Wagnerpunk: Patrice Chereau’s Ring Cycle as proto-steampunk?

Written By The Wagnerian on Monday, 7 October 2013 | 9:00:00 pm

Edit: Link now fully working.

It has been far to long since we presented for your attention one of our Wagner miscellanea articles - a view of Wagner or related work from a very unexpected angle. With that in mind, we were recently pleased to find the following, highly entertaining and well written, article in the electronic journal: Neo-Victorian StudiesEntitled, "Wagnerpunk:A Steampunk Reading of Patrice Chereau’s Staging of Der Ring des Nibelungen (1876)" in this referenced article Carmel Raz proposes that not only should we view Cherau's production as traditionally defined (I.E. as a Marxist reading) but also, as an early variation of that now popular branch of fiction known as Steampunk If you are unfamiliar with Steampunk the author begins with a brief definition.  To read and download the entire article follow the link below. (Images and video here added by TW)

Wagnerpunk: A Steampunk Reading of Patrice Chereau’s Staging of Der Ring des Nibelungen (1876)
Carmel Raz
(Yale University, Connecticut, USA)


Director Patrice Chereau describes the nineteenth century as “our mythology and our past, containing our dreams” (Chereau 1980: 430). His 1976 opera production of Richard Wagner’s Der Ring des Nibelungen (1876), considered perhaps the most influential Ring cycle of all time, evokes a nineteenth-century dreamscape: gods, giants, dwarves and mermaids in dinner jackets and petticoats scheme against the backdrop of steel dams and massive cogwheels. Traditionally, critics have seen this production as a continuation of the Marxist legacy of George Bernard Shaw’s The Perfect Wagnerite (1898). Viewed instead as an early representative of steampunk, the social critique, environmental concerns, and retro-futuristic ideas featured in this staging become contextualised within a coherent framework - one that explores contemporary social and technological anxieties through the metaphor of an epic fantasy world.

Keywords: Patrice Chereau, Der Ring des Nibelungen, magic, myth, nineteenth century, opera, Richard Wagner, staging, steampunk, technology.

In 1980, following a scandalous opening run three years earlier,1 the last performance of Patrice Chereau’s production of Richard Wagner’s operatic tetralogy, Der Ring des Nibelungen (The Ring of the Nibelung, 1848-1878), was met with a 45-minute standing ovation. Commissioned by Richard Wagner’s grandson, Wolfgang Wagner, to mark the Ring's centennial, Chereau’s revolutionary staging presented these operas in the context of the composer’s own era, supplanting decades of modernist, determinedly apolitical Bayreuth productions that distanced the operas from their association with Nazism. Chereau’s staging reads the nineteenth century through and back into the work of Richard Wagner (1813-1883), the overarching musical figure of his age. However, Chereau does not attempt to recreate the experience of a nineteenth-century viewer. Instead, he uses the music and libretto of the Ring as a vehicle to explore the nineteenth century with twentieth-century hindsight, while inviting viewers to consider their present age through a clearly fantastical allegorical reading of an earlier period.

In 1980, a year after Chereau’s production closed, American author Kevin Wayne Jeter published Morlock Night, a sequel to H.G. Wells’s The Time Machine (1895). These events appear unrelated: the first comes from the temple of Wagnerian high culture in Bayreuth, Germany, the second from the funky, irreverent pop culture scene of San Francisco, USA. Yet, in retrospect, both works heralded a new era: the thirty-one-year-old Frenchman’s Ring was hailed as “the turning point in European opera production” (Neher 2010), and as a “deconstructive landmark” (Schiff 1999: 95). Meanwhile, nineteenth-century-inspired science fiction and fantasy literature such as Morlock Night, for which Jeter later coined the term ‘steampunk’,4 would become an increasingly popular sub-genre of science fiction over the next few decades, influencing literature, the visual arts, and lifestyle subcultures.

I argue that Chereau’s response to specific elements in Wagner’s tetralogy significantly parallels other contemporary interpretations of the nineteenth century, many of which have since been grouped under the steampunk or neo-Victorian rubrics. Thus Chereau’s evocation of the nineteenth century, so as to explore the roots of what he terms “the ambiguity of our social and moral power systems” (Chereau 1980: 430), parallels the resurgent interest in the Victorian period that began in the 1960s and 1970s.6 This trend has been well documented in the domains of literature, cinema, stage, and visual art (see Kucich and Sadoff 2000: xi). In
particular, according to Cora Kaplan, most highbrow historical fiction written in the last third of the twentieth century is characterised by its “juxtaposition of heavily ironised late twentieth-century cleverness of the Victorian reference as imitation, citation or rewrite” (Kaplan 2007: 88).

Chereau’s production can be understood as expressing a similar process through the intersection of iconic nineteenth-century music with late­n twentieth-century stage production.

I will concentrate on three elements of Chereau’s production that bring this staging into dialogue with steampunk: the presentation of nature and futuristic technology; aspects of costume and set design; and the foregrounding of alternative narratives dealing with race and class. Finally, I argue that the steampunk paradigm is an especially fruitful approach to

Chereau’s Ring, as it provides late twentieth- and twenty-first-century viewers with an aesthetically coherent framework that integrates the social critique, environmental concerns, and retro-futuristic ideas of this production within the context of a culturally familiar epic fantasy world.

