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Wagner as Revolutionist


Before leaving this explanation of The Rhine Gold, I must have a
word or two about it with the reader. It is the least popular of
the sections of The Ring. The reason is that its dramatic moments
lie quite outside the consciousness of people whose joys and
sorrows are all domestic and personal, and whose religions and
political ideas are purely conventional and superstitious. To
them it is a struggle between half a dozen fairytale personages
for a ring, involving hours of scolding and cheating, and one
long scene in a dark gruesome mine, with gloomy, ugly music, and
not a glimpse of a handsome young man or pretty woman. Only those
of wider consciousness can follow it breathlessly, seeing in it
the whole tragedy of human history and the whole horror of the
dilemmas from which the world is shrinking today. At Bayreuth I
have seen a party of English tourists, after enduring agonies of
boredom from Alberic, rise in the middle of the third scene, and
almost force their way out of the dark theatre into the sunlit
pine-wood without. And I have seen people who were deeply
affected by the scene driven almost beside themselves by this
disturbance. But it was a very natural thing for the unfortunate
tourists to do, since in this Rhine Gold prologue there is no
interval between the acts for escape. Roughly speaking, people
who have no general ideas, no touch of the concern of the
philosopher and statesman for the race, cannot enjoy The Rhine
Gold as a drama. They may find compensations in some exceedingly
pretty music, at times even grand and glorious, which will enable
them to escape occasionally from the struggle between Alberic and
Wotan; but if their capacity for music should be as limited as
their comprehension of the world, they had better stay away.

And now, attentive Reader, we have reached the point at which
some foolish person is sure to interrupt us by declaring that The
Rhine Gold is what they call "a work of art" pure and simple, and
that Wagner never dreamt of shareholders, tall hats, whitelead
factories, and industrial and political questions looked at from
the socialistic and humanitarian points of view. We need not
discuss these impertinences: it is easier to silence them with
the facts of Wagner's life. In 1843 he obtained the position of
conductor of the Opera at Dresden at a salary of L225 a year,
with a pension. This was a first-rate permanent appointment in
the service of the Saxon State, carrying an assured professional
position and livelihood with it In 1848, the year of revolutions,
the discontented middle class, unable to rouse the
Churchand-State governments of the day from their bondage to
custom, caste, and law by appeals to morality or constitutional
agitation for Liberal reforms, made common cause with the
starving wage-working class, and resorted to armed rebellion,
which reached Dresden in 1849. Had Wagner been the mere musical
epicure and political mugwump that the term "artist" seems to
suggest to so many critics and amateurs--that is, a creature in
their own lazy likeness--he need have taken no more part in the
political struggles of his day than Bishop took in the English
Reform agitation of 1832, or Sterndale Bennett in the Chartist or
Free Trade movements. What he did do was first to make a
desperate appeal to the King to cast off his bonds and answer the
need of the time by taking true Kingship on himself and leading
his people to the redress of their intolerable wrongs (fancy the
poor monarch's feelings!), and then, when the crash came, to take
his side with the right and the poor against the rich and the
wrong. When the insurrection was defeated, three leaders of it
were especially marked down for vengeance: August Roeckel, an old
friend of Wagner's to whom he wrote a well-known series of
letters; Michael Bakoonin, afterwards a famous apostle of
revolutionary Anarchism; and Wagner himself. Wagner escaped to
Switzerland: Roeckel and Bakoonin suffered long terms of
imprisonment. Wagner was of course utterly ruined, pecuniarily
and socially (to his own intense relief and satisfaction); and
his exile lasted twelve years. His first idea was to get his
Tannhauser produced in Paris. With the notion of explaining
himself to the Parisians he wrote a pamphlet entitled Art and
Revolution, a glance through which will show how thoroughly the
socialistic side of the revolution had his sympathy, and how
completely he had got free from the influence of the established
Churches of his day. For three years he kept pouring forth
pamphlets--some of them elaborate treatises in size and
intellectual rank, but still essentially the pamphlets and
manifestoes of a born agitator--on social evolution, religion,
life, art and the influence of riches. In 1853 the poem of The
Ring was privately printed; and in 1854, five years after the
Dresden insurrection, The Rhine Gold score was completed to the
last drum tap.

These facts are on official record in Germany, where the
proclamation summing up Wagner as "a politically dangerous
person" may be consulted to this day. The pamphlets are now
accessible to English readers in the translation of Mr. Ashton
Ellis. This being so, any person who, having perhaps heard that
I am a Socialist, attempts to persuade you that my interpretation
of The Rhine Gold is only "my socialism" read into the works of
a dilettantist who borrowed an idle tale from an old saga to make
an opera book with, may safely be dismissed from your
consideration as an ignoramus.

