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BERNARD SHAW: IMPERFECT WAGNERITE IWilliam Blissett The century of Wagnerism was the Shavian century. Date it from Bernard Shaw's birth in 1856 and it need only be stretched a few years from his death to the death of Thomas Mann in 1956. Its hours of noon were, like Shaw's, the decades on either side of 1900. Now, with the departure of Shaw and Mann, though there are still a few pockets of resistance left (like W. H. Auden and C. S. Lewis), Wagnerism as a literary phenomenon may be said to have passed utterly into history. T. S. Eliot let Wagner loom large in The Waste Lam!, but that was 1921, and he has remained silent on the subject since, unless the One-Eyed Reilly is Wotan in disguise. The sunset of Wagner's influence in politics, music, and literature has been protracted. Quite naturally, a great many persons who suffered the political passions of the 1930's or took action in the War formed deep anti-Wagnerian prejudices and convictions. Hitler's infatuation for Wagner was, to use a favourite phrase of the time, no accident. Sir Ernest MacMillan well expresses the state of opinion and feeling at the outbreak of war: From the time that I first saw Hitler at Bayreuth in 1933 I have felt a perverted Wagnerism in almost all his actions and speeches. Like Wagner, he must be forever explaining himself, and his speeches suggest a parody of Wagnerian music, with their fiuent spate of sound, their constant reiteration of the same leading motifs and their continually rising climaxes. Furthermore , his elaborate staging of those speeches is Wagnerism in its splendour, and in the monumental party rallies and similar national occasions the artist in him is seen in its most impressive and most dangerous aspects.1 Jaeques Barzun, Peter Viereck, and Leo Stein2 have since examined the politics of Wagnerism at length, and Wagner has emerged after their scrutiny less a giant than an ogre. Those gifted with discernment of spirits have found Bayreuth even after the War still haunted by the Nazi pandemonium. 185 186 WILLIAM BLISSETT But this adverse judgment upon Wagner from a political and moral point of view had already been preceded by the normal reaction against his long dominance in the world of music. In the brighter, thinner air after the First World War, the Meister's music must have sounded, did sound, grandiose, mid-Victorian, heavy, pretentious, unironic, unamusing . And with the approach and arrival of the Second World War, it became apparent in the West that his mythology and mystique had a deadly sting in it. What Andre Gide had been almost alone in thinking in 1908 was to become received opinion in 1938: I hold the person and the work of Wagner in horror; my passionate aversion has grown steadily since my childhood. This amazing genius does not exalt so much as he crushes. He permitted a large number of snobs, of literary people, and of fools to think that they loved music, and a few artists to think that genius can be acquired. Germany has perhaps never produced anything at once so great and so barbarous.s "Snobs, literary people and fools"-that must at the time have seemed a waspish judgment of the great Wagnerites of literature, though such has been the reaction since that it occasions little surprise now. And yet, if we pause for a moment to compile a catalogue of Wagnerites among writers a1one--writers who have either championed Wagner's music and ideas or have employed some of the characteristic techniques of the "Art-work of the Future"-we confront a long and impressive list, including as it must the names of Baudelaire, Mallarme, and Eliot among the poets, and Proust, Lawrence, and Joyce among the novelists. Add to these the last Wagnerites, Bernard Shaw and Thomas Mann, and we have a great proportion of the chief names of modem letters. In fact, as I look at the subject more closely, I am inclined to say that the impact of Wagner on literature has been so enormous that we are only now recovering sufficiently to see what hit us...

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Additional Information

ISSN
1712-5278
Print ISSN
0042-0247
Pages
pp. 185-199
Launched on MUSE
2015-07-01
Open Access
No
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