Shakespeare aside, there isn’t a dramatist whose work has proved more protean than Wagner’s. Patrick Carnegy explores the astonishing variety of interpretation it has provoked, in a book that has been long meditated as well as meticulously researched. It isn’t comprehensive —Wolfgang Wagner, Rennert, Wernicke and Lehnhoff are only a few of the significant directors who are omitted — but its over-view is magisterial, and, despite its considerable length, the crisply organised structure and unfailing lucidity of the prose make it worth the effort of a thorough and continuous reading. Other scholars have written forcefully on aspects of this subject, but Carnegy’s treatment will surely be considered definitive.
Virtually born in the trunk, Wagner was a profoundly practical man of the theatre, blessed with what Carnegy calls ‘a childlike delight in the ingenuities of stage deception’. As well as his multifaceted musical genius, he also had remarkable directorial skills — singers testified to his eye for detail and brilliant ability to impersonate.
Unlike his patron, Ludwig, he wasn’t concerned with historical accuracy in sets and costumes — grand spectacles imbued with mytho-poetic realism were his aesthetic dream, although only the first performances of Parsifal ever came anywhere near realising it. Otherwise he was constantly frustrated by the limitations of stupid actors, creaking stage machinery and gas lighting — it was that dissatisfaction which made the building of his own theatre at Bayreuth so urgent.
Despite his dictatorial streak, he never sought to lay down the law for posterity — ‘Kinder, macht neues!’ (‘Children, make something new!’), he famously exhorted at rehearsal. Nor is there any evidence that he ever imagined Bayreuth ending up as the family fiefdom that it has so catastrophically become.
Yet Carnegy stands up for both Wagner’s widow Cosima and son Siegfried in their generally excoriated efforts to carry on the tradition.