containing Wagner's speech on the laying of the foundation stone of the Bayreuth Festspielhaus on 22 May 1872 [...]
Within the capsule that was to be buried inside the foundation stone we placed not only a solemn greeting from the illustrious defender of my best endeavours and several other relevant documents but also some lines that I myself had composed:
Oh, may the secret buried here
Rest undisturbed for many a year:
For while it lies beneath this stone
The world shall hear its clarion tone.
To the assembled company I addressed the following speech: 'My friends and valued patrons'
Through you I am today placed in a position surely never before occupied by any artist. You believe in my promise to establish a special theatre for the Germans and you are giving me the means to set that theatre before you in the clearest possible outlines. For the present this purpose is to be served by the temporary theatre for which we are today laying the foundation stone. When we meet again in this place, you will be greeted by a building in whose characteristic qualities you will immediately read the history of the idea that it embodies. You will see an outer shell constructed from the very simplest of materials, which at best will remind you of those timber structures that are knocked together in German towns and cities for gatherings of singers and similar cooperative events and pulled down again as soon as the festival is over. But as soon as you enter the building, it will become increasingly clear to you which of its features are intended to last. Here too you will initially find only the simplest of materials and a total absence of ornament; you may perhaps be surprised to find not even the few ornaments with which the wooden halls already familiar to you are so attractively decked out. Conversely, you will find in the proportions and arrangement of the auditorium and its seating the expression of an idea which, once you have grasped it, will immediately place you in a new and different relation to the stage spectacle that you are to see, a relation quite distinct from the one you had previously known when visiting other theatres. If this impression is pure and perfect, then the mysterious entry of the music will prepare you for 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. Here, finally, nothing will speak to you any longer in mere hints and in a provisional form: so far as it lies within the artistic powers of the present day, you will be offered only the most perfect staging and acting.
Thus my plan, which transfers what I have called the most enduring part of our building to the most perfect execution of that part of it which is aimed at creating a sense of sublime illusion. If I am to trust myself to ensure that the intended artistic achievement turns out a complete success, then I take heart from a hope that stems from despair itself. I trust in the German spirit, and I hope that it may be revealed to us in those areas of our lives in which it has languished in the most pitifully distorted form, not least in the life of our public art. In this, I trust above all in the spirit of German music because I know how willingly and brightly it burns in our musicians as soon as a German master wakens it within them. I trust in dramatic actors and singers because I have learnt that they can be transfigured and awoken to a new life as soon as a German master leads them back from the idle pursuit of a harmful pastime to the true observance of so vital a calling. I trust in our artists, and I may proclaim this aloud on a day on which, at my simple friendly bidding, so select a band has foregathered here from the most disparate corners of our fatherland; when, forgetful of themselves and delighting in the work of art, they perform our great Beethoven's wonderful symphony for you today as a festive greeting, we all may surely tell ourselves that the work we intend to start today will be no deceptive mirage, even if we artists can vouch only for the truth of the idea we are to realize with it.
But to whom should I turn in order to ensure that this ideal achievement acquires a lasting solidity and that the stage receives its monumental protective casing?
Our undertaking has often been described of late as the establishment of a 'National Theatre of Bayreuth'. I am not justified in accepting this title. Where is the 'nation' that might build this theatre? When the French National Assembly recently debated the question of state support for the major Paris theatres, the speakers all argued with some passion that they should demand the continuation of and, indeed, an increase in these subsidies because they owed it not merely to France but to Europe too to maintain these theatres, Europe having grown used to receiving from them the laws of its own intellectual culture. Can we imagine the embarrassment and bewilderment that a German parliament would feel if it had to deal with a similar question? Its discussions would perhaps end in the comforting conclusion that our theatres require no state support since the French National Assembly is already providing for their needs too. At best our theatre would be treated as the German Reich was treated by our various regional parliaments only a few years ago, namely, as a chimera.
While the plan for a true German theatre was developing before my mind's eye, I was none the less obliged to admit that I would be abandoned from both within and without, were I to present this plan to the nation. But many people are no doubt convinced that although one man may not be believed, many such people may be: it should ultimately be possible to float a gigantic limited company that would invite an architect to build a magnificent theatre somewhere or other and that we could boldly call it a German National Theatre in the belief that a German national art of the theatre would emerge of its own accord. The whole world now firmly believes in perpetual progress, a progress, moreover, that in our own day is extremely rapid, even though we have no clear idea of where exactly we are going, still less what is meant by this term, whereas those who have really brought something new into the world have never been asked about their attitude towards their progressive surroundings, which have presented them only with obstacles and opposition. On a festive day like the present one we prefer not to think of the undisguised complaints at all this or of the deep despair of our greatest minds whose work reveals the only true kind of progress; but perhaps you will allow the man whom you honour today with so signal a distinction to express his heartfelt joy that the particular thought of a single individual has been understood and embraced in his lifetime by so large a number of friends as your gathering here and now attests.
