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Staging ‘The Master's’ Works: Wagner, Appia, and Theatrical Abuse

Published online by Cambridge University Press:  23 January 2009


Recent productions of Wagner's Der Ring des Nibelungen, especially those by Patrice Chereau at Bayreuth and Peter Stein at the Paris Opera, have caused the greatest hue and cry from audiences since Wieland Wagner first presented his controversial interpretations of his grandfather's works. Once again, the distressing knee-jerk reaction from many critics has been to admonish today's directors and scenic designers to ‘go back to Wagner's original intentions’ and restore the illusionism prescribed in his stage directions. The debate over the proper performance of Wagner's works is tied to the larger and inherently unresolvable question concerning the proper domain of theatrical interpretation. It is very appropriate for one of the most heated arguments on this subject to center around Wagner because his music dramas were the springboard of the modern scenographic revolution, and there has been a tendency to brand Wagner as one of the prime movers behind twentieth century theatrical abuse. At the end of the last century a Swiss Wagnerite named Adolphe Appia changed the art of scenic interpretation through his stagings of The Ring and Tristan und Isolde. As every student of theatre history knows, Appia's designs and writings published in his book Die Musik und die Inscenierung (1899) form the basis of modern scenography. What most people fail to recognize, however, is that Appia's book is an immensely valuable study of Wagner. His ideas for staging The Ring influenced the most important Wagner interpreters of the twentieth century, and his analysis of the ‘profound significance’ of the music dramas anticipated most of literary studies about Wagner published in recent years.

Copyright © International Federation for Theatre Research 1980

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