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Elsa's reason: On beliefs and motives in Wagner's Lohengrin


Once Wagner's most popular opera, Lohengrin has suffered scholarly neglect in the post-war period. This essay re-engages with the work from the novel perspective of game theory analysis. Centring on Elsa's breach of the Frageverbot, it offers a close epistemological study of the opera's main characters. As an alternative to traditional interpretations of the heroine's fatal decision, we propose a complex and psychologically more compelling account. Elsa asks the forbidden question because she needs to confirm Lohengrin's belief in her innocence, a belief that Ortrud successfully erodes in Act II. This interpretation reveals Elsa as a rational individual, upgrades the dramatic significance of the Act I combat scene, and, more broadly, signals a return to a hermeneutics of Wagnerian drama.

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1 Grey, Thomas S., ‘Meister Richard's Apprenticeship: The Early Operas (1833–1840)’, in The Cambridge Companion to Wagner, ed. Grey, Thomas S. (Cambridge, 2008), 24 . According to Stewart Spencer, ‘Lohengrin is the artist … who descends to earth in search of self-fulfilment, only to find disillusionment and annihilation’: ‘The “Romantic Operas” and the Turn to Myth’, in Cambridge Companion to Wagner, 71.

2 Spencer, Stewart and Millington, Barry (ed. and trans.), Selected Letters of Richard Wagner (New York, 1987), 129130 .

3 Dahlhaus, Carl, Richard Wagner's Music Dramas, trans. Whittall, Mary (Cambridge, 1979), 39 .

4 Pahlen, Kurt, Richard Wagner: Lohengrin: Einführung und Kommentar (Mainz, 1982), 261 .

5 Newman, Ernest, The Wagner Operas (Princeton, 1949), 159 ; Borchmeyer, Dieter, Drama and the World of Richard Wagner, trans. Ellis, Daphne (Princeton, 2003), 150 .

6 Wagner, Nike, Wagner Theater (Frankfurt, 1998), 87 .

7 Emslie, Barry, ‘The Domestication of Opera’, this journal, 5 (1993), 171 .

8 Žižek, Slavoj, ‘“There is no Sexual Relationship”: Wagner as a Lacanian’, New German Critique, 69 (1996), 30 .

9 Hoeckner, Berthold, Programming the Absolute: Nineteenth-Century German Music and the Hermeneutics of the Moment (Princeton and Oxford, 2002), 143154 .

10 Wagner, Richard, Sämtliche Schriften und Dichtungen (Leipzig, 1911–14), IV, 295–6, rpt. in Deathridge, John and Döge, Klaus (eds.), Richard Wagner. Sämtliche Werke. Band 26: Dokumente und Texte zu Lohengrin (Mainz, 2003), 21 . All German excerpts from the libretto are taken from this source.

11 For a survey of cognitive literary criticism, see Richardson, Alan, ‘Studies in Literature and Cognition: A Field Map’, in The Work of Fiction: Cognition, Culture, and Complexity, ed. Richardson, Alan and Spolsky, Ellen (Aldershot and Burlington, 2004), 129 . J, Steven. Brams offers a historical survey of game theory applications to literature in ‘Game Theory and Literature’, Games and Economic Behavior, 6/1 (1994), 3254 .

12 Roth, Steve, ‘Who Knows Who Knows Who's There? An Epistemology of Hamlet (Or, What Happens in the Mousetrap)’, Early Modern Literary Studies, 10/2 (2004), 127 .

13 Butte, George, I Know That You Know That I Know: Narrating Subjects from Moll Flanders to Marnie (Columbus, 2004) .

14 Zunshine, Lisa, Why We Read Fiction: Theory of Mind and the Novel (Columbus, 2006) ; and her ‘Why Jane Austen Was Different, And Why We May Need Cognitive Science to See It’, Style, 41 (2007), 273297 .

15 Benedikt Löwe, Eric Pacuit and Sanchit Saraf, ‘Identifying the Structure of a Narrative via an Agent-based Logic of Preferences and Beliefs: Formalizations of Episodes from CSI: Crime Scene Investigation’, Institute for Logic, Language, & Computation, University of Amsterdam, Prepublication Series PP-2009-33.

16 Ilias Chrissochoidis, Heike Harmgart, Steffen Huck and Wieland Müller, ‘“Though this be madness, yet there is method in't”: A Counterfactual Analysis of Richard Wagner's Tannhäuser’, ELSE working papers #377. See also Harmgart, Heike, Huck, Steffen and Müller, Wieland, ‘The Miracle as a Randomization Device: A Lesson from Richard Wagner's Romantic Opera Tannhäuser und der Sängerkrieg auf Wartburg’, Economics Letters, 102 (2009), 3335 .

