Artistic Genealogy

Richard Wagner drew from Norse sagas and Greek tragedies as he created the ‘Ring’

“There is no such thing as a new idea,” Mark Twain observed. “It is impossible. We simply take a lot of old ideas and put them into a sort of mental kaleidoscope. We give them a turn and they make new and curious combinations. We keep on turning and making new combinations indefinitely; but they are the same old pieces of colored glass that have been in use through all the ages.”

While some artists might like to pretend otherwise, Mark Twain was right, ideas and art do not arise in a vacuum. Of Shakespeare’s 38 or so plays, only four are thought to have original plots – Love’s Labour’s Lost, A Midsummer Night’s Dream, The Merry Wives of Windsor, and The Tempest. There is always soil – even if a seemingly barren desert – from which art sprouts. Sometimes the soil is fully visible, such as James Michener’s Tales of the South Pacific being the source for Rodgers and Hammerstein’s great musical South Pacific.

Influences can also be so diffuse and subtle as to be unidentifiable, even privately to the artist. Cezanne spent countless hours at the Louvre as a young man studying and copying paintings. Courbet and Delacroix, artists he revered, helped form a foundation for Cezanne’s work, even if their influence is not apparent. Artists can also be fully aware of their progenitors, such as when Matisse and Picasso, independently, heralded Cezanne as “the father of us all.”

This principle of artistic genealogy can have a financial dimension in some sectors. The odds of a Broadway musical turning a profit (“recouping” in producer parlance) increase significantly when the story is not original.

Lately I have been pondering artistic genealogy in connection to a play I have written, Das Ende, that is now in rehearsal and will open in Seattle March 23. A genealogical chain can be traced from my new play back to the medieval Norse sagas, which I wrote about last week, and even further back to the classical Greeks.

I was inspired to write Das Ende by Seattle Opera’s world-renowned productions of Der Ring des Nibelungen (The Ring of the Niebelung, or just the Ring as it is usually called). Richard Wagner (1813-1883) wrote both its words and music over a period of 26 years. It is a four-part work that Wagner intended to be performed in series. Its scale is extraordinary, all told 17 hours long presented on four evenings spread over a week. Wagner openly based the story on the Norse sagas, though there are also other influences such as the Oresteia cycle of tragedies by the classical Greek dramatist Aeschylus.

Other artists would prefer not to acknowledge their sources. This may have been the case with J.R.R. Tolkein (1892-1973). His famous Hobbit and Lord of the Rings books bear similarities to Wagner’s Ring operas. Tolkein, however, famously disavowed Wagner’s influence, saying “Both rings were round, and there the resemblance ends.” This is credible since Tolkein, as a professor of medieval literature at Oxford, certainly knew the Norse sagas that Wagner drew on. However some find Tolkein’s assertion disingenuous as Wagner was impossible to ignore; in Tolkein’s day Wagner’s operas were widely considered the greatest works of arts ever created.

A related genealogical tributary for Das Ende is the “Star Wars” movies. Darth Vader, for example, contains aspects of Odin, the top god in the Norse sagas (Wotan is the name Wagner gave to that character). Lucas has often cited The Lord of the Rings as a major influence on “Star Wars.” Since Wagner and Tolkein were drawing on some of the same mythological sources, it’s not surprising to find echoes of Wagner in “Star Wars.” Lucas has even used the term “space opera” to describe his “Star Wars” films and “Star Wars” composer John Williams readily cites Wagner as a major influence on his work.

A genealogical chart for Das Ende would show a number of ancestors from Wagner’s Ring:
● Crimes do have consequences. Alberich’s theft of the gold early in the Ring brings down a curse on him and whoever comes to possess the ring, until it is returned to its source, the river Rhine.
● Wotan, the top god, is ancient and tired. Blind in one eye, Wotan in most Ring productions wears an eye patch.
● Sieglinde and Siegmund, fathered by Wotan, are twins separated in childhood who fall passionately in love when they meet as adults.
● Brunnhilde, Wagner’s defiant and most beloved daughter, is a hero on a quest. She dies when she rides her horse into a giant fire she had ignited. The gods and Valhalla, Wotan’s residence, all are destroyed.
● Alberich, the Ring’s principle villain, disappears in the Ring’s last scene. No one knows what happens to him. That mystery underlies part of Das Ende’s plot.

Curious to know more? Consider attending one of the only eight premiere performances of Das Ende next month.

Wagner’s influence on subsequent generations of artists of all kinds has been profound. Alex Ross, the New Yorker magazine’s classical music critic, has a book coming out soon about just that. Seen from another angle, Wagner is the original bad-boy rock star. His work revolutionized the world of music, and his art was so radical and pervasive that its impact extended to the visual and literary arts. Including now to a new play in Seattle.

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