Ideology and Machines in the Work of Richard Wagner

Themelis Glynatsis*

A new production of a Richard Wagner work can in no way be compared to other stagings from the current repertoire in its demand of artistic, technical and financial capital. The aesthetic and ideological universe as envisaged by the composer is caught up in a profoundly bourgeois dialectics of regression and progress, which is played out through an intricate interrelationship between nature and machines. This paper investigates the signification of the machine as object and as metaphor in the works of Wagner, as well as in the cultural context from which his operas emerged, aiming to show how the mechanistic universe of the industrial nineteenth century is simultaneously upheld and subverted through Wagner’s reconstruction of nature and myth. 
Keywords: Wagner, Gesamtkunswerk, ideology, machines, nature, myth, Adorno, Benjamin, La Fura dels Baus, Lepage

There is no doubt that a new production of a work by Richard Wagner is not the same thing as the new staging of any other work in the opera repertoire. There is a special status which has adhered to the Wagnerian opus, a status requiring an army of top-notch singers, directors, conductors, stage designers and so on, as the specific works are considered to be inordinately difficult, “heavy,” exceedingly costly and overall in demand of forces that are rarely employed in the realization of the work by any other composer.

The Wagner work is unique in its sense of expenditure, whether financial or artistic; and this expenditure is anticipated, hunted after, sometimes delivered and frantically enjoyed or anathematized by an entire community of opera artists, technicians, sponsors, advertisers, and of course, audience members.

Productions of Wagner works ought to be an artistic, technical and financial event—an event of radical artistic difference whose cultural reverberations were to a great extent conceived by Wagner himself.[1] This eventfulness is attached to the directorial vision, the dramaturgical approach and the scenographic application that become spectacular attempts to unfold the knotted and often suspicious ideological material of the works themselves, and desperately try to come to terms with the works’ unrepresentability.

The auditorium of the Bayreuth Festspielhaus. Photo: Wikimedia. Accessed 25 April 2020

Every Wagner work, from the howling tempests of the Dutchman to the consecrative mysteries of Parsifal, incorporate moments of theatre that evade, confound or defy staging; we have here a sense of “negativity” that coaxes stage artists and technicians to invent the mechanical means to surpass the unrepresentable-as-negativity and offer the audience the “authentic” Wagnerian vision, which is none other than the total immersion[2] of the senses within this originary and mystical negativity of unstageable moments. Subsequently, this immersiveness leads to the eradication of the present as historical, spatial and temporal experience shared by audience members and, perhaps, by the artists themselves.

It is this complex equation of machines and experience that this paper will investigate by proposing that the entire Wagner enterprise is built upon an accumulation of machines, either as literal objects or as metaphorical means, which aim to reveal that which cannot be shown, a phantom signifier that is always there, traversing the dialectical axis of the natural and the phantasmal. This revelatory dimension of machines is fundamentally ideological and historical, and it is the metonymy through which the entire work presents itself as a bourgeois construction that negotiates and produces a vision of radical futurity born out of a sense of eternal regression.

In other words, the Wagner work constantly projects a deep-rooted sense of ambivalence as regards to historical progress, futurity and the nobility of the mythic pasts; it is a historical work par excellence and the machine is the thing that allows this hesitant historicity to iterate itself in all its complicated and undecided discourse.

Before embarking on this analytical trail, one needs to consider one of Richard Wagner’s own fantasies about the stage that would have welcomed the first performance of Siegfrieds Tod: “I would have a theatre erected here on the spot, made of planks . . . I would then . . . give three performances—free of charge of course, one after the other in the space of a week, after which the theatre would be demolished and the whole affair would be over and done with” (Carnegy 70).

This Ur-Bayreuth is not simply a “simpler,” primitive version of what was to become one of the centers of European cultural life, but an architectural project on an entirely different ideological and historical taint. The fantasy of Ur-Bayreuth focused on the intensity created by transience; an edifice created for a specific work with specific duration, which then would be destroyed, leaving behind only the experience it evoked to a specific audience, an experience that would have been unrepeatable and to a great extent unrecordable. The history of the work is essentially bound by the tremendous subjectivity of the momentary experience that evaporates the moment it conceives itself as experience.

