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Should the Nazis be Put to Bed?

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Terry Gilliam’s new production of The Damnation of Faust for ENO, in which he sets large parts of the action in the Third Reich, raises the question of whether it’s time that Nazis were banished from the opera house.

Some have thrown up their hands in response to the production saying “Not again, it’s been done to death,” and it would seem the Nazi theme is an easy shorthand for evil, which is to some extent what this work is about. 

I can't help wondering if those saying it’s a tired old device really just dislike their Berlioz being messed around with and are focusing on the most obviously provocative element for complaint.

Now, I go to the opera a lot, although my operagoing is mainly confined to the UK and mostly to London, but I can't say I’ve seen the Nazis invade the stage that often.  Maybe if I were a Bayreuth regular, I’d have cause for complaint.  Wagner (and Germany) is the obvious place for the working out of the Nazi problem, so it tends to happen there a lot.

Gilliam has stated that he doesn't know a great deal about opera and, therefore, presumably is not informed about production history, so could be forgiven for not knowing that he was treading well-trodden ground (although it could equally be said he should bloody well make it his business to find out what he’s getting into).

That would make him somewhat naïve in his use of Nazi imagery, thinking perhaps that he’s had a great original idea when he’s really re-hashing ones that have been around for donkey’s years.  Certainly something that some non-opera directors at ENO can be accused of is an arrogance towards audiences they believe as untutored as themselves.

I can see that his production of Faust was not one for intellectuals. Mark Berry, in a thoughtful demolition of the production (“a car crash” he calls it), is clearly offended by a lack of academic rigour in Gilliam’s approach, although his observation that the Wagner parody is not historically accurate seems to miss the point.   

His view that Gilliam has got a “shaky” grasp of history may be perfectly valid but the production seems to be appealing to those of us who want a viscerally exciting theatrical experience rather than a searching academic study, even if that means taking a slightly dodgy approach to history.

The question that’s really been exercising me since seeing the production and the diverse responses to it is whether it’s time that Nazis should be banned altogether from the opera stage (or any stage for that matter) as it’s nothing but a lazy “meme”.

I’ve had it suggested to me that we shouldn’t be talking about the Nazis because there’s nothing new to say but novelty doesn’t seem to me to be the issue.  Surely a frequent meditation on what we already know is a way of trying to get our heads round the unimaginable. I know I will never tire of watching footage of the death camps in an attempt to try and make sense of the unthinkable.

The Nazis and the holocaust (which Gilliam exploits in the course of his staging of Faust) are still our most potent image of human evil and few would argue that the time has come to stop talking about them and their legacy.  Once they’re put on the stage, in a seemingly inappropriate context, do they just become theatrical clichés though?

Some groaned at the Chechen partisans in Tim Albery’s Royal Opera Tannhauser last December.  Again, is that indicative of a feeling, call it conservative if you like, that Wagner characters shouldn’t carry Kalashnikovs?  If, on the other hand, it is acceptable to update a 19th Century opera in this way, would it make a difference if the same hoodlums had swastikas on their arms?

The arguments against portraying Mephistopheles as a Nazi would seem to be that it’s an idea that’s been used too many times before or because it diminishes the real evil of what the Nazis did. 

Does portraying them in a dangerously comic way, as Gilliam does at times, distract from any serious discussion of totalitarian evil?  Certainly, the way to even begin to grasp what went on in Europe in the 30s and 40s is to face the reality, through documentary rather than through cheap theatrical representation.

It’s not wise to make assumptions about why someone else has or hasn’t liked something but I can't help feeling that Gilliam’s detractors just don't feel that this is how Berlioz  should be done.   They then latch on to the argument that it’s “lazy,” in order to deal with their feelings of revulsion at seeing classical figures portrayed in this way.

Whether I’m right or wrong about that, perhaps the use of Nazi imagery on the stage should be shelved for a while.   But critics, as in those who criticize, should look to the plank in their own eyes.   It’s so easy (and dare I say lazy) to pontificate from your armchair.  Like certain words and phrases that reviewers and commentators use again and again, clichés are best shaken off and we should all, practitioners and observers, be looking for other ways of saying things.

- Simon Thomas

Read Simon Thomas's 5 star review of The Damnation of Faust here


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