Wolfgang Wagner on Parsifal

Parsifal Act 2 in a production by Wolfgang Wagner for the Bayreuth Festival

The Sin of Titurel

Titurel has built a shrine in which to safe-guard the Grail and reserve it for the egoistic self-intoxication of an élite band of men who have misappropriated that symbol of compassion and turned it into a fetish. The institutionalisation, petrifaction and dogmatisation of the original Grail idea has imparted a sense of élitism and exclusivity.

Instead of judging the world around them on its merits, the knights take a purely subjective view of it. The social functions of their brotherhood have taken second place to a striving for personal perfection that finds its clearest expression in Titurel's advocacy of asceticism. The guardians of the symbols of compassion are devoid of compassion themselves and incapable of healing or redeeming Amfortas. Their estrangement from the original Grail ideal is clearly demonstrated by Titurel's contemptuous spurning of Klingsor and the arrogance of a band of men who set themselves above the dualism of male and female. The evil in Klingsor is not primordial: it stems from the lack of goodness in Titurel.

The terms good and evil, which The Ring clearly differentiates, are sceptically presented as relative values. Parsifal receives no clear-cut answer to his questions: Were they evil? Who is good? Klingsor's exploitation of sexuality, for which the knights of the Grail condemn and reproach him, is nothing more or less than the ultimate consequence of Titurel's call for asceticism. His original hankering after the Grail becomes transmuted into a perverted imitation of the world of the Grail by the theft of the Spear, the seduction of the knights, and his hopes of acquiring the sacred chalice. None of the knights (except Gurnemanz and Amfortas) recognizes Kundry's longing to be disburdened of her curse and her efforts to that end. The problems and conflicts in every character and at every level cannot be resolved into a 'state of redemption' until all concerned experience a change of heart and attain a degree of self-knowledge that makes it possible for them to understand and feel for one another...

Note: for another discussion of the sin of Titurel, see Klier.

Paths of Error and Suffering

Amfortas realizes that a change in his personal fortunes, and in those of the Grail community as a whole, can be effected only by someone who is free from all constraints, but whom shared experience of suffering has rendered sufficiently mature to perceive the nature of things - someone who must personally travel the road of human error and suffering in order to attain maturity on another's behalf. Within this process of comprehension, Kundry's kiss is a release mechanism that enables Parsifal to grasp those manifestations of suffering in others which he has hitherto failed to comprehend. That process is initiated by the great struggle between Parsifal and Kundry in Act II, a conflict that cannot be resolved because neither of them is yet mature enough: he spurns her, she curses him. Parsifal has to tread the paths of error and suffering before his eyes are opened by manifold experiences. In the Good Friday scene the balance is restored, visually in the serene natural beauty of the Good Friday meadow and also - in modern parlance - in Kundry's acquisition of 'equal rights': she is not only released from her curse and baptized but brought to the Grail...

Parsifal Revisited

I based my approach to Parsifal largely in three factors that impelled me to consider how best to stage that ever-special work after so many years' practical experience of the theatre, with all their highs and lows, and how, after treading the path of error and suffering, I could present it in a form relevant to the present day. The first factor was Richard Wagner's oft-cited allusion to the invisible theatre, which Cosima recorded in her diary on 23 September 1878. The full quotation expresses more, I feel, than any elaborate commentary: How I hate the thought of all those costumes and all that make-up! When I think that these characters will have to be dressed up like Kundry, I 'm immediately put in mind of those frightful artists' parties, and having created the invisible orchestra I'd now like to invent the invisible theatre!(Concluding his reflections on a humorous note, as Cosima put it, he promptly added: And the inaudible orchestra.)

The other two factors that interest me are Wagner's description of Parsifal as a Bühnenweihfestspiel [stage dedication festival-play] and as a Weltabschiedswerk [world-farewell-work]. Both these terms have long been vitiated by ridiculous clichés and deliberate misunderstandings. They do, however, possess a long tradition, because Cosima's diaries make it very clear that she herself construed Parsifal as only quasi-religious from the first, twisting it almost into Catholicism and conceiving of it as a substitute religion. Hans von Wolzogen, editor of the Bayreuther Blätter, also helped to foster this idea. Although Wagner was in general very pleased with an essay of his entitled Bühnenweihfestspiel, he was quick to comment that Wolzogen was going too far when he characterized Parsifal as a portrayal of Christ: I did not have the Saviour in mind at all .

As  for Weltabschiedswerk, Wagner employed that striking word formation in his last letter to Ludwig II dated 10 January 1883. He went even further in the same letter, calling Parsifal a Lebens-Abschieds-Werk [life-farewell-work]. In a positively mystifying way, the latter expression became associated with his death a good month later, and the fateful transfiguration of Parsifal began. Although Wagner did not intend to write any more works for the theatre, he was planning far ahead: he hoped to mount Festspielhaus productions of all his earlier works from Der Fliegende Hollãnder onwards, partly revise them, and write some plays and one-movement symphonies. The sense in which he meant a farewell to the world is clearly and precisely explained in Das Bühnenweihfestspiel in Bayreuth 1882, a piece to which he referred in his aforesaid letter to the king, and which interprets both Bühnenweihfestspiel and Weltabschieds with no transcendental obfuscation whatsoever...

Parsifal in Time and Space

Here, time becomes space. One of Wagner's most often quoted statements, enigmatic, baffling. In what space, what time, is Parsifal set? In the northern mountains of Gothic Spain, in the chivalric Middle Ages, in Arab Spain? Yes, if we interpret the letter, not the spirit, of the information Wagner gives. Parsifal's space is an imaginary space, the time in which Parsifal takes place is an imaginary time. As soon as space appears, past and future time become the present. Light creates space, changing light is changing time.