Here, one cannot but pause and wonder at the almost avant-garde approach to performance space and performance in general, and observe how the architecture of the theatre of the future was radically transformed from being a site of transience, of anti-commodification and of anti-historicity, to a place of pilgrimage that is revisited again and again, fashioning a sense of tradition and an experience of sublime permanence. Bayreuth becomes the monument of the Wagner industry, combining history, monumentality and religiosity.

The transposition from ephemeral architecture with its connotations of finitude, memory and intimate experience to the sacred site of repetition, consecration and revelation is the first occurrence of an ideological gesture that graphs the bourgeoisification of the Wagner work[3] through its re-inscription of historicity, on the one hand, and the construction of an aura[4] that satiated the bourgeois desire for religiosity and ethnic identity, on the other. Bayreuth-as-Besetzung[5] was erected on the trauma of the metaphysical despair brought on by the brutal rationalism of capitalist technology and of the ruins of a Germanic ethnic identity that was frantically attempting to assemble itself into a unified meaning.

To a great extent, Bayreuth resembled in technical scope, means, economic utility and mystification the International Expositions of the nineteenth century;[6] bourgeois festivals that infused a specific space with all that is current, modern and cutting-edge as present assurance of an enthralling futurity. Relatedly, the neoclassical architectural opulence of European theatres is replaced in the Festspielhaus by industrial efficacy and aesthetic asceticism.

Outside view of the Bayreuth Festspielhaus (1882). Photo: Wikiwand. Accessed 25 April 2020

In the classic survey Bayreuth: A History of the Wagner Festival, Frederic Spotts starts off with a fascinating, and very telling, sentence: “From a distance it looks as though it might be an antiquated brick warehouse” (1). He continues by quoting various illustrious intellectuals like Stravinsky, who thought that the Bayreuth theatre looked like a “crematorium,” and like Romain Rolland, who said that it resembled an “industrial structure more than a cultural establishment.” This façade, strongly reminiscent of the capitalist-bound Protestant ethic of efficiency and frugality as described by Max Weber,[7] presents itself by its deliberate, and rather pronounced, distance from typical nineteenth-century theatre architecture in Germany. The onlooker stands not in front of a theatre, but of a structure which truly captures the nineteenth-century Zeitgeist: a factory.[8] On the other hand, Bayreuth was a temple to the obscurity of the primeval Germanic and Norse myths, which had already been established as an aesthetic and nationalistic skeleton key by the Romantics.[9]

What does the visitor then behold in Bayreuth? An architectural palimpsest: factory, church, warehouse, technological wonder, national symbol and archaic monument, each facet contributing to the Gesamteffekt of the Wagner ideology.

There is no question that the architectural concept behind the building of the Festspielhaus was tightly connected with the concept of the effect.[10] The Bayreuth theatre, from the seating arrangement and parallel columns that frame one’s field of vision, to the famous hidden orchestra pit, not to mention the intricate theatre machines that were custom-built for the specific space by Carl Brandt—one of the foremost stage “machinists” of the nineteenth century—aimed to overemphasize the experience of the effect, or else, to become proficient in the revelation of the phantasmal experience, “the theatre of total illusion,” of (Wagnerian) art. The invisible orchestra,[11] Wagner’s own fantasy of an invisible theatre, the epiphanies and disappearances of characters, motifs and concepts are part of a syntax that arise out of the unrepresentable core of the Wagner poetics; there can be no doubt that the Wagner work is the musically and theatrically complex inscription of the negativity alluded to earlier.

The Wagner work is based on something which is not there, or cannot be there, and this nothing is the narrative and musical “symptom” that confounds the onward unfolding of the drama by constantly pushing it back towards its inception, and thus formulate a dialectics of radical futurity and regressive desire. The Bayreuth effect is the experience of an immersive intangibility that constantly attempts to convince the audience that its origin is not found in nuts and bolts, vocal chords, bows and body parts, toil and sweat,[12] but in a void that simultaneously terrorizes and seduces. Yet, this void has to accommodate itself in the banality of the machine in order to be on stage, thus inventing spectacles that are chained to the incongruence between the “original” or “authentic” absence, and the necessity of its mechanical appearing.[13] The absence of the Wagnerian work is in truth its ultimate surplus—it is where we are convinced that all meaning is stored as a fundamentally indecipherable metaphysical capital that patiently awaits the machine in order for it to appear on stage as meaningful meaning, retaining however the intoxicating effect of its non-signification.

