Paul Heise's review of "The 'Ring' as Eco-Parable," a talk presented by Thomas Grey (Stanford Univ.) at the Wagner Worldwide 2013 bicentennial symposium sponsored by the Univ. of South Carolina in the winter of 2013:
PH: Dr. Thomas Grey carried on a brief but very useful and enlightening correspondence with me about my quest to present a novel interpretation of the "Ring" some years ago.
Grey opened with a commentary on what he described as a toxic discourse, and listed four discourses, of which I was only able to record 1. the mythography of betrayed Edens, and 4. Gothic Underworlds [PH: Sorry to say his commentary outran my capacity to write it down, so I was unable to record this portion of his talk in full; a printed transcript would have been useful here]
Grey spoke of trends in staging the "Ring" and related them to his four toxic discourses above.
Shaw's Nibelheim is a coal mine or factory. Nowadays it's presented as an underground laboratory, or a nuclear arsenal, something ominous.
Patrice Chereau's dam on the Rhine might be a hydro-electric dam or a nuclear reactor. Chereau inserts tropes from the industrial revolution like steam power (Mime's forge) into his production of the "Ring."
Goetz Friedrich presented a post-apocalyptic world in his "Ring" [PH: This was the "Ring" I saw at the Kennedy Center in Washington, DC, a thousand years ago, with its unifying image taken from the DC metro system's architecture]
Harry Kupfer presented the Rhine as a sewer.
In Keith Warner's production Mime's forest is a toxic waste dump.
Then there was Zambello's "Ring."
Each places emphasis on environmental despoliation, a modern version of the "Fall."
Grey asks whether the "Ring" supports this environmentally apocalyptic reading. In other words, how green is Wagner?
And what about the ring itself? The return of the ring to the Rhine seems to restore the world to a natural state.
Wagner was unsure himself what happens at the end of the cycle. Are the gods doomed by mismanaged natural resources? How does the ring's restoration to the Rhine recreate a pastoral utopia?
The allegory of the "Ring' was mostly an afterthought to Siegfried's death. [PH: Wagner famously began only with the intent to turn "Siegfried's Death into a music-drama, and over a period of time kept on adding back-story until he ended up with the four-part "Ring" as we know it today]
In the 1848 sketch, the forswearing of love is missing. Wagner only added it later. The ring grants sovereignty to the Nibelungs. Only Siegfried is doomed. Bruennhilde in the end restores peace and order to Valhalla. But there was a promise of renewal trope even in the old concept of Ragnarok, the twilight of the gods. This has nothing to do with environmental catastrophe. An anarchist reading of the "Ring" also has no environmental overtones. Shaw read Siegfried as an anarchist. This has no useful lesson for society, and lacks Bruennhilde's love-panacea.
One view of the ring curse is that it represents the loveless exploitation of nature and of human nature. This has an allegorical logic.
With the ever-fluid semiotics of Wagner's music the "Ring Cycle" is a renewable resource, as Wagner himself said of myth.
There are, though, the seeds of an environmental reading in regardless of Wagner's intent. But what about the environmentalism in Wagner's time? Did he appeal to environmental thinkers? What was the breadth of Wagner's pre-Nazi appeal?
Shaw failed to find a consistent allegory for socialism, and the same is true of the environmental reading. [PH: By the way, Grey cited Mark Berry's book on the "Ring" often during this part of the lecture].
Romantic nature is never endangered. Sublime landscapes are romanticized on the stage. This links Wagner with Wordsworth and John Muir. Wagner's emphasis on nature in the "Ring" may have played a role in wakening environmental consciousness.
Why did Wagner make Erda an earth-goddess? This isn't found in his sources.
Q&A: PH: Several questions and Grey's answers to them were too fast for me to record. I've reproduced below what little I could make of this fast and furious exchange of ideas:
Question: The Norns complained about the demise of the World-Ash Tree, and of Wotan's Spear. Siegfried breaks Wotan's spear. The ring itself is forged from the natural gold of the Rhine.
Answer: But Wotan's Spear represents treaties, contracts. The breaking of the Norn's web of fate could have have an environmental significance.
Answer to another question: Wotan and Alberich mirror each other in despoiling the natural world. Wagner leaves a lot for different productions to creatively develop.
PH: I think it would be safe to say that man's increasing capacity, over time, to exploit nature and to also dominate fellow men, arising as this does by man's historical accumulation of an ever-increasing hoard of knowledge of himself and his world (which is, in my interpretation, our best understanding of Alberich's hoard of treasure and Wotan's increasing hoard of knowledge of the world), is a part of the meaning of the "Ring." It certainly may be part of the meaning of the finale of the "Ring," in which the moral and physical consequences of all that has come before (in this allegory of man's history, from the beginning to the end) comes to fruition. However, it is always, always wrong to import into the stage directions of the "Ring" imagery which runs wholly counter to Wagner's original intentions. When Siegfried experiences his forest idyll, for instance, Wagner's words and music tell us that we are to experience, with Siegfried, a true forest idyll. And precisely the same thing goes for representations of the opening scene from "Rhinegold" on the stage. It is absolutely absurd to display tropes from the age of industry in a scene whose obvious purpose is to depict the transition from nature to early culture. One of the main points of the "Ring" is to display a gradual decay over time; Chereau's dam, for instance, front-loads what should come only much later, thereby partially destroying an impression Wagner was at great pains to make.
General Discussion about Wagner and The Ring of the Nibelung
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