What’s Inside Wagner’s Head?

There have been some ups and some downs among the events of
this Wagner bicentenary year. There was the reportedly naff new Ring at
Bayreuth – so bad, some of the press said, that the German state must now think
again about its support for the Wagner family management of the Festival.

            But there
have been some high points, too. Daniel Barenboim was lauded to the skies for
his conducting of the concert performance of all four operas at this summer’s
Proms; and what I heard of it on the radio was magnificent.  I’ve already written here about the triumph
of the staged Ring at Longborough. Now Simon Callow’s one-man show, “Inside
Wagner’s Head” at the Linbury Theatre in the Royal Opera House, Covent Garden, is a masterpiece of a
different order.

          

With a stage-full of props, an anvil, birdcages, a piano,
stacks of books, a pair of Valkyrie horns, swathes of velvet, and the help of
imaginative projections and snatches of music, Callow delivers a monologue in propria persona, sometimes reading
Wagner’s words, but always referring to him in the third person. He never
transforms himself into Wagner, except to assume what might be an appropriate
facial expression or posture for a few seconds while quoting the composer’s
essays or letters – and so he maintains a critical aesthetic and psychological
distance from his subject, while narrating, chronologically over the 100
minutes of the performance, the biography of the greatest composer of the 19th
century.

            Not only
does Callow make gripping sense of Wagner’s career, he also shows, movingly,
the highs and lows of it, and makes the audience realise, for example, the
reversal of Wagner’s fate when the boy Ludwig took the throne of Bavaria – how
little Wagner expected such patronage, how startled he was by it, and how much
he felt the inherent contradiction of his position as a soi-disant revolutionary financially supported by a monarch. I was
a little surprised, but very impressed, that Callow resisted the temptation to
tell us about Wagner’s weaknesses of the flesh, particularly his fetish for the
feminine underwear he ordered to be made for his own use.

            It’s the
sheer intelligence of this piece that impressed me most. Callow is immersed in
Wagner scholarship; he knows all there is to know at present about his clay-footed
hero, and a great deal about Nietzsche and especially Schopenhauer, when he was
head of Wagner’s reading list. He is also musical, and able to indicate the
importance of Tristan and Parsifal for the history of music
without labouring or stretching the point. The only shortcoming, I’d say, in
his entire script is that he doesn’t quite make clear how this self-taught
composer learned to write music in the first place, let alone change its
history.

            Callow’s
greatest virtue in this magnificent piece is that there is no elephant in the
room: he starts by saying that Wagner is both a genius and a flawed human
being. Anti-Semitism is mentioned in the first couple of minutes, and Callow
has a very interesting view about why Wagner latched onto the Jews as the target
of his vile temper and nastiest feelings. It was because Jews were “the other”
(a familiar notion), not-German, despite their easy assimilation into German
and European culture; and because they were so successful – just look at
Mendelsohn and Meyerbeer. Envy? Yes, but worse: look at how kind Meyerbeer had
been to Wagner. A particularly egregious case of biting the hand that fed him,
behaviour he was to repeat again and again.

            Simon
Callow’s performance is astonishing. He has done something very similar for
Dickens, and his control of his eyes, mouth and body language is as complete as
his memory is capacious. Still more striking, though, is this great actor’s
intellect. This is a thought-through critique of this greatest of composers; it
not only tells you about his life, loves and work, but also explains, as far is
this is possible, what Wagner’s appeal is to his audience. This is great
theatre, too. Wagner-heads (I admit to being one) will relish every reference
to the music, but for novices, even Wagner-virgins, “Inside Wagner’s Head” is a
sublime introduction to this intellectually messy subject.

           

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