Phantasmagoria in the nineteenth century: the illusion of stage ghosts as developed by John Henry Pepper (known as “Pepper’s Ghost”). Photo: Wikipedia. Accessed 25 April 2020

There is no doubt that the entire Bayreuth enterprise is an effect-industry and can easily be connected to the entertainment phantasmagorias of the nineteenth century.[14] Technological advancements in the nineteenth century were almost immediately applied to the entertainment industry, before cinema became the ultimate ghost machine of Western culture. Machines and the sites that housed them offered European audiences radical spectacles that promised an unprecedented and immersive experience of the phantasmal and the natural. Even though these two terms appear to be profoundly different, the ideological subtexts of the ghostly and the natural within the nineteenth century framework have more similarities than differences.

Bearing in mind that it is impossible to present the full gamut of ideological transformations that nature underwent after the domination of industrial capitalism and rapid urbanization of the nineteenth century, one should at least aim to reductively approach nature within the specific historical context. Nature became a system that either opened itself up to industrial use as prime matter, or was fetishized as a mnemonic object that hovered unblemished in the past of human experience and promised a cleansing of the degeneration brought on by capitalism.[15]

The development of machinery and industry not only affected labor relationships and production efficiency, but also radically transformed people’s relationship with nature, both as a site of labor and as a site of aesthetic contemplation. In this sense, nature became either pure matter to be transformed within the spectacular phantasmagorias of the factory, or a lost paradise overflowing with authentic meanings, identities and poetics. So, it comes as no surprise that the phantasmagoric entertainment business excelled not only in tales of the supernatural, but in the “bringing-to-life” of fabulous landscapes which, to the eyes of many urban dwellers, seemed as uncanny and spectacular as orientalist fantasies or gothic universes. The machine not only exploits nature in order to commodify it; it becomes the ultimate vehicle of its “authentic” (re)appearance, and, subsequently, it commodifies it anew by (re)presenting it as a product of the culture industry.

The capitalist machine inscribes the natural with a fundamentally phantasmal aura; in Wagner, nature becomes ideology par excellence by acquiring the essence of myth. What is a myth other than a narrative that constantly looks back to phantasmal origins and provides spectral historiographies that connect authentic roots with the prospect of an apocalyptic and cleansing future that is to come? Nature no longer exists in capitalist society; what does exist is ideology that over-signifies the natural world through the surplus of “authentic” signifiers (that is, ideological mechanisms of purity, nobility, strength) surrounding nature’s symbolic non-existence. The symbolic reiteration of nature incorporates it only as negativity in order to mold ideologies out of it; just as the factory de-signifies the natural prime material from any qualities other than its future usefulness, condemning it to a sort of negativity which will be transformed in the factory into something, the Wagner industry strips nature of its tangibility and transforms it into a reified aura. This aura is disseminated via “machines” (the orchestra, the stage effects, the scoring process, the construction of the Wagnerian genius, among others) in order to generate phantasmal apparitions or sonorities; effects that function both as regressive echoes and as produce of the artwork of the future.[16]

The nineteenth-century phantasmagorias offered audiences immersive experiences that detached them from their historical consciousness and made them lost in the non-historical realm of myth. Wagner found in myth the antidote to the devastating ideology of historical and technological progress of the nineteenth century. He was a notorious technophobe, and myth offered him a historicity suspended over the obscurity of origin and of the blazing fires of an upcoming apocalypse. In Art and Revolution, he is riveted by Thomas Carlyle’s descriptions of the French revolution as a historical phantasmagoria that brings about utter destruction, an anarchy that reverberated within history as the origin of a new order of things.[17]

The spectacle of complete devastation found in Carlyle, conjoined with Schopenhauer’s nocturnal visions of a self-effacing Will, become elements of a profound pessimism underlying the entire work of Wagner’s, and the instigation of a revolutionary art that would confront its audience with a radical sense of loss, destruction and absence as a necessary and desired state prior to a renaissance of a pre-industrial world.

Wagner’s anarchy consists of a type of Romantic terrorism that aims to see the implosion of the nineteenth century and the revelation of a landscape that lies beneath the ruins of industrial Europe.[18] There is no question that, at certain key moments of his life, Wagner truly embraced this radical doctrine of ruin. Yet, just as we observed the transition from Ur-Bayreuth to Bayreuth proper, one is confronted with the desperately melancholic post-1849 conversion of Wagner’s from anarchist into the figure of the absolute bourgeois artist, the ethnic poet, the anti-Semite, the conservative.

