Essays: The Reaper |
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The Reaper

HORIZON (BBC2) gave us an imported American special on Death. For a mercy, the documentary footage contained enough unintentional humour to relieve the pressure imposed by the fact that most of it wasn’t humorous at all.

There was nothing funny about what you could see happening to Sally, for example. ‘I have cancer of the brain ... it grows just like moss ... all you have to do is wait.’ But they hadn’t just waited. They had been operating on her, although you couldn’t see the evidence until she moved her head, which was then revealed to be half missing.

The half that was left still loved music, but it would take pharisaical glibness to draw consolation from how the bits of Sally that would be last to die had graciously been allowed to retain the power of appreciating Beethoven’s violin concerto. Fear seemed a more appropriate response — although it should be said at once that people in possession of some kind of faith seemed to stand a better chance of finding the Reaper’s activities meaningful.

Harriet was apostasy personified. She took death as a crime against herself. An understandable attitude, if it had not been for the fact that the person doing the dying was her husband, Bill. Understandably again, Harriet wanted Bill’s cancer to take a rapid course, so that she would have a chance of remarrying and thereby providing a father for their two children. What was less understandable was that she should be so keen to let us hear her petulantly saying all this, first of all to the doctor and later on to Bill himself. ‘That’s the point, hon,’ she explained. ‘The longer this is dragged out, the worse it’s gonna be on all of us.’ Bill nodded sympathetically. It was somewhere about here that I started wondering if Harriet would be the girl you wanted beside you in a crisis.

Two blockbusters about Bayreuth (BBC2) dominated last weekend. The first was a panoramic canter through the history of the Festspielhaus and the second traced the changing shape of one of its productions — ‘Die Meistersinger.’ The first programme was the more interesting: fudging questions right and left and speeding up where it should have slowed down, it nevertheless unearthed some fascinating material as it grappled with the insoluble problem of getting Wagner untangled from National Socialism.

In pursuit of this aim, it was perhaps not a good idea to start with a film-clip of a scene in ‘Götterdämmerung’ that looked exactly like a Nuremberg rally. But then, that was the whole trouble. Wagnerism inevitably presaged Nazism for the simple reason that Nazism was so determined on harking back to Wagnerism. For the last 30 years of its 100-year history Bayreuth has bent over backwards to de-Nazify itself, but an ineluctable residuum remains, emanating from the spirit of Wagner himself. Siegfried could be sung by a Jewish dwarf in a skirt and would still come our sounding like a stormtrooper.

The programme did its best to gloss over the facts about the Nazi connection with Bayreuth as fast as they were presented, but really there was no need for such anxiety. Apart from Winifred Wagner — and even she was not entirely sound on the Jewish question — the Bayreuthians were small-time Nazis, just as the Nazi hierarchs were small-time Wagnerians. Hitler was passionate about Wagner but that didn’t necessarily entail a high level of musical appreciation. As an aesthete, Hitler was an unredeemed mediocrity. Hans Keller once usefully made the point that the Nazis were mostly dunces. Evil they were. Evil geniuses they were not.

When Winifred was de-Nazified after the war, the creative control of Bayreuth shifted to her sons Wieland and Wolfgang. Wieland had a genius for abstract settings, a change of emphasis which handily did away with all the realistic trappings which had come to be associated with the Aryan ethos in its more lethal aspects. After Wieland’s death the transition became complete, since Wolfgang is so cuddlesome the Gemütlichkeit is practically spraying out of his ears. His production of ‘Die Meistersinger,’ as demonstrated in the second programme, is pure Disneyland. The lingering overtones of Führerprinzip are his great-grandfather’s, and ineradicable.

Watching loveable old Hans Sachs smiling benignly while the assembled Volk give Beckmesser the works, you can’t avoid thinking of Hitler. But Wagner will still be a genius when Hitler is just a name, like Attila. Politically speaking, it would give me great satisfaction to despise Wagner. Indeed when I knew nothing about him I found contempt quite easy. But then a friend of mine got out the Furtwängler set of ‘Die Walküre’ and played the Magic Fire music in the last scene, and that was it.

Benny Lynch (Granada), a dramamentary by Bill Bryden about the Scots World Flyweight Champion who destroyed himself with booze and women, contained the odd anachronistic word but was admirably eloquent. ‘The National Health Service killed all the flyweights,’ it said at the end, with typical resonance. Whicker (Yorkshire) was still Down Under, straining even his capacity for power-worship in contemplation of a mineral mogul called Lang Hancock, who has fought off ‘the dead hand of socialism’ to the extent of compiling a seemingly limitless personal fortune. ‘My political philosophy is completely and utterly free enterprise,’ Hancock explained. A poster on his office wall said ‘Ecologists: let the bastards freeze in the dark.’

A vivid talker, Hancock sounded like a throwback to the frontier America which Julian Pettifer, in the third and regrettably last Spirit of ’76 (BBC1), showed to exist no longer. America still has its Lang Hancocks, but there are no mountains of iron ore lying around waiting to be discovered. The free enterprise ideologues are confined to turning the paradise of Lake Tahoe into a haven for bean-brained gamblers, while people with a sense of civic responsibility try to stop them. A developer spoke as if his freedom to rape the country was guaranteed by the First Amendment. Other apologists were more subtle, especially the man who incontrovertibly pointed out that it had been free enterprise which gave the city of Los Angeles an economy bigger than India’s.

The Observer, 30th May 1976