Wagner and Ancient Greece
[Richard Wagner, Art and Revolution, 1849]
Athenian Tragedy and Attic Festivals
he origins of the festivals dedicated to Dionysus are lost in the mists of time but beyond all doubt they began as fertility rituals. In the Attic country festivals (the Rural Dionysia) there were animal sacrifices, processions in which slaves carried a large phallus, and performances of tragedies, comedies and dithyramb. At Eleutherae there was a cult of Dionysus of the black goatskin for which men dressed in goatskins and danced a satyr dance. Probably during the 6th century Dionysus Eleuthereus arrived in Athens where a spring festival was established (the Great Dionysia). There were sacrifices and processions in which Dionysus was accompanied by goatlike satyrs, culminating in four days of theatrical performances. In the classical period it became the tradition for three playwrights to compete, each with three tragedies and a satyr play, performed over these four days. The tragedies presented gods, heroes and other characters that the audience would be familiar with from myths or from the poems of Homer. The satyr play was a bawdy comedy, which typically would parody the tragedies that had preceded it, with a chorus (thiasos) of satyrs telling riddles and vulgar jokes while waving their exaggerated fake genitalia at the audience.
arly in the 19th century AD there was a growing interest in classical Greece, not only among scholars but also amongst other literate people, throughout Europe and especially in Germany. The young Richard Wagner, who as a schoolboy had been fascinated by the poems of Homer, became inspired by accounts of the Attic festivals. Although he had grown up in a theatrical family, Wagner was disenchanted with the commercial theatre. The kind of theatre that he proposed would be performed in festivals, like the Dionysia, in which the local community would come together to share the experience of dramas based on themes from their own mythic traditions. These dramas would, like those of classical Greece, involve poetry, music and dance. While he was composing a serious opera about a legendary song contest held on the Wartburg in the middle ages, Wagner had the idea of following it with a "satyr play", a comic opera, in which the song contest of Tannhäuser would be parodied: this would be written around a story about the cobbler-poet Hans Sachs.
urprisingly, given his enthusiasm for classical Greece, Wagner never visited the temples and ampitheatres of Athens, Ephesus or Epidauros. In 1850, whilst in exile from Saxony and in conflict with his wife Minna, Wagner met Jessie Laussot, the English-born wife of a Bordeaux wine merchant. It seems to have been more of an intellectual friendship than a love affair, although that it may have been too. Wagner and Jessie planned to escape to Greece and Asia Minor. This scheme was blocked by the intervention of Jessie's husband, an action which Wagner in his autobiography decribed as unreasonable and intolerable. But M. Laussot removed his wife from Bordeaux and reported Wagner to the police; and that was the end of plans for an expedition to the ruins of classical Greece.
The Ring and Classical Greek Drama
everal commentators (see below for selected references) have pointed to connections between classical Greek tragedies and Wagner's Der Ring des
Nibelungen. Most obviously, the latter is a tetralogy, as were the Attic tragedies and intended for performance at a festival over four days. Although Wagner's "satyr-play" comes not at the end but
as an introductory evening: he never called it a satyr play. Wagner had the greatest admiration for the Oresteia of Aeschylus, saying on the last day of his life,
hen there is Homer, a poet who fascinated Wagner in his schooldays. M. Owen Lee has detailed the parallels and similarities between various scenes in the
Iliad and the Odyssey, and the visit of a ghostly Alberich to Hagen in Götterdämmerung. These scenes typically begin with
Community and Ethos
agner's revolutionary writings, in particular The Artwork of the Future, read like a manifesto for the
future of communal drama, which was to take place in festivals and not in the commercial theatre. But there is a discernable subtext: Wagner was also writing about the project that was forming in his
mind, that of expanding his opera about Siegfried into a tetralogy. This specific artwork would follow the new principles that he set out in Opera and Drama and it would be an exemplary "artwork
of the future". This artwork and others that Wagner expected to follow it, made on the same pattern, were to be created in the spirit of classical Greek tragedy. Not as a re-creation of that genre in the
spirit of superficial literalism but embodying its artistic essence. Wagner believed in communities (Gemeinden) and in a concept of the people (das Volk) — he was a communitarian rather than a
communist — as individuals brought together by a collective sense of need and ready to act in accordance with their common need. The community would gather to witness a performance, as the
Athenians had done, to share in a common ethos (the word that Wagner employs is Sittlichkeit) that was to be reinforced by the words and action of the drama they witnessed. As Wagner described
it, the Greek artwork reinforced the common ethos of the community; when that common ethos split into
agner held that Greek tragedy was the highest point so far reached in human creative activity and that the Athenian
Bryan Magee, Aspects of Wagner, first edition 1972, pp.12-13
he first and shortest of the revolutionary essays is Die Kunst und die Revolution (Art and Revolution). It sets out the basic ideas that Wagner would elaborate upon in later essays.
