Tristan und Isolde: A Drama of the Soul

Monster and genius, Wagner was the most influential artist of the nineteenth century. In him one world (the Romantic period) comes to an end and a new world (our world) begins. The poet as priest, prophet, and revolutionary. No one better fits Robert Brustein’s definition of the modern artist as a “messianic rebel” than Richard Wagner.

And no one wielded quite so much power over the modern artistic sensibility. For 50 years after his death, Europe was drunk on Wagner. His influence in music is too well known to be mentioned again, but his impact on literature tends to be overlooked. Baudelaire, Mallarmé, Proust; Mann, Hofmannsthal, Zola; Joyce, T. S. Eliot, and Virginia Woolf. That two writers of such different stripe as Paul Valéry and D. H. Lawrence could both seek inspiration in Wagner shows how wide-ranging his influence was. Virtually every major artist fell under his sway, and through both operas and theoretical writings, he restructured the sociology and aesthetics of Western art.

First the sociology. Wagner, who wrote operas for a stage, for an audience, and for singers who did not yet exist, became the prime example of the ostracized genius—misunderstood and despised by the middle-class Philistines he wanted to redeem. Through his art, Wagner longed to work a moral, social, and political rebirth that would save humankind from a self-seeking, self-destructive materialism. The orchestra pit as “mystical abyss” and the theater as temple. We have since lost our hope in art as a substitute religion, but not so very long ago it was still an article of faith, and Bayreuth was the major oracle.

Second the aesthetic. By turning his back on realism to explore legends, myths, and dreams, Wagner negated reason and science. His operas sowed the seeds of symbolism, expressionism, surrealism, and all other variations on the avant-garde that glorify the irrational. Man’s salvation lay through intuition, imagination, emotion. Wager was not the first to believe quia absurdum, but he developed new strategies that enabled art to probe the subconscious more deeply than it had ever done before. His use of multivalent symbols, structural Leitmotive, and an idiom of suggestion rather than statement laid the groundwork for modernism in poetry and stream of consciousness in fiction.

But in literature, Wagner’s greatest contribution was to the drama, a fact not sufficiently noted. Early commentators stressed his philosophical ideas. After World War I, attention shifted to his rich store of psychological insights. In his works, both Freudians and Jungians found a happy hunting ground. We have now entered a third phase of Wagner criticism and are just beginning to appreciate his power as a dramatist.

In The Birth of Tragedy, Nietzsche asserted that by expressing the clash between the Apollonian and the Dionysian, Wagner had re-created the spirit of Greek tragedy. When he started writing, European theater, dominated by farce and melodrama, had reached its lowest ebb since the fall of the Roman Empire. In his operas, Wagner restored to the theater its dignity and seriousness of purpose. Through his example, other imaginative artists understood that the stage could serve as an instrument for examining deep-seated psychological and social conflicts. If he had done nothing else, Wagner would deserve a place alongside Ibsen, Strindberg, and Chekhov as one of the pillars of modern drama.

But, of course, he did much more. By studying his operas and his theories, Adolphe Appia and Gordon Craig discovered a eurhythmics of the theater that revolutionized stage design and changed forever the way we see a play. But Wagner’s greatest contribution to the drama was to reveal the invisible, or, in the words of Baudelaire, to uncover “what is most hidden in the heart of man.” Aristotle insisted that drama is the imitation of an action, but in Wagner mood replaces plot. His operas are symbolist theater that reduces external action to the minimum to concentrate on internal reaction.

Tristan und Isolde remains Wagner’s greatest attempt to forge a drama of the soul. External events disappear as Wagner creates a theater of pure inwardness—inscape rather than landscape, inner states rather than outer gestures. Tristan and Isolde do not act; they feel. The Hegelian retreat of the spirit from the world can go no further.

Wagner’s ability to reduce the sprawling, chaotic narration of courtly love into a tightly knit, carefully balanced dramatic structure demonstrates his skill as a master craftsman of the theater. Unerringly, he selects only those moments he needs to turn a romantic legend into an existential fable. Tristan und Isolde is as much about isolation as about intimacy, as much about alienation as about love.

