Monday, July 28, 2008

Richard Wagner's Cold Heaven: Lohengrin

Lohengrin begins as the struggle for power between Elsa von Brabant and Friedrich von Telramund (a count of Brabant) and his wife, Ortrud. Friedrich has accused Elsa of murdering her younger brother, Gottfried, so that she and her lover (unnamed and unknown) can take over as rulers of Brabant and, it would seem, the entire Holy Roman Empire (which was almost entirely a German fiction and fixation.) Meanwhile, the Hungarian heathens are threatening to invade from the east.

Since Elsa swears innocence, there is only one way to handle this dispute: trial by combat. But who is to defend her? Well, she has been praying for a deliverer, for I suppose she had to have known that she was going to need one. In any case, King Heinrich orders the herald to proclaim the trial, and ask if there is anyone who wishes to step forward as Elsa's defender. Twice the proclamation is issued; following the third a Swan appears pulling a boat, out of which steps Lohengrin, who then asks Elsa three questions: Do you entrust yourself to my protection? If I win this trial for you, will you marry me? If I promise never to leave you, will you promise never to ask or seek to know who I am, what my origin, or where I came from? Yes, yes, yes says Elsa, I give you all of me, body and soul. The trial then begins which, being a sort of superman, Lohengrin wins easily, casually brushing Friedrich's sword out of the way and out of his hands. Once disarmed and at Lohengrin's mercy, his life is spared--without a word from Lohengrin about how this immense favor is to be returned.

Friedrich and Ortrud are crushed but she recovers quickly. Being a bit of witch herself, she knows something about magic. (She also knows exactly what happened to Elsa's kid brother, Gottfried.) There are two ways to break Lohengrin's power, she says: get a piece of him, however small, and/or get Elsa to ask the forbidden questions. Elsa is mine, she tells her husband; you get me a piece of Lohengrin.

Next morning, before the wedding, Ortrud gets to work on Elsa. How can you marry a man you know nothing about? Suppose he has a disreputable past; just imagine how that would dishonor you should it ever come to light. But Otrud's second point is the one that rankles: How do you know he won't leave you as mysteriously as he came? Easy come, easy go.

That night, Elsa and Lohengrin are ceremoniously escorted to the marriage bed and for the first time they are alone. The huge bed is in an open field in a ring of boulders, some of which appear on closer inspection to be recumbent wolves and bears. The presence of these menacing creatures is never explained. (I mean they are there for a reason, which will suddenly appear, but not for a reason that would make sense to Elsa or Lohengrin, were they to ask--which they don't.) Something is obviously bothering Elsa, and it is not the presence of these animals. As Lohengrin tries to lead her bedwards, she becomes more and more distraught, until finally she begins to ask the forbidden questions. (Some of you may be thinking of the Pandora's Box story, but the relevant myth here is that of Cupid and Psyche--to which Wagner has given a new twist.) Now Friedrich and his minions arise from where they have been lying in wait among the wolves and bears and rush to attack Lohengrin. If they think he will have lost his power once Elsa asks the forbidden question, they are mistaken; Lohengrin kills Friedrich as easily as he had disarmed him before. Snow begins to fall, a metaphor surely for the coldness of Heaven.

Now the death of Friedrich has to be accounted for. His body is brought and laid before King Heinrich. Lohengrin says now I must reveal who I am and where I came from. I am Lohengrin and I am a knight of the Grail which sent me here. Now I must return but I would have had to return in any case after my year of earthly bliss had expired. Gottfried however will be given back to you.

The Swan boat arrives and Gottfried, who had been turned into a swan, recovers his human shape--though not that of the boy he had once been; he is now an exhausted, emaciated, waif. Lohengrin gets into the boat and leaves, though we have no idea what or who is pulling or propelling it. Perhaps the Grail has found another slave.

So Lohengrin had lied when he promised Elsa he would never leave her. We also learn that Ortrud had captured Gottfried and turned him over, or sold him, to the Grail.

Does it not begin to seem that the Grail, along with the heavenly powers it represents, is as cold, remote and cruel as the Law in Kafka's Trial--and even, perhaps, as corrupt?

This is, decidedly, a new note and a new line of thought in European art and literature.

1 comment:

  1. Wagner called his works "music dramas" and said the plot and the music were inseparable. They certainly form a unity, but one can listen to the music and enjoy it without following the plot. One can't read the libretto of a Wagner opera and enjoy it without the music. His opera plots are just too stupid.