Apart from the originary negativity that all Wagnerian works bear as a distinguishing sign, they also bear this unbearable—and highly guilt-ridden—contradiction between a past radicalism that was abandoned in favor of a Wagner enterprise that would guarantee the sacralization of its founder. And for this reason, the Wagner work suffers so frequently from kitsch; in Wagner, kitsch is the symptom of guilt.

Absence, nature, the radical futurity of ruin: the essential triad of Wagner fashions itself through its uncomfortable relationship with the stipulations of theatrical representation. The works by Wagner are by nature purely theatrical, and their stage existence is necessarily traumatic, in the sense that their phantasmal, intangible qualities demand realization and require technology to come into existence.

Wagner’s operas, from the nineteenth century to contemporary highly sophisticated performances, are testing grounds for the latest trend in theatre technology, or sites inviting extreme aesthetic and technical experimentation.[19] This manic surplus of aesthetic and technical innovation is, at the same time, an anguished attempt for artists, producers and technicians to come to terms with and find tangible solutions for the voids that demand stage realization, and the predominantly bourgeois phenomenon of inventing technological means that fulfill the fantasy of spectacles that exist on the brink of non signification, personal ruin and historical destruction.[20]

Das Rheingold: monochrome photograph of Josef Hoffman’s 14 set designs for Wagner’s Der Ring des Nibelungen opera in 1876. Photo: Wikipedia. Accessed 25 April 2020

On the one hand, the stage technologies attempt to invent effects that move as far away from the mechanical as possible, thus aiming for a “natural” effect, in the sense that these effects take place rather than are produced by mechanical means. The Rhine prelude in Der Ring des Nibelungen, the Act I transformation scene in Parsifal, the highly elliptical transfiguration of Isolde in Tristan und Isolde are dramatic, poetic and musical high points that should appear to occur, rather than imply any mechanical cause.

Video 1
The video of Patrice Chéreau’s Das Rheingold at the Bayreuth Festival (1977). English subtitles. Accessed 25 April 2020

Equally, Bayreuth architecture offers the ascending “phantom” of sound that occurs as pure tone, rather than as a dense sound wave produced by the massive Wagner orchestra hidden away under the stage. Wagner believed that the audience should be protected from being made “an involuntary observer of technical procedure (i.e. the movements of the musicians and the conductor) which should be hidden from him with almost as much care as the ropes, pulleys, struts and boards of the sets, the sights of which from the wings is well known to destroy all illusion” (Carnegy 70). This technical/mechanical concealment reveals one of the most instrumental aspects of the bourgeois experience of the machine—as object, or as a metaphor—by which the effect is not interpreted as the result of an arduous process of labor, but as an unpolluted manifestation of self-will.[21]

A deserted hydroelectric dam as stage design for Patrice Chéreau’s Das Rheingold at the Bayreuth Festival (1977). Photo: Telerama. Accessed 25 April 2020

On the other hand, the machines are the ones that will bring about the favored spectacle of ultimate ruin that Wagner incorporated in works like the Ring. There is no question: the Ring is a work about a world ending, and what is more, we attend performances of the specific work to sit in silence for four days, roughly fifteen hours of music to fulfill our libidinal drive to watch as Valhala and the Gibichung’s hall crumble in front of our eyes, a collapse accompanied by the tempestuous surge of the musical material that leads the work back to its natural origins, i.e. the Rhine.[22]

Video 2
The official trailer of Robert Lepage’s Der Ring des Nibelungen at the Metropolitan Opera (2010). Accessed 7 June 2020

The vision of Brünhilde burning down Valhala, the flooding of the Rhine, the explosion of the orchestra that no longer permits language after Hagen’s highly telling final verse “Zurück vom Ring” is the confrontation of the audience with a radical futurity that had already been invented in the chromaticisms of the E-flat chord in the Prelude to Das Reingold, a chord whose ominousness, stasis and sense of eternity solidify the experience of a bourgeoisie that fantasizes a world that simultaneously predates and transcends the capitalist experience of exchange, contracts and of the failed attempts towards social justice; a fantasy that Adorno labels “bourgeois nihilism” (17).