[Sir Hugh Lloyd-Jones, Blood for the Ghosts]
hen the Athenian festivals were abandoned, according to Wagner, the arts became separated and developed independently. It was necessary to draw them together again and to bring together the community to witness performances of life-affirming drama. The process of decay had started with the Romans, claimed Wagner (whose accounts of history were often fanciful), and then had been accelerated by Christianity, which had become a life-denying religion. Christian art was no true art, for it could relate only to abstract spiritual ideas and to the grace of the Christian Creator God. By Wagner's own time, modern drama had separated into spoken plays on the one hand and opera, in which words were secondary to the music, on the other. True drama like Greek tragedy would employ music, poetry and dance together. These arts could only be reunited by revolution. The artwork of the future, wrote Wagner, must embrace the spirit of a free mankind, delivered from every shackle of hampering nationality; its national imprint must be no more than an embellishment, the individual charm of manifold diversity, and not a confining boundary. Wagner developed these arguments further in his next essay, Das Kunstwerk der Zukunft (The Artwork of the Future).
[Jack M. Stein, Professor of Germanic Languages and Literature, Harvard University: Richard Wagner and the Synthesis of the Arts, 1960.]
Antigone and Anarchism
Wagner's Opera and Drama, 1851, part II.
t is not the Oresteia or any other play by Aeschylus that Wagner highlights in his Opera and Drama, however. He devotes several pages to a discussion of the Oedipus plays by Sophocles. In particular he discusses the actions of Antigone: who was probably a major source of inspiration for Wagner's character Brünnhilde. As with Wotan, Fricka and Erda, Wagner's heroine is more like a character in classical tragedy that any found in the Eddas. Sophocle's Antigone was topical following an 1841 performance of the play in its translation by Johann Jakob Donner, and in a staging by Ludwig Tieck. This was given at the Prussian court theatre in Potsdam; with choruses and incidental music by Felix Mendelssohn2. Although Antigone, in an abridged version, had been staged already in 1809 by Goethe in Weimar, Tieck's staging was the first to attempt an "authentic" classical performance, with some concessions to modern tastes.
Left: Antigone cancels the State. Catherine Foster as Brünnhilde in the Bayreuth Ring directed by Frank Castorf.
the time of his "revolutionary" theoretical writings (Art and Revolution 1849, The Artwork of the Future 1849,
Opera and Drama 1851), Wagner was an anarchist in his political outlook, although he preferred to describe himself as utopian. In order to establish a better world, he argued, it was necessary
first to tear down the institutions of the state, and then to replace a society which served the interests of classes and individuals with one that provided for common need, the needs of the community.
His views had been influenced in particular by the anarchist Mikhail Bakunin. Both living in Dresden, they went for long walks together, during which Wagner talked about his plans for a "Siegfried opera"
(Siefried's Tod) and Bakunin about his plans for world revolution. For the anarchistic Wagner, Antigone was the perfect model for an anarchistic heroine. Not just the perfect model but, as
Wagner described her in part II of his Opera and Drama, Antigone was
cholars and other commentators will never agree on the extent of continuity in Wagner's thinking before and after his discovery of Schopenhauer's
philosophy, which happened in the autumn of 1854, while Wagner was composing the first act of Die Walküre. There is a consensus, however, about this being a watershed event, dividing Wagner's
life into two parts: before Schopenhauer, and after Schopenhauer. Before Schopenhauer, in his period of "Greek optimism", Wagner saw possibilities for making a better world, in which communities would
come together to celebrate their ethos in festivals of dramatic art, in the spirit of classical Athens. After that time, mankind had taken the wrong path, and religion had failed the people by becoming
life-denying instead of life-affirming. But as Wagner became converted to Schopenhauerian pessimism, he realised that his former view of the world was in error, and his hopes for revolution and a rebirth
of the Greek idea could not be fulfilled. One consequence of his change in outlook was that the ending of his Ring tetralogy was no longer valid: instead of Brünnhilde declaring
Wagner Festivals and Wagnerian Theatre
Left: The revolution arrives in Bayreuth. The quotation is from Die Revolution, an article attributed to Wagner, written at the time of the Dresden uprising.
