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

  • Marc Roth

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.

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1. Shawe-Taylor, Desmond, ‘Producer's Folly or How to Wreck a Masterpiece’, Opera, vol 28, no 7 (07 1977), pp. 633–40; and Porter, Andrew, ‘Illusion Regained’, The New Yorker (9 01 1978), pp. 7781.

2. Bentley, Eric, In Search of Theatre (New York: Vintage Books, 1953), p. 301.

3. Appia, Adolphe, Die Musik und die Inscenierung (München: F. Bruckmann A. G., 1899), p. 128; Appia, , La musique et la mise en scène (Bern: Theater-kultur-Verlag, 1963), p. 92; Appia, , Music and the Art of the Theatre, trans. Corrigan, Robert W. and Dirks, Mary Douglas (Coral Gables, Florida: University of Miami Press, 1962), p. 12.

4. Quoted in Skelton, Geoffrey, Wagner at Bayreuth: Experiment and Tradition (London: Barrie and Rockliff, 1965), p. 29.

5. Jullian, Phillipe, Dreamers of Decadence: Symbolist Painters of the 1890s, trans. Baldick, Robert (New York: Praeger Books, 1971), p. 260.

6. Izenour, George, Theatre Design (New York: McGraw Hill, 1977), p. 282.

7. Hanslick, Eduard, Musikalische Stationen: Der ‘Modernen Oper, II Thiel (Berlin: Allgemeiner Verein für Deutsche Literatur, 1901), p. 250.

8. Brief an Adolf von Hildebrand’, quoted in Wagner: A Documentary Study, compiled and edited by Barth, Herbert, Mack, Dietrich, and Voss, Egon (New York: Oxford Univ. Press, 1975), p. 234.

9. Shawe-Taylor, , p. 633; Porter, , p. 77.

10. Wagner, Wieland, ‘Denkmalschutz fur Wagner?’ in Richard Wagner und das neue Bayreuth (Munchen: Paul List Verlag, 1962), pp. 231–5.

11. Shaw, George Bernard, Preface to the Fourth Edition of The Perfect Wagnerite (London: Constable and Co., 1923, reprint ed., New York: Dover Publications, 1967), p. ix.

12. Wagner, Richard, The Ring of the Nibelungen, trans. Porter, Andrew (New York: Norton & Co., 1976), p. 21.

13. Donington, Robert, Wagner's ‘Ring’ and Its Symbols (London: Faber and Faber, 1963), p. 297.

14. Wagner, , The Ring, trans. Porter, Andrew, p. 191.

15. Appia, . Die Musik und die Inscenierung, p. 275; La musique et la mise en scène, p. 197; Music and the Art of the Theatre, p. 220.

16. Nagler, A. M., ‘Wagnerian Productions in Postwar Bayreuth’ in German Theatre Today: A Symposium, ed. Shaw, Leroy (Austin, Texas: University of Texas Press, 1963), p. 22.

17. Wagner, , The Ring, trans. Porter, Andrew, p. 140.

18. Appia, , Die Musik und die Inscenierung, p. 276–7; La musique el la mise en scène, p. 199; Music and the Art of the Theatre, p. 221.

19. Wagner, , The Ring, trans. Porter, Andrew, p. 173.

20. Ibsen, Henrik, Ibsen: Letters and Speeches, trans, and ed. Sprinchorn, Evert (New York: Hill and Wang, 1964), p. 241.

21. Ibsen, , pp. 242–3.

22. Strindberg, August, Author's Foreword to Miss Julie in Six Plays of Strindberg, trans. Sprigge, Elizabeth (Garden City, New York: Doubleday and Co., 1955), p. 71–2.

23. ibid.

24. Strindberg, , p. 73.

25. Craig, Edward, Gordon Craig: The Story of His Life (London: Victor Gollancz Ltd., 1968), p. 274.

26. Pirchan, Emil, Witeschnik, Alexander, Fritz, Otto, 300 Jahre Wiener Operntheater (Wien: Fortuna-Verlag, 1953), p. 75.

27. Kralik, Heinrich, The Vienna Opera, trans. Rickett, Richard (Vienna: Verlag Brüder Rosenbaum, 1963), p. 69.

28. Pirchan, , p. 73.

29.Theater und Kunst’, Neues Wiener Tagblatt, 5 October 1934, quoted in Vergo, Peter, Art in Vienna 1898–1918 (New York: Phaidon Press, 1975), p. 158.

30. Meyerhold, Vsevolod, Meyerhold on Theatre, trans, and ed. Braun, Edward (London: Methuen, 1969), pp. 83–5.

31. Appia, , Die Musik und die Inscenierung, p. 128; La musique et la mise en scène, p. 92; Music and the Art of the Theatre, p. 112.

32. Wagner, Richard, ‘Das Buhnenweihfestspiele in Bayreuth, 1882’, in Sämtliche Schriften und Dichtungen X (Leipzig: Breitkopf und Härtel, p. 306.

33. Westerhagen, Curt V., ‘Das Bühnenbild/Vision-Vorschrift-Werwicklung’, in Richard Wagner und das neue Bayreuth, p. 200.

34. Shaw, , p. ix.

35. Stanislavsky, Konstantin, Stanislavsky Produces Othello, trans. Novak, Helen (London: G. Bles, 1948), p. 13.

36. Quoted in Skelton, , p. 155.

37. idem, p. 153.

38. Wagner, Wieland, ‘Denkmalschutz für Wagner?’ in Richard Wagner und das neue Bayreuth, pp. 233–4.

39. Appia, , Die Musik und die Inscenierung, p. 18; La musique et la mise en scène, p. 43; Music and the Art of the Theatre, p. 23.

40. Skelton, Geoffrey, Wieland Wagner: The Positive Sceptic (London: Faber and Faber, 1971), p. 72.

41. ibid.

42. The most intelligent (and useful) appraisal of the Chereau production of The Ring is Bryan Magee's review, ‘Boulez's Perfunctory “Ring”,’ Opera (Autumn 1977), pp. 74–9.

43. Shaw, , pp. ixx.

44. Izenour, , Theatre Design, p. 283.

45. Wagner, Richard, ‘Das Bühnenweihfestspie; in Bayreuth, 1882’, pp. 332–3.

46. Wagner, , p. 334.

47. Wagner, , p. 335.

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Theatre Research International
  • ISSN: 0307-8833
  • EISSN: 1474-0672
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