Opera lovers caught up in the Sturm und Drang of Richard Wagner’s Ring of the Nibelung tetralogy are moved by the idea of Gesamtkunstwerk, the fusion of different art forms—such as drama, poetry and music—into one work. Centuries earlier, Shakespeare brought the same sort of spectacle to the stage, and modern artists are extending the notion to our everyday lives, delivering artistic experiences via activities as diverse as tree planting and video gaming.
In 1876 Richard Wagner inaugurated the Festspielhaus, his theater in Bayreuth, Germany, by staging his four-opera Der Ring des Nibelungen (or simply the Ring cycle) in its entirety for the first time. Wagner’s 15-hour epic is based on Norse legend and follows the struggles of gods, heroes and mythical creatures for possession of the magic ring that grants domination over the world. With the Ring cycle, Wagner achieved his ideal of Gesamtkunstwerk, the total work of art. Wagner designed the Festspielhaus in part to control the view of the stage, obscuring from view distracting architectural elements, other operagoers, even the orchestra. Thus the action onstage, according to Wagner, appears to each audience member “in the unapproachable world of dreams, while the music, rising up spectrally from the ‘mystic abyss’…transports him to that inspired state of clairvoyance.” But some listeners refuse to be transported, among them Oscar Wilde, whose Picture of Dorian Gray features a character who likes Wagner’s music because, “It is so loud that one can talk the whole time, without people hearing what one says.” The magic still works for many, though, and every summer during the Bayreuth Festival the Festspielhaus presents Wagnerian operas to sellout crowds.
Richard Wagner called William Shakespeare the “mightiest poet of all time,” and he pays homage to the Bard in many of his operas. Das Liebesverbot (“The Ban on Love”) is based on Shakespeare’s Measure for Measure. In Tristan und Isolde, Wagner portrays the doomed young lovers felled by a potion as Teutonic versions of Romeo and Juliet. The summertime romp in the meadow in Die Meistersinger von Nürnberg (“The Mastersingers of Nuremberg”) echoes the sylvan antics in A Midsummer Night’s Dream. And for magic, treachery and sheer spectacle, the four-opera Ring cycle can certainly outdo Macbeth. The three Norns, like the three witches in Macbeth, are prophetic doomsayers. Wagner’s valkyrie Brünnhilde and Shakespeare’s ambitious Lady Macbeth share a tendency toward histrionics (Lady Macbeth is famously reduced to uttering “Out, damn’d spot! out, I say!” as she rues the murder of Duncan). Both commit suicide: Lady Macbeth does herself in offstage, and Brünnhilde rides on horseback into her lover Siegfried’s flaming funeral pyre. Wotan, chief of the gods in the Wagnerian pantheon, is even more power hungry than Macbeth: Wotan wants to dominate the world, Macbeth would settle for Scotland, and ambition gets the best of both of them.
When Richard Wagner laid the cornerstone to his Festspielhaus in Bayreuth, Germany, in 1872, he promised fans they’d see the “unveiling and clear presentation of onstage images that will seem to rise up before you from an ideal world of dreams and reveal to you the whole reality of a noble art’s most meaningful illusion.” The illusion was short-lived. British conductor Sir Adrian Boult, visiting in 1912, commented that the “theatre was dusty (curtains included), props shoddy, mise-en-scène prehistoric, the chorus sang woefully out of tune.”
The difficulty of illusion maintenance notwithstanding, theater companies still attempt to mount the immersive total work of art. Enter Punchdrunk, an English troupe that staged an interactive performance piece inspired by Macbeth in three transformed warehouses in New York City’s Chelsea neighborhood. In Sleep No More the Macbeths, Macduff, Duncan and the witches engage in various deeds, many nefarious and bloody, largely without uttering a word. They render Shakespeare speechless, but as another, anonymous Englishman once said, actions speak louder than words. Dancing, screwing and throwing each other through walls, the actors put on a spectacle that to many is as transformative and dreamlike as a Wagnerian opera or, for that matter, Macbeth.
Looks can be deceiving. Duncan, the kindly old king of Scotland, comments on Lord and Lady Macbeth’s abode, “This castle hath a pleasant seat. The air / Nimbly and sweetly recommends itself / Unto our gentle senses.” Little does he know his hosts are plotting to kill him. The haunted fun-house atmosphere of the McKittrick Hotel, the fictional setting of the Macbeth-inspired Sleep No More, seems better suited to the dark doings of the Machiavellian Macbeths (even the hotel’s name is a reference to Alfred Hitchcock’s Vertigo). Actors play out “fair is foul, and foul is fair” themes in bathrooms, banquet halls, the witches’ apothecary and a pine-scented Birnam Wood (mounted on wheels). They dance and perform impressive gymnastics, all while wearing 1930s evening clothes or nothing at all. The audience is free to poke around these messy, dimly lit spaces. Encountering bloodstained walls and naked actors in bathtubs, they may identify with Macbeth when he says, “Mine eyes are made the fools o’ th’ other senses, / Or else worth all the rest.” Meanwhile, Shakespearean purists may dismiss this showy interpretation of the tragedy with a line from Twelfth Night: “I could condemn it as an improbable fiction.”
Audiences at Sleep No More wander into rooms at their leisure, open cupboards, even riffle through Lady Macbeth’s private correspondence. No two theatergoers see exactly the same show, just as video gamers rack up unique experiences depending on which side missions they choose to complete and in what order, and whether they steal a Ferrari or a Lamborghini. With their ability to shape story lines as they play, gamers have an advantage over audiences of traditional fare, who can only watch silently as events unfold around them—as much as they might want to scream, “Don’t listen to your crazy wife, Macbeth!”
But are video games truly art? For Tom Bissell, author of Extra Lives: Why Video Games Matter, “That is the question.” Bissell claims we’re in a golden age of video games and that Grand Theft Auto IV is the “most colossal creative achievement of the last 25 years.” When he writes of his addiction to gaming, he says, “Whatever I did, and wherever I moved, I never felt as though I had escaped the game. When the game stopped, so did the world.” For an artist striving to transform an audience, such stuff are dreams made on.
Anyone who has sat through the 15-hour Ring cycle, witnessing the downfall of the gods and the doomed love of Brünnhilde and Siegfried, understands the all-encompassing nature of Richard Wagner’s notion of Gesamtkunstwerk. A century after Wagner, German artist Joseph Beuys took the total artwork to a new extreme, expanding it to include all human endeavors. Beuys said, “Every sphere of human activity, even peeling a potato, can be a work of art as long as it is a conscious act,” a concept he called Social Sculpture. For his 7,000 Oaks (1982) project in Kassel, Germany, Beuys piled 7,000 basalt stones next to a tree he had planted. Observers were encouraged to plant a tree and place a stone beside it. By 1987, the stone pile was gone and 7,000 new trees were growing in Kassel. Beuys took the tree-planting project to New York and other cities as an international mission to “point up the transformation of all of life, of society, and of the whole ecological system.” Meanwhile, sound technician David Ocker has also engaged in a bit of transformation, compressing the Ring cycle into seven minutes—a bit of social sculpture that sends Wagner into light speed.