he Athenian festival was a religious festival, dedicated to the god Dionysus. The tragedies that were written for and performed in the Dionysia developed their content from myths about gods and heroes. From the fragments of them that remain (only one has survived complete), the satyr-plays were parodies of the tragedies that had preceded them but mainly about celebrating sex and wine. Even the tragedies were probably not performed in the hushed reverence typical of a modern Wagner festival. Wagner proposed that the reborn (and not recreated) Greek tragedies should be performed at festivals and not in the commercial theatre as part of its repertory. The performances of these new tragedies would be special occasions. Indeed, at one point he suggested that his "Siegfried opera" should be performed only once, in a specially built wooden theatre, and that after the performance, both the theatre and the score should be burned. Perhaps not an entirely serious suggestion but there was a serious idea behind it: one performance of Siegfried's Tod would be a world-changing event. It would show to the men and women of the (failed) revolution of 1848-49 the true meaning of that revolution. Then, inspired by Brünnhilde's valedictory lines, like the audience that had been inspired by Auber's La Muette de Portici, the audience would pour out of the theatre and begin the revolution anew.
Parsifal as Greek Tragedy
he stage-dedicatory festival play or Parsifal is the only Wagner opera that is based, for its outer action, on a Greek myth: that of Telephus. We can read in almost every program note, in programs that opera houses provide for the edification of their audience, that Parsifal is based on an epic poem by Wolfram von Eschenbach. That alone would be sufficient grounds on which to stop performances of Parsifal in commercial opera houses and once more restrict them to Wagner festivals. Wagner himself said that Wolfram had nothing to do with it (which is a slight exaggeration), adding that Wolfram was an immature phenomenon. It is true that the outer form of the action of the opera follows, in the broadest terms, that of Wolfram's poem: the boy wanders into the sacred forest, where he is admitted to the Grail Temple to witness a ritual of which he understands nothing; then after many years of wandering, when he has grown wise by compassion, he returns to the domain of the Grail and heals both the king and the community. Wagner makes a major change to the story, however, by making the recovery of the lost spear into Parsifal's mission. Of course the boy does not know that he has a mission before he has been kissed by Kundry and he does not know what is his mission until suddenly he has the spear in his hand. In fact, the entire second act of the opera has nothing at all to do with Wolfram's poem or, indeed, any other medieval Romance (except possibly for the Roman d'Alexandre).
students of the Grail Romances will be aware, except in the unfinished Perceval, the resolution of the story (in those Romances) is that the "quester" returns to the Grail Temple — perhaps led there by an unseen hand — where he heals the Fisher King (Anfortas) by asking the healing question. The unasked question is the opposite of a riddle. As Claude Lévi-Strauss formulated the problem: the quester must know what he does not know. Wagner found an alternative resolution in Greek myth: like the hero Telephus, the hero Parsifal delivers healing in the form of a weapon that both wounds and heals. Telephus had been wounded by Achilles and, as a oracle revealed to him, he could only be healed by the weapon that had made the wound. Wagner applied this to Amfortas, directly connecting the recovery of the spear with the healing of the wounded king. In the last of his music dramas, Wagner returned to the classical Greeks.
FootnotesFootnote 1: Theodor Schaefer: Aischylos' Prometheus und Wagners Loge, in Festschrift 45er Versammlung deutsche Philologen und Schulmänner, Bremen, 1899.
Footnote 2: Jason Geary: Reinventing the Past: Mendelssohn's 'Antigone' and the Creation of an Ancient Greek Music Language. The Journal of Musicology, vol.23 issue 2, pp.187-226, 2006.