What Wagner composed at the end of the Ring is a pre-mechanical, nature-immersed universe of being, whose curse is to be represented on stage by the latest technological advances financed by an economic system that yearns for its own fantasies of demise. It is within this paradox that Wagner leaves us after his monumental work has been completed to deal not only with the highly complex issues of representation within his work, but with the political echoes of a work that, in the end, fails to balance out radical promise with the infinite melancholy of bourgeois conservatism.[23]

The theme of the machine in Wagner, either as an object or as a metaphorical trope, is truly an essential one not only in terms of the history of the works’ performances, but also of their inception. At the same time, the specific theme is obviously one of the most important parameters of the historical context from which the Wagner work emerged, and which charged the specific works with contradictory ideological systems that continued to be amplified even after the composer’s death.

The Bayreuth machines are replicas of the primordial mechanistic conception, the Gesamtkunswerk, which opts for a totality of effect that obliterates the individual labour-contribution of each individual art. The exhaustiveness of the Wagner work, the “too much-ness” that Adorno and Nietzsche[24] so astutely commented on, is the necessity of the work to present itself as inescapably sizeable, powerful, overlong and arduous—Wagner’s operas are always within the realm of a surplus that is negotiated the moment that this surplus reveals itself as a deficit, as the central vacuity at the heart of the artistic conception that cannot be fully revealed; that is, the non-representable realm of the dialectics of myth and nature that transcends the mechanical only to return to it as a refuge that, at least, guarantees a deficient epiphany of Wagner’s sublime poetics.

Cutting-edge technology in the staging of Der Ring des Nibelungen by the Fura dels Baus (Valencia, 2007). Photo: From La Fura dels Baus Webpage. Accessed 25 April 2020

What is at stake in the Wagner work is an ideological instability that constantly defies a unitary interpretation that would balance out all the traces, leftovers, footnotes and surpluses that populate Wagner’s work. The reason why Wagner continues to fascinate, beside the undoubted and often painful beauty of his works, is that his music dramas are truly metonymies of an ideological minefield that have to do not simply with the nineteenth century, but with the entire history of Western representation and with a philosophical outlook engulfed in an often dangerous Western pessimism that in one way or another still reverberates with us today.

Video 3
Der Ring des Nibelungen by the Fura dels Baus (Valencia, 2007). Accessed 25 April 2020

Contemporary directors do not simply need to find ingenious ways of telling a story, of portraying characters, of proposing aesthetic solutions, or exceeding an already extortionate budget: they need to find themselves within a nexus of intellectual conflicts and propose dramaturgies that do not resolve what is fundamentally a complex in our culture, but attentively listen to the different ideological frequencies that surround these works and present what is truly an ideological aporia in the chaotic clarity that it deserves.

Works Cited

“Charlotte Brontë visits the Great Exhibition.” Mytimemachine.

“Fura dels Baus: The Valencia Ring on DVD.” Mostlyopera

Adorno, Theodor. In Search of Wagner. Verso, 2005.

—, et al. Aesthetics and Politics. Verso, 1998.

Benjamin, Walter. “Paris: Capital of the Nineteenth Century.” Perspecta, vol. 12, 1969, pp. 163–72.

Benjamin, Walter. “The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction.” Illuminations. Pimlico, 1999.

Boulez in Bayreuth. Phonogram International B.V., 1981.

Carnegy, Patrick. Wagner and the Art of the Theatre. Yale UP, 2006.

Castle, Terry. “Phantasmagoria: Spectral Technology and the Metaphorics of Modern Reverie.” Critical Inquiry, vol. 15, no. 1, Autumn 1988, pp. 26–61.

Cohen, Margaret. “Walter Benjamin’s Phantasmagoria.” New German Critique, no. 48, Autumn 1989, pp. 87–107.

Frölich, Margrit. “The Void of Utopian Potentials: Heiner Müller’s Production of Tristan und Isolde.” The German Quarterly, vol. 72, no. 2, 1999, pp. 153–66. 

Grey, Thomas. “The Idea of Nature in Wagner’s Ring.” The Cambridge Companion to Wagner’s Ring of the Nibelung, edited by N. Vazsonyi, Cambridge UP, 2020 (forthcoming).

Harvey, David. A Companion to Marx’s “Capital.” Verso, 2010.

Kittler, Friedrich, “World-Breath: On Wagner’s Media Technology.” Opera Through Other Eyes, edited by David J. Levin, Stanford UP, 1994.

