In 2010 I organised a conference on Angels and Demons at Canterbury Christ Church University. This resulted in a special number of Critical Survey on the topic in 2011. Keen to promote my colleagues’ work rather than mine in the limited space available, I never expanded and published the paper at the conference that I had to give at only a few days notice when a speaker had to withdraw. The other papers looked at the first and last words of the title. Typically for me, I examined the smallest, neglected word: the ‘and’ of the title.
Here it is, more or less as delivered, in three parts.
Angels and Demons: Lulu and the Copula
Nothing like beginning at the end, especially the end of Alban Berg’s unfinished opera Lulu, and a double murder by Jack the Ripper, of someone we hear described as an “angel”, and of the woman in love with her, a personification of the New Woman, the Countess Geschwitz, who plans to leave the garret to go to university to study law and fight for women’s rights. The 9 minute video in the link unfortunately doesn’t have English subtitles: the last 4 minutes are crucial for the argument (if you understand German – or Japanese subtitles).
or there are several other excellent productions on YouTube.
The important point is that this scene, the last from the opera, pretty unequivocally suggests that men really don’t like women! Men really are devils, aren’t they? From the way the countess’s decision to fight for women’s rights is thwarted by her murder, you may have decided already that Jack is a representative figure of something beyond himself, perhaps standing for the general category “misogynistic, conservative, reactionary man”. Certainly the idea that Jack represents the revenge of men on uppity women is a very common interpretation. For some critics, the work even becomes the tragedy not of Lulu, but of men who are forced to violence by such women.
And then the music… this isn’t just any old double murder of women by a man, of course, but a double murder in the 1930s high modernist opera by Alban Berg: Lulu, a work championed by no less an enemy of mass culture than Theodore Adorno.
One might well ask whether the demon is not Jack the casual murderer of would-be liberated New Women, or even women who supposedly make men behave in violent ways, but exclusive avant-garde texts like Lulu. After all, everyone knows who Jack the Ripper is – he has generated a vast amount of material dedicated to him. We might say he has a vast fan base. We even go on Jack the Ripper tours in London’s East End. Jack is popular. Berg’s Lulu, by contrast is hardly the Glaswegian singer who won the 1969 Eurovision Song Context with “Boom Bang-a-Bang”. It’s “hard”, difficult, unpleasant; this Lulu doesn’t follow the musical rules we are familiar with.
Yet it’s clear just from the inclusion of the figure of Jack that the opera attempts to take on board the violent hierarchy of popular and exclusive. For the conjunction “and” can be used in various senses – inclusion yes, but also to signal and interrogate a hierarchy of difference: good and evil, man and woman, angel and demon. In questioning the hierarchy of popular and exclusive as well as the other binaries I’ve just mentioned, Lulu is like many operas of the period, such as Ernst Krenek’s Johnny spielt auf, or several of Franz Schreker’s operas (perhaps most of all Die Gezeichneten). Certainly in some places it reworks then popular dance forms, jazz rhythms and instrumental colourings. Lulu even takes on the film industry – already dominated by Hollywood by the time it was being written between 1927 and 1935. A performance of Lulu as Berg wrote it has a film at its very centre, a 3-minute action-packed short very different from Pabst’s lingeringly aesthetic film on the same subject as the opera, Pandora’s Box of 1928, starring the wonderful Louise Brooks. Despite the claims of a few breathless writers, even the Pabst film was never “popular” in any sense. When it premiered in Berlin in January 1929, it was almost entirely ignored in the excitement of the new “talkies” that were grabbing public attention in Europe and America. Brooks herself was slashed by the critics. It took until the 1950s for the film to be appreciated by the cognoscenti in the art house. Despite the retellings of the tale and figure that Karen Littau and Shelley Berc have detailed for us, the Lulu I’m writing of here has never been popular for all its engagement with elements of the popular. Does that mean that I, as a historian of popular narrative, cannot or should not engage with it?
Like Pabst, Berg based his work on a pair of plays by the fin-de-siècle German playwright Frank Wedekind, Earth Spirit and Pandora’s Box which Wedekind worked on between 1892 and 1913. Many of the music critics who discuss the opera love the music. It is a highly ingenious form of dodecaphony and full of the signs of exclusive distinction that requires long training to decode. But they regard the plays as belonging on the junk heap of literature, too low for the sacred realms of opera. What was Berg doing when he chose to set this shabby little shocker that sold out to contemporary bourgeois notions of the femme fatale and comprised a collage of the vulgar misogynistic commonplaces that Otto Weininger systematised in his 1902 Sex and Character? Wedekind’s Lulu plays seem uncannily to agree with Weiniger’s fantasy that Woman has no ethics, logic or soul and therefore can only see with a blank stare, that Woman is totally materialistic and has no spiritual or intellectual side. It’s all wonderfully summed up in a notorious quotation from Weininger, “Man possesses sexual organs, her sexual organs possess Woman.” The New Woman we see murdered at the end, who plans to go to university to study law so that she can fight for women’s rights was, so her beloved Lulu tells her, half a man. Lulu herself can be regarded only too easily as the quintessence of Weinigerian Woman, as a one-sentence narration of her life will demonstrate. Having started as a child prostitute and thief, Lulu goes through three husbands, murders the last of them, escapes from prison through the machinations of her lesbian friend, runs off to Paris with the son of her third husband, and ends in a London garret as a prostitute.
Wedekind wrote his original version as Die Büchse des Pandora, ein Monstretragödie (“Pandora’s Box, a Monster Tragedy”) between 1892 and 1894 as a single 5-acter, monstrous both in length and subject matter. If you thought the ending in the opera was shocking, in the original Jack the Ripper explicitly knifes out Lulu’s genitals and fantasises about how much the London Medical Club will pay for them. Partly because of this ending Wedekind’s publisher thought the Monstretragödie would provoke prosecution for obscenity. He therefore persuaded Wedekind to publish just the first three acts of his play which dealt with Lulu’s marriage to each of her three husbands. Subsequent versions of the play which Wedekind wrote attempted to negotiate a path between the censors and desire for popularity through sensation. Berg condensed his opera from the published two-play version – we know from a surviving seating plan that he went to a private performance of the second play in 1905 and that this performance and its paratexts influenced him. By recombining the two plays, therefore, Berg was returning them to their original structural integrity.
To me just as shocking as the murders is the number of music critics who choose to ignore what they regard as an unworthy text to concentrate instead on analysing the fabulous intricacy of the music – Adorno amongst them. What is at stake in this violent excision of words? This what the other parts of this blog will seek to answer.
(to be continued)