17 Evaluating game theory in 1960, mathematician/psychologist Anatol Rapoport found that it ‘stimulates us to think about conflict in a new way’ and, at the very least, it has an impact on our thinking processes: Fights, Games, and Debates (Ann Arbor, 1960), 242.

18 For a general introduction to rational choice theory and games, see Binmore's, KenGame Theory: A Very Short Introduction (Oxford, 2007) ; and Rational Decisions (Princeton, 2009) . Specific applications of strategic thinking in real life appear in Dixit, Avinash K. and Nalebuff, Barry, Thinking Strategically: The Competitive Edge in Business, Politics, and Everyday Life (New York, 1991) , and its revised form as The Art of Strategy: A Game Theorist's Guide to Success in Business and Life (New York and London, 2008) .

19 Unlike popular fiction, high drama explores the high-order beliefs of characters. Löwe, Pacuit and Saraf find that almost all the plots of CSI are entirely built around problems of first-order beliefs (who did what); see note 15 above.

20 For the opera's contradictory elements, see Dahlhaus, Richard Wagner's Music Dramas, 35–48. The allegation that Hitler's title ‘Führer’ was inspired by the opera's finale and the lavishly produced revival of Lohengrin by the Nazis in 1936 certainly did not help: Pamela M. Potter, ‘Wagner and the Third Reich: Myths and Realities’, in Cambridge Companion to Wagner, 242.

21 See Deathridge, John, ‘Through the Looking Glass: Some Remarks on the First Complete Draft of Lohengrin’, in Analyzing Opera: Verdi and Wagner, ed. Abbate, Carolyn and Parker, Roger (Berkeley, Los Angeles and London, 1989), 8191 .

22 Deathridge and Döge (eds.), Dokumente und Texte zu Lohengrin, 213. For a survey of Wagner's changes from the prose draft to the final libretto, see Newman, Ernest, Wagner Nights (London, 1949), 117125 .

23 See Hunt, Graham G., ‘Ortrud and the Birth of a New Style in Act 2, Scene 1 of Wagner's Lohengrin’, Opera Quarterly, 20 (2004), 4770 . Her superior understanding of psychology presumably generates from her pagan beliefs. Tales of multiple gods are psychologically more sophisticated than the deliberations of a single all-powerful god.

24 Richard Jones' Lohengrin at the Bavarian State Opera (2009) seems to adopt a similar reading. The knight is shown to be using magic in the combat (and also in his final confrontation with Friedrich). Visibly shaken by this, Elsa rushes to a room where she has kept a ‘missing person’ poster of her brother. Through Elsa's staring at it, Jones illustrates the nexus between Lohengrin's ‘Nam und Art’ and the question of her own guilt in the case of the missing brother.

25 For a historical background of this judicial procedure, see Ziegler, Vickie L., Trial by Fire and Battle in Medieval German Literature (Rochester, 2004), 710 .

26 See, for example, Aumann, Robert J., ‘Agreeing to Disagree’, Annals of Statistics, 4/6 (1976), 12361239 ; Milgrom, Paul and Stokey, Nancy, ‘Information, Trade and Common Knowledge’, Journal of Economic Theory, 26 (1982), 1727 ; Sebenius, James K. and Geanakoplos, John, ‘Don't Bet On It: Contingent Agreements With Asymmetric Information’, Journal of the American Statistical Association, 78 (1983), 424426 .

27 An example from the world of finance: consider a seller who has an asset of uncertain value and a potential buyer. Both have some private information about the asset's value upon eventual liquidation. The information they have may differ such that, initially, the values they attach to the asset may differ. If the buyer has more positive information than the seller he may be more optimistic about the asset's future value than the seller and, thus, from the outset one might think that they have incentives to trade. But now notice that the sheer willingness of the potential buyer to buy the asset at a price above the seller's reservation value contains information for the seller. Why would the buyer be willing to buy at such a price if he had not more optimistic information than the seller? Hence, the seller must update his beliefs about the expected value of the asset. At the same time, the seller's sheer willingness to sell at a low price contains information for the buyer who must infer that the seller has some more pessimistic information. Hence, he has to adjust his beliefs downward. As can be shown mathematically, this process of belief adjustment will continue until both, seller and buyer, reach agreement about the expected value of the asset and, hence, lose their interest to trade.

