Academic journal article Notes

Drama and the World of Richard Wagner

Academic journal article Notes

Drama and the World of Richard Wagner

Article excerpt

Drama and the World of Richard Wagner. By Dieter Borchmeyer. Trans. by Daphne Ellis. Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2003. [x, 391 p. ISBN 0-691-11497-8. $39.50.] Index.

Dieter Borchmeyer is one of the most active German scholars working in the sprawling area of Wagner studies. As the span of Wagnerian centenary observations unfolded towards 1983, Borchmeyer emerged as author of the substantial monograph Das Theater Richard Wagners: Idee-DichtungWirkung (Stuttgart: P. Reclam, 1982), as editor of a collection of Wagner's writings, Dichtungen und Schriften: Jubiläumsausgabe in zehn Bänden, as well as co-editor of Wagner-Parodien (both Frankfurt am Main: Insel Verlag, 1983). Amidst five subsequently edited Wagner-related volumes, the 1982 book appeared in English, translated by Stewart Spencer, as Richard Wagner: Theory and Theatre (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1991). For this much-modified version, Borchmeyer largely rewrote one of the original four sections-that concentrating on the stage works themselves-"for an English audience" (p. xv). This new material turned out to be less a matter of addressing a different audience than a valuable rethinking, as it has resurfaced, reworked, in Richard Wagner: Ahasvers Wandlungen (Frankfurt am Main and Leipzig: Insel Verlag, 2002). It has now appeared in English, translated by Daphne Ellis, as Drama and the World of Richard Wagner.

Borchmeyer openly admits that many chapters in this recent book derive from earlier publications, but a newcomer to his writings in either language will not likely be aware of the extent to which this is the case. Yet the book is no mere pastiche. The rethinkings involved in the first translation project triggered a chain of evolutions and expansions of topics that yielded much original material that helps to make Drama and the World of Richard Wagner a distinctive volume. One senses that Borchmeyer is always aware of the operas as living theatrical works; he is intimately familiar with Wagnerian production practices in Europe. Borchmeyer's analytical interest in original contexts and aesthetics raises pressing issues about interpretation that are relevant to today's stages. The chapters of the book not centered on the operas offer potent myth-debunking vignettes pertaining more to Wagner biography and reception history. Drawing upon much recent scholarship, Borchmeyer repeatedly argues that Wagner's beliefs and relationships occupy a more nuanced and often paradox-ridden middle ground than popular polarized representations would suggest. He is keenly aware how much resistance there is to such claims; many of his arguments are shaped as closing arguments on long-standing debates. What we have in this volume is an impressive representation of Borchmeyer's entire Wagner publication history, with the transformations of the author's own ideas playing a defining role.

The book's original self-reflexive title refers of course to Wagner and his oeuvre, not Borchmeyer directly. Ahasvers Wandlungen could easily have been translated literally as Ahasuerus's Transformations, but perhaps Drama and the World of Richard Wagner was intended to have broader appeal. The original title is more provocative, in that it refers to the figure of the Wandering Jew that figures prominently in Wagner's stage works from Der fliegende Holländer to Parsifal. Any reference in a Wagner-centered work to Jewish themes opens up a minefield. Opinions concerning Wagner's anti-Semitism remain sharply divided, as evidenced by the passionate conflicts that erupted at the end of the conference "Richard Wagner und die Juden" that Borchmeyer helped to organize in Bayreuth in 1999.

Early on, Borchmeyer cast himself in the camp of acknowledging Wagner's anti-Semitic beliefs but not regarding his artworks or any twentieth-century anti-Semitic crimes as direct expressions or byproducts of those beliefs (his selection of Wagner writings for the Jubilee edition did not include the notorious essay "Das Judentum in der Musik"). …

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