I had only you, the friends of my own particular art and of my very own labours and work, as sympathizers of my plans: I could approach you only by asking you to help me in my work: my only wish is to present this work in a pure and undistorted way to those men and women who have taken a serious interest in my art in spite of the fact that it has hitherto been presented to them in a way that is still impure and distorted - it is a wish that I have been able to convey to you without presumption. Only in this almost personal relation to you, my patrons and friends, may I recognize the ground on which we shall lay the stone that is to bear the whole edifice of our noblest German hopes, an edifice that still soars up so boldly before our mind's eye. Though it now be but a temporary structure, it will be so only in the sense in which all outward forms of the German character have been provisional for centuries. But it is in the nature of the German spirit to build from within: God Almighty verily lives within that spirit before building a temple to His own glory. And this temple will proclaim the inner spirit to the outer eye just as that spirit belongs to itself in its amplest individuality. And so I shall describe this stone as the talisman whose power shall reveal to you the hidden secrets of that spirit. May it now bear the scaffolding that we need for that illusion through which you are to look into life's truest mirror. But even now it is firmly and truly laid in order that it may bear the proud edifice as soon as the German nation demands to enter into possession of it with you in its own honour. And so let it be consecrated by your love, your blessings and by the profound gratitude that I bear you, all those of you who have wished me well, granting me your patronage, your gifts and your assistance! May it be consecrated by the spirit that inspired you to heed my call, the spirit that filled you with the courage to trust in me entirely, in spite of all mockery, and that was able to speak to you through me because it dared hope that it might recognize itself within your hearts: the German spirit that shouts its youthful morning greeting to you across the centuries.'
I scarcely think it necessary to recall the events of those wonderful celebrations whose sense and significance I believe I adequately described in the preceding speech. With it I ushered in an undertaking that can endure the contempt and calumny of those to whom its underlying thought is bound to remain incomprehensible, as is only to be expected of the majority of people who nowadays frequent life's marketplace, pointlessly struggling to find some means of eking out their ephemeral existences in art and literature. Difficult though our undertaking may well prove, my friends and I will merely see in this the same difficulties that have weighed for many a long year and, indeed, for centuries on the healthy development of a culture genuinely unique to the Germans.
To explain the plan of the festival theatre now being built in Bayreuth, I believe that I cannot do better than begin with the need I felt first, namely, that of rendering invisible the technical hearth of the music: the orchestra. For this one constraint led step by step to the total redesigning of the auditorium of our neo-European theatre.
Those of my readers who are familiar with some of my earlier writings will already know my thoughts on the concealment of the orchestra, and I hope that even if they had not already felt this for themselves, a subsequent visit to the opera will have convinced them of the rightness of my feeling that the constant and, indeed, insistent sight of the technical apparatus needed to produce the sound constitutes a most tiresome distraction. In my essay on Beethoven I was able to explain how at thrilling performances of ideal works of music we may ultimately cease to notice this reprehensible evil as a result of the force with which all our senses are retuned, resulting, as it were, in a kind of neutralization of our sense of sight. With a stage performance, by contrast, it is a question of attuning our sense of sight to precisely apprehending an image, which can be done only by distracting it completely and by preventing it from noticing any reality than lies in between, such reality including the technical apparatus needed to produce the image in the first place.
Without actually being covered, the orchestra was therefore to be sunk so deep that the audience would look right over it and see the stage unimpeded; this in turn meant that the seating must consist in gradually ascending rows whose ultimate height would be determined only by the need for a clear view of the stage picture. As a result, our whole system of tiers of boxes was ruled out: inasmuch as the first of these boxes are located on the side walls, it would have been impossible to prevent their occupants from looking straight down into the orchestra pit. In terms of their positioning, our rows of seats thus assumed the character of a classical amphitheatre, although there could of course be no question of actually executing the traditional form of an amphitheatre that would have projected so far on either side as to produce, or even exceed, a full half-circle, for the object of which the audience needs a clear overview is no longer the Greek chorus in the classical orchestra, which was largely surrounded by the amphitheatre, but the Greek skene, which was presented to Greek audiences merely in the form of a projecting surface but which in our own particular case was to be used in all its depth.
We were thus strictly bound by the laws of perspective, according to which the rows of seats might widen as they rose up but must always face the stage. As for the stage, it was the proscenium that influenced the whole of the rest of the design: the actual frame of the stage picture necessarily became the starting point for this arrangement. My demand that the orchestra be made invisible proved an inspiration to the famous architect whom I was initially privileged to consult on this matter, encouraging this man of genius to find a use for the empty space that arose in this way between the proscenium and the rows of seats in the auditorium: we called it the 'mystic abyss' because its function was to separate reality from ideality, and the architect closed it off at the front with a second, wider proscenium. Thanks to the relation between this second proscenium and the narrower one behind it, he was immediately able to promise the most wonderful illusion that makes the actual events onstage appear to be further away, persuading the spectator to think that the action is very remote, while allowing him to observe that action with the clarity of actual proximity. In turn this gives rise to a second illusion, allowing the figures onstage to appear to be of larger, superhuman size.