Parsifal Act 2 in a Bayreuth Production by Wolfgang Wagner

The scene of events is surrounded and enclosed by vertical objects of a crystalline structure. Crystal, a formation from the dawn of nature, with its transparent, natural tone, is capable of absorbing light and colour and is brought to light by light -- coloured light. Light is life. This life is brought by light out of the vast, cosmic night of the universe.

The acting area in Parsifal is a labyrinth, the basis and bedrock of our existence. The labyrinth neutralizes space and time, and is itself space and time. The problem is to find the right access; then the path leads to the central point, the end of the labyrinth and its new point of departure. Each of us creates that central point or objective as his personal solution. Titurel places the altar in the centre as a sanctum for the Grail, Klingsor creates an imitation of that sanctum, which to him possesses equal significance, for Kundry to appear in. Parsifal picks up the spear, holding it horizontally, i.e. non-aggressively, and thus turns the sacred spear, which has been misused as a weapon, back into a holy relic. That is the form in which he brings it back into the temple.

The sacred spring also flows in the centre, a theatrical translation of what Wagner, in Act II, calls the source of salvation for which Kundry and the Knights of the Grail all yearn: what Friedrich Hölderlin calls the sacred, sober water that not only washes away guilt but soothes, purifies and allays ecstasy and longing.

In contrast to crystal, a changeable material, the temple is rigid and abstract in design, and the light within it is calculated, not natural. The Grail must only shine for an esoteric elect in a confined space. The temple's monumental architecture cites architectonic elements from various cultural epochs: Assyro-Babylonia, the ziggurat motif, echoes of Mexican Aztec cult sites and of post-Modernist architecture. Architectural metaphors are a principle and instrument of authority, also associated with prisons and barracks. Monumental architecture has always been mausoleum and funerary architecture as well: the monument as an expression of the desire for perenniality and eternal life. This is Titurel's original sin, his betrayal of the living Grail idea. He misconstrues his function and guards the Grail by hiding it away, walling it in, reserving it for an élitist clique, appropriating it to himself and legitimising his claim to God's grace by using the Grail as an adjunct to magical, mysterious ceremonies. The tormented Amfortas longs to die, but Titurel, as ossified as his own conception of the Grail, wishes to obtain eternal life by means of that symbol of life. He creeps around the temple and withdraws to his government bunker. A cruel, unseen giver of orders, he mercilessly compels Amfortas to fulfil his office because he has no wish to renounce his life-prolonging drug, the Grail's sacred bliss.

Spatial and ideological limitation go hand in hand, and the final outcome is a demand for asceticism as a principle of hostility to life. This finds metaphorical expression in absolute discipline as the governing principle of the Temple of the Grail, in the paramilitary drill of regimentation, in the apotheosis of depersonalisation and deindividualisation as an aid to ideological intimidation. Stiff, aloof and unintelligible, remote from life and absolutely unsensual, the knights celebrate their ritual in their ascetic, hermetic manner, without reference to the outside world and life out there, whatever its nature. They are incapable of compassion, of love, of all that the Grail, a symbol of life and salvation, stands for. These Knights of the Grail should really inspire the pity which they themselves can no longer summon up for their king. Obsessed with their ownership of the Grail, they stare dully at the sacred chalice, which glows under their mesmerized, stupefied gaze. Like Titurel, they seek ecstasy and longevity, not salvation...

Samaritan of the Grail

The only character to transcend time and space is Kundry, for whom both are permeable. Past, present and future are embodied in her single person. She was there and saw much before ever Titurel erected his castle for the Grail -- she emerged from space on her aerial steed like an Amazon, a Valkyrie. Kundry is accursed because she mocked the sufferer. Imprisoned and obsessed by her notion of the male as a heroic idol, she found the suffering king unmanly and contemptible. Now she must tread her own path of suffering. Although she is not the primordial she-devil by nature, men treat her as such.

K undry is the victim of the value which an exclusive, élitist male community places on all women: in the masculine imagination, they are either whores or servants, and Klingsor and the Knights of the Grail misuse her as one or the other. In the Heart's Sorrow story in Act II she is, as a person, wholly in command of herself. As Parsifal's Samaritan of the Grail in Acts I and III, she comprehends the original Grail idea...

In Act III Gurnemanz and Parsifal champion the storm-tossed Kundry in a humane, sympathetic way and accept her as the feminine principle which Titurel has consistently (and to its detriment) eliminated from his Grail community. As an individual, Kundry is released from the curse of eternal rebirth. As an embodiment of the feminine principle, she remains alive and is admitted to the temple¹. In one simultaneous, mirror-image-like movement, Titurel's coffin is closed and borne away while the Grail shrine is opened. The temple has been demysticized. The work's great finale is reserved for the music, and its lingering resonances are conceived of as Wagner's attempt to sketch, in musical terms, the world of the Grail in its ideal state: a world of humane spirituality.

Footnote 1: Wolfgang Wagner noticed something that many commentators have overlooked. Kundry is admitted to the temple as the first woman to be allowed to participate in the religious ceremonies of the community. This is one of the elements that Parsifal absorbed from the unfinished drama Die Sieger. Like the Buddha in Wagner's scenario, Parsifal becomes the leader of a religious community, from which women (and the feminine) have been excluded, and through compassion gains the wisdom to admit the woman. In Die Sieger the woman who was admitted to the religious community was Prakriti; in Parsifal the woman who is admitted is Kundry, the Samaritan of the Grail.

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