What an amazing contrast. Here I am in Bayreuth, Bavaria, to see Richard Wagner’s monumental Ring Cycle, probably the greatest artistic achievement of mankind while, outside, the world is tearing itself apart. From Charlottesville to San Francisco, the United States dismembers its statues and erases its history; in Australia we disfigure the monuments to our own discovery and national pride and our local councils denigrate Australia Day; in Canada, a campaign is underway to erase all traces of its first Prime Minister, Sir John Macdonald because, as a Liberal-Conservative, he must have been a racist; and most of Europe seems besotted with africanising their continent. So, what a relief that here, in Bayreuth, far from the madding crowd, things are different; Wagner’s four-opera cycle is firmly entrenched in the honoured place it has occupied since 1876, the more so because Wagner designed the amazing theatre in which it is performed. It is the permanent fixture, the gold standard by which all artistic performances are measured.
But is it? After a few days, I am beginning to wonder. By the end of the week I fear that even this monumental work is under siege from the wrecker’s ball. There is nothing wrong with a new interpretation of this or any other cultural work. But this one has been interpreted to within an inch of its life. And what is left? Next to nothing but gimmicks and ideology, except of course the music, which not even the director of the latest Ring, Frank Castorf, could destroy. I cast around for a suitable analogy and eventually one comes to mind. An American general in the Vietnam war observed through the smoke and the napalm: ‘We had to destroy the village to save it.’ Castorf might well have said: ‘We had to destroy the opera to interpret it.’
The story used to be a saga of old German mythology about power, how man can be redeemed by love and principle, and how, sometimes, not even that works. The theme of this new production, if there is one, is that history apparently began when oil was discovered in Baku, in the old Russia; then there was the 1917 Revolution and the working man came into his own. Things went along alright for a while, but turned horribly wrong when rampant corporate greed took over. Progressive East Germany turned away from socialism, evidenced by an invasion of crocodiles wandering around the stage and eating the cast, that is, when they are not getting off with each other or being whacked around the jaws by an umbrella-wielding Brünnhilde.
Then we have a few nods to the world of sexual fluidity: group sex in a seedy motel; a gimp on a chain who covers himself in sump oil (oil, get it?); Wotan, king of the gods being, as one reviewer put it politely, ‘orally serviced’ and our young hero Sigfried having a fling with a magic song-bird instead of Brünnhilde (he must have voted Yes in the SSM plebiscite). Other characters wander on and off stage with a caravan, a dead chook and two turkeys (I think there is a symbol there) as if it were open day in Valhalla but no rhyme or reason; Sigfried even assembles a Kalishnikov machine gun instead of the magic sword and slays a dragon who is so pathetic it would make a cat laugh. Then it is back to politics and we are hit with garish signs for plastic and elastic, (by-products of oil, get it?) the message being that synthetic materialism is A Bad Thing. From there, the downhill slide of mankind leads to the destruction of Mount Rushmore, demolishing the heads of four presidents and replacing them with that well-known progressive quartet, Marx, Lenin, Stalin and Mao who apparently won whatever this battle was about. Finally, to rub it in, the New York Stock Exchange burns down, which is definitely a symbol. I had naively thought capitalism and western liberalism had won; it must have been fake news.
But perhaps I am unfair on this new version of the Ring Cycle. Perhaps it really is the most appropriate artistic backdrop to our current malaise of destroying our past and creating a new, perverted version of history. At least it is the production we deserve.
Since I announced The Gillians, to mark significant efforts to stifle freedom of speech, entries have been rolling in. There are hundreds, but two have pushed ahead of the pack. The first is a joint award to the entire Yes campaign on same-sex marriage for so successfully intimidating and silencing anyone who might have a different opinion from themselves. What I like about them is that they have absolutely no scruples about invading the privacy of individuals, destroying their livelihood and intimidating businesses into ramming the Yes case down our throats. The second impressive entry is a complete outsider, a brash newcomer in the suffocation stakes, originating in the United States but now with an office in Australia. Called Sleeping Giants, its worthy mission is to intimidate companies who advertise in unacceptable media, determined of course by the organisation itself, as a means of forcing the media to change its tune or lose advertising revenue.
And it works; 2760 companies have stopped advertising on Breitbart News’ website and Bill O’Reilly has been sacked by Fox News. But the Sleeping Giants freely admit they are also after the ‘mainstream media’; their greatest success is to con the New York Times, Fairfax and their ilk into accepting the Giants’ demands for complete anonymity, can you believe it? How could we do better than encourage this lusty youngster striking out anonymously to stifle freedom in such a modern way?
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