Tuesday, November 24, 2015

all allegories come to an end somewhere - Shaw interprets Wagner - Bakunin, soap opera, and phossy jaw

George Bernard Shaw argues, in The Perfect Wagnerite, that the Ring operas are a response to the revolutions of 1848 and are an allegorical argument for democratic socialism.  Maybe so!  In Das Rheingold, a greedy dwarf acquires a gold ring of great, ill-defined power.  He uses it to force the other dwarfs into an industrial mining operation. 

This gloomy place need not be a mine: it might just as well be a match-factory, with yellow phosphorus, phossy jaw, a large dividend, and plenty of clergymen shareholders.  Or it might be a whitelead factory, or a chemical works, or a pottery, or a railway shunting yard, or a tailoring shop, or a little gin-sodden laundry [Zola reference!], or a bakehouse, [etc.] (18)

The factory is in the music as well as the text, as eighteen behind-the-scenes anvils bang out the dwarf motif when Wotan and Loge descend into the mine.  If Shaw is right about this scene, and it seems undeniable to me, he could be right about others.

In Die Walküre, Wotan begins to play the long game, manipulating events to further the birth of an ideal hero, Siegfried, who can recover the ring from the dragon who guards it.  He succeeds, in that Siegfried is some kind of anarchist creature of nature who is beyond wealth and other earthly things, so far beyond them that it is not clear whether Wotan has created a hero or a new kind of monster.  He is

in short, a totally unmoral person, a born anarchist, the ideal of Bakoonin [!], an anticipation of the “overman” of Nietzsche.  (48)

In other words, a Russian revolutionary, even Chernyshevskian, hero, supreme in righteousness and upper body strength.  I love Shaw’s description of Bakoonin forging his magic sword:  “Meanwhile Siegfried forges and tempers and hammers and rivets, uproariously singing the while as nonsensically as the Rhine-daughters themselves” (54).  You know, like “Heiaho! haha! / haheiaha!”  First, Shaw’s summaries are a lot of fun; second, good allegorists know how far to push things.

But then comes the point where Shaw does not push enough.  Siegfried slays the dragon, acquires the ability to speak with birds, casually murders his foster father, etc., etc., terrific fairy tale stuff, before encountering and defying his grandfather Wotan – “But all this is lost of Siegfried Bakoonin” (60), and he breaks Wotan’s staff, allegorical representation of the rule of law, and plunges past the illusionary flames of received truth (of, for example, Christianity) into the true Truth, overthrowing Church and State and ushering in the Revolution.

If Shaw is laying it on a little thick, it is because he has still has one scene left in Siegfried and one entire opera left, and he has run out of allegory.

And now, O Nibelungen Spectator, pluck up; for all allegories come to an end somewhere; and the hour of your release from these explanations is at hand.  The rest of what you are going to see is opera, and nothing but opera.  (61)

By which Shaw means both opera – the usual choruses and ensemble singing and so on missing from the early Ring plays – and what we would call soap opera, because the rest of the story of the ring is about love, sex, jealousy, betrayal, and other melodrama about which Shaw does not care, so he simply expels it from his interpretation. 

Indeed, the ultimate catastrophe of the Saga cannot by any perversion of ingenuity be adapted to the perfectly clear allegorical design of The Rhine Gold, The Valkyries, and Siegfried.  (63)

It is exactly here that Shaw betrays himself, because even as limited an ingenuity as mine can see that the allegory continues, that Bakoonin is corrupted not by money, to which he is genuinely immune, but by women, and that as a result he is murdered by a rival political faction, Leninists, I suppose.  Then comes, inevitably, the apocalypse.  Shaw has no better idea than I do what new horrors will fill the vacuum.  The soap opera is just as allegorical as the less soapy opera, if I want it to be.  As Shaw says, thinking of Wagner, not himself, “Constancy has never been a great man’s virtue” (98).


  1. "...about which Shaw does not care, so he simply expels it from his interpretation."

    Ha ha! Good old Shaw! So brilliant, and yet, at times, so very predictable!

    I rather like this Marxist (or pseudo-Marxist) interpretetation of the Ring. Shaw was naturally embarrassed by such human things like love, jealousy, and all the rest of it: he liked ideas, and Wagner must have disappointed him greatly - all those lovely ideas to begin with, and then, all that stuff about love and jealousy and betrayal ... what *could* Wagner have meant?

    Incidentally - and I don't know why Shaw did not point this out, being both a Wagnerian and an Ibsenite - Ibsen's "John Gabriel Borkman" has long struck me as a sort of Ring Cycle in miniature. It's all there - plundering nature for man's selfish ends; the renunciation of love for the sake of power, and teh moral compromises that need to be be made; the hope that the younger generation will redeem the past; the failure of the younger generation to do so; and so on.

    Ibsen never saw the Ring Cycle, though, despite living in Munich when the Ring was being produced in Bayreuth.His compatriot Grieg recommended him to go, but when he found out how long teh operas were, he made his excuses. Wise man.

  2. Isn't it great? You would enjoy this book. It is both the thing it is meant to be and a pure dose of Shaw.

    "John Gabriel Borkman" - that's good. The title character blends Alberich and Wotan, yes.

    Ibsen should have gone to Das Rheingold and skipped the rest. Or gone to part of it and left at intermission. I wish he had seen at least the beginning of Siegfried, too, where Siegfried has something in common with his fellow anarchist Peer Gynt.