Kreutzer, Gundula. Curtain, Gong, Steam: Wagnerian Technologies of Nineteenth-Century Opera. U of California P, 2018.

Laplanche, Jean, and Pontalis, Jean-Bertrand. The Language of Psychoanalysis. Norton, 1974.

Mann, Thomas. “The Sorrows and Grandeur of Richard Wagner,” Thomas Mann: Pro and Contra Wagner, Faber and Faber, 1985.

Markus, Gyorgy. “Walter Benjamin or the Commodity as Phantasmagoria.” New German Critique, no. 83, Spring–Summer 2001, pp. 3–42.

Marx, Karl. Capital Volume I. Penguin, 1990.

—. Grundrisse. Penguin, 1973.

Millington, Barry. “‘Faithful, all too Faithful’: Fidelity and Ring Stagings.” The Opera Quarterly, vol. 23, no. 2–3, Spring–Summer 2007, pp. 265–76.

Nietzsche, Friedrich. “The Case of Wagner.” The Anti-Christ, Ecce Homo, Twilight of the Idols and Other Writings, Cambridge UP, 2005.

Rose, Gillian. The Melancholy Science: An Introduction to the Thought of Theodor W. Adorno. Verso, 2014.

Spotts, Frederic. Bayreuth: A History of the Festival. Yale UP, 1994.

Vazsonyi, Nicholas. Richard Wagner: Self-Promotion and the Making of a Brand. Cambridge UP, 2010.

Wagner, Richard, “Art and Revolution.” Public Library UK, 2002.

Weber, Max. The Protestant Ethic and the “Spirit” of Capitalism. Penguin, 2002.

Weiner, Marc A. “Primal Sounds.” The Opera Quarterly, vol 23, no. 2–3, Spring–Summer 2007, pp. 217–46.


[1]In Richard Wagner: Self Promotion and the Making of a Brand, Nicholas Vazsonyi diligently maps out the entire marketing strategy employed by Wagner himself both in terms of self-promotion and in terms of establishing his work as fundamentally distinct from the rest of the operatic canon.

[2]Vazsonyi paraphrases Wagner when he rightly argues that when one listens to a Wagner score, “we immerse ourselves in this ocean of wind-swept (in dieses Meer taucht sich der Mensch) like the poet, as male principle, who must sink himself into the oceanic depths to complete the act of generation” (137). It is interesting to note that the word Wagner uses (“Taucht”) is the root of the verb “untertauchen” that Isolde uses in her ecstatic immersion in the surging swell of sound waves in the end of Tristan und Isolde. In other words, immersion is the par excellence Wagnerian experience.

[3]One of the most astute approaches to the bourgeois elements of the Wagnerian work can be found in Thomas Mann’s classic study “The Sorrows and Grandeur of Richard Wagner,” in which he states that “But for all that he breathes the air of the bourgeoisie, the air of his age—the same air that is breathed by Schopenhauer, the capitalist philosopher: a moralistic pessimism, a mood of decline set to music, which are archetypically nineteenth-century, and which that epoch combines with monumentality, with outsize form, as though size in itself were the natural attribute of morality” (133–34). The pessimistic aspect of the nineteenth century bourgeoisie is one of the fundamental tenets of this paper and is complementary to the analysis of machines in Wagner.

[4]I borrow the word and its ideological spectrum from Walter Benjamin’s vocabulary in “The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction.” What I am especially interested in in relation to Wagner is Benjamin’s comment that “the existence of the work of art with reference to its aura is never entirely separated from its ritual function. In other words, the unique value of the ‘authentic’ work of art has its basis in ritual, the location of its original use value” (217). The interrelationship between aura-ritual-use value seem to be particularly pertinent within the Wagnerian universe.

[5]The Freudian term, translated as “cathexis” by James Strachey, oscillates between meanings of occupation and investment within the unconscious process. It is part of Freud’s economic vocabulary, and it appears from his earliest work (i.e. Studies on Hysteria) up until his mature works. It describes the investment of a particular psychic energy onto a representation, an object, a body part. For a detailed account of the word, see The Language of Psychoanalysis by Laplanche and Pontalis (1974).

