Our book today is The Perfect Wagnerite by George Bernard Shaw. He wrote it quickly – he wrote everything quickly – in 1898 in order to express his enthusiasm for Richard Wagner’s Der Ring des Nibelungen (The Nibelung’s Ring), and as usual, Shaw’s method of expression enthusiasm was to teach, to quip, and to provoke.
This presents us with a conundrum, which is also something Shaw would have loved. In my opinion, he’s one of the greatest critics who ever lived: smart, shrewd, funny, strong, flexible, and wonderfully pragmatic. His plays, despite the performances and festivals they garner, are often still underestimated for their power, but in his criticism – that surging, almost unreadably vast ocean of prose – there is a happy, almost unalloyed greatness that can scarcely be approached by any other author, much less equaled.
And thereby the conundrum: what do you as a reader do when one of the greatest critics of the last 400 years writes an enthusiastic, deeply intelligent, passionately argumentative book on a great big pile of garbage? Do you avoid it, because garbage smells bad and is unsightly, or do you read it, because truly great criticism is not to be missed in this life?
These are the questions any sensitive reader must bring to The Perfect Wagnerite, because in the brief course of that highly entertaining book, as Shaw describes the stage actions and plot lines of Der Ring’s four interminable parts, Das Rheingold, DieWalkure, Siegfried, and Gotterdamerung, he’s also sure to convey his enthusiasm for the whole work, but the whole work is garbage-and so, the conundrum.
Shaw spent many an unoffending afternoon and evening squirming in his chair as this adolescent nightmare of a stage monstrosity unfolded before him. He lived through two separate Wagner vogues in Great Britain and saw some truly innovative and, one supposes, impressive attempts on the part of stage managers, working in wood and cloth, to reproduce even in small part the long list of lunatic demands Wagner put in his stage instructions. Listen, for instance, to Shaw’s narration of the notorious conclusion to Die Gotterdammerung and then try to imagine how on Earth a London stage of 1870 could pull it off:
Finally she [Brynhild, obviously] flings a torch into the pyre, and rides her war-horse into the flames. The hall of the Gibichungs catches fire, as most halls would were a cremation attempted in the middle of the floor (I permit myself this gibe purposely to emphasize the excessive artificiality of the scene); but the Rhine overflows its banks to allow the three Rhine maidens to take the ring from Siegfried’s finger, incidentally extinguishing the conflagration as it does so. Hagen attempts to snatch the ring from the maidens, who promptly drown him; and in the distant heavens the gods and their castle are seen perishing in the fires of Loki as the curtain falls.
Lovely stuff. We can get the vicar’s wife to darn up some lovely orange flames. And while we’re at it, we’ll get the Royal Corps of Engineers to divert the Thames once a night, and matinees on Sundays.
Of course it’s not just that The Ring Cycle is garbage, nor is it really that virtually everything Wagner wrote is garbage (although one must search into the foothills of the 21st century to find a equally frightening Coldplay-esque divergence between a miniscule speck of talent and a mighty engine of popularity) – it’s that Wagner himself was garbage. Willfully ignorant, proudly rude, a seducer of other men’s wives, an arrogant traducer of other men’s prides, a debt-dodger, a liar, a cheat, a tone-deaf melodist, a fatuously self-deluded folklorist, an idiotically ham-handed dramatist, and a disgustingly outspoken racist and anti-Semite. We’re taught endlessly – and we’re taught true – that we must divorce the worth of the artist from the worth of the art (else who would ‘scape whipping?), but damn, Wagner makes it hard. It would be different (well, a bit different) if this vile scrap of human trash had produced truly wonderful music; we wouldn’t forgive, necessarily, but we’d be more inclined to overlook. But the music is of a piece with the man: loud, overbearing, coarse, and empty-headed.
And yet, Der Ring at least provoked this nifty little book by Shaw (almost all other books on Wagner, according him ‘great artist’ status but not, alas, being written by Shaw, are necessarily also garbage), and despite Wagner’s presence all throughout, it very often produces a smile – almost always when some fine point accidentally taps into the boiling sub-strata of Shaw’s ever-present all-purpose outrage. When that happens, rants occur, and they’re always fun:
The allegory here is happily not so glaringly obvious to the younger generation of our educated classes as it as forty years ago. In those days, any child who expressed a doubt as to the absolute truth of the Church’s teaching, even to the extent of asking why Joshua told the sun to stand still instead of telling the earth to cease turning, or of pointing out that a whale’s throat would hardly have been large enough to swallow Jonah, was unhesitatingly told that if it harboured such doubts it would spend all eternity after its death in horrible torments in a lake of burning brimstone. It is difficult to write or read this nowadays without laughing; yet no doubt millions of ignorant and credulous people are still teaching their children that. When Wagner himself was a little child, the fact that hell was a fiction devised for the intimidation and subjection of the masses, was a well-kept secret of the thinking and governing classes. At that time the fires of Loki were a very real terror to all, except persons of exceptional force of character and intrepidity of thought. Even thirty years after Wagner had printed the verses of The Ring for private circulation, we find him excusing himself from perfectly explicit denial of current superstitions, by reminding his readers that it would expose him to prosecution. In England, so many of our respectable voters are still groveling in a gloomy devil worship, of which the fires of Loki are the main bulwark, that no Government has yet had the conscience or the courage to repeal our monstrous laws against “blasphemy.”
You finish The Perfect Wagnerite with a thorough understanding of the Ring Cycle, which is quite an accomplishment on Shaw’s part and which is the smallest reason to recommend reading this great little book. Of course, if you finish the book with any desire to actually see the Ring Cycle, there’s something seriously wrong with you.