Joseph Chandler meets the man who raised Wagner’s ghost
When I was at school, I would have wanted Julian Doyle’s life. He has directed a number of acclaimed pop videos, for acts as diverse as Kate Bush (Cloudbusting) and Iron Maiden (Can I Play with Madness?). He’s also edited Monty Python’s Life of Brian, as well as done the special effects and editing for Terry Gilliam’s Brazil and Time Bandits. He’s also achieved a moment of celluloid immortality: he’s the policeman who puts his hand over the camera lens at the end of Monty Python and the Holy Grail.
His impressive CV, however, would not prepare you for one of his most recent ventures: a play about an imaginary meeting between Friedrich Nietzsche and Richard Wagner. Twilight of the Gods appropriates for its title both the translated title of Wagner’s opera Götterdämmerung and Nietzsche’s steal of it for one of his last books, Twilight of the Idols. After a successful first run at the Edinburgh Festival in 2005, Doyle revived Twilight in London’s East End this summer, and with a bit of luck, its story isn’t over yet.
When I met Doyle in his London editing suite, he explained that it was not a deep love of philosophy which led him to write the play. “I’d read books like Teach Yourself Philosophy sort of thing, a paragraph here, a paragraph there. I was always politically interested so I read a lot of Marx and Engels and people like that, and I tried to look at Hegel, but it’s a joke.
“But I always found Nietzsche quite fun because he was like a punk philosopher. He would just come out with these great statements. I don’t know anything about the classical way of describing things in the academic way. All I know is that to me he’s a little like Sartre in his existentialist type of approach.”
However, Doyle was also interested in Wagner and a chance discovery of the relationship between the two set off a chain of thoughts that culminated in the play.
“I read somewhere that Nietzsche and Wagner were friends, which really surprised me, and that they fell out, and almost immediately one dies and the other one goes mad. Almost straight away I had the structure before I knew what the play was about, other than that they fell out. I thought, it would be great: you could have Nietzsche in a lunatic asylum and the ghost of Wagner appear to him.”
And that is indeed pretty much it. The play is set in a Turin lunatic asylum in January 1889, a week after Nietzsche’s mental collapse, and only a month after he had finished writing his last work, Nietzsche contra Wagner. After a couple of minutes the ghost appears, and for the rest of the play, the two argue. If you think that doesn’t sound like the most promising dramatic set-up, Doyle would agree.
“I’m always looking for ideas for films, then I started to research into it and I thought the material was fascinating but it was never going to make a film, and I wasn’t even sure it could make a play. To explain why they fell out you had to understand the history of Germany at the time, you had to understand Schopenhauer’s philosophy and how Wagner changed from being an anarchist to following Schopenhauer. You had to explain what these things were and their relationships.”
Nevertheless, the idea had one great strength: Nietzsche, whose “dialogue is already written. It’s great poetic language so you get the guy to play it and say it out loud, you don’t have to change a word. The fun of the play comes from him, all from his statements, his writings, the funnies.”
Indeed. With lines like “Rudeness must not be undervalued – it is the most human form of contradiction” and “The rare power of accurate observation is commonly called cynicism by the countless who have not got it, and even common sense is not so common,” Nietzsche’s dialogue makes Quentin Tarantino look like an amateur.
Knowing that most of the dialogue is verbatim Nietzsche and Wagner is one of the great fascinations of watching the play. For instance, Nietzsche explains his growing disgust with Wagner, who he thought was becoming self-important and stupidly nationalistic. The tensions in their relationship came to a head when Nietzsche refused to attend the premiere of Parsifal at Bayreuth, offended that Wagner had not personally invited him. Nietzsche also attacked the work itself.
“The statements about what happened at Bayreuth,” explains Doyle, quoting: “‘And there they were at Bayreuth, the whole idle royal riff-raff swaggering around and glorifying the Holy German Spirit that your Opera had captured so perfectly;’ ‘The smell of decadence is everywhere, but I could have stomached it had I not had to watch Herr Composer, blissfully allowing himself to be wrapped in this Germanic cloak.’ That’s Nietzsche through and through. ‘Luckily there was Richard Wagner, apparently at his most triumphant, but in truth a decaying and despairing decadent, sunk down, helpless and broken, before the Christian cross,’ that was all Nietzsche.”
Whether or not Nietzsche would have approved of this selective quotation is another matter. One of his most famous quotations is, after all, “The worst readers are those who behave like plundering troops: they take away a few things they can use, dirty and confound the remainder, and revile the whole.”
“Yeah, that’s me,” laughs Doyle. “That’s exactly how I worked. I plundered his stuff for all his best statements. But then he plundered himself. In Ecce Homo he synopsises all his books.”
Although there are big intellectual issues in the play, they also run up against, and sometimes intermingle with, more personal ones. For instance, Nietzsche rails against Wagner’s marriage to Cosima, claiming it went against his long-standing conviction that “marriage makes the woman an object of ownership – a domestic animal, something to be loved down to.” Nietzsche says, “Our debauched, fifty year old anarchist suddenly meets an attractive girl half his age, who happens to be the illegitimate daughter of Franz Liszt. So not only is she intelligent but she understands music. And against all his principals he marries her and with his royal gold settles into a bourgeois existence.”