By focusing on the subjective consciousness of his characters rather than on an objective narration, Wagner brought about a modern psychomachia. The “action” of the music drama is the evolution inside Tristan and Isolde as they come to realize what love means. In Tannhäuser Wagner used two external objective correlatives—Venus and Elisabeth—to represent the conflict in his hero’s soul between the flesh and the spirit. In Tristan und Isolde he has internalized the conflicts and dramatized psychology; Tristan and Isolde’s souls—not Cornwall and Kareol—are the real scene of the play.

Each act follows the same underlying pattern: anticipation, union, separation. Each act closes with the brutal intrusion of the external world forcing itself onto the withdrawing consciousness of the two lovers. And Wagner structures each act around a basic emotional conflict.

Act 1—a masterpiece of subtle psychological characterization that catches the ebb and flow of Isolde’s shifting emotional states—centers on one of the vital conflicts of life: self versus society. Both Tristan and Isolde are torn between what they owe to themselves and each other and what they owe to duty (ironically summed up by Isolde in the word Sitte). They both come to the tragic realization that to remain true to their sense of honor, they must remain untrue to themselves. Each must sacrifice individual happiness to social responsibility—and the two are irreconcilable. Freud was to analyze this antagonism in Civilization and Its Discontents, but no one ever dramatized it with greater power and pathos than Wagner.

Act 2 centers around the contrast between the highly charged symbols of night and day, and here Wagner, by subtly fusing Oriental and Christian mysticism, weaves a philosophical argument difficult to unravel without consulting his preliminary prose sketch. The verse he employs—elliptical, allusive, mysterious—foreshadows much of modern poetry while harking back to Novalis, Schopenhauer, and St. John of the Cross. Not for nothing did W. B. Yeats cite Wagner as the supreme example of symbolism in Germany. Day stands for the world of reason, society, and individual, empirical will—the phenomenal world that Tristan comes to recognize as illusion. Night stands for a transcendent realm of truth that the lovers, through their love, are only beginning to grasp. The “Liebesnacht” is really a dark night of the soul—the state in which the self, emptied, is ready to merge with the godhead.

Act 3, which paradoxically contains both the most melancholic and most exultant music ever written—centers on the conflict between life and death, between what Freud called eros and thanatos. Freud would also have said that the yearning of Tristan and Isolde (in fact, the impulse behind all romantic love) represents an attempt to re-create our first state of consciousness when we have no sense of being an entity separate from our mothers—the “oceanic state,” suggested by Isolde’s final images. The fall from a state of grace is the first awareness of isolation. Through death, Tristan and Isolde seek to escape not only the illusions of the material world, but also the limitations of the individual ego—the burden of self-consciousness. It is in this sense that one must interpret Isolde’s last words: “unbewusst—höchste Lust!” (unconscious—utmost bliss!).

It is not until this act that Wagner reveals the full meaning of the wound imagery. In Act 1 Isolde relates how Tristan’s wound brought them together for the first time and how while tending his physical wound, she inflicted a second, psychological wound—the joy and pain of love—on both herself and Tristan. (The wound is a frequent symbol in both the poetry of courtly love and Christian mysticism.) In Act 3, Tristan lies wounded again. Here the wound comes to symbolize the fundamental isolation of the individual and the fallen state of nature. Again he longs for Isolde and her healing arts. The only cure now is to lose the self in an infinity of love.

Isolde’s last song—Wagner called it a Transfiguration, not a Liebestod—makes this meaning clear, and it conveys the deepest paradox of the opera. Through sin, the lovers find their salvation. In no way should one think of the end of this opera as a death if by “death” one means the cessation of life. For Tristan and Isolde, death is a liberation and a transformation—a transition to a higher state of being. Isolde’s Transfiguration is both the most sensuous and most spiritual moment in all of Western drama. The flood of erotic energy released by the relentlessly building rhythms underscores the interpenetration of the sexual and the sacred—not unlike Saint Theresa of Avila’s description of the mystical union. The final mystery of Tristan and Isolde is that by yielding to the body, they discover the soul. Their salvation lies not in but through the flesh.

–Arthur Holmberg

Arthur Holmberg, a new member of the Boston Wagner Society, is the literary director of the American Repertory Theater.