intent of much postmodern art today. Post-structuralist deconstruction-based art is overtly political, and generally to the left of the political spectrum, as was Wagner’s Gesamtkunstwerk in his own time. All of this is aided and abetted in the ‘Ring’, especially, by the ‘motifs of reminiscence’, as Wagner preferred to call his leitmotifs.38 Through this system, he had a highly plastic medium of sound to, by turns, amplify, complement and contradict the meaning embedded in the speech and actions of characters. As an especially prominent example of how a web of leitmotifs can set up interpretative alternatives, consider the case, elaborated on at length by Bernard Williams in his essay ‘Wagner and the Transcendence of Politics’, of one such deconstructive ironic interplay between text and music in Act III of ‘Götterdämmerung’: the celebratory funeral music for a ‘hero’ (i.e. Siegfried) who is not a hero.39 In this very clear example of the power of the leitmotif system, the music compels the audience to review the murdered man’s life and re-evaluate the evidence for how to consider that life. Carl Dahlhaus summed it up best when he referred to the entire leitmotif superstructure of the ‘Ring’ as ‘resounding metaphors’, and explained that the ‘meaning’ of any given leitmotif at any moment was established by its associations within the fabric of the work.40 No leitmotif has an absolute, constant, meaning and, in this respect, they are the perfect deconstructive element.

5. Everyman’s Bayreuth: Using deconstruction to achieve a new social consciousness

In prior sections we have attempted to lay the groundwork, as reflected in Wagner’s theoretical writings, staging practices, social revolutionary positions and, most importantly, in the content and method of his compositions, in support of his status as a harbinger of the post-structuralist movement, which employs deconstruction as a primary tool for textual analysis and presentation. Current productions based, to various degrees, on deconstruction of his works, especially the steady succession of stagings seen at Bayreuth over the past decade, are serving to free Wagner from the confines of his own texts and initial stage directions. In considering these new staging approaches, a useful reference point might well be to recall Patrick Carnegy’s observation about Hans-Jürgen Syberberg’s objective in translating ‘Parsifal’ to film as being the creation of ‘images not illustrative of the music, but rather inspired by it.’41 This also perfectly sums up what modern post-structuralist stage directors and scenic artists do. Audiences are invited, in a manner akin to Brechtian theatre, to witness, participate in and interpret these works as never before. The inconsistencies, contradictions, darker implications, social commentary, spirituality and transcendent glories all contained in these works are not reconciled for us, but, rather, they are laid bare for our personal consideration and integration. It is not all neatly tidied up for us, just as the genius of Richard Wagner, and the complexities, both of the man and of his times, cannot be reduced to a simple explanatory soundbite.

As so often with movements, it is not easy to assign an exact date for when the post-structuralist production trend started at Bayreuth. We contend that the earliest production that clearly employed major deconstructionist elements to achieve its effects was the centenary ‘Ring’ of Patrice Chéreau at Bayreuth in 1976.


Chéreau, like Ruth Berghaus shortly afterwards in her equally important ‘Ring’ production for Frankfurt (1985–7), embraced the non-concordance of potential ‘meanings’ within the cycle, and provided audiences with a plethora of novel, fresh images via which to forge their own comprehension of the work. The social consciousness of the presentation also marked it as theatre of the post-structuralist genre. In the extreme post-structuralism of post-dramatic directors, such as Christoph Schlingensief and Frank Castorf, the function of their theatre, consistent with Wagner’s own views, is overtly to stimulate political debate and catalyse social change.42 What was hinted at by Chéreau in his 1976 ‘Ring’ is now front and centre in the recent-era German theatrical heritage, perhaps most provocatively exemplified today by the artists of the Berlin Volksbühne, including Frank Castorf.

It is important at this point in our review of the Bayreuth experiments to note that the arrival of deconstruction and, more generally, of post-structuralist, socio-politically probing interpretations, on the ‘Green Hill’ coincides with the heyday of Derridean philosophy in the 1970s and 80s, and with its propagation by Derrida and his students beyond theory to applications in fields ranging throughout the arts and sciences.43 By the early 1980s, even though generally imperfectly understood and variously defined, ‘deconstruction’ was something of a household word on both sides of the Atlantic, as everyone appeared to be attempting to deconstruct everything. Indeed, by 1997, it was sufficiently entrenched in the popular imagination that Woody Allen provided an application of Derridean philosophy to character portrayal in his film ‘Deconstructing Harry’. Its hold both inside and outside academia was shaken in the late 1980s with the highly publicised discovery of the appropriation by the Nazis in occupied Belgium during World War II of some of the writings of Paul de Man, one of the Derrida inner circle and, at that time, the chief proponent of deconstruction in North America. The ‘de Man affair’, combined with the subsequent re-reading in some quarters of several of Martin Heidegger’s wartime writings (seminal literature for both Derrida and de Man) as anti-Semitic, further encouraged critics of Derridean philosophy to intensify their attacks on this entire body of thought and practice as politically irresponsible and dangerously ahistorical.44