One of the most extraordinary pieces of true dialogue in the play is from a series of letters between Wagner and Nietzsche’s physician, Dr Eiser. Remarkably, Wagner wrote to him, saying that “In assessing Nietzsche’s condition I have long been reminded of identical experiences with young men of great ability. Seeing them laid low by similar symptoms, I discovered all too certainly that these were the effects of masturbation.”
Eiser wrote back, “I am bound to accept your assumption because I too am led by many aspects of Nietzsche’s behavior to regard it as all too credible. Given the well known tenacity of the vice, I would be dubious of any method of treatment,” to which Wagner responded, “Your patient spoke to me of gonorrheal infections during his student days and also that he recently had intercourse several times in Italy on medical advice. This demonstrates that our patient lacks the capacity for satisfying his sexual urge in a normal manner; a circumstance which is conceivable in masturbators of his age.”
“That is all true,” says Doyle. “The letters about masturbation are all true. Nietzsche never confronted him about them and I don’t know what Nietzsche felt about them. They did come out and Wagner didn’t leak them. The letters came out probably from the archivist.
“It’s weird to talk about somebody like that to a doctor. Obviously in those days they assumed masturbation made you go blind, although it was the syphilis that made Nietzsche go blind.”
The play is as rich in intellectual disputes as it is soaked in personal conflict. One fascinating detail is that Nietzsche accuses Wagner of descending into a Schopenhauerian despair, subverting the conventional idea that Nietzsche is a pessimist:
“Our poor musicologist had been blown off course and crashed his ship into the rocks of despair. … Then along comes the good ship Schopenhauer. Our marooned musicologist jumps aboard but instead of sailing off into open waters our audacious Captain Schopenhauer cleverly steers his ship with energetic purpose directly at the same rocks crashing it to pieces. Why? Because he has a new way of looking at the world, one that declares that being shipwrecked is the purpose of life, a view that saw politics as trivial, and positively advocating disillusionment…”
“I take Nietzsche in his human self, not as his ideological self, as an optimist,” explains Doyle, “because you wouldn’t keep writing with nobody listening to you, you wouldn’t keep going unless you believed at some stage you’re going to be listened to, you’re going to be heard. He knows he’s not being heard, he’s not being listened to. ‘You think so but I need only talk with the cultured people who come to Basel in the summer to convince myself that I am not alive. I am neither heard nor seen,’ that it his line. But he’ll just do the opposite and jump into some very positive statement about a new way of looking at morals or a new way of attacking Christianity. I think in his basic make-up that requires a certain level of optimism or else you’d just despair or go into drink.”
One theme the play would not be complete without is the question of Wagner’s anti-Semitism. Doyle does not question it, but he does try to avoid a simplistic, anachronistic condemnation. Wagner was, after all, a product of his time, which mitigates even if does not excuse. Also, like today, bigotry was often almost a by-product of national insecurity, rather than the straightforward result of race hatred.” I have nothing against the Jew!” says Wagner in the play. “It is just that they descended on us Germans too soon; we were not yet stable enough to absorb them.” Plus ça change.
“So many people were anti-Semitic,” says Doyle. “We don’t know if Beethoven was anti-Semitic because he didn’t write. Wagner wrote all the time. He wrote his own libretto – he was the only parson who did – and he wrote books on philosophy, he wrote non-stop. Whereas other composers, we haven’t a clue what they thought.”
Doyle does, however, seek a kind of redemption for Wagner. At the end of the play, he quotes Jews who speak up for the composer. One, anachronistically, is the twentieth century composer Georg Solti, who wrote, “I am not interested in Wagner’s political and philosophical ideas, or his betrayal of friends. To me anyone who can create such beauty, whether he be half Jewish, anti-Semite, liberal or royalist, is first and foremost a musical genius and will remain so as long as our civilization lasts.”
Doyle’s favourite redemption, however, comes from Abraham Sabor, a money lender. “There’s a true story written by his son, in a book, word for word what he told his son: ‘I have given Wagner a lot of money. He hardly said thank you. I told him I couldn’t help being a Jew, and he called me Shylock. You see my son, the world is full of people who borrow and don’t repay; who steal other men’s wives, daughters and sweethearts, many. But only one of them wrote Tristram and Isolde. I only hope my child you will not listen to me when old age might make me bitter, but will listen instead to the music of Wagner.’ That’s such a lovely sentiment.”
Doyle is still looking for new opportunities to stage the play. “Personally, I’d like to see it done in Israel and Germany. It’s about a German philosopher, it’s about their history. The people who have gone really bananas for it are Germans and Americans.”
It all seems a long way from Monty Python, but as his dedication of the play to them shows, it could not have happened without them: “With the money I earned with them I bought time,” he writes. “And with that time I was able to research and write this play.” Time well earned, and time well spent.
The script of Twilight of the Gods is available from www.juliandoyle.info and from all good booksellers.