The characteristic trait of steampunk is the projection of contemporary technological fantasies onto nineteenth-century mechanical means, mixed with a subversive, fanciful re-imagining of the nineteenth century’s social conventions, gender roles, and cultural ideals. While both steampunk and neo-Victorianism deal with the nineteenth century, cultural artefacts with a steampunksteampunk novels criticise the West’s exploitation of natural resources through the Industrial Revolution (and continuing industrial revolutions in the developing world). The use or misuse of resources tends to be directly related to a vision of industrial progress, with technology as a significant generator of personal and social power structures, often represented by magic.9 Steampunk also subverts nineteenth-century expectations in the domains of gender and race by featuring strong, technologically proficient female heroines,10 or by imagining alternate colonial histories.11 Steampunk’s intimate relationship with the nineteenth century is achieved through a number of recurring visual and narrative motives. A short list of these icons includes cogwheels, gears and clockwork mechanisms, steam-powered devices, monocles, goggles, and mechanical prostheses, “much like a slightly rusty version of the chrome cyborg” (Barratt 2010: 174). Through sharing these references across the domains of fiction, visual art, and scene subculture, steampunk succeeds in creating a neo-Victorian cultural unconscious, a mythological iconography tapped by works across the genre.

Richard Wagner’s Ring cycle is perhaps the supreme manifestation of nineteenth-century Europe’s obsession with myth, folklore, and epic dimensions. Consisting of four operas: Das Rheingold (The Rhine Gold, 1869), Die Walküre (The Valkyrie, 1870), Siegfried (1876), and Götterdämmerung (The Twilight of the Gods, 1876), Wagner wrote the libretto and the music between 1848-1874, basing his saga on ancient German and Nordic myths, chiefly the Nibelunglied, the Old Norse Eddas, the Völsungasaga, and the Thidrekssaga. The story centres on a magic ring that grants its owner the power of world domination, forged by the Nibelung Alberich from gold he steals from the Rhinemaidens. Alberich was required to renounce love in order obtain the gold, entailing a deadly curse that follows him and all future owners of the ring. He promptly uses the ring to enslave his brother Mime, as well as his fellow Nibelungs. Wotan, leader of the gods, soon robs him, and in turn reluctantly forsakes the ring in payment to the giant brothers who build his Valhalla castle. Both Wotan and Alberich then scheme to regain control of the ring, setting in motion the events that take place over the remaining three operas, as their offspring become unwitting pawns in the quest for the cursed ring. In the last opera, Götterdämmerung, Wotan’s grandson Siegfried regains the ring, but is almost immediately killed. The ring is finally returned to the Rhine, and Valhalla is destroyed.

The operas feature dwarves, giants, gods, demi-gods, mortals, Rhinemaiden mermaids, and valkyries as well as a magical ring, an invisibility cap, apples of eternal youth, an invincible sword, and various other mythological symbols. The fantastical nature of the tale and its reliance on folk elements initially led to very literal stagings based on Wagner’s own premiere production. However, the tetralogy has also had a long reception history of allegorical readings, the most important being the socialist interpretation suggested by George Bernard Shaw in The Perfect Wagnerite (1898). Shaw claims that The Ring of the Nibelung “could not have been written before the second half of the nineteenth century, because it deals with events which were only then consummating themselves” (Shaw 1898: 12).

From the initial rise of the curtain in Das Rheingold to its final fall in Götterdämmerung, Chereau’s production is a fable of the industrial revolution and the price that the desire for power exacts from nineteenth- century social structures. He combines a small number of traditional mythological stage props, such as swords, helmets, and shields, with nineteenth-century European signifiers. The characters, cast as businessmen, bourgeois families, miners, and prostitutes, are surrounded by an array of cultural artefacts ranging from steam-producing machines to giant cogwheels, goggles, hard hats, frock coats, and petticoats. Transplanting Wagner’s fantasy world into this setting evokes the temporal multiplicity of a neo-Wilhelmine dreamscape, an effect alluded to by Chereau in calling the nineteenth century “our mythology and our past, containing our dreams” (Chereau 1980: 430). Chereau’s Ring opens with what the director describes as an object on stage which could perhaps be a dam but which could also be many other things. It is a menacing construction, a theatrical machine to produce a river, and an allegorical shape which today generates energy. It is perhaps a mythological presence, the mythology of our time. (Chereau 1980: 428)

This dystopian Rhine indeed foreshadows the decline to come: nature has been subjugated, and her creatures - even the Rhinemaidens - are corrupt. The dam itself is a massive steel structure, a nineteenth-century futuristic nightmare. Alberich and the Rhinemaidens appear tiny as they scramble about its slippery surfaces, and the otherwise bare stage reinforces the sensation of industrial domination. No trees remain in the landscape, nor does water run under the dam. As a stage prop, the dam fits neatly into the lineage of retro-futuristic post-industrial revolution creations by employing steam for its “self-referential evocation of technology-driven modernity and industrial trash” (Kreuzer 2011). Chereau’s machine signals a loss of innocence through the transformation of water to steam. In this reading, the Rhinemaidens were never innocent to begin with, and the dam symbolises both their own spoiled nature and the despoiled state of the Rhine.