If you are now satisfied that The Rhine Gold is an allegory, do
not forget that an allegory is never quite consistent except when
it is written by someone without dramatic faculty, in which case
it is unreadable. There is only one way of dramatizing an idea;
and that is by putting on the stage a human being possessed
by that idea, yet none the less a human being with all the human
impulses which make him akin and therefore interesting to us.
Bunyan, in his Pilgrim's Progress, does not, like his unread
imitators, attempt to personify Christianity and Valour: he
dramatizes for you the life of the Christian and the Valiant Man.
Just so, though I have shown that Wotan is Godhead and Kingship,
and Loki Logic and Imagination without living Will (Brain without
Heart, to put it vulgarly); yet in the drama Wotan is a
religiously moral man, and Loki a witty, ingenious, imaginative
and cynical one. As to Fricka, who stands for State Law, she does
not assume her allegorical character in The Rhine Gold at all,
but is simply Wotan's wife and Freia's sister: nay, she
contradicts her allegorical self by conniving at all Wotan's
rogueries. That, of course, is just what State Law would do; but
we must not save the credit of the allegory by a quip. Not until
she reappears in the next play (The Valkyries) does her function
in the allegorical scheme become plain.

One preconception will bewilder the spectator hopelessly unless
he has been warned against it or is naturally free from it. In
the old-fashioned orders of creation, the supernatural personages
are invariably conceived as greater than man, for good or evil.
In the modern humanitarian order as adopted by Wagner, Man is the
highest. In The Rhine Gold, it is pretended that there are as yet
no men on the earth. There are dwarfs, giants, and gods. The
danger is that you will jump to the conclusion that the gods, at
least, are a higher order than the human order. On the contrary,
the world is waiting for Man to redeem it from the lame and
cramped government of the gods. Once grasp that; and the allegory
becomes simple enough. Really, of course, the dwarfs, giants, and
gods are dramatizations of the three main orders of men: to wit,
the instinctive, predatory, lustful, greedy people; the patient,
toiling, stupid, respectful, money-worshipping people; and the
intellectual, moral, talented people who devise and administer
States and Churches. History shows us only one order higher than
the highest of these: namely, the order of Heroes.

Now it is quite clear--though you have perhaps never thought of
it--that if the next generation of Englishmen consisted wholly of
Julius Caesars, all our political, ecclesiastical, and moral
institutions would vanish, and the less perishable of their
appurtenances be classed with Stonehenge and the cromlechs and
round towers as inexplicable relics of a bygone social order.
Julius Caesars would no more trouble themselves about such
contrivances as our codes and churches than a fellow of the Royal
Society will touch his hat to the squire and listen to the
village curate's sermons. This is precisely what must happen some
day if life continues thrusting towards higher and higher
organization as it has hitherto done. As most of our English
professional men are to Australian bushmen, so, we must suppose,
will the average man of some future day be to Julius Caesar. Let
any man of middle age, pondering this prospect consider what has
happened within a single generation to the articles of faith his
father regarded as eternal nay, to the very scepticisms and
blasphemies of his youth (Bishop Colenso's criticism of the
Pentateuch, for example!); and he will begin to realize how much
of our barbarous Theology and Law the man of the future will do
without. Bakoonin, the Dresden revolutionary leader with whom
Wagner went out in 1849, put forward later on a program, often
quoted with foolish horror, for the abolition of all
institutions, religious, political, juridical, financial, legal,
academic, and so on, so as to leave the will of man free to find
its own way. All the loftiest spirits of that time were burning
to raise Man up, to give him self-respect, to shake him out of
his habit of grovelling before the ideals created by his own
imagination, of attributing the good that sprang from the
ceaseless energy of the life within himself to some superior
power in the clouds, and of making a fetish of self-sacrifice to
justify his own cowardice.

Farther on in The Ring we shall see the Hero arrive and make an
end of dwarfs, giants, and gods. Meanwhile, let us not forget
that godhood means to Wagner infirmity and compromise, and
manhood strength and integrity. Above all, we must understand--
for it is the key to much that we are to see--that the god,
since his desire is toward a higher and fuller life, must long
in his inmost soul for the advent of that greater power whose
first work, though this he does not see as yet, must be his
own undoing.

In the midst of all these far-reaching ideas, it is amusing
to find Wagner still full of his ingrained theatrical
professionalism, and introducing effects which now seem
old-fashioned and stagey with as much energy and earnestness as
if they were his loftiest inspirations. When Wotan wrests the
ring from Alberic, the dwarf delivers a lurid and bloodcurdling
stage curse, calling down on its every future possessor care,
fear, and death. The musical phrase accompanying this outburst
was a veritable harmonic and melodic bogey to mid-century ears,
though time has now robbed it of its terrors. It sounds again
when Fafnir slays Fasolt, and on every subsequent occasion when
the ring brings death to its holder. This episode must justify
itself purely as a piece of stage sensationalism. On deeper
ground it is superfluous and confusing, as the ruin to which
the pursuit of riches leads needs no curse to explain it; nor
is there any sense in investing Alberic with providential powers
in the matter.

George Bernard Shaw