The success of this arrangement should alone be sufficient to give an idea of the incomparable impact of the audience's new relation to the stage picture. Having taken his seat, the spectator now find himself in a veritable theatron, in other words, in a space that exists for no other purpose than for looking, and looking, moreover, in the direction in which his seat points him. Between him and the picture that he is to look at, nothing is plainly discernible except for a sense of distance held, as it were, in a state of suspension due to the architectural relationship between the two proscenia, the stage picture appearing in consequence to be located in the unapproachable world of dreams, while the music, rising up spectrally from the 'mystic abyss' and as such resembling the vapours ascending from Gaia's sacred primeval womb beneath the Pythia's tripod, transports him to that inspired state of clairvoyance in which the stage picture that he sees before him becomes the truest reflection of life itself.
A difficulty arose in respect of the importance to be given to the side walls in the auditorium: unbroken by any boxes, they presented a flat expanse that could not be brought into any meaningful relationship with the rising rows of seats. The famous architect who was initially entrusted with the task of building the theatre along monumental lines found a solution to the problem by using all the resources of architectural ornament in the noblest Renaissance style, causing the bare surfaces to disappear and turning them into a fascinating feast for the eyes. For our temporary festival theatre in Bayreuth we were forced to renounce all thought of similar decorations, which have no meaning unless the material itself is noble and precious, once again raising the question of what we should do with these side walls, which were so out of keeping with the actual auditorium. A glance at the first of the plans included in the appendix shows us an oblong narrowing towards the stage and forming the actual space for the audience. It is bounded by two side walls that run in straight lines towards the proscenium - an arrangement made unavoidable by the building as such - and that produce an unsightly wedge-shaped area, which could in fact have been conveniently used for steps giving access to the seats. In order to render as innocuous as possible the surface that was opened up in this way on either side of the proscenium and that ruined the overall impression, my present adviser had with his customary inventiveness already hit on the idea of adding a third proscenium, even wider and further forward than the other two. Much taken by the excellence of this idea, we soon went a stage further and found that, to do full justice to the idea of an auditorium narrowing in true perspective towards the stage, we should have to extend the process to the whole interior, adding proscenium after proscenium until they culminated in the gallery that crowns the whole design, thereby enclosing the audience itself within this proscenic perspective, no matter where they may be sitting. For this we devised a series of columns that mirrored the first proscenium and that grew further apart the further they rose, delimiting the rows of seats and deceiving us as to the straight lines of the side walls behind them. Between them, finally, the necessary stairs and entrances were effectively concealed. With this we ultimately settled all our internal arrangements, as indicated in the accompanying plans.
As we were building a merely temporary theatre and therefore had to bear in mind only the functionality of its interior furnishings and fittings in keeping with its underlying idea, it was bound to be a source of relief that the outward form of the theatre, reflecting its internal functionality in a spirit of architectural beauty, did not fall within our remit. Nor, indeed, could it do so if the project was to go ahead at all. Even if we had had at our disposal a more precious material than our estimates allowed and had been able to erect a monumental building of ostentatious ornamentalism, we should have shied away from our task and been obliged to look round for help, which we would certainly not have found so quickly. This, then, was the newest, the most unusual and, not having been attempted before, the most difficult problem for the architect of the present (or the future?) to solve. The limited resources at our disposal compelled us to use only what was purely functional and necessary to achieve our objective: but our aim and objective lay solely in the relationship between the auditorium and a stage of the largest dimensions necessary for installing the most perfect scenery. Such a stage needs to be three times the height seen by the audience, since the complex sets placed upon it have to be lowered beneath the stage as well as raised above it. As a result, the stage, unlike the auditorium, needs to rise to twice its height above the actual stalls. If it is merely this functional need that is taken into account, the result is a conglomerate of two buildings of the most disparate shape and size. In order to conceal as far as possible the disparity between them, most architects working on our newer theatres have been concerned to raise the auditorium to a significant degree, while adding empty spaces above it that are intended to be used as scenery-painting workshops or as administrative offices but which on account of their extreme inconvenience are seldom used at all. In this, architects have been helped by the tiers of boxes randomly rising inside the auditorium and reaching excessive heights, the topmost tiers even rising well beyond the height of the stage as they were meant only for the poorer classes on whom architects thought nothing of inflicting the inconvenience of a hazy bird's-eye view of events taking place in the stalls far beneath them. But these tiers have been banished from our own theatre, where no architectural need can persuade us to gaze upwards over vast walls, as is the case in Christian cathedrals.
