2016-05-24 09:35:02 UTC
Who is the main character of the Ring, and how would do we define ‘main character”?
There is no truly reliable answer to such a question, and in fact the ‘answer’ to any such question changes over time and with culture expectations.
The main character is often said to be the character that appears the most frequently, or who carries the most significant dramatic ‘valence’, but even with such a criterion, the attribution is not stable.
In Don Giovanni, until the 20th century, Zerlina was thought of as the main female character.
Is it possible that the main character in the Ring in not Brunnhilde, or Wotan, each of whom only appear in various parts of three of the operas?
Perhaps the major character is whom “reason” might suggest it is: the title character, the Ring itself, and more generally the gold.
Isn’t the Ring itself the silent but ever-present protagonist?
It is not merely an object to be acted upon – it is a subject which transforms its objects.
Or perhaps it is one half of a subject: is that subject the Nibelungs, or the Rhinemaidens, or the Rhine?
I ask this because at the moment of the appearance of the Gibichungs, the opera makes a very strange turn.
Who are these people, and what are they doing in an opera of gods and demi-gods and anti-gods?
There are precedents for the Gibichungs in the Prose Saga, for example, and even in earlier sources, but their appearance in the Wagner narrative, so late, is essentially discontinuous; a major plot, setting, and character elements come from ‘nowhere’ after perhaps 14 hours of music and intermission.
I think that that they represent the Germany of Wagner’s time.
They are all in fact various kinds of half-breeds.
Hagan, who is the only character with a direct connection to the earlier story is, I believe, the assimilated foreigner who should not have been assimilated. He is half brother to Gunther, but his blood is not sufficiently noble for him to take an oath. He is cunning and crafty and vengeful.
Gunther espouses occasionally more lofty sentiments, but he is pusillanimous and perhaps unintelligent.
Gutrune and Gunther are desperate to refresh their blood lines, but they cannot. In a sense, they are like the Gods with the apples of youth. For them, Siegfried and then Brunnhilde, descendants of a god-like and imperial past, are the keys to that regeneration.
Siegfried and Gunther become blood brothers, but this degrades Siegfried; it does not elevate Gunther.
At this point, Siegfried can now ‘assume’ the guise of Gunther through the Tarnhelm. A demi-god has agreed to become a half-brother to a half-breed.
But what is the Tarnhelm?
Without the Rheingold, this would be the first moment in perhaps 11 hours in which we would have heard of it. And there is very little in the way of precedent in the sources for such an element.
In Rheingold we see it as a magical element to explain the ability of Alberich to be captured, but despite it impressive powers of transformation of place and identity, it is otherwise ignored. Will it be thrown back into the Rhine at the end, or simply forgotten about again?
At this point (that is, the blood-brotherhood of Siegfried and Gunther) its significance may itself be transformed – it is the embodiment of the notion of the ‘shape-shifter’: it is thus precisely the embodiment of the accusations which Wagner made against Jews – they had no identity of their own, and no place of their own, and destroyed societies of genuine peoples with their infiltration and adaptation of their ‘hosts, not simply by their/our presence, but most seriously by polluting the standards of the host people.
And yet it is in this context that Siegfried assumes the appearance of Gunther, or tries to. Even the ideals of the German society have been seduced by the Tarnhelm of the hated foreigner.
The infiltration proceeds ever upward, to Brunnhilde, who is herself is contaminated by her abduction from the Fire; she is now as vengeful and cunning in her own way as Hagan and Alberich ever were.
And so the world must be destroyed, according to Wagner, not just the world of the Gods, but the entire world, because all has become degraded.
Watching this Ring, I wondered about other glosses directors might give to the story. For example, perhaps a Kennedy Ring: Joseph Kennedy as Wotan/Wanderer, Rose as Fricka, Joseph Jr. as Siegmund (and of course Rosemary as Sieglinde), with JFK as Siegfried (as this not what the Germans called him when he told them he was, indeed, a German pastry?) and Jacqueline as our Brunnhilde. Ted and Robert as Hagan and Gunther (you can take your choice). I will let you work out the Texas contingent for yourself.
But ultimately I do not think The Ring Cycle is about ‘mercantilism’ or capitalism or power - it is the story of the need to restore the primitive and pure German spirit, a prefiguration, in a sense, of a Heigdeggerian spirit of the German people, to the 'natural' German people.
“My” Ring does not suggest that Wagner was merely an anti-Semite. He was a savior too good for his own people, and if Jewish and other foreign cultures in all of their various guises and disguises were the problem, they were a problem which had been fully and fatally absorbed by the German people and society itself, iredeemably, other than through the salvation of destruction and purification.
In this way, I wonder indeed how thoroughly the ethos of Wagner, who mediated the cultural beliefs of his time, and in particular that of Schopenhauer, really did infiltrate the spirit of the Germany of the Reich. Perhaps far more than we admit.
One question: after World War I, with the catastrophic loss, the Right created the idea that Germany had been ‘stabbed in the back’. I wonder where such a phrase came from in this context. Was it merely a figure of speech, meant to incite hatred and deflect responsibility, or was it a deliberate attempt by those who propagated this accusation to link by association the fate of Germany to the fate of Siegfried? I would be curious to know.