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  • "Art and Climate" and the Atmospheric Politics of Wagnerian Theater
  • Kirsten Paige (bio)

"An atmospheric ring of Nature and Art"; "atmospheric units" (Atmosphäre); "acridities" of aloe, sandal, honeysuckle, vervain, opopanax, and frangipane; "the aroma of pitch, Sulphur, and asafetida."1 Each of these vaporous, even odiferous descriptors were assigned to some aspect of Richard Wagner's music dramas between 1850 and 1905 by the composer, engineers at his Bayreuth Festspiele, or his impassioned followers. This language seems to have encircled Wagner's music dramas during his lifetime and beyond: he employed atmospheric rhetoric in describing his "artwork of the future" in his prose writings and demanded extensive aerial effects for the stage as he pursued his vision of theatricality at his Festspielhaus in Bayreuth. As Gundula Kreuzer has shown, for many years following the premiere of Der Ring des Nibelungen at Bayreuth in 1876, steam became so inseparable from that work that audiences came to expect its presence.2

But responses to early performances of Wagner's Ring and other works at Bayreuth suggest that some spectators were convinced that steam and other stimulating effects were not confined to the stage and its worlds. They report smelling, tasting, and feeling the music and theatrical effects, sensing them along with other elements of the environmental and climatic spaces that characters traversed on stage before them. The "world" of Pärsifäl was "in the air all around," one critic remarked, another claiming its sonic and dramaturgical effects made the "air [in the theater] heavy with so much sweetness" that the spectator had no choice but to "submit, a slave to his enchanted senses."3 Other spectators suggested they were experiencing not just physical reactions to Wagnerian spectacle, but affective responses, too. Eduard Hanslick attested to the composers scenic inventions and ethereal, atmospheric music "cooperating in the strengthening of certain emotions" during performances at Bayreuth.4

These reports could be understood as reflecting aesthetic principles Wagner outlined in his prose writings, particularly his 1850 essay "Art and Climate." There, he suggests that his musico-dramatic paradigm was "fundamentally conditioned" by climate and could cultivate the "true . . essence of the human species" in all [End Page 147] humanity, his imagined spectators.5 These claims wrap Wagner's theatrical project in contemporary environmental discourses that cast climatic zones as conditioning the physiological and psychological bounds of their populations, for better or for worse (a theory known as "climatic determinism").6 Other essays Wagner published around 1850 make similar claims, comparing his Gesamtkunstwerk to atmosphere, clouds, or vapor surrounding and influencing mankind. When spectators described multisensory sensations in response to Wagnerian spectacle or used metaphors of vapor, scent, or atmosphere in their accounts of performances, they were, in a sense, acquiescing to an artistic vision ideated by Wagner, in which a multisensory atmosphere hovered over them, invaded their bodies, and negotiated their senses.

But these audience accounts present a recalcitrant historiographical problem. It is difficult to establish exactly what audiences were physically feeling or sensing in response to events on stage, since the language of these accounts is often loose, imprecise, and overexcited. At the least, we can be sure that some spectators felt physiologically or psychologically stimulated by certain stage effects. The mind-body loop of theatrical cause and spectatorial reaction can be accounted for in terms drawn from Sigmund Freud and Josef Breuer's "Studies in Hysteria" (1895)—the idea that psychological reminiscence (prompted by an image, sound, experience, or set of ideas) might provoke "fantastical," "hysterical," or "hallucinatory" physical or sensory sensations and emotional "affects" as the body, mind, and sensorium rotate to confirm an unconscious mental impression of what the body should feel in that moment, providing a "quota" of affective or sensory response through psychic feed-back.7 Reminded of a childhood memory, for instance, one might recall a particular smell, such as cigar smoke or burned pastry even if its source is nowhere nearby, as did Freud and Breuers patient, Lucy R.8 This smell might then be revealed as a psychic symbol of repressed emotion.9 Whether Wagnerian spectators were describing actual physical responses, sensory hallucinations, or simply resorting to vivid metaphor, it might not be an...


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