The opera houses of the past were constructed on the principle of an unbroken roof-ridge, which meant that they assumed the form of elongated boxes, a primitive example of which may be found in the Royal Opera House in Berlin. Here the architect had to worry about only a single façade, that of the main entrance, at the narrow end of a building whose longer sides tended to be tucked away between the houses of a street, thus removing them completely from view.
I believe that in acting so disingenuously and in responding to the dictates of sheer need, our task of building an outwardly artless temporary theatre placed on an open, elevated site has also brought us closer to a clearer statement of the problem that is actually involved here. This problem now lies before us, naked and well defined, and it shows us, in the most tangible manner possible, what we should understand by a theatre building that is also to express externally the purpose for which it is designed, a purpose which, far from being vulgarly commonplace, is altogether ideal. The main section of this building contains the infinitely complex technical machinery needed to stage performances of the greatest possible perfection, whereas its entrance is no more than a kind of covered courtyard whose function is simply to accommodate those persons for whom the performance onstage is about to acted out.
To us it seems as if this simple aim, which we were obliged to express in our own building with the greatest possible clarity, uninfluenced by buildings such as palaces, museums and churches that are designed for quite different ends, has been encapsulated and expressed in the most uncomplicated manner, presenting the genius of German architecture with a challenge that is not unworthy of it and which may indeed be the only task that it is uniquely placed to solve. But if it be thought that because of the inevitable grand façade the main purpose of the theatre must be concealed by wings for balls, concerts and the like, we shall no doubt for ever remain in thrall to the unoriginal ornaments that are usual in these cases; our sculptors and carvers will continue to draw their inspiration from Renaissance motifs with their vapid, unintelligible figures and ornaments - and ultimately everything will end up just as it is in present-day opera houses, whence the question that is even now the one that is put to me most frequently: do I really need a special theatre of my own?
But those who have rightly understood me will be bound to realize that even architecture might acquire a new significance thanks to the spirit of music on the basis of which I planned my work of art and the place of its performance and that the myth of a city built by Amphion's lyre has not yet lost its meaning. On the strength of the foregoing observations, we may end by examining exactly what it is that the German character needs if we wish to take it in the direction of an original development unfettered by foreign motives that are misunderstood or falsely applied
Many an intelligent observer has been struck by the fact that recent tremendous successes in the field of German politics have been utterly incapable of diverting the Germans' sense and taste from a foolish need to imitate foreign ways and have failed to fuel a desire to cultivate those qualities still left to us in order to produce a culture peculiar to us Germans. It is only with much effort and difficulty that our great German statesman resists the pretensions of the Catholic spirit in the province of the Church, while its French counterpart's presumptuous attempts to influence and determine our taste and those of our customs that are affected by that taste continue to be universally ignored. If it occurs to a harlot in Paris to give her hat an eccentric form, this is enough to persuade all German women to do the same; or if a lucky speculator makes a million overnight on the stock exchange, he will immediately have a villa built in the St Germain style, a style for which the architect already has the required façade in readiness. In the light of these observations, we shall no doubt think that things are going too well for the Germans and that only some great disaster or other may persuade us to return to the simplicity that uniquely becomes us and that will become intelligible to us only when we recognize our genuine inner need.
Although we have done little more than hint at an idea that says much about a nation's broader concerns, we may none the less be permitted to apply it to the field of an ideal need in the context of our present considerations. What characterized our plan for the above theatre was that in order to meet an altogether ideal need we had to discard, one by one, all the traditional arrangements of its interior and dismiss them as inappropriate and, hence, as unusable, replacing them with a new arrangement for which we were unable to use any of the traditional ornaments either on the inside or the outside, with the result that for now we have to present our building to the world in the naïve simplicity of a makeshift structure. Relying on the inventive power of need in general and on the ideal need of a beautiful requirement in particular, we hope that thanks to the incentive provided by our problem, we may have encouraged others to devise a German style of architecture that would certainly not prove itself unworthy by being applied to a building devoted to German art and in particular to that art in its most popular national manifestation as drama, a style, finally, that would in this way be seen to be unique and visibly different from other architectural styles. We have plenty of time to develop a monumental architectural style of ornament that can rival that of the Renaissance or Rococo in terms of its wealth and variety: nothing needs to be rushed as we almost certainly have the mature leisure to wait until the 'Reich' decides to take an interest in our work. For now, then, our temporary building, which will no doubt only very gradually acquire a sense of monumentality, may tower up as an admonition to the German world, bidding that world ponder on what has already become clear to those whose interest, efforts and self-sacrifice it must thank for having been built at all.
May it stand there on the delightful hill outside Bayreuth.