28 Dale, Andrew I., Most Honourable Remembrance: The Life and Works of Thomas Bayes (New York, 2003), 258335 ; see also Stigler, Stephen M., ‘Thomas Bayes's Bayesian Inference’, Journal of the Royal Statistical Society. Series A (General), 145 (1982), 250258 .

29 On this subject, see Sperber, Dan, ‘Intuitive and Reflective Beliefs’, Mind & Language, 12/1 (March 1997), 6783 .

30 ‘Many armies got their soldiers drunk before battle. This may have reduced their fighting efficiency, but it also reduced their capacity for rational calculation of self-preservation’: Dixit and Nalebuff, Art of Strategy, 423.

31 Wagner to Liszt, Zurich 30 January 1852, Richard Wagner Sämtliche Briefe (Leipzig, 1979), IV, 274; English trans. in Spencer and Millington (eds.), Selected Letters of Richard Wagner, 248.

32 Robert Wilson has explored the idea of complementary couples in his production of Lohengrin, where ‘Ortrud and Elsa have mirroring movements to suggest that they represent different aspects of one character’. See Mike Ashman, ‘Wagner on Stage: Aesthetic, Dramaturgical, and Social Considerations’, in Cambridge Companion to Wagner, 272. From our perspective, this gesture confirms Ortrud as a social chameleon with a wide behavioural range. She is capable of adopting her target's mentality and subtly manipulating his/her mind.

33 Francis Hueffer (trans.), Correspondence of Wagner and Liszt, new edn, 2 vols. (London, 1897), I, 92, 94. ‘sie im größten maaßstabe doch nur Mittel zum zweck ist: dieser zweck aber ist in einer vernünftigen oper das drama, und dieses ist am bestimmtesten in die Hände der Darsteller auf der bühne gelegt … jeder takt einer dramatischen musik ist nur dadurch gerechtfertigt, daß er etwas auf die handlung oder den charakter des handelnden betreffendes ausdrückt.’ Wagner, Richard Wagner Sämtliche Briefe (Leipzig, 1983), III, 389, 391. Wagner would reiterate this point with regard to modulation in 1865, during the composition of Tristan und Isolde: ‘Über Modulation in der reinen Instrumentalmusik und im Drama. Grundverschiedenheit. Schnelle und freie Übergänge sind hier eben oft so nothwendig als dort unstatthaft, wegen der fehlhenden Motive’ (On modulation in pure instrumental music and in drama. Fundamental difference. Swift and free transitions are in the latter often just as necessary as they are unjustified in the former, owing to a lack of motive). Abbate, Carolyn, ‘Wagner, “On Modulation”, and Tristan’, this journal, 1 (1989), 3358, at 37 .

34 Spencer and Millington (eds.), Selected Letters of Richard Wagner, 215. ‘Nirgends habe ich in meiner Partitur des Lohengrin über eine Gesangstelle das wort: “Recitativ” gesetzt; die Sänger sollten gar nicht wissen, daß Recitative darin sind. Dagegen habe ich mich bemüht, den sprechenden Ausdruck der rede so sicher und scharf abzuwägen und zu bezeichnen, daß die sänger nur nöthig haben sollten, in dem angegebenen tempo genau die Noten nach ihrem werthe zu singen, um dadurch allein schon den sprechenden Ausdruck in ihrer Hand zu haben.’ Wagner, Richard Wagner Sämtliche Briefe, III, 387–8.

35 The exact nature of music's relation to text is one of the most discussed in Wagner literature. See, for example, Abbate's critique of Dahlhaus's view on music's autonomy in Tristan: ‘Wagner, “On Modulation”, and Tristan’, 42–8. Lohengrin, however, was composed before Wagner's Zurich writings, the theoretical fuel for much of the discourse on this topic.