Although Derrida and his supporters successfully defended themselves against these mis-readings and mis-perceptions, and their explanations/clarifications largely restored the momentum of deconstruction in most of Europe, especially France and Germany, by the early 1990s, the discipline never regained its former high status in America or Britain. It was into this cauldron of continuing controversy over the ethics and value of deconstruction that it made its full-force entry onto the Green Hill in 2004 with the Schlingensief ‘Parsifal’. Schlingensief and all the directors in this tradition that followed him to the Wagner shrine at Bayreuth were central Europeans brought up, intellectually, in the glory days of deconstructive theory and application, and by virtue of their upbringing behind or near the Iron Curtain, retained a practical respect for the utility of this line of thought as an effective antidote to political repression.45 Whereas those not sharing their formative experiences, such as many of their American critics, today view deconstruction as passé and self-indulgent, many European theatre talents regard Derridean philosophy and its applications, with its celebration of alternatives, intellectual provocation and questioning of the status quo, as vitally necessary. Finally, it is important to note that both Derridean philosophy and the modern discipline of bioethics – the latter being a body of thought upon which all Bayreuth productions over the past decade have pivoted – had their origins in the aftermath of World War II and have shaped our current concepts of civil and human rights encompassing our universal concern for the protection of each unique individual as (alternately) patient, research subject, citizen and victim of war.

The period at Bayreuth between the landmark Chéreau ‘Ring’ and the start of the current ‘Everyman’s Bayreuth’ regime of Katharina and Eva Pasquier-Wagner, was a period of twenty-five years of experimentation with a variety of approaches, the productions during this transitional period making steadily increasing use of deconstructive methods, but not, for the most part, as fully committed to this path as compared to the productions of the past decade.46 Highlights in this regard during the time of transition were Harry Kupfer’s ‘Holländer’ (1978) and ‘Ring’ (1988), Götz Friedrich’s ‘Lohengrin’ (1979) and centennial ‘Parsifal’ (1982), Heiner Müller’s ‘Tristan und Isolde’ (1993) and Claus Guth’s ‘Holländer’ (2003).47 We also recognise the importance of the highly imaginative and deconstruction-oriented interpretative insights of the Jean–Pierre Ponnelle ‘Tristan und Isolde’ in 1981 and the Keith Warner ‘Lohengrin’ of 1999.

This brings us to the current regime at Bayreuth, ushered in with the landmark postdramatic production of ‘Parsifal’ by the late Christoph Schlingensief in 2004, and continuing, with ever-growing gale force, to the present Frank Castorf ‘Ring’ (2013). Along the way, the post-structuralist heritage has been maintained through Christoph Marthaler’s ‘Tristan und Isolde’ (2005), Tankred Dorst’s ‘Ring’ (2006), Katharina Wagner’s ‘Meistersinger’ (2007), Stefan Herheim’s ‘Parsifal’ (2008), Hans Neuenfels’ ‘Lohengrin’ (2010), Sebastian Baumgarten’s ‘Tannhäuser’ (2011), and Jan Philipp Gloger’s ‘Holländer’ (2012).

HerheimParsifal2Set for Stefan Herheim's 'Parsifal'

As we have explored all of these productions in detail elsewhere, we refer interested readers to that material for an extended discussion of this most recent decade at Bayreuth.48 Suffice it to note here that this has been a virtual tsunami of deconstruction-based production by some of the movement’s best direction, scenic design and dramaturgical talents, all united in the common goal of challenging traditionally held beliefs on the meaning of these works as conditioned by their 19th-century origins, and in discovering potential new systems of signification embedded within them that will enable new associations and resonances for today’s audiences.

Castorf’s ‘Ring’ rounds out this remarkable decade with a heavily deconstructed production that presents the Nibelungen myth as the modern parable of our own crazed fixation on the quest for power and world domination through the control of ‘liquid gold’ – oil. His ‘Ring’ is populated by places and characters that we can recognise over the tortured past century of that search, and that mirror what we have, as a result, ourselves become. If the perversion of the symbols of our ‘success’ – such as that of the iconic statue of the bull in front of the New York Stock Exchange, or the faces of the Communist ‘heroes’ superimposed on Mount Rushmore – repulse us and make us uncomfortable, then Castorf and his creative team have achieved their objective of making us see ourselves in a different, less flattering, light than that to which we are normally accustomed, and to seriously reconsidering the lessons for us inherent in Wagner’s ‘Ring’. We turn our attention now to an in-depth exploration of the dramaturgy of this landmark postdramatic production.

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