The fabulous Bayreuth production of *The Communist Manifesto*

After I had quoted A.C.Douglas on the best Ring for the beginner at a Russian music forum, I got this in a comment among others:

I’ve just seen Das Rheingold from the mentioned [DVD] set [Boulez–Chéreau 1976 Bayreuth Ring] and found that staging curious. As far as I understand, Chéreau connects humankind’s renunciation of love with the age when mass industrial production and capitalism arose in Europe.

I don’t know if it’s a fair characterization of Chéreau’s concept but I strongly suspect it is. It rang a deliciously familiar bell the moment I scanned “industrial production and capitalism” — back from 1848:

The bourgeoisie has torn away from the family its sentimental veil, and has reduced the family relation into a mere money relation.

It’s The Communist Manifesto. Will the reader excuse my quoting more:

The bourgeoisie, wherever it has got the upper hand, has put an end to all feudal, patriarchal, idyllic relations. It has pitilessly torn asunder the motley feudal ties that bound man to his “natural superiors”, and has left no other nexus between people than naked self-interest, than callous “cash payment”. It has drowned out the most heavenly ecstacies of religious fervor, of chivalrous enthusiasm, of philistine sentimentalism, in the icy water of egotistical calculation. It has […]

and so on. I am trying to denigrate the Manifesto here — not in the least: it has swashbuckling passages and piercing criticisms, some fair ones among them, and its mutinous spirit may have had something in common with that which drove Wagner onto barricades in Dresden. (Nor am I commenting on the general vulgarity of Marxist/Freudist/Gender Studies approaches.) But the Manifesto aged poorly, unlike the Ring; what was fresh invective in 1848 was hopelessly stale by 1976. The old horse refused to die but why another beating? Poor old Bolivar… But let’s read on:

The bourgeoisie, during its rule of scarce one hundred years, has created more massive and more colossal productive forces than have all preceding generations together. Subjection of nature’s forces to man, machinery, application of chemistry to industry and agriculture, steam navigation, railways, electric telegraphs, clearing of whole continents for cultivation, canalization o[f] rivers, whole populations conjured out of the ground — what earlier century had even a presentiment that such productive forces slumbered in the lap of social labor?

“‘Whole populations conjured out of the ground?’ Why, it’s the oppressed Nibelung race! The Great Old Man gives the key to the Ring, too — perhaps his philosophy does explain everything after all,” thought the director and rushed to his desk for a session of furious notemaking. A hydroelectric dam with its unchaste daughters (“subjection of nature’s forces to man” and sentimental values reduced to a “mere money relation”), a steam hammer for Siegfried to fashion the sword (“colossal productive forces”), a polluted and drying Rhine (a consequence of the “canalization of rivers”) — word by word, the Manifesto climbed on stage. “A bit straightforward for a sophisticated French artist,” the creator grinned, “but those epics… keep them simple!”


  1. I’ve heard Chereau was heavily influenced by George Bernard Shaw who provided a Marxist-style reading of the “Ring” in “The Perfect Wagnerite” (if my memory holds good – I’ve never read the book).

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