36 Hueffer (trnas.), Correspondence of Wagner and Liszt, I, 95–6. ‘Bei der conception und Ausführung des zweiten Aktes war es mir nicht entgangen, wie nothwendig es zur hervorbringung der richtigen Stimmung des Zuhörers sei, daß die Befriedigung, welche durch Elsa's letzte Worte an Lohengrin angeregt ist, keine vollständige und wirklich beruhigende sei: es soll dem Publikum die Empfindung beigebracht werden, daß Elsa sich soeben nur die äußerste Gewalt anthat, ihren Zweifel zu überwinden, und wir in wahrheit zu befürchten haben, Elsa werde – da sie einmal dem Grübeln über Lohengrin sich hingegeben – dennoch erliegen und das verbot überschreiten. Hierin, daß diese Stimmung hervorgebracht wird, daß wir allgemein diese Befürchtung hegen, liegt die einzige Nothwendigkeit, daß noch ein dritter Akt folge, in welchem sich unsre Befürchtung erfüllt: außerdem müßte die oper hier zu Ende sein, denn die Hauptfrage wäre nicht nur angeregt, sondern sogar auch schon befriedigend gelöst worden. Um nun diese nothwendige Stimmung recht deutlich, ja handgreiflich hervorzubringen, erfand ich folgenden dramatischen Moment. Elsa wird von Lohengrin schließlich die Stufen zum Münster hinaufgeleitet: auf der höchsten Stufe angekommen, wendet Elsa den Blick mit furchtsamer Scheu zur Seite abwärts –, sie sucht unwillkürlich Friedrich mit den Augen, an den sie noch denkt, – da trifft ihr Blick auf Ortrud, welche unten steht und drohend die Hand zu ihr emporstreckt: im Orchester lasse ich hier im ffo F-moll die Reminiscenz von Lohengrin's Verbot eintreten, deren Bedeutung bis hierher sich uns deutlich eingeprägt hat, und von Ortrud's ausdrucksvoller gebärde begleitet hier mit Bestimmtheit ausdrücken muß: “geh nur hin, du wirst doch das gebot brechen!” Hierauf wendet Elsa sich erschreckt ab, und erst als der König mit dem brautpaar nach dieser Unterbrechung wieder weiter dem eingange des Münsters zuschreitet, – fällt der Vorhang.’ Wagner, Richard Wagner Sämtliche Briefe, III, 391–2.

37 The musical examples are from the vocal score in Karl Klindworth's piano reduction (Mainz, 1913) available through the IMSLP/Petrucci online library: Bar numbers refer to the full score edited by John Deathridge and Klaus Döge Lohengrin: Romantische Oper in drei Akten WWV75 Bd. 1- (Mainz, 1996, 1998, 2000).

38 For a study of the opera's literary models on this topic, see Borchmeyer, Drama and the World of Richard Wagner, 147–56.

39 Wagner to Liszt, Zurich 30 January 1852, in Spencer and Millington (eds.), Selected Letters of Richard Wagner, 248–9. ‘Ortrud ein Weib ist, das – die Liebe nicht kennt. Hiermit ist Alles, und zwar das Furchtbarste, gesagt. Ihr Wesen ist Politik. Ein politischer Mann ist widerlich, ein politisches Weib aber grauenhaft: diese Grauenhaftigkeit hatte ich darzustellen. Es ist eine Liebe in diesem Weibe, die Liebe zu der Vergangenheit, zu untergegangenen Geschlechtern, die entsetzlich wahnsinnige Liebe des Ahnenstolzes, die sich nur als Haß gegen alles Lebende, wirklich Existirende äußern kann … Sie ist eine Reaktionärin, eine nur auf das Alte bedachte und deshalb allem Neuem Feindgessinte, und zwar im wüthendsten Sinne des Wortes: sie möchte die Welt und die Natur ausrotten, nur um ihren vermoderten Göttern wieder Leben zu schaffen … Nicht das mindeste Kleinliche darf daher in ihrer Darstellung vorkommen: niemals darf sie etwa nur maliciös oder piquirt erscheinen; jede Aeußerung ihres Hohnes, ihrer Tücke, muß die ganze Gewalt des entsetzlichen Wahnsinnes durchblicken lassen, der nur durch die Vernichtung Anderer, oder – durch die eigene Vernichtung zu befriedigen ist.’ Richard Wagner Sämtliche Briefe, IV, 273–4.

40 Thomas S. Grey, ‘Leitmotif, Temporality, and Musical Design in the Ring’, in Cambridge Companion to Wagner, 88. See also Hunt, ‘Ortrud and the Birth of a New Style’, 47–70.

41 Wagner, Richard, ‘The Art-Work of the Future’, in Richard Wagner's Prose Works trans. Ellis, William Ashton, (London, 1895), I, 193 .

* Work on this essay was supported by the ESRC Centre for Economic Learning and Social Evolution. We are grateful for comments and criticism to Heike Harmgart, Berthold Hoeckner, Steven Huebner, Wieland Müller, Steve Roth, and especially to Thomas S. Grey. Further thanks are due to the participants of the ‘Rationality in Drama & Fiction’ (2007) <∼uctpshu/RDF.htm> and ‘Game Theory, Drama & Opera’ (2010) <∼uctpshu/gamesandopera.html> conferences at University College London.

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