[6]The interrelationship between the technological and the spectacular was the corner stone of the World’s Fair experience. One need only consider that very much like the Festspielhaus, the 1851 World’s Fair required its own “temple” in the shape of Crystal Palace, a unique architectural feat never before seen or conceived (and like Wagner’s theatre, funded by royalty). Charlotte Bronte wrote of her visit to the Crystal Palace: “It seems as if only magic could have gathered this mass of wealth from all the ends of the earth—as if none but supernatural hands could have arranged it this, with such a blaze and contrast of colours and marvellous power of effect” (“Charlotte Brontë”; my emphasis).

[7]In The Protestant Ethic and the “Spirit” of Capitalism, Max Weber discussed the almost necessary asceticism dictated by Protestantism and subsequently by capitalism in their equal dependence on “abstinence” and “labour,” a dialectics that is inscribed in Bayreuth, both as edifice and as ideology.

[8]Kreuzer, in her invaluable study of nineteenth-century opera technologies, gives an excellent description of “this factory like outer appearance of the theatre—an unadorned brick-and-timber building whose high stage house, without the mediation of surrounding foyers, awkwardly towered over the auditorium, thereby signaling on the outside the very dominance of stage technology Wagner so eagerly strove to conceal on the inside” (191). This conflict between the inside and the outside, as well as between visibility and invisibility is one of the most important aspects of the mechanical in the Wagnerian universe.

[9]The interrelationship between German Romanticism and myth is an endless topic, which has been approached by a variety of scholars; a highly recommended study in English is George S. Williamson’s The Longing for Myth in Germany: Religion and Aesthetic Culture from Romanticism to Nietzsche (2004), which includes a chapter on Richard Wagner.

[10]Adorno forcefully comments that Wagner reduced the work of art “to the mere object of artistic effect” (72).

[11]Kreuzer rightly claims that Wagner transformed orchestra “from embodied audiovisual medium into disembodied technology behind an acoustic medium.” She continues to argue that “in the context of the Gesamtkunstwerk, the orchestra was no less technological than the stage’s ancillary ropes” (18).

[12]Adorno is useful here yet again: “In this respect, Wagner’s work comes close to the consumer goods of the nineteenth century which knew no greater ambition than to conceal every sign of the work that went into them. . . . .” (72).

[13]This conflict had been already picked up by music critic Eduard Hanslick in the premiere of the Ring, who concluded that “the decidedly material effects deployed stand in a curious contradiction to the pure ideality which Wagner boasts for his work” (qtd. in Millington 271).

[14]The term “phantasmagoria” has a long a complex history; in this paper, I am interested both in its historical sense and in its philosophical. Historically, the term refers to a nineteenth-century technological trend of creating spectacles based on special effects. They can be related to Daguerre’s “Panoramas” that so intrigued Walter Benjamin. Terry Castle, who has written one of the most complete and interesting accounts of phantasmagoria, writes: “Plunged in darkness and assailed by unearthy sounds, spectators were subjected to an eerie, estranging, and ultimately baffling spectral parade” (30). This description can be easily adapted to a performance of a Wagner work. Philosophically, Karl Marx used the term in Das Kapital: “It is nothing but the definite social relation between men themselves which assumes here, for them, the fantastic (phantasmagorische) form of a relation between things” (165). The word is then borrowed by Benjamin in his 1935 essay “Paris: Capital of the Nineteenth Century,” which is one of the very few instances that the philosopher mentioned, in passing, Richard Wagner. Benjamin’s use of the word became a source of friction between himself and Adorno, who wrote to him a letter asking him to reconsider his highly inter-subjective approach to Marxist commodity fetishism. Interestingly, though, it is Adorno himself who introduced the word in the study of Wagner in his study of the composer. For the issue of phantasmagoria in Benjamin, see Margaret Cohen’s “Walter Benjamin’s Phantasmagoria,” Gyorgy Markus “Walter Benjamin or the Commodity as Phantasmagoria.” The letters between Adorno and Benjamin on the term can be found in the collection Aesthetics and Politics (1977). Finally, an excellent account of Adorno’s use of phantasmagoria can be found in Gillian Rose’s study The Melancholy Science: An Introduction to the Thought of Theodor W. Adorno (2014).

[15]David Harvey, in his interpretation of a footnote in Marx’s Das Kapital, believes that “technologies and organizational forms internalize a certain relation to nature as well as to mental conceptions and social relations, daily life and labor processes” (193).

[16]In his influential paper “On Wagner’s Media Technology,” Friedrich Kittler claims that Wagner’s music drama, the artworks of the future, is “a machine that works on three levels or in three fields: first, verbal information; second, the invisible Bayreuth orchestra; third, the scenic visuality with its tracking shots and spotlights avant la lettre (232–33). In this sense, the Wagner work and its performance is a gigantic system of machines. 

[17]“When the Spontaneous Combustion breaks out; and, many−coloured, with loud noises, envelopes the whole world in anarchic flame for long hundreds of years: then has the Event come” (Wagner). Apart from the historical spectacle evoked here, uncannily similar to the end of Der Ring des Nibelungen, one cannot but associate the specific imagery with machines and engines.

[18]In this sense, Wolfgang Wagner’s selection of Heiner Müller, the East German post-Brechtian writer and director who wrote that the experience of the “ruins of Europe” was highly appropriate for the 1993 Tristan, despite the highly stylized end result. For an excellent discussion of the paradoxes of the specific production, see Frölich’s “The Void of Utopian Potentials: Heiner Müller’s Production of Tristan und Isolde.

[19]One needs only to consider the high-tech production of La Fura dels Baus in Valencia (2007–09), in which director Carlus Padrissa was determined to go “back to the spirit of Wagner, to the original mysticism and symbolism” (“Fura dels Baus”). This combination between cutting-edge technology and authenticity was also the focus of Robert Lepage’s Ring at the Metropolitan Opera (2010–12), which, according to Kreutzer, was “completing an ‘authentic’ vision with hyper-modern means” (1).

[20]Regarding the issue of fantasy, Mark A. Weiner believes that “Wagner’s aesthetic material gives form to fantasies of atavistic portent, and that these fantasies—which specifically concern the development and longing for the diminishment, of physicality—have contributed to an experience of the Wagnerian music drama as effecting a sense of the universal, as hypnotic and as involving physiological states” (218).

[21]In his Grundrisse, Karl Marx wrote that “Rather, it is the machine which possesses skill and strength in place of the worker, is itself a virtuoso, with a soul of its own in the mechanical laws acting through it. . . . The science which compels the inanimate limbs of the machinery, by their construction, to act purposefully, as an automaton, does not exist in the worker’s consciousness, but rather acts upon him through the machine as an alien power, as the power of the machine itself” (693). In many passages dedicated to the analysis of machines, Marx comes back to the almost daemonic automatism of machines that entirely alienates workers’ labour.

[22]In his essay “The Idea of Nature in Wagner’s Ring,” Thomas Grey claims that “just as all plant and animal life is necessarily (if not ‘willingly’) subsumed back into the organic cycle as it is killed, eaten or simply dies and decays, Brünhilde’s immolation represents a ‘willing sacrifice’ to the natural order. . . . Symbolically, as Berne sees it, Brünhilde’s sacrifice restores the ‘ecological balance’ that had been fatally disturbed by Wotan’s destruction of the World Ash Tree” (2019).

[23]In one way or another, this was the approach followed by Patrice Chéreau in his ground-breaking production of Der Ring des Nibelungen in Bayreuth (1976), where the director, by aiming to “strip the epic of its Wagnerian pomp” (Boulez in Bayreuth), not only uncovered the deep-rooted psychology hidden in the characters, but revealed the machines that moved nineteenth-century history, especially in Richard Peduzzi’s stage design of the disused hydroelectric dam in Das Rheingold andthe steam-powered forge in Siegfried.

[24]Adorno invests this surplus with the politics of pleasure in Tannhäuser: “The socially determined experience of pleasure as unfreedom transforms libido into sickness, as so we can how, with the cry of ‘Too much!’ Tannhäuser becomes conscious of his own enjoyment as a weakness while he is still in the kingdom of Venus” (82). In “The Case of Wagner,” Nietzsche, in his customary caustic manner, writes, “The first thing his art presents us with is a magnifying glass: you look through it and you do not believe your eyes—everything looks big; even Wagner looks big” (237). 


*Themelis Glynatsis was born in Athens. He studied Comparative Literature and Theatre at the University of Kent, Classics at the University of Nottingham, and in 2004, he completed his practice-based PhD on Antonin Artaud at the University of London. Ever since, he has been working as a theatre and opera director in Greece. In November 2018, he was appointed Vice Chair of the